How do expectations affect one’s opinion of a film? Everyone goes into a new movie with some sort of prejudgment of the coming experience, but how big a role does this judgment play in our final opinion? If you really think about it, personal expectation, or prejudgment, shapes our perception of movies to a very large extent, and truly is a root cause of how we have come to view films in general.
I thought Public Enemies was going to be the movie of the summer, if not the year. It had everything going for it: a gangster movie with Michael Mann behind the camera and Johnny Depp in front of it. Nothing could stop this movie from blowing me and everyone else out of the water. Well I was wrong, but not in the way you’d think. While it did not disappoint in its own right, when hyped and compared and contorted into something it just wasn’t going to be, it left me hanging. It left me wanting—and what I wanted was a movie I’d seen before.
Preceding Public Enemies was a slew of comparable films that I had enjoyed, if not loved. American Gangster, The Departed, Donnie Brasco, there are too many to name, all of which blur the line between right and wrong, just and unjust, agent of the law and disturber of the peace. These films left viewers wondering who was the cop and who was the criminal, forcing us to face the similarities between the two and the possible contradictions that live on both sides of the line. They all have compelling characters and suspenseful, often poignant story arcs riddled with brilliant speeches that define the gangster genre (I’m speaking more so to The Departed and less so to American Gangster which was good, but not great). Public Enemies does have those qualities as well: it’s attention-grabbing and smart and funny and, notably, well-made, but it’s different. “Different” is not bad, but I left the theatre without the feeling I had after seeing the films mentioned above; I was unsatisfied. But why? The cinematography was spectacular, Depp was amazing as usual, the script was solid and the action was exhilarating, so why? It’s expectation.
I went into Public Enemies thinking American Gangster and what I got was, who would have guessed it, Public Enemies. It is a “different” film. The action sequences, especially the one located at the cabin and in the woods, felt real—as if the characters were on set. The gunshots echoed in what felt like a staged scene, and the lights and shadows looked artificial. That aesthetic feeling of realism made a lot of statements: it put the violence of the scene front and center, forcing the audience to see, and most of all, hear the real effect of the bloodshed; it made the camera less like an invisible screen and more like character of its own, watching the action from a crouched, low angle, and then perching behind a gunman’s shoulder, almost like it was peering out to get a better glimpse of the shootout. Other differences included the dialogue: there was none. Well, virtually none. Gangster films are usually filled with witty conversations and intimidating speeches, but Public Enemies remained silent (save a few smart and humorous anecdotes from Dillinger (Depp). This places more focus onto the inner characters of the two featured men, Dillinger and Purvis, and, once again, the violence that exists between them. Not bad, just different. Overall, I think it’s a forgettable film—but is that because it’s just forgettable, or is it because I expected one thing and got another?
On the opposite side, I thought Kung Fu Panda was going to be the worst movie of all time. The premise was boring, the animation was classic Dreamworks sludge, and the comedy seemed old and stale. Then I saw the movie, and my mind was inexorably changed. I genuinely cared about the Panda, Po, and his quest to become the dragon warrior. I also laughed harder at a movie than I had in a long time. It was a miracle: the worst looking film of all time turned out to be one of the best of the year. But is it that good? I doubt it; once again, expectation got the best of me.
Once Kung Fu Panda exceeded the minimal expectations I had for it, it became something great. I still think the movie is good, but I don’t think I would feel so strongly about it if I would have had different, more promising expectations for it in the first place.
Try going through this exercise: think of a movie you feel strongly or semi-strongly about and try to recall what you thought about it going before seeing it. In one way or another, your expectations had a part to play. Going into Howl’s Moving Castle, I knew it was going to be amazing, but when it exceeded those high expectations, I was even more enthralled with the film (and still am today). This isn’t to say Howl is any less great than it really is, but it does mean that my opinion was in some way strongly influenced by expectation.
The consequent question, then, becomes, How do we know if a movie is good? How can we tell? Even if we rate the movie using certain sophisticated standards and scales, it is virtually impossible to eliminate our bias, our prejudgments. This may not be a bad thing, of course, as we can simply factor these biases into our overall opinions, and accept them as how we view movies in general. This, I believe, is valid. We take into account our prejudgments and form our opinions including them as a part of the cinematic experience. But what of cases such as Public Enemies? It seems as if this film may fade from our memories for the (almost) sole fact that it came out after the precedent had already been set in the gangster genre. And if this is true, then, boiling down the subject, our opinions of film are effected the most by when a particular film is released.
If Public Enemies had come out before The Departed and Donnie Brasco and the like, would it have been better received? Is innovation the most important factor for judging film? OR, coming from the opposite angle, is it safe to say, “For the time, Star Wars was great, but now that it’s 2009, we realize it isn’t that good.” Or does the fact that it came out so long ago, reinventing the sci-fi genre for a generation to come, make us overlook the actual content of the film? I would be inclined to argue the latter, but for now, I’m going to watch Kung Fu Panda again.