A Critique of the Critics: How Ex Machina’s Viral Marketing Campaign Got Film Journalists to Abandon Their Empathy

I’ve always found the subject of causal fans and critics failing to see eye to eye a fascinating subject. Many people have speculated on why these disconnects exist. Some say the critics are out of touch; others feel the common moviegoer is lacking in taste. In all honesty, this phenomenon couldn’t realistically be boiled down to a single reason. Because critics inevitably watch every noteworthy film that goes their way, it stands to reason the odd, experimental titles would stand out more than the crowd-pleasing summer blockbuster – even if the former has glaring plot holes and the latter has no execution issues whatsoever.

However, I have to say that 2018 was a particularly strange year when it came to critical assessments. In 2017, I could count on the critically acclaimed films to be, at the very least, passable. Indeed, the weakest film I saw that year in theaters was Atomic Blonde, which wasn’t bad by any means, but had little to offer outside of its stellar action sequences. Not coincidentally, it had also amassed the least amount of critical acclaim of any film I saw that year. In 2018, however, I found critical consensuses to be all over the map. Several times would I walk out of the screening of a unanimously acclaimed film thoroughly unimpressed. One such disappointment was Ari Aster’s debut film, Hereditary.

Fortunately, it turns out I wasn’t in short company. According to CinemaScore, a market research firm that surveys audiences to rate their viewing experiences, the general public was unimpressed. Hereditary received a D+ grade, rivaling Drive (C-) and mother! (F) in terms of maligned critical darlings. Unfortunately, one particular Hereditary fan couldn’t leave well enough alone and saw fit to write an editorial on Variety about the film’s poor reception with audiences.

Not pictured: Humility

Yes, it gets worse when you actually read the article.

“You mouth-breathing cretins aren’t allowed to like anything unless I say so!”

The saddest part is that when I read this article for the first time, I assumed it was penned by a cinephile in his thirties who was just starting to develop his own taste in films independent from the mainstream. This is because it came across as something an educated, yet inexperienced person would write to prove how much they’re not like those people. Then I checked his Wikipedia page and learned he was 59 when he wrote this. That is too old of an age to be writing pieces like this – then again, so is 25. This particular one was so bad that someone who liked Hereditary called the author out on his blatant display of gatekeeping.

I get the feeling that if Mr. Gleiberman actually read this comment, he would probably dismiss the reader as a poseur.

Indeed, this poster, who goes by the e-handle taumatropo, makes a particularly interesting point that seems to identify one possible cause of these frequent disconnects. The stereotype of the ostensibly high-minded critic who believes their words carry so much more weight than those of the unwashed masses exists for a reason – even if they’re hardly in the majority. As taumatropo says, these critics can’t accept that people might think differently from them. Rather than actively challenging these dissenting opinions and trying to reach a better understanding, they choose to put up barriers. These people don’t like the latest A24 film? Guess they lack culture and celebrate their inhumanity on a regular basis. They can’t possibly have developed their own disparate taste in films over a lifetime of experience. No siree Bob.

However, the purpose of this editorial is not to rebut Owen Gleiberman’s post, as taumatropo sufficiently covered exactly what was problematic about it. No, instead, this think piece and subsequent reaction to it got me thinking. Exactly when did certain pockets of the critical circle become so openly hostile to their readers? Much like with the actual cause of these disconnects, I don’t have a definite answer to that question. However, I feel I can pinpoint one specific moment that, if not a catalyst behind where we are now, at the very least cemented the surprising lack of empathy certain film journalists have.

This story goes back to 2015 when South by Southwest, an annual conglomerate of film, music festivals, and other conferences, was taking place. On Tinder, one man named Brock was using the online dating app when he happened upon a woman named Ava. On her profile she claimed to enjoy drawing and was fascinated with busy intersections in cities.

From there, the two struck a mostly normal, if decidedly mechanical conversation, and Ava invited Brock to check her Instagram profile.  Said profile led to a poster for a film called Ex Machina. Ava wasn’t a real person, but rather a sophisticated bot. Her name was a reference to the artificial intelligence in that film. In other words, Ava’s profile was an elaborate attempt at a viral marketing campaign in order to raise awareness of the film’s existence, which was set to debut a mere few weeks later.  This is easily one of the most misbegotten marketing ploys ever devised. Did the ones who thought it up feel that the victims would forfeit their money to buy a ticket as a prize for successfully being catfished? The exact thought process is not clear.

So naturally, with this highly unethical marketing scheme brought to light, film journalists did the right thing by calling out it for what it was.

Just kidding. Most of the film journalists who wrote about A24’s marketing campaign had nothing but praise for it, displaying an amorality eerily similar to that of those who concocted it. A common thread among them was highlighting the similarities between the film’s plot and how Brock and any other man who had the misfortune of swiping right on Ava’s profile were fooled into believing the bot was a real person. None of them mentioned how immensely creepy this was.

To be fair, the fans weren’t any better.

The piece that stood out to me the most for all the wrong reasons was written by one Mark Ritson for Marketing Week. I’m just going to let it speak for itself.

The takeaway is that Mr. Riston was a complete a loss for words as to why people would respond negatively to being catfished and virally humiliated on the internet. I feel as though I shouldn’t have to explain why this campaign was morally reprehensible, but in light of the overwhelming evidence, I apparently must. A friend of mine cut right to the chase when he pointed out that had the distributors implemented a male bot and tried to rope women into seeing a film, it wouldn’t have gone over nearly as well. These very same people who had nothing but positive things to say about the Tinder campaign would have been furious – and rightly so. Indeed, in such a scenario, it would be a miracle if whoever came up with the campaign didn’t get arrested. But no, it was a man using Tinder who got punked, so it’s a brilliant, avant-garde marketing technique.

Even taking gender out of the equation, there is still an egregious double standard at play. If Ex Machina didn’t resonate with critics so deeply, there is little chance they would have kind things to say about this marketing campaign. Could you imagine anyone being pleased if, for example, Michael Bay’s marketing team had resorted to a similar stunt to promote the latest Transformers film? I know it would be far more likely for these exact same journalists to scoff, and I can imagine some of them going as far as using it as evidence that the true art of filmmaking is dead, humans are getting dumber, the end times are coming, or whatever pessimistic narrative they happen to be pushing in a given week.

Thankfully, there were glimmers of common sense to be found in this debacle.

While I don’t necessarily think that the Ex Machina viral marketing campaign directly caused this severe divide, I can believe it was one of the earliest instances in the internet age of the critics actively choosing to throw their audience under the bus because the film they loved came first. It’s a real shame because the art of film criticism is extremely valuable. When it’s done well, it can give the audience a greater appreciation for what they just saw. However, none of the people in the above screencaps seemed interested in treating their audience with respect. It’s as though they want people to bow down before opinions, accepting them without question. Though I won’t deny the many times fans have acted out of line, it’s arguably worse when those whose opinions carry a significant amount of weight don’t appreciate the responsibility that comes with such a position. Credibility is the lifeblood of any good critic, and the exact second they praised the viral marketing campaign of Ex Machina, much of it was left to spill.

Eversion

Introduction

Following in the trail blazed by the word-of-mouth success of Cave Story in 2004, an entire scene for independent games began to grow. Many independently produced games had existed before 2004, but Cave Story showed the world that they need not settle for being lesser than studio-backed efforts. In the following years when digital distribution platforms became more commonplace, it wasn’t uncommon for these games to appear alongside AAA efforts on popular consoles. The year 2008 is considered something of a watershed moment for the independent scene. It was the year that saw the release of Braid and World of Goo – both of which were critically acclaimed even when held to the same standards as AAA titles.

Nearing the end of 2008, Zaratustra Productions, the alias of Brazil-born British developer Guilherme Töws, released a freeware game named Eversion. Thanks to two prominent internet personalities at the time, one a Let’s Player and the other a webcomic artist, Eversion began spreading over the internet like wildfire. Owing to how it made its way to hard drives around the world, Eversion could be seen as one of the earliest instances of a game being exclusively spread through the use of memes. What, exactly, about Eversion allowed it to enjoy this unexpected popularity?

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Mirai (Mamoru Hosoda, 2018)

Kun is the young son of an executive mother and an architect father. He loves his toy trains and playing with the family dog, Yukko. At age four, his younger sister is born. His parents later name the infant Mirai – the Japanese word for “future”. Kun is happy at first, but quickly grows jealous of the undivided attention Mirai receives, eventually having to be restrained from hitting her. From there, he lashes out at his mother for being gone all of the time and his father for focusing all of his attention on his work when at home. After one of his tantrums, he meets a strange man in the house’s garden who claims to have been the prince of the house before Kun was born. Shortly thereafter, he meets a young woman who seems to know him very well. On top of that, she tells him her name is Mirai.

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The Double Life of Veronique (Krzysztof Kieślowski, 1991)

The year is 1990, and a beautiful young French woman named Veronique aspires to be a singer. In Poland, another woman named Weronika has similar aspirations. One would be forgiven for believing them to be one in the same due to their strikingly identical appearance. This story follows both women, detailing the highs and lows of their lives. Though they will never formally meet each other by the time this story ends, they share an esoteric connection that transcends language and culture.

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Pokémon Red and Blue

Introduction

Growing up in the 1970s, a boy from Machida, Tokyo named Satoshi Tajiri enjoyed collecting insects. Such was the zeal for his hobby that other children called him “Doctor Bug”, and he initially wanted to become an entomologist. As he grew up, he became fascinated with an entirely new pastime: arcade games. He was enthralled with Taito’s 1979 arcade hit Space Invaders, though he played many others as well. Throughout his teenage years, his parents thought their son a delinquent, a perception exacerbated by him frequently cutting classes. He nearly failed to graduate from high school, prompting his parents, who were convinced he was throwing his future away, to take action. His father attempted to get him a job at The Tokyo Electric Power Company, but the boy declined. He eventually took make-up classes and earned his diploma. He didn’t attend university, instead opting to complete a two-year technical degree program at the Tokyo National College of Technology, majoring in electronics and computer science.

In 1981, Mr. Tajiri had begun writing a fanzine he named Game Freak. It was handwritten and stapled together. The content focused on the arcade scene, offering tips on how to win or achieve high scores. Certain editions even listed any Easter Eggs contained within the games. The fanzine proved to be fairly popular in his area; the edition in which he wrote about a game named Zabius sold 10,000 copies. It caught the attention of one Ken Sugimori, who found it being sold at a dōjinshi shop. As someone who had an affinity for art, he asked Mr. Tajiri if he could help make the fanzine even more of a success. Suddenly, Game Freak now had an official illustrator. As more people contributed to the fanzine, Mr. Tajiri decided that most of the games he discussed were of a poor quality. Therefore, he and Mr. Sugimori drummed up a simple solution: make their own games.

Mr. Tajiri had been interested in making his own game ever since he discovered the medium. After receiving a Famicom, Nintendo’s first true home console to use interchangeable ROM cartridges, he dismantled it to see the inner workings. He later submitted a video game idea in a contest sponsored by Sega and won. From there, he studied the Family BASIC programming package, which allowed him to grasp how Famicom games were designed. With the desire to head in a new direction, Game Freak the fanzine ended in 1986. Three years later, Game Freak the video game development company arose in its place. The duo wasted no time pitching their first game to Namco: Quinty.

Known as Mendel Palace when it was exported to North America, Quinty combined action and puzzle game elements. The player character is placed on a 5 by 7 grid of floor tiles. The player must flip tiles to defeat the enemies that seek to collide into their character.

Though satisfied with their first product, Mr. Tajiri wanted to create something a little more personal. As he grew up, the areas around him became progressively more urbanized. As a result, many incent habitats were lost. Moreover, with the rise of home consoles, children began playing in their homes rather than outside. Not wanting to let the joy he felt catching and collecting creatures die, he sought to make a game capable of encapsulating that wonder so he may pass it on to others. His idea for this game began forming in 1990. The previous year saw the release of Nintendo’s Game Boy console. In an era when portable games traditionally consisted of static images on a LCD screen, the Game Boy took the world by storm. The idea of a portable albeit monochromatic Famicom was unheard of, yet the reality couldn’t be denied.

As soon as he observed the Game Boy’s ability to communicate between consoles, Mr. Tajiri knew that this game was destined to debut on the handheld platform. When he thought of people using the link cable required for multiplayer sessions, he imagined bugs crawling back and forth between them.

The original name of this game was to be Capsule Monsters. Mr. Tajiri had taken inspiration from the gashapon, a variety of vending machines popular with children that dispense toys encased in a plastic capsule. The characters in his game would carry capsules containing monsters that were released upon throwing them. Because Mr. Tajiri had difficulties trademarking the name “Capsule Monsters”, he tried to make it into a portmanteau, “CapuMon”, before changing it to Pocket Monsters.

Mr. Tajiri was a bit nervous upon presenting his idea to Nintendo, believing they would reject his idea. Indeed, when he pitched the idea, they didn’t fully understand the concept. Nonetheless, they were impressed with the promise he had displayed in his first games and decided to explore it. Shigeru Miyamoto, the creator of two of Nintendo’s successful franchises, Mario and The Legend of Zelda, began to mentor the up-and-coming developer, teaching him as the game was being created. Pocket Monsters ended up taking six years to produce. For most of the development process, there wasn’t enough salary with which to pay Game Freak’s employees. Over these six years, five employees quit, and the company faced an impending bankruptcy numerous times. Mr. Tajiri himself didn’t take a salary, living off his father’s income. Fortunately, he and his team received help from an unexpected source.

In 1989, a company named Ape, Inc. was founded. Their first product, released in the same year, was Mother – a passion project of famed copywriter Shigesato Itoi. Though it would be some time before it saw an official release abroad, Mother remains to this day a beloved classic in its native homeland, possessing an intergenerational appeal few other games had. The team stuck with Mr. Itoi when creating its sequel, Mother 2. When the programmers began running into problems, Satoru Iwata of HAL Laboratory stepped in to salvage the project. The game was released to a warm reception in 1994. Unlike its predecessor, Mother 2 would receive an official Western localization, under the name Earthbound. Though initially a sales disappointment, Earthbound would receive a fair bit of retroactive vindication, and is now considered one of the best games ever made.

The Ape team was dismantled in 1995, and one of its former members, Tsunekazu Ishihara, with Satoru Iwata’s assistance, founded a new company in its stead: Creatures. Many of the same people who helped develop Mr. Itoi’s were about to take cues from Mr. Iwata by saving another struggling project. They invested in Mr. Tajiri’s idea, allowing his team to complete the games. In exchange, they received one-third of the franchise rights. Pocket Monsters took such a long time to develop that Mr. Tajiri had assisted in the creation of two Nintendo games in the interim: Yoshi and Mario & Wario. He even directed a game for the Sega Genesis named Pulseman alongside Mr. Sugimori.

After a long, arduous development process, Pocket Monsters was at last released domestically in October 1996. Upon completion, few media outlets paid it attention. This was reflected in how Famitsu, the most widely read video game publication in Japan, awarded it twenty-nine points out of a possible forty. In the six years between Mr. Tajiri conceiving the idea for Pocket Monsters and its release, the industry evolved to a point beyond recognition. Nintendo had a fierce, new competitor in the form of Sony’s PlayStation console, and they themselves had launched the Nintendo 64. Both consoles began experimenting with three-dimensional gameplay and every franchise attempted to make the leap. In the face of the medium’s experimental direction, any game retaining a 2D or side-scrolling presentation was doomed to fall by the wayside regardless of its quality.

As a result of these factors, the Game Boy itself had rapidly declined in popularity. Despite having sold more than 100-million units worldwide, the platform was but forgotten by 1996. The only person interested in releasing anything for the portable system was Mr. Tajiri himself. Nintendo, on the other hand, was prepared to declare Pocket Monsters a loss long before the project saw completion. Therefore, nobody could have predicted the game to not only sell rapidly, but singlehandedly save the Game Boy as a platform. One of the reasons Pocket Monsters sold as well as it did was due to Nintendo’s idea to produce two versions of the game: Red and Green.

In the face of this success, it was only logical for Nintendo to export Pocket Monsters to the West. In order to make this release successful, Nintendo is said to have spent over 50-million dollars to promote the games. Before their release, the Western localization team was highly skeptical about the concept. Believing the “cutesy” art style of Pocket Monsters wouldn’t appeal to Americans, they wanted them to be redesigned and “beefed up”. This was overruled by Hiroshi Yamauchi, the president of Nintendo at the time, who regarded the games’ possible reception in the United States as a challenge to face. On the eve of the games’ launch, an anime series premiered, bearing what was to be their localized name: Pokémon – a romanized portmanteau of its domestic title. In September of 1998, two versions of the game, Pokémon Red and Pokémon Blue debuted in North America before receiving an official release the following October in Australia. The European gaming community wouldn’t receive a port until October of 1999.

Whatever reservations the localization team may have had about the series’ overseas success were fully assuaged when these games began selling by the millions. It is nearly impossible to overstate how much of a phenomenon Pokémon was in the late nineties. It could be thought of as the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or Transformers for a new generation of children – a truly inescapable work beloved by children from all walks of life. As a sign of the renewed interest in portable gaming, Nintendo released the successor to the Game Boy, the Game Boy Color, the very same year Pokémon debuted abroad. Having not only defied all odds and resonated with enthusiasts of varying backgrounds, but also breathed new life into Nintendo’s line of handheld consoles, how well do Pokémon Red and Blue stand the test of time?

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150th Review Special, Finale: March of the Masterpieces

As anyone who has read my reviews knows, I tend to be very sparing when handing out 9/10s or 10/10s. While mainstream outlets tend to hand them out like penny candy when a game is promoted enough, I make games (and films, for that matter) work for those grades. I have it so that when a work earns a passing grade, even if it’s a 7/10, it’s a cause for celebration. With me having awarded no 10/10s in this block of 50 reviews, all we have left to discuss are the ones I awarded a 9/10. These are the games I point towards when talking about the hallmarks of a given era or decade, so if you’ve haven’t played them, check them out right away.

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150th Review Special, Part 3: Green Means Go!

Now that the bad/middling games are out of the way, we can finally start talking about the ones I can actually recommend. This has been a great year for me personally because I managed to write three reviews that were over 10,000 words long. The best part? They’re all of games I like. Whereas before, my longest review was that of The Last of Us, I can now safely say that anyone who believes it’s easier to be negative than positive clearly isn’t trying hard enough.

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150th Review Special, Part 2: Throwing Caution to the Wind

I use yellow scores whenever I can’t officially recommend nor dissuade people from playing the game in question. The exact score I use depends on which way I would go if somebody pressed me enough with a 4/10 meaning probably avoid, a 5/10 meaning I’m not sure, and a 6/10 meaning play if you’re a fan. Either way, we’re officially done talking about bad games from this point onward.

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150th Review Special, Part 1: Rev on the Red Line

Well, I’ve done it now. I’ve reached 150 game reviews: one for every Pokémon in the original two games! When I reached 100 game reviews, I celebrated by ranking them all from worst to best, and that’s exactly what I’m going to do here. All of this time, I’ve been ranking the games between that milestone and this one, leaving me with 51 places. Why 51? It’s because I revised my BioShock: Infinite review. With fewer entries overall, I’m going to split this post into four segments. The games with failing grades go first. After that, the games with middling grades will be discussed. In part three, I’ll talk about the games that received either a 7/10 or an 8/10. Finally, the concluding part will have me talk about every 9/10 I’ve awarded so far. I’ve finished doing that, I’ll reveal the full list, so you can see how they fare against the original 100 games I’ve discussed. Without further ado, let’s dive right in.

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