One of the growing trends in cultural criticism on the internet is the YouTube video. Acting as a well organized visual presentation, a quick five or ten minute video to review pop culture is slowly becoming one of the most effective forms of critique out there. Like citing a passage from a book or play, critics can splice in a sequence of film and then break it down for the audience. There’s a lot of sub-par stuff out there, but when a capable film editor gets to work on it, the results are impressive. RedLetterMedia is the handle of a YouTube user whose video review of The Phantom Menace has recently cracked the million viewers mark, while his Star Trek reviews are all well into the six digit number of views. Striking a careful balance between being informative and entertaining, his videos delve into the nebulous realm of sci-fi film analysis with great results.
Each video features the voiceover of Mr. Plinkett. Sounding like a weird sexist nerd serial killer, Plinkett’s crazed mumblings are mixed with creepy asides and visual gags that give you something to laugh at while the video makes a larger point. I ought to stress now that this is not politically correct humor. RedLetterMedia explains in an e-mail, “When I did the first review, the Star Trek: Generations one, I started to record it in my normal voice and it was just horrible and dull. So I decided to do it in character to make it more palatable, especially since my goal wasn’t to just give a cursory review, but rather to get really detailed. It is a massive amount of pointless nerd deconstruction so there has to be a ‘wink wink’ element to it. If you didn’t have some kind of humor with the material you’d come off as either someone with no life at all (which is true in my case) or someone who’s a big armchair critic that thinks he knows everything. The character adds a certain level of irony and fun to it . . . it goes back again to short films I used to make with my friend Rich, who has only ever portrayed Mr. Plinkett in the films. He does the voice as well, but I do it in the reviews.”
The videos themselves are all very long and detailed. The Phantom Menace breakdown is 70 minutes long and is organized into ten minute sections. Star Trek: Nemesis takes 40 minutes to tear apart while Generations takes only 30 minutes. Sometimes they explain basic concepts of narrative like the plot arc of a protagonist, and other times they deconstruct the films scene by scene. RedLetterMedia explains, “I run a small video production company with a friend of mine. I do freelance video work whenever I can find it. Mainly weddings and corporate work, although I continue to shoot and edit fun projects like these reviews for Youtube as well as short films and features whenever I can.” The process starts with taking copious notes and going line by line through a film with a friend to find anything that doesn’t make sense. After that, a script gets typed up where a few gags are written in, followed by a recording process that features a lot of improv to add more variety. In terms of technique, “Over the years I’ve mastered the art of intentionally awkward editing for comedy purposes. Jump cuts and hard edits have always made me laugh for some reason. It’s in a lot of my old short films. I gravitate towards the bizarre in terms of comedy and dark cynical humor so weird things like slightly odd editing makes me laugh.”
The humor itself is dark and dry, giving an interesting spin to the idea of a psychotically unreliable film critic. Jokes about murdering his ex-wife, tying up people in his basement, or mailing pizza rolls in paper envelopes are spliced into the longer discussions. My personal favorite is when Plinkett finishes giving a two minute rant about how dramatically ineffective the battle droids are and then shows a clip of George Lucas explaining how easily Jedis can kill them. Plinkett starts shouting, “FUCK YOU!“ before cutting to the next rant. The humor neatly resolves the problem that you’re always going to run into when deconstructing sci-fi: in a film where everything is made up, how do you reasonably say something doesn’t make sense? The answer is to not bother with sounding reasonable and just accept that you sound crazy.
Whether or not there should be limits on a fictional world is a very real question for someone who intends to go line by line through a sci-fi film and explain why it’s terrible. RedLetterMedia writes, “It’s a balance between the established movie universe rules and what is just lazy screen writing. There’s a point when you can get too nit picky about stuff and I think there is a gradient of how picky you can get. Something like Star Trek is really black and white because there is this established universe and rules. It’s almost impossible for someone to write an airtight TNG feature given the established history. Something will always be wrong and there are a lot of things you have to write into a film in order to move the story along. You can’t evaluate all options that a trek character can take based on all the precedence that has come before it. So some things are forgivable and some are not. Star Wars is a little grayer because it’s a mix of fantasy and a lot of excuses can be made for things that are vague. Something like Lord of the Rings (if you ignore the details in the books and just look at them as movies) is pure fantasy and harder to nail down things that are wrong or contradictions. You also have to look at things from a screen writing perspective and have an understanding of movies too. What irks me more than any of that stuff is just sloppy writing. Stuff like weak character motivations, lapses in common sense and bad logic to advance the movie’s plot. The Star Wars prequels are the best examples of this where you’re mesmerized by all the visuals and excitement on screen, but if you really stop and listen you’ll realize that almost every line and every action makes no sense and is just there to get to the next special effects scene.”
The thing that really makes these film reviews shine is that you can tell RedLetterMedia is an enormous fan of Star Wars and Star Trek. The videos feature scenes cut from throughout the original Star Wars trilogy and the Star Trek series both for reference and to show examples of their quality in contrast. It’s not really about mocking these films or explaining why they suck. It’s a breakdown of how they could have been better. Qui-Gon Jin doesn’t really need to be in The Phantom Menace. Star Trek: Nemesis is a shameless rip-off of Wraith of Kahn except without the character development or drama. This is the kind of critical discussion that can only come about after the hype and excitement has died off. That’s when the conversation can quit being about “Loved it” or “Hated it” and start to explore what the work actually meant.
He explains, ”This all started from me just having re-watched Star Trek: Generations and wanting to explain in detail why I thought it was a shitty movie. I’ve always hated that movie because I’m a big TNG fan and I thought they completely messed up the transition to the big screen from what was a really great TV show . . . People seemed to enjoy what I was doing so I kept doing it after that. I have never really been interested in movie reviewing in general just when it comes to movies that I have some kind of connection with. I can see a movie that’s just bad and shrug my shoulders. If it’s bad and it gets to me in some personal way I’ll have more interest in breaking down why it was bad and what went wrong rather than just complaining about it how bad it is.”