The problem with the Internet is that it’s absolutely exhausting. In theory, I appreciate having a platform to discuss niche interests with like-minded weirdos across the globe, but the immense volume of discussion that percolates on any and every given topic online is overwhelming. We’re drowning in discourse. Of course, given that this is a movie blog and all, I experience most of this online exhaustion in the realm of film criticism. Not too long ago, it used to be that I would get tired of thinking about a new movie before it even arrived at the theater through official means of promotion & press coverage: “leaked” behind-the-scenes set photos, release date & casting announcements, teaser trailers, months-ahead-of-time festival circuit reviews, etc. Now, in an age where most pro critics are freelancers who can only corral & promote their work in a central location via platforms like Letterboxd & Twitter, I get exhausted by movies before they’re officially released through their social media presence. Film Twitter in particular has a way of taking all of the fun out of movies by talking them to death, fixating on particular titles & nitpicky topics for weeks on end until there’s absolutely nothing left to think or say – a point of no return that often arrives about a week before a film is theatrically released (or expands its release outside the confines of LA & NYC).
Naturally, this exhaustion most weighs down populist titles with wide appeal, the movies that generate the most discussion and—thus—the most clicks. It makes sense, then, that superhero films like Joker, Avengers: Endgame, and Captain Marvel were allowed to suck up the majority of pop culture oxygen this year, leaving very little room for anything else to breathe. They might be three-star, just-competent-enough mediocrities (at best), but they comprise a genre that consistently puts butts in seats at the multiplex in a way few other competing media have managed to this decade. If most audiences only watch a few movies a year and they all happen to be superhero franchise entries, it tracks that online film discourse would have to keep those titles in constant conversation in order to generate traffic. What’s more mysterious to me is how pro critics decide which tinier, less bankable releases will be allowed online real estate for endless scrutinized discussion. Quentin Tarantino’s reactionary “get off my lawn” screed Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood did not crack the list of Top 20 box office earners in 2019, but you wouldn’t guess that by how long it was in constant conversation over its depictions of Charles Manson, Sharon Tate, Bruce Lee, Roman Polansky, and whoever the fuck else happened to waltz across the screen for an extended cameo. The only thing it has in common with the superhero titles & “live-action” Disney remakes that have been similarly talked to death is that it’s a 3-star, decent-enough picture that isn’t nearly as interesting as its immense volume of active, passionate discussion might imply. The same thing goes for Jojo Rabbit and The Irishman, but—hey—at least those movies’ online presence were boosted by their directors’ relationships with the Marvel superhero machine (one being employed by the MCU and the other flippantly running his mouth about the behemoth when prompted by click-hungry interviewers).
The clearest, most measurable victim of Film Twitter Discourse Exhaustion in 2019 was, for me, Tom Hooper’s deranged stage musical adaptation CATS. Unlike the Jojos & Jokers of the year that were far less interesting than their corresponding conversation heaps implied, CATS is fascinating enough (if not only in its bizarre, rushed-to-market ineptitude) to justify the online attention it earned. Most years, it would be the exact kind of cursed object I would have caught opening weekend and brought up for months on end myself in praise of its accidental brilliance as Avant Garde pop art – the exact enthusiasm for wildly ambitious meltdowns of pure excess I had for titles like Monster Trucks, Venom, and Michael Bay’s Ninja Turtles abominations in the recent past. Indeed, when the infamous CATS trailer first dropped this summer it was the only thing I could think about for days. I’d go about my normal routines at work and at home, trying to carry on normal, casual conversations while the inside of my brain was just a solid of wall of block text that shouted “CATS CATS CATS CATS” in all caps. By the time the film reached theaters this past Christmas weekend, however, I was almost too exhausted by the discourse surrounding it to actually enjoy it for the horned-up nightmare it truly was. For the better part of two weeks, pro film critics had be competing to see who could dunk on CATS online with the loudest or the funniest zingers, gleefully grinding its spectacular awfulness into dusty hyperbole with phrases like “a descent into madness,” “a confusing litter box,” and “a furry orgy in a dumpster.” By the time I saw this film myself (opening week!) all this performative critical one-upmanship had drained a lot of my personal fascination with it as a bizarre object. And I didn’t even disagree with the consensus! CATS is the exact horned-up, ill-advised CGI nightmare that Film Twitter has been shouting about for months on end and, in a way, I’m happy it’s being celebrated as such. I was also just absolutely exhausted by its online reputation before I even had a chance to see it for myself, an increasingly frequent conundrum.
While CATS only had a few months of online critical Discourse to dilute its potential for novelty & surprise, it feels like we’ve been discussing Star Wars: Rise of the Skywalker, a film that opened the very same weekend, for years. Ever since supposed Star Wars superfans (at least half of them bots) joined Forces online to tear down Rian Johnson’s previous franchise entry The Last Jedi for its perceived leftist virtue signaling and blasphemous alterations to the lore, an insane amount of scrutiny has been focused on how Rise of the Skywalker would bring its trilogy’s story to a close. On one side, longtime Star Wars Complainers (who self-identify as “Fans”) have been setting out clear, detailed expectations of how Disney should right the wrongs of the previous film. On the other side, fanatic devotees of The Last Jedi (a film I found passably entertaining, if not only for its goofy penchant for blasphemous lore-tinkering) have become rabidly protective of Johnson’s contributions to the narrative, ready to pounce at any hints that Disney & J.J. “Play it Safe” Abrams might backpedal his work. Unsurprisingly, Disney ultimately chose the safer route of appeasing the series’ Fans (many of whom have complained about this entire series and many of whom, again, do not exist), delivering a trilogy capper that undoes all of the interesting mutations & deviations Johnson brought to the material to restore Star Wars back to its original flavor, no additives. Watching Rise of the Skywalker feels like scrolling through a Twitter argument over meaningless bullshit in real time, with aggregated opinions & reviews of social media users & losers guiding the narrative onscreen by committee. And I really hate that those arguments were rattling around in my head throughout the film since, as an isolated object outside The Discourse, it’s actually a fun time at the movies. The Rise of Skywalker is a goofy swashbuckling space adventure that cares more about packing in weirdo puppet cuties & laser swordfights than satisfying any of its narrative duties held over from the last adventure, which it practically pretends does not exist. In other words, it’s a pretty decent Star War. It’s just that the overabundance of online chatter dissecting its every detail doesn’t leave much room for it to be enjoyed for the fun, frivolous novelty that it is.
To be fair, there were at least a few genuinely fascinating 2019 titles that snuck through the Film Twitter gates to find their own time in the discourse spotlight. It was encouraging to see discussions of Us, Parasite, and Midsommar flourish in particular, even if the reactions to their merits were generally more divisive and they weren’t afforded the same critical endurance as talked-to-death mediocrities like Endgame. And it’s not like it would be fair to expect the perverted little outsider films I’m personally obsessed with like Violence Voyager, Knife+Heart, and In Fabric to eat up mainstream film discussion real estate, since hardly anyone saw them or would even want to if presented the opportunity. Still, I feel a growing frustration with the way movies are ritualistically singled out and talked to death one at a time online, grinding any possibility for surprise or wonder into dust before they seep into wide theatrical release. I doubt I’m the only frequent moviegoer who’s exhausted with most significant releases before I even have access to them, since the only way to make a living as a pro critic in this digital hellscape is to self-promote your proper reviews on a Twitter or Letterboxd account overloaded with the hottest takes and zingiest quips. It’s not like paying attention to The Discourse is in any way mandatory, though. The problem with the goddamn Internet is that there’s way too much of it, and the problem with me is that I’m terrible at ignoring it even though that would clearly be for my own good.