A Matter of Love and Hate: Defining Divisive Movies

Divisive, indeedI won’t be coy. The genesis for this piece was the hypothesis that The Last Jedi was not “divisive,” despite that word being attachedseemingly by law — to nearly every mention of the movie in the eight months since its release.

I was wrong.

By way of background, I like to think of myself as an empathetic person. I try to understand how and why people hold views different from my own. Usually, I succeed. But the more I’ve watched Rian Johnson’s entry in the Star Wars saga — or, more accurately, the more I’ve watched my favorite bits — the less able I’ve been to understand any hatred toward it. The magic of a handful of moments seems to me self-evident and undeniable.

Then it occurred to me: Perhaps the movie wasn’t polarizing at all, or wasn’t any more polarizing than other, similar movies. With any piece of popular entertainment, some small percentage of people are going to hate it. Maybe The Last Jedi’s critics were simply louder and more successful at giving traction to their complaints.

My first stop was the Internet Movie Database’s user ratings. On August 16, Episode VIII had a weighted average vote of 7.2, with 6.4 percent of voters giving it a one out of possible 10. That seemed to largely support my hypothesis, figuring that one in 15 or 16 IMDb voters for any given movie would loathe it.

But only 46 percent of Rotten Tomatoes voters liked The Last Jedi, and the average score was 2.9 (out of five). Those suggested to me that a group of people had gamed the system to drive the Rotten Tomatoes score down, which is of course evidence of my own confirmation bias; I was looking for data to support my thesis.

Yet as I delved more deeply into the numbers, it became clear that my premise was untenable. Even allowing for intentional user manipulation, The Last Jedi is genuinely divisive.

I don’t assign any importance to user ratings, but in this case they’re a useful tool. So I picked 10 movies as comparisons for The Last Jedi:

  • Three recent Star Wars movies: The Force Awakens, Rogue One, and Solo.
  • Four recent superhero movies: Wonder Woman, Spider-Man: Homecoming, Black Panther, and Avengers: Infinity War.
  • And three recent challenging movies I would expect to be divisive to some degree: The Witch, Mother!, and Hereditary. (I used The Witch and Mother! as controls. If The Last Jedi is divisive, any valid analysis would put it closer to those two than the other eight movies.)

I could show the many ways I sliced the numbers, but I’ll limit myself to four examples. Each says something different, but they tell pretty much the same story: At the bottom in three of our four tests, Solo is followed in some order by Hereditary, The Witch, Mother!, and The Last Jedi. In all of these evaluations, The Last Jedi finishes ninth or 10th out of 11.

Combined IMDb and Rotten Tomatoes score (one to 10), from high to low.
Avengers: Infinity War: 8.8
The Force Awakens: 8.3
Rogue One: 8.1
Wonder Woman: 8.1
Spider-Man: Homecoming: 8.0
Black Panther: 7.8
Solo: 7.1
Hereditary: 7.1
The Witch: 6.6
The Last Jedi: 6.5
Mother!: 6.3

The above is inherently problematic in our discussion, because two average user scores don’t show what’s happening at the ends of the spectrum. And Rotten Tomatoes doesn’t break down user ratings. So let’s look at IMDb ratings of one (on a one-to-10 scale).

Percentage of IMDb user ratings of one, from low to high.
Rogue One: 1.2
Spider-Man: Homecoming: 1.5
Avengers: Infinity War: 1.8
Wonder Woman: 2.0
The Force Awakens: 2.5
Black Panther: 3.7
Solo: 4.0
The Witch: 4.7
Hereditary: 4.9
The Last Jedi: 6.4
Mother!: 10.1

This is kinda surprising with the top two, but maybe it shows the effect of low-ish expectations on user scores. With The Last Jedi, it might show the effect of high expectations on user scores, but the argument against that is Infinity War.

More relevant to our discussion is the possibility of trolling in these numbers. If a conservative baseline for typical haters is 2 percent of users who vote, it would have taken roughly 18,000 IMDb voters beyond that to give The Last Jedi its poor showing in this category — a minuscule number considering the movie sold more than 69 million tickets in the United States alone.

But we can correct for that possibility to a large extent by looking at IMDb user scores below four. We should expect that the trolls are going to give a rating of one, but non-trolls who disliked the movie are probably going to be in the two-to-three range.

Percentage of IMDb user ratings of less than four, from low to high.
Rogue One: 2.4
Avengers: Infinity War: 2.5
Spider-Man: Homecoming: 2.8
Wonder Woman 4.0
The Force Awakens: 4.2
Solo: 6.1
Black Panther: 6.6
Hereditary: 9.3
The Witch 10.2
The Last Jedi: 11.3
Mother!: 17.0

This is most interesting if you do a little math. Users who rated The Last Jedi a two or three represent 4.9 percent of voters, which is higher than the one-to-three percentages of five of our movies.

But nothing I’ve shown so far gets to the heart of the “divisive” question, which of course must also incorporate the people who love a movie. So let’s look at the difference between the percentage of people who strongly like a movie and the percentage of people who strongly dislike a movie. Let’s further try to weed out trolls by eliminating ratings of one from consideration. In this list, we’re subtracting the percentage of voters who rated a movie two or three from the percentage who voted seven, eight, nine, or 10.

Percentage of IMDb high scores (seven to 10) minus troll-adjusted low scores (two to three), from high to low.
Avengers: Infinity War: 92.1
Rogue One: 83.9
The Force Awakens: 83.3
Spider-Man: Homecoming: 80.9
Wonder Woman: 77.3
Black Panther: 75.1
Solo: 72.0
Hereditary: 69.3
The Last Jedi: 63.6
The Witch: 55.7
Mother!: 52.3

A high number on this means that a relatively large number of people really liked a movie while a relatively small number of people really disliked it. Yet a low number isn’t necessarily proof of “divisive,” because it could mean one of three things: The movie is actually divisive; the movie has a lot of scores in the four-to-six range; or the movie is not liked, period.

But of all our lists, this one makes the most sense.

We should expect Infinity War and The Force Awakens to be near the top of any meaningful dissection of the numbers, given their average user scores.

Neither The Witch nor Mother! is an easy movie, so we should expect both to have low scores — and scores well below all the other comparison points to Episode VIII.

And if The Witch scores better than The Last Jedi, there’s something wrong with how we’re looking at things; we know they have different audiences, but it’s difficult to imagine a telling measure in which a hugely successful Star Wars movie doesn’t perform better than a challenging horror indie, especially when the former has a substantially higher IMDb user score. (The range of IMDb user scores in our sample is 6.7 to 8.6, so the 0.4-point gap between Episode VIII and The Witch is larger than it seems.)

The last test, then, gives us the most-logical ordering, with The Witch and Mother! at the bottom (55.7 and 52.3, respectively), all of our “similar” movies scoring 72 or better (with Solo bringing up the rear), and Heredity in between (69.3). In that context, Episode VIII (63.6) is much closer to The Witch and Mother! than its similar movies; it’s on the “divisive” end of the spectrum.

It’s worth noting, however, that even the most divisive among these is not all that polarizing. Nearly 60 percent of ratings for our worst performer, Mother!, were seven or above, and only 17 percent of voters rated it less than four. That’s because we watch what we’re interested in, and we’re generally inclined to like what we’re interested in.

Still, I’m willing to eat crow on this one. I expected to find that trolls had distorted the perception of The Last Jedi, and instead I found that its reputation as divisive is earned.

But I pointed out problems with each set of numbers I’ve offered to this point, which were presented because they were relatively simple. Using those lessons, I think a reasonable two-part IMDb-user-ratings test for “divisive” is a movie that has at least 10 percent of user ratings below four, and at least 55 percent of user ratings above six. This, it seems to me, captures both strong support and relatively fervent dislike.

My largely random sniff tests, presently largely randomly ... :

  • Crash (2004): 4.7 percent below four, 83.3 above six. Fail — not disliked enough.
  • Crash (1996): 12.1 percent, 52.4 percent. Fail — not liked enough.
  • Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull: 9.9 percent, 46.3. Fail — close enough on disliked, but well short of meeting our liked criterion.
  • Birdman: 5.3 percent, 79.5 percent. Fail — not disliked enough.
  • Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice: 8.9 percent, 59.7 percent. Fail — not disliked enough ... but not by much.
  • Ghostbusters (2016): 26.7 percent, 37.5 percent. Fail — not liked enough.
  • Suicide Squad: 11.2 percent, 49.0 percent. Fail — not liked enough.
  • The Tree of Life: 14.7 percent, 59.9 percent. Winner!
  • Borat: 7.2 percent, 74.8 percent. Fail — not disliked enough.
  • The Passion of the Christ: 13.5 percent, 70.6 percent. Winner!
  • Team America: World Police: 5.1 percent, 74.4 percent. Fail — not disliked enough.
  • Brüno: 16.2 percent, 43.7 percent. Fail — not liked enough.
  • Under the Skin: 14.9 percent, 52.2 percent. Fail — not liked enough.
  • Saw: 3.5 percent, 83 percent. Fail — not disliked enough.
  • Paranormal Activity: 12.8 percent, 52.9 percent. Fail — not liked enough.
  • The Room (2003): 58 percent, 30.9 percent. Fail — not liked enough, although its inverted bell curve of ratings is the closest I’ve seen to what would fit a standard, non-movie-ratings definition of “divisive.”
  • Lady in the Water: 18.2 percent, 41.3 percent. Fail — not liked enough.
  • Punch-Drunk Love: 5.5 percent, 74.3 percent. Fail — not disliked enough.
  • The Phantom Menace: 8.7 percent, 54.9 percent. Fail — not disliked enough, but we’ll round up on the liked factor.
  • Hereditary: 9.3 percent, 73.7 percent. Fail — not disliked enough, but pretty close.
  • Mother!: 17.0 percent, 59.2 percent. Winner!
  • The Witch: 10.2 percent, 61.2 percent. Winner!
  • The Last Jedi: 11.3 percent, 68.5 percent. Winner!

These results look about right to me. I could see lowering the thresholds slightly — maybe as low as 8 percent on the dislike side, and perhaps to 50 percent on the like side. But doing that would bring Dawn of Justice and Paranormal Activity into the fold, with Suicide Squad on the cusp of “divisive” — and I don’t think any of those movies has enough passionate support to qualify. But it would allow for Under the Skin, The Phantom Menace, Hereditary, and Cronenberg’s Crash — all of which I could live with.

In the end, though, I’ll stick with the stricter criteria. Genuinely divisive is a rare enough thing that the barriers to entry should be pretty high. Welcome to some elite company, Last Jedi!

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