The modern movie age has become a cycle of hype more than an appreciation for film itself. I chalk it up to the mainstreaming of the nerd class and the ubiquity of the Internet. Film culture online is rarely about the films themselves, but the industry and hype surrounding them. I fall prey to it, as well. It disturbs me, though. For about half the year, all anybody cares about is how the films of the Summer will stack up. Once that’s over it’s just a big race to see which films get the most acclaim and awards. If any of these two seasons is better, it’s the awards one, mostly because the good films tend to stick around in the consciousness more, giving them more time to find an audience. The Summer season is altogether a different story. Almost the opposite, really. Months—sometimes years—of hype lead up to one short weekend, the discussion explodes for roughly a week, petering off through the next week, and nearly disappearing after that.
Take a look at this summer, for example, which arguably began early in the Spring with the release of The Hunger Games. In fact, we can start even earlier, with John Carter. Pretty much since that film’s release, the two or three-week cycle has played out like clockwork. It’s partly a sign of a year with many big releases, but it’s also an illustration of how Internet culture works. There are several stages, but essentially they come down to: The Hype, The Pre-Release Buzz, Release, Taking Sides.
So let’s look at John Carter. Remember that film? Years in development, a title change, wild reports of a ballooning budget and a director out of control. A marketing department that seemed to live to bury the film. Many, many months of online hype and debate over a film that hadn’t been released, based on a book series most people hadn’t heard of and a general public that had little-to-no knowledge of the movie at all. Then the early word started coming in. The first reviews were published online around March 1st and 2nd, with a generally mixed-to-positive reaction, and a few outright negative comments. Discussion of the buzz started to infect Twitter. More and more reviews came out. The early mixed buzz was ballooning, not unlike the budget of the film itself. Finally, the film was released on the 9th of March. Twitter and the blogosphere practically exploded, everyone trying to spell out their thoughts on the film. And very quickly it became a game of people taking sides. Terrible mess of a film, or flawed-but-grand sci-fi epic. Those were the sides. They argued intensely for about a week, and then the discussion began to die down. Why? Well, people had to make room in their Twitter feeds for The Hunger Games.
The same thing happened. Early reviews came out, pretty unanimously positive, some even effusive in praise, comparing the film to great works of popular science fiction. Talk started to heat up. The movie was released on the 23rd of March. The flurry of internet talk threatened to break servers across the globe. Then people started taking sides. Fantastic first entry in a great sci-fi series, or lazily written and directed film deserving of scorn? This, of course, relates not to the general public’s take on the film, or the box office necessarily, but the need for the Internet community of geeks to justify all those months of hype with a binary reaction of “thumbs up or down?”
But, of course, the hype cycle can really only last for so long, about three weeks in the case of The Hunger Games. Another movie would have to come out and take over all Internet discussion. Enter: The Cabin in the Woods. Once again, hype for years on a project that was sitting, finished and in the can just waiting to be released. Highly positive early reviews to stoke the fire. Released on April 13th. Again, explosion of discussion on Twitter and blogs. Then people taking sides. Brilliant satire of horror genre conventions, or unsuccessful horror movie masking lack of thrill with poor humour. Granted, this movie was practically created for Internet nerds, so the positive reaction had much greater support.
The Cabin in the Woods nerd-wank lasted almost three weeks as well, and then another Joss Whedon film came out. The Avengers was literally four years of hype, since the end credits scene in Iron Man. People were going nuts just to see if Marvel and Whedon could pull it together. Early word from press screenings and overseas releases started the ball rolling. May 4th was Judgement Day. After that the sides took shape. Blisteringly fun superhero romp, or oddly inconsequential actioner?
The Avengers had May all to itself, and so its cycle lasted longer than normal. Technically, about five weeks. But really, it was shorter than that. The hype cycle died down a bit more slowly than normal, but by the three-week marker, people were already having more general discussions about The Dictator, the failure of Battleship, and the indie charm of Moonrise Kingdom. Even though there was no flashpoint film to take over the hype cycle, the ADD nature of Internet talk could really only last for so long.
It all kicked back into high gear with Prometheus. Insane buzz, with seemingly millions of trailers and viral marketing clips, and uninformed talk of it being a new masterpiece in the making. The hype reached fever pitch, early word started coming out that was fairly mixed. The movie was released on June 8th and the Internet practically had a heart attack. Taking sides in this case was extreme. Visually impressive film with a disastrous script by a hack writer, or visually impressive film emboldened by a great story with ambitious ideas? For a solid week there it seemed like Prometheus was the most important film ever made.
Cut to: two weeks later, June 22nd, Pixar’s Brave is released, the hype cycle is in full effect, people are still in the midst of it, trying to figure out, is it a new Pixar classic, or a sad sign of a once-great studio in decline?
Prometheus only came a little over two weeks ago and already it feels like a lifetime. That’s how the hype cycle works. Tons of anticipation, an explosion of talk and side-taking, and then the life of the cycle dies. Prometheus feels like ages ago. The Avengers feels like a movie from my childhood. The Hunger Games and John Carter? I can’t even believe they came out this century. And it’s not over. Brave‘s cycle will die faster than normal to make way for The Amazing Spider-Man, and then we’ll get to the juggernaut, The Dark Knight Rises. The sad part is that lost in all of this is a true examination of these films as works of art. It’s not about trying to understand them or work through them, but to categorize them and decide whether they’re simply good or bad and what side to take. It’s all reaction and backlash and backlash-to-the-backlash. We aren’t letting the films sit and gestate. We hype them up, consume them, debate them and move on to the next film, rinse, repeat. We have become too enamoured by hype and expectations surrounding these films. If only we could find a way to break that cycle.