Are Critics and Audiences Watching Different Movies?

My friends and I were looking for a movie to watch last night, and we settled on a rewatch of last year’s Sonic the Hedgehog. I really enjoyed it the first time- so much so that I’d been looking for an excuse to watch it again. My attention did wander a little, and I found myself on Rotten Tomatoes, checking out what critics had to say about the movie.

I wasn’t surprised that only 63% of critics (and only 49% of “top” critics, whatever that means) gave the movie a good review. It’s a videogame movie after all, and no matter how well they’re made, a certain level of professional snobiness always comes attached to reviews of them. But I was surprised to see how much lower the critical score was than the audience score. So I read one of the negative top critic reviews from K. Austin Collins of Vanity Fair, excerpted below:

Okay, so the main complaint seems to be that Jim Carrey has toned it down from his Liar Liar days (which is an awesome movie, it’s true). I don’t agree, but that’s fine for him to feel that way. I then read through some of the audience reviews, also excerpted below:

Much shorter and much more positive, without comparing Carrey’s performance to something which came before. I agree with the general sentiments here.

This gap between the critics and the audience reminded me of a similar phenomenon when Venom was released, although the difference between the audience and the critics was even more pronounced:

51 points seems less like a difference of opinion and more like a fundamental difference in expectations. Perhaps that explains it then. These are genre movies, so the audiences which go to see them may be more self selecting than the critics who must watch them as part of their job. So I checked a few other non-genre movies I’ve seen recently just to see the point spread between the critics and audiences.

First, Space Jam: A New Legacy. 52 points, even bigger than Venom.

Next, B.A.P.S, a movie I hadn’t seen until a few days ago but that I really loved. 49 point difference.

Finally, one of my all time favorite movies, Hook. Everyone loves Robin Williams, right? Apparently not, to the tune of 47 points.

Genre disdain seems like a less likely explanation for the gulf between audience and critical reception for these other movies. So what explains the difference? I don’t want to make some sweeping generalizations about people I don’t know, both critics or general audiences. And to be fair, it’s not a universal occurrence. For example, in reaction to the recently released Demon Slayer movie, both critics and audiences are almost in perfect agreement:

I suppose I’m interested in what critics are actually looking for in the movies they watch. It’s easy enough to understand why audiences liked (or didn’t) the Sonic movie, or any of the others I listed here. They either had fun or didn’t. The reasoning of the critics seems more opaque to me, buried in a wall of text and often referential to movies or conditions I wasn’t considering while watching the movie. Ultimately, this is all just a matter of personal taste, but it’s fascinating that personal taste seems to organize itself in such ways, at least in regards to the movies I’ve selected.

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