Tuesday, January 19, 2021

In Search of a Unified Field Theory for Geek-Movie Evaluation

I want to state up front that this is a working theory and this blog post should not be misconstrued as me signing off on it, or even putting it into practice. I'm asking for field research, here. Okay, to business.

Everyone online is wrong about everything, okay? One of the things they are wrong about is the subjectivity of reviews, doesn't matter for what: their premise, the wisdom of the crowd, if you will, is to say that the things that a person does or doesn't like about a film are deeply personal, and so any critical comments regarding the film are, by the associative property, a criticism on the deeply personal things that a person feels or believes.

For the record, I do think that legitimate criticism is subjective, owing as much to the reviewer's depth of knowledge as much as the creative work being criticised, but that's not quite the issue at hand. We're talking about being able to praise or trash a movie, without regard to anyone's feelings, and also not hurting them intentionally or otherwise with collateral criticism. 

This used to not be a problem. Back in the 90's, before the Internets, I could trash Star Trek: the Next Generation and still be called a Trek fan (I never was a Trekkie, but I was always a fan). Back in the early aughts, Rick Klaw and I were on a panel talking about Sci-Fi television and how bad most of it was, and the audience, hostile and flabbergasted in equal parts, kept throwing out suggestions to us, and we'd swat them down like Crash Davis at the batting cage. Afterward, people still bought our books. 

Nowadays, you can't throw shade on any franchise for any reason without someone sending you a "Let People Enjoy Things" meme. 

While distracting myself from all of the tire fires last week, I came up with the system below. I tried it out on a handful of movies and it held up. What I need is some far-reaching examples, so, here you go. Put this through its paces. Try to break it. 

But keep something in mind: this is not a system for "Yeah, but..." It's for measurable or at least widely-agreed-upon observable criteria. How a person feels about the movie is immaterial. In fact, it's unnecessary. You can (and you do) like movies that have low scores with this system. And you don't have to justify it, either. You can just like it. It honors the original intention of that snippy little meme without making me want to punch a kitten.

Finn's Cinematic 5X5: A Modest Proposal

Part 1: the Criteria

There are five factors that both inform and imbue a film with greatness. They are, in order of importance but equally judged, as follows:

1. Essential Components

These are the most fundamental storytelling elements: the plot, the story, and the characters. How well do they interact with one another and how interested and well-defined and presented are they?

2. Technical Considerations
The cast and crew: are they doing their best work in the service of the Essential Components? Is the director doing them justice? Is the music both invisible and invaluable? Is the movie well-shot? Well-edited? The craft, if not the science, of filmmaking.

3. Themes and Meanings

Is the movie about something? Can it also be about something else? Does it make a point, or is it commenting on something relevant? This may be the most wriggly of the five categories, but I think it's important to include in the criteria.

4. Quotability

How many quotable lines can you pull out of the movie, and how universal are those quotes? Generally speaking, the wider the audience in which you can deploy said quote and the more situations in which you may deploy said quote are what's important here.

5. Re-Watchability

Can you, after knowing all of the twists, turns, reveals, and secrets of the movie, re-watch it? If so, how many times? 

Part 2: Grading

Those are the five factors. They are each graded on a scale of 0 to 5.

0    factor is absent or demonstrably deficient.

1    factor is present, but badly handled or presented.

2    factor is trying, really trying, but just not able to pull it together.

3    one or two instances of the factor shine forth.

4    sustained presence of the factor or quality of vision for the factor throughout the movie.

5    the factor is present in abundance, or it exemplifies it in some way, or it redefines the factor.

Utilizing the System

You look at a movie, and go down the list of factors, giving each one a grade from 0 to 5. After that, you divide the numbers by 5 and round to the nearest half. This gives you a number from .5 to 5, ten increments, in all. 

Example: Raiders of the Lost Ark

1. Essential Components - the premise of the film, i.e. Indiana Jones races against his nemesis and the Nazis to try and obtain a mysterious relic that could change the tide of the war is held up by having Indy and Belloq competing for the attentions of Marion Ravenwood. These pulp-esque considerations alone are worthwhile, but the characters are the super stars, here. Indy moves into view, fully formed, and full of mystery and contradictions. He's the kind of character you want to know more about almost instantly.  Grade: 5

2. Technical Considerations - one of Spielberg's best movies, a career-defining role for Harrison Ford, strong supporting cast, one of John Williams' best early scores, the visual effects are technically adroit, and last but not least, one of the best screenplays by Lawrence Kasdan. Grade: 5

3. Themes and Meanings - the plot is cut from the same cloth as the cliffhangers of old, but there the resemblance ends. The commentary on the unholy mission of the Nazis, along with the undercutting of every single cliche of the cliffhangers in general (and I can prove this is a post-modern masterpiece with a slide rule and some chalk). Grade: 5

4. Quotability - "Trust me" is a little too broad, but if you can pull the grin and the head tilt off, it comes across for some. The lines in the movie are great fun, but they are pretty situational, and not all of them will play in a crowd of normals and straights. Walking into any geek setting and saying, "Dr. Jones, again we see there is nothing you can possess that I cannot take away. And you thought I'd given up." will always go over big. Grade: 4

5. Re-Watchability - your mileage may vary, here, but I can (and did) watch Raiders once a week for three months or more and never tire of it. Grade: 4

Total Grade: 24 divided by 5 = 4.8, or rounded up, 5. 

I know that was an easy one, but it's sometimes helpful to establish what the edges look like.

Try it with a few movies you love. Also, try it with some movies you hate. See what you think. I await the results of these field tests with great anticipation. 


  1. So, I applied this to one of the last movies I saw in a theater in 2019,and I'm not good at rating 4 or 5, but I'm appreciating how 1 through 3 work.

  2. critic and reviewer MaryAnn Johanson (theflickfilosopher.com) has for years stated that reviews and criticisms are subjective to the critic's own experiences and opinions and also have application in the wider culture and society. she gets excoriated for not being "objective" when it is surely obvious that no one -- geeks included -- lives in a complete bubble without influence from the culture they live in, no matter how little they may partcipate in it.

    1. I won't argue that criticism isn't subjective. But I do think you can be objective about many things, including deficiencies in skills, acting, story, etc. and still like a movie based on the things you like. Plan Nine From Outer Space comes to mind. I wrote another piece, In Defense of Bad Movies, wherein I said that Flash Gordon objectively failed in its task and is a bad movie, but that doesn't mean you can't like it, or in most cases, love it.

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