Why Movie Ratings Systems Suck

Editor's Note: For the record we use letter grades here at film.com; though we readily admit it's a flawed system. Here's MaryAnn's take on the issue:

I hate the ratings systems that movie critics use. Even my own. Stars, percentages, thumbs-up or -down, buckets of popcorn overflowing or half-filled or empty, whatever. Hate them.

My overarching thesis as a film critic has always been: What does pop culture say about us as a society? What collective nightmares and neuroses or shared dreams and fantasies do the stories we tell one another spring from, and what do those things say about us as people, individually and as a group? Just because a movie is popular doesn't automatically make it "good" or "entertaining," at least not to me or to the people who like to read my criticism, but it does make it worth talking about for all the reasons that it is popular.

But how do you translate that into a star rating? Does a crappy movie that is extraordinary for what it reveals about the things mainstream audiences latch on to deserve a high rating, because it's worth seeing for its subtext and metatext and extra text? Does that same movie deserve to be dismissed with a low rating? (Maybe it does ... ) Does the world's greatest popcorn movie deserve, say, four stars if that means it's put on the same level as a more serious and artistically challenging movie? Does it deserve not to get those four stars just because it's not "serious?"

The problem with ratings systems is this: They make it look easy to compare apples and oranges. An apple that's 100 percent "Fresh" is not the same as an orange that's 100 percent "Fresh." But they get treated as if they are by those who see nothing but the ratings.

Last year, after a decade of doing without a ratings system, I implemented one at FlickFilosopher.com, at the request of readers who wanted to know "at a glance" what I thought of a movie. So now I give green lights (for movies worth paying multiplex prices to see), yellow lights (probably best to wait for DVD, unless your favorite actor is in it or the subject matter has some special appeal), and red lights (skip it). It's not an ideal system, but I'd hoped it had some nuance to it: a blockbuster action movie can be as worthy of your multiplex dollar as a quiet art-house drama, and "see it" is not quite the same thing as "thumbs-up."

But I knew I would run into trouble eventually, and it happened recently when I gave a green light to Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, the creationist propaganda flick masquerading as a documentary. Readers came out of the woodwork to yell at me for, they believed, saying that this was a "good" movie. Of course, I said no such thing: a movie worth seeing -- as this one is in a know-your-enemy sense -- is not necessarily a quality movie.

Fortunately, some of my readers do understand that, and came to my defense before I could even do so myself. So maybe my little experiment in ratings hasn't been a complete disaster. I'd still rather people read what I had to say, though, before they yell at me.

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MaryAnn Johanson (email me)

reviews, reviews, reviews! at FlickFilosopher.com