The greatest review format of all time

Posted by Matt Birchler
— 2 min read

Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel pioneered numerous things, including bringing serious but accessible film criticism to the masses, and more relevant to today’s topic, popularizing the “thumbs up or thumbs down” review format, which I think is the best scoring system for media reviews to this day.

The format is brilliant because it consists of two distinct parts, both of which are essential. The first part is of course the thumb, which is simply an indication of whether the critic would recommend someone see the film. There are no gradations of thumb upness or downness, and there’s not even a sideways thumb for middling stuff, you are simply getting an indication if that film is worth your time. A solid thriller and Silence of the Lambs get the same thumb.

But then there’s the other half, the discussion of why it got a thumbs up or down. This is where you get the granularity that’s lacking in the thumb itself.

Of course this is basically what you could say about a review on IGN or The Verge where they give a score from 0-10 and then have a few thousands words on why they ended up there. I think the difference is that 0-10 gives a reader/viewer enough information immediately to know what you think from just the score on its own. “Oh man, this got a 10?! Must be a classic!” Or as often happens in online discourse, “you gave this movie an 8, but this one I like a 7? You’re a * * * *ing moron.” The thumb gives you a very broad impression and answers the question, “is this thing worth my time?” but you have to dive into the conversation to find out how strongly their feelings are.

In my view, Rotten Tomatoes is a bastardization of this format, trying to appear as if they’re adopting it (fresh or rotten), while actually stripping out all the nuance. The Tomometer is now The Objective Measure of a film, with all the nuanced opinion stripped away, leaving just…73%. 48%. 98% CERTIFIED FRESH.

These aggregated scores become all that matters. Your movie storefront (like Apple TV) shows the score as the sole quality indicator and fanboys the world over use this one number to prove the art they like is objectively better than the art you like. Still others will use this mashed puree of criticism as “proof” that critics are out of touch and lack subtlety, despite them not reading or listening to what critics have to say for years: the Tomometer is Truth.

Rotten Tomatoes tangent aside, I think the brilliance of the thumbs system is that it gives you enough to know if a person recommends spending your time and money on something, but forces you to engage with the review content to understand how strong their feelings are, and that’s something I think you lose with a 0-10 scale, and you definitely lose it with aggregators like Rotten Tomatoes.