Review Bombing is a Problem
Surfing the internet over Labour Day weekend as one does when keeping tabs on the entertainment industry, one news article stuck out like a sore thumb. Forbes, among other outlets, reported that Amazon’s Prime Video opted to temporarily disable user ratings for its new streaming series, The Rings of Power. The option would not be available for 72 hours following the release of new episodes. Amazon, like so many other platforms and creators before it, has come face to face with the reality of review bombing. As such, the company deemed it prudent to protect the reputation of its shiny new creation.
As if the current status of traditional critics wasn’t complicated already.
What is review bombing? Why does it occur? And, most importantly, is the collective act of review bombing a movie, tv show, or video game so potent at sullying a given product’s reputation as to necessitate countermeasures? Let us discuss the matter as diplomatically as possible.
These Aren’t REAL Bombs, Are They?
Thankfully no. Society has not tipped over to the point where actual warfare is waged because of the perceived lack of quality about the latest Jurassic World installment. Granted, the nomenclature has a dramatic ring to it. Then again, wherever review bombing is practiced, it’s typically because heavy drama hangs in the air.
In a nutshell, and as explained by many, many other websites, the act of review bombing is when a group of like-minded online users of a platform (IMDB, YouTube, Rotten Tomatoes, Metacritic, Steam, etc) decide in concert to negatively rate a given product. This drags the overall score down. It can be a movie, like Godzilla vs. Kong’s early experience, a tv show – as is the case with the new Rings of Power -, or video games. It isn’t as simple as intentionally dumping on a given product because its quality is deemed subpar. Battlefield Earth is just terrible.
Generally, there’s more, let’s say, ideologically motivated subterfuge at play. The driving point here is that the overall score resulting from this practice is no longer a reflection of the public’s opinion of the product’s quality, which is what the score should reflect. It’s influenced by a vocal minority’s disagreement with what it deems as being no more than annoying, if not insulting socio-political brownie points the product strives to earn.
A legendary example, one that spawned an impressively thorough Vanity Fair article, was for Star Wars: The Last Jedi. The review bombing for that film was heavily inspired by arguments that the filmmakers were more interested in getting politically progressive points across rather than telling a rollicking space operatic adventure. The arguments varied.
“It’s too obvious that the movie wants to make all the female characters the smartest and coolest ones at the expense of their male counterparts.”
“I’m tired of this Mary Sue wannabe Jedi padawan.”
“Why are the heroes Latino, Asian, and Black?”
“Where’s my Luke Skywalker?”
It made for curious feedback.
What was of real value and could be used as constructive criticism for the next movie? What was no more than the angry words of stubborn, unreceptive moviegoers who were never going to give the film the time of day because it didn’t fit what they wanted in a Star Wars picture or, worse, went against their values? Values that come off as antiquated compared to mainstream 21st-century Western culture. Sometimes one must call a spade a spade. Kelly Marie Tran didn’t wipe her Instagram because she grew bored by it.
It Wasn’t Always About Star Wars
The term “review bombing” is relatively recent. No one, or precious few, was using the term maybe even 10 years ago. Despite the loud hoopla surrounding the Last Jedi example highlighted above, the online tactic was more closely associated with video games than movies and tv shows about a decade ago. Furthermore, it wasn’t always explicitly political (not to say that it’s exclusively political these days either).
A well-researched 2019 GameRant article elaborates that platforms like Steam and Metacritic were dealing with such instances as far back as 2012 when the Mass Effect 3 game was released. It appears that the story’s conclusion didn’t sit well with series fans and the latter shared their feelings online emphatically. Interestingly, the developers, Bioware, produced what it called the Extended Cut sometime later which mildly altered the original ending. Bioware was well within its right to do whatever it pleased with its franchise and to respond to the criticism in whatever manner it saw fit. In doing what it did, a new line had been crossed. A big, successful company didn’t just listen to harsh criticism. It acted upon it by altering the original product. The online reviewers and their ill-tempered reception had changed the game, no pun intended.
There are several examples of how video game developers were verbally pummeled online for a whole variety of reasons. Bethesda was a target in 2015 when it contemplated introducing paid modifications in Elder Scrolls V. Avid gamers surely recall the 2016 episode involving YouTuber PewDiePie and Firewatch developer Campo Santo Games that resulted in the former’s YouTube videos being taken down.
Die Movie! Die!
It was right around 2016 that review bombing gained prominence with respect to movies. More critically, the nature of the review bombing changed as well. It would be strange if a person railed against a theatre for charging them for a movie ticket. But complain about what one perceives to be politically motivated storytelling decisions, and a new can of worms is opened.
Ghostbusters from 2016. Yes, that one. Humour is subjective. The same joke will not make 100% of an audience in the millions laugh (full disclosure: the author doesn’t think the movie is very funny. Passable. Nothing special) But what Paul Feig’s movie went through, even before coming out, was something else. One doesn’t need a doctorate to put 2 and 2 together here. How on earth can one have a fully-fledged opinion on a film prior to its release, save a film critic walking out of a press screening, a festival or an advanced screening? Much of the ire was born from the fact that the investigators of paranormal activity were women. That may sound like elementary schoolyard tomfoolery, like when the girls are excluded from the fun of recess dodgeball. But it wasn’t. These people were adults. Functioning people in society.
From there tactic was repeated for various movies, driven by various complaints, many of which would leave any level-headed person befuddled.
We have already looked back on The Last Jedi. The Eternals stirred the passions of people who weren’t keen on seeing a gay superhero, and so did this past summer’s Lightyear. Captain Marvel received considerable scorn for Brie Larson’s persona and socio-political beliefs. But Brie Larson isn’t the character in the movie. She’s a real person who can do or say whatever she pleases (within legal limits), however brilliant or nails-against-chalkboard grating one thinks she is. Her attitude during the press junket doesn’t mean Captain Marvel is awful. It can be critiqued because playing No Doubt’s I’m Just a Girl during a scene in which the cosmically super-powered protagonist beats the crap out of heavies who don’t stand a chance against her is a bit lazy.
As for The Rings of Power, the comments have ranged from the proposed plot not adhering to Tolkien’s text (which is a bit of an odd knife to stab with given that the showrunners only have Appendices to base the scripts on), to the fact that the author wouldn’t have approved of their being Black Harfoots. “LOTR” features people of different races (Men, Dwarves, Elves) coming together to fight evil, but who knows, maybe Tolkien was the most racist person in human history. The chap has been dead for 49 years so, unfortunately, he isn’t available to settle the dispute.
Is it fair to argue that, to an extent, these films are pandering to various subsections of their potential viewership? Sure, but how is that a negative per se? It’s Hollywood. It must make money otherwise it ceases to exist. Then none of us get any big, new, shiny American movies. When, since its inception, has Hollywood not pandered to the whims of the public? It’s why any successful film or show gets a sequel. Then a prequel. Then a sidequel. Then a reboot.
The story might not be interesting, the characters may commit moronic decision-making, and the pace may be slow as molasses, but a movie probably isn’t terrible because a gay co-lead is featured.
What the Platforms Did About it
This is where things get dicey. For one, does review bombing carry enough sway for action to be taken against it? The question is not as easy to answer as it sounds. One needs to consider how many people have utilized a given platform’s rating system, how many negative ratings there are vis-à-vis the positive ones, what the comments sections read like, and, above all else, do the ratings, however torrid, prevent a movie from earning money at the box office or a streaming show from racking up a boast-worthy number of hours viewed?
Amazon announced that the first two episodes of ROP had 25 million viewers. Who watched all 2 hours and who watched 10 minutes, we don’t know. That said, Amazon isn’t in the habit of revealing viewer numbers like that, so to do so suggests they’re happy for now.
And yet they disallowed user ratings for 3 days. Something about the forcefulness and the (relative) efficiency of review bombing convinced the company to temporarily shield itself. At the time of this writing, its Rotten Tomatoes score is quite hideous. 39% is a steep hill to climb. Do only 4 out of 10 people think the show is even passable? Perhaps, but it’s difficult to say.
In any event, several companies have acted. Netflix doesn’t allow star ratings anymore. Rotten Tomatoes don’t allow any ratings for yet unreleased films. Epic Games concocted an altered version of the five-star system to try and weed out outlandishly ideologically motivated negative reviews. One extrapolates that as influential as these companies are and as nice as it is to earn Scrooge McDuck profits, not being eviscerated online for reasons at best tangentially related to the quality of their products offers peace of mind.
Amidst Horror, Helpfulness
If that wasn’t nuanced enough for the reader’s taste, consider this. There are arguments to be made, and that have been made, that user feedback is still terrifically useful. Deleting online feedback, or outright avoiding the possibility of providing feedback runs the risk of the artists, the creators, operating in a vacuum.
Believe it or not, there are academic studies about this. On the one hand, it has been scientifically observed that in some circumstances review bombing brings out extremist passions on both sides of the aisle. That can happen even if the original intent of the bombing group wasn’t so that a forceful, equally passionate opposing side would arise in the comments section. Sooner or later, no one is really talking about the game, film, or tv show anymore.
On the flip side, as Professors Christian Moro and James Birt of Australia’s Bond University explain, online feedback in this day and age is a remarkable tool for developers (in a video game context) to ameliorate their product before it goes out for wider release. They worked on an educational game called The King’s Request and put it on Steam. Yes, some reviews were needlessly negative, but other comments were astute and helped guide the programmers to make a better game in the long run. When prepping a video game, get feedback on a video game platform. Go figure.
No thumbs down on YouTube makes it harder to discern if a video is worth watching or not, regardless of how embarrassing the 2016 Ghostbusters trailer turmoil was.
While the academically based examples above pertained to video games, the fact is regular people still consider movie and tv show ratings, just as some still base viewing choices on what earned an Academy Award or an Emmy. Some people don’t, of course. But some do.
Make Up Your Own Dang Mind
It goes without saying that the simplest, truest form of knowing whether a product satisfies one’s interest or not is by giving it a try. There are many people who don’t give a fiddler’s flute about what the consensus says about a Michael Bay Transformers movie. They want to see if the next one is just as…good… as the last one? Anyways. Individuals who are up for conversation, or any type of moderately deeper reflection can compare what they think about a movie with what the online ratings indicate. They hold value.
The final say about how dangerous, harmful, or inconsequential review bombing is, depends on who’s noticing it. Any person with minimal intelligence can ponder about a movie sporting a 50%, or 2.5/5 rating. Half the people like this movie and the other half don’t. Am I in the mood today to take that 50/50 chance or not? It’s not complicated.
As for the studios and game developers, it is, understandably, a different story. They work tirelessly to put out what they hopefully believe is a good product. It must be frustrating to witness a relatively small but somehow annoyingly efficient group drag the overall rating down for reasons beyond how good or not the film is. Reputations must preserve their lustre. As such, some of them decide to control the feedback options with forcefulness. As previously argued, that can have some negative effects. By shutting up the haters, the people who depend on ratings are kept in the dark. There is also the matter of people who didn’t care for the movie for perfectly legitimate reasons not having a platform to express themselves.
When it gets to that point, the review bombers have A-bombed everyone, including themselves.