Hollywood presents us with about 400 movies to choose from over the course of a given year. Of this number it’s safe to bet that there will be a few that will be pretty good, a somewhat larger number that will be atrocious, and a vast majority that will range from pretty bad to mostly competent.
Usually, it’s not hard to tell which of those categories a movie falls into: you and I might disagree about the relative merits of, say, True Grit and Black Swan, but for the most part we’ll agree that they were both halfway decent. Similarly, not many people are going to walk out of Bucky Larson: Born to be a Star talking about how they’ve had a profound artistic experience, and if they do it’s a safe bet that they’re joking or should never be allowed to watch another movie ever again.
Invariably, however, there’s at least one movie that claims to be good and is not: a bad movie that masquerades as a good movie, or, as we’ll call it for the purposes of this essay, a ‘Faker.’ These films for some reason strike a chord with audiences – and sometimes critics – despite being terrible. It’s not about being overrated, in the sense that people will talk about a movie, director, or actor being overrated: for something to be rated too highly, it usually has to start out with some kind of merit. Nor is it about being popcorn – people may enjoy watching Transformers, but no one is under any illusions that it’s a cinematic masterpiece. It’s about movies with little or no narrative merit being viewed as genuine triumphs – movies that seduce their audience into judging them wrongly. Crash, 300, Avatar, and (it pains me to say) Requiem for a Dream are all good examples; I’m worried that Drive (which I loved) might be one, too.
To me, the Faker par excellence – or at least the one, having been recently re-watched, most immediately on my mind – is 2006’s Matrix-lite V for Vendetta, which mixes facile political pronuncionados with stylized special effects to create a particularly noxious concoction. Vendetta, along with movies like Children of Men and dystopian literary adaptations of 1984 and Brave New World, fits into a peculiar dramatic subgenre of British apocalypticism, where the rest of the world has somehow fallen to pieces while Britain trudges forward as a lone bastion of (debased) civilization. America, we soon learn, has been engulfed in some sort of civil war, while a plague in Britain has led to the rise of a fascist government that rules through fear. A mysterious masked man known only as V (Hugo Weaving) wants to start a revolution. A young woman named Evey (Natalie Portman) is, by chance, dragged into his campaign at the beginning. The movie is both about her personal journey and about V’s campaign to bring about the death of the film’s shuttered antagonist, the villainous Chancellor Adam Sutler.
Not exactly a mega-hit on release, V for Vendetta still resonated with audiences, earning over $130 million against a $54 million budget. It also managed to attract for itself the type of enthusiastic following that have turned Donnie Darko and, most notably, The Rocky Horror Picture Show into cult classics. Generally, audiences have embraced its strange brand of anarchism wholeheartedly: the movie currently carries an 8.2/10 approval rating on IMDb, putting it among the site’s top 500 rated films.
Yet there is almost nothing to like about Vendetta. Leaving aside the film’s troubled, troubling politics – we will get to that in a moment – it is a movie characterized by ludicrous plotting, unbelievable characters, and clumsy exposition. Unlike Children of Men, which was released in the same year and which wisely transmits as little backstory as it can afford, Vendetta is saddled with a high concept and too much plot to get through. The only way it can find to explain why things are happening the way they are is to present a series of overdramatized montages, each more groan-inducing than the last. Worst of all, we are forced to support the masked V by default, because the totalitarian government offered by the movie is so plainly horrible, yet there is no clear reason why our protagonist is any better than the people he seeks to bring down. Indeed, this is the greatest sin in a litany of unforgivable ones: V for Vendetta wants to replace personal sympathy with political ideology as a reason to care about its characters.
So, if V for Vendetta and other Fakers are so terrible, why do audiences like them so much? Looking at Vendetta and its relation to other such movies, I think there are two essential components: high production values – in particular with reference to striking production design – and an illusion of intelligence. For all its dramatic atrocities, V for Vendetta is, technically speaking, a well-made movie, with strong editing, a definite ‘look,’ and production design that creates a believably off-kilter, fascist Britain. Its action scenes are charged, spectacular, and satisfyingly brutal, and it’s hard to deny that V is, if nothing else, a total badass. It’s the total opposite of a Capra film: where It Happened One Night is a good movie despite a total lack of technical polish, Vendetta and other Fakers have to get by on their looks.
That’s not enough, though. To go back to the example I used at the beginning of this essay, Transformers – and, really, every other Michael Bay movie – has great production design and very high production values. (Where else do you think that $150 million budget went? Paying actors?) Lots of people will pay to go see Transformers; very few of them will ever say that it’s a good movie. Entertaining? Sure – but only entertaining. Why? Because it’s so obviously silly. It’s meant to be good summer fun and nothing more, and it succeeds totally. (At least, I assume. Somehow I’ve never actually watched the movie.)
V for Vendetta and other Fakers, though, make a claim to be far more profound – to have something worthwhile to say. In the case of Vendetta, that comes in the form of the muddled political message that it espouses, a sort of populist anarchism that we are supposed to believe originates from a deep compassion for other people. The political angle of Vendetta is both troubled, in the sense that it’s incoherent, and troubling, in that it essentially amounts to an uncomplicated endorsement of terrorism. A good film would have striven to bring out the moral ambiguity of its protagonist, creating a sort of dystopian sci-fi Battle of Algiers in the process. Vendetta, though, is content to paint V as a superhuman folk hero, fighting against a regime that must be dismantled at all costs. It is, in other words, narratively lazy; its revelations are deliberately unsubtle, fit for sound bites but having no interest in anything that is actually true. Lines like “People shouldn’t be afraid of their governments, governments should be afraid of their people” are seductive when spoken so seriously, and backed up with such spectacular pyrotechnics, but they don’t seem to have any meaning beyond being an excuse for a masked Hugo Weaving to blow shit up.
Other Fakers are equally facile. Requiem for a Dream is a virtuosically-directed, fantastically depressing movie, but its final conclusion – which is, basically, that drugs are bad for you – offers nothing of substance about any of its characters or, really, about what the real consequences of drug use are; Trainspotting is a far more effective film on the same topic. Avatar, as previously discussed at some length, makes no effort to truly explore what it means to leave everything that you are behind. It’s gorgeous, but hollow. Crash wants us to believe that it has something weighty to say about race, but in the end all it manages to come up with is, more or less, that we’re all racist. That’s probably true, but we didn’t need Ryan Phillippe and Matt Dillon to make a point we’ve all consumed in fourth grade Social Studies classes.
It’s a commonplace that the simplest explanation is almost always the truest one. Such is the main thrust of the Faker: it offers a simple solution to a complex problem. Sadly, that commonplace is rarely true. Even when an apparently simple solution proves to be correct, it frequently needs a lot of sophisticated analysis to understand why, or even what that ostensibly simple solution means. That’s why we always need to be wary of the Faker. It plays to our desire that movies be able to tell us something real, without actually having anything new to say.