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‘The Expendables 3’ Torrent and the Techno-Utopian Delusion

'The Expendables 3' Torrent and the Techno-Utopian Delusion

David Pierce’s “I torrented ‘The Expendables 3’ and I’m still going to see it in theaters,” published at the Verge, is labeled an editorial, but it’s more like a cross between a breathless fanboy review and a starry-eyed techno-Utopian fantasy. Pierce doesn’t quite come out and say that he torrented a leaked copy of the movie, which isn’t due in theaters until August 15, but does say he watched it twice on his personal laptop and he’s “already counting down the days until I can see it in IMAX.” 

It’s mindless, and I mean that in the best way: I could spoil every single second of the movie and it wouldn’t diminish its appeal in the slightest. The action starts early and never stops, allowing you to breathe only when Stallone makes a not-funny funny joke or Wesley Snipes makes creepy-crazy eyes. And the explosions — oh, the explosions! There’s a flying motorcycle and a pretty girl and a lot of guns and a bunch of tanks and a lot of abandoned buildings and basically every other thing a good action movie could have.

I’m fairly certain that most critics have torrented content at some point in their career; when a movie is out on Blu-ray overseas and you’re offered a low-quality screener defaced with anti-copyright watermarks to review, it’s practically dereliction of duty not to. (It bears pointing out that despite the increasing regularity with which distributors furnish critics with cumbersome, unreliable online screeners with “DO NOT COPY” permanently burned into the image, the leaked copy of ‘The Expendables 3’ is unblemished, and the movie hasn’t been shown to critics anywhere in the world.) But you cross a line when you start arguing that it’s not only permissible but harmless. When you start believing that the entities that hold the copyright might consider being grateful, you move into sheer self-justifying delusion. 

That’s what Pierce does when he argues that the online leak “might just be the best thing that ever happened to ‘The Expendables 3.'” 

The people who have downloaded a leaked torrent of the movie are, almost certainly, the series’ most fervent fans. They’re the ones most likely to go see it in theaters, the ones who turned the two previous films into a $600 million franchise. And sure, maybe some of them won’t pay $13 to see it again. But many of them will, because they’ll realize how much they missed the first time. Many of them will also spend the next three weeks telling everyone they know how awesome this movie is, how Rotten Tomatoes is full of it and that really “The Expendables 3” is two-plus hours of near-flawless action porn.

The sheer volume of baseless suppositions in that single paragraph — the “almost certainly”s and “Sure, maybe”s — gives you an idea of the extent to which Pierce is simply inventing facts to fit his predetermined rationale, which, given that the article appears on a site devoted to tech, unsurprisingly sums up as “Macho blockbusters want to be free.” Given that, for those with high-speed internet connections and familiarity with the software, a torrent takes only a few seconds to set up and 15 minutes to fully download, there’s little evidence to suggest that “the series’ most fervent fans” are doing the bulk of the downloading: Letterboxd has over 60 reviews, none of them from professional critics, who would find themselves promptly disinvited from future Lionsgate screenings if they admitted to watching a torrented copy. The majority are three stars (out of five) or below, which makes it hard to imagine many members of this admittedly unscientific sub-sample telling their friends to rush out and see the movie in theaters. At best, they might tell them to torrent it.

In Pierce’s rationale — or, more to the point, rationalization — downloading the movie in advance is like peeking at a band’s setlist before the concert. The analogy that doesn’t hold up for as long as it takes to read that sentence, but it ties into a larger narrative in which “The Expendables 3” isn’t a movie but a show, “a band of legends getting back together for one more night to show that they’ve still got it.” “It’s not something you’d want to watch on a 13.3-inch MacBook Air or even a 47-inch TV,” he goes on. “You go see it live.” (Never mind that Pierce did watch it on a laptop — twice.) “The Expendables 3,” you see, “is meant not to be watched but to be experienced. As art becomes commoditized experience becomes the only thing worth paying for, and there’s evidence everywhere that we’ll pay for it when it’s worth it. We don’t want to pay for access, but we’ll gladly pay for experience.”Of course, commodities are things you pay for. What Pierce really means by “commoditized” is “devalued,” and what he means by that is that since ‘The Expendables 3’ isn’t worth anything in the first place, there’s nothing wrong with taking a copy for yourself.

“Experience” is indeed becoming the coin of the realm: Two years ago, trailers urged, “See It In IMAX”; now it’s “Experience the Power of IMAX,” which sounds less like an advertising come-on than the patter of a third-tier Marvel villain. And when you’re paying for the experience — not out of curiosity or as a way of supporting an ecosystem that allows the creation of new work — it only makes sense to sample the product beforehand. But in so doing, you’re pushing cinema in a direction where every movie has to be a show: Either it’s big and loud enough to make you feel like you’re missing out by watching it (legally or illegally) at home or it might as well not show up to play. 

More to the point, enough with pretending that by torrenting movies, you’re helping to push the industry towards its own inevitable future, and that filmmakers and studios should consider being flattered by the attention. You wanted something and you took it: People have done a lot worse. But when someone smashes your car window, at least they don’t expect you to be glad you own a convertible.

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