Enough with ‘dated’ movies

I don’t consider myself to be much of a film critic, but I do know enough about filmmaking to have an axe to grind with one extremely irritating, yet pervasive, thought in amateur film criticism: the dismissal of a film for being ‘dated’.

The tendency many amateur film critics have when viewing older films is to respond harshly if they show signs of being made in a certain era. Whether it’s through how the characters talk, the ideas they hold or just the quality of the special effects, there’s a pervasive train of thought that it is inherently bad for films, or any work of art, to reflect the time they were made. And it is my opinion that this idea must stop.

The problem with judging art on whether it is ‘dated’ or not is that art isn’t created in a cultural vacuum; any story that is told, regardless of what medium it is told through, is going to be influenced, in some way, by the ideas of the society that created it. Not to mention that since technology is always advancing, any special effect, no matter how ground-breaking in its day, will someday look rubbish.

However, these aspects are not the parts of storytelling that matter most. What matters most are the characters and the story itself. Back to the Future, objectively, is an incredibly ‘dated’ film, but we still watch it today and love it because of its likeable characters, good writing and genuine sense of conflict. Never have I watched Back to the Future and found it jarring to watch the journey of a character thirty years older than me, in a setting forty-three years before I was born. The reason it works is the same reason Disney still adapts stories with outdated ideas about society and the patriarchy, and why Shakespeare plays are still performed after four centuries: because despite all of these being ‘dated’, they still understand good storytelling.

I should also add that whether a film ‘holds up’ is not the same as whether a film is ‘dated’, despite the two terms being conflated in recent years. Asking if a film ‘holds up’ is asking whether it can stand on those more important qualities after it is no longer ground-breaking. For example, now that the then-revolutionary special effects of Avatar have been surpassed, it is painfully clear that Avatar itself is an almost exact copy of Pocahontas, Dances with Wolves and every other story about white settlers meeting Native Americans. But, and this is important, the reason it doesn’t hold up is not because its premise comes from colonial and Frontier-era stories, but because it doesn’t do anything new with them.

Any film, regardless of when it was made, is going to show its age. Dismissing films for being ‘dated’ comes across as an extremely shallow criticism, and detracts from analysis of more important aspects, such as themes, writing and characterisation. If more attention was given to these, amateur film criticism would be improved no end.

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Edward Grierson

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August 2021
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