Movielens – do they really know what you like?

Should we take a cue from online movie recommendations?

If there’s one thing that the interwebs hasn’t quite got right yet, it’s you. Sure, you can ‘Like’ a load of profile pages on Facebook, but that’s only so that they can try to sell you something. Having recently become Facebook friends with a German colleague at work, suddenly my homepage was flooded with advertising in the German language – offering me some sort of bizarre fruity alcoholic beverage called Wein. Short of ticking a box that said “are you SURE you’re not German?” there’s not much that users can do to avoid this stuff.


Which is where specialist research comes in – to try and make sense of what we’re like by predicting what we will like. Movielens is a website that claims to be able to recommend your new favourite movies. Run by a research group in Minnesota with all the academically published work in the world to back them up, Movielens uses the ratings that you give to films to recommend the ones it thinks you’ll like using something called “collaborative filtering” – as I understand it, it’s really just a massive catalogue of criss-crossed film ratings from users around the world, condensed down to produce a list of films that you should watch. It’s like at HMV where they now have displays saying ‘if you like this…you’ll love this…” – except of course that I don’t bloody like Nicki Minaj or whatever her name is.

So, the first five ‘Top Picks For You’ from Movielens based on ratings given to other films (574 of them to be precise) for me are:

Constant Gardener, The (2005)

I think Ralph Fiennes is a fantastic actor…based on the one film I’ve seen him in – In Bruges; I’m going to throw it out there that he’s playing against type in this film. (Okay, I’ve seen the first three Harry Potter films as well but if anything that particular role as Voldemort plays even further into my argument.) The Constant Gardener appears to be a romantic thriller that demonstrates a sense of social realism (elements of the film are apparently based in fact) based on a book by spy writer John le Carre.

Would I watch this film? Nah.

Maria Full of Grace (Maria, Llena eres de gracia)

Tagline: “These pellets contain heroin. Each weighs 10 grams. Each is 4.2 cm long and 1.4 cm wide. And they’re on their way to New York in the stomach of a 17-year-old girl.” It’s at this point that I’m starting to wonder just what films I claim to love that are anything like this.

IMDB synopsis: “A pregnant Colombian teenager becomes a drug mule to make some desperately needed money for her family.”

Would I watch this film? Nah mate, still not feeling this.

Triplets of Belleville, The (Triplettes de Belleville, Les) (2003)

IMDB Synopsis: “When her grandson is kidnapped during the Tour de France, Madame Souza and her beloved pooch Bruno team up with the Belleville Sisters–an aged song-and-dance team from the days of Fred Astaire–to rescue him.”

I mean, we’re getting there, but this still doesn’t seem like my cup of tea. My Sky+ box is filled to bursting with animated films from Studio Ghibli – I’ve watched, like, four of them so far – so it could be that it’s my previous recommendations pushing it along these lines. Animated animals with human characteristics. Yeah, that’s fairly niche.

Would I watch this film? Maybe.

Persepolis (2007)

IMDB Synopsis: “Poignant coming-of-age story of a precocious and outspoken young Iranian girl that begins during the Islamic Revolution.”

Now this one makes a bit more sense. For one, it’s based on a comic – and I’ve rated enough Marvel- and DC- efforts for Movielens to realise I like comics, no matter how tenuous the connection – but again with the social realism? Hmm. I do have this on my Sky+ box to watch, to be fair – but y’know, most of the time I just don’t feel like kicking back with a beer and watching a poignant coming-of-age story.

Would I watch this film? Yes.

Stardust (2007)

Written by Jane Goldman and Matthew Vaughn who also brought us the film of Kickass, I doubt that this is anything like that; but I’m definitely interested in seeing it because – shock horror – this was recommended to me by a real live human being!

Would I watch this film? Yes.

So, what, two and a half out of 5? 50% success rate at picking films that I would watch. Let’s go in brief further down the list.


Billy Elliot – meh.

Abre los ojos (Open Your Eyes) – yes, just to see if I like it more than Vanilla Sky.

Rambo: First Blood – meh.

The original ‘Willy Wonka’ – I have seen it, I just can’t remember any of it, it’s been so long.

Battlestar Galactica (2003) – Assuming they mean the pilot, I thought that was a TV movie? Still yes I suppose.


So, I think this conclusively proves that there’s a long way to go yet before we need to fear assimilation by our computer overlords.

Next time: – why u make me listen to The Pigeon Detectives?

One thought on “Movielens – do they really know what you like?

  1. Pingback: Five Reasons I Couldn’t Get Into EVE Online | Alpha Signal Five

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