Why Rotten Tomatoes is Bad for Film Criticism

By  · Published on August 7th, 2012

In the days leading up to the release of The Dark Knight Rises, Rotten Tomatoes found itself the gravitational Bizarro-world center of the film’s anticipation. In the comments section of the site’s review blurbs, negative ‐ or “rotten,” in the parlance of the site ‐ reviews were met with hyperbolic rage, sexist dismissal, and even death threats. The comments feature on the site was subsequently disabled, accompanied with a message from the Editor-in-Chief detailing the entire affair. Fingers were pointed directly and exclusively (and justifiably) at the commenters themselves for such disruptive and hateful rhetoric (though it should be noted that there were also plenty of comments that were altogether unremarkable).

The Internet’s usual suspects ‐ the power of anonymity/avatars to protect the identity of hateful speakers; the unchallenged given that webspeak is somehow inherently hyperbolic; the understanding that there have always been stupid, angry reactionaries, but the Internet simply gives them a public voice ‐ were on full display.

But in retrospect, several weeks after the furor has died down, it’s clear that there’s one question seemingly nobody asked in response, one that has at various moments plagued those who love and appreciate the art of film criticism: does the design of Rotten Tomatoes itself not invite exactly the type of high-decibel, absolutist discussion that the site subsequently attempted to quiet? When Matt Atichy wrote “This Is Why We Can’t have Nice Things,” shouldn’t those who value film criticism question the assumption within this response that the services provided by a site like Rotten Tomatoes are a “nice thing” to begin with?

Rotten Tomatoes ‐ no matter its convenience for navigating reviews, no matter how many times we visit the site while conceding that critique of art shouldn’t be subject to a pseudo-scientific algorithm ‐ has taken a role within the larger moviegoing conversation (both on the Internet and elsewhere) which far exceeds its actual value to the point that the site is, in fact, reducing the fun, value, and nuance of that conversation.

A few points before I get started…

First, I probably use Rotten Tomatoes for the same reason as you: to get a skin-deep notion of what a “critical census” that develops around a film to be. I typically avoid reading reviews before I’ve seen films that I’m invested in, so the numbers featured on Rotten Tomatoes provide some notion of a critical response (“critical consensus,” by comparison, is something that can only be argued, not tabulated) conveniently devoid of substance and content. Thus, Rotten Tomatoes can serve a purpose as an initial point of access, but never as a substitute for criticism itself.

My problem with the site is not necessarily what it does, but the elevated role it has played. The site’s popularity has hoisted Rotten Tomatoes to a place it does not deserve and probably never intended to be.

Secondly, Rotten Tomatoes is by no means the only site to blame here. Metacritic applies a similar, and equally problematic, algorithm to pretty much all avenues of modern media art and entertainment. But Rotten Tomatoes was the first (established in 1999, importantly the same time as the turn toward Web 2.0 and the establishment of many of today’s most foundational film sites) and because Rotten Tomatoes deals exclusively with film, it has taken a prescient role in film criticism that is particularly worrying.

A False Binary

I don’t often agree with Armond White, but in 2010 he stated this about Rotten Tomatoes…

[Sites like this] offer consensus as a substitute for assessment. Rotten Tomatoes readers then post (surprisingly vicious, often bullying) sniper responses to the reviews. These mostly juvenile remarks further shortcut the critical process by jumping straight to the so-called witticism. This isn’t erudition; as film critic Molly Haskell recently observed, “The Internet is democracy’s revenge on democracy.”

I disagree with White’s essentialist views on the Internet at large ‐ that the Internet is always and can only be a place for superficial rhetoric, rather than a culture created in whatever image we’d like for it to be. There are plenty of great movie critics whose work has shown up exclusively on the Internet, and Internet-only accessories like the hyperlink and the video imbed provide the groundwork for a uniquely interdiscurisve, intertextual conversation unmatched in print (as opposed to the relative stasis of print, isn’t it fitting to talk about an evolving medium through another evolving medium?). But where White is in the right is in connecting the type of conversation of the site to the design of the site itself.

Rotten Tomatoes is not unlike a deliberately polarizing political website. There are substantive and informative political websites, there are political websites whose dry information reflects the depressing dead weight of journalism today, and there are websites meant as a self-fulfilling echo chamber whose sole mission is to routinely demonize the political other. With the exception of the proverbial “troll” daring to sweep in and represent another side, these sites function by being particularly self-isolated so that the conceptualizations of “self v. other” that make up its life force remains stable while completely undefined. Thus, a reductive binary (there’s “us” and “them”) is necessary to reiterate for the site to continue to function and gain traffic from a lowest-common-denominator readership.

Rotten Tomatoes manages to function with the same logic of one of these political websites while miraculously offering no perspective of its own. By reducing any discussion of a film’s worth and value into the categories of “Fresh” and “Rotten,” it constructs a simplistic binary that asks its audience to define themselves as part of one of two fields. It’s like juxtaposing a Keith Olbermann quote next to an Ann Coulter quote, both out of context, and letting their readership have at it.

Except the writers quoted on Rotten Tomatoes largely aren’t film criticism’s equivalent to pundits. They’ve written paragraphs discussing a film’s merits, and their opinion on a film may not fall squarely into a ridiculous fresh/rotten binary.

Thus, arbitrary distinctions are put in place to retain the false binary despite its contradictions. If a writer assigns films letter grades, for instance, a B- will place the review in the “fresh” category, while a C+ designates it“rotten.” Both are rather middling grades, ones that acknowledge that a film possesses positives and negatives. But the fact that Rotten Tomatoes doesn’t even bother to create a third category to identify films that are received straight down-the-middle (“eat soon”?) signifies a most unthinking approach the film criticism.

No Sense of Context

Perhaps one of the most frustrating developments since the popularity of Rotten Tomatoes is that it’s used as a meter of knowledge on other information aggregate websites. Several film articles on Wikipedia (which certainly has its shortcomings but, in its pursuit of actual information rather than consensus, has far greater credibility than RT) reference Rotten Tomatoes in order to provide evidence of a film’s reception, whether or not that film was released in the time period that Rotten Tomatoes actually existed.

This is a mistake, in part, on behalf of the editors of and contributors to Wikipedia, but it is rooted in a greater fallacy on Rotten Tomatoes: the “Tomatometer” aggregates reviews both new and old with equal weight, whether they be from a film’s original release, a re-release, or simply a critic’s reassessment years later. As a result, we have a percentage and binary designation completely devoid of context.

For instance, tracking a film like Vertigo, the Hitchcock film that recently dethroned Citizen Kane on Sight & Sound’s Top 50 list, entails encountering a virtual encyclopedia of disparate critical reaction. The film was divisive ‐ treated interchangeably as a perplexity and a bore amongst some critics ‐ upon its original release. Its status as a classic has been earned gradually, and any reviews subsequent to this status, unlike its reception in 1958, will treat Vertigo’s worth as a “given.”

Meanwhile, the film continues to be reevaluated. Its stance atop Sight & Sound’s list has brought new critical assessments of its work. “Overrated,” a term that accompanied Citizen Kane for decades, seems certain to be attached to Vertigo. How, then, can any claim for Vertigo’s critical “consensus” be made? How can initial reviews from 1958 and later assessments sit aside one another without any regard whatsoever for their different contexts of evaluation?

Everything on the Same Scale

On the surface, Rotten Tomatoes’s employment of numbers seems like a corrective of the jejune rotten/fresh binary. Besides the longed-for red and the dreaded green, can’t we concentrate on the numbers instead in order to evaluate films.

This component of Rotten Tomatoes openly invites one of the least productive instincts in engaging with film criticism, and that’s the tendency to evaluate everything on the exact same scale. Magic Mike, Brave, and The Amazing Spider-Man have relatively close scores. That the critical reaction to these films is slightly in favor of Magic Mike suggests that the Soderbergh film is the superior “winner” in competition between these three, as if they were all vying for the same Olympic medal. That the site tabulates the freshest films from actors, directors, and by years signals that Rotten Tomatoes invites this sense of competition amongst films.

It’s a box-office mentality re-appropriated for critical evaluation.

Besides the fact that comparing dissimilar films bears is of little functional use, once again context is absent: this two point difference tells me nothing about the fact that Brave was a relative letdown for Pixar and Magic Mike was a mid-summer surprise.

But what can tell me any of these things? The words in the reviews themselves, which Rotten Tomatoes conveniently provides a litany of links to.

In a sense, Rotten Tomatoes is an inevitable development. Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert gained fame outside the cinephile community because of their bi-directional thumbs. Here’s the rotten/fresh binary’s prototype. And, of course, the first instinct that many readers (myself included) manifest is seeking the grade a film is given, whether that be a number of stars or, like this site, a letter grade. But above that grade, or under those stars, is a review with evaluation, justification, and argumentation that, more often than not, can’t adequately fit in a blurb. What Rotten Tomatoes does is sever the content from that verdict. We shouldn’t be surprised that such a tendency invites thoughtless conversation.

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