A Farewell to Star-Ratings

StarLast year I made the decision to ditch half-star ratings on all reviews in an attempt to avoid fence-sitting averages and nit picking.  Even if you’ve got positive things to say about a film, there’s something facetious about awarding a film four-and-a-half stars.  What tiny thing that prevented the full five?  Or why not drop it down to four?  Once you add in mathematical variables and comparisons to previous ratings it becomes an exercise in numerical rankings.

Half-stars become worse on the negative side because what’s the difference between one and one-and-a-half if you’re firmly entrenched in the dour side.  If you had time to scour decades of star-ratings, it makes sense that they’d be more round numbers on the negative side and a barrage of halves on the positive.  Negative opinions are conclusive while caution is given to praise.  I can’t speak for all film critics, but in my personal experience, there is always anxiety around awarding five stars.  Indicating perfection is always difficult because nothing is perfect.  Again, caution is required with praise.

So, I thought ditching half-stars would make it easier, but it only made it worse.  There was no safety net to fall back on when something was great, but not that great.  It also eliminated giving out an average score, but then a two felt harsh and a three felt like too much of a compliment.  The three-star rating is a strange beast.  It’s something mediocre with sparks of brilliance; it’s the review equivalent of a shrug and a smirk.  The three-star review is also very important because it represents the middling area where a writer can wrestle with ideas without getting into hyperbole.  There’s an expectation that every film has to be either the greatest ever or an absolute turkey; a side-effect of promotional pull-quote chasing and alpha geeks running film websites with promotional activity disguised as editorial so they don’t lose precious set visits.  The middle-ground is slowly disappearing because nobody is focusing on the conversation, it’s a numbers game where the praise needs to be big and the slams need to be hard to matter.

At the back of my mind was the notion that diminishing a review to a number was foolish.  It is.  I always knew it.  A commercial side of reviews that perpetuates the myth that opinions should be taken as consumer advice.  The crutch was that people I admired did it.  Roger Ebert did it; the folks at the now defunct Dissolve did it; even the wise editorial staff over at a critical space on the rise, Movie Mezzanine, do it.  Another factor is a lack of confidence for what’s on the page.  If I didn’t articulate myself properly I could always pull the ripcord on the star-rating parachute for a safe landing.  A rating is like canned laugher playing over a sitcom to prompt the audience to laugh and it’s all the same when you break it down; star-ratings, letter grades and movie ticket dollar values.  I also dispute the recommend/not recommend option because it puts emphasis on only seeing the best films and ignoring the worst.  Life is too short, blah, blah, blah, but how do you know what a good film is if you have no perception of a bad one?  Ratings have, and always will be, quick references; a way for readers to skip the words and get to an opinion fast.  I get why this works and have nothing against people who continue to use a ratings system, but it’s time for me to move on and drop star-ratings from reviews.  It’s time to let the words do the work, or at least, attempt to improve these tiny shouts into the void.

As long form film reviews – and outlets willing to pay for written work diminishes – it’s obvious that ratings systems aid the click-bait culture, the quick fix.  This isn’t about aggregation as cited in Joe Hill’s article, Something’s Rotten, which partly inspired this rant; it’s about being truer to what I believe to be important about writing about film, about discovery and interpretation, wrestling with sentiments and coming to terms with why you spend precious minutes of your life sitting in the dark with strangers.

Cameron Williams

The Popcorn Junkie