The Four Star Conundrum

July 16, 2008
A thought by James Berardinelli

Some reviewers hand out four-star ratings like candy. Such is their right. It's their rating and their system. I have always felt that, for a four-star citation to mean anything, it must be handed out on only the rarest of occasions to the most deserving of films. When I dole out a four-star rating, I'm making a statement about the quality of the movie. I'm saying that, for anyone with similar movie tastes to mine, this is a "must-see." For a production to get four stars, it not only has to impact me as I'm watching it, but it has to stay with me afterward, as I drive home at night, as I do my evening exercises, as I get ready for bed, as I shower the next morning, and as I compose the review in my head while cutting the grass… Four-star movies aren't easily forgotten or shrugged off. They demand attention. They are rare. In 2007, there were none.

Prior to The Dark Knight, it had been 20 months since I last bestowed four stars upon a movie: The Departed. Thus far this decade, I have given only 15 films four stars. There are critics who give out more than that in a year. So, yes, I feel strongly about The Dark Knight. It is not hyperbole when I suggest that this is the best superhero movie EVER or that it's among the three or four best sequels. Batman Begins was a very good film. This one is great. Curiously, there may be a component of its core audience that will be disappointed. They may find it to be too dark and grim, too lacking in moments of superhero grandeur. This is precisely where its strength lies. It transcends its genre without rejecting it. How many movies can make that claim?

There is a danger associated with giving any movie four stars: overhype. Especially with something as highly anticipated as The Dark Knight, it risks raising expectations to a level that no movie can possibly match. For all of its power and effectiveness, this is still just a movie, not a religious experience. It does not offer the solution to World Hunger or provide The Meaning of Life. There are those for whom this movie will not work as well as it did for me. They will feel let down. They will leave the theater disappointed. That's the danger with four stars. Because everyone looks at movies slightly differently, not everyone will view The Dark Knight as a four-star film.

A backlash is perhaps inevitable. The movie is getting amazing reviews almost across the board. Whenever that happens, whenever the early notices are all positive, the naysayers are lying in wait. When I think of the term "backlash," I remember Forrest Gump and Titanic. Both were hugely popular and both generated boatloads of early four-star reviews (or the equivalent). After a while, however - after they had become too popular and had gotten too much praise - a movement started to knock them back to earth. With some films, there comes a point when the hype threatens to overwhelm the movie. Remember The Phantom Menace? That was a victim of expectations. Fans anticipated a movie to dwarf all others. What they got instead was a nice, corny little space adventure with cutting edge special effects. It didn't measure up. I gave it three-and-one-half stars. Others decried it as a "rape of [their] childhood." Who's guilty of hyperbole there?

My sincere hope is that hype and four-star reviews will not in some way be the undoing of a great film like The Dark Knight. I believe this is a four star movie, the first in nearly two years. It has, to a degree, refreshed my believe that Hollywood can occasionally still make magic. When we find something like this, the goal should be to build it up, not tear it down. Here's hoping that everyone seeing it tomorrow night and Friday leaves the theater as stoked as I did. Not since The Return of the King has a movie left me this excited to be a film critic.