Monday, June 30, 2014

Netflix Rating Conundrum

This will be a post in which I way overthink a simple rating tool on a website, the sole function of which is just to help the sentient robots that turn the hamster wheels pick movies you'll enjoy more accurately.


So: shitty movies.

In my experience, shitty movies fall into a few categories.

There's the movies that are shitty, but you love them in spite of their flaws. These are movies that have some flaws that are pretty damning, but you can't help but love the movie anyway. Maybe it's an actor's particular performance, maybe it's something they tried to do and just didn't accomplish, or maybe it's an affinity for a particular style of story. These are the movies you love regardless.

For me, a great example of this is the bizarre movie 9--the movie about the burlap dolls, not the stripper movie. It's a movie that is narratively all over the place, with a really nonsensical script that tried to apply some logic to what was just a cool little short film originally. But it explored ideas that were pretty interesting, the actors did a great job, and I love the art style and animation.

Next there's movies that are shitty that you love because of their flaws. These are obviously the hilariously awful movies. The kind of movies MST3K was made for. Bad acting. Low budget. Bizarre script. But there's just something about them. Like Max Bialystock in The Producers, "Where did we go right?" Examples are too numerous to count, but if you enjoy these types of movies, you know them. Birdemic, Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, and other gloriously stupid movies.

Finally, there's movies that are shitty, and...they're just shitty. You don't like them. You might even hate them. They're just bad movies and that's all there is to it. Maybe they're too cynical, maybe they're too commercial, maybe they're just not your cup of tea.

What does this have to do with Netflix?

Netflix rating system is an easy 5-star system. 5 stars means "loved it." 4 stars means "really liked it." 3 stars means "liked it." 2 stars means "didn't like it." And 1 star means "hated it."

So, for movies that you like or love in spite of their flaws, you rate them 4 or 5 stars.

For movies that are just bad and you don't like them or hate them, you rate them 3, 4, or 5 stars.

It's that middle category that gets tricky. If a movie is terrible, and you love it because it is just so do you rate that?

I guess you could call this the irony-viewing problem. I'm not sure how sophisticated Netflix's algorithms are. So far, they're mostly able to predict my reactions pretty accurately, but I don't want to confuse them.

This got into my head because my wife and I were talking about Maleficent. We didn't like the movie. Like, at all. I admired some of the things it tried to do--subvert sexist fairy tale tropes and characterizations by playing with character interactions, motivations, and expectations--but it did it in a movie that was a narrative mess. For example: in a 1 hour 37 minute movie, 45-50 minutes of the movie was backstory told in an expositiony, summarizing kind of way. It wasn't until about an hour into the movie that the movie finally gets going.

We found ourselves comparing Maleficent, a multi-million dollar budgeted action movie from Disney, to the small-budgeted horror flick Twixt from Francis Ford Coppola, probably because it also stars Ella Fanning. That movie is also a train wreck. Val Kilmer sleep-walks through the starring role, Bruce Dern eats so much of the scenery he probably needed to have his stomach pumped post shoot, and the plot makes no goddamned sense. Plus, it was filled with ridiculous green-screen and CG effects that seemed to indicate that Coppola had just figured out how to use CGI and so he was shoving it into every place he could think of while he made the movie--like I did when I was a kid and figured out how to use transitions in Windows Movie Maker.

Both movies are horrible. But Maleficent was just bad. It made us angry. I felt insulted, like I had been tricked. I so badly wanted to like the movie because I could see what it was trying to do, but all I could think was "how is it possible that this movie feels so long while being so short." Meanwhile, Twixt is so off-the-rails stupid and poorly executed that my wife and I could laugh at it and enjoy it for its charming "wtf" moments.

I know it's silly to worry about this kind of thing, but I don't want Netflix thinking that I thought Twixt was a good movie. It wasn't. If I rate it 4 stars, I don't want it thinking that I thought it was a 4-star movie. I just enjoyed laughing at its awful. And I don't want Netflix to start recommending movies to me that it thinks I'll legitimately enjoy that are dogshit just because I enjoy laughing at a bad movie every now and then.

So, are you the type of person that likes to watch bad movies? Do you think I should just rate them how much I enjoyed them, or do you think I shouldn't risk screwing up the algorithm?

Clearly I'm over-thinking this.

But I can't help it. It vexes me.

Edited to add: I feel the need to add: if you enjoyed Maleficent, I hope you don't think I'm pissing in your cheerios. I didn't particularly enjoy it, but that doesn't mean I don't think other people shouldn't. Hell, I enjoyed John Carter, and most people bashed the bejeesus out of that movie.