02 August 2012


Which is the better film: Alien or Aliens?

I thought this was a matter of opinion. and maybe some debate. The two have the exact same rating on IMDB, and Aliens has an ever-slightly higher metascore of critical reviews.

But I was informed yesterday that the answer is definitely, most assuredly, beyond any shadow of doubt is the first one: Alien.

I was told that this was a matter of “objective quality – as determined by the field and form of film,” and that “it’s not really beholden to personal taste or opinion.”

As a scientist and movie fan, I was surprised.

As a scientist, I put great stock into objectivity. I’d hoped that I have a good grasp on what it means when something is objective. For instance, one of the major things you can do with objective qualities is to measure them, with numbers, usually on an interval scale. There are generally agreed upon units for objective measures: meters, grams, degrees. You can create instruments that measure that quantity.

Admittedly, just because something has numbers attached to it does not mean that it is objective. For example, there are many psychological tests where two tests claim to measure the same thing that end up disagreeing with each other. But numbers are usually a step in the right direction.

As a movie fan, I felt I’d missed a memo somewhere. What are the SI units for quality? What instrument is used to detect and measure the presence of film quality?

And can the same measurements be made for other artistic media? Can the quality of television series be objectively measured by the same criteria as movies? Comics? How about painting? Guitar playing? Synchronized diving? (Have seen comments this week that if a competition needs judges, it’s not a sport.) If so, that might finally be able to stop hearing, “Eh, the book was better.”

And if quality is objective, a lot of movie critics are out of jobs. And I might as well stop writing my movie review blog.

I was reminded of this quote by David Hume:

If we take in our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.

All of which is a long way of saying: Aliens is totes better than Alien, dude!

(Incidentally, if there were to be an SI unit for measuring quality, I would propose that it be the Pirsig, in honor of Robert M. Pirsig, whose novel Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (no jokes, please, I’ve heard them all) is all about the nature of quality. Great films might be measured in kiloPirsigs; Your Highness would be measured in nanoPirsigs.)

No comments: