For those immune to the charms of Elon Musk’s Twitter™ — a Squid Game-like arena teeming with edgelords, crypto enthusiasts, men’s rights activists who resemble Pitbull, and daily spam messages touting “part-time work” — the current film brouhaha may have escaped notice. In short: a trio of films, eagerly anticipated by the public, were made available over the Christmas holiday weekend. There was Avatar: The Way of Water, James Cameron’s $350 million special-effects extravaganza featuring emo talking whales and Sigourney Weaver as a 14-year-old girl; Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery, a Netflix murder-mystery boasting Daniel Craig in exquisite fits doing his best Michael Scott-as-Caleb Crawdad impersonation; and Babylon, filmmaker Damien Chazelle’s ode to Old Hollywood offering the sight of a coked-up Margot Robbie throwing down with a poisonous snake.
Results have been mixed. The Avatar sequel has already grossed $1 billion worldwide (“Don’t bet against James Cameron, yada yada yada”) while weathering the same tired critiques that it has for more than a decade — namely, that it’s made little cultural impact and is a feat of style over substance. Glass Onion immediately shot to the top of Netflix’s movies chart, as 35 million households streamed Rian Johnson’s whodunit within its first three days of release (presumably at the streamers’ parents’ house with motion-smoothing turned on). Babylon landed with a whimper, earning just $3.6 million (despite an $80 million budget) in North America during the four-day weekend. Unfortunately for us, these three holiday releases also sparked some of the more embarrassing discourse this side of Licorice Pizza.
Relitigating Avatar feels like a fool’s errand, so let’s focus on the other two. Glass Onion concerns master detective Benoit Blanc (Craig, delicious) investigating a pair of murders whose wealthy suspects, all long-time friends, were invited to a private island at the height of the Covid pandemic by über-billionaire tech founder Miles Bron (Edward Norton, at home playing a dick). We soon discover — mild spoiler alert — Bron is a fraudulent hustler who’s lifted nearly every one of his ideas. Johnson’s film received positive reviews from critics and is in the conversation for the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar (the first installment was nominated as well), prompting a degree of backlash on social media.
Since Twitter has transmogrified into a cult of personality around its erratic owner, Elon Musk, the Tesla raider’s acolytes rallied to his defense, carpet-bombing the film with negative write-ups online (a tacit admission they see parallels between Musk and Bron). One of these white knights was conservative troll Ben Shapiro, of the Daily Wire and the Lollipop Guild, who composed a 17-tweet thread to his 5.3 million followers breaking down exactly why he despised the film. Shapiro took issue with the ways Glass Onion apparently posited that “Elon Musk is a bad and stupid man, and that anyone who likes him — in media, politics, or tech — is being paid off by him.”
Other stimulating critiques from Shapiro, who also experienced a great deal of trouble wrapping his head around the Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion anthem “W.A.P.,” included: “how many rockets has Johnson launched lately?,” something about “social justice warriors,” and griping about the audience being “actively deceived by the writer” because the film, which again is a murder mystery, contains quite a bit of misdirection. Shapiro’s whining about Glass Onion is unsurprising, of course, given that he counts himself among the weirdos who’ve tweeted for years about their hatred of Johnson’s Star Wars installment, The Last Jedi.
Oh, and if all that weren’t enough, none other than a Meta employee fired off a tweet accusing critics who enjoyed Glass Onion of “actively lying when they say it’s a great movie.” (The tweet received more than 5 million views, supposedly.)
Which brings us to Babylon, director Damien Chazelle’s three-hour-plus-long journey from the silent era to the talkies in 1920s and 1930s Hollywood. We see this transition through the eyes of Manny (Diego Calva), a Mexican American hired hand who rises up the ranks of the film industry, crossing paths with Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie), a young starlet he’s infatuated with, and Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt), an aging silent-film star in the Fairbanks mold whose days are clearly numbered. The proceedings kick off with 30 minutes of a studio executive’s bacchanal replete with golden showers, mounds of cocaine (and every other drug imaginable), and a shitting elephant. At one point, Tobey Maguire pops up as a creepy, meth-faced gangster deep into BDSM. It’s … a lot.
When Babylon bombed at the box office, the burden appeared to fall on the shoulders of its female lead, Margot Robbie, who also starred in the recent David O. Russell catastrophe Amsterdam. An article in her home country’s paper, the Sydney-Morning Herald, came with the headline: “Two flops and you’re out: The internet declares Margot Robbie so over.” The gossip site TMZ’s piece screamed, “MARGOT ROBBIE LATEST MOVIE ‘BABYLON’ BOMBS … 2nd Flop This Year.” Daily Mail, forever a paragon of restraint, exclaimed, “Margot Robbie’s latest film Babylon is a box office flop … two months after last film was panned by critics.”
It’s curious why Robbie, the one saving grace of both films — and a bona fide movie star — has borne the brunt of the blame. Chazelle’s last project, the Netflix miniseries The Eddy, about a former jazz musician who runs a nightclub in Paris, went unnoticed. His previous film, the Neil Armstrong biopic First Man, grossed only $44.9 million stateside against a $70 million budget, this after Republican politicians conducted a smear campaign sight unseen. Babylon’s PR campaign, meanwhile, was virtually nonexistent, outside a few late-night television appearances by Robbie and her Vanity Fair cover story. (Rolling Stone could not secure an interview for the film.) A big reason for the limited press is the actual elephant in the room: Brad Pitt, who’s been MIA during much of the film’s press tour owing to his ongoing legal battle with ex-wife Angelina Jolie. Jolie has accused Pitt of being “verbally abusive” and “physical” with their children, and publicly took him to task for working with her alleged abuser, Harvey Weinstein, twice after she’d confided in him about what had happened.
On the marketing side, the trailers for Babylon were incoherent and its Gen Z-targeting campaign — why would zoomers spend their holiday weekend sitting in a theater for over three hours to see a movie about 1920s Hollywood? — filled with head-scratching TikTok videos like the one below, was cringe.
Robbie will be fine, by the way. Her blockbuster Barbie, that’s already set the internet aflame, comes out in July.
The disappointing box-office numbers for Babylon further inspired members of the Film Twitterati to defend it against an imaginary horde of philistines “celebrating” its demise. One particularly viral tweet (2.1 million views, allegedly) accused those “celebrating the flop” of “celebrating another nail in the coffin of original film programming made by actual filmmakers at the studio level.” Another took aim at the “pious tut-tutting” enveloping Chazelle’s passion project, labeling it “gross and reactionary.” The notion that the public has some moral obligation to rally behind an $80 million studio picture — about Hollywood — by an Oscar-winning white dude is pretty silly. As Time film critic Stephanie Zacharek wrote, “It’s completely possible to think Babylon is truly bad and still want ‘movies made for adults’ to succeed at the box office. And the idea that we have to applaud ‘wild swings’ even when they suck, and show no genuine feeling, is ludicrous.”
Perhaps all this hand-wringing is because we’ve reached the end of an incredibly long year, and the big cinema offerings over the holiday weekend were pretty dreadful. Or perhaps people have become more reactionary now that Twitter is lorded over by a red-pilled carnival barker. One thing, however, is certain: M3GAN is coming to save us from all this Sturm und Drang on Jan. 6.