David Cronenberg Whiffs on Criticism of Rotten Tomatoes

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David Cronenberg has been around Hollywood for almost five decades, having directed more than 20 feature-length films to go along with a bevy of shorts. With credentials like that, he’s earned the right to have an opinion when it comes to the modern state of movie criticism in the press. As a director whose vast majority of movies are well-liked by Rotten Tomatoes, his most recent thoughts on the review aggregator were more than a little curious. Io9 picked up an interview he did with the CBC in which he took Rotten Tomatoes to task for expanding film criticism to everyone with a computer and an opinion.

Even now if you go to Rotten Tomatoes, you have critics and then you have ‘Top Critics,’ and what that really means is that there are legitimate critics who have actually paid their dues and worked hard and are in a legitimate website connected perhaps with a newspaper or perhaps not. … Some voices have emerged that are actually quite good who never would have emerged before, so that’s the upside of that. But I think it means that it’s diluted the effective critics.

Io9 goes on to essentially agree with Cronenberg’s assessment, which, in fairness, holds some truth. The publication cites the way Rotten Tomatoes has “trained people to think of reviews as ‘reflecting the opinions of the masses’ rather than the analytical insights of a few movie nerds,” and in many ways, that’s not wrong. But much of this view discounts the whole purpose of sites like Rotten Tomatoes: to aggregate critical opinions, not to act as cinema’s judge, jury, and executioner.

Let’s for example take a look at the Rotten Tomatoes listing for Cronenberg’s much-loved Eastern Promises. It scores well into the “Fresh” category, at 89%, concluding that critics generally felt it was a “compelling crime story.” Directly next to this assessment is an audience score of 83%. Hand-in-hand, we see a visual separation of the “opinions of the masses” and those of the people who critique movies for a living. Essentially, the idea is that Rotten Tomatoes has somehow duped us into thinking the critic score represents the end-all be-all of what people think is largely a misnomer.

Cronenberg’s — and by extension, io9’s — critique runs in the vein that we’ve regressed to a “thumbs-up” or “thumbs-down” review culture without nuance thanks in large part to the critical aggregation that Rotten Tomatoes provides. But each movie isn’t simply “Rotten” or “Fresh.” Rather, there’s a nuance in the percentages the system relies on. Sure, Cronenberg’s controversial NC-17 rated Crash was technically “Rotten,” but at 58%, we see that it was just 2% away from a “Fresh” rating. Such a score tells us that it may actually be worth seeing — right on the cusp of potentially being good, in fact, should you decide to give it a shot.

Review culture is as old as entertainment itself, and we’ve been allowing it to dictate our collective mindset in terms of what makes a good or a bad movie since the very beginning. All a service like Rotten Tomatoes does is offer a place to indulge in that instinct. As long as you use it as it was intended to be used — as a guide, and not the final word — the critical world can remain in balance. So if you’re trying to decide whether you want to go and watch Cronenberg’s The Fly, it’s currently scoring at 91%. Probably worth your while.

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