Rotten Tomatoes — a subset of Flixtser, a property of Warner Bros. — is probably the biggest movie review aggregator there is. It's also the worst. The site's basic idea is to split critical reviews of films into two categories, "fresh" and "rotten," and to then assign a label to a film based on the number of positive reviews it receives. A movie has to be receive 60% positive/fresh reviews to be considered a fresh film. It sounds simple because it is, dangerously so: It's a horribly reductive algorithm that misunderstands criticism and focuses on arbitrary score at the expense of artistic exploration.
Writing about movies doesn't mean ranking them on a scale. I've always liked that, whatever else, the movie reviews at Pajiba don't use stars or letter grades. We're encouraged to actually write whole big paragraphs about movies, to talk about the good and the bad, without trying to attach a numerical significance to the experience. When he set up the site, the publisher denounced the use of such scales, saying in part: "Our goal is to represent more of the filmgoing experience than we could communicate through such a system. ... We’d prefer you actually read the review and not just jump to the rating. ... It’s kind of lame, to be honest." That means digging into the cracks of movies, finding out what works and what doesn't. It's a lot easier to write with nuance when you aren't trying to attach your feelings to a chart.
Rotten Tomatoes is about stripping that nuance out of criticism, though. It's a brutal, by-the-numbers breakdown of movie reviews, and it's so broad that its own rating system misunderstands its purpose.
Here's an example. Let's say you have two movies whose reviews have been compiled by Rotten Tomatoes. Movie A has five critics trash it and five critics praise it to the heavens. The consensus rests on both poles, with nothing in the middle. Its RT score is 50%, or Rotten. Movie B has six critics give it middling reviews with modest praise. They aren't wild about it, but they don't quite hate it, so their reviews are just slightly more positive than negative. Meanwhile, four more critics give the film mixed reviews that come down on the dismissive side. The overall reaction is mixed positive and negative, but the film's RT score is 60%, or fresh.
It's impossible to get a sense of these movies based on their Rotten Tomatoes scores. The only way to actually see what critics think is to read their reviews. What drove those who saw Movie A to have such wildly divergent and passionately opposed opinions? Is the movie a masterpiece or a masquerade? Similarly, what was it that seemed to hold Movie B back from greatness for critics? Did they all express reservations over the same thing? Why is Movie A rated as a failure and Movie B a success? What do those numbers even mean?
Nothing. They mean nothing.
A score of 60% on Rotten Tomatoes could theoretically mean that 60% of critics adored the film, or that they were just barely motivated to like it. There's no telling without actually reading individual reviews, which makes Rotten Tomatoes pointless as a scorekeeper and only slightly less worthless as an aggregator. Metacritic does a far better job by instead assigning weighted scores and showing each critic's rating on a 1-100 scale, allowing for more granularity in the rankings, and they also aggregate a strong collection of writers.
Worst of all, Rotten Tomatoes has fostered a community and mind set utterly fixated on maintaining the perfect RT score, as if that number had anything to do with a film's quality. On July 16, as reviews began to post for The Dark Knight Rises, film critic Eric D. Snider gamed the system and posted a fake negative review of the film just to tweak the RT score and inflame the hordes:
His point was to show how easy it is to negatively or positively affect a movie's RT score, and how that score is divorced from any real consideration of a film's merits. The comment thread that spawned from his link was proof that many, if not most, of RT's loyal readers aren't interested in a film's being good or bad, or weird or interesting, or anything worth talking about. They just want it to get a big score. That's not really thinking, and it's sure not film criticism. It's a game with no winners and countless losers, where the goal is merely to keep scoring. I can't think of a sadder way to miss the point of going to the movies.