I miss Roger Ebert.

by w3woody

Rotten Tomatoes is the Destruction of Hollywood, Says Director of Bad Movies Brett Ratner

For me, I find that Rotten Tomatoes tends to be fairly accurate about 80% of the time: if the movie rated a “fresh” rating, I’ll probably enjoy it, and if it rates below a 40%, I’ll probably not enjoy it.

However, there are exceptions.

For example, I enjoyed Jupiter Ascending (RT: 26%), because it had a bunch of sweeping ideas and a bunch of sweeping visuals. The narrative was a bit of a hot mess: there was one scene where our heroine (?) quotes the legal regulations to one of three antagonists–and I thought “oh, so our heroine will overcome her situation through citation of legal regulations; that’s pretty cool!”

But that came to nothing; the quotation was a one-off, an empty threat tossed out during a scene where our heroine hops from disaster to disaster, being saved at the last moment by the strong masculine type.

Overall, however, I liked the movie–though I understand fully why few critics did: because critics would hang their hat on the narrative failures of the movie, ignoring the sweeping visuals and interesting ideas as background filler.

I also enjoyed Battlefield Earth (RT: 3%), despite it being almost universally panned: this was definitely a “B” flick, funded by Scientologists to showcase L. Ron Hubbard’s science fiction writing chops. The problem is, a lot of pulp written back in the day was just that: pulp–disposable stuff that presented a few ideas by writers being paid by the word. That said, the motivation of the characters were consistent, the rise of the protagonist against the antagonists were consistent (albeit unbelievable: cavemen learning to fly jets?), and the motivation of the antagonists was also consistent (albeit stupid: gold?). Battlefield Earth was a thinly veiled attack against psychologists–but in the end, the movie itself (within the framework the movie defined) was consistent.

Let me note something. A lot of movies demand we understand the framework the movie itself defines, suspending belief so that the movie can play out its story within that framework. If we were to ding every movie that presents something completely implausible–despite characters which act consistently with their motivations and backgrounds–we’d have to ding every science fiction movie which gives us faster-than-light travel, supernatural events, and talking animals.

It’s pretty clear from Dr. Kip Thorne’s comments about working with the writers of Interstellar that many of the above tropes–faster-than-light travel, supernatural events and the like–are not creative devices but writers being intellectually dishonest and scientifically lazy.

Further, notice one of the complaints leveled by critics against Interstellar comes from the theorizing by the characters that the most powerful force in the universe is Love–but if you really pay attention to the movie, it’s not “love” which resolves the plot. The characters theorize about love–but its the ability of whomever is manipulating the black hole to alter and affect gravitational forces (and by extension the space/time continuum) that gets our characters home, not “love.”

Which to me, points to the intellectual laziness of critics as well.

(Notice also the number of critics who panned Inception because it was too complicated to follow.)

So how some suspensions of disbelief get a pass while others don’t is something that I’ve never really understood about critics. Which to me talks more about the intellectual and cultural bias of critics.

And ultimately that bias feeds the number at Rotten Tomatoes.

I miss Roger Ebert.

I say that since there are plenty of movies he reviewed which he gave high ratings to, despite being panned almost universally by critics, because the movie was internally consistent. Meaning if a movie was stupid–but the advertising presented it as a stupid movie, and you go in expecting to see a stupid movie, Roger Ebert would give it high marks if the movie delivered on its promise.

Of course he fell into the same issues other reviewers were plagued by. He pondered why a black hole would be visible. (It’s the accretion disk you’re seeing.) His politics often colored some of his reviews. (Notes) But by and large he was a reliable barometer of the quality of the movies we saw–setting aside his own taste to review movies on their own terms.

What we need is a reviewer like Roger Ebert, who can help us drill down into the number behind Rotten Tomatoes, and allow us to understand why it got the rating it did. There are plenty of movies which scored above 80% which I found boring. There are plenty of movies which scored below 40% which I enjoyed.

Sometimes I would even disagree with Roger Ebert–but then I knew why.

Sadly, however, many movie reviewers seem to be talking from the gut rather than analyzing the movie on its own terms and based on the art of movie making.

And sadly all we have left is a number, which can be meaningless.