I’m Telling You, It’s Terrible by Lilly Gray

Ines Vuckovic (c) 2016

I’m not sure which instinct is more perverse: to watch a movie, despite being told over and over that it is awful, or to be the teller, knowing full well that the more you deride it, the more your friend is going to want to see it. I have been on both sides of this, but since I claim to love bad movies I’m usually the carefree idiot rejecting good advice. It’s always me delivering the doomed line before opening the door to a particularly nasty piece of plot, eyes rolling: “Yeah, well, I’ll see for myself.”

This impulse takes a serious hit, though, when you’ve had to humbly agree post-viewing that they were right, it was terrible. A consecutive string of these disappointments can change your worldview. After you’ve been told, and told thoroughly, it’s no longer just the movie’s failings that you have to consider but your own. I’ve had to reassess some things, 45 minutes into yet another excruciating viewing. It’s a good time to reflect. I want to do that even less than I wanted to watch the entirety of whatever movie, but maybe the contrarian urge can be harnessed for self-improvement.

 

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When I moved back to Japan last August, the first thing I did when I had a free weekend was go and see Attack on Titan (Shingeki no Kyojin, 2015). Attack on Titan is the first of a two-part live-action movie series based on an obscenely popular anime, based on an obscenely popular manga, based, I am assuming, on Hajime Isayama’s traumatizing early-childhood exposure to Gulliver’s Travels. In brief, the plot is thus: giant naked humanoids (the titans) menace a vaguely turn-of-the-century population confined to cities behind high walls and whose only weapons are trapeze-artist soldiers with swords. Eren and his adopted sister Mikasa and childhood friend Armin do what anyone else would, given the choice of waiting to be eaten or go down swinging, and join the army. Like anyone who has come back from trying to kill giants will tell you, it’s not all it’s cracked up to be.

In addition to the dark survival themes, it is appealingly disgusting. The slobbering titans throw townspeople back like so much Chex mix. Viscera and blood rain from the sky. The story was a sensation in Japan and is now firmly fixed in the pantheon of Sailor Moon and Doraemon. A second season of the anime is set to come out this year, and a parody exists as well, Attack on Titan: Junior High. My teenage students, the tastemakers for discerning manga and anime consumers, proudly showed off their file folders, erasers, and Band-Aids with different Titan designs. Convenience store Lawson’s had the main characters, absent their grief-stricken expressions, shilling their fried chicken and potato chips.

 

Before I left Japan, big, veiny titans had been installed in major train stations in preparation for the opening, great for photo ops and scaring the hell out of yourself late at night. The larger-than-life monsters reflected the hype surrounding the movie, which was poised to destroy box office records. But by the time I returned a month later, the titans were gone, the second installment was about to slink into theaters, and the critical atmosphere around the movies had soured.

 

My friend just sounded tired when she told me not to go see it. Not incensed, not furious, just tired. “It’s awful,” she said, flatly, like someone describing what life was like post-divorce.

 

I went anyway, of course. I paid the equivalent of 20 USD and then spent a little over an hour in a state of revulsion and despair. Leaving a movie like that, you’re a bounty hunter: Who did this? Who is responsible? Where are they?

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If you look at an incomplete list of movies I’ve seen and hated despite being forewarned (The Green Lantern (2011), The Spirit (2008), X-Men: Last Stand (2006)) the trend is obvious. They’re all deeply embarrassing, deeply personal fantasy stories that I have loved in another form for a long time.

I started watching the Titan anime because of my students. Enough of them were obsessed with it that I figured I was going to have to get familiar with it if I wanted to have any relevant pop culture references for the coming year, as DragonBallZ dated me pretty badly. I watched the first episode two hours before my birthday dinner, intending to clean with it in the background, and two hours later had to flat-out run to make my train, apartment a mess, the fourth episode loading on my phone.

At some point, you sink enough emotion into a franchise that you feel like you’re owed something. The real decision to see Attack on Titan had already been made for me by my hindbrain back in 2013, when I was still streaming the last of a measly 25 episodes and trying to turn every conversation into an opportunity to talk about the Deeper Meaning behind the titans.

“A more masterful allegory for xenophobia and the panic caused by isolation in a military world has yet to be found in modern animation,” I would not actually say out loud, because I have some modicum of self-awareness, but I had plenty of opportunities to think it. At this point, even if my friend had told me they were handing out beatings at the theater, I would still have gone. The opportunity to see Mikasa slicing and dicing titans in amazing Technicolor would be worth it.

The excitement of a live-action movie is predicated on this urge, to have more of the same thing, just in a different packaging. The usual surprises are gone, as viewers are already familiar with the plot and the characters; something else compels us. I have seen endless iterations of the same heroes saving the same city, all because a fragment of what I loved about it initially is there. The rationale is that even if the movie sucks, it’s a Spider-man movie, or even if the movie sucks, it’ll have X character in it; no matter the quality, you’re accumulating new exposure to something you love. Optimism and loyalty can drive cynical viewers like me to the cinema, hoping to see something they recognize, something they can savor anew. It is akin to seeing an old friend.

For the filmmaker, making a live-action movie of an existing, larger-than-god franchise is always going to be a fraught endeavor. Weighted with exacting fan demands and expectations; bound by an in-progress, complex storyline; forced to slim and trim a spiraling mythology while still representing characters as true to their 2-D selves–it’s a nigh-impossible, herculean creative effort.

That said, Attack on Titan was truly appalling, so luckily I’m spared having to empathize in any way.

The movie is an indecipherable mess. When I try and describe it to people, it sounds like I haven’t actually seen it and am instead free-styling the plot based on a description I bribed out of a drunk person who had seen 45 seconds of an episode, a year ago. It maligns every well-loved character, replacing them with damp pieces of bread for 99 confusing, unrecognizable minutes. At least the titans come out looking pretty good, but the downside of them being the best and only palatable point of the movie is that you’re basically rooting for them, the senseless killing machines, over the whimpering humans. As one critic tweeted in an early response, “I wished the titans would eat the kids so the story would just end” (Guardian). This seems intentional, as the director apparently looked at the human struggle of traumatized Eren, Mikasa, and Armin, and decided that they were a distraction to the real heroes of the movie, the 20-foot mute cannibals.

The director responded angrily to the first negative reviews, asserting that audiences should go watch a Hollywood blockbuster if they wanted something that looked expensive. I’m not sure what Titan was supposed to look like because the majority of the movie was really dark. I also think this is perhaps missing the forest for the trees, as my major complaint would be that I just wanted something that looked anything like the story that had spurred me to go in the first place. At least in the universally reviled Green Lantern, the titular character had a recognizable costume and powers; you wouldn’t wonder, as I did for the first few minutes, if I had misread the sign and wandered into the wrong theater.

It is so bad that it robbed me of even enjoying it as a bad movie, which is my other major motivation for ignoring a pan of my intended viewing. Despite any number of previous experiences indicating otherwise, I remain convinced that I can enjoy every and any movie. Bad movies can be a positive experience in their own right, if viewed as a specific artistic experience similar to slowing down just enough to see if the car overturned on the side of the road is actually on fire.

There is a big difference, however, between going to watch something bad on purpose and having the rug ripped out from under you. It’s a matter of expectation. No one is as humorless as the betrayed, and as the movie trudged ever forward into unknown and unattractive territory, I contemplated walking out multiple times. Torturously, there would be fleeting moments that dared you to hope for a better movie, before administering a swift boot to the face yet again. When we finally saw the 3D-maneuver gear, clever contraptions that swing the soldiers from roof to roof or titan to titan, I will admit that I felt just a flicker of the old enthusiasm. Sure enough, though, within minutes we were back on the ground with the screaming rabble, the gloom had descended once again, and I tried to figure out if I could subtly call someone to come and kill me without the light from my phone disturbing the people behind me.

 

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Why, then, do we bother telling people not to go see movies? It’s not going to work. The person being warned has a counter to every argument you could present to keep them away, and if they’re a fan, you’re dead in the water. I wouldn’t even listen to Future Me if I was able to go back in time or appeared as an ominous portent in the sky over the mall.

Everyone’s a critic and everyone thinks their taste is superior, which motivates both the warner and the warn-ee. To tell someone that a movie is bad, they shouldn’t waste their time, is to assert your own interpretation as the only interpretation. It’s naturally provoking; it demands to be challenged. This can end badly. There’s nothing more depressing than the “Oh, I thought it was alright.” Imagining someone telling me that they thought the spontaneous attic foreplay that was my personal nadir in Titan was “pretty cool, actually,” makes me physically recoil.

Conversely, there is nothing I love more than shared rage. Is there anything more gratifying than running out of breath while complaining in tandem with another slighted movie fan? But in order for that person to understand why the movie is so, so bad; the only way for you to be proven right and your opinion upheld, they have to see it.

In August, I made it to the end of Titan out of cheapness and spite. In the sunlight outside the theater, I answered a text from another friend, who was awaiting the limited release in America.

“Well?” she asked. “How was it?”

“It was so bad,” I told her, immediately. “Don’t waste your time.”


 

Bibliography

Rebecca Hawkes “‘You should watch movies that have been hit in the face with stacks of cash’: Attack on Titan filmmakers blast critics” The Telegraph, Telegraph Media Group Limited

3 Aug 2015 http://www.telegraph.co.uk/film/attack-on-titan/bad-reviews-critics-reaction/


Lilly Gray is a writer and copywriter living in a medium-sized city. She likes bad movies. Her work has previously appeared at The Toast.