Independence Day: Resurgence is one of the biggest movies of the summer — a long-in-the-works, $200 million sequel to a 20-year-old, trendsetting summer blockbuster. And yet you won’t see many early reviews from critics based in the United States.
The movie, which opens on 3,900 screens across the country on Friday, didn’t screen for critics in most domestic markets. Some foreign critics have already weighed in, and a handful of Los Angeles critics appear to have found their way into the movie’s big premiere earlier this week, but for all practical purposes it’s opening cold.
That’s nearly unprecedented for a movie of this size. It’s hard to think of many comparable films that weren’t screened for critics in advance: As Scott Mendelson points out at Forbes, the closest comparisons are probably the 2014 Hercules movie starring Dwayne Johnson, and 2009’s G.I. Joe: Rise of the Cobra, a $175 million film based on a toy line that wasn’t quite the successful franchise starter it was obviously intended to be.
Declining to screen a film for critics before release is usually a pretty strong sign that the movie isn’t any good — or at least that the studio believes critics won’t like it. (Although some early reviews of Independence Day: Resurgence do appear to be relatively kind.) It can also be read as a signal that with a presold, megabudget sequel like this, the studio’s marketing team thinks critics simply don’t matter: It’s an Independence Day sequel. Your decision to buy a ticket won’t have anything to do with whether a critic liked it or not.
Lots of critics will end up reviewing the film anyway, of course. But they’ll have to line up and buy tickets like everyone else, then post their reviews over the weekend, or even early next week.
Maybe that’s a good thing. Preview screenings are both an enticing perk for critics and a valuable part of any reviewing gig. But they also tend to separate critics from ordinary viewers and insulate them from the typical theatrical experience, which often pushes critics into offering judgments rather than leading conversations.
Crowds and spaces change the way you experience a movie
Anyone who has ever been to a midnight showing of a cult favorite knows that the same movie can play wildly differently depending on the circumstances. I vividly recall seeing a late night screening of Evil Dead II at a beautifully maintained historic theater in downtown Lexington, Kentucky. I’d seen the movie multiple times before, and always liked it, but I’d never enjoyed it so much as when I saw it with a room full of rowdy strangers who were super enthusiastic about it. When you’re seeing a movie, the space and the crowd matters.
That’s true for critics, too. An early screening packed with people who make a living by analyzing films and ruling on their worthiness is a significantly different moviegoing experience from the one you get buying a ticket for a matinee. In some cases, the space itself is different: Screenings for critics are sometimes held in relatively tiny rooms that feel more like oversize home theaters than big-chain movie auditoriums.
And while it doesn’t change the movie, it changes the experience of watching it, which can change how you feel about it. It’s a little like the difference between seeing a band play an arena versus seeing the same band play the exact same set in a rock club. There’s an intimacy and privacy to some screenings that represents a major departure from the multiplex.
Other times, movies are screened in local multiplexes, but even then the experience is noticeably different. The presence of a group of critics turns a theater into a professional setting, a place where, yes, fun might be had, but fun is not necessarily the only goal. It’s more serious and more studious, because there’s work to be done.
Again, that doesn’t change the movie itself. But it can change the way you watch it — even when the theater is exactly the same.
I saw Star Wars: The Force Awakens at a weekday daytime screening for critics before it was officially released to the public. A few days later I returned to the exact same theater to see it again with the opening weekend crowds. Even though I was in the same space, watching the same movie, the vibe was noticeably different the second time around — more energetic, more excited, more celebratory. The people who had bought opening weekend tickets were there to enjoy themselves, to be entertained. As you’d expect, the critics who’d come to see the movie earlier in the week had come to cast judgment.
The most useful film criticism does more than simply label a movie good or bad
Well, of course they were there to cast judgment! That’s what critics do. They determine whether movies are good or bad or somewhere in between, and then offer an argument as to why.
Preview screenings encourage that model of criticism, allowing critics to declare their opinion in advance of the movie’s opening day, before moving on to the next film and the next review.
That’s one model of criticism, and one that most critics, especially at daily newspapers, have followed for decades. It’s not a bad thing. If nothing else, it means critics perform the service of identifying excellent films and helping moviegoers decide which films to see and which ones to avoid.
But these sorts of pronouncements have less to offer for moviegoers who want to think or talk about a film after seeing it, who want to argue about or analyze what they just saw. It offers judgment, but not conversation.
Half the fun of going to the movies is, well, going to the movies — but half the fun is talking about them afterward with your friends, engaging in the shared experience and arguing over what a film meant, learning more about both the movie and each other in the process. With the right group of people, the post-movie back and forth can be as enjoyable as the movie itself.
That’s part of why At the Movies, the TV show where legendary film critics Siskel and Ebert rose to fame in the 1980s, was so effective. It had more to offer than a single opinion about whether a movie was good or bad. It also served as a platform for discussion between two critics who often, though not always, had contrasting ideas about how and whether a movie worked. They were having a conversation about movies — and, in the process, showing others how to do the same.
Thinking of criticism in this sense can also help critics reassert their relevance in an age of critic-proof movies like Independence Day: Resurgence. A studio can always stop a critic from offering an early judgment — but not from leading a post-movie conversation. And that may be the most important part of the job anyway. After all, critics aren’t just supposed to tell moviegoers what to see; they're supposed to help them think through and better understand what they’ve already seen.