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Healthy Tomatoes? The Danger of Film Critics Speaking as One

As the influence of Rotten Tomatoes grows, so does the new relevance of film critics. But only if they agree with each other.

Emoji Movie
Courtesy of Sony

Remember when film critics were obsolete? When we’d lost our swagger, our sway, our influence? When it seemed like the entire world had gone critic-proof, because we just didn’t matter anymore? It’s hard to pinpoint when, exactly, film critics attained Peak Irrelevance, but it’s starting to seem like an eon ago, because this summer a chorus of people — moviegoers, film-industry executives, critics themselves — have been singing a very different tune. It’s called: We’re back! Critics, in case you hadn’t heard, have emerged from the dark cave of our obsolescence and are once again bringing the news, keeping the studios in check, making the world safe for bad movies to die the grisly box-office death they deserve. Look out, “Emoji Movie”! We’re coming at you with a pitchfork.

As someone with a vested interest in thinking that critics matter, I’d argue that our influence never totally went away. There was certainly a perception that it did, a feeling that went hand in hand with the notion that we were elitist art-head snobs who stood on the other side of a divide from the mainstream audience. Film critics have been called out for elitism ever since there were movies, but in an age when mega-budget franchise filmmaking had become a literal universe, one that dwarfs everything around it (including critics), that hostility reached a new pitch of jaded dismissal.

This summer, though, a trend that’s been building for a while zoomed into view. Audiences, it seemed, were starting to turn their backs, and with far more flippant speed, on junky would-be blockbusters that didn’t cut it as entertainment. And critics arguably became part of that equation. A low score on Rottentomatoes.com, the web site that aggregates reviews, dividing them into “Fresh” or “Rotten” and crunching those judgments into a metric, could seriously hurt a movie. It might even be the stake through the heart of a lousy “Pirates” or “Alien” sequel or a film like “The Dark Tower,” which adapted Stephen King’s epic series of multiverse novels by making the brilliant decision to toss out the novels. Critics did the same thing to the movie — they took it out to the trash. And audiences heeded the call.

It’s part of a critic’s job to steer people away from bad movies, but it’s even more vital that we shine a light on good ones, and this summer the influence of critics in that direction has also been noted. There’s been one major crossover indie hit, the romantic comedy “The Big Sick,” a movie that critics championed. And before “Wonder Woman” opened, critics got behind it and helped to herald and define the qualities that audiences would wind up embracing about it.

In many cases, the word got out on Rotten Tomatoes. And though the influence of Rotten Tomatoes may, in fact, be no greater than the influence enjoyed by critics before Rotten Tomatoes came along, the fact that that influence is now about a score, a rating, a number lends it a unique weight. In an age of marketing surveys and corporate quantification, “The critics liked it” doesn’t seem to be as powerful a statement as “It got a 94% Fresh rating.” Critics, who are only human, like to believe that they carry a hint of power, a vestige of influence in this fragmented world. Rotten Tomatoes attaches a concrete number to their clout.

Yet the preeminence of Rotten Tomatoes — which is to say, the site’s all but official status as the place that testifies to the continuing influence of film critics — comes, I would argue, with a downside. And I don’t just mean the obvious one that’s been cited for years: that it encourages people to look at a rating and not bother reading a review. No, I’m referring to the fact that it isn’t just moviegoers who are listening to Rotten Tomatoes. It’s critics themselves. And doing so has become, for them, a Faustian bargain.

Critics, despite the image that some may have of us, aren’t monsters of haughtiness. We care about movies, and we have a natural hope that when we review one, we aren’t just talking to ourselves. So if we beat up on a movie and news of it gets out there on Rotten Tomatoes, or if we champion a film and help to usher it into the marketplace, a process facilitated by Rotten Tomatoes, what could be the downside of that?

Here’s the downside. The “influence” only works if the Rotten Tomatoes number is high (or low) enough. It only works if “the critics” are truly speaking as one. And so the built-in dynamic of Rotten Tomatoes is to encourage critics to agree with one another so that their voices can all add up to a single powerful voice that’s greater than the sum of its parts.

What happens if you’re a critic who breaks ranks? The very fact that I would put it that way is an indication of what happens. In the world of film criticism, if you’re out of step with the majority, then you’re now in the position of not helping the cause — the cause, in this case, being visibility and influence. And your off-kilter opinion is going to be spotlighted — almost put on trial — by Rotten Tomatoes. That situation has put a subtle pressure on critics, though the pressure is really one that critics put on themselves.

It’s a phenomenon that I’ve witnessed, anecdotally, over and over again. The critic I boarded a shuttle bus with at Sundance, right after a major movie let out, who chatted with me for about 20 seconds before he turned to his phone with the fever of someone in a war zone, nearly antic in his desire to see what other people were saying, and within minutes he had snorted up their opinions like lines of cocaine, ingesting the collective wisdom of the Twitterverse. Or, conversely, a critic friend of mine who only last week wrote one of the rare negative reviews of Steven Soderbergh’s “Logan Lucky,” and she was attacked and harassed and ridiculed for it, as if she had struck some note of blasphemy, with the number of critics who liked the movie on Rotten Tomatoes (RT score: 93% Fresh) brandished as a weapon against her.

The sting of the pressure to conform is omnipresent. A few months ago, during the Tribeca Film Festival, I attended the premiere of “The Circle,” a sci-fi parable of social media and lost privacy that seized my attention, rarely let it go, and had some ominous insights into the metaphysics of digital communion. (Emma Watson’s performance: deft, layered, wide awake.) Later that night I posted my enthusiastic review, which I stand by, but the next morning I looked on-line and felt like the entire world had pressed a red buzzer that said “WRONG!” (The movie’s RT score now stands at 17% Fresh.) I’m not saying that I’m right and they’re not, but what I am saying is that “The Circle” was too smartly crafted and provocative a drama to deserve such a unanimous dismissal. It felt like a response one wasn’t allowed to go against.

The issue isn’t just knee-jerk condemnation; it’s also knee-jerk adulation. This summer, I kept thinking: Where were the dissenting voices on “War for the Planet of the Apes” (RT score: 93% Fresh) or “Spider-Man: Homecoming” (RT score: 92% Fresh) or “Baby Driver” (RT score: 94% Fresh), a rock-‘n’-roll-on-wheels action spree that I, for one, thought played like a paint-by-numbers fanboy Tarantino pastiche? Maybe I’m the only one in the world who felt that way, but I experienced the lack of diversity of opinion on all these films as a violation, rather than a fulfillment, of what film criticism should be. Were all these movies good enough to deserve a collective hosanna? In each case, though, the critics made their voices — or maybe we should just say their voice — heard.

Let’s be clear: This is not a conspiracy — by Rotten Tomatoes or anyone else. It’s a subtle and insidious tendency made tangible by the ritualized collating of reviews. Yet critics are the last people on earth who should want to be conformists, and the rise of Rotten Tomatoes, not simply as a cult destination but as a cultural institution, now encourages them, on a weekly basis, to do so. Fresh and Rotten have become the new thumbs, and if that’s the digit you’re going to be using, it doesn’t allow for much wiggle room.