Sure, there’s no shortage commentary about our current era of geek movies. Oddly enough, though, the commentary of past decades might actually say more about today. And none was ever as entertaining in its own right as At the Movies. Critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert were a two-man Rotten Tomatoes, grading new films every week with a simple “thumbs” system, and dozens of reviews from the duo’s show are up on YouTube, now.
Watching these clips is a pointed reminder that modern classics still faced criticism in their day. And viewing the reviews over the years reveals a lot about longer-game trends. More to our interest, you can see Siskel and Ebert gradually came to terms with what we call the geek movie. They called it the B-movie then, or “the special effects picture.” And in the seven choice segments selected below; they’re alternately confused, horrified and, sometimes even paradoxically appreciative of it. Watch on.
1) Ghostbusters (1984)
This one shows how “special effects” was once a weirdly taboo term. Ebert marvels on how the movie is an unlikely fusion of the “special effects picture” and a Saturday Night Live comedy–two creatures so disparate, their hybrid could only succeed in spite of itself, apparently. Siskel takes the sentiment farther, describing it as two pictures in one, and wishing for more of the comedy than the “special effects picture.” So… he wanted Ghostbusters without the ghosts, more or less.
Hearing these two draw comparisons to nearly-forgotten touchstones of pop culture is fun. If you grew up with Ghostbusters, you probably never thought of Bill Murray as Groucho Marx-like. Siskel does, seeing similarities in how they wink at the audience, and would even like to see the Ghostbusters in a Marx Bros-style series.
2) The Terminator (1984)
Again, it’s fun to hear elevator pitches with outdated comparison points. Ebert describes this as “Dirty Harry meets the Road Warrior and the killer from Halloween,” and also chuckles at the iconic “I’ll be back” scene, likening it to a cheesy stunt from Chuck Norris’ Lone Wolf McQuade. Remember that?
Siskel continues to describe special effects (and anything fantastical, by extension) as being almost inherently unnecessary. He refers to the Hunter-Killers as Erector sets, and tunes out so much during the scenes involving them that he thinks Reese and the T-800 come from for “another planet” instead of a post-Apocalyptic future. Once more, he laments that genre elements couldn’t be removed from this genre flick. He was surprisingly touched by the Reese/Sarah love story, and really wishes it took up more screen time than the Terminator himself.
3) Aliens (1986)
Another Cameron release. This one is notable simply for how shaken the two seem over what they’ve just watched. The onslaught of the Queen and her alien horde was so intense and unrelenting, it basically made this horror movie too horrific for them. Ebert ambivalently wants to praise its craftsmanship, but Siskel writes it off for being entirely too upsetting, singling out the scenes where Newt is endangered as “overkill.”
4) Batman (1989)
Gene and Roger disagree about the first major “dark” super hero movie. While Siskel thinks the Batmobile and Batwing still look like toys, he very much appreciates the characters’ psychological complexity, especially how Keaton plays a conflicted soul instead of a “strong man.” He prefers the more adult take on Batman to the deluge of “teen movies” at the time. Ebert, however, is turned off by hostility and bad feelings he feels are wholly inappropriate for kids. Their split shows how the argument over whether “grimdark” is appropriate to superheroes–and to the Caped Crusader, in particular–certainly didn’t begin with Batman vs. Superman or the Dark Knight.
5) Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990)
This might as well have heralded the decline of Western civilization. The critics bemoan that it’s “marketing carried to the ultimate degree”–nothing more than a two hour commercial for a Saturday morning cartoon, a Nintendo game, and Dominos Pizza. Kids would only want to see it because they’ve been brainwashed. Roger even goes as far as to say that the Turtles’ cowabunga “surfer speak” promotes conformity in kids and signifies “something alarming about our society.”
Another sign of the times: Siskel dismisses director Steve Barron for his background in music videos. This was well before the crossover success of David Fincher and Spike Jonze.
6) The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
Siskel wasn’t always adverse to special effects. He happened to love the Star Wars trilogy, and here, he was especially happy that “the real McCoy” was finally coming back after three years of knock-offs. He does say “special effects” about a dozen times in under two minutes here, though. And his review demonstrates how, in their era, practical techniques could seem just as dodgy to audiences. He praises the audacious artistry in the Hoth battle, but criticizes Cloud City as a “cheap-looking sequence with an obvious drawing in the background.”
7) Siskel and Ebert Defend Star Wars
This clip speaks for itself. Gene and Roger argue Yoda’s merits to the walking caricature of a fuddy duddy–a critic who dismisses this “90% animated trifle staring robots” as junk that will confuse kids who’d be better off watching Tender Mercies (?) or reading Huck Finn.
Some interpret John Simon’s comments as prognostication for the era of vapid CGI we’re really live in, now. It’s more accurate to say film commentary is often just a game of Mad Libs. The terms change over the years, but the complaints remain constant. If critics aren’t turned off by “special effects,” they’re bothered by “CGI.” And if they aren’t troubled by a rash of “special effects pictures,” they’re concerned about the dominance of geek movies. Indeed, listen to Siskel’s now-40-year-old summation of the state of film in 1976, a year in the middle of the auteur era when “real movies” supposedly reigned.
Has the “geek movie” been around much longer than we think? Has anything truly changed? Share your thoughts in the talkback below.
Featured Image Credit: Monty Brinton/CBS