Review scores are pointless

by Benjamín Harguindey

For as long as I’ve been reviewing movies, and I’ve been doing that for professional sites since 2010, I’ve loathed assigning numerical scores to my critiques. After mustering all of my powers to write an educated appraisal of a film, stamping a number on my own paper seems superfluous.

At a point early on I decided the best way to go about scoring a movie was by thinking how the written review would translate on a range from 1 to 5 or 1 to 10. Just go through the review and go, “Does this read like a 7?”. Sometimes the score would come as a surprise to me. A movie that I thought I’d liked wouldn’t read like the 8 or 9 I thought I had just experienced coming out of the theater. Maybe that was the problem, not letting the movie marinate in my thoughts. And then maybe it turned out the problem was that I wasn’t pouring my pure, unadulterated thoughts on the experience as soon as it was over.

In time I ruled that a review was simply a thesis on any given subject, and as such the reviewer’s job was to prove a hypothesis about that subject. What hypothesis, exactly, was entirely up to the reviewer – it could be something as simplistic as “This movie is good/bad/boring”, or something a little more elaborate. Ordinarily you just identify the movie’s own intent, turn that into your hypothesis (like how Mulholland Dr. is about the withdrawal of the mind when faced with an unbearable reality, or every Nicolas Cage movie since 2005 is about Nic needing a quick buck) and then ask yourself how successfully does the movie fulfill that intent. The answer should be the review itself.

Still that doesn’t account for the numerical score. Where does that come in? Some reviewers simple assign a qualitative meaning to a number. Ordinarily I’m not a fan of that, but maybe there’s some kind of mathematical truth to be reached through that method. My theory is that, when rating quality on a scale from 1 to 10, the dead center should be a state of pure mediocrity. It’s right there in the name, isn’t it? A mediocre movie (from the Latin medius, as in middle) on a scale from 1 to 10 is a 5.

Mediocre is defined as “of moderate quality; neither good nor bad”. Thereon every step up or down from 5 draws closer to that state of excellence or horridness. And that 6 and 7, which to my liking are the hardest scores to attribute, are still positive ratings, no matter their connotation of failure in an academic enviroment. A 6 is at least ‘Competent’; 7 is ‘Good’ (just as 4 is ‘Incompetent’ and 3 is ‘Bad’).

That’s as good a method to scoring a movie as you can get, but even then I think the act itself is pointless. It’s true it’s easier to compare a movie to its own purpose, as opposed to every other movie within the same genre. And yet at the end of the day most people would rather compare a movie’s score to the one in every other movie ever made – or worse, every other movie you have ever scored. “How can you give this an 8, and this a 6?!” – so on and so forth. Never mind they’re different movies, with different purposes.

No matter how much you hone your system or to what lengths you go explaining it, to most readers a numerical score is the equivalent of a ‘Skip Ad’ button. It’s the end to which the review is the means, as if your written work is there in case you have to legally back up that number. Score is also what usually gets you the clicks anyway, as people want to know how could you give a movie a score so high or so low. So they click and read not because they’re interested in what you’re writing, but to see if it checks out, or does it warrant a stern comment?

I don’t like scoring. If I do so, it’s always under protest. I don’t like stopping for a second to ponder if a movie is an X or a Y. I don’t like the implication of power that it gives you over a movie, and the offense or glee people take in that seal of approbal or disapprobal. And as I write this it occurs to me that someday maybe I’ll change my mind about it, and come up with a system that leaves people satisfied, or better yet, leaves me satisfied.

BenjaBenjamín Harguindey / Managing Editor, Writer (Mar del Plata, Argentina – 1989) Screenwriter graduated from Universidad del Cine, Buenos Aires. Benja’s worked for EscribiendoCine as a film critic since 2010, covering the Biarritz, San Sebastián and Venice festivals. He judged the CILECT Prize and won several writing & criticism contests. He’s published one novel, Noches de Tartaria (2006).

2 thoughts on “Review scores are pointless”

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