Friday, April 9, 2010

The Rating Scale

So the other day when I wrote a one minute review of Next Day Air Andrew over at Encore commented that the movie sounded passable but he was surprised by the high rating which I allotted (3.5 out of 5). This inspired me to throw out some context. There is one fundamental rule that I believe when it comes to scoring films: it is pointless. I do it because it comes with the territory, but really, what does a rating out of four or five prove? It doesn't assess the worth of the film itself because it is based on the preference of the writer and reflects their experience of the film and not the film's overall worth, in which case you should scrap the rating and just read the review. That's what it is there for in the first place. It also doesn't assess the worth of a film in relation to other films because every rating is the rating solely of that film and not all films. It is possible to use other like films to justify a certain rating but when I give a five star rating to Up in the Air that by no means makes it the equal to The Godfather which would also get five stars. Up in the Air is a five star film in the world of corporate human comedies and The Godfather is a five star gangster movie. In no way do either of those five stars cross over in relation to one another and I don't even begin to know how they would begin to compare in the overall world of film. However if The Dark Knight is a five star movie then the other four Batman movies before Batman Begins are around 2-2.5s. Now, as for why I use five stars. It's because I like that extra star for indifference. Four stars doesn't really give you much wiggle room. However, in terms of thumbs up or thumbs down, five stars offers the 3-3.5 range which is basically the same (overall indifference) but 3 reflects the thumb tipping slightly in the down direction while the 3.5 reflects the thumb tipping slightly in the up direction. But again, we're beating a dead horse because, as proof right in the first paragraph, the meaning of these ratings exist solely in the mind of the reviewer (Andrew perceives 3.5 to be of greater worth than me and that's his right). To me good film criticism has, is and will always be about someone who writes about film sharing their experiences with those who like to read about film. As I've said elsewhere on this site, I read a review not to know if the movie is good or not (I can decide that on my own) but to see what reviewer X had to say about it. When I read Andrew's blog I care much more about who his personal favourite actors and actresses of the decade are and why he thinks so rather than what films he thinks I should be seeing because, knowing me, I'll probably see them regardless. With that said, in most cases, to reference Jean Renior once again, the reviewer is often more important than the film he or she is reviewing, which simply acts as a springboard or starting point from which that person can begin to share their personal thoughts, fears, anxieties, philosophies, emotional responses, etc. Film criticism, like all art, is fundamentally composed of two parts: the emotional and the intellectual. It's on one (or both) of these two levels that all great film (and art in general) moves us on. If a film doesn't stimulate a viewer's mind or move them to some emotional response then it has failed and this can only be expressed in the body of the review, not in the arbitrary number I put in brackets after the film's title.


  1. Hey, nice piece here Mike. I occasionally get into similar conversations with friends over the subjective nature of rating scales and the water they hold etc., nice to read someone articulate it as well as you have here. And Renoir references taboot!

  2. Interesting point - I just don't bother unless it can assist in clarifying a point. So, say I have been slamming a film for ages (with kick-Ass, on the podcast, I went on about the few problems with it for ages but then gave it four out of five because ultimately these bad things weren't such a big deal) I will clarify where I stand with a rating. If I am honest, Kim Newman openly states how he is not keen on the rating system Empire demands of his reviews (out of five) but he does it. Im a blogger so I don't need to do anything. Wait until the end of the year for the top ten of the year... to see the comparisons the films have with others. Not to mention, 'ratings' can easily change, while analysis is stil analysis - even if you reinterpret something.


  3. Mike, you couldn't be more right. The only time I find ratings really handy is when new films are released and everyone I know is reviewing the exact same film. At this point, I typically skim most of the reviews if everyone is saying the same thing (I can only read constant praise or disdain for one film a limited number of times), but if I see a rating that goes against the general consensus, then I will surely stop to read the entire review to see why that person felt differently than the popular opinion.

    But in the end, yes it is all subjective.

  4. Good piece Mike - particularly the last paragraph.

    That's why I like the American school grading system - there are so many levels, a four star system can never say much.

    I'm not arguing that any rating system can tell you why a film is good, bad or indifferent but I mainly enjoy it because 1, it's abit of fun and 2, it puts into context how I feel about the individual film within the grand scheme of cinema.

    And yes, these grades can occasionally change but surely so can analysis. Yes, bloggers don't need to do it but they also don't need not to do it - it is your Professional film critics like the Kaels and the Sight of Sounds who need not do it.

  5. I see (at least) two valid reasons for ratings. One, say you read reviewer X regularly and find that you are generally in agreement with this person. Were they to write a formal review for Movie Z (that you know nothing about) and give it a 4.5/5, would that not alone be enough to convince you to check it out?

    Two, unlike you, I prefer my ratings to be hierachal. Your Up in the Air/Godfather analogy is completely lost on me. At what point is the line to be drawn? You say "The Godfather is a five star gangster movie." How many subgenres are you dividing the movie world into? Is there a 5-star movie about waste management? (I'm exaggerating, of course.) My point is, my ratings are as much for me and my weak memory as they are for others. It's not a perfect system, but I'd like my 5-star ratings to be all "tied" in my mind, and all better than my 4-star ratings, and so on down the line. It's a personal categorization system.

  6. Fletch- I agree with your first point but wouldn't just a thumbs up or thumbs down do exactly the same without having at attach a number to the movie? Certainly it worked for Siskel and Ebert and the New York Times only offers whether they recommend a movie or not without a rating and they're getting by?

    I'm not trying to divide movies into genres with my statement, what I am saying this that every movie should be rated as itself and not in relation to another film. If that were the case and I was rating Up In the Air in relation to the Godfather, Godfather would be a 5 and Up... would be a 3.5 or 4 maybe. Ratings work in comparison if you are rating Batman movies for example: If Dark Knight is a five, Batman and Robin must be around a 2.

    But again, we're getting technical about something that is completely arbitrary. Really, the only ratings that offer any information about a films worth, at least when they are my ratings, are a 1 and a 5. Everything in between is basically indistinguishable and, with the proof of Andrew's comment that inspired this post, completely up to the interpretation of the readers. What, after all, is really the difference between a 2 and a 2.5 except the way I was feeling that day?