With all the Star Wars news coming out now, it’s easy to forget that the movies weren’t always so beloved. Looking back to the late ’70s and early ’80s, it would appear, from a certain point of view, that Han, Leia, and Luke were America’s sweethearts, but there were more than a few detractors. In this 1983 Nightline clip, critic John Simon duels with the tag team of Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert over the merits of the third entry in George Lucas’ space-opera, Return Of The Jedi.
“I feel they’re so bad because they’re completely dehumanizing” Simon says of the Star Wars movies in the clip. “Let’s face it: They are for children or childish adults.” Simon can’t help but come off as an old fuddy-duddy, certainly not from the Pauline Kael school of film criticism that treated high art and low trash equally. Simon even goes so far as to recommend the drama Tender Mercies as an alternative to Return Of The Jedi for the old and the old at heart.
Siskel and Ebert, while known for having an uneasy, tumultuous relationship with each other, are almost unstoppable when they are of the same mind. It’s almost unfair watching the duo take Simon to task, easily winning the debate, coming off as engaged, and excited about film and filmmaking versus the cantankerous Simon. “I went to a regular movie theater in a shopping center in Michigan City, Indiana, and I sat amid all the kids,” reveals Siskel. “They were ecstatic, they were enjoying, they were rooting for the right guys and booing the bad guys. I thought it was a lot of fun.” Siskel then displays his expert shade-throwing skills: “I feel badly that this other critic, John Simon, didn’t have a good time at these pictures. That’s too bad for him.”
Simon is not completely off base, however, and may have even predicted what the Star Wars films would become with the release of The Phantom Menace: “Special effects are like the tail of the dog which should not wag the whole animal. When you have a film that is 90-percent special effects, you might just as well be watching an animated cartoon, because finally all of those special effects begin to look totally unreal.”
There is plenty of debate, not only about Star Wars but the current state of blockbuster cinema and where it stands in the pantheon of great films. Ebert puts a fine point on it, proving that he really understood and loved film, even if you didn’t always agree with his opinion: “As to whether this film is good or not: It excited me, it made me laugh, it made me thrilled, and that’s what a movie like this is for.”
It appears that Siskel may have pulled an old Jedi mind trick on Simon near the end of the interview, getting the critic to reveal that his heart was warmed just a bit by the character of Yoda.