If you’re a critic, you brace for impact when you hear that a famous creator has weighed in on the subject of “critics”: Even those whose work tends to garner positive reviews are often unfavorably disposed to the reviewers themselves. But Joe Hill, who for a best-selling horror author is awfully pleasant in person, comes not to bury critics but to praise them. In an essay on Medium, he takes aim at aggregators like Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic for the low scores given to “Sinister 2” and “American Ultra,” which he says provide the appearance of an unitary “Critics say” opinion but can be profoundly misleading:
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.
In my experience, aggregation sites more often err in the direction of positive than negative consensus; They are funded by movie ads, after all). Rotten Tomatoes in particular often classifies reviews with extremely modest positives as “Fresh,” for for the purposes of the overall percentage counts the same as a rave. They will change the rating if the critic asks them to, or allow critics to change it themselves, but the process isn’t entirely transparent, and not all critics keep tabs on how the site interprets their work. (It’s probably fair to note here that “Horns,” which was adapted from one of Hill’s novels, has a 41% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes and 46% on Metacritic.)
As far as “Sinister 2” goes, Rotten Tomatoes’ 13% Fresh seems like an accurate read of overall critical opinion, even if Criticwire does have it at a more favorable C- average. But if you’re inclined to agree with, say, Vulture’s Bilge Ebiri, who said the movie “has a nobility that’s rare in much modern horror cinema,” that low ranking shouldn’t matter a bit. (History is, after all, littered with films that are now considered masterpieces but were critically savaged on their initial release.) As Hill suggests, there’s a better way to know what critics really think about a movie. Read them:
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 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.