The Expectation Game


The very day I was going to see Jurassic World, I wrote about how the franchise had become like Godzilla, where all films beyond the original dispense with any pretense of weight or significance and just turn into big crowd-pleasing monster fests.  And yet there I was after watching the film that evening wondering why we didn’t see more of the park working before things went wrong, why the Indominus Rex wasn’t saved as the coup de grâce to an escalation of calamity, why certain story beats happened instead of ones I thought would have worked better.  In short, not following my own advice I’d written a few hours before.

Now this isn’t an excuse to overlook shoddy filmmaking because they tried so gosh darn hard.  A bad movie is a bad movie.  Nor am I saying not liking a movie is just an exercise in grumpiness.  But there’s definitely a tendency, especially among film geeks, to get too caught up in the movie they imagined in their heads rather than the movie actually unspooling before their eyes.  Batman should have done this.  Peter Jackson should have included this part of the book.  Spielberg should have ended this movie ten minutes sooner.  Nevermind if the choices made make sense thematically or narratively; they’re not what we would have done, and so they’re wrong.

This is a tricky line here, because it almost sounds like I’m trotting out the “turn off your brain” argument, which I don’t agree with at all.  But I’m a big proponent of engaging a film on the level at which it’s trying to engage you.  Just as you don’t go into Schindler’s List expecting big action set pieces and thrilling fight scenes, you don’t go into a Friday the 13th movie looking for stinging social commentary on the state of the summer camp industry.  It’s great if a film has that surprising extra depth to it, but it doesn’t automatically make it bad if it doesn’t, so long as it does well what it sets out to do.

And if I’m totally honest with myself, Jurassic World does just that.  It wants to be a big dino thrill ride, and it is.  The crowd I was with clapped and cheered and gasped and had a great time.  It really is a roller coaster:  exciting while you’re on it, and not much to talk about afterward other than, “Hey, remember that awesome part?”  But if that’s all it’s trying to do?  Well, mission accomplished.

And I find myself being more and more kind towards the film the further away from it I get.  The same thing happened with Fury Road.  I had some quibbles about the story, but I think it was a matter of having one set of expectations and the film delivering on another.  A second viewing, now knowing what was in store, allowed me to just sit back and bask in the film.  The lack of expectations actually improved my viewing experience, since I was letting the film work on me as opposed to working against it.  And I have a feeling a similar thing will happen with Jurassic World; I’ve seen the track, now I can sit back and just enjoy the ride.

Expectations are fine — without them, we’d never be able to be pleasantly surprised — but we have to be careful they don’t force us to fight against what a film is trying to do.  Roger Ebert famously said, “It’s not what a movie is about.  It’s how it’s about it.”  To that I’d add, “It’s also not what we want a movie to be about.”  We’re trusting the filmmakers to speak to us, but they’re trusting us to listen.

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