Are star ratings on movie reviews a good thing?

Feature Simon Brew 11 Feb 2014 - 06:32

How do we decide what's a four star movie? Are all five star movies made equal? Simon explains the issues with star ratings

A pair of reviews went up on this site last week, for films that - for differing reasons - we rated at four stars apiece. Above the four stars, in both cases, were many hundreds of words discussing the films in question. Yet both, in different ways, continued to fuel the ongoing, interesting debate about the star rating system, and its suitability.

Because in the comments below our reviews of both RoboCop (2014) and The LEGO Movie were some pertinent, constructive questions. We're not going to name the commenters, as the aim isn't to expose them to flaming or such like. Yet they raise some interesting questions and points - which we've quoted directly - that in many ways frame the ongoing star rating debate. Hence, we thought a fuller exploration of the issues might be useful.

"Five stars aren't really enough for an accurate rating. Either don't have a star rating or increase to 10".

Both of those suggestions, oddly enough, we've chatted about.

The main frustration for film reviewers - and we think we can speak for many of them here - is that a review tends to get reduced to a score by star rating at the bottom of it. So, we tend to talk about Empire giving something four stars, Total Film giving something three stars, as opposed to 'Empire thought the direction was great but the ending was poor' or 'Total Film reckoned it was better than the first, but still with room for improvement'.

Because what it overlooks is that, to someone writing a review, the star rating tends to be far from the most important thing. The words that make up the review are the parts that are wrangled over, and the hardest thing to do. How do you frame a viewpoint on a film? How do you get at what you think is wrong with it without ruining a vital plot point? And if you're going against the tide of critical opinion on a film, how do you get across your problems without it sounding like you're flamebaiting?

That's the hardest part. And whilst coming up with a star rating can sometimes be a sod of a job, it's nothing compared to penning the review itself.

So why have a star rating at all? Well, we're not snobby about this: it's helpful. If you're in the pub, and your friend comes back from seeing a film, you may well ask them if it's any good. Generally, the first response you get is 'yes', 'no' or 'it was alright'. That's basically the job that a star rating does. It gives you a very quick overview, and invites you to get more detail if you want it. Also, you might just want the score for now, preferring to read a review once you've seen the film in question, for fear of spoilers.

Furthermore, we're in the era of Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic, which aggregate reviews into a total score. We're on neither, but there's no denying that they're a good source of exposure for review outlets. And for a snapshot overview of a film, their services are useful. It would remiss not to acknowledge that star ratings are heavily demanded by the PR and marketing departments of movie studios too. They like them for posters.

But to go to the question asked: why not abolish star ratings, or more them to a score out of ten? It's for each review outlet to decide this, but our position is this: we're aware that star ratings hold some purpose, and while we reserve the right not to score something (as we did with our review of Spring Breakers, here), their benefits just about outweigh their problems.

Should we, then, extend the score to one of out ten, rather than five? No. Not here, anyway.

Computer and videogame magazines, more than any other medium, have explored extending the score system. Lots of them still score out of 100, but ask what the difference is between a game that warrants 83% and one that scores 81%, and invariably PowerPoint, or something equally evil, is invoked. Go back into the annals of British computer magazines and one (excellent) title, ACE, used to score games of 1000. You'd need more than a few overpriced Microsoft products to get to the bottom of what merited a 577 score against a 574.

A score out of five, however crude, works. It's generally accepted that one star means avoid at all costs, and five stars means drop everything. Both scores are rarely used and heavily guarded at this site, as they are at any others, so that it means something when they're awarded. Two stars equates to not too great, three means something is worth a watch, four means very good. It's hard to see how dissecting further would help, given that it would, more than ever, make the review more about the score than the text itself. It seems a decent position all round that the star rating gives you the snapshot, and the words give you the detail.

""Funniest comedy we have seen in years" - 4 stars. Where is the 5 star level set at exactly?"

A great question, which we found in the comments on our review of The LEGO Movie. To which the simple answer is: we couldn't tell you.

Scoring a film isn't a mathematical or scientific process. It's a response to something, a gut feeling backed up by watching lots and lots of other films. In the case of The LEGO Movie, there's a fair complaint that the review didn't get across why the film scored four stars rather than five, and there are two answers to that.

Firstly, either way, outside of perhaps costing us a place on the poster, in the scheme of things it doesn't matter. Either way, we're heavily recommending the film.

Secondly, there are a few criticisms - however minor - of The LEGO Movie (which we've seen twice: once with a five star audience, who lifted the film a lot, and once sat behind a woman texting on a mobile phone, who didn't). They're in the review, but we had such a good time watching the film, that we focused far more on the positives than picking too much at it. We very rarely award five stars for reasons outlined earlier - off the top of our head, five films took top marks off us last year (Gravity, All Is Lost, The Wolf Of Wall Street, Frozen and Before Midnight). In each of those cases, there was something particular and hugely striking that resonated with us, be it the haunting solitude of All Is Lost, or the deep-threaded themes of loneliness encompassed with Frozen. We don't expect you to agree with those reviews, but they are honest and true feelings. There was something in each of them that got them over the five star line for us.

On a personal level, the film Labyrinth is never far from my mind when coming up with a star rating. I love Labyrinth. I could watch it on loop forever more, and bore you to death about it. But there's not one bit of me that would rate it a five star film. That doesn't mean I love it less, just that I know it has a few problems. The crucial one, as articulated infamously by long-time Jim Henson collaborator Jerry Nelson, was "I didn't give a fuck whether she got her brother back or not". Given that was the narrative drive of the film, that's a fairly substantive issue, and one I agree with.

I can list a long collection of films that I love watching, will happily rewatch, but fall short of five stars for me. The LEGO Movie is one, Back To The Future Part II another, the 1989 Batman... I'll happily do you a list.

So to go back to the question: where is the level set? It's not. There is no formal line, and no mathematical equation here. Instead, there's just a broad criteria that appreciates that if we give something four or five stars, we're recommending you spend money or time on it. Conversely, if we give something one or two stars, we're not recommending that you do. Again, you don't have to agree with us, and you don't have to go by our word. Hopefully, more often than not, the words above the score will marry up to the star rating.

"Wow, four stars. Dredd only got three. Is this seriously a better film than Dredd?"

Another important question. Does one film getting four stars automatically mean that it's a better film than one with three stars? Helpfully, the answer is usually yes, but not always.

In the specific case of RoboCop (2014) and Dredd, they were reviewed by two different reviewers, which straight away means that an absolutely direct comparison, score-wise, is impossible. I reviewed Dredd for the site, having devoured Judge Dredd comics as a child. And it falls into the law of Labyrinth for me, as outlined above. The film has problems, but I really like it. It remains - as much as I love it - a three star movie.

RoboCop? There's something, again for its flaws, running just a little deeper I'd argue. Which would I rather watch again? Dredd. Which do I think is slightly better? Probably RoboCop. So how do you put a score on that?

Roger Ebert had something interesting to say on star ratings, in his review of Shaolin Soccer. He wrote that "the star rating system is relative, not absolute. When you ask a friend if Hellboy is any good, you're not asking if it's any good compared to Mystic River, you're asking if it's any good compared to The Punisher. And my answer would be, on a scale of one to four, if Superman (1978) is four, then Hellboy is three and The Punisher is two".

A wise man was Mr Ebert. And we should add that star ratings too are to a large degree contextual to their time. Mark Kermode argues that to best review a film that "ten years would be nice", to properly digest, react and assess a movie. But that's not possible.

Infamously, in the case of A Good Day To Die Hard, UK press were predominantly held back from seeing the film until a press screening at 9.30pm the day before release. Given that most outlets would want a review for the day the movie is out, how much time to fully assess a film does that actually offer? Appreciating that A Good Day To Die Hard is a horrible mess, even a horrible mess deserves a proper reaction. Under such time restraints though, how is that possible?

One further comment under our LEGO review read that "If RoboCop is as good as Lego then they deserve to be equally rated, but if not, then they need to have different scores". That, too, is impossible. One four star film can be a very different beast to another. Precious is a four star film for me that's a million miles away from Wreck-It Ralph, another I'd rate at four. One I never want to watch ever again in my life, one I do. Are they equally as good as each other? I've got no idea: Barry Norman always used to argue that it was comparing chalk with cheese, and he's right.

So then...

Predictably, this piece resolves nothing, but then that seems somewhat fitting. Because star ratings aren't supposed to solve anything. They're supposed to give guidance, and not a lot more than that. That's not to say they shouldn't be challenged: part of the fun of being a film fan is the debate, argument and disagreements. But in an ideal world, the star rating would be the gravy, rather than the proverbial dinner itself. That horse might just have bolted some time ago.

Bottom line recommendation then: if in doubt, go with the words, rather than the stars.

Please feel free to continue the debate in the comments below - we'll keep going with our replies to constructive posts there too...

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