41LT: That's, Like, Your Opinion

I have been telling people they're wrong on the internet for over 20 years. At a certain point, you find that you're repeating yourself. In the interest of saving myself some time and frustration, I will sometimes put together my thoughts on a topic here, in a recurring feature I call "For One Last Time."

Today we're going to talk about people who go online and insist that the latest well-reviewed, well-received, high-grossing movie is THE WORST THING EVER.

SPOILERS: It's possible we may be talking about The Last Jedi.

Let's do this.

Before we get to far into this, let's stipulate:

It's okay to not like something, no matter how popular it is or how well regarded it's by critics. Maybe you don't like Casablanca or Wizard of Oz. Maybe you have trouble sitting through Saving Private Ryan or Schindler's List. Sure. That's fine.

No one is going to ever going to give you a hard time if you say "I know a lot of people like X, but it's really not for me." Well, maybe your wife will be frustrated if you fall asleep midway through Raise the Red Lantern, but that movie is reeeally slow and in Chinese and anyway it was probably fine. Whatever. No, you're snoring!

Sorry. Moving on.

Back in the 20th century (where I am originally from), if Bob McClosky hated Casablanca, no one but his wife and his closest friends and family would ever know, and they wouldn't care, because it was just Bob being Bob. And Bob would know that he had an oddball opinion and probably wouldn't make a big deal about it, and everything would be fine.

But this is not then. Now Bob can go online and even if only 1 in 1,000,000 people hated Casablanca as much as Bob, that's still thousands of people worldwide. And, of course, if you hate Casablanca that much YOU'RE OBVIOUSLY ONLINE.

So all those people find each other and suddenly they think they're on to something. How can THOUSANDS of people be wrong? Clearly it's not just their opinion anymore. The Casablanca haters are the only ones who see the truth! The rest of us are blind, stupid, crap-eating sheep!!!

And because most people have better things to do with their lives than to argue with the Casablanca haters of the world, you've got a small number of people on each side. And that makes it look like a coin flip. Like it's open to debate.

"But it's ALL OPINION," you say! "OF COURSE it's debatable!"

No. The opinion is "I liked it." Or "I didn't like it." And that's not debatable. I'm not going to argue, "No, you moron, you secretly loved this movie!" You either liked it or you didn't and that opinion IS A FACT.

Beyond that is the question of whether something actually IS a good movie or not and THAT may seem debatable, except we have some pretty solid indicators that will answer this question for us:

  1. Did critics like it? By and large, good movies get good reviews and bad movies do not. And it's not a matter of genre. Even when it comes to big budget superhero blockbusters, critics can distinguish between an Avengers and a Fantastic Four. Now, of course they're not unanimous. Otherwise every movie would either have a Rotten Tomatoes score of 100% or 0%. Even among critics, you're going to have outliers who don't enjoy the movie that everyone else likes (or vice versa). But it there's a strong consensus for good or bad, that's a really strong indicator.

  2. Did the movie make a lot of money? Now, I'm the last person to make the argument that sales = quality. There are lots of reasons why a great movie might not find an audience, from distribution to marketing to subject matter. But if a movie IS extremely successful, that is an indicator. And, sure, critically panned movies can sometimes clean up at the box office. *cough* Transformers *cough* But if a movie makes a lot of money AND critics give it high marks, that's a pretty strong consensus building.

  3. How did audiences rate the movie? "Okay," you say, "But what if people only saw the movie because of the hype? How do we know they really liked it?" Well, we could ask them. Audience ratings on sites like RottenTomatoes.com are notoriously easy to manipulate, but scientifically-based audience polls like the ones reported at CinemaScore.com are not.

So if a movie is well-reviewed, makes a ton of money, and audiences say they really enjoyed it, I am not going to argue with you about whether it was a good movie. It was a good movie. Whether I personally enjoyed it or you personally enjoyed it, it was a good movie.

If you thought there was a plot hole or you didn't buy a certain character's motivation or you thought a certain CGI sequence was poorly rendered, that's fine. You may or may not have a point. You probably don't, but that's not MY point. Argue away.

But if you think that the X things you personally didn't like about a particular movie add up to it being categorically a bad movie, then DO NOT EXPECT PEOPLE TO TAKE YOU SERIOUSLY.

The internet may have helped you find other people who agree with you. That's great. Usually. Sometimes it's awful, but for now let's assume you're not a bigot or a terrorist. That's great! But don't let that blind you to the fact that your idiosyncratic opinion is only that.

A lot of times, people with these outlier opinions feel attacked for being virtuous truth tellers, and it just drives them to double down on their opinions and their vitriol. No. Remember, no one cares that you hate Casablanca. Or Saving Private Ryan. Or The Last Jedi.

What they find irritating is your insistence that your opinion carries more weight than 90+% of critics and audiences. If 90% of critics and audiences agree that a movie is great, that is a strong indicator that the movie is great. If 10% of critics and audiences agree that a movie is bad, that is a strong indicator that the movie is... not bad.

By all means, have unpopular (non-bigoted, non-violent) opinions. But don't confuse those opinions with the facts.

No one will EVER give you a hard time for saying, "I know a lot of people like X, but it's really not for me." (Unless you're talking about Schindler's List. Seriously, what is wrong with you?)

A few end notes to wrap things up:

  • Obviously a lot of movies are neither great nor awful, but the same logic applies. For instance, all objective indicators suggest that the recent Ghostbusters reboot was a pretty middle-of-the-road, mediocre movie. But there were lots of people on the internet who had trouble talking about it as anything less than the worst thing that had ever happened to them. A lot of those people were creepy misogynist trolls, but plenty of them were people like we're talking about here, who just couldn't figure out how to express their opinion and acknowledge reality at the same time.

  • And, yeah, the bigots exist. If nothing else here matters to you, at least think to yourself, "How can I best distinguish myself from the people who didn't like The Last Jedi because there were a lot of women in charge?"

  • Note that my argument-by-indicators above is an intentional short cut. Yes, you COULD argue a film on the merits, but in stacked cases where all of the indicators point one way, why would you? That's like trying to say "Everyone in the room but you laughed at that joke. Let me explain to you why you should think it was funny." Any film can have flaws, but if it works, it works.

  • In these pieces, I like to end by arguing against myself, so I'll throw this monkey in the wrench: It's certainly the case that critics and audiences sometimes overlook a movie, only to come around to it years later. And that strongly implies that there are great movies that never get their due. But could the opposite happen? Could EVERYONE be blown away with a movie only to seriously rethink it years later? Tastes in movies can change, but we don't tend to demote classic films for being too old timey.

    The exception, of course, as it's been throughout this discussion, is bigotry. Folks will give classic films a certain leeway for being "of their time" but there are limits. Blackface and Klansmen, for instance, do not age well.

Also: Slow-paced Chinese films are objectively bad. Good night!