It may seem like the end of days for fans of Jordan Peele's latest horror/thriller film Get Out. The movie, which has enjoyed a 100 percent rating on the critical aggregate site Rotten Tomatoes for over a week now, has recently "fallen from grace" with one negative review from a notorious critic.
Fans (and even cast members from the film) are particularly heated at Armond White, a writer for the National Review, who released a negative review of #GetOut that has recently found its way onto Rotten Tomatoes, dropping the "Tomatometer" for the film down to 99 percent. White seems particularly proud of his controversial opinion and has been defending it on Twitter:
White has also received notoriety for his negative reviews of other popular films such as La La Land and Moonlight, while strangely releasing positive reviews of widely hated films such as Assassins Creed and Dirty Grandpa. You can read more about the situation here.
I've noticed this phenomenon time and time again, and I want to draw some conclusions about what's going on here and why I believe this situation is being blown out of proportion. There are some fundamental issues with how we view the role of Rotten Tomatoes that always ends up causing unnecessary conflict over small situations.
The Tomatometer Is Always Skewed
You might think you know how Rotten Tomatoes works, and even if you do, it's worth a refresher. The site has various "trusted" critics whose work is allowed to be featured and included into the Tomatometer for any given movie. You can read a small blurb from each of these reviews, and there will be either a green splat or a red tomato. A red tomato means that the critic has given the movie a 60 percent or above rating (fresh), and a green splat falls below that threshold (rotten). There is also an audience score where users from the site can vote on the movie, and this is shown alongside the critical score.
Because the system is binary in this way (each review is either fresh or rotten), it's easy to see how the Tomatometer can skew up or down. It's possible for a movie to receive average reviews from all of its critics, perhaps in the 60–75 percent range, and receive a 100 percent guaranteed fresh rating. Conversely, you can see how slightly lower numbers (40–55 percent) across the board could place a film at an actual zero, an achievement that a number of films have attained.
The structure of the site isn't even close to perfect. Therefore, it's critical that you actually read some of the reviews that Rotten Tomatoes provides instead of just relying on the Tomatometer, which may or may not accurately reflect critical consensus. In many cases, a critic may feel very neutral or on the fence about a film, but the nature of the website stifles their actual opinion into a checkbox. It's important to note that not everyone who reviewed Get Out positively would consider the film a perfect movie, and a 100 percent score does not indicate a perfect movie, either.
Rotten Tomatoes Is a Metric, Not A Person
It's clear to see that Rotten Tomatoes isn't an accurate reflection of how the critics feel about a movie. Even if we assume that it is, I think it's important that we realize its very limited function. If a highly anticipated movie is released, it's not uncommon to rush onto Rotten Tomatoes and see how well the movie is doing. In this sense, the Tomatometer is a fine indicator. However, I also think we have an issue with glorifying Rotten Tomatoes, viewing it not as an aggregate but as a godsend. While it may seem fairly obvious, it should be stated that in no sense should we ever view Rotten Tomatoes as correct.
It would be easy to call The Great Wall a bad movie. In fact, I could probably get away with calling it abysmal, and I haven't even seen it. Far too often, people cite the Tomatometer as a thumbs up or thumbs down indicator of how "good" a film is. In actuality, though, about a third of the critics who saw The Great Wall gave it a positive review. If you consider yourself to fall in line with critical opinion (as most people do), that means there's a one-in-three chance that you will enjoy The Great Wall.
When you think about the Tomatometer in this way — as a probability instead of a single accomplishment — it becomes a lot more, useful while also stripping away some of its dangerous prestige. I'm tempted to say that we should thank Armond White for his idiosyncratic reviews, because enjoying Get Out (or any movie for that matter) is never a 100 percent guarantee. The role of a critic is primarily to help you understand how a movie operates and to help you see if it's worth your time. Rotten Tomatoes simplifies the process, but if you never actually read the words of a critic, you're not gaining much insight at all.
Where Do We Go From Here?
Though I find trouble doing this myself, I would honestly encourage you to avoid the Tomatometer before seeing a movie, particularly if you are planning to see it no matter what. Rotten Tomatoes colors your opinion before a movie even begins, and you start looking for reasons to agree or even disagree with the critics instead of having your own experience with a film. Movie-going can be a powerful experience, a personal connection between an audience member and a filmmaker, and the film should be digested as it is presented, uncolored by prior judgment.
Even after you see a movie, I would encourage you to be wary of Rotten Tomatoes. While I didn't love 2016's Suicide Squad, I wouldn't have called it a horrible movie while walking out of the theater. But then I fell victim to a common trap: I pulled out my phone and checked out the Tomatometer. From then on, I let the critics shape my reflection of the movie. It's perfectly valid to change your opinion after reading other people's thoughts, but we're all human, and we have to be mindful of falling into line just for the sake of agreement (or being contrarian just for the sake of standing out).
So, is Armond White trying to stir trouble with his reviews? His smug attitude and strangely contrarian opinions would probably suggest so. But Armond White isn't the problem. While Rotten Tomatoes can be a wonderful tool for synthesizing the consensus of major film critics, and can help you decide whether or not to watch a film, that's really all it is. It's not a person, and it hardly provides any evaluation on its own, making it nothing more than a simple metric.
While it may be discouraging when one of our favorite films gains a blot on its reputation, we have to remember that film critics are people just like us, and where there is subjectivity, there is bound to be disagreement. If you enjoyed Get Out as many people did, then you can take comfort in the movie's existence. The critic you trust the most should be you, not the Tomatometer.
What do you think about Get Out and the Rotten Tomatoes controversy?