Sometimes a movie hits theaters* and something interesting happens: critics say one thing about the film, while audiences say another. A lot of ink is spilled on the reasons for such critic-audience splits, with commentators often concluding that audiences have no taste, critics are elitist snobs, or both. We can do better. There are concrete reasons why specialized film critics might like a movie more than the general public. Today, we’re looking at five movies that each, at the time of writing, have a much higher critic score than audience score on the review site Rotten Tomatoes.
Spoiler Notice: The Vast of Night, Stowaway, and The Green Knight
Critic Score: 92% Audience Score: 66%
This story opens in 1950s New Mexico, where it follows the antics of two teenagers as they investigate UFO sightings in their town. They pick up bizarre radio signals, see unexplained lights in the sky, and interview townsfolk about supposed close encounters. Critics absolutely love this indie film, but – while audiences didn’t exactly hate it – that 26-point difference is pretty stark.
Why Critics Love It
The first aspect of this film that gets brought up over and over again is its budget: $700,000. That might sound like a lot, but by film-budget standards, it’s tiny. This entire movie was made for less than what it costs to produce one minute of a blockbuster like Avengers: Endgame.* Not only are critics more likely than most viewers to know a film’s budget, but critics are also more likely to know how little money that is in the movie-making business. Whatever Vast of Night’s accomplishments, they’re magnified by how little the filmmakers had to work with.
Speaking of which, this is an incredibly immersive film. It looks like the ’50s, from the outfits to the cars. The filmmakers paid careful attention to the minutiae of one protagonist’s job as a telephone switchboard operator, and we spend a significant chunk of the film watching as she manually connects call after call. It even sounds like the ’50s, or at least what people in 2021 imagine the ’50s sounded like. I have no idea if the slang and dialect are authentic, but they certainly bring the correct decade to mind. This is even more impressive if you remember the limited budget.
Vast of Night also uses a lot of unusual cinematography, which is something critics are much more likely to notice than the rest of us. If you review movies for a living, you have to watch a lot of them, so anything that breaks the monotony is a welcome change. When the camera shifts to a strange angle, critics take notice, while the rest of us might miss it entirely. Finally, the film apparently makes a lot of references to older scifi like The Twilight Zone. Unsurprisingly, film geeks love references to classic films the same way I love the obscure Riker jokes in Lower Decks.
Why Audiences Don’t
The pacing of this film is all wrong. It starts with an excruciatingly long prologue that’s just the camera following one protagonist around as he talks to people about the upcoming sportsball game. There’s no conflict, just a bunch of characters talking, and it goes on for quite a while. Once the two main characters meet up, there’s even more walking and talking before the UFO story begins. Most of this prologue could be removed without losing anything other than the film’s feature-length rating.
Once the UFO plot starts, the movie does improve, but it’s still pretty light on stakes. The only thing compelling our heroes to investigate the aliens is their own curiosity, as there’s nothing else on the line. Without a meaningful conflict, there’s little tension and no reason to care whether the heroes find aliens or not. It doesn’t help that one of the protagonists is a real jerk, bullying his classmates just ’cause he can. That makes it even harder to become invested in his story.
Besides the poor pacing, the film is also very confusing at certain points. In the beginning, characters talk so fast that it’s difficult to understand them, especially if you don’t have subtitles on. The dialogue eventually slows down, but then the plot gets tangled up. The main characters hear from several people who’ve encountered aliens or their technology, but few of the many details they hear add up to anything. Finally, some of that creative camerawork I mentioned contributes to the confusion. There’s one long, low-to-the-ground shot that snakes through the town from one location to another, which gives the impression of a monster or strange creature lurking about. But nothing like that materializes, so viewers are left unsure of what the film is trying to tell them.
The end of the movie suddenly arrives as our heroes are presumably abducted by aliens. Not only is this a bit weird, as it’s not clear why the aliens would abduct these two specifically, but also there’s no turning point. Even sad endings need a turning point to be satisfying! Otherwise, they’re just depressing. Reducing satisfaction even further, the movie never follows up on a Black veteran’s story of cleaning up a UFO crash site or a local woman’s desperate search for her missing child. That leaves viewers feeling like they missed something.
Critic Score: 77% Audience Score: 47%
In Netflix’s latest scifi drama, three astronauts are on their way to Mars when they discover a fourth person has been accidentally brought along with them. Thanks to a damaged life-support system, the ship doesn’t have enough air for all of them. Oh no! It’s a classic trolley problem. If they do nothing, everyone on board will suffocate. For three of them to live, one has to die. Critics didn’t like this movie nearly as much as they liked The Vast of Night, but audiences liked it even less.
Why Critics Love It
Critics seem to appreciate the moral dilemma. It’s certainly not the most novel dilemma out there, but it’s at least something dramatic for the characters to engage with. When you watch a dozen MCU blockbusters in a row, I imagine anything that makes the characters question their beliefs is a welcome change. I also found a couple of reviews that talk about how the movie has meaningful drama even though it’s science fiction. Thanks?
And Stowaway certainly commits to the dilemma – the characters talk about almost nothing else for the first half at least, if not more. The cast shines here, doing their best with what even critics mostly agree is a mediocre script. Anna Kendrick does a great job as the plucky new astronaut who wants to save everyone, and Daniel Dae Kim manages to make his character sympathetic despite being the first one to argue for killing the accidental stowaway.
Speaking of the stowaway, Shamier Anderson is a great choice for that role. He’s immediately likable, and he sells the idea that this guy is a random civilian in a situation he didn’t choose. Toni Collette spends most of her time having one-sided conversations with mission control, so she doesn’t have as much to work with, but she’s still solid as the veteran commander trying to make the best of a bad situation.
Why Audiences Don’t
Most of the movie is really boring, and there isn’t enough movie in it. Suffocation certainly makes for high stakes, but there isn’t anything the characters can do about it until fairly late in the movie. They plug in an algae farm to generate extra oxygen, and that’s it until it’s time for the climactic space walk. In the interim, all we get is a lot of angst over whether to kill the stowaway or not. To fill out this lack of content, the film throws in a number of overly long shots of empty hallways and plays suspenseful music despite nothing suspenseful happening.
Even with high stakes, the main characters need to have agency for a conflict to be compelling. If the characters can’t do anything, then there’s no uncertainty; they’re just destined for failure. This damages tension almost as badly as when the heroes are seemingly destined to win. Things improve once the characters discover something they can do, but it’s too little, too late.
The premise is also painfully implausible. Somehow, Anderson’s character was accidentally wedged into a tiny life-support module and then sealed in? Someone had to screw the compartment shut behind him; how did they not notice there was an entire man in there? NASA has made plenty of mistakes in its time, but this level of incompetence seems unlikely, especially to people who know how space programs operate. Since Stowaway’s sets are designed to look like a spacecraft from the very near future,* space-program nerds appear to be its target audience. You can see the problem.
Critic Score: 88% Audience Score: 49%
An adaptation of the 14th-century poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, this is one of those rare fantasy films that manages to have a gritty aesthetic without being overly grimdark. Some characters have skin that isn’t Hollywood smooth, but we aren’t subjected to a dozen disembowelments per second. I didn’t even think that was possible! The basic premise is that Gawain cuts off the Green Knight’s head, but when the Green Knight doesn’t die, Gawain must go on a journey to get his own head cut off. You know, for chivalry. And then a lot of very weird stuff happens along the way.
Why Critics Love It
The Green Knight is beautiful; there’s no doubt about it. Both the landscapes and the interior scenes are striking, to the point that I can still recall them weeks later. You could take almost any random shot from the film and have a decent advertising poster. The costumes are gorgeous as well, and so is the soundtrack. The whole package is a feast for the senses, which comes up early and often in the reviews. Beyond its high production values, The Green Knight looks distinct from other fantasy films, which is important to critics.
Also distinct is Dev Patel’s turn as Gawain. Note the lack of “Sir,” as he’s not actually a knight in this version. He’s not a seasoned badass like Aragorn, a rising star like BBC’s Merlin, a scheming manipulator like half the Game of Thrones cast, or even stalwart and brave like Frodo. In fact, he’s pretty hapless, unable to resist even a handful of poorly equipped bandits. While such a character isn’t unusual in fantasy, they’re rarely the main character, which gives the film even more novelty than it already had from its creative aesthetics.
If there’s one thing critics like more than an unconventional hero, it’s a story with something to say, and The Green Knight certainly acts like it has something to say. I say “acts” because it’s all extremely ambiguous. Gawain’s girlfriend is played by the same actress as a mysterious woman who seduces him later, and a ghost is played by the same actress as the princess Gawain marries in a vision of the future. What does that mean, other than that the movie is saving money by casting the same people in multiple roles?
I have no idea what it means, but that uncertainty actually seems to help it among critics, as a number of reviews spend time exploring what various aspects of the film mean. For example, near the end we get a flash-forward that lasts several minutes and seems to indicate the bad things that will happen to Gawain if he doesn’t honor his promise. Can Gawain see the flash-forward as well? How does honoring his promise keep those bad things from happening? A number of critics don’t care so much about the answer, but rather that they’re still thinking about the question days later. And it probably doesn’t hurt that a lot of film critics are also literary buffs who know the original poem to see when changes are made.
Why Audiences Don’t
Other than novelty, The Green Knight is very low on the critical elements that make stories popular. Gawain is too inconsistent for attachment – in some scenes he’s recklessly brave, while in others he’s a total coward. His one consistent trait is a near-total lack of agency. Not only can that annoy audiences, but it also drains tension from the movie. Since Gawain doesn’t try to do much, it rarely feels like an important outcome is in question. Plus, we know his mom apparently planned the whole thing for vague and unknowable reasons. She doesn’t seem to want him dead, so it feels unlikely he’ll be killed. Then the movie ends before we even find out whether Gawain gets his head cut off, just to ensure there’s no satisfaction.
While general audiences can certainly appreciate a movie with something to say, they need to understand what’s being said, and The Green Knight is not interested in explaining itself. The dialogue is hard to understand, and when you can understand it, the characters are often speaking in riddles or obscure innuendo. Then the film’s gritty aesthetic is interrupted by some extremely surreal sequences. Instead of strange and wondrous, they’re just confusing. Why does this rural aristocrat offer to exchange his hunting trophies for anything Gawain finds while staying in the aristocrat’s house? Is that a thing people do in this setting? It certainly didn’t seem so at the beginning.
Where critics see an enticing invitation for thought and consideration, general audiences see an impenetrable wall of nonsense. If a story isn’t accessible, most people won’t spend a lot of mental energy figuring out what it’s trying to say. Why bother, when what the story has to say might not even be worthwhile?
4. King Kong
Critic Score: 84% Audience Score: 50%
In ye olde year of 2005, before King Kong was gearing up for his fight with Godzilla, Peter Jackson took a swing at everyone’s favorite giant-ape movie. The result cost $200 million – more than every other entry on this list put together – and is somewhere between a devoted remake and a subversive reimagining of the 1933 original. The plot events are mostly the same, but the wealthy filmmaker is now a sleazy charlatan, and the movie goes out of its way to make Kong even more sympathetic than he already was. What if instead of Kong kidnapping the leading lady, he and Ann were friends?
Why Critics Love It
Honestly, I’m not quite sure. In previous entries, it wasn’t too difficult to find common threads among the many reviews. For this movie, positive reviews mostly praise the film’s incredible production values and special effects. Those elements are certainly noteworthy, but audiences also tend to like CGI monsters, so I don’t think that explains the 34-point difference in the scores.
My best guess is that critics enjoyed the film’s subversions, despite the plot being nearly identical to the original. The first hour is filled almost entirely with Jack Black’s character trying to get his film made in the shadiest way possible. Critics are often film nerds, so it makes sense that scenes about the mechanics of moviemaking would appeal to them. My own background is in theater, so I can’t say I didn’t get a kick out of watching an overbearing director clash with the rest of his creative team.
It probably didn’t hurt that Ann’s love interest is now a nerdy writer rather than a square-jawed first mate like in the original. I’m not saying every media critic is also a writer, but there’s a lot of overlap between those circles.* And of course, there’s the added sympathy for Kong, where Ann befriends the big monkey after he saves her from not one, not two, but three Tyrannosaurus rexes. Or at least, I assumed those were T-rexes. The film’s wiki claims they’re actually a fictional species called Vastatosaurus rex. Maybe that’s also a subversion.
Anyway, this movie really emphasizes the idea that Kong is a victim of profit-seeking humans. Granted, the original also does that, but Jackson pushes the envelope a little further. That’s probably worth a few extra points from critics, as it gives them something new to chew on while the special effects play.
Why Audiences Don’t
The most common complaint I found about this move is that it takes over an hour for Kong to appear, which is similar to the criticisms lobbed at the 2014 Godzilla movie. The inevitable counter is that Jaws also didn’t show us the shark for quite some time, so how can this be a bad thing? Simple: all the pre-shark scenes in Jaws are still about the shark-attack conflict. The movie opens with a swimmer getting eaten, which is about as involved as you can get. We can’t say the same thing for King Kong.
Before arriving on Skull Island, most of the story is focused on Jack Black trying to make his movie. On its own, these scenes range from modestly entertaining to deadly dull. Black does his best, but when the only thing at stake is whether a shady huckster gets to make his movie, that’s not exactly riveting drama. Worse, can you guess how much of this matters once they reach Skull Island?
Exactly none of it. The Skull Island scenes are all about surviving encounters with giant monsters. After leaving the island, the New York scenes are about Kong being hunted and killed by the army. Other than getting the characters to the island, nothing about the filmmaking plot matters by the end. That’s why so many people think the movie’s first third is a boring snoozefest; it’s completely disconnected from the rest of the story.
The Skull Island scenes aren’t free of boredom either, but for a different reason. Once our heroes arrive on the island, everything is nonstop action for nearly an hour. The tension is always cranked up to eleven, with little room for the audience to catch their breath. That kind of pacing can also bore audiences, as even the most engaging action gets dull when it goes on for too long.
As a final note, this film is fairly sexist and incredibly racist. While Kong’s relationship with Ann is used to make him more sympathetic, he still holds her captive and won’t let her leave; he’s just nicer about it this time. So he’s the ape version of a Nice Guy™ who thinks giving a woman the slightest courtesy means he’s entitled to her attention. Great. The racism comes in the portrayal of the Skull Islanders, which is somehow worse than in the 1933 version. They are portrayed as violent, primitive, and even animalistic. Seriously, they act more like animals than people. I can’t say for sure that this contributed to the film’s low audience score, but I’d like to think it did.
5. Ad Astra
Critic Score: 83% Audience Score: 40%
A nearish-future scifi film with a similar aesthetic to Stowaway, Ad Astra is the story of Brad Pitt traveling to Neptune so he can stop his space dad, Tommy Lee Jones, from bombarding Earth with some kind of power surge. It’s presumably an electromagnetic pulse, but I don’t think the movie ever specifies, and searching through the transcript doesn’t turn anything up.
Why Critics Love It
We’ve already seen that critics tend to like movies that at least act like they have something to say, and oh boy does this movie act like it has something to say. A lot of this comes from Pitt’s voice-over, which is spackled across way more scenes than I was expecting. What does the voice-over talk about? The better question is, what doesn’t it talk about? Just a few examples:
- The hero’s life is a performance.
- The hero’s wife left him for vague space reasons.
- The hero’s dad was very distant growing up.
- How people in space still fight for resources.
- How people in space still go shopping.
- How long voyages in space make a person go Space Crazy™.
There’s a lot there, and from what I can tell, critics really latched onto it. In particular, a number of reviews focus on the acting between Pitt and Jones as being a deep exploration of masculinity and father-son relationships. That’s not too surprising, even if it’s a bit disappointing. Critics often have a bit of a bias in favor of stories about how white guys actually do have feelings.
Otherwise, the movie’s most common theme is the idea that being out in space makes people go Space Crazy. I don’t mean that isolation takes a psychological toll; I mean that it literally turns people into murderers, as we see with Jones’s character. The characters are constantly taking psych evaluations, and Pitt’s most valuable skill is his ability to be in space without turning into a murderer. There’s a lot of ableism in this concept, but I can see how it would appeal to critics looking for a movie about the isolation of space travel.
Another trend is for reviews to mention how pretty Ad Astra is. In fairness, it is very pretty, but not more so than The Martian or Gravity, two older space movies with similar aesthetics. I can’t help but wonder if this was an excuse for some critics to heap more praise on a movie they saw as deep and meaningful.
Why Audiences Don’t
Critical acclaim aside, this movie is a failure of basic storytelling. The first couple minutes are okay, with Brad Pitt getting knocked off a space elevator, but that’s it. Once the actual plot starts, we have a series of badly constructed scenes where Pitt has little to do and it’s not clear why anyone is doing anything. There’s so much wrong with this movie that going over all of it in detail would be its own article, so here are a few highlights:
- Pitt has to go to Mars to transmit a message to his dad when he could have just recorded it on Earth and then radioed the message to Mars. After all, we’re told time is of the essence.
- Pitt briefly stops on the moon to be ambushed by Moon Pirates who appear from nowhere and are never mentioned again. His military escort even lets the pirates drive right up to them before taking any action.
- They stop to answer a distress call in space just so Pitt can get attacked by a baboon. We never find out what happened to the people who sent the distress call.
- Pitt sneaks onto the ship that’s going to stop his dad so that he can… also go stop his dad. Maybe he really wants to be the one to push the button?
- Jones has murdered his entire crew and caused massive damage on Earth in the name of his mission, but he gives up immediately when Pitt arrives. I suppose the movie’s almost over by then, so there’s no time for him to put up a fight.
I’m not joking when I say those are just a few highlights. This movie is a fractal nesting doll of problems: the moment you examine one, you discover several more hiding inside it. The most bizarre example is how characters self-destruct whenever the writers are done with them. This happens six times:
- Pitt originally has a partner on his mission, but after the guy delivers some exposition, he has a heart attack and presumably dies. He was fine going through multiple rocket launches, but a fast moon-buggy chase was too much for him.
- The writers want Pitt to take command of a ship, so they have the captain get quietly murdered by a baboon. Somehow, no one hears the screams.
- The writers want Pitt to be alone on his ship, so they have the entire crew kill themselves while trying to kill Pitt. One dies because she forgot the ship was about to activate its engine. The other two suffocate when they try to shoot Pitt and miss, hitting a pipe full of poisonous gas instead.
- After Jones has agreed to stop his previously all-important mission, he jets off into Neptune so Pitt can be alone.
The sheer repetition of it is enough to bore anyone, let alone the total lack of plausibility. If a viewer can get past all these problems, they’ll discover the film’s various deep ideas are unexplored at best and absurd at worst. Humans fighting in space is interesting, but it’s only ever brought up during the Moon Pirates scene. Pitt’s relationship with his father could be poignant, but Jones is barely in the movie. The commentary about people shopping in space is just silly. Are humans supposed to stop having material needs once they leave the atmosphere?
If there are any messages or ideas to be found in Ad Astra, they’re drowned out by the magnitude of failure in every other department. The movie is usually boring, and when it’s not boring, it’s frustrating. Occasionally, it enters the realm of surrealism, but only because it doesn’t seem like actual filmmakers with an $80 million budget could make something so bad.
Taken as a group, the main flaw in critics’ judgment is that they imagine stories to be far deeper than they really are. Obvious interpretations are cast aside in favor of something that sounds more artistic. That doesn’t mean audience reviews are to be completely trusted, either. Beyond the possibility of deliberate bad faith, audiences tend to over-focus on a handful of elements they like while ignoring everything else. That’s why The Orville has such a high audience rating despite consistently bad plotting, unlikable characters, and tired jokes: people were just that hungry for a light scifi show. But, unlike critics, audiences don’t evaluate movies for a living.
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