Movie criticism is dying, and Rotten Tomatoes is to blame.
Not completely, of course, since we share some of the blame for destroying the role of the movie critic, but if I had to point out one group that really has ruined it for everybody I would pick Rotten Tomatoes.
Why? Rotten Tomatoes seems really convenient. It is a review aggregator, so it takes an average of reviews and tells you the percent of them were favorable. Seems like a good idea. Instead of having to sift through countless movie reviews, you can just look at Rotten Tomatoes and get a nice percentage to tell you if a film is good or not.
However, this website (among with other review aggregators) has destroyed the art of nuance in reviewing and criticism. What it does is force a movie into two categories: either it was good or it was bad. In actuality, most movies fall somewhere in the spectrum between good and bad. Most movies are not unanimously amazing or awful. They have problems and they have good things about them.
The problem with Rotten Tomatoes arises because most people do not spend the time to look at what an critic is going to say. Rather they just look at a percentage and then move on. Sure that works sometimes (for example, Mad Max: Fury Road pulled an amazing 98% on Rotten Tomatoes and was for all intents and purposes flawless) but a lot of the time it takes the nuance needed in a film. Here are some examples of this happening to good and bad movies.
One that really sticks out in my memory is Interstellar. The movie was pretty good, and actually got a Rotten Tomato score that I agreed with: 72%. A lot of Interstellar fan boys point to this as showing that it is an amazing film. It even is critically divisive, proving that some people “just didn’t get it” because it was “too unique and complex”. Fanboys love that. But if we look at the reviews, we see a lot of stuff like this:
- Visual splendor does not entirely make up for failures in plotting and characterization. – Wesley Lovell
- Though the family ties don’t quite hold, Interstellar gives us an epic of space travel as desperate necessity, at a time when its science fiction hits perilously close to home. – Genevieve Valentine
- You’ll feel the cold on the Hoth-like ice planet. It’s pure movie magic — impressive and astonishing and deserving of all the out-of-this-world hyperbole. Too bad the rest of it is mostly empty space. – Dana Barbuto
- While it definitely feels as though Nolan over-reached and under-edited, there’s enough eye candy and emotion to keep you from being bored. – Scott Nash
- “Interstellar” is flawed, but has the kind of scope that makes going to movies fun. – Mal Vincent
- There’s a certain clumsiness to Nolan’s longest and most personal film, a kind of earnest self-seriousness that opens it to parody and snark. But at its center beats a human heart. – Philip Martin
And those all pulled “Fresh” reviews on Rotten Tomatoes. See the problem?
I admit, I purposefully chose the reviews that seemed on the fence, but I was able to find these right off the bat without even going to a second page of reviews. All of these reviews point out flaws and are not exactly glowing reviews. Lots of conditional statements. But looking at the Rotten Tomatoes score alone does not give you this nuance. Rotten Tomatoes does not provide for any sort of middle ground between good and bad.
Even worse was Star Treks: Into Darkness. The movie pulled a 87% on Rotten Tomatoes, even though the “positive” reviews were chalked full of phrases like:
- It’s generally a lot of fun, but it’s exhausting, and the busyness only somewhat disguises the fact that the story doesn’t entirely make sense.
- Not as audacious or exciting as its predecessor
- …a terminally perfunctory followup that just barely gets the job done…
- … a summer film that dimly reminds viewers of what it used to be – and could be again – while still being little more than a rollercoaster ride.
- not exactly groundbreaking fun…yet something is missing this time around.
- Moment to moment, it’s as entertaining, rousing and visually impressive as any recent science-fiction action epic, but the script is cratered with illogical motivations and plot holes large enough to swallow Classic Trek’s Doomsday Machine.
- For all the build-up, hype, and hope leading up to the film, it’s just a shame there isn’t a whole lot more.
And those are considered “positive” reviews? To me, these reviews illustrate what is missing from Rotten Tomatoes. They get counted as positive because the reviewer had good things to say about the movie, but the website does not effectively communicate that there are real problems with the movie. 87%? Must be awesome! No, it is flawed, but just looking at the percent number will never give you that sort of nuance.
And let’s not even talk about the fact that a movie like Star Wars Episode 3 somehow got an 80% fresh rating.
This also happens with “bad” movies. Recently Only God Forgives and Jupiter Ascending both received “rotten” scores on Rotten Tomatoes even though most reviewers did have good things to say about them. The percentage in these cases demonstrated that the bad parts overtook the good parts, but just looking at the percentages will not let you know that they were actually decent films, and in the case of Only God Forgives, secretly great films.
It may seem like I am blaming all the problems on Rotten Tomatoes, but I single them out because when you search a movie on Google they are the first website to pop up, and the percentage even appears on the side bar. You do not even have to click on the site to see the percentage. Nuance is completely lost on most people, who are not going to take the time to read each review and look for the good and bad. Thus we are forced into this mold where a movie only has two options for quality. Black and white. No gray.
Even if we had a better way to view reviews, the second problem in our day and age is that nobody really cares about movie criticism anymore. Look at last year. What was the highest grossing movie of the year? Transformers Age of Extinction, even though it met almost unanimous disdain from movie critics. Nobody cares.
In fact, it is common now to hear movies derided as “critical darlings”. It seems as if when critics unanimously like a movie, audiences do not follow their recommendation. Birdman from last year is a great example. Amazing film, but it received quite a bit of dislike as being nothing more than a movie for critics. Sure, that does happen sometimes, but why are we so skeptical about movies that people trained in film analysis like. Maybe we should actually listen to what they are saying instead of just throwing up our hands and ignoring what they say.
Back before the internet era, if you look at the highest grossing films of the 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s and even the 2000s, they all tended to be movies that were also loved by the critics. Good movies made a lot of money. But in the past 5 years, we have seen more critical hated movies sneaking into the top grossing lists. We have just stopped caring.
So what is the point of movie criticism anymore? People do not care about reviews, and even if they do they look at a terrible one-dimensional review aggregator. If we keep up this trend, there really is not much room for movie critics. If the only appeal to a small hermetically sealed culture, then is there really a point? No.
But it does not have to be that way. Pay attention to movie critics. Of course, do not just take their word for everything, but instead of wasting your hard-earned cash on commercial diarrhea with only a few redeeming qualities, maybe consider what they have to say. And if you do care, stop using Rotten Tomatoes. Realize that most movies are not either good or bad. They exist somewhere between.