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Some thoughts on star ratings March 22, 2011

Posted by badblokebob in : Editorials, Star Ratings, films about films, video game films, 2011 , trackback

Last week’s run of films from 1953 got me thinking about a couple of things. Firstly, about coincidence — out of a pile of 20 unposted reviews, it happened to be those that were among the first four I had ready to post. But, more pertinently, it was the last two, and the scores I gave them — The Big Heatfour for The Big Heat, five for Roman Holiday — that gave me the most to mull over.

To put it simply, I wondered “why?” Why is The Big Heat only worthy of four stars and Roman Holiday worthy of five? They weren’t scored relative to each other — I watched them almost a month apart, and while I take forever to post my reviews I usually rate the films straight away — so this contrast hadn’t been thrown up before, and probably would never have been had I not happened to post them side by side.

The thing is, when considered against each other, The Big Heat is more my kind of film than Roman Holiday; if asked to pick a favourite, I’d probably choose the noir; I’d be more likely to buy it on DVD; I’d be more likely to watch it again. That’s nothing against Roman Holiday — it’s a great film — but, in direct comparison between just these two films, The Big Heat is more my kind of thing.

And yet, for all that, and having considered changing both scores, The Big Heat still has four stars and Roman Holiday still has five.

Putting The Big Heat up to five didn’t sit wholly easy, especially when I compared it to the scores I’ve given other noirs. This led me to wonder if I’m harsher on film noir because it’s a genre which, though I’m unquestionably still discovering it (most of those I’ve ever seen are reviewed here), Roman HolidayI have a good deal of affection for it — and, therefore, expectation for its films. The same could be said of other favourite genres — action, thriller, etc.

Dropping Roman Holiday to five seemed wrong too, as if underrating it. This made me wonder if I was influenced by expectations — Roman Holiday is just the kind of film one gives five stars too, thanks to Oscar wins and making a star of Audrey Hepburn and all that. I don’t think this is always an influence on me — I’m happy to give a respected film a slating if I disliked it, and vice versa — but when something sits borderline, I can be swayed by reputation.

Are star ratings just inherently rubbish? There’s a reason why reviewing publications from Sight & Sound to Doctor Who Magazine choose not to use them — and that’s in part because they invite instant, arguably invalid comparisons (such as the one I’m discussing). “Is W a whole star better than X?” “Are Y and Z actually worth the same score?” On many occasions the answer to such questions is “no”; that’s the inherent imprecision of having five possible scores and thousands of things that need scoring. By rating things with five stars the reviewer is placing them in broadly defined groups, and some will always be better than others within their group, and some will always be on the borderline — and some will get placed on the wrong side of it.

Many games magazines and websites using a percentage system (or they did in my day — several now seem to use an out-of-10 score, but merrily use decimal points… so it’s the same damn thing). I guess it’s an inbuilt cultural thing, because (other than an aggregate site like Rotten Tomatoes) Games reviews use percentagesI’ve never seen films reviewed with a percentage. Theoretically, this method allows for 100 different scores — much more precise. In practice, of course, the lower ones are rarely used and the tippity-top ones are seldom (if ever) reached. Partly this is because you find your ‘average’ review score sitting less at 50% and more at 70% or higher. I believe this is because (like almost any reviewed art form) the bulk of what one encounters has been polished enough to earn a higher score — the average quality of work is of above-average quality, if you will. It also makes the system more liable to awkward questions: give one thing 95% and another 96% and you provoke “is the second definitely superior” arguments you wouldn’t get if they both just had 5 out of 5. Arguments aren’t necessarily a bad thing, of course, but it does require one to be frighteningly precise with scores.

I’m not convinced the answer is to ditch all forms of rating. Perhaps a skilled reviewer could always present a perfect balance between their pro and anti thoughts on a review subject, but I don’t think there are many of them about. Giving something a score stamps your opinion nice and clearly: Fading starsthere have been a good few reviews where I’ve mainly discussed the negative points of a film I’ve primarily liked, for whatever reason, and without the score at the end readers might get the wrong impression; I may even have penned a review or two where I’ve tried to draw out the positives from something I was giving a low score to. I’d wager this is true of most reviewers — it’s always possible for your text to be misinterpreted; for a reader to see a positive (or negative) bias, however balanced or actually-the-other you thought you were being.

That all said, a definitive summary sentence or paragraph would serve just as well — better, maybe — than a little line of stars. Hm.

I’m not going to ditch my star ratings, but this has caused me to have a good think about them. It’s clear the way I apply them is not always accurate (as if the fact I often include four-star films on my top tens while excluding numerous five-starers hadn’t made that clear), but — if only for my own satisfaction — I like the way they separate the bad from the good, the good from the great… however broadly.


1. Livius - March 22, 2011

While I appreciate star/numeric ratings when I read reviews I’ve never been able to apply such a system myself. It seems to require a kind of mental discipline that doesn’t sit well with my own scattergun approach to assessing something. I like to draw as much as possible on the positive aspects of anything I’m writing about, while also trying to acknowledge whatever weaknesses I see - although the reverse can sometimes be true too. As such I find it difficult to boil all that down to a numeric score. There is, I’m sure, a knack to it but I’ve just never managed to acquire it.

2. badblokebob - March 22, 2011

I hope I didn’t sound too dismissive of rating-less reviews, because I do think it’s a skill to write them productively, one I’m not stringent enough to apply. Without meaning to stray into sycophancy, whenever I read one of your reviews, Livius, I always feel like I’ve got a very good sense of the film and its qualities (or lack thereof).

Perhaps the knack with star ratings is not thinking about them too much — which is why when I do just that it produces a post like this! Such ratings are peculiar in that they appear a very objective way of assessing a film, and yet — for me (I can’t speak for everyone that uses them, obviously) — they’re often assigned with surprisingly little objectivity; there’s a certain degree of “this feels like four stars” (etc) about it.

That and comparisons to other, similar films — there have been a few over the years that have lost or gained a star to bring them in line with or differentiate them from other films in the same series/genre/filmography/etc.

3. Livius - March 23, 2011

No, I didn’t think you were being dismissive at all. I guess the main reason I can’t get the hang of using them is that I wonder if I’m being fair. What I mean is this: let’s say I’m going to rate something on a 1-5 scale, I have a hunch I’m going to end up with a huge number of 3 star movies with a smattering of 2 and 4 star ones either side. As you said in the main text, most stuff watched will fall into the average or slightly above category. The thing is that having, say, 50 or 60 movies rated 3 stars suggests that all of those are of broadly similar quality and/or are comparable when that may not (and probably won’t) be the case. Having said that, I do like it when others use such a system as it gives me a point of reference and provides a clue to the quality of the production.

And thanks for the compliment - much appreciated.


4. ghost of 82 - March 23, 2011

I started star-ratings on my reviews this year, just as an experiment really as I’d never done it before. I don’t think its really definitive, but I’ve found it a fun dilemma. I rate films as *=shite, **=poor, ***=good, ****=very good/excellent and *****=classic/perfect. As Livius says, it leaves me with lots of 3-star ratings and a smattering either side (although there have been more than a few 1 and 2 star movies and no 5-star movies which possibly says more about movies today than several 1,000 words a time reviews could). Its all personal preference anyway.

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