The Treachery of Expectations

Let’s start with the first expectation. You read the ominous title and saw the screen grab of Dunkirk, you might be expecting this to be a negative review of Christopher Nolan’s latest epic. Well it’s not.

I took in a late screening on Sunday night of opening weekend.  Being that it was the day after my birthday I figured I would make the 50 minute trek out to see it in 70mm. I had seen the trailers, saw the Rotten Tomatoes score but that’s it – I purposely avoided reviews and discussions. And that is really the point of this essay.

Browsing through my Facebook feed, the people that didn’t like Dunkirk all use the same word: “Overrated”. That word itself is a very loaded term when it comes to conversations about movies opinions. For a film to be “overrated” it has to be generally regarded well in critical circles but your own rating would be substantially lower. But the term itself implies a conscious act of over-valuing – purposely singing praises when none are earned. Certainly a fake critic like David Manning, concocted by Sony’s marketing department to create excited blurbs for movie posters, would be an example of “overrating” but can we really say that the vast number of individual reviewers are collectively conspiring to mark a film higher than what they truly believe it to be?

I think a more accurate replacement for “overrated” is “did not meet my expectations”.

That’s really what people mean when they say “overrated” – you hear from someone somewhere that a film was really spectacular – you go to see it and it turns out be not as good as you had expected. Instead of a vast conspiracy on the part of critics and the population the focus is on the word “expectations“. And expectations can be formed from even inaccurate readings of critiques.

But expectation can be a dangerous thing? It’s practically a form of prejudice – we have preconceived notion of the film before even seeing it. If the film matches are predetermined opinion, everything is fine. If our experience differs from expectations, the cognitive dissonance make us feel worse about the film – forcing us to thinking less of the “overrated” film then we might have had we not had preconceived notions about it.

So me illustrate two incidents in my life were my expectations either ruined or enhanced my viewing experience.

When I was about 11 or so, I picked out All That Jazz from the local library to watch with my Dad. Now I was 11 and the internet really didn’t exist in any meaningful way yet so I didn’t know what that film was about. All I knew is it had “Jazz” in the title and that sounded like a fun musical. That was my expectation. But in the first 10 minutes we see Roy Scheider popping pills and a topless woman cross the screen. Being 13 and watching it with my Dad made me terribly uncomfortable so I told him I didn’t want to watch it and wanted to go to bed. My Dad said that was okay but he would stay up a little later to watch the rest of the movie. 

Cut to about 20 years later: I was older and more mature – less freaked out by the sight of a topless woman. I watched the film again and was amazed at how much I enjoyed it – now definitely in my top 10 favorite movies of all time.

Jump cut to a couple years ago. I was going through a pretty rough time with my mother just having been released from the hospital to a nursing home after her stroke (she’s much better now and at home). It was a difficult time and I desperately needed a break from it all so I decided to go see a movie. Any movie. It didn’t matter. I saw a movie garnering 97% on Rotten Tomatoes, so I bought a ticket. I didn’t even know what the movie was about.

Well the film was Mad Max: Fury Road. I wasn’t a fan of Mad Max before, I didn’t know a single thing about the film, I didn’t even see a trailer before hand. But it was one of the best movie experiences of my life. I wound up seeing the film 4 times in theaters and enjoying every minute of it. It is also in my top 10 favorites movies of all time.

Ever since my Mad Max experience, if I decide I want to see a movie, I will put blinders on and read/listen to reviews only after I see the film. I realize that even a Rotten Tomato score can be creating an expectation but we’d be fooling ourselves into think we can perfectly free ourselves of all expectations (titles, stars, director, music – all these set up their own expectations that we can’t avoid) – after all we are just human beings and never free of bias.

Well you made it this far – the obvious question here is what did I think of Dunkirk?

I thought it might be one of the best war films ever made. I can’t say enough about the aerial combat sequences. Watching those in 70mm where you could see every wake of every wave in the sea below was simply exhilarating. In some ways it’s like the most expensive art house war movie ever made – I was really impressed by the use of interlocking timelines which create in the viewer’s mind a fragmented traumatic memory (something I didn’t quite pick up on until after the film). Dunkirk sets out to do one thing – create a visual story of this one event. And boy does it do exactly that.

But it didn’t quite resonate fully with me. One thing that took me out of the film constantly was the changing aspect ratios. For such a film geek as Nolan is, I don’t understand how this does not drive him nuts – every time we switch from IMAX almost-academy ratio to Scope 2.39 I feel the artifice of film slip in. When we’re in full IMAX 70mm we’re in action mode and when we’re in 2.39 we’re in drama mode. I didn’t like the switching in Interstellar or Dark Knight for that matter. But that is just one gripe.

I still think the film is real a solid effective piece of work. But maybe that’s my expectations talking.

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About The Author

John P. Hess A man in search of a cinematic story.

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