As someone who often sees movies more than once, I occasionally have the following experience: I see a film and I’m pleasantly surprised that it’s better than expected; then I see it again, and I’m disappointed that it no longer sustains my upwardly revised expectations. Or the process proceeds in reverse: initial disappointment, followed by a pleasant surprise later on. At least a few times, I’ve had the cycle repeat itself through more than one iteration: disappointment, pleasant surprise, disappointment (or the reverse).
This expectations game poses a particular challenge for people, like me, who write movie reviews. On the one hand, you need to be as clear as you can about how your expectations may have influenced your response to a film. On the other, you need to recognize that the review itself will, at least at the margins, help set viewers’ expectations, for good or for ill. Over-praise and you court backlash; under-praise and you may seem like a wet blanket.
Never have I seen this dynamic more evident than in the response to Star Wars: The Force Awakens—which isn’t surprising, given that it’s the most-anticipated film in recent memory. Since its release two weeks ago, J.J. Abrams’s reboot has seemed to work its way through the expectations game not merely on the level of the individual (myself included), but on the level of vast, cultural consciousness. When the movie first appeared in theaters, the characteristic response by critics was, essentially: Yes, it recycles too much from the initial trilogy—and the original Star Wars in particular—but it so aptly recalls those long-ago delights that this is more a quibble than an existential flaw. (My own version of that case can be found here.)