Like it or not, a decent chunk of online movie discussion is driven by Rotten Tomatoes and whether films are “rotten” or “fresh.” I can’t be the only one exhausted by this. And while there’s something to be said for using that website as a quick reference guide, we seem to be allowing it to dominate too much of the cultural conversation these days. It jettisons the nuance of a critic’s assessment in order to focus on the numeric value (whether one is provided or not).
Anecdotally speaking, I can cite a decade’s worth of conversations with office co-workers across three different institutions and companies who loved citing the “tomatometer” as gospel whenever a movie was about to come out.
“Not seeing that, it’s 30% on Rotten Tomatoes…”
“I only watch movies with a fresh rating.”
“Why is that 90%? It sucked!”
This isn’t new, lest you think I’m taking out my frustrations on Rotten Tomatoes. In a pre-tomatometer world, Siskel & Ebert’s “Two Thumbs Up!” gave us perhaps the most iconic shorthand ever. People referenced that praise in almost exactly the same way (and god help a movie that got the dreaded “Two Thumbs Down” on their television show).
For the general public, those who watch one or two movies a week in order to pass the time on weekend nights, there has probably never been much nuance in the appraisal of art. But what surprises me about today’s “rotten” designation is just how many film fans are willing to accept this consensus as gospel without seeing a movie for themselves.
I know. For many of us, it’s hard to go the movies with any frequency. I have two kids who consume most of my non-writing time (and I wouldn’t have it any other way). When I do get out, I rarely want to roll the dice on something that most people say is awful. I’m not knocking professional critics. In many cases, they’re our first line of defense against wholesale mediocrity. And over the years, I’ve discovered a small group of film writers whose opinions I do value above all others. For me, their sway is a lot more powerful than the generic consensus Rotten Tomatoes offers.
A few days ago, I watched the way Rotten Tomatoes unveiled the score of Neil Marshall’s Hellboy (something I actually didn’t have a problem with) and the way many people reacted to it. They accepted it as immediate fact. The movie, a failure. Granted, Hellboy feels more than a little unnecessary to me, something I probably wouldn’t have taken the time to see in theaters anyway (not with my schedule). It’s also something I’m perfectly primed to enjoy in the comfort on my home theater later this year.
It wouldn’t be the first time. I’m not suggesting that Hellboy is some masterwork that’s being unfairly tried and convicted in the court of public opinion. But I would offer a gentle reminder to audiences everywhere to make up your own mind about it, whether that’s in theaters or on video.
Because when I think about movies I enjoy (including some all-time favorites), more than a few are “rotten” by that pesky tomatometer’s standards.
Here’s a few:
BASIC INSTINCT (1992)
Yep. One of the best psychological thrillers ever made, and one of the most iconic movies of the 90s, is “rotten.” Basic Instinct is Paul Verhoeven firing on all cylinders as he shoots a morally dubious script by Joe Eszterhas that keeps you guessing until the very last shot. It’s further sold by two fantastic performances, both Michael Douglas and Sharon Stone losing themselves inside the trash aesthetic. In a more perfect world, the lurid sexual thriller is Hollywood’s preferred genre of choice and it’s comic book movies we wish would make a comeback.
DEATH SENTENCE (2007)
If it isn’t bad enough that James Wan’s vigilante thriller Death Sentence lost the Labor Day box office to Rob Zombie’s Halloween remake, it’s an equal crime that a majority of critics gave the film a hard pass. Still, a few genre-savvy writers were hip to what Wan was putting down here. Kevin Bacon is great as our modern day Charles Bronson, an everyman pushed further into violence as he struggles to protect his family throughout increasingly brutal episodes. Wan’s visual proficiency would be cemented beyond reproach with later films, but Death Sentence has a parking garage chase sequence that’s an all-timer. A moment or two of melodrama aside, this is a great film begging to be rediscovered.
Growing up, this was always considered one of William Friedkin’s most notorious misses. What a total joke. Because from the very first time I saw Cruising, and from the very first frame of it, I was positively riveted. The film’s reputation has favorably increased with time, but not enough to warrant critical reappraisal. Perhaps that will come once Arrow Video releases what I hope will be its definitive home video release. Until then, this is one of the films I think about whenever someone tries citing the tomatometer as any sort of quality barometer.
MIAMI VICE (2006) / BLACKHAT (2015)
When Blackhat came out in winter of 2015, I thought for sure Mann had a hit on his hands. The trailers were awesome, the cast was worth getting excited about, and it seemed to be the return of vintage Mann. And then the critics trashed it to pieces. I rushed to the film anyway and was every bit as enthralled as I wanted to be. I don’t know what it is about Mann that inspires critics to so regularly miss the mark, but Blackhat is among the most unfairly maligned pictures ever made.
THE COUNSELOR (2013)
Here’s one movie that doesn’t give a shit if you like it. Sir Ridley Scott followed his divisive sci-fi/horror opus Prometheus with an equally upsetting study in nihilism. One of the rare pictures to get stamped with a “D” Cinemascore, The Counselor is a darkly hilarious story about truly terrible people doing truly reprehensible things in the world of drug smuggling. I don’t really blame audiences for their inability to get behind a movie where nobody is worth rooting for, but this is such a hilariously bleak bit of storytelling that I can’t help but love it. It takes a real madman of cinema to craft something so brazen. And that’s why I’ll always love Sir Ridley.
Another movie that probably never stood a chance at winning over audiences, Birth is a low key horror picture from Jonathan Glazer that takes us to some really uncomfortable places. Nicole Kidman is in top form here, both fragile and hollow, as a woman who begins to suspect a mysterious child is the reincarnation of her dead husband. Birth is in desperate need of a Blu-ray release in order to properly showcase director Glazer’s meticulous eye (Kidman herself has never been better photographed). Almost completely forgotten at this point, Birth is a must for fans of unconventional cinema.
THE NEON DEMON (2016)
The Neon Demon is somehow more accessible than expected while taking a perverse delight in trolling its audience. In short, it’s exactly what I want from Nicolas Winding Refn. I adore this chronically detached look at stardom and jealousy in the neon-soaked world of Los Angeles fashion modeling. The movie goes to some hilarious and unexpected places (especially as it goes on), ending up exactly where it should, proving we were in the hands of both a master filmmaker and master troll the entire time. Just great.
Don’t ask me to differentiate between the four (FOUR) different cuts of this film. I think I missed one of them. And while there are things I’ve enjoyed about each of Oliver Stone’s subsequent versions of this sprawling epic, I’ve never felt like the original theatrical cut had anything to apologize for. This grand retelling of the King of Macedonia has one hell of a cast, and Stone proves surprisingly adept at staging big screen battle carnage. I love that this one never shies away from the fluid sexuality of its protagonist, and at one point Angelia Jolie (as Alexander’s mother) appears in full-on Medusa get up, complete with slithering snakes for hair. It may or may not be the hottest thing I’ve ever seen.
I’m a huge fan of Jennifer Chambers Lynch and her 2008 thriller Surveillance. This Rashomon in a police station is a fantastic little shocker that many people have slept on. Two FBI agents (Bill Pullman and Julia Ormond) interview witnesses who may be able to identify a brutal serial killer, only to discover that everyone’s got secrets to keep. Insanely compelling and wonderfully shot, this is such a gem that the tomatometer seems absolutely absurd.
THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH (1999)
People seem to hate Michael Apted’s 1999 Bond thriller, and I’m not here for that. Opening with one of the most exciting chase sequences in the franchise’s history before unfurling into a nice little thriller about the consequences of spycraft, The World is Not Enough is an early effort to explore Bond’s negative impact on the world. One unspoken moment involving Judi Dench’s M standing over the body of Bond’s recent victim is one of the finest in the entire series, underscoring such ambition. Easily Brosnan’s second best 007 outing.
The entirety of RESIDENT EVIL (2002-2017)
Paul W.S. Anderson is one of my favorite filmmakers. I think very few modern directors can shoot high gloss schlock with such sincerity.
That’s not even a backhanded compliment. Anderson is the architect of one of my all-time favorite film franchises–Resident Evil. With the exception of the second installment (one of two in the series that Anderson did not direct), I love these movies and their constant funhouse approach to action and chaos.
Anderson makes films that are the epitome of an adolescent child smashing action figures around (and that action figure just so happens to be Milla Jovovich wearing self-designed fashion–a total fucking Queen move). I absolutely love that and honestly cannot get enough of these movies.
But the critics sure don’t. I mean, just look at this bullshit:
So what in the hell is my point? There’s absolutely nothing wrong with the metrics that Rotten Tomatoes uses to score movies. They’re imperfect and often contradictory (sometimes a middling review counts as “fresh” and other times “rotten”), but easily digestible. That’s certainly the appeal.
I’m just willing to bet there’s plenty of movies out there you adore that suffer the “indignity” of a green tomato splat. And each time I see people arguing over a Rotten Tomatoes score, I wish I’d written this piece. And how I have.
It’s just a reminder to judge these things for yourself. Because you never know when you’ll be knee-deep in a garden of green tomatoes. It happens to me so often I don’t even think about it anymore. I think everyone should worry about it a lot less.