A Common Sense 5-point Movie Rating System

Media products can be rated a thousand different ways. Every entertainment outlet has their own system, but most are some form of 5-point system, letter grades, or percentages out of 100.

Assigning a number to a media product is all well and good: everything can be numerated in some way. However, many rating systems are quite opaque as far as what these numbers mean. On some level, they reduce art to a single number that, if you think too hard about, is near meaningless.

A few years ago I created my own 5-point rating system for movies and television shows, and whenever I finish watching something, I can easily fit the product into a system that makes sense to me.

I thought I’d share it because maybe you, too, will find it helpful.

The 5-point system

The system goes from 0-5 in 0.5 increments, resulting in 11 steps. There’s also a 12th step, number 6, which is used in one special case. Let me list the ratings, plus a brief descriptor, before explaining what the steps mean.

0: Unrated

0.5: Dangerous Content

1.0: Offensive Content

1.5: Bad Plot, Bad Production

2: Bad Plot, Decent Production

2.5: Catch on TV

3: Watch Once

3.5: Watch a Second Time with a Friend

4: Own

4.5: Near Perfect

5: Live Your Life By

6: Watch for the Rest of Your Life

2.5, 3, and 3.5 Ratings

Let’s start at the middle of the scale, work our way up, then work our way down.

Movies and shows with a rating of 3 are only worth watching one time. These might be shows you watch because you want to see what the hype is all about, or you are somewhat interested in the premise. I would put a lot of superhero movies in this category: The Avengers, Thor, Iron Man, and The Dark Knight Rises.

Once I’ve seen these movies, I really have no desire to see them again. They provide a couple hours of entertainment but don’t stick with me.

Shows rated 3.5 are those that you’d watch a second time, primarily with another person. For example, I’ve seen most of the Twilight movies (I also read all the books). They aren’t great movies, by any means. They were worth watching once. However, if I had a friend who really wanted to see them, or was really passionate about them, I could stomach watching them a second time.

Watching them with somebody is the crucial distinction between 3 and 3.5. I wouldn’t go out of my way to see 3.5 movies again: they essentially function as 3 movies. But I would watch them again with somebody, not because I care about the movie or show all that much, but because I care about the friend and would want to participate in something that makes them happy.

2.5 movies and shows are those that you’d watch if you were flipping through the TV and happened to catch a rebroadcast of them. Maybe you’re home sick, or you’re in the hospital, or you have half an hour to kill at the hotel before meeting up with friends. These are movies or shows that you watch here and there, but don’t actively seek them out.

For example, I’ve watched a fair amount of Teen Titans Go on Cartoon Network over the years. The show has its funny moments, but I’m not drawn into the concept enough to actually seek out broadcasts of new episodes, and it’s certainly not a show I would buy.

A lot of action movies work best as 2.5 movies. Do you have any movies in your life that you’ve seen bits and pieces of on cable over the years, but you’ve never actually seen the beginning? A lot of 80s action movies fit this categorization for me.

4, 4.5, and 5 Ratings

Movies and shows with a rating of 4 are worth owning. You buy the DVDs or Blu-Rays, and you watch them over and over. They are shows that you’d like to see again whether by yourself or with another person.

Shows rated 5 are those that you live your life by. In other words, these are shows that inspire you, that change who you are on the inside. They are the shows that fill your head at night, the shows with universes you want to live in.

When it comes to anime, I own a lot of 5 rated shows: Cowboy Bebop, Death Note, Fullmetal Alchemist, The Legend of Korra, ThunderCats (2011), Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2012), and so on. For movies, the series that have changed me are Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings, and the Matrix. I’ve very picky with what shows and movies I watch because ideally I only want to watch shows that I’d rate 5.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t always happen. That’s what the 4.5 rating is for. 4.5 shows are nearly perfect, you own them and rewatch them, and there are parts that influence your life. Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy (yes, even the third one!) fit this category for me, as do the Bourne movies. I can’t say these series are perfect, as they have some flaws, but these movies still inspire me.

0, 0.5, 1, 1.5, and 2 Ratings

So far, we’ve covered ratings for great movies and shows (4-5) and ratings for shows that are okay and watchable (2.5-3.5). The bottom 4 ratings (forgoing 0) are reserved for Bad shows.

A movie or show with a rating of 2 is one that you finish (or not) and have nothing really good to say about it. Generally these movies fail because of plot and lack of impact or emotional stakes. However, these movies are not necessarily technically bad.

For example, I rate the G.I.Joe reboot movies, and the Michael Bay Transformers movies, 2. They just aren’t good movies. Dull, forgettable, uninspired, insipid. They were, however, made competently: and lots of money went into the special effects. But all of those special effects can’t change the fact that the cores of these movies are forgettable.

1.5 movies and shows feature both bad plots and bad production. These are the kinds of movies that are painful to watch because there really is no redeeming quality to them. These are the type of shows that some people call “so bad they’re good,” or they are the kind of shows that people “hate-watch.” Frankly, I can’t stomach movies that are “so bad they’re good.” I understand the entertainment value only in a theoretical sense: actually trying to watch these movies is a mental chore that I cannot complete.

Movies and shows with a 1 rating are those that are worse than bad: they are offensive. Now, I’m not talking about movies with the occasional off-color joke, or a sitcom that uses racial humor a bit too much. An infrequent lapse of editorial judgment and discretion might knock a 3.5 movie down to a 3 or even 2.5 rating, but isn’t enough to doom a movie.

Rather, I’m talking about those movies and shows that are offensive throughout. The premise is offensive, and the movie or show makes you angry when you watch it. You could be offended for a variety of reasons: take your pick.

I have seen very few 1 rating shows over the years: these are the kind of shows I actively avoid. But sometimes I see one. I’m thinking of a movie like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (US version). While many people believed that movie had something to say about violence against women, to me, the movie reveled in torture porn. All it did was point out that women experience sexual violence: no big headline there. The camera lingered on the violence for entertainment reasons, not for story reasons. And the turn in Lisbeth Salander to ruthless revenge wasn’t redeeming or cathartic; it was sad and misguided.

0.5 movies and shows, then, are those that go a bit beyond on the offensiveness scale. These are shows that are actually dangerous for people to watch because their messages are so toxic and vile that it makes you wonder why these shows got made in the first place. Not that everybody who sees such entertainment is going to turn into a deranged person. Rather, these are the kinds of shows that don’t do anything to better the lives of people who see them.

I’ve saved the 0 rating till now because it’s not really a rating: for me, 0 is equivalent to a non-rating. Shows that get 0 ratings are things like documentaries and the nightly news. It doesn’t make sense to rate them because you watch them for reasons other than entertainment.

The 6 Rating

I have one last rating, the 6. Originally when I created the 5 rating, I realized that I rate many shows and movies as 5: there’s just too much good stuff that’s inspired my life! However, if I had to select the cream of the crop, the absolute most influential show or movie, then I rate it a 6. There’s no 5.5: there’s a whole point difference between 5 and 6 to emphasize that a show rated a 6 is substantially better than anything rated 5.

I rate Avatar: The Last Airbender a 6. I fell in love with this show when I first saw it in 2009 and I’ve loved it ever since. If I could only watch one show or movie for the rest of my life, this would be it. This show is beyond perfect: it’s transcendent.

If you have a 6-rated show or movie, please share it with me! The 6 spot shouldn’t change frequently. 6-rated shows are those that are influential not only because of the plot, message, and so on, but it’s influential because of where you were at in your life when you first encountered the work. Many people have shows that they encountered at just the right time in their lives, shows that changed their destiny.

Avatar is that show for me.

That’s my rating system! It makes sense to me, and if it makes sense to you, all the better.

Best,
~Dennis

3 thoughts on “A Common Sense 5-point Movie Rating System

  1. So you compromise on a pulp fiction and go in the middle – makes sense. Yeah Tarantino often takes violence as an end in itself, and as far as I’m concerned that should never be meritable. It’s toxic. Django was very hard to watch at times.

    Actually watched a movie called “American Ultra” last night and it was so violent I docked it all the way down, per your rationale. But then tacked on a 2 points (3/10) because I thought the acting of Jessie eisenberg and Kristen Stewart was really good, so it deserved SOME credit.

    But I’m like you, I really don’t appreciate filmmakers that are insensitive to their audiences in this way.

  2. Neat system! I’ve wanted to devise my own for years but have not gotten around to it. The low end of your scale intrigues me the most. I’m curious where you would rate a film like “Pulp Fiction” or “A Clockwork Orange”? Since their content is so offensive, vile. Yet many people also regard them as classics. How are you able to reconcile this paradox? Just curious.

    • Hello there!

      Thanks for your interest! As far as offensiveness goes, I think a movie that has extremely violence, racism, etc, isn’t necessarily offensive. The Shawshank Redemption, for example, I rate 5 because it’s such a valuable movie, even though it’s hard to watch (thus I don’t have it in heavy rotation!).

      I’ve never seen A Clockwork Orange, but I’m hoping to someday.

      I’ve seen Pulp Fiction a few times, but I’d only rate it a 3. I think it does some importance things cinematically, but whenever I finish it, I can’t help thinking “What am I missing here?” I guess I don’t “get” Pulp Fiction the way other people do.

      Other Tarantino movies, though, I have a hard time with, particularly Django Unchained. That one does seem to cross the offensiveness barrier when it comes to racism. That movie seems to revel in the violence against blacks, and it doesn’t really illuminate the conversation on America’s racist past all that much.

      Great question!
      ~Dennis

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