Note: This is not a post about the recent (ridiculous) controversy about Marvel/Disney supposedly paying critics to give DC movies bad reviews. For a funny satirical take on that subject, check out @Occupy_9Lives on Twitter.
As you may or may not have noticed, I don’t assign movies any kind of rating on this blog. This is intentional. I don’t think it’s possible to assign a film a simple number in good faith. There is far too much diversity among film to put them all on the same scale. How can you apply the same rubric across genres, time periods and production values? Try to compare and contrast Jurassic Park with We Need to Talk About Kevin. Both are great at what they do, but they’re doing completely different things. Ratings become even worse when you break down criticism into boxes. Some reviewers take the quality of acting, directing, screenplay, visuals and music, add them up average them out and spit out an obligatory score. The problem is, films are not the sum of their parts. Often they’re much more, and sometimes they’re much less.
It’s true a part of film is science, so it is tempting to find an objective way to judge them. But for me, the artistic expression of film is far more important than some mathematical equation. For the worst example of this kind of thinking, look at the Youtube channel Cinema Sins, but be careful–it rots your brain (I will be doing a rant on Cinema Sins in the future, don’t worry). Films are not to be graded based on a list of mistakes. Films are not to be graded.
Of course, I am a bit of a hypocrite. I have a Letterboxd account where I assign star ratings to films all the live long day, but I don’t consider that a part of film criticism. It’s helpful for organizational purposes, but it is the weakest statement on a film that a critic can make.
Which brings me to Rotten Tomatoes. Rotten Tomatoes is a website you are probably familiar with that takes movie reviews from (mostly) respected sources around the web and creates an aggregate score for a film based on those reviews. If a review is positive, it is counted as “fresh”, if negative it counts as “rotten”. Whatever percentage of reviews turn out fresh is the film’s score. This is the worst possible thing.
Firstly, it makes film a popularity contest. While there is usually a certain consensus around a film, creating a score based on consensus is never the way to go. Film is not objective, film is not a democracy. It does provide an easy test to see if you’re a good critic or not, however. Take a look at the scores of movies you’ve seen recently. If you always agree with the tomatometer, you’re a bad critic. If you never agree with the tomatometer, you’re a bad critic. Unfortunately I know a large number of people who look at Rotten Tomatoes as their only source on whether or not to see a movie.
Second, the scores are not weighted. If 50 critics love a movie, and 50 think it is the rotten side of meh, it will have a 50% score. Divisive movies like Cloud Atlas have a very hard time getting good scores, despite some incredibly positive reviews. A one-star review is counted the same as a 2 star review, and a 5 star review is counted the same as a 2.5 star review. Building on this, a film with a 95% score isn’t necessarily more well liked than a movie with a 65% score–it just means more critics liked it. A movie with a 10% isn’t necessarily more hated than one with 30%, it is just more universally disliked. This is why Metacritic is better in theory, but it takes far fewer reviews into account, and as I’ve mentioned aggregate scores are a poor excuse for film criticism anyway.
Finally, the tomatometer tends to favor certain genres. Since critics look for different things in different films, they tend to grade particular types of movies on a curve, while giving no leeway to others. In my experience, sci-fi and action pictures tend to get good scores if they have any redeeming qualities at all. Romantic comedies tend to get bad scores, probably in no small part because the majority of critics are men raised on male oriented films. Dramas get the worst of it, in my opinion. If a drama fails to be anything but potentially Oscar worthy it will get a middling or low score and be instantly forgotten. Look at the current score for Snowden (a movie I haven’t seen yet).
I understand not everyone has time to cultivate a field of trusted critics, and taking a quick glance at Rotten Tomatoes is the fastest way to find out if a movie is potentially worth watching. In general, this is fine. If a movie has a very low score (sub 30%) it is almost certainly bad. If it has a very high score (above 90%) it is almost certainly good. The problem is when people take it as gospel. “How could you dislike x, it’s certified fresh on Rotten Tomatoes?” or vice versa. A Rotten Tomatoes score is a flawed aggregate, not an objective take on movies. I’m allowed to dislike The Lego Movie, despite it’s 96%. I’m allowed to like Warcraft despite it’s 28%.
Critics can definitely get it wrong. Some movies are considered classics today that received poor or lukewarm reviews on their release. So how can you know if a movie is good if you can’t trust rotten tomatoes? Short answer: you can’t. Every movie is a risk no matter how acclaimed or derided. The best thing to do is find critics you generally agree with and consider their opinions. At the end of the day, your gut knows what you want to watch and what you don’t. Don’t let a skewed aggregate of general opinion sway you into not watching something.
If you’re getting your opinions from tomatoes, I guarantee you they are all rotten.