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Last Tuesday the downbeat sci-fi thriller Blindness was released on DVD, and I was startled to learn that on the movie-review site Metacritic I was listed as giving the film a zero score. For those of you unfamilar with Metacritic, it collates reviews of a single movie from various U.S. publications and converts their star ratings to a scale of 0 to 100, which allows the site to supply consumers with an aggregate score (some critics are weighted over others, though the site won't name names). If the review carries no numerical rating—which is the case for all the Reader capsules found there—then Metacritic assigns a score without consulting the writer. A note asks writers to get in touch if there's a problem.
So is there? For the record, here's what I wrote about Blindness:
"I have to admire a mainstream movie that's so overwhelmingly bleak, but that's the only real distinction of this dystopian sci-fi drama by Fernando Mereilles (City of God, The Constant Gardener). An epidemic of blindness paralyzes the world, and in one city armed guards herd the victims into a deserted mental hospital to fend for themselves. Conditions inside quickly devolve into Lord of the Flies-style savagery, as a compassionate doctor (Mark Ruffalo) and his wife (Julianne Moore), who's concealing the fact that she can still see, clash with a self-appointed dictator (Gael Garcia Bernal). Adapted from a novel by Nobel Prize winner Jose Saramago, this ends on an uplifting and philosophical note, equating moral blindness with the literal sort, which you'll probably appreciate if you haven't already slit your wrists."
A pan to be sure—but can such a review really be converted into a score of zero? How bad would a movie have to be to get an actual zero, no points, nada? A comedy about child rape? (Oh wait, that was Happiness, one of my favorite movies ever.) One hundred minutes of a blank screen? Blindness may have been a failure, but it was certainly a noble one. The capsule expresses admiration for the movie and acknowledges its distinction, while alerting readers that they're also in for a stone bummer.
Generally I ignore sites like Metacritic because I feel they're in a different business from me. When I write a review, I'm less concerned with consumer advice than giving the reader something to think about. But once I began to consider what number I might assign to Blindness, I was sucked back into Metacriticland. The site gives no clear explanation of how prose is turned into a number, so whatever score I arrived at would have to be consistent with those attached to my other 1,009 reviews on the site.
For reference I decided to buzz through them and see what others might have zeros attached to them. Surely, like George Carlin's seven words you can never say on television, "they would have to be outrageous to be separated from a group that large." Turns out there are nine more of these badasses: Alone in the Dark, Bad Boys II, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, House of the Sleeping Beauties, I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry, The Quiet, Saw II, Suddenly, and Untraceable. You know I'm already planning a themed movie night at my place.
But where does this end, I ask you? Once I've assigned a number to Blindness, I'll have to look at the other 1,008 scores and adjust them too. I don't like numbers—I like words. If there's one thing I've learned in this life, it's 7, 95, 651, 112—and 7, damn it, 7! Yes indeed.