When Vincent Canby wrote a negative review of The Empire Strikes Back, he couldn’t have predicted the scathing response he would get on the Rotten Tomatoes review aggregate website. Typical comments included “Your stupidity is almost as big as my hatred towards you,” “dude are you unaware that this movie was critically acclaimed,” and “Die. Die you fucking piece of sub-human, anti-emotion, below fucking scum douchebag motherfucker.” Canby couldn’t have predicted this sort of backlash for two reasons: because he wrote it in 1980, and because he’s been dead for more than a decade.
The Tomatometer, which indicates the per cent of critics who gave a film favourable reviews, has taken an absolute hold of film criticism, and, worse, public perceptions of it. Critics’ individual opinions are no longer relevant except for the extent to which they shape consensus.
When the first reviews for Christopher Nolan’s much-hyped The Dark Knight Rises were released in July, there was an intensely hateful response against any critical dissent, piling up into hundreds of comments for each negative review. Rotten Tomatoes responded by disabling all comments on that film, and to this day comments on the film cannot be posted or viewed.
Removing comments is all well and good, but it merely addresses a symptom. Aggregates like Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic (which compiles reviews for movies, video games, television, and music) exacerbate the real problem: numbers.
Attaching numbers to reviews was not always the default practice that it is today. For cinema, the practice was not a universal one until the 90s. Music reviews got into that groove during Rolling Stone’s 60s heyday, and video games were born into a judgment system as numerical as the computers that made them.
As the tendency to quantify and categorize things on an arbitrary “good–bad” spectrum has increased, so has the size of the scales. Four-point scales became 10-point, and now 100-point systems are practically standard. If we imagine someone pondering whether a work of art is worth 53 or 54, we can see the absurdity of the whole system in microcosm.
The greatest value of a critic is her words, and if you are wondering whether or not to see a movie, read a book, or listen to music, those words will do you far more good than a number possibly can. If you use the Tomatometer to help you choose what to see, that’s fine; a linear scale can help with that. But individual reviews simply don’t need and shouldn’t have those numbers, and readers shouldn’t respond to them.
When we allow discussion and judgment to rest on a straight line, we pigeonhole the merits and complexities of art into a steel-belted consumption system. It’s easy to blame the studios for making movies by numbers, but if we watch them that way, who can blame them?