Are Film Critics Just Giving Away Good Reviews?

If you read this blog regularly (there may be somebody who does — I hope) you probably remember me citing that first episode of The Critic in which network president Duke Phillips complaint to Jay Sherman that a critic’s job is to rate movies from good to excellent.

Even then it seemed that many a critic was overly generous — and those who suspect this of being the case have only had more cause to think so in the age of Rotten Tomatoes, with a statistical analysis a few years back providing empirical evidence of the “average” review of a film becoming more favorable with time. ( In 1998–2009 the average score for a film with a 1000 theater+ release was 44 percent. In 2016–2019 it was 56 percent, and still rising — 59 percent for the first nine months of 2019.)

Just what has been going on here?

One possible explanation is that critics these days risk more flak for a bad review, in part because of the manner in which every film release these days looks like an engagement in the culture wars. It is not hard to imagine a mainstream critic who, for example, did not care for The Woman King, be hesitant about being too negative about it — or for that matter, Top Gun 2, which seems a particularly interesting case. Where the original Top Gun had only a 57 percent average score on Rotten Tomatoes, the sequel, which is basically the same thing, landed a 96 percent average score, a staggering 40 percent difference.

That yawning gap suggests another explanation, namely that critics have become more generous to commercial films of kinds they used to slight — like big action movies. The fear of offending some important segment of opinion (to say nothing of the studios) apart, there may be a generational difference at work here. In contrast with an older generation of critics that (if you will pardon the reference to Mike Judge’s Idiocracy watched movies “that had stories, so you cared whose ass it was and why it was farting,” younger critics — anyone not a senior citizen — grew up in age in which that kind of film was less of a presence, where high concept was king, and action movie-style filmmaking was taken in stride. (Remember — Dr. No is sixty years old this month, Star Wars forty-five years old this past summer, meaning that all but the elderly got a big dose of this stuff in their formative years.) And less and less of anything else has been on offer to a really wide audience for a really long time. (If you don’t believe me just go and check Boxofficemojo.com for yourself and tell me how big a percentage actual dramas with actual stories not involving CGI animation and spectacle are to be found among the top ten, the top twenty, the top fifty releases of the year.)

Still another factor is the broader media environment — the hyper-crowded market with its ever more-brutal attention economy that may be corroding all nuance past the point of recognition. Contemplating it I now find myself thinking of Henry James’ remark in 1915 that World War I had already “used up words,” so that “they [had] weakened . . . deteriorated like motor car tires . . . been overstrained and knocked about and voided of . . . happy semblance,” confronting the world “with a depreciation of all our terms,” leaving them so limp as to deprive us of our ability to express ourselves.

So it goes in the vicious war-of-all-against all for the consumer’s attention today. I get the impression that critics still love playing the bully and brutally bashing films they find unworthy when they get the chance, the more in as they so often have to play it safe for the aforementioned reason — but when they praise, as well as dispraise, they are commensurately hyperbolic, the sheer idiot gushing with which they greeted The Sopranos increasingly become their default operating mode.

Originally published at https://raritania.blogspot.com.

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Nader Elhefnawy

Nader Elhefnawy is the author of the thriller The Shadows of Olympus. Besides Medium, you can find him online at his personal blog, Raritania.