I think I need to start looking for another means of finding quality movies among all those released each year. To help cut through the myriad of films I’ve taken to putting some stock in the online service provided by Rotten Tomatoes. If you don’t happen to be familiar with the service, it ranks movies on a 0-100 scale directly tied to the percentage of positive reviews the movie receives. If 50% of the reviews collected rate the movie positively, it gets a 50 rating. Pretty simple. The concept seems, on the surface, to be a very effective way to rate a movie.
However, I’ve noticed some problems with this approach. While I’ve yet to see a decent movie that had a hideously low ranking (in fact, we didn’t go to see “Happy N’Ever After” when I’d found it was running a rating of 4, or 4% positive reviews), I’ve found that rankings in the middle of the spectrum seem to be accurate to my tastes much of the time. The problem starts when a movie appears to get universal praise. Friends and I have now become extremely skeptical when this happens. It previously happened with film critic Roger Ebert. Friends and I found that movies he rated 3 1/2 stars, more often than not, struck us as very enjoyable or even great movies. Yet time and again when he’d rate a movie 4 stars most often we’d find very little to like about it. We’d leave the theater shaken our heads wondering how we got suckered in again by the glowing “perfect” review.
With a single reviewer it’s easy to chalk that up to simple personal differences. Ebert loves things in movies that us normal folk don’t take a shine to. That’s to be expected. However, what is the answer when 95% of all reviewers like a movie and it still doesn’t go over well with you, your friends or your family, or just about anyone you know?
Two recent examples come to mind. Right before I left for Macworld I saw, “The Children of Men“. This was a movie that looked great to me with every preview. Clive Owen, Michael Caine and Julianne Moore star in it. It featured a very unique, very intriguing concept. The icing on the cake was when I noticed Rotten Tomatoes had it holding a rating of about a 94 (each new collected review factors into the rating so they can change a bit and I try not to bother looking until at least 50 reviews are in or even 100).
94% of all the top reviewers out there recommended this movie. Was it terrible? No. It was wonderfully acted and the story was quite compelling. However, as we left the theater nearly everyone was commenting negatively on it. It was slow, confusing (no, we’re not just daft people) and just dull in places. Huge plot questions were being asked and no one had answers to them. Basic plotlines were even being openly questioned. The bottom line for this movie is that I have real doubts that anywhere near 94% of viewers would find it worth recommending. In fact, I’d doubt if even half the patrons would recommend it to others. If that’s accurate then something is plainly out of balance with movie reviewers and their readers.
The second example is another movie I’d wanted to see for the same amount of time. Previews for “Pan’s Labyrinth” started running at the local art house theater here at roughly the same time as those for “The Children of Men“. I thought it would be the start of a great run up to the Oscars. “Pan’s Labyrinth” looked a bit more risky as it was hailed as being from the same person responsible for “Hellboy” and “Blade 2“. I kept thinking, “That’s your idea of a solid resume to run on?” Frankly, I should have really let that alone set my expectations. However, I was shocked when I noticed the movie holding firmly at a 97% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. On the entire front page of the listing there was only one negative comment and even that sounded pretty tame and it was from an unknown, at least to me, reviewer. This movie had nearly universal praise behind it. Surely it must be pretty amazing. Comments included terms like, “great fantasy”, “spectacular effects”, “a triumph”, “storytelling from a master at the top of his game” and so forth.
Granted, the movie was interesting. Its look was pretty impressive but overall it was pretty average. I absolutely loved the ending but 2 hours is a long time to wait for solid impact. The effects weren’t as impressive as billed. The computer-generated characters looked very computer-generated and whenever the non-CGI characters appeared, people throughout the theater openly giggled at their awkward, out-of-place appearance. Some of the plot elements were so basic that they too were laughable. Seemingly a dozen times one character tells another not to do this one simple thing. I think you can guess what happened. There is absolutely no way that 57% of patrons would recommend this movie let alone 97%.
Another movie came immediately to mind as a parallel. My friends and family all went to see, “The Lady in the Water” back when it was first out in theaters. This latest tale from M. Night Shyamalan shares some of the same allure as “Pan’s Labyrinth” and yet it received a 24 rating at Rotten Tomatoes. The irony is that nine of us went to see “The Lady in the Water” and all nine of us liked it. The others in the theater with us seemed to like it or at least weren’t walking out laughing about it or just confused by it. The nine of us are completely different people with different tastes in movies and yet our rating would have been nine-for-nine with recommendations.
If someone out there is familiar with a service that has a way to filter out the views of reviewers that continually miss the mark with you, please let me know. I suspect that 50% of these positive reviews came from reviewers who are simply impressed with the art of these efforts due to their film school experience or perceived value of such touches. What they fail to realize is that films are paid for by non-“experts”. We read reviews in hopes of finding commonality for us, not to read a review meant to impress other reviewers. As a work of art, “Pan’s Labyrinth” is quite a solid specimen. As a movie with mass appeal it would have a hard time proving that it deserves to fly above the level of a rotten tomato.