Rotten Tomatoes, Blockbusters, And The Death Of Criticism

Criticism is literature.
Criticism is literature. Disney-ABC

Beneath the tenacious wave of franchise schlock, a silent war has been brewing between Hollywood and the often misunderstood review aggregate site, Rotten Tomatoes. The site, which has been followed by cinephiles and industry types for quite some time, has gone mainstream among general movie going audiences thanks to the likes of novel blunders like Fan4stic and Batman V. Superman. These films were no worse (and in the latter's case perhaps slightly better) than bad films of their type, but their box office receipts undoubtedly fell victim to the kind of critical castration that only a database that collects and showcases every pejorative evaluation can inflict.

The industry took notice. Suddenly the “quality” of a film became an angle during the marketing process. In addition to the cursory “critics are raving,” you began to see the infamous red tomato, with the corresponding “tomato score” accompanying trailers and various other promotional material. Hits and flops were suddenly demarcated by the ineradicable voice of the internet. This deemed the long established movie making system anachronistic. It devalued the power of the “Movie Star,” gave less credence to licensed properties (as was the case with the underperforming Transformers: Age of Extinction) and most importantly it meant major studios had to make good movies.

As a documented detractor of the modern movie making process, you might expect me to be over the hills at this prospect. While it’s true I shed no tears for Valerian or Baywatch, and was absolutely giddy at the box office success of the slow-paced, pseudo war film Dunkirk, I will make no attempts to bat away the potentially adverse effects Rotten Tomatoes has on film journalism. The mostly useful website isn’t solely responsible, as the premium placed on hyperbolic YouTube drivel is also partly to blame (“FIVE REASONS THE EMOJI MOVIE SUCKED MY BUTT”), though they're both symptoms of the same cancer.

Rotten Tomatoes is emblematic of our culture’s need for “now.” Long gone are the days of parsing through critics until you found the one that shared your sentimentalities with perhaps a sharper tongue and a more impressive lexicon. It was sort of like picking a good therapist, the process was tedious but there was a certain liberating comfort in discovering a reviewer that you could trust. Not blindly follow mind you, but one that was able to efficiently, and oft times humorously, express why they loved or hated a film in such a way that availed your decision to go see it or not. A recommendation from a learned consort.

For many, that critic was Roger Ebert, an admirable position, though for me it has to be J. Hoberman of the Village Voice. It brings me no joy that such a clear and articulate mind is reduced to quick waggish blurbs at the bottom of a website, even if the ultimate goal of his profession is achieved – the next time you spot such a blurb, I implore you to read the full review, you won’t be disappointed. Criticism is a legitimate literary output that isn’t solely designed to help you better manage your funds at the cinema. The same way great music has various purposes in entertainment, but is also reckoned vital to culture and humanity. There are a few relics attempting to maintain the integrity of the medium, like Bob Chipman of or our very own Andrew Whalen, though I fear the sound-bite method is establishing a stronger and stronger foothold.

Regardless, the demonizing of such sites by disgruntled fans and out of touch distribution companies is both laughable and completely unfounded. The various scores featured on Rotten Tomatoes are aggregates not grades doled out by pencil neck professors. An “88%” can just as easily mean 88 percent of critics collectively declaring a particular film to be mediocre as “68%” can mean 68 percent of critics found that a particular film is the next Citizen Kane. Moreover, if the performance of your garbage film can be undermined by an average score on a website, that probably means it was fighting an uphill battle to begin with. Next time I might suggest you try writing a script before the pitch, contrary to the oh so “profitable” trend, “Deadpool and Nick Fury, buddy cop film.” We’ll see how that one plays out this weekend.

I’m not resigned or completely without hope and this is by no means a post mortem of the art of film criticism. Kierkegaard once wrote that life has to be lived forward but understood backwards. Outside of the immediate effect – successfully striking down the cynical big budget movie studio behemoth – the lasting impact that Rotten Tomatoes and sites like it will have on the industry and the critics that thrive off of it for now can only be optimistically surmised. Even still, let us all try and make a concerted effort not to yield to society’s insistence that information is only valuable if it’s garnered quickly and don’t let anyone, be they Twentieth Century Fox or a god damned green tomato, tell you what is and isn’t worth your time.

Join the Discussion
Top Stories