Something Rotten

Either Rotten Tomatoes makes no sense or American critics make no sense or both.

The other day I was lucky enough to catch SINISTER 2 in theaters. The film is, in many ways, an improvement on the first. That first was a nasty little shocker with the greatest ending line of any horror movie ever. The second, though, has lovable, well-realized characters, a warm sense of humor, and explores the core concepts in a more complete way. It’s not the best movie of the year. It’s not even the best horror movie of the year (that would be IT FOLLOWS). But it’s a damn good time and everyone involved ought to be proud. Not everyone will love it, but most people will feel they more than got their money’s worth.

Here’s how SINISTER 2 scored on Rotten Tomatoes:

I want to put that in perspective. FANTASTIC FOUR is, by all accounts, a grotesque, incoherent disaster which no one loves, not even the people who worked on it. It might be the biggest turkey of the year. Certainly, when you consider the wealth of acting talent that was involved, and the evident gifts of director Josh Trank, it has to be viewed as nothing less than a hideous misstep for all involved.

And it has an 8%.

And I say… waitafuckinminute.

Because there isn’t much difference between an 8% and a 13% and both suggest films with all the aesthetic delights of drying dog puke.

There is no rational world where the critical consensus is that SINISTER 2 and FANTASTIC FOUR are in the same league. There’s no way that makes sense. You don’t have to love SINISTER 2 to admit the story is clear, swift, populated with sharply defined heroes and villains, and was put together with genuine craftsmanship. How can a film have those qualities but fail to clear 50%? To me, when someone gets less than a 25 on the big test, they didn’t do much more than write their name on the top.

Let’s go a little further, shall we?

Two days after I caught SINISTER 2 in theaters, I took myself to AMERICAN ULTRA, and guess what? It’s fan-fucking-tastic. Probably the best action film of the summer after the spiritual revelation of MAD MAX: FURY ROAD. Every scene jumps with originality and heart. There are action sequences that carry so much charge, it’s like having a car battery clamped to your nip-nips. Most of all, there is what feels like an authentic, deeply felt romance at the core of the story. What a pleasure to see a picture about people who love each other, who would suffer anything for each other.

Rotten Tomatoes? 47.

The fuck?

I guess with a 47, we can at least say that critics were divided; some loved it to pieces and some hated it to death. Still: that odious green snotty splat on the Rotten Tomatoes page suggests an utterly wasted evening. It fails to indicate that, if you did happen to buy a ticket, you might encounter a film that you will want to return to again and again.

It may be that Rotten Tomatoes is faithfully interpreting the critical response to these pictures. It may also be that some forms of cultural interpretation are not as useful as others.

In these days of big data, we may be seeing that some things remain stubbornly difficult to quantify. You can evaluate a baseball player by his on-base-percentage. It would be convenient if movies, books, plays, and paintings had an on-base-percentage too. They don’t. And you can’t invent one just because it would be handy. By trying to create one — by sticking a numerical score on something that can’t be evaluated that way — aggregation websites like Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic create confusion, not clarity. Confusion not clarity.

To whit: this viewer believes that after seeing a 13% next to SINISTER 2, potential audiences know less about whether they’d enjoy the film than they did before they looked at Rotten Tomatoes. Cos, check it out: if you liked the first one, if you like scary films, if you like James Ransone (who reprises his role from the first picture), you’ll probably like this one too. But after seeing the oogy green splat on SINISTER 2’s Rotten Tomatoes page, you’d never know it. And if you like your love stories sprinkled with bone-jolting beatdowns and fresh, distinctive dialogue, you’ll dig the shit out of AMERICAN ULTRA. But a brief look at Rotten Tomatoes score doesn’t tell you that.

Ultimately, you can’t crunch the numbers to find out if you love something. Don’t even try. That way lies madness. You can’t reduce the experience of art to a metric, let alone one that is arguably imaginary.

At the risk of sounding old fashioned, I want to suggest that there are really only two ways to get a sense for whether you’ll like a film. The first is to find three reviewers you enjoy and read them faithfully. Reading reviews takes longer than glancing at the grade on Metacritic, but in time you will learn the likes and dislikes of your preferred critics, and you will discover how your own tastes match and diverge from theirs. In this way you can use them as directional tools, steering you towards stuff you might enjoy, and away from stuff you probably won’t. But, see, the important information isn’t the score Rotten Tomatoes assigns to any one particular review… it’s in the review itself. The advice you’re looking for is in the words (of the critic), not the number (of the aggregator). And if you’re a pop culture fanatic (like yours truly), you’ll want the opinions of more than one reviewer. I suggest three is enough to allow you to triangulate your own rough likely response.

The other way to figure out how you will or won’t respond to a picture is even more stodgy, even more laughable, even more last century:

Buy a ticket.

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