Should You Watch An Anticipated Film with Bad Reviews? (or How to Understand Rotten Tomatoes and Critics)
Uh oh. You were keen on seeing that Lion King film. You could not wait to celebrate the retelling of a childhood favourite with a hyper realistic focus. Now, the reviews are in, and the critics are split. Most of them are blown away by the special effects, but not by the actual telling of our favourite story. This is it. We can't see the film anymore.
Not so fast (and it actually should not be your immediate prerogative to abandon ship as soon as this happens). What should we do in a scenario like this? I've been reviewing films for just over ten years, so this kind of response does not bother me one bit. An investment is an investment, and repulsion can barely be subsided. I used to find myself in these positions, though. It's only natural that we all end up there. We put so much stock in the weight of a critic's opinion; with review aggregates now claiming power, the fear of a film being terrible only grows stronger.
The first step is to understand the overall purpose of these sites, and the importance of critics. I feel this is necessary, since many people follow websites like Rotten Tomatoes on social media, then get mad that critics don't like the film they want to see (or like a film they don't want to see). Perhaps following Rotten Tomatoes is not the best idea if this is your viewpoint. Nonetheless, critics can serve as the voice that tells you what to watch and what to avoid. For me, critics are more of an academic voice that can dissect films in a bit of a different light; it can be the extra angle that we often need when we cannot put an observation into words.
This is important to remember, since critics often evoke their viewing experiences in their articles, more than try to truly sell or reject a film. These two cases do happen, usually if a film is one of the favourites the critic has seen (or the complete opposite, where a critic despises a film: see Roger Ebert's response to North). Otherwise, a critic is piecing together overall thoughts on a film for you to digest, whether you have seen the film already or not. Unless a critic is literally saying "see this movie" or "don't see this movie", their reviews are an extra opinion, and not your own decision being made. Maybe you follow the taste of a particular critic pretty well. You're still relying on a gut feeling. Only you know if you like a film or not if you watch it yourself. You can still not want to watch a film (like I won't be watching Hobbs and Shaw. There. I said it. Don't ask for it), but that's at your discretion.
We also must understand how Rotten Tomatoes works once and for all (or any review aggregate, really). A 95% approval rating does not mean the film being reviewed is brilliant. A 56% rating does not mean a film is terrible. On Rotten Tomatoes, these are NOT scores out of 100. These are percentages for how many critics liked a film. Liking a film can range from a mediocre-to-positive review (6/10) to a glowing review (10/10). That means the 95% rating may be full of mediocre scores. How do you tell? You can look at the average rating. An average rating of 6.7/10 for a 95% rated film may actually be worse than a 6.7/10 rating for a 56% rated film: the 95% indicates many positive shrugs (there many not be many super high ratings), while a decently rated divisive film may indicate polarity (amongst the negativity, some critics rated this film highly to keep the rating up). Would you rather have mediocrity, or a work that really meant something to a few?
Learning to read Rotten Tomatoes better will help in the long run. If a film has a high rating (98%) and a high average (8.7/10), you know it will be truly special. But, we're talking about the grey area. That's what we need to remember. The desire to watch a film is spent on two decisions: yes or no. We forget that our decision making does not have to be as basic. A good trailer excites us. Bad reviews make us suddenly change our minds. What you should practice is being more calculating with your decisions. See what problems critics had with the film at hand. Decide if these faults are ones you cannot bypass.
At the end of the day, you should also not let reviews decide your actual viewing experience. This is where things get hard. It's easy for me to say because I watch films for the first time from a place of judgement. I start off with perfect scores, and see how many points get deducted as I continue watching the film. Not everyone wants to watch films to grade them though. This is meant to be entertainment! Hoe can you not focus on the awful dialogue if Peter Travers pointed it out in a review? You cannot unhear that! That's a valid problem. Do you think the dialogue is bad, or is it only bad because you have to believe the professional opinion? Art is a medium of subjectivity at the end of the day.
The easiest bit of advice I can give is to take reviews with grains of salt before you watch the film in question. Ingest these discussions more-so after you've seen the film. See if you agree. I've seen many films I don't like because a critic proposed that they were good. I've missed out on countless films I've later loved because of scathing reviews. I shouldn't ever stop reading critics' words, but I had to learn how to stop letting these swirling opinions be my own (especially before I had even had s chance to form mine).
That goes for you, too. Don't immediately decide to turn down a film you've been aching to see if I didn't like it. Don't force yourself to understand a film I like; that doesn't mean you will like it, too. We can help people who are split on how they feel about seeing a film. We can point out negativities that you may have missed, while you have your own problems we neglected to raise. We can rejoice in the brilliance of a film together. Please, don't count us out entirely. Just don't make us be the be-all-end-all of a film you've been dying to see for years. There are only so many critics, compared to the millions of movie going public. Our voices matter, but your voice matters the most to you.
Andreas Babiolakis has a Masters degree in Film and Photography Preservation and Collections management from Ryerson University, as well as a Bachelors degree in Cinema Studies from York University. His favourite times of year are the Criterion Collection flash sales and the annual Toronto International Film Festival.