Nerd Rant: Fast Five and the Highway Wreckage of Movie Criticism

As a dedicated movie fan, I really have to know. How the heck did THIS happen?:

I'm not asking this question as a criticism of Fast Five or the Fast and Furious franchise--they're not my kind of movies, but far be it for me to criticize anyone who finds these kinds of movies to be entertaining. However, the 79% approval figure shown above comes from Rotten Tomatoes, the percentage tally of the number of film critics who liked the film as opposed to those who didn't. For the fourth sequel in a franchise, Fast Five's scoring an 79% approval rating is almost unheard of among the critics, the segment of the general population who suffer much more acutely than others from the clinical condition known as "sequel fatigue". Unless a franchise involves Star Trek or James Bond, it's inevitable that critics will bring ever increasing levels of snarkiness and skepticism to their reviews of each successive film in a series. Read on for the full rant about why modern film criticism appears to be running in circles.

I've come to the conclusion that film criticism in general is a VERY subjective, imprecise and contradictory practice; indeed, film criticism is not the same as film appreciation. While there are some critics out there who really do have something insightful and intelligent to say about the movies they watch, the overwhelming majority of them appear to criticize films directly in relation to whatever mood they're in at the time, whatever preconceived notions they have about the movie they're reviewing, and which genres they prefer. Having sites such as Rotten Tomatoes and Meta Critic available to directly compare film critics' comments to each other has only validated this observation. With this in mind, I can only gawk in bewilderment at the remarks made by the positive reviews of Fast Five:
  • "It's big, loud, dumb, over-the-top and mostly substanceless."
  • "A screeching, testosterone-propelled fifth installment."
  • "A dumb, ridiculous movie filled with enough tough-guy stares and male posturing to last you the entire summer."
  • "The film's plot rarely makes sense and the script is lackluster."
  • "Who cares about the plot, character, story or even physics at this point."
  • "There's check-your-brains-at-the-door and then there's brain-dead. Fast Five, the improbable fourth sequel to The Fast and the Furious, falls somewhere between the two."
  • "The plot, dialogue and acting are as silly as usual."
  • "Wooden acting and dreadful dialogue."
  • "The sort of speedy, senseless, violence-crammed action flick that virtually defines the summer season."
  • "Enough power under the hood to almost compensate for its lack of innovation."
  • "Whenever anyone gives voice to dialogue (like "You can't keep runnin', Dom" and "People here need to be free"), your hand meets your head in unbelieving dismay."
  • "We will race cars, we will crash cars, and at some point, a large-breasted woman in a low-cut blouse will lean over an engine block."
  • "In a free-for-all like this, where the laws of gravity and dictates of narrative logic are left to eat dust, it doesn't matter when anything takes place or why."
Did I mention that these remarks were from the POSITIVE reviews? With "positive" comments such as this, I would expect Fast Five to place somewhere in the 50 to 60% range, not at almost 80%.

I'm a horror and sci-fi fan, so I'm used to critics ripping apart the franchises that I love. Yet to read these comments from film critics as being positive for the fifth film in an action-adventure franchise is utterly baffling, because these same comments could be inserted into a negative review and they wouldn't look out of place in the slightest. Odder still is to see the comments from the negative reviews of Fast Five next to the positive reviews in Rotten Tomatoes and realize that they don't look that different.

To prove my point, here's a quiz for you. Review these statements:
  • "The movie is made of sheer, preposterous and nonstop impossible action, muscular macho guys, hot chicks and platoons of bad guys who are eliminated by the dozens while the leading characters escape certain death so easily, it gets to be a habit."
  • "When you hear as many as six words in a row, you suspect it's a tagline for a trailer ("We need to assemble a team")."
  • "But facts will get me nowhere in reviewing a movie of this sort. What you want is advice about your genre expectations."
  • "The "F and F" titles got confusing with the unrelated "Fast and Furious: Toyko Drift" and John Singleton's "2 Fast 2 Furious," which is why, I suppose "Fast Five" drops the "furious." But it isn't technically the fifth "F and F" unless you count the outliers. So I don't know what "Five" refers to."
Now answer this question: Are these statements from a positive or negative review of Fast Five? Sometimes, I wonder if the critics themselves even know the answer.

Could it be that the critics' responses to particular films (the franchise sequel, the Oscar contender, the career comeback vehicle, the bestselling novel adaptation, the quirky, low-budget indie film, the ridiculously overpriced blockbuster, etc.) have become just as cliched as the films they often criticize for being cliched, so they decide to write a positive review for a film that would otherwise get trashed under most circumstances just to keep things fresh? Perhaps at this rate, newspapers, magazines and Web sites could start using movie review generator software in place of paid critics. Would anyone really notice?


  1. I think part of the issue is the Rotten Tomatoes system. If a majority of critics thought the movie was preposterous but fun, it ends up with a pretty good score. I think this is what makes Rotten Tomatoes a good site for figuring out which movies to see, but not for determining the difference between movies that are really good and those that are merely okay. I haven't see Fast Five so I can't comment on the quality, but the Rotten Tomatoes score and Ebert's positive review have convinced me to give it a shot this weekend.

  2. Thanks for commenting, Dan. I don't have a problem with critics finding a movie preposterous but fun--it happens to me all the time, and it should happen to movie critics much more often. On the other hand, when I read a critic giving a postivie review to one preposterous but fun movie and then reacting to another preposterous but fun movie with such anger and frustration that you'd swear that the movie in question took a dump on the critic's priceless family heirloom, I can only wonder what on earth is going on in the mind of the critic. (Take Ebert's review of Fast Five versus his review of Paranormal Activity 2, for example.) In my opinion, such polar opposite reactions to what would otherwise be popcorn entertainment says more about the critics and not the movies. Anyway, have fun at Fast Five!


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