Every Thursday in LOL Interwebz, Luke T. Harrington explores the quirks and foibles of Internet culture from a Gospel perspective.

Are movies getting better or worse?

Hopefully that question seems just as bizarre and misguided to you as it does to me—the sort of question that invites more additional questions than it does answers. What do we mean by “better” and “worse”? What sort of movies? (Maybe we’re experiencing a horror renaissance while dramas are in the doldrums?) And we never know when the next revolutionary surprise is going to come along. Nobody saw Star Wars coming—not even George Lucas.

 Various sins have come in and out of vogue since the Fall, and things have gotten more just for some and less just for others—but there was no magic time in the past when everything was better.And even that ignores how personal people’s reactions to movies can be. If someone watches Star Wars and doesn’t like it, is she “wrong”? Clearly, her opinion is outside the broad consensus, but if the film didn’t entertain her, inform her, or make her think, isn’t it okay for her to dislike it? And isn’t it a little absurd to classify movies as “good” and “bad” in the first place—as if each individual’s intensely personal and complex interaction with a film could be ironed out into a universal “thumbs-up” or “thumbs-down”? Isn’t it possible for all of us to have opinions without trying to figure out who’s “right”? (Obviously, there are generally agreed-upon criteria for what makes a film effective, relevant, etc.—but it’d be more accurate to call a film that meets them “likely to appeal to people who are well versed in cinema” than giving it the nebulous and impossible-to-define label “good.”)

Maybe that line of argument makes sense to you, but if it does, it presumably puts you in the minority on the Internet, where we all seem to think data aggregation can answer every question definitively—and so arises the cult of Rotten Tomatoes.

If you’re unfamiliar with Rotten Tomatoes (and if you are, catch up, since it’s been on the Internet for almost 20 years now), it’s what’s known as a “review aggregator”—it collects dozens of reviews for a movie on a single page, and then tells you the “critical consensus” in the form of a 1-100 “Tomatometer” score, based on the percentage of critics who liked it.

I think the pitfalls with the way these scores are calculated should be fairly obvious. If 100 critics all give a movie three stars out of five, it’ll get a 100% score on RT; if another movie gets 90 five-star reviews and 10 two-star reviews, it’ll get a 90%, despite its average rating being much higher than the first film. These ratings are interesting as statistics, but they’re far from being the final word on a film.

I bring all this up because there’s a piece over at Vocativ that falls into this exact trap, looking at the data available on Rotten Tomatoes and attempting to make broad declarations about the state of film based on them. Its chief claim is that movies have been getting steadily worse since 1950 (why then? who knows?) because there have been more and more films that have rated 0-5% on the Tomatometer every year since then. This is silly, for a lot of reasons.

In the first place: yes, Rotten Tomatoes lists more bad movies from recent years, but it also lists more movies in general from recent years. A lot of publications have just come online in the last decade, and very few of them have any reason to republish their old reviews of Van Wilder 3. It’s just not worth the effort for something that almost nobody would want to read.

In the second place, people just tend not to remember bad movies. There were hundreds of terrible movies released in the ’50s, and you probably don’t remember any of them. For that same reason, nobody saved any of the reviews of them for posterity, and no one is writing new reviews of them. So bad movies from decades ago just don’t show up on sites like RT.

Third, and maybe most importantly, the passage of time tends to bring about consensuses with regard to a film’s value. Even Alfred Hitchcock’s classic Vertigo garnered dozens of negative reviews when it first came out, but you’re unlikely to find a contemporary critic who will tell you it’s a bad movie. You can be cynical about it if you want—is it the mindless sheep falling in line, or are people won over after listening to others who have a better perspective?—but it’s what happens.

In other words, most of the reviews of older movies that show up online are likely to be reviews of “classic” movies that fall into line in confirming their “classic” status. Meanwhile, pretty much every major new release will get dozens of high-profile reviews all over the Internet, because those are the movies people are actually wondering about.

I say all this because nostalgia can be a powerful force—the human brain tends to remember what was good about the past and forget what was crummy about it. You’ll meet plenty of people who will complain that “They just don’t make movies like The Sound of Music anymore,” but the truth is that they didn’t make movies like The Sound of Music even back when they made The Sound of Music. People remember it because it stood head-and-shoulders above its competition, not because it was typical of the era.

On a similar note, there are plenty of politicians promising to “make America great again” and similarly-minded people will wax on about “the good old days,” but we should know better than to let ourselves be seduced by rosy visions of the past. Various sins have come in and out of vogue since the Fall, and things have gotten more just for some and less just for others—but there was no magic time in the past when everything was better. Nor is there a magic time in the future when we’ll have fixed all our problems—there’s always been a straight and narrow path, and there’s always been a bottomless pit on either side of it.

Image by m anima via Flickr.