I rate movies on a five point whole-number scale, where “1” means “I really, really hated this movie” and “5” means “this movie is now one of my favorites.” You might disagree with the scores, and that’s fine. I often disagree with my own scores when I revisit the films later.
I use a five-point scale with no half-points for a few reasons. One is technical necessity: since I use thematically appropriate emojis instead of numbers, it’s difficult to express a fraction or a half. Not to mention occasionally semantically awkward. “Three nurses” sounds like a good time, but “three and a half nurses” sounds like a police investigation.
I am also not the only person to have pointed out that a scale from 1 to 5 that has half-point stops on the way is just an overly complicated ten-point scale.
The other reason I use a five point scale is there’s not really any value in having much greater precision. Points are a gut-check; deeper thoughts are in the writing. I enjoy being able to glance over a list of reviews from someone and say, “oh, Joe Bob really liked this one.” Or “Joe Bob really hated this one.” That’s handy, but I will not stop there, because a score is not an opinion.
At best, the score is a signpost, a headline, or a rough categorization. At worst, it is misleading. The problem I have with review aggregators like Rotten Tomatoes is they encourage looking at the score and not the larger context. It implies that there’s a gradient from “bad” to “good,” and that every movie — from Ghost Ship (2002) (16%) to The Wizard of Oz (1939) (98%) — has a place on that scale in relationship to each other. A lot of context gets lost, and I’d argue that it’s impossible (and pointless) to judge the two in terms of relative “quality” for many reasons.
But because there are numbers, and we can sort numbers, the temptation is sort the films by numbers and pretend it means something. Ghost Ship and The Wizard of Oz are different movies, and not just because they released sixty-three years apart. Even if you claim to pure objectivity in film criticism, any rubric that compressed these movies into a single axis-of-quality would be sterile and abstract.
Incidentally, I quite liked Ghost Ship. I gave it 🧸🧸🧸🧸. Why “🧸?” It is a prominent prop in the film. It’s an in-joke for those who have seen it, see? Choosing different emojis per film help me remember — and I hope communicates to others — that these scores have limited meaning and don’t equate well to each other. How I responded to the movie is in the paragraphs that follow.
And what really matters is what you think of it. Maybe the movie I gave one star is, or could be, one of your favorites. I know that’s the case with Bram Stoker’s Dracula, a movie many people watch on the regular but I gave a solitary 🍷. Whether we agree, I hope I can I introduce you to a new favorite. Or remind you of an old one you haven’t watched in a while.