Who are you to tell me what I should or should not like?
What makes certain sounds better than other sounds? Pitchfork gave Tool’s Lateralus album an embarrassing 1.9 out of 10 while Rolling Stone listed it 33rd on the top 50 greatest prog rock records of all time, above the likes of Electric Light Orchestra and Porcupine Tree.
Roger Ebert, the most recognisable name in film journalism, gave the critically panned Speed 2: Cruise Control a comparatively glowing 3/4. On Rotten Tomatoes, he is one of only two journalists to have positively reviewed the movie. 66 others weren’t so forgiving.
The Room, by all accounts a terrible movie, is now the Citizen Kane of bad movies.
People flock to see it as event-cinema. It’s so bad it’s good. So if a journalist says The Room is a bad movie, they may not be wrong, but people enjoy it on some level. So it’s good. But it’s bad.
The extravaganza that was Fifty Shades of Grey was not well received by anyone who was a critic, a feminist, or anyone who had ever read any other work of erotic fiction. The movie was poorly received, and yet made over ten times its budget at the box office.
So what is the point of a review?
Aggregator sites such as the aforementioned Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic are likely so popular because they present a crowd-sourced opinion. The former tells you how many people liked a movie, while the latter has a weighted average which should be closer to a product’s actual level of enjoyment.
The Guardian offers that the role of the reviewer is to be honest and entertaining. The key is to not bore your reader. The journey is more important than the destination, if the destination if the star-rating and the journey is a journalist trying to hold your attention. It’s hard not to feel that Pitchfork have known this for a while with such reviews as Idlewild’s 100 Broken Windows.
Which means, ultimately, anyone can tell you that a movie deserves five stars, but without an accompanying review, what does that really tell you other than that they happened to enjoy it? There are people out there who consider Coldplay their favourite band and don’t feel the need to explain that decision to you. Without justification or an entertaining anecdote, such a declaration is akin to a tweet by someone you should swiftly unfollow.
What does a bad review mean?
But to those who do assign meaning to star ratings, a good or bad review can be the difference between some sort of livelihood and an abrupt cancellation. The Guardian’s Lyn Gardner explains that giving a poor rating to a fledgling group at the Edinburgh Fringe is damning and harsh, serving no worthwhile purpose to art forms we are supposed to be fans of. A premiere production receiving one star at a festival with over 2,000 unique acts would be doomed, unfairly so for many who are still finding their feet. At this stage in their career, they should receive props for trying, and comparing them to Les Misérables is setting them up for a catastrophic failure.
And yet a five star review will be printed in bold caps on a Fringe flyer and distributed with Quixotic fervour. A paying punter wants five stars for their buck. The masochist or russian roulette fan may hand over cash for untested waters, but the majority want to know that they will enjoy the performance, and they rely on the opinion of someone who we have arbitrarily said happens to have good opinions.
Critical consensus and public opinion
And it isn’t just small time productions that can be dented by critical cold shoulders. The recently released Fantastic Four made just over half of its predicted box office earnings for its first weekend, a complete flop by the standards film makers expect from the typically reliable superhero genre. Reviews were embargoed until late in the run-up to its release, and social media was quick to lampoon the latest attempt to actually make a decent Fantastic Four movie. There was a consensus among critics and those who saw the movie early that it just was not very good.
But I liked it enough. Sure, it is an obnoxiously long trailer for a sequel we may not get anymore due to its poor performance, but the cast are likeable, the first half of the movie in particular is dark and enjoyable, and some of the bodyhorror CGI is gritty in a way we haven’t seen in a movie like this before.
The court of public opinion has had its say, and since it synchs up with critical opinion, we have a chicken and egg scenario. I don’t think I’m wrong for enjoying the movie. However, I would think twice before recommending it to someone.
Somewhere between being entertaining, reporting on whatever art is being consumed, and acknowledging the audience it was created for, lies what a review ought to contain. As much as we want to believe we are barely influenced by others, I haven’t gone to see Pixels because it seems the reviews are more entertaining than the movie. The only thing is, I don’t know that. I’d need to see it for myself. Not only have I been entertained, I have been influenced.