A week and a half ago, I saw The Martian. As I’m writing this, it is number one at the box-office and has been generally well received. I liked it, despite its high RottenTomatoes score.
The movie stars Matt Damon as astronaut Mark Watney, a man who has been left for dead on Mars and must try to survive until another mission can be sent to save him. It is based on the bestselling sci-fi novel by Andy Weir and has been adapted to film by acclaimed director Ridley Scott.
An unexpected comedy, The Martian is certainly fun to watch. The red-toned Jordan desert is breathtaking, and the main character’s humor is engaging. In fact, Watney’s resolute will to live is closely connected with his ability to see the absurdity of his predicament and even laugh in the face of peril.
Overall, the film is witty and uplifting. It is nothing like the epic and dour excursions into science-fiction we have seen in the recent past. Because while movies like Gravity and Interstellar are fantastic, this movie isn’t those movies, and thank goodness. In avoiding being like those great films, The Martian, in essence, avoids being cliché.
Ridley Scott’s direction demonstrates how to make a good movie. It does not revolve around sets or special effects but knows its characters and what they want. We the audience get to watch the character work out those desires, and when the unexpected happens, we watch them react in natural ways. As all good movies do, The Martian revolves around empathy.
With that said, I want to make another point: The Martian is pretty good, but it’s not great—it’s not on the same plane as GoodFellas or something like that. Don’t mishear me as saying it’s bad—by no means. It’s solid. But it’s not Spielberg or Scorsese or even one of Scott’s best.
And I realize that may seem mean or uncalled for because no one is saying that—at least no one who has seen the movie. I do know some, however, who assume that The Martian is going to be amazing before they’ve seen it and even defend it adamantly as such without having watched a minute. And for that, this post is a critique of RottenTomatoes—or more precisely, those who live and die by Certified Fresh scores.
When browsing RottenTomatoes, the review aggregating website, it is hard not to notice the 93% that The Martian has right now. That’s pretty good score as far as the Tomatometer is concerned, and some may be tempted to lift it up as a trophy of cinematic achievement. But the movie has obvious shortcomings. It is slow at times, its preference for optimism over brooding seems out of place in modern cinema, and it definitely doesn’t produce the grand experience that the trailers led us to expect. None of this is a big deal, of course, but the movie does not deserve an “A”—so how can it have that score?
Well, RottenTomatoes never claimed that the film was “A” material. Its 93% indicates what percentage of critics liked the movie, not what the critics rated the movie on average (for that information, look just below the big percentage in small font).
To understand this difference, consider GoodFellas, mentioned above. It has a comparable 96% on the Tomatometer, but a 9/10 average rating compared to The Martian’s 7.9/10. In the world of average ratings, this is a substantial difference. It means one thing that most critics can agree that a movie is good, but it means another to transcend, to be art. In fact, many arthouse films may be too avant-garde which lowers their Tomatometer score, but for some critics can mean a 10/10.
The point is, The Martian is a good movie. It knows how to be funny while demonstrating humanity. I liked it, and I hope you do too. But don’t rely on an online aggregator to tell you that.