Arts & Culture » Movies

Critical mass


According to Rotten Tomatoes, Toy Story 2 is 100 per cent. This isn’t exactly surprising, but it is impressive. So few movies are 100 per cent.

In fact, according to the Rotten Tomatoes archive, which goes all the way back to August 1998, there are only four other 100 per centers: Shakespeare in Love (again, no surprise), Liberty Heights (but it’s new and all the data isn’t in yet) and One True Thing (must be a statistical glitch of some sort). Being John Malkovich gets a hard-earned 96 per cent while The Blair Witch Project is an inevitable 90. These, too, are impressive numbers.

But what do they mean? Rotten Tomatoes is a Web site which offers a nationwide sampling of reviews for every major (and a few minor) nonforeign film released, usually on the movie’s opening day. The samples are links to full-length reviews and are culled from established venues such as the New York Times and Newsweek, smaller-circulation papers including the Denver Post and the Orlando Weekly, and online-only sites that specialize in film critiques written by callow youths.

Whereas before the average film buff would feel sated and sage after having seen a half-dozen reviews of a new release, now he or she can access up to 40 or so considered opinions, pronto, to be perused at one’s leisure. Obviously, this is too much. The prospect of reading 40 reviews of a film, any film, sounds like hard and unrewarding work. Most film critics are journalists, after all, and the prevailing style consists of hyperbolic outbursts connected by drab passages of exposition.

Still, the idea of having access to an instant critical consensus is appealing and, with that mysterious but common online aura of having been willed into being by a collective consciousness, Rotten Tomatoes offers an equivalent of the time-honored tradition of only reading the last paragraph of a review in the form of a percentile rating. Toy Story 2’s 100 percent, for example, means that all 67(!) of the reviews sampled were favorable.

This quick and handy statistical exactitude, imprecise but close enough, is revolutionary. In the past a critical consensus was an abstraction, an amalgam of a handful of vaguely remembered reviews, clichés circulating in the media overmind and repeated assertions of one’s circle of friends (and, of course, oneself).

Occasionally a film will accrue an imaginary consensus. When the merits of Eyes Wide Shut were being debated on various online message boards last summer, many of the movie’s champions felt compelled to argue against a perceived negative battery of reviews, the standard line being that Stanley Kubrick’s films are often initially misunderstood.

But a quick check with Rotten Tomatoes shows Eyes getting a hearty 81 per cent with a database of 43 reviews. For some, this information may be mildly depressing. A fictional consensus arises from a certain need — a misunderstood genius is a much more satisfying archetype than one embraced by the rank-and-file of opinion makers.

Rotten Tomatoes isn’t the only game in town. The Internet Movie Database and the Movie Review Query Engine offer a goodly number of reviews for a wider selection of movies, sourcing the same range of hardened pros and ahistorical cyberpunks. But you have to actually read their reviews to get the gist. Tomatoes is the only site which seems to grasp how tedious review reading can be and how gratifying it is to get the big picture with a minimum of effort. It’s so much more satisfying to know, with just a click and a glance, that this film is loved and that other film isn’t.

And never have to bother with the boring details again.

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