In my original review of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, I said that "While the film is not a total debacle on par with the Star Wars prequels, it reeks of being inessential." The general gist of my opinion on the film is that in the aftermath of The Lord of the Rings, to present us with a film where the stakes are comparatively low, but presenting them as if they're on equal footing, is like a server bringing you the appetizer after the main course. While my overall view of the film hasn't changed, it's still a bloated mess, I found myself revisiting the film a few weeks ago and found that I enjoyed it quite a bit more than I did on my first viewing.
This got me to thinking about the nature of criticism in general, and whether or not a critic's opinion can, and maybe even should, change over time. I'll be looking at a few examples to see how my views have changed, or sometimes not, over the years. Be warned as there be spoilers ahead...
The first, and greatest example I can think of in which I've completely reversed positions on a film is Orson Welles' 1941 masterpiece Citizen Kane. The first time I saw it was in my film criticism class in college, and the film had just been named as the number one American film of all time by AFI. Expectations were high, and the crappy VHS copy of it did the film no justice. While I recognized the film's script was pretty impeccable, the thing about Citizen Kane that sets it apart from virtually every other film that's ever been made is its visual innovation. Revisiting the film when it was released on dvd, I was able to see that Welles kept everything in every frame of the film in focus at all times, which blew my mind once I realized it. The other visual tricks he innovated, along with cinematographer Greg Toland, have been aped and copied to death in countless films since then, and it was only then that I realized just how incredible the film was.
Viewing experience plays into our opinion of a film a lot more than we probably like to think it does. This past weekend's monster hit Gravity is being universally praised for its visuals and virtually every critic, including yours truly, has recommended seeing it in 3D and IMAX (if possible) because the film relies on immersion to play to its full strengths. I fully acknowledge that the film is good enough to play well under less than ideal circumstances, but I truly do wonder if audiences who don't catch the film now, in theaters, will have the same opinion of it years from now, watching it on a small screen in their college film criticism class.
It was most assuredly the viewing experience I had seeing The Hobbit in 48fps that fueled a good deal of my hatred for the film at the time. The fundamental problems I have with the film have not changed, but I do find it a bit more charming and enjoyable watching it at home on blu-ray than I did in the theater. There's also another matter to consider, however, which is the age at which we see a film, and how that shapes our opinion of it...
When I saw Mike Nichols' The Graduate for the first time, I was a freshman in high school, and the film basically meant nothing to me. I didn't understand any of the characters, their motivations made no sense, Benjamin seemed like a whiny child of privilege, and the ending most assuredly cemented my apathy towards it. Seeing it again after I graduated from college, I fully understood it better. Now I got Ben's aimlessness and his malaise towards life. Mrs. Robinson didn't seem like a shrill psychopath anymore, but a woman accustomed to getting her way and doing anything she can to maintain her upper class lifestyle. Everything made a lot more sense to me because I had, I hate to call it life experience, but I was at an age where I could better appreciate what the film had to say about life from a certain perspective.
Sometimes a film will go in the opposite direction as I've aged as well. Revisiting Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid not too long ago, a film I loved as a child, I began to see the characters in a different light. Once they arrive in Bolivia, the whole film sort of fell apart for me. Here's an excerpt from my review that sums up the issues I felt watching the film in my 30s:
I think the major issue here is that they seem to be stealing because they're bored. There's nothing else for them to do, so they do the only thing they know how to do. Even in their attempt to go straight and get jobs, is the audience supposed to be happy that they steal back the money that was stolen from them? It's a morally ambiguous quagmire that the film gets bogged down in, and I couldn't help but lose what little sympathy I already had for them.
I never would have had that perspective on things as a young man, so it becomes interesting to me to see how my view of certain characters changes in the opposite direction because I find them unsympathetic. Benjamin Braddock does essentially the same thing, he begins an affair with Mrs. Robinson out of boredom, yet I sympathize with him because once he realizes what he does want in life, he changes his ways and fights for it. Butch & Sundance end up getting caught before they have a reversal of any kind, so maybe that would have changed my views, but the way it stands right now, at this point in my life, they're the much less sympathetic characters.
Sometimes it doesn't take years to reverse a position on a movie, but months or weeks or even days. There were two films that came out this summer that were highly anticipated in most geek circles, both of which I disliked intensely, though for different reasons. Star Trek: Into Darkness I hated immediately, and a second viewing after its release on home video all but confirmed my hatred of it. There was immediate backlash against it when it was released, mainly due to its misguided attempts to pay service to Star Trek fans by making the villain Khan and "paying homage" to the ending of Wrath of Khan, but the film has bigger structural problems than just that. It's a convoluted mess, particularly in the third act, and while that's fine for most above the line science fiction filmmaking, Trekkers have come to expect more from their beloved franchise than watching villains crush people's skulls and heroes punch the villains into submission.
The more egregious example however, and one which I have most assuredly changed my opinion on, was Zack Snyder's Man of Steel. My second viewing of this film actually made me intensely dislike the film in a way I didn't when I first saw it. The first time I saw it, I found it exhausting and overwrought, particularly for a Superman film, but I didn't outright hate it because I found certain elements enjoyable enough to carry me through. Those elements vanished almost immediately on my second viewing, and I saw the film for what it was, nihilistic destruction porn masquerading as mainstream entertainment. I understand the argument that the film does not present us with the Superman we all know and love, but rather with an alien coming to terms with his great powers and great responsibility, but no amount of revisionist history can account for the wanton destruction that takes place in this film, often at his hands.
I can accept the rationale that this particular Superman has not yet come to terms with the moral implications of killing his enemies, but to watch him destroy Metropolis in an attempt to stop Zod, and then suddenly draw the line at the threat of Zod killing four people in a train station is irresponsibly absurd. Henry Cavill sells the moment immediately after that, thankfully, and it sets Superman up to now have the moral high ground in any future situations, but that's only if you ignore the preceding twenty minutes. It's very similar to the role reversal at the end of Into Darkness, it works because we know what came before it, but it only works well if we ignore that very same memory.
I suppose the final point I have to make in all this is that a critic's opinion should be able to change over time. We place such a high value on ratings systems that it sometimes makes it seem impossible to change once we've placed a seemingly absolute value on a film. There are some films not worth revisiting because they're an affront to our personal taste or even good taste in general, I'm looking at you Spring Breakers, but I think that as a critic, it's important for me to sometime reevaluate my position on a film. It may not change drastically, and if there's enough fundamentally wrong or right about the film, the shift may not be noticeable, but the fact that a critic is willing to try should speak volumes about what we do for a living.
So if there's a film or comic or anime or whatever it may be that everyone loves, but you just don't seem to get... give it some time. You may catch up to it, it may catch up to you, or maybe, just maybe, everyone really is wrong. That doesn't seem likely though, does it?