It is a truth universally acknowledged that the only perfect films in the history of cinema are the ones which everyone praises and through some fault or another, no one can ever watch. The missing reels of Erich von Stroheim’s Greed. Orson Welles’s Don Quixote. Victor Fleming’s The Way of All Flesh. Those that remain, even the most beloved classics, eventually show their age as the fads of one age become fodder for the next.
Yet the distinction between good, bad, and likeable remains one of the most difficult mysteries to unravel. The most beloved movies (Star Wars, The Godfather, The Harry Potter series) are often far from the best, while the most technically proficient films (2001: A Space Odyssey, Last Year at Marienbad) can be as boring as the day is long.
At least part of the problem has to do with the low media/subject literacy of the average film viewer. Last winter, astrophysicist and Cosmos host, Neil deGrasse Tyson’s extensive knowledge of space exploration, astronaut mission protocol, and gravitational physics enabled his critique of the film’s inconsistent application of zero-g. But for the average viewer, there exists a noticeable difficulty in addressing elements of a film beyond a broad analysis of its quality in the positive or negative, and the occasional invocation of “amazing cinematography.”
CinemaSins, the film criticism/comedy YouTube channel of Jeremy Scott and Chris Atkinson, seems poised to fix all that. Citing ‘90s cult classic Mystery Science Theater 3000 as an inspiration, their most popular series is the EWW series, more popularly known as “Everything Wrong With [Film Title] in [X] Minutes.” In each, a narrator, usually Scott, introduces a movie, then plays clips while pointing out mistakes, inconsistencies, or grievances referred to as “sins.” An on screen display dings each time a sin is introduced and the end of each video pronounces judgment on the film based on that total.
The pair learned their craft as editors for ReelSEO.com. It was Scott who came up with the idea and pitched it to Atkinson as a way to list mistakes and goofs in films, but read at an accelerated pace. The series’ popularity has even allowed the duo to work on CinemaSins full time and expand their product line. Other series under the CinemaSins banner include “What’s the Damage?” in which they estimate the cost of collateral cinematic destruction and an exploration of movie and TV reference in GTA V.
Their mission statement, which they repeated to me, reads: “No movie is without sin.” Indeed, for some films the sin count can run quite high.
Scott and Atkinson admit that the complexity involved in making a film can lead to a wild variation in quality. Even in their most vicious critical takedowns of cherished classics, they afford the participants forgiveness for all manner of technical missteps. Like a six shot revolver that never runs out of bullets, the types of sins that interest CinemaSins are of the variety that violate internal logic and accountability. “The best films don't cut scenes that explain something later.” CinemaSins says (they responded to me by email). “They don't say something in the dialogue and then do the total opposite. They lay out rules and stick to them, and don't break them out of convenience.”
In some cases the CinemaSins review of a film is more enjoyable than the movie itself. Memorable examples include universally panned films such as Batman and Robin (19 minutes, 122 sins) and 2012 (20 minutes, 213 sins). The CinemaSins videos have since been everywhere on the Internet, virally shared on social networks, praised by media outlets, and cited in critical film research. Their most popular entry, “Everything Wrong with The Hunger Games” has over eight million views, 1.8 million YouTube users have subscribed, and their top ten videos have been viewed approximately 54 million times.
While it wasn’t their first video posted to YouTube, their review of “Everything Wrong With The Amazing Spider-Man in 2 Minutes (or Less)” was the first to “find the right audience.” “Those early attempts—you can't find them [online] anymore—were a mixed bag of failures. Spider-Man got coverage from major sites and it amassed over 200,000 views in a week.” In studious monotone, the voiceover, usually Scott, explores Spider-Man’s issues, including technical clichés such as a “conveniently unattended villain[’s] lair” where a still running computer displays “custom-built presentation software created solely to provide crucial plot details” and character’s not present to learn the relevant information receive “exposition by police radio.”
The criticism is real and valid, but the sins exist on a spectrum between the technically critical and the theatrically hilarious. As in their review of Batman Begins, Katie Holmes presence in the film is originally counted as a sin, but later rescinded because of her sexualized costumes. The reviewers can also work a little blue with their language, in a way that even the movies they review are allowed. (Spider-Man features an upset Peter Parker cursing about “Mother Hubbard.”)
Aided by their love of the genre and the problems inherent in its execution, action films feature prominently in their lists of sinful cinema. “The worst you find is in action movies—editing is so rapid-fire you don't know where anything or anyone is in relation to each other,” they say. “We've run into a couple of movies where there's just impossibly useless gun fights—you can't see the people, they're shooting at things you can't see, they're characters you don't care about. A lot of modern action movies took that rapid-fire editing and random footage to a strange level—as long as it's fast and quick, it seems exciting even though it's totally empty.” But sinful cinema is not limited to the action genre, even nostalgic classics such as The Wizard of Oz have had their moment of scrutiny. “There are not any movies we consider ‘off limits’ when it comes to this format,” they say. “It might mean you upset people, but that's the territory. We've done our own favorite movies.”
That audiences willingly engage in some level of disbelief suspension is a cinematic given. The detail required to tell even simple stories quickly spirals out of control if every actionable element is presented by the camera. Given the time compression necessary to tell complex stories in under two hours, many theatergoers are more than happy to indulge a film that ellipses redundant or uninteresting story elements. However, the body of criticism pioneered by CinemaSins does not seek to diminish a film, or ask an audience to forgo its expectation toward the more fantastical elements of cinematic unreality, but rather to explore the cracks between a film’s expectation of disbelief against an audience’s ability to maintain that suspension.
“Did it hurt picking [Back to the Future] apart?” say Scott and Atkinson. “Not really. Not if you know that this is done mostly out of love, even obsession, with movies. Even your favorite movies have those ‘what the hell was that all about?’ moments that you usually just let slide.”
Part of that success has to do with the movies CinemaSins has reviewed. “Most of the time [we select movies] based on what is being released that week in theaters. If you have a new Hunger Games coming out, you'll do one of the other Hunger Games if you haven't done it. The next best thing is ‘movies adapted from books,’ which might mean Harry Potter or Twilight. A comic book movie is coming out? We do some comic book movie we've never done. It's all the act of ‘tentpoling,’ riding a wave of interest in a new movie to buoy your own video.”
Series creators Scott and Atkinson emphasize the humor of their videos, but the attention to detail evidenced by the “Everything Wrong With…” series examines even bad films from a new perspective. “We don't think you can go into the theater with a ‘Cinema Sins’ mindset, because you might not enjoy any movies that way,” CinemaSins says. “That said, enjoying a movie for what it is can be a problem at times. The industry makes movies based on what worked before, and lots of times what worked before is based on a cultural indifference to what was bad. We're not ‘critics’…we really just want to be entertaining, and if people want to think a little bit more critically about films, that's a good thing.”
For the critically panned, and universally reviled, mid-90s camp classic Batman and Robin that meant revisiting well known, and well criticized, territory. "Batman and Robin definitely isn't the most sinful, but it might be one of the most sinful major releases of a huge franchise,” CinemaSins says. “Call it one of the most high-profile sinful movies. Nitpicking a movie like this…was exhausting. It's easy to watch it and say, ‘This is terrible,’ but only when you break it down scene by scene and detail after detail do you realize how insanely bad it is.”
It is no accident that sequels seem especially easy picking for criticism. “The most problematic elements of American cinema seem to be ‘what worked before will work again,’ or trying to follow the model of a brilliant movie and using a Cliffs Notes version of what worked,” CinemaSins says. For CinemaSins, the cookie cutter approach often takes much of the chaff, but leaves behind the wheat. “The most extreme example of that would be how movies like Date Movie and Epic Movie came out and were following the Airplane! and Naked Gun model, but exaggerated and bastardized what made those movies special.”
While there have been some critics of CinemaSins, a comfortable majority seem to understand both the intent behind the criticism, and its importance. Even for films whose obvious flaws have been trotted out time and again. When news of a possible Indiana Jones sequel was recently announced, CinemaSins said, “We got around to doing Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull…and that had been requested since day 1. And we had people saying, “Finally!’” There is a temptation to critique some huge films as the series grows in popularity, but in a move that hints at Scott and Atkinson’s long term plans. “There has been a great amount of requests for Star Wars but,” CinemaSins says. “We haven't gotten around to it. At least not until next year.”
As far as the future of the series, CinemaSins says, “We would love to have a major player on a film either help sin their own movie, or an outspoken major player provide their own sins to one of our videos. We'd love to have Kevin Smith, because that dude will give you an opinion. I mean, how great would it be to get him on Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes or Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia, movies he famously spoke out against.”
When it comes to films with all female casts, CinemaSins has so far withheld judgment despite widely recognized problematic gender representation in film, and the current scholarship emphasizing the financial benefits of non-binary gender awareness in movies. Mirroring the industry wide problem with female representation, CinemaSins says, “Most [films with female casts] are romantic comedies or small indies that are hard to tentpole. But there are a few out there, like Sucker Punch that would fit perfectly, we just haven't gotten around to yet.” Some attempts by the pair include “Everything Wrong With” videos for Dirty Dancing, The Notebook, and Titanic, the least popular of which has been viewed half a million times. “The unfortunate part of the business side of our videos is that most of them have to be high profile enough to warrant people to want to watch them. But would a lot of people watch EWW Little Women or Fried Green Tomatoes? Maybe they would. We haven't ruled stuff like that out for any other reason. They definitely aren't sinless.”
For Atkinson and Scott, the most important aspect seems to be not taking themselves, or the films they review, too seriously. “It's no shock when we suddenly get way more dislikes on a Hunger Games or a Hobbit because those movies have legions of fans. Love is blind, even when it comes to the movies.” They have even compiled a list of their own sins (#1 on the list, they’re white).
CinemaSins points out one of the more pernicious myths about criticism, specifically that acknowledging any flaws in a cherished item in some way diminishes the product or its appeal. “If you love a movie you should be able to pick apart flaws without destroying your opinion of it. It's virtually impossible to love a movie then start hating it. You would have to completely change what excites you in order to make that crumble,” CinemaSins says.
Like Back to the Future, a recent entry from the cinematic past featured the pair taking on Richard Donner’s The Goonies and discovering over 100 flaws. “Was it shocking that we ended up with over 100 on that one?” CinemaSins says. “Hell, we grew up with The Goonies.
As with any work of art, the flaws are a part of what defines that work’s character and nevertheless, “sin counts are not directly proportional to quality,” Atkinson and Scott say.
Cinema, like all art, is highly subjective and what endears one film to one viewer is worthy of protest in the eyes of another. What CinemaSins accomplishes is at least a close reading of a film, without regard for its audience appeal. In the process, CinemaSins elevates their audience’s level of media literacy. Now if only that worked on Sinful filmmakers as well.