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'Interstellar' and the Ryan Leaf Theory of Movie Criticism

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | Think Pieces | November 13, 2014 |

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | Think Pieces | November 13, 2014 |

One oddity I’ve noticed in the years of reviewing films for Pajiba is the way that some films are easy to write about and some are hard. Okay, that’s not weird, it’s probably pretty obvious that there should be variation there. But it’s the patterns of variation that stick out as interesting.

The first gut reaction is that bad movies must be difficult to write reviews of. This is patently and empirically wrong. I get positively gleeful when I see a really terrible movie, because I’m going to burn out a thousand words of mounting snark in like ninety minutes of pure sarcastic adrenaline. Abysmal movies lay so much out on the table like a feast of sixteen courses of bacon that the only real trip-up is knowing where to start.

But the thing is, not all bad movies are that way. What’s the difference between Getaway and Before I Go To Sleep? They’re both terrible movies, but one lends itself to an explosion and one is difficult to squeeze even fifty words of “um, it’s boring and stupid”.

Good movies though have a similar inconsistency. There are fantastic movies that spark such volume of words that your fingers can’t spring across the keyboard fast enough, they leave so many thoughts blazing through your mind. Interstellar was one of those for me, Fury another. And there are others that you stare at a blank word document and think “um, it’s good, go see it”. The Drop and Prisoners were like that.

There are simply movies that you can write a book about, movies that you can barely muster a paragraph about, and a variety in between. And quality has little to do with it. So what’s the answer?

In Major League there’s a bit of dialogue, that hints at the answer I think. When Rickie Vaughn asks “I thought you had to do something good to be a celebrity”, he’s informed “not if you do it colorfully”. To riff on sports celebrity, The Drop is the Tony Gwynn or Greg Maddux of movies. Undeniably great, hall of famer, but great in that mundane way that doesn’t lend itself to a lot of conversation. Getaway is the Ryan Leaf of films: horrible but so creatively self-destructive that you can’t help but keep writing articles about a decade later. Before I Go to Sleep is the fifth round draft pick who plays fifty downs over the course of four seasons before retiring to become a real estate agent.

Interstellar is Peyton Manning, sparking an infinite amount of text, all of it attracting the “yes, but” structure of writing. Yes he’s got a million touchdowns, but he’s not clutch like Brady. Yes he finally won the big one, but his brother’s got two and Brady’s got three. Yes the film is pretty, but Neil deGrasse Tyson is going to point out all the scientific plot holes. Yes Tyson actually ended up backing the movie’s science, but um, other plot holes.

So there should be a different metric for films, one that has nothing to do with the quality, but about how much conversation it is capable of generating. I’d make up some clever term about buzz, but then I’d have to shoot myself. We’ll just measure it in the average number of words someone needs to exhaust all of their thoughts about a movie. Before I Go to Sleep: 6. Interstellar: 100,000. Everything else sort of falls between.

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Steven Lloyd Wilson is the sci-fi and history editor. You can email him here or follow him on Twitter.