The Inherent Flaws of Movie Ratings and Scores

And Netflix’s ingenious solution to this

My film consumption in the past 2 months has skyrocketed way above my usual baseline, thanks to lockdown and my irresistibly comfortable bed. I know watching in bed isn’t the most hygienic sleep practice, but that’s besides the point. I’m actually starting to scratch off movie names from my To-Watch list these days, it’s crazy.

In the past week alone, I’ve finished the entire Haunting of Hill House series, rewatched Samuel L. Jackson’s hilarious Hitman’s Bodyguard, indulged in Jonah Hill’s 2007 modern-classic Superbad (which I know I should’ve seen much earlier), America’s vintage Pie, Rick and Morty, Wrong Missy, and a list of others that I’ve already forgotten of.

Usually, I’d select movies by first consulting my To-Watch list — a list that’s by all standards way too long — through a process that takes me half an hour in itself. I’d proceed by shortlisting several movies that seem to vibe with my current mood, and before deciding the worthy winner I give it a cheeky Google search to see what other people think of it. We all do it for our Amazon shopping, so reading movie reviews before watching them makes sense right?

Obviously, I eventually choose the movie with the highest average rating, cause that’s how it works right? Rarely. In numerous occasions I’ve observed that by following this selection framework, I’d leave the movie feeling either completely bamboozled or bored, which always lead to disappointment.

On the rare occasions when I don’t consult Google beforehand, say if friends brought the films to a movie party, or if dad chooses the movie for family movie night, I’d frequently be so transfixed with the movie that I’d often be surprised to see critics absolutely slaughter the reviews and ratings. The numbers just didn’t make sense internally.

So where does the problem lie? Me, for not being able to fall in love with movies that critics praise and adore, or movie ratings for trying to objectify art, or society, for relying too excessively in a system that’s so inherently flawed?

Let’s first set some terms straight. The movie ratings I refer to are Google’s featured snippets that automatically show up on your screen when you perform a movie name search. Normally Google will show 3–4 different ratings. The first rating comes from the Internet Movie Database (IMDb), of which the number represents the average rating given by users. People are allowed to rate movies from 1–10, 10 being the highest. This is obviously problematic, since everyone has different ways and internal spectrums to rate movies, and therefore no way to standardise these ratings. If a person was offended by a line in the movie and coughed up a 1/10, the average score will tumble down disproportionately to the previous average.

The second rating is usually Rotten Tomatoes’ verdict of the film. Different to IMDb’s system, Rotten Tomatoes’ score is represented by a Tomatometer, which aggregates the opinion of hundreds of television critics and is depicted by either a Fresh (at least 60%) or Rotten status. The third comes from Google’s native system and is a hybrid of the two previous scoring schematics. Like IMDb, the score represents user-generated ratings, but like Rotten Tomatoes, the input metric is a simple thumbs up or thumbs down. The percentage of likes are portrayed by Google’s rating.

The whole system seems to look rather dodgy to me, not because they’re complicated, but instead because they’re too simple. Movie is, like art, subjective. Each film evokes a different, unique feeling to an individual, who then — consciously or subconsciously — gives meaning to the movie. It’s a product in every sense, but not one to be treated like items sold online. We don’t rate paintings and photographs, so why would we rate movies?

My way around this is by internalising movies based on 2 distinct variables:

  • M1: How the film makes me feel as I’m watching
  • M2: How the film makes me feel leaving the cinema

Metric 1, shortened to M1, focuses on pure joy and fun. It’s in the thrill and suspense you get with epic fight sequences and laughing fits you get with perfectly timed jokes in perfectly conditioned contexts. Think Casino Royale’s parkour showdown, or John Wick’s iconic club scene, or Ricky Gervais’ helplessly witty banter from After Life.

Metric 2, on the other hands, provokes novelty and insight. Films with a high M2 rating challenge your existing beliefs, stir up ideas, and drive inspiration. They boast the rare ability to make you go “Damn!” even weeks after that initial viewing. Think Contratiempo’s final reveal. Or Ex Machina’s contemplative denouement. Or Interstellar’s mind boggling twist and turns. These films can change the way you see things and live your life.

Take a couple seconds to internalise these two terms as I’ll be referring back to them in the coming paragraphs.

Historically, films that are highly acclaimed by critics — often going on to rake in awards — have high M2 ratings.

But they’re also notorious for leaving people bored out of their wits in the theatre. I’ve found that there are fundamentally two reasons for this. First, high M2 films require focus and active attention. Missing just one vital scene could mean you don’t comprehend the big reveal. Their immaculate attention to detail is actually one of the premises that make movies high M2. Secondly, high M2 films are often low M1. These films are often built to be more stern and elegant, naturally sucking out part of the fun and enjoyment.

On the flip side, high M1 films don’t require a lot of focus. Most action films and comedy flicks fall under this category. They’re an absolute blast to watch, but they are not very memorable. They don’t leave as much an impression as high M2 movies do. Unfortunately, these films are often riddled with atrocious and harsh ratings from critics.

Specific occasions also call out for specific selections in movie choices. High M1 films are best viewed when you’re with friends during movie night, in parties, when you’re working out, feeling rather bummed out, or if you’re in a cinema for the full immersive audiovisual experience. Since they don’t need a lot of focus, they can be paired with other social activities.

Contrastingly, high M2 films are best seen when you’re alone, in a small group of 2–3 people, in a focused state, or with any device with a pause and rewind button, cause you’re going to want to rewind those few precious seconds to relive an important scene.

But M1 and M2 films are not necessarily mutually exclusive of each other. A movie can be both exhilarating to watch and leave a lasting impression on us (high M1 and high M2 ), and these often make the best films. Movies that most conventional rating platforms agree fit into this criteria include The Dark Knight, The Godfather, and Toy Story. But once again, even those are not for everyone.

Movies, like painting, should be judged and rated individually, because ‘cool’ and ‘funny’ are both subjective, and since M2 is usually highly open to interpretation. I personally find Ex Machina (my favourite movie of all time) immeasurably enthralling, exceeding both my M1 and M2 expectations, but I won’t be surprised if someone found it rather dull and uninspiring.

There are many factors that can affect your personal ratings, a movie’s inherent qualities do not stand on their own two feet. The state of mind you’re in when seeing the film is of great importance too. If you’re feeling a bit gloomy and see your feelings resonate intimately with a movie character, you may have stumbled upon a new favourite.

Who you see the movie with also matters, as is what you’re doing while watching, and where you’re taking the movie viewing to. Personal preferences matter too. If you generally dislike horror, then you’ll probably find thrillers quite unbearable. If you’re fond of having a good laugh, then you’ll probably gravitate towards comedies.

Netflix intuitively understands this conundrum. The now world famous film streaming platform does not show ratings or movie scores, but slowly tries to understand your personality and preferences through your streaming activity and ratings on movies. They analyse your information (and millions of other users too), to recognise certain patterns and behaviours, ultimately producing ratings to see movies that ‘match’ with your ‘personality’. I think that’s the closest and fairest we’ve come to movie ratings so far.

Granted, this system may still be far from the utopian ideal, but it’s at least a promising start to see people veer away from conventional ratings as a basis for their movie selection practices. In the meantime, let us appreciate the vast online movie directory, embrace the art in them and watch on. It’s a good time to be alive.

Junior doctor, writer, photographer, and part-time social media strategist. Receive weekly updates from me ⤵

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