Twinkle, Twinkle

January 21, 2004
A thought by James Berardinelli

There are pros and cons to using a movie rating system. At various times during the dozen years I have been reviewing movies, I have considered dropping it and going the New York Times route. After all, I want people to read my opinion of a movie, not just look at how many stars I give it. But, as easy as the shorthand is to misrepresent, it still offers advantages. The most important of these is that it forces me to focus my writing, so that a three-star movie gets text appropriate to a three-star movie, not a two-star one.

When I started in this business, I assigned ratings based on a 100-point scale (0 to 10.0, with one signficant digit to the right of the decimal place). I kept this up for a few years, but eventually grew dissatisfied. Frankly, if I was having trouble telling the difference between an 8.2 and an 8.3, how could the reader be expected to do it? So I cut the scale back so I was only assigning half-points (0, 0.5, 1.0, 1.5, etc.). But even that was problematic, as I was basing the ratings on an analysis of the film rather than a "gut feeling." I was trying to find a cookie-cutter formula that I could apply, when there isn't one. From the beginning, I was aware that ratings are essentially subjective, but I kept trying to find a way to add a dimension of objectivity - a quest that was doomed to failure. Finally, I gave up and converted to the more common four-star system, and there I have been for seven or eight years.

But all four-star systems are not created equal, and it's past time that I give a full accounting of exactly what mine means. The number of stars is not intended to evaluate a movie's "greatness" or "quality," although there will be an imperfect correlation (four star films will almost always be "better" than one star films). Instead, the number of stars represents how strongly I recommend a film to someone with similar tastes to my own. That's why reading the text is so important. For example, I gave The War Zone four stars. But going out and blindly seeing this film is not a good idea, because it contains subject matter that some viewers may not be able to deal with.

The less you agree with me on movies, the less meaningful the star rating system becomes, and all you're left with is the text. But, if you understand where I'm coming from (just read about 10 random reviews and you'll know how close we are in likes and dislikes), you can still make a valid determination of whether you'll like a film based on the review. Comments like "How could Berardinelli give that four stars?" or "What is missing from the film that keeps it from being four stars?" indicate a basic misunderstanding of what I'm trying to do with the system. So here's a primer for my version of the rating system. (Keep in mind that all of this applies to viewers with similar tastes to my own.)

  • 4.0 stars: A must see. Do not miss. Drive 100 miles if you have to. If you can't see it in a theater, snap it up as soon as it arrives on video.
  • 3.5 stars: Highly recommended. Make time to see it.
  • 3.0 stars: Recommended. Worth seeing.
  • 2.5 stars: Recommended with qualifications. Worth seeing if you have a particular interest in a participant or the subject matter. A more likely choice for home video than theatrical viewing.
  • 2.0 stars: Recommended for home viewing only (usually when bored and have nothing better to do). Not recommended for theatrical viewing.
  • 1.5 stars: Not recommended (unless drunk).
  • 1.0 stars: Not recommended (even if drunk).
  • 0.5 stars: Not recommended. A painful experience.
  • 0.0 stars: Ugh. A torturous experience not to be wished upon anyone.