One of the first things you learn in the field of advertising is the concept (and then painstaking explanation of the difference) between Idea and Execution.
In an advertising sense, a strong execution can make for a great one-off ad, but a STRONG IDEA can make for a great campaign (made up of MANY executions) over a period of months.
And a BRILLIANT idea? One that speaks to the HEART of the proposition or product you’re promoting? That can last decades.
This isn’t restricted to creative endeavours either. In an episode of the Big Bang Theory, Sheldon and Leonard get into it over which is more important (idea or execution) when they haggle over credit of a scientific discovery they’ve made together.
And therein lies the crux of this review.
On the surface it would seem the answer to the question, “which is more important, idea or execution”, the answer would appear to be…Idea.
That’s what I was always taught. But as a director once told me many years ago – when discussing different video gauges – “What’s the point of busting a nut shooting something on the best format possible if the person watching it sees it on a TV that looks green?”
This was in the days before digital formats and flat screens, but what he was saying made an uncomfortable sense. There’s a reason why cinemas are still in business despite recent innovations in home entertainment systems. Nothing beats a cinematic experience, even if the movie itself is shit.
Another way of looking at it is through your ears. A lot of sound engineers & producers will tell you, if the album you’re crafting sounds good on shit speakers, it’ll sound AWESOME on good ones.
So, execution is not nothing.
And – in this reviewer’s typically long-winded way – we get to the crux of Smile.
On the surface of it, it is a completely unoriginal idea. An unseen all powerful McGuffin tortures a person, puts them through hell, kills them, and then moves on to the next victim.
It Follows anyone? Truth or Dare anyone else?
For those of you who saw the trailer and thought this was another “one of those” type of films, you’d be right! Right down to the way they usually start, middle and end.
But UNLIKE those movies, this one has been wildly successful ($216 million to date against a budget of just 17). In fact it’s been so popular it has crossed over into mainstream popularity (you know you’ve made it big when you get mentions on American late-night talk shows).
But why? Admittedly it had a clever marketing campaign but at the risk of alienating my advertising brethren who I so lovingly mentioned at the head of this article, so what?
People don’t throw money at a volume of 12 to 1 at a movie unless it has something IN the product itself. And so with Smile, what is it?
Well – if you’ve been paying attention so far – if it’s not in the idea, then it has to be in the execution.
Here at Surgeons of Horror we have mentioned several times during our many podcasts that horror –as a film genre–is easy to do. But hard to DO WELL.
That’s because in the moment of actually making a horror, NOTHING is scary. The moment is out of context, contrived and repeated until an acceptable take is achieved.
The scary comes in the editing, and this movie is well put together.
From accomplished jump scares to decent tension and build up, a film like this hinges heavily on the lead actor (in this case Sosie Bacon) to sell the trauma of what she’s going through without getting annoying; and she by & large does a very creditable job.
In a nutshell, Smile is a cookie cutter template taken straight from the maguffin curse book. A curse puts a person through hell before killing them (in this case, by making them commit a grisly suicide) before leaping on to the next person (specifically, the one who witnessed the suicide) and so on.
What ensues is the usual steps of unsettling happenings leading to bigger and bigger scares; the protagonist goes through the standard stages of disbelief of the curse, believing the curse, understanding the curse, and finally, defeating the curse by – and this bit is a must – FINDING A LOOPHOLE as laid out by the rules of the curse.
But does it work? Well – how Smile handles that is straight out of the playbook too. Twisty twist included. Although – and this is an interesting observation to its execution; because the movie Truth or Dare would make people smile in a crazed CGI assisted way, this movie – when anyone does the same – does so without digital assistance.
Which is a pity, as a slight and unnaturally skewed smile is very unsettling in the best traditions of the uncanny valley. And although it is ALWAYS trendy to say ANY movie with SPFX is better without CGI, in this case it would have helped an already well made film even better. CGI is an arrow in a film-makers quiver. And as with all such tools, it’s all about how you shoot it.
So Smile is not very original. But it is very well done, and there is the (now) ancient and famous fable taken from the greatest summer blockbuster horror of all time – as said by its director – “If I’ve done my Job right for the first 100 minutes, then people won’t care that shooting an oxygen tank in a shark’s mouth won’t blow up in the last 2”.
(I may be paraphrasing)
But the point is, as a movie Smile earns a lot with its reminder that whilst Idea is indeed more important, a great idea will never be great without a fitting Execution. And that’s something to… err, grin about.
- Antony Yee