It’s very easy to categorize movies into “good” and “bad”. The success of Rotten Tomatoes has further cemented this notion where movies are “fresh” or “rotten” based on critics categorizing their reviews as such. And yet movies are more than a simple evaluation on quality, and trying to simply say, “This is a good movie” misses out on the nuance and idiosyncrasies a film can offer. Furthermore, simply trying to label films as “good” usually leads to movies deemed “inoffensive” and “safe” because they’re uncontroversial. But if there’s a landscape of only movies that offend no one or movies that are brilliant and pay off every chance they take, then we miss out on movies that don’t work all the time, but still remain intriguing and worth watching.
Last weekend, Fox released Red Sparrow. It scored 49% on RottenTomatoes, got a B CinemaScore, and made $17 million at the box office. The movie was marketed more for its action, and it’s not really an action movie. At one point, the trailer has Vanya (Matthias Schoenaerts) telling Dominika (Jennifer Lawrence), “You have a gift. You know how to survive.” But in the finished film, his quote it is, “You see through people, and you always stay one step ahead of them.” The trailer plays up sex and violence because obviously those things sell, but that’s not what Red Sparrow is about. 20th Century Fox basically let Francis Lawrence (who previously directed The Hunger Games sequels) make a 2 hour and 20 minute movie about sexual assault. Yes, it plays by the beats of the spy genre, but it’s not an action-thriller. It’s a tougher movie, and it doesn’t always work, but it’s kind of remarkable it exists in the first place.
The film’s existence calls to mind another outlandish movie Fox released in February: last year’s A Cure for Wellness. When I sat down at the screening, we were told that the movie was 2 hours and 26 minutes. I thought, “That can’t be right! There’s no way Fox gave Gore Verbinski $40 million and then let him make a horror film that’s almost two-and-a-half hours long.” But they did! And the film is insane! It also doesn’t really work all of the time. It’s three storylines crushed into one, it’s incredibly weird, and yet it’s also haunting and gorgeous to look at. It’s a movie where not everything really works, but you kind of love that Verbinski just kind of went for it anyway. The film scored a 42% on Rotten Tomatoes, a C+ on CinemaScore, and only made $26 million worldwide. By these metrics, A Cure for Wellness is a “failure”, but such a simple label doesn’t acknowledge that there are aspects of Verbinski’s movie that are stronger than most movies deemed “passable.”
Cruise over to Rotten Tomatoes and you’ll see Darkest Hour sitting pretty with an 86% “fresh” rating. So far it has made $135 million worldwide off a $30 million budget, and it’s almost a lock to win an Oscar for Best Actor and Best Makeup. It’s a rousing Churchill biopic that’s gorgeously shot by Bruno Delbonnel, and even though I’ve seen it twice, I really don’t remember that much about it. It is a good movie, but it’s also one that doesn’t sweep you up like Joe Wright’s previous films Pride & Prejudice and Hanna. It’s a solid film that doesn’t do anything particularly wrong, but outside of its striking cinematography and a strong lead performance, it’s a blip of a movie. Of course, Wright also provides an example of when ambition and strangeness doesn’t coalesce, like his off-kilter Pan.
By simply breaking down movies into categories of “good” and “bad”, we miss when bad movies do things worth talking about. That’s not to say there’s no such thing as a “bad” movie, but the numbers aren’t going to tell you about the fun, interesting bits of a film that may not be a total success. Last year’s Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets had a host of problems. It was horribly miscast, it was too long, it didn’t balance its protagonist, and there were major story issues. But the opening credits showing the evolution of the space station into “Alpha”, the “city of a thousand planets”, could be a little short film on its own showing, with almost no dialogue, how cooperation among races and species leads to a bigger, better world. There’s also the ingenious “Big Market” sequence, a caper through an interdimensional location that can only be accessed through special technology. Valerian scored a 49% on Rotten Tomatoes, a B- CinemaScore, and made $225 million worldwide off a budget of $177.5 million.