I Give It Infinity Stars Plus Ten!

Do star ratings really matter?

By , Contributor

Film critics are a cantankerous bunch. By the nature of their jobs they’re opinionated and prone to argument.

It seems the only things they can agree on are that the word "tropes" is underused in everyday conversation and they don’t like graphic ratings on their reviews. You know, those symbols at the top of the page that boil down a written review into a few easily digested stars, reels or popcorn bags (it's poptastic!).

“I've never been comfortable reducing art to points on a graph,” says Now Magazine film critic Norm Wilner, “and I think imposing a numeric rating system inevitably does that.”

“Hate star ratings,” chimes in the Toronto Sun’s Jim Slotek. “It's a simplistic system that has no base. What's perfect? Eisenstein? If so, is a really good Spielberg movie half as good?”

siskel-n-ebert.jpgI have to agree with Norm and Jim. I’ve never really considered rating films on an arbitrary scale of stars to be 100% reflective of the reviews. Even simple movies are complicated and trying to sum up my overall feeling about a movie on a scale of one to five rarely does the film or my review justice.

“Ratings cannot take into account the various forms of filmic excellence,” says Now Magazine’s Andrew Dowler. “For example, a few weeks ago, for the same DVD column, I covered both Jason Eisener’s Hobo with a Shotgun and Andrei Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice and gave them both five Ns (Now’s top rating) for movie and extras package. If you know the movies, you’ll know that this makes no sense whatsoever without an explanation. The value of reviews lies in that explanation.”

Awarding a movie five stars or one star (or even minus infinity X 10, a rating I gave the worst movie ever made, I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell) certainly makes a statement, but most films don’t fall into those categories.

Ten percent of the films we review every year are great, ten percent are really awful and the remaining 80% share are average. In fact, so many movies fall into that great two-and-a-half out of five grey area that one major Canadian newspaper has banned the use of half stars and another has called a moratorium on the three-and-a-half star rating.

So, how to accurately express an opinion in five stars or less?

Thom Ernst, who doesn’t use star ratings in his gigs at Toro or TVO, raises an interesting point. “There are no professional standards or guidelines as to how a star rating system is to be used—so they mean nothing.”

Toronto Star critic Peter Howell suggests, “The only way there could be a better system would be to make it uniform, like the metric system.”

Standardization among a group who will willingly spend hours debating the meaning of 2001: A Space Odyssey’s ending will likely never happen, however.

“Some people top out at four stars, others five,” says Howell. “Some use half stars, some don't. Some consider "zero" a rating, others don't. Can't we all get along?”

Unlikely given the nature of the beast, but Chris Knight of the National Post sheds some light on how he awards stars on a scale of one to four.

"My personal system runs as follows. Three or more stars, I’d recommend it to my wife and friends. Two and a half is an OK movie with some appealing elements and a few that don’t work; if you like the genre or the stars you may still enjoy it. Two stars means fewer things that work and more that don’t. One and a half on down refers to various degrees of crappiness."

Not all critics hate the star system. Rad Simonpillai of POV Magazine and AskMen says, “I actually like the star ratings system only because it provides a consistent format among critics. Most readers don't just read one critic, so it makes it easy for them to compare opinions among critics when there's a standard format. Now if only everyone would just adopt the four-star system.”

CBC Radio critic Kim Linekin adds, “I don't think there's a better system than star ratings, to be honest. It's better than thumbs up/down. Four or five stars are perfect. Half stars are silly.”

“As a critic it makes me think about the film I'm reviewing in more depth,” says Brian McKechnie of CityNews. “If I'm going to give a one star or a four star review I'll need a good argument to back it up. And if I'm swaying between giving a movie a three or a four (or a three and a two) I'm going to really weigh all the good and bad about the movie and analyze the heck out of it, in turn making the review a stronger piece.”

The bottom line is that, as Howell says, “the genie is out of the bottle on ratings.” Star ratings, for better or worse, are here to stay.

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Richard Crouse is the regular film critic for CTV's Canada AM, the 24 hour news source CTV's News Channel and the host of In Short on Bravo. He was the host of Reel to Real Canada's longest running television show about movies, from 1998 to 2008 and is a frequent guest on many national Canadian radio…

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