"Underrated" Films: What are they, really?

How often have you seen the word “underrated” used to describe a film? I’ve seen it on movie top-ten lists, in film reviews, and heard friends employ it in their recommendations.  But what does it really mean?  Can you accurately determine the quality of a movie by the label “underrated”? Or is it just an ambiguous word slapped on films to create an air of mystery or elite status? Perhaps all it does is help perpetuate an atmosphere of snobbishness around the enjoyment of movies, something we could definitely do without.

Today on Professionally Incoherent, I’m going to talk about this nebulous piece of film criticism, and talk about a few “underrated” films that may be just the opposite.

First off, let’s approach this from an etymological perspective. Logically, you would think “underrated” means that something has not been rated by many critics. Pretty simple, right? Actually, the word “underrated” implies that something is underestimated in value. Herein lies the problem with the word. It’s used as a measure of quality – it is always subjective. Whoever says a film is “underrated” is making an opinion-based judgement not only about the quality of the movie but on viewer familiarity. A film is said to be “underrated” when it’s perceived to be any one of a number of things: high quality, unfairly reviewed by mainstream critics, and something that not many people have seen.

If the word “underrated” is based on opinion, it becomes as useless to film criticism as the words “good” and “bad”. We can argue for hours about whether Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull was a “good” or “bad” movie, and never get anywhere (I think it’s good, by the way). The word “underrated” might therefore be used by one person in reference to a film, but the next person you speak to might say the very same film is “overrated”. Words like this would keep an impressionable movie fan running in circles, trying to figure out just what the movie is.

Strangely enough, few people think about the real meaning of the word when they hear a film is “underrated”. Somehow, it has achieved this sense of meaning an “underground”, “cult” film, something that didn’t see wide release in theatres, and had only a small run on VHS or DVD. The word is associated with pretentious film buffs who sneer, “Oh that film just wasn’t properly understood. It is so underrated.” They might sound intelligent, but it’s really just another opinion, and doesn’t tell you any more about the movie than you already knew. The better tactic would be to reference particular elements of the movie, like acting, directing and cinematography, and craft an argument around why they make the movie “good”.

I might say Duncan Jones' "Moon" is underrated - but the word is too vague.

But we all know that doing that is hard. Many of us don’t have the patience or the interest in movies to become amateur reviewers. If you’re like that, no big deal – in fact, I respect you for being able to simply watch a movie and decide if you like it or not. I just happen to enjoy looking at movies critically. But it’s a bit annoying when “underrated” films are held to some kind of elite standard, as if they're beyond the average viewer for an unknown reason. Next time someone claims that a movie is underrated, ask them why. If they can’t reference some solid evidence from the movie itself (instead of just comparing it to other “mainstream” films), maybe the movie isn’t as “good” as the word suggests.

In researching this article, I Googled the words “underrated films” and “underrated movies”, just in case it yielded different results (I’ll leave the article on the snobbishness of the word “film” for another day). This was probably a bad idea, because I immediately came upon a number of top-20 and top-50 lists where the authors counted down collections of seemingly “underrated” movies. I fell prey to the connotation of the word – I thought I might find a lot of indie films with challenging subject matter, obscure directors and little-known actors. I did find a few, but I was also met with movies like Blades of Glory, Jingle All The Way and Van Helsing. Some of the choices I agreed with, but others I would never dream of calling “underrated”.

"Scott Pilgrim" appealed more to a niche market, leading to the "underrated" label

I just mentioned that I think Indiana Jones 4 is good – in fact, I might even call it underrated, but I won’t. Granted, a lot of critics and fans hated it for implausible action (surviving a nuke in a fridge, anyone?) and an annoying sidekick. But I disagree with the majority. I liked the movie, and I would sooner point out the film's specific strengths and weaknesses than merely lament that it's underrated. Then there’s a cult movie like The Big Lebowski. I liked it, but I didn’t find it to be as uproariously hilarious or clever as other films I’ve seen. Yet it has achieved the magical distinction of “underrated”. The word means so many things to so many people that it’s mostly useless, and if there’s one thing a hate, it’s writing made ineffectual by useless words.

“Underrated” is just another tool in the never-ending human experience of trying to get your friends to like what you like. Film buffs love cliques and a sense of community, and we’re willing to say whatever is necessary to a) show off, b) feel like we belong to an exclusive club and c) influence our friends’ decisions. Don’t see an underrated film just because of the label – look up some reviews (there will probably be at least one) and figure out if it’s worth seeing. In the end, no one should determine how you react to a movie – but feel free to share your reactions with people like me. The resulting discussion may just help you enjoy a film even more.

A quick note: this article was inspired by a suggestion from a friend of mine, Ryan Dillon. He’s an up-and-coming Canadian comedian and filmmaker, soon to be studying in Toronto, Ontario. Check out some of his material here on his comedy troupe’s YouTube channel!