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C'mon Hollywood: Are we too obsessed with movie reviews and ratings?

08.02.2016

We’ve all done it. In anticipation of a new movie about to hit theaters we scour the Internet in order to find out what the critical consensus is, which generally breaks down to two key components: Is the movie good and is it good enough to see in the theater? It’s not unheard of to look for these things either, as money is often tight and we want to make sure that the juice is worth the squeeze when we make the journey out to the theater. But, here’s the problem; a review or consensus of reviews is by no means a guarantee that you’ll love or hate a film. It’s simply one person’s (or collective of persons) perspective on a film, given (presumably) years of study, watching films that have given them a voice to be trusted in providing a thorough and honest breakdown of a film and an opinion on why it’s good or bad, all of which would stem from their own personal taste.

Not facts. Not “objectivity”. Not truth. Not right. Not wrong. Just an opinion.

Films have been reviewed from the very start, but they’ve never been reviewed as much as they have now with the advent of the Internet, which lends a voice to anyone with a keyboard. It’s a blessing and a curse, as it’s given voice to the voiceless, but it’s also…given voice to the voiceless, which means you get reviews on a wide scale, from the “top critics” writing for newspapers, trades, or online movie sites to blog reviews to Facebook reviews to Twitter reviews, etc., all falling into the lap of people looking to see what the critics thought of the latest and greatest to hit the multiplex. It’s a lot to weed through and can be exceptionally daunting.

Enter the roll-up sites like Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic, etc. who have seemingly made it quick and easy to get the rundown without having to weed through the heap of reviews and settle, instead, on a score, which is configured from either simply a good/bad review or compiled in some way out of the varying types of ratings given by different venues (stars, numbers, grades) into a simple number between 1 – 100, represented by a green, red, or yellow color to denote good or bad. Easy right? No more reading, yay! While this may serve an average moviegoer who is just looking for a general feel for how a movie is being received, which I think is how sites like RT and Metacritic are best used, the issue is when people accept that it's the "final word" on a film and avoid something they were otherwise interested in seeing simply because of a percentage-based score out of just over 200 people on the planet.

The problem is that this is a completely asinine way of deciding whether a movie is good or bad and if it’s worth seeing in the theater (or at all). It’s by no means definitive, proven, or, most importantly, factual. It’s essentially a score or percentage of opinions, not facts, which is something that gets lost in the shuffle of an easy-to-digest number and color. It's fast, it's easy, it's immediate, and requires no further investigation, right? “It says it all right there in the score!” says a denizen of wool-over-their-eyes readers. No, actually, it doesn't and it’s something that’s crippling us as viewers, as critics, and even the movie industry at large, who now fight tooth and nail for those green-colored percentages, due largely because we’ve become so accustomed to that being the basis on whether or not a movie is good and/or worth seeing. It’s now a bottom-line factor for studios, who can live and die by those ratings and that coveted “certified” rating.

But, let’s take a step back for a second. I want you to imagine a world without the Internet. Scary, right? Well, it’s not that scary. More inconvenient than anything, but hey, I survived without it for the first twenty-odd years of my life, so it’s possible. But, for those that have never known a world without the Internet, I want you to think about how you’d approach seeing a film prior to release without Rotten Tomatoes or MetaCritic or, hell, even JoBlo.com. Chances are you will have heard of upcoming releases via magazines, newspapers (gasp!), and TV commercials and trailers. You’d be hyped as hell off those factors alone. Spoilers? What the hell is a spoiler? Opening day arrives and you see maybe one or two reviews, a newspaper one and perhaps a grade from Entertainment Weekly. Two perspectives. No big deal. Maybe they’re positive. Maybe not. Either way, you’re going. And you do. You go in, cold as possible, and you see the film. Maybe you love it. Maybe you don’t. Maybe you’re somewhere in the middle and need to mull it over. Regardless, you went, you decided for yourself, and you weren’t stopped, influenced, or tainted by a score, number, rating or review.  You talked with your friends afterward and each of you brought up what you liked/disliked and it felt more like an experience, regardless of whether you loved or hated it. It wasn’t a percentage or color or consensus. It was what you took away from it, not what you took with you into it.

Now, let’s hop in the DeLorean and head back to now. The Matrix has us and there’s no getting out. We’re all plugged in and wired up and that’s not looking to change anytime soon. It can be a great thing sometimes and a very ugly thing more often than we like. So it goes. In the end, it’s all (mostly) run by humans and we are a beautifully imperfect race. But, I digress. My point isn’t that we shouldn’t read reviews. We should. Or rather, we can, but we don’t have to take them to heart. We don’t have to take them as fact, because they’re not. They’re opinions. Biased as hell and derived from the perspective of one person, each with their own life experiences, personal taste, and likes/dislikes that will inform them of how they feel about any particular film. They’re simply sharing it with you. You can take it or leave it. The best reviews, to me, are ones that give you perspective on a film that you may not have caught, enlightening the experience of watching it and, in some cases, giving the reader more insight to carry with them into the film. But, that doesn’t mean there’s any one definitive “good review” for a film. Each review brings with it something different, with some better realized than others, and that’s where reviews can truly grab (or lose) you. It’s in the narrative, not the score.

Choosing a score, for one thing, is a bit harrowing.  What’s the difference between an 8/10 vs. 7/10? An A- or a B+? 3 Stars vs. 4 Stars? Is there some type of determining scale that makes these viable in any way? No. Not at all. The problem, too, with giving a score is that not all scores stay the same. Do you still feel the same about every movie you’ve ever seen? I know I don’t. Time, age, life experience (I know I keep saying that, but it’s a very important aspect of how we view films), etc. all change the way we see things over time, particularly films. Some stand the test of time, while others age poorly. Some we hold onto for nostalgia, while facing the hard reality that we don’t love them like we used to. By that same token, we see films we initially loathed or dismissed early on and they take on a new life for us, again informed by our own evolution as human beings. Film, like all art, is a fluid thing, not just a product with a seal of approval (or disapproval). It changes with us, grows with us, sometimes for better or for worse. That, to me, is one of the biggest reasons why I love film as much as I do. It’s an art form that never settles; it is constantly growing and changing with us, be it with new movies or old.

So, how do we solve this problem? How do we stop focusing on scores and start focusing on what’s important to us? Well, for one, we need to do just that; stop focusing on scores, numbers, ratings, green, red, rotten, fresh, certified, etc. Instead, and I know this is hard for some, we need to read more, scour the places that we know and trust (and maybe try some we don’t) and find the voices that speak to us. Find the critics, reviewers, writers, etc. that have similar tastes, that see films as you do and give a perspective that is akin to yours. That’s a start. But, just like the current political discourse in the U.S., you shouldn’t get tunnel vision into only one perspective. Read views that are averse to what you agree with, too. You’ll be surprised at what can happen. You’ll see another perspective, even if you don’t agree, and at least get a sense of why some feel differently. In essence, it will give you a better, well-rounded view as opposed to only seeking out what you want to hear.

And that’s another issue altogether. I’ve seen (and received personally) complaints from people wanting a “different” review whenever they read one written that they don’t agree with or simply don't like. Calls of “bias” (duh), agenda, and, my personal favorite, being paid off by the studio (hilarious) run rampant, which only serves to show the blatant misunderstanding of what a review is. It’s basically like saying, “I don’t like your opinion, so I want a review by someone that has the same opinion as me.” Well, the Internet is a big place and it’s not up to any one individual to change for you, it’s up to you to find the people that you respond to. Plain and simple.

Attacking reviewers because they’re “biased” is Captain-Picard-facepalm stupid. Of course they are! Everyone is biased when it comes to art. It’s a subjective medium. We’re not reviewing iPhones or cars, which are subject to bias themselves. Otherwise, you’re asking for a technical breakdown or synopsis. That’s not a review. A review is an opinion, straight up. Objectivity does not exist in art, regardless of what your high school art teacher may try to tell you. Sure, some films (and art) are made with more care, skill, and talent, but that doesn't mean that any one piece is better than another in some factual, objective way. You can give THE HURT LOCKER all the Oscars you want, but it'll never convince me that it's anything more than a shitty, lazy, misleading war film, while at the same time SAVING SILVERMAN can sit at 18 percent rotten on RT and I'll still love it to death and choose to watch it over THE HURT LOCKER ten times out of ten. I could go on and on with examples like that and I'm sure you could to. I'm not right, I'm not wrong, it's just the way I feel about those films.

The takeaway here is that if you’re basing what you see simply on a score, rating, or review then you’re shortchanging yourself and, in effect, saying that you can’t think for yourself. And I know that’s not true. I know that everyone can (and eventually will) decide for themselves. You can try to fool yourself or align with a percentage of thought, but in the end, whatever comes across your eyes will be assimilated by one singular perspective; your own. And that’s the beauty of film (and art in general). No matter who makes it or what their intent was, in the end it becomes your experience. Sometimes you feel similarly with others and that can be a great experience as well, but ultimately you’re taking the film with you, for better or for worse, and no score or rating will alter that unless you let it.

Reviews are, in my opinion (there’s that word again), a shared experience with the film community and should be viewed as such. They’re one person’s experience on a film that may or may not be similar to your own. And that’s okay. It’s awesome, really. So don’t let it hold you back from seeking out your own perspective, your own experience. Otherwise, you’re robbing yourself of what could potentially be something wonderful (or terrible), but you'll absolutely never know unless you see for yourself. The second that you let a percentage or score determine what you'll see is when you've shut the blinds to a wide canvas of films that could change your life, make you laugh, inspire you, challenge you, or maybe even piss you off. Ultimately, that's art doing its work. Let it.

I'll leave you with the late, great Robin Williams and one of my all-time favorite movies, DEAD POETS SOCIETY (a film I used to absolutely hate, by the way), to illustrate my point. O Captain, My Captain, take it away!

Extra Tidbit: "I don't hear enough rip!"
Source: JoBlo.com

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