Which Movies Are The Most Polarizing? A Statistical Analysis
Which films divide audiences, and what makes a movie divisive?
Intro: The Greatest Worst Movie of All Time
In 1978, film critic Michael Medved and his brother Harry published "The Fifty Worst Films of All Time," a compendium of the most flawed works in movie history. At the end of their book, the Medveds provided an address for readers to submit their choices for low-quality films—an empty gesture that would ultimately unearth a cinematic gem.
After the release of "Fifty Worst Films," numerous readers, among them the renowned film critic Roger Ebert, contacted the Medved brothers to express their discontent with the exclusion of Ed Wood's notoriously awful Plan 9 from Outer Space. After obtaining a rare print of the film, the Medveds enthusiastically declared Plan 9 the "worst movie of all time" in their follow-up book, "The Golden Turkey Awards."
Released in 1959, Ed Wood's Plan 9 from Outer Space is an incomprehensible low-budget sci-fi yarn about aliens resurrecting the Earth's dead as zombies. Wood's masterpiece features glaring continuity mistakes, cheap and unconvincing special effects, heavy usage of footage from completely different film projects, and wooden, over-the-top acting. The film's sets are unmistakably fake, including a cardboard gravestone that wobbles and subsequently falls over while in frame.
Following its "Golden Turkey Award," Plan 9 was embraced by a subset of quirky cinephiles and quickly became a staple of the cult film circuit. Despite its triumphant rediscovery, Plan 9 is a work with dueling legacies: some consider the film inept and disastrous, while others believe this ineptitude adds to its immense charm.
Ed Wood's bizarro sci-fi masterwork exists amongst a highly specific canon of polarizing films—movies that are the object of intense adoration and equally harsh criticism (with little middle ground). People watch these movies and hail them as classics or openly lambast the film as evidence of societal decay. So today, we'll explore the most polarizing movies in film history, the characteristics that make them so schismatic, and the decline of divisive filmmaking in recent years.
The Most Polarizing Movies of All Time
We'll use variance amongst online movie reviews as an indicator of polarization. If reviewers disagree on a film's quality, the movie's ratings will fluctuate wildly between one star (the lowest mark) and five stars (the highest mark). In contrast, the prototypical film usually receives scores within a tighter range. Our analysis will utilize the standard deviation of a film's ratings to identify divisive works.
Our review data comes from MovieLens, a virtual community that collects movie ratings and reviews and then uses this data to recommend films to its users. The MovieLens dataset offers a treasure trove of over 20 million movie ratings collected between 1995 and 2015.
Our list of highly polarizing films is headlined by none other than Plan 9 From Outer Space and features a mixture of various genres, budgets, and subject matter.
We can sort these movies into a few different categories:
1. Low-Budget Cult Classics
Rocky Horror Picture Show, Pink Flamingos, and Plan 9 From Outer Space are eclectic low-budget releases that were embraced by contrarian cinephiles. These movies often play in midnight showings at small-time arthouses and are infamous for transgressive themes and scenes. As an example, the climax of Pink Flamingos features the drag queen Divine eating actual dog poop, which some filmgoers find endearing. Part of the appeal of these works is that they do not resonate with mainstream audiences.
2. Inescapable Franchise Films
Most franchise films are engineered for mass appeal, but that doesn't mean they can't piss off a sizable subset of moviegoers. Twilight, Transformers, and (somehow) Babe are serialized stories that offend viewers for their poor quality and ubiquity. It's hard to understate the inescapability of Twilight in the 2000s. Twilight debuted to mixed critical reviews, and yet the series' cultural reach was vast, influencing fashion (with its distinctive style), literature (spurring a wave of young adult romance novels), and even tourism (with fans flocking to Forks, Washington, the setting of the story). People loved Twilight with fervent devotion or hated its sheer cultural pervasiveness. Movies like Twilight and Transformers perform well at the box office, even in the absence of high-quality storytelling.
3. Horror Movies That Went Mainstream
When it comes to the horror genre, there is little correlation between quality and a film's box office performance. Horror devotees do not care about the opinions of film critics, film scholars, film theorists, Letterboxd reviewers, IMDB reviewers, or anyone else. But what happens when a horror film crosses over into the mainstream? Films like The Blair Witch Project and Texas Chainsaw Massacre are horror hits that made their way into the zeitgeist, for better or worse. Some mainstream moviegoers appreciated the macabre frights offered by these stories, while others swore off the horror genre forever.
4. The Passion of the Christ
I've never seen The Passion of the Christ. I was a kid when the film premiered, but I remember the grown-ups around me having very strong opinions about this movie. On paper, so many elements of this work could read as offensive to various audiences: the graphic violence, the fact it's about religion, the fact that it's a depiction of Jesus, the fact that Mel Gibson directed the movie, and that's just for starters. Fortunately, this project predated social media. Could you imagine what would happen if this film were released today?
What I found most intriguing about this list is the enduring legacy of these films within popular imagination. I don't like horror movies, but Texas Chainsaw Massacre is indelibly lodged in my brain. I've seen Rocky Horror Picture Show at least five times, and I'm still unsure if it's a "good" movie. Some viewers hate these films, and some viewers love these films, and strangely, both sentiments propel these works into a state of perpetual relevance.
But what elements of these movies simultaneously insult and thrill audiences? What makes a movie polarizing?
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What Makes A Movie Polarizing?
The unfortunately named "torture porn" horror subgenre rose to prominence in the early 2000s, characterized by films featuring graphic depictions of violence and gore. Low-budget franchises like Saw and Hostel pushed the boundaries of on-screen violence and were thus subject to significant backlash, with the second installment of Hostel being banned in Germany, New Zealand, and the UK.
At the same time, Saw and Hostel are among the most profitable franchises in movie history. The first installment of Hostel grossed $82M against a budget of $4M, and Saw I brought in $103M on a budget of $1.2M. The Saw franchise would later spawn nine sequels (and counting).
The horror genre has always been bombastically transgressive, forever testing the boundaries of social and cultural norms. Indeed, when we examine rating variance by genre, we find that horror films often receive highly polarized reactions from audiences.
Family films are also subject to high ratings variance, as they have the difficult task of appealing to both parents and children. Younger audiences may love Ice Age: Continental Drift (the fourth Ice Age movie), while older audiences may be frustrated that they have to sit and watch this film.
But genres are, by design, quite broad. Is there a more granular approach to parsing the characteristics of polarizing films? Fortunately, MovieLens encourages viewers to tag films with details of story, cast, setting, and technique, such as "3D," "Africa," "Bill Murray," "violent," "whimsical," and more. Examining variation by tag, we see increased ratings variability associated with various storytelling elements and business characterizations.
Low-budget movies are subject to the most significant ratings variance. The polarizing reception of low-budget films may stem from their need for bold stories to attract attention or from studios dismissing them due to controversial content—or possibly both. Movies tagged with "jesus" also experience high ratings variance (which is a weird sentence to write). The story of Christ has been adapted into a myriad of narratives, some highly controversial (Passion of the Christ, Last Temptation of Christ), some conventional (The Greatest Story Ever Told), and some bizarre (Jesus Christ Superstar, Godspell). Also, unsurprisingly, movies tagged as "stupid" are polarizing, as are movies with Jim Carrey, an actor responsible for multiple stupidity-centric Dumb and Dumber films.
Using these tags, we can virtually design a film to be polarizing. All you need to do is produce a low-budget horror musical franchise that features Jesus and stars Jim Carrey.
While we discerned these traits through statistical analysis, many studio executives have learned the contentious nature of certain tropes through experience. Hollywood is a town that cycles through periods of imitation and overcorrection. Has the film industry moved toward cultivating content that spurs debate or avoiding projects that induce disagreement?
Are Movies Becoming More Polarized?
Tracking ratings variance by release year, we observe an increase in review variability starting in the late 1970s, followed by a precipitous decline in variance starting in the early 2000s.
While it's hard to know what exactly triggered the rise in variance across the 1980s and 1990s, there are a few potential explanations:
1. The Growth of Horror Films
The 1980s saw an explosion in horror content, as films like Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street helped popularize the slasher genre, while Evil Dead and Cannibal Holocaust shocked audiences with gratuitous carnage.
2. More Graphic Content
During the 1980s and 1990s, cinema witnessed a notable increase in sexually explicit and violent content. Films like Basic Instinct and Fatal Attraction pushed boundaries with graphic sexual content, spawning a myriad of imitators that attempted to blend eroticism with suspense (often failing). Mainstream action films, such as Rambo: First Blood Part II, Missing in Action, and Predator ramped up their depictions of violence, contributing to a grittier, more explicit cinematic landscape. Sometimes, the integration of sex and violence proved effective, while in other instances, these subversive story elements played as cheap and exploitative.
3. Mainstream Success of Independent Cinema
In the early 1990s, a rise in accessible high-quality camera equipment and globalized distribution led to increased production of low-budget independent cinema. This period brought us classics like Dazed and Confused, Good Will Hunting, and Pulp Fiction, and divisive content like Kids, Dogma, Natural Born Killers, and Crash (note: not the Oscar-winning Crash). Outside the grasp of studio control, indie films could test cultural norms.
Similarly, it's hard to know what exactly led to a fall in rating variability, though the decline could be the product of:
1. The Standardization and Ubiquity of Franchise Filmmaking
Hollywood moved toward franchise filmmaking in the early 2000s. The success of The Lord of the Rings trilogy and Sony's Spider-Man series popularized serialized movie installments built upon a foundation of well-known intellectual property. Film franchises like the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) and the DC Extended Universe (DCEU) were designed to attract the broadest possible audience, with little room for storytelling risks or subversive plot elements.
2. The Internet
The Internet fosters an instant feedback loop that amplifies the scope of any criticisms, significantly influencing filmmakers' willingness to take risks. Consider the controversy surrounding the movie Peter Rabbit. In Peter Rabbit, a character with a blackberry allergy is attacked with the fruit, triggering an allergic reaction. This scene was criticized by numerous groups, including The Asthma and Allergy Foundation, for making light of allergies, leading to public backlash and calls on social media to boycott the film. I'm not saying this backlash was or wasn’t justified, but rather that movie producers have to be hyperaware of the numerous ways their content may trigger contemporary audiences.
End state, modern movies are increasingly uniform in both production and audience response. Unfortunately, this paradigmatic shift toward invariability comes at a cost.
Final Thoughts: Disagreement for Better Conversation
I was a film major in college, which means film discussion sections played a significant role in determining my grades. These sessions were the movie equivalent of a painfully dull book club, as students often skipped the required viewing or were unenthusiastic to share their opinions. One course in particular, which focused on world cinema, was notorious for highly underwhelming conversation—and then we watched Lars von Trier's The Idiots.
Lars von Trier's The Idiots is a wildly controversial film that follows a group of young adults who feign mental disability as a form of social experimentation and personal liberation. The Idiots provoked intense controversy surrounding its representation of disability and its highly graphic sex scenes (between characters pretending to be disabled). During the movie's initial screening at the Cannes film festival, film critic Mark Kermode began screaming, "It is shit," prompting his immediate ejection from the venue.
For some reason, our professor decided to make The Idiots the focus of a week's worth of material, which is more than I'd personally like to spend with this film. And yet, the resulting class discussion was as lively and thrilling as any conversation to date. People fervently disagreed on pretty much every element of the movie. Was The Idiots a masterwork of Marxist critique? Or was this a work of low-minded garbage masquerading as a heady indictment of modern alienation? Did the movie's depictions of disability and sexuality go too far? Or was the film's excess necessary for Lars von Trier to prove his point?
I remember these discussions vividly; they were among the most scintillating of my undergraduate education. Disagreement, when handled properly, can amplify a film's impact. I did not enjoy watching The Idiots and would not recommend anyone watch this film, but I enjoyed discussing the movie with my peers.
Transgressive works like A Clockwork Orange, American History X, and Oldboy aren't intended to elicit one standard reaction. These movies thrive in the decades following their release because viewer reception spans an array of emotions.
Failing isn't fun, nor is losing money or being told that your work is shit. At the same time, conversations about art are less thrilling when everybody agrees.
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