Healthy tomatoes? The danger of film critics speaking with one voice

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Do you remember when movie reviews were obsolete? When we had lost our swagger, our grip, our influence? When it seemed like the whole world had become critic-proof, because we didn’t matter anymore? It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when, exactly, movie critics hit Peak Irrelevance, but it’s starting to feel like an eternity ago, because this summer, a chorus of people — moviegoers, film industry executives, critics alike -same – sang a very different tune. It’s called: We’re Back! Critics, in case you haven’t heard, have emerged from the dark cave of our obsolescence and are once again bringing the news, keeping the studios in check, making the world safe for bad movies to die the death macabre they deserve at the box office. . Watch out, “Emoji Movie”! We come to you with a pitchfork.

As someone with a vested interest in thinking that reviews matter, I’d say our influence has never quite waned. There was definitely a Perception that it was, a sentiment that went hand in hand with the idea that we were elitist snobs at the helm of art who stood on the other side of a divide from the mainstream. Movie critics have been called to elitism since there were movies, but in a time when mega-budget franchise cinema had become a literal universethat overshadows everything around it (including the critics), this hostility has reached a new climax of jaded rejection.

This summer, however, a trend that has been building for some time got zoomed in. Audiences, it seemed, were beginning to turn their backs, and with much more casual speed, on junky would-be blockbusters who didn’t see it as entertainment. And reviews have arguably become part of that equation. A low score on Rottentomatoes.com, the website that aggregates reviews, divides them into “Fresh” or “Rotten” and turns those judgments into a metric, could seriously hurt a movie. It might even be the issue at the heart of a lousy sequel to “Pirates” or “Alien” or a movie like “The Dark Tower,” which adapted Stephen King’s epic series of multiverse novels by taking the brilliant decision to discard the novels. Critics did the same to the film – they threw it in the trash. And the public answered the call.

It’s part of a critic’s job to steer people away from bad films, but it’s even more vital that we shine a light on the good ones, and this summer the influence of critics in that direction was also noted. There was a big independent crossover hit, the romantic comedy “The Big Sick,” a film that critics defended. And before “Wonder Woman” opened, critics backed it up and helped herald and define the qualities that audiences would eventually embrace about it.

In many cases, the word got out on Rotten Tomatoes. And while the influence of Rotten Tomatoes may, in fact, be no greater than the influence that critics enjoyed before Rotten Tomatoes came along, the fact that that influence now relates to a score, a rating, a number gives it a unique weight. In the age of marketing polls and corporate quantification, “Critics loved it” doesn’t seem like quite as powerful a claim as “It scored 94% Fresh.” Critics, who are only human, like to believe they carry a shred of power, a vestige of influence in this fragmented world. Rotten Tomatoes attaches a concrete number to its influence.

Still, the pre-eminence of Rotten Tomatoes—that is, the site’s almost official status as a place that attests to the continued influence of film critics—has, I would argue, a downside. And I’m not just talking about the obvious that’s been cited for years: it encourages people to look at a rating and not bother to read a review. No, I’m referring to the fact that it’s not just moviegoers who listen to Rotten Tomatoes. These are the critics themselves. And it has become a Faustian bargain for them.

Critics, despite the image that some may have of us, are not monsters of height. We care about movies, and we have a natural expectation that when we review one, we’re not just talking to ourselves. So if we beat a movie and the news of it gets aired on Rotten Tomatoes, or if we champion a movie and help bring it to market, a process facilitated by Rotten Tomatoes, what could be the downside of that?

Here is the downside. “Influence” only works if the number of Rotten Tomatoes is high (or low) enough. It only works if “the critics” truly speak with one voice. And so the built-in dynamic of Rotten Tomatoes is to encourage critics to tune into each other so that their voices can all add up into one powerful voice that is greater than the sum of its parts.

What if you’re a critic who breaks ranks? The very fact that I put it this way is an indication of what is happening. In the world of film criticism, if you are out of step with the majority, you are now in the position of not helping the cause – the cause, in this case, being visibility and influence. And your offbeat opinion is going to be brought to light — almost put to the test — by Rotten Tomatoes. This situation has put a subtle pressure on the critics, even if the pressure is really that which the critics impose on themselves.

It’s a phenomenon I’ve witnessed, anecdotally, time and time again. The critic I boarded a shuttle with at Sundance, right after a big movie came out, who chatted with me for about 20 seconds before turning to his phone with someone’s fever in a war zone, almost antic in his desire to see what others were saying, and within minutes he had been sniffing their opinions like lines of cocaine, ingesting the collective wisdom of the Twitterverse. Or, conversely, a critic friend who wrote one of the few negative reviews of Steven Soderbergh’s “Logan Lucky” last week, and she was attacked, harassed and ridiculed for it, as if she had hit a profanity note, with the number of critics liking the film on Rotten Tomatoes (RT score: 93% Fresh) brandished as a weapon against it.

The sting of pressure to conform is ever-present. A few months ago during the Tribeca Film Festival, I attended the premiere of “The Circle”, a sci-fi parable about social media and the loss of privacy that caught my eye, seldom let go and gave an ominous insight into metaphysics. of digital communion. (Emma Watson performance: Skilled, layered, wide awake.) Later that night I posted my rave review, which I stand by, but the next morning I looked online and got the felt like the whole world pressed a red buzzer that said “WRONG!” (The film’s RT score now stands at 17% Fresh.) I’m not saying I’m right and they’re not, but what I’m saying is that “The Circle” was too much drama. cleverly crafted and provocative to deserve such a unanimous dismissal. It was like an answer you weren’t allowed to oppose.

The problem is not just impulsive condemnation; it is also instinctive adulation. This summer, I kept thinking: where were the dissenting voices on “War for the Planet of the Apes” (RT score: 93% fresh) or “Spider-Man: Homecoming” (RT score: 92% fresh) or “Baby Driver” (RT Score: 94% Fresh), a rock-‘n’-roll-on-wheels action frenzy that I, for one, thought would play like a Tarantino pastiche paint-by-numbers fanboy? I may be the only one in the world to feel this way, but I experienced the lack of diversity of opinion on all of these films as a violation, rather than an accomplishment, of what film criticism should be. were they good enough to deserve a collective hosanna?In each case, however, the critics made their voices heard – or perhaps we should just speak their voices.

Let’s be clear: this is not a conspiracy – by Rotten Tomatoes or anyone else. It’s a subtle and insidious trend made tangible by the ritualized collation of reviews. Yet critics are the last people on earth who should want to be conformists, and the rise of Rotten Tomatoes, not just as a cult destination but as a cultural institution, now encourages them, every week, to do so. . Fresh and Rotten have become the new thumbs, and if that’s the number you’re going to use, it doesn’t leave much wiggle room.

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