Doug Walker Was Right: How To Boldly Flee Predicted the Modern Internet

Doug Walker Was Right: How To Boldly Flee Predicted the Modern Internet

By Sean Dillon

The problem with talking about To Boldly Flee–one of the most infamous movies ever made–is that it is an absolute mess. Sadly, the cinematic farrago of To Boldly Flee is not kin to a film like Southland Tales, the 2006 alternate future dystopian black comedy, where the mess ultimately reveals an order evident through historical hindsight.

Rather, To Boldly Flee is the kind of byzantine trainwreck that has five different main characters, seven plots interposing themselves over three and a half hours (that feels more like eight due to the languid pacing ), and a genuine sense that everything was being micromanaged to hell. 

Despite all this, To Boldly Flee–the last in a trilogy of movies created by Doug Walker, better known by his internet movie reviewer persona the Nostalgia Critic–is prescient in a way countless snarky YouTube reviews of the film frequently miss. A truly horrific thesis, nay a prediction, lies at the heart of the film: The crux of all criticism is cruelty.  

To Boldly Flee represents a vision of what the media landscape would become. Not so much a prediction of the internet’s future, but the ugly, blood and cervical mucus-soaked birth.

It is best to begin with the events that spurred the creation of the film: the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA). On October 26, 2011, House Representative Lamar Smith introduced a bill that would, in layman’s terms, ruin the internet. In theory, SOPA would target and blacklist any website that featured any copyrighted material. However, due to the broadly written language of the bill, it could easily be used to take down any website the government didn’t like or target specific politicians during election season.

The internet–ranging from the lowliest computer nerds to billion-dollar tech hegemons–rallied against SOPA. Google put a censor bar on its name and Firefox’s homepage instructed users how to contact their representatives. The nerds had their say, too. 

The kind of guy who has a fridge full of Bawls and bacon-scented soap on the bathroom counter went to Congress to voice their concerns. Among this crowd was Doug Walker, then most famous for reviewing primarily 80s and 90s children’s films for his comedic web series The Nostalgia Critic.

Walker’s role as the titular Nostalgia Critic is one of a hyperbolic manchild who screams about how Batman has a Bat-Credit Card or recoils in horror over having to review The Star Wars Holiday Special. However, he works better as the straight man in a room full of wacky characters. To reference one of Walker’s major comedic influences, he’s Elmer Fudd trying to be Daffy Duck.

Walker’s Nostalgia Critic series–now and for many years on YouTube–started out before that platform’s rise to dominance. Walker started The Nostalgia Critic on his own website, first called ThatGuyWithTheGlasses but eventually switching to the name Channel Awesome. Channel Awesome pivoted from a one man show to a website that, at least in theory, showcased a multitude of video essayists who reviewed different forms of media. Naturally, draconian copyright legislation gave Walker concerns. 

To combat SOPA, Walker brought a cadre of other Channel Awesome critics to the steps of congress. A triumphant Walker crowed after the bill was defeated, but the legislation’s brief existence had a profound effect on the man who made his living from mugging for the camera in-between airing clips from copyrighted films. To Boldly Flee, a film about (at least for the first 10 minutes) oppressive corporate control of the internet Doug Walker co-wrote with his brother Rob, is the result of this paranoia.

To Boldly Flee was the third movie Doug and Rob wrote together–with the duo first writing Kickassia and then Suburban Knights. These films are mostly terrible in ways that are, unfortunately, quite boring. Uniformly speaking, they were filled with poor cinematography, mediocre acting (at the best of times), and an endless array of bits that weren’t even funny in the first place. But the pair pulled out all the stops because To Boldly Flee was to be the last project of the Nostalgia Critic. By which I mean they had occasional scenes of the Critic waxing poetically about it being the end times for the “golden age of reviewers.” Otherwise, it’s business as usual.

But what’s depressing about To Boldly Flee, specifically, is how it actually engages with SOPA. The film begins by introducing the “Stop the Unstoppable Copyright Killers Act (SUCKA)” and the legislation’s writer and our antagonist: evil Hollywood executive Lame R. Prick. 

Admittedly, the film gets to a good start with Prick. While not as threatening as one would hope, he remains a slimy personality whose incompetence with the technology explicitly notes the true purpose of the cause: The government wants to control what we say and do online without knowing how any of it works. In one of To Boldly Flee’s more loaded lines, Prick notes that, “These charlatans are threatening freedom and making it harder to protect our corporate oligarchies.” In a better movie, Prick would be an extremely useful satire on the relationship between capital and government.

Instead, Prick is unceremoniously killed off screen not even an hour into the movie, his role taken by an Emperor Palpatine parody, the Executor, which feels diminishing of both characters. In many regards, the Executor acts as the counterpoint to To Boldly Flee’s actual thematic interest: the nature of art and criticism.

The movie is, after all, a swan song for Walker’s Nostalgia Critic character (until the Critic came back four months later after the disastrous run of Walker’s passion project, Demo Reel). It opens with the Critic questioning his own importance in the world. “You ever wonder what it feels like to be forgotten,” he muses to one of his employees, “To be cast aside?” Indeed, one of the dozen subplots littering this movie focuses on the constantly bored Cinema Snob–real name Brad Jones, another Channel Awesome movie critic who focused on more serious films as opposed to Nostalgia Critic’s Disney movies. Cinema Snob muses that the age of criticism is coming to an end.

This sense of disillusionment about the sustainability of being a critic tempts Snob to join the Executor on “The Dark Side.” This is a quite sensible anxiety to have. Criticism is an underpaid profession that one cannot make a living off of, let alone afford insurance through–especially during the media industry’s recent death spiral. Indeed, many people have left the critical profession in favor of a career that actually pays them, including several former Channel Awesome members.

But of course the film barely engages with this aspect of criticism. Sure, getting a shit ton of money is part of the temptation the Executor offers the Cinema Snob. Indeed, a lot of the lines the Executor sells to the Snob are quite cutting, from noting that he can’t actually pay writers because he’d have to sell one of his six summer homes or the Snob himself describing the Executor as “that senator who quit his job and said he’d never become a lobbyist… and then you became a lobbyist.”

But the core temptation lies in a scene that’s flagrantly lifted from Star Wars: Episode III: Revenge of the Sith. Here, the Executor and Snob watch the legendarily bad 1966 independent horror movie Manos, The Hands of Fate and discuss the filmography of German filmmaker Uwe Boll. Uwe Boll–best known for universally reviled horror film Alone in the Dark–is the perfect avatar for that age of internet culture, and especially that community of internet people. A loud mouthed braggadocio who has the sense of humor of a man with utter contempt for the entirety of humanity and wants to make it everyone else’s problem. It is this infamy that the Executor argues is the central heart of what a filmmaker ought to be. As the film notes, “People love him precisely because they hate him.”

The purpose of creating art, then, is to be despised. The act of criticism is itself part of the perpetuation of these monstrous figures. It has been said no one is truly forgotten until their name is no longer spoken. This has often been held as a heartwarming ideal, but  the Executor argues the monsters remain with us because we keep talking about them as monsters.

In light of this, let’s engage with the film’s thesis on the matter: “Bad art is a distraction. Great art changes people.” It’s worth noting that the film doesn’t provide a touchstone example of Great Art. Sure, we’re given a bunch of examples of great cinema, but the film never lingers on one of them the way it does the existence of Boll. It instead assumes we all agree that Birth of a Nation is a great film. It is blind to any critiques one might have or alternatives to this Canon.

Despite being made in response to SOPA, To Boldly Flee isn’t interested in the political implications of its narrative. There are moments where it comes close. In one of the film’s more disquieting lines, the Executor snarls, “You cannot fight what we have bought. You cannot protest what we have silenced.” But it never actually goes further than that. It cannot imagine who might be silenced beyond vague generalities.

With this in mind, it is worth looking at what became of media criticism in the wake of To Boldly Flee. In many regards, the modern media literacy landscape can be seen in conversation, if not agreement, with the accursed film. The most obvious place to begin is CinemaSins. Beginning roughly three months after the end of To Boldly Flee, CinemaSins is a comedy YouTube channel that reviews movies and purports to be critical of art. In practice, their work often includes small nitpicks and jokes like complaining a scene doesn’t include a lapdance.

In some regards, this was one of the inevitable evolutions of Channel Awesome as a site and one precipitated upon by the end of To Boldly Flee via the whole universe being consumed by the Plot Hole (no, seriously, that’s the name of the film’s ultimate narrative device.) But again, this brings us back to the rather nebulous nature of what, exactly, makes good art?

The film only examines two in-character artists. The first is the fallen Cinema Snob. As we have discussed, the Snob has a disillusionment with film criticism, believing it’s soon to come to an end. His exit strategy is to become a filmmaker of rather cheesy sexploitation films. His initial temptation is to be provided with the funds, workforce, and naked ladies needed to make his vision a reality. He is tempted to sell out.However, the film quickly drops this lens in favor of the infamy of Boll and the like. It never engages with what it means to sell out, instead opting for generic bits recreating Star Wars line-by-line with Snob as Darth Vader. Even the Boll angle is not elaborated upon more than its singular scene. There’s no moment where we see Snob attempt to create a vision with Hollywood money.

But the artist we do see the vision of is Doug Walker. In the final act of To Boldly Flee, Doug Walker has an on-screen conversation with his Nostalgia Critic character. Walker portrays himself in To Boldly Flee as  an almost hapless figure. Someone who doesn’t have a perspective on things, but is instead divinely cursed with the holy vision that is the Nostalgia Critic. This is the ideal form of the artist in To Boldly Flee. Note the religious language and imagery utilized in the hagiography of Great Art. How the light shines behind the image of Stanley Kubrick like a halo behind a saint. This is the way of things. These works are Canonized, never to be questioned. That’s why there isn’t depth provided to what makes good art. Because what appears is good; what is good appears.

To Boldly Flee acted as a beacon to the world that was soon to come. It was built in a culture that would never consider anything to be taboo, even things like an extended rape joke that made two of its three main participants uncomfortable. One where several transphobic and homophobic jokes are made without a bat of an eye. A world where the entire main cast is white and nobody questions it.

To challenge such a world would be villainous. Consider, for example, the Academy Award winning picture Parasite, the first non-English speaking movie to win the award. For the most part, the Right Wing Grifter side of the internet is content with ignoring cinema made outside of the “Western World” because it’s not part of the Canon. However, Parasite getting as big as it did required Donald Trump himself to make a quip about how the Oscars should be awarding films like Gone With the Wind. But for the most part, engagement by a lot of the angry reviewing crowd has been limited to the big blockbuster moneymakers people go and see every summer.

Equally, there are the various harassment campaigns targeted at castings of women and people of color in blockbuster cinema. Videos portenting themselves to be reviews of films like Ghostbusters (2016), Star Wars: Episode VIII: The Last Jedi, or Captain Marvel often reveal themselves to be nothing more than thinly veiled acts of reactionary rhetoric about White Genocide and Soy Boys. (Tellingly, Ben Shapiro, a significantly worse movie critic and comedian than Doug Walker, has founded his own website to host his videos and is releasing a Snow White movie in response to the upcoming Live Action Disney Remake not casting a lead who fits the Aryan ideal.)

This isn’t to suggest conservative ideas weren’t already in the woodwork for the Channel Awesome brand. Among the more notable examples, in a co-review of Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, in which Superman takes all the nukes away like a parent finding a gun in their kid’s bedroom. The Nostalgia Critic and co-reviewer Linkara (aka Lewis Lovhaug, Channel Awesome‘s comic books expert) defended the usage of nuclear weapons via a rather crap game show in which they defended the usage of nuclear weapons via abject mockery of those who would hold anti-nuclear positions as not understanding realpolitik. Among the arguments for nukes was, “You’re Israel, a country surrounded on all sides by enemies who would happily see you wiped off the map. However, the only thing keeping them at bay is your nuclear arsenal.”

The foundations, it must be said, were always fucked.

To Boldly Flee also portended the desire to shrink art itself into a known quantity of references that supports the world as it is. This is why so many prefer works like Stranger Things, The Mandalorian or Ready Player One that trade on nostalgia and familiarity. These works feel like a continuation of what To Boldly Flee was doing: carelessly making references and stealing what it could for the sake of its own vision without doing anything new or innovative. Never risking more than inches and immediately giving miles if the fans don’t care for it.

Even works that would do the barest of minimums to challenge the status quo are met with condemnation and cruelty. Racist rhetoric utilized and disseminated amongst the masses. Rape “jokes” regurgitated as received wisdom. And a purer vision of what the world ought to be yearned for so long ago. A world so many people don’t actually remember. But that’s ok. Ben Shapiro remembers it so you don’t have to.

That is the ultimate horror at the heart of To Boldly Flee’s vision of the future, the one that ultimately came true. There is no room for growth in modern culture, only more snide remarks. Strip away all the ripped off plot points, pop culture references, and the like, and what remains of To Boldly Flee is  a torrent of abject cruelty both in front and behind the camera. It’s a Singular Vision where everyone is the worst person in the room and rewarded for it constantly. Sound familiar? 

Sean Dillon is a writer and editor at large. He has written two books, showran two anthologies, edited multiple books, and is currently working on several projects. Among them is a book about Channel Awesome, the politics of media criticism, and the horrors of being angry all the time. Their work can be found on Comic Book Herald, PanelXPanel, and other publications. They can be found on Bluesky.