Films are good if you can explain their value. That means films will never completely share reasons for being “good”. Some innovate with camerawork, as Birdman did with the one-shot. Others subvert generic norms, as The Cabin in the Woods did with horror.
This shows two things. The first is that criticism is just opinion, no matter how thoroughly it’s argued. The second is that the qualities that give films value form an infinite list. Especially of late, this list includes the satisfaction a film offers.
Hitman: Agent 47 wasn’t really The Hunger Games for character development, but the action crunched and was neat. Warcraft: The Beginning was the same, albeit with weightier choreography. A visceral oomph is becoming a more prominent factor in the success of movies and beyond.
Streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime choose shows with this quality to make us binge. Episodes of Daredevil, The Good Witch, and Mr. Robot consistently deliver small resolutions until their final scenes, at which point there tends to be a brutal question mark. Here, our dopamine is cut off, and we must keep watching or cold-turkey. TV finales have always made sure to leave viewers wondering, but Breaking Bad saw the birth of episode-by-episode mystery and the Netflix e-binge.
Satisfying violence is nothing new either. Jason Bourne, returning to screens this month, featured in three films lauded for their extraordinary yet believable action. Bourne uses preternatural reflexes, small movements, and his environment to fight realistic numbers of formidable opponents. His jabs and knee strikes impress us, yet we can imagine ourselves doing as he does given training. This balance adds to what’s already a tense, intelligent thriller.
Michael Bay’s Transformers was not received as tense or intelligent, but the Bad Boys director has a talent for fireworks. YouTube essayist Tony Zhou explains how Bay gets away with it:
It is to the credit of Industrial Light & Magic’s animators that the real treats are the Autobot and Decepticon transformations themselves. Even the driest classics professor couldn’t turn from Optimus Prime’s unveiling before Sam and Mikaela.
The Bourne films and Transformers are examples of how one element of what makes a film work is foregrounded by aesthetic choices on the filmmaker’s part or merely by the film being awful. This is an odd yet apt defense for films that, although not high art in the literary sense, demonstrate understanding of their form, something high-minded culture analysts categorise as worthwhile.
The filmmakers responsible know cinema is where their moment will be, so they utilise, in full, wall-sized speakers and a loud screen. Avatar, Sucker Punch, Alice: Through The Looking Glass: All laughably awful. But, they provided experiences, ones that audiences embraced. Critics must accept this if they like any sort of currency.
Good films don’t all share values. Yet, films like The Revenant and Transformers are, in part, good for the same reason. Seeing them in the cinema is a satisfying physical and mental experience. Given the chasm widening between “pop” and “proper” culture, this is refreshing to know.