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Does Film Criticism Have A Snarkiness Problem?

Does your movie suck… or not?

by Seren Sensei

Trusting reviews can be like playing a game of Russian roulette—admittedly a lower stakes one. Reviewers answer questions like: Shall you try the new Taiwanese restaurant down the street? Read the latest bestseller? Catch the latest release on Netflix? But the problem with their answers is that, even if you trust a reviewer's intelligence, you run the risk of coming up against a taste so varied from your own that the book, dish, or whatever else are an instant bust.

However, with the advent of crowd-sourced review platforms that list the opinions of "regular" people—the Yelps, Trip Advisors, Facebook and Google reviews—the scales tipped a bit in favor of consumers. And yet, as Average Joes became pitted against professional critics, an apparent disconnect between the two began to grow. Nowhere is that disconnect more visible than in the area of film criticism. Audiences are finding themselves increasingly at odds with the professional opinions of critics, and there are wide disparities across the board on the quality of popcorn fare. 

To be fair, this is mostly a phenomenon related to mainstream releases, as viewers and critics generally remain in agreement on smaller budget indie flicks and foreign films (see also: Star Wars or Marvel Cinematic Universe properties, which are beloved across the board). But a non-MCU summer blockbuster, Valentine’s Day date movie, or feel-good holiday flick featuring an ensemble cast is a toss-up at this point. Take the early summer, $175 million dollar budget film King Arthur, for example. Ninety percent of Google users liked it, and 7 out of 10 of IMDb users enjoyed it, but it holds only a 28 percent approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Audiences were also far more forgiving of films like Suicide Squad (79 percent of Google users and 6.2 out of 10 IMDb users liked it, versus only 25 percent of critics on Rotten Tomatoes); Ride Along 2 (which pleased a whopping 92 percent of Google users versus only 14 percent of critics); and even The Huntsman, a big budget, star-studded sequel (that only garnered a 17 percent approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. The percentage of Google users that enjoyed it? Eighty-six.)

Some would argue that critics are better versed in the value of things like plot, pacing, acting, and dialogue, thanks to being professionals, while audiences are—for lack of a better term—merely dumbed-down masses that will like anything. (It’s a fair point.) But while critics do have expertise, many rely far too heavily on snark over substance, and reviews often come off as designed merely to rip a film to shreds, not necessarily to actually explain what was good or bad. The Salon review of King Arthur is two paragraphs in before the flaws of the movie itself are even loosely outlined, and then it sails into another description of comparatively bad movies for another three paragraphs. This approach makes sense from a business standpoint: Film criticism isn’t exactly lucrative, and scathing critiques of well-known mainstream releases draw clicks, even if they’re hate-clicks. As one Salon commenter wrote, “It seems a lot of the critics feel they must attack it because that is how their opinion will be heard, and this was an easy target.”

Many reviewers also seem unable to enjoy certain films just for the things that they are. Guillermo del Toro’s giant robot-spectacle Pacific Rim received a perfect four star rating from Roger Ebert’s website in 2013, but it would be hard to imagine such a fun and colorful movie receiving that type of review today; as such, it has only a 71 percent cumulative critic rating on Rotten Tomatoes, with some of the worst coming from places like The Atlantic and New York. Quite a few Very Serious Critics seem to only enjoy Very Serious Films, gleefully tearing open cinema that doesn’t spend hours pummeling viewers with Very Serious Themes (again, unless they fall under the category of MCU or Star Wars properties). Is a film made purely for entertainment automatically bad if all it seeks to do is entertain? Audiences might say no. Certain critics, it appears, would say yes.

The very existence of sites like Rotten Tomatoes, which corral reviews into one place and then assign a rating of "fresh" or "rotten" based on an average, is part of the problem, as they somewhat rest on the assumption that films are unanimously good or bad, and not subjective to personal taste and opinion. Many audiences already prefer to read the "regular" reviews left on these sites because of the belief that the critics just hate everything. As film criticism continues to remain in danger, honest and well-thought-out critiques, be they good or bad, will need to become the norm over snarky clickbait and pretentious tripe.