How to Write a Great Movie Review Step by Step

Movie reviews are a popular and common form of criticism. Critics such as Roger Ebert, Gene Siskel, and Mark Kermode successfully carved out a unique voice and built an influential, authoritative tone across many mediums. Writing a good one is an art form in itself. We’ve nailed down 5 ways to craft a memorable movie review, so let’s cover them up.

1. Watch the film

First things first, watch the film, then watch it again. Watch it at least once before writing anything. This initial viewing should provide you with a gut reaction that can inform the rest of your review.

If you want to take notes, that’s fine. Don’t act like an essay writer for the duration, though relax into it. Developing a personal methodology will help develop your voice as a critic. When it comes to detail, scouring the credits as they roll isn’t as essential as it once was, all that information is available online today.

Should you watch it alone or with others? People watch films in different ways, and unless it is a gonzo piece, you may not appreciate the commentary and cackling of some viewing partners.

Materially speaking, is it possible to get a copy online, or do you need to find a DVD? If the latter is the case, check your library catalog to avoid paying over the odds on an obscure film.

2. Get some words down

After watching the film, take a look at your notes if you have some; if not, sit down and throw down some thoughts on paper. What sort of angle is needed? Film reviews can take a severe academic tone, or they can appear in a trashy magazine. Perhaps you’re making a zine yourself.

Look for a way to balance your voice and the style guide of whatever publication or assignment you’re working with on the review. Do they want some long-form exposition or a short, almost Tweet-like review suitable for a quick skim?

If you’re an essay writer free of the academic medium requirements, resources like Wikipedia are reliable to a point and are great for cursory searches. However, the content needs to be treated with caution. Don’t use it as a primary resource. Independently verify any facts you may want to use from that site. Wikipedia is somewhere to jump off from when exploring the intricacies of the film in question.

3. Compare and contrast

Research should throw up some interesting points. Perhaps it’s a film that’s a remake of a forgotten film from years gone-by.

Take, for instance, a Midway movie review. The author can compare the remake with the original, take Joyce Staton at Common Sense Media. She was not impressed.

Overly long and overstuffed with both characters and battle scenes, this film (based on the same-named 1976 movie) clearly has its heart in the right place, but it’s not much fun to watch.”

Ouch. A plugged in movie review should have thoroughly researched the film and be able to draw parallels and create an image of meaning across time and space.

4. Think like a critic

Author John Updike proposed five rules for reviewing a book, and some are easily applicable when reviewing movies. However, it doesn’t account for hilarious and cringe-worthy CGI. It’s also hard to quote from a film – beyond the spoken lines at least.

Updike’s published his rules in 1975’s Picked-Up Pieces. The first is very sweet. It says to try and understand the intention and not “blame” them for not achieving what they didn’t attempt. That is to say, treat it as it is, not as how you would have it. 

Another rule is commonplace in a discussion on the internet today, “go easy on plot summary, and do not give away the ending,” no spoilers, please.

Updike gives a vague sixth rule to do with integrity. He urges writers not to accept a review of a media that you are “predisposed to dislike or are committed by a friendship to like.” Avoid nepotism, and avoid spilling vitriol. 

Writers do not always have the luxury of following this final rule, though the rest of Updike’s rules give us a firm insight into the kind of impartial thinking that can make or break a movie review.  Updike sums up the magic of media and the mindset required in this line “submit to whatever spell, weak or strong, is cast.”

5. Get an editor

Once your review is complete, resist the urge to publish it straight away. Written words need time to mature or spoil. Leave the thought of editing aside for a couple of days. Work on something else, or don’t work at all. When the time feels right, have a re-read, read it aloud, and make the glaringly obvious.

Perhaps you’re working with an editor, in which case this step isn’t strictly necessary. Many writers do favor it, depending on deadlines, of course. 

And that’s how to write a great movie review. These steps only need repeating several hundred times to develop a unique voice and land that gig on the local paper.

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