What Star Ratings Really Mean

Star ratings have a habit of ruling film criticism. Bus posters and billboards particularly love their eye-catching nature, and indeed it makes sense to advertise with such a clear visual aid in areas where people will only grab a quick glance at the poster in question. Even if there’s a small quote beneath, it’s the number of stars which stay in the person’s mind. They’re also decent fodder for trailers – we’ll often see blink-and-you’ll-miss flashes of 4 and 5-stars at the end, but rarely be able to discern which outlet actually awarded them. Although that’s nothing compared to the mischief at work in that Legend poster above. It was only an eagle-eyed viewer who spotted that The Guardian’s 2-star review had been cleverly positioned to look like the 4-stars surrounding it. Morally ambiguous, perhaps, but certainly clever.

Indeed, they’re like little nuggets of gold for the reader because they offer a quick, easy verdict on the film in question without having to scroll through the actual words the reviewer took the time and care to craft. It’s understandable, to an extent, that people want to get things moving quickly in this non-stop age where attention spans are dwindling and everything has to be done immediately – especially considering the sheer volume of film releases each week. It would take an age to read every review just to decide which film to shell out your money for. And the fact that anyone would click on my link in the first place pleasing to me; if they happen to read through the stuff and enjoy it, that’s just a bonus. But there’s a hidden problem with taking the easy route and accepting the star rating to be the reviewer’s final judgement.

And that problem is there’s just not enough information yield in 5 shapes. They’re inconclusive. Star ratings exist to offer a bite-sized overview of how the reviewer felt, but they must be weighed up with the accompanying words for full context.

Django Unchained, Jamie Foxx, Quentin Tarantino, Leonardo DiCaprio, Christoph Waltz, movie

Think about it: there are thousands of films but only 5 ratings to choose from. They can’t possibly be all-inclusive. It’s not like every film can vary between only 1 of 5 different qualities – two equally rated films may look the same on first glance, but there’s always more to take into account. For example, I would award both Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained 4-stars, but one is a low 4 and the other is a high 4, because the former isn’t weak enough to be as low as 3-stars and the latter isn’t quite strong enough to be 5. They’re both 4-stars films but they differ in quality and my personal enjoyment of them. Sure enough, some sites use a 10-star rating to allow for a bit more depth and clarity in cases like this – over at Flickering Myth, where I also write, they uniquely employ two separate 5-star ratings to offer a more balanced verdict. One rating determines its quality as a ‘film’ (how well it works technically, emotionally and as a piece of cinema), the other as a ‘movie’ (how enjoyable it is as a piece of entertainment, regardless of technical quality).

That’s why I could rate a film like Melancholia 5-stars as a film (I think it’s a stunning and powerful piece of work), but 3-stars as a movie (I know more people who were bored by it than like it).

IGN even rate stuff out of 10 with an extra decimal place – but I think by that point it becomes a bit unnecessary. While on the one hand it’s a more specific indicator of quality than the 5-star system, it’s still not enough to subjugate the clarity of the written word, and there comes a point where a rating means nothing no matter how detailed.

It doesn’t matter how fancy your fries look; they’re never going to beat the main meal. A star rating is nothing more than a side dish.

When I’m awarding a film a star rating, I generally take them to mean the following:

5-stars – Terrific, unmissable and/or important

4-stars – Great, compelling

3-stars – Generally good and probably worth watching, but flawed

2-stars – Poor, uninspiring. May not be completely hopeless, but there’s not much to cheer about

1-star – Utter shite

3-stars is the most ambiguous. Is it good or bad? People tend to think 3-stars for a well-received film means you hate it. I remember reading Empire’s late night review of Prometheus after the embargo was finally lifted, and to many readers’ surprise, they gave it 3-stars. People immediately jumped the gun and took this to mean they hated it. How could they possibly hate it? Well they didn’t. They just felt it was disappointing for Ridley Scott’s return to the Alien universe, but there was good stuff in it too – a judgement with which I happen to agree. Conversely, awarding 3-stars to a derided film makes people think you have no taste and are terrible at your job. I gave Batman vs Superman 3-stars because I thought it was interesting and watchable despite its flaws, but some people thought that meant I adored it.

The fact is that the star rating also can’t possibly take into account the unique factors surrounding any given film. A quality, informative review should place the film in some kind of context, so that it’s a balance between the reviewer’s personal enjoyment of the film in question, and how well it works within its genre or whatever franchise or cinematic universe of which it happens to be a part. This context can even spread to how important the film is (or appears to be) to cinema itself.

For instance, George A. Romero’s Night Of The Living Dead is a 5-star film because of how important it was to its genre. It was an innovative film which paved the way for the graphic creature horror of the 70s and 80s from filmmakers like David Cronenberg and John Carpenter. But watching it without that context? It’s more like 3-stars. It’s a ‘good’ film with some interesting things going on, but it’s often weakly acted with some hilariously cheap effects. I know that might be controversial, and I’m not trying to take a jab at the film; it’s just my personal feelings about it. I think it’s funny how dated and silly it can be, especially compared to genius of the later sequels like Dawn and Day Of The Dead.

There was a similar situation recently when I was contemplating whether to give Logan 4 or 5 stars. I was on the fence because I personally felt like it was a high 4 but maybe not quite a masterpiece-esque 5. Chatting about it with my girlfriend led to the realization that, within the context of the X-Men universe and the superhero genre, and the fact that it was clearly the best X-Men movie, it ought to be 5-stars. It deserved that accolade.

I try as hard as possible not to think about films in terms of their star ratings unless I’m writing a review, but it can be hard to avoid. It’s a problem because, like I’ve said, they’re a very shallow determination of quality, and thinking solely in terms of “that’s a 3-star film” etc. can cloud thoughtful examination. The moment I told certain people that I thought the well-received The Lego Movie was a 3-star film, they wouldn’t really listen to anything else I said. Not because they were stubborn; I suspect it was simply because that image of 3-stars (which again, many people interpret as a negative rating) was simply blocking everything else. If I only considered a film everyone thought was 5-stars to be 3-stars, that must mean I hate it (incidentally, I actually like it a lot more now, but I certainly never hated it).

If there’s a point I want to make in wrapping up, it’s that art criticism in all its forms is itself a creative profession, even if it doesn’t appear so, and the effort put into providing a thoughtful and informed review ought to be respected. Star ratings are a useful tool, but they shouldn’t be given centre stage so often. Just look at Mark Kermode – he famously isn’t a fan, but it hardly hinders his career. His words do all the work.

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