The third anniversary of Roger Ebert’s death will be this April. The impact that he had on the world of film criticism, and in the general audience’s response to it, is incalculable. I remember, as a child, that unforgettable tagline attached to critically acclaimed movies: “‘Two thumbs up!’ – Siskel and Ebert.”
After Gene Siskel’s death, it became Ebert and Roeper. Though the partnership had changed, that praise began to represent films that I cherished as a child, and that shaped my view of the world.
As I grew older, I began to read Roger Ebert’s solitary reviews of films, and found myself agreeing with him more often than not. Even when I disagreed, I could hardly argue with his points—I simply didn’t want to believe that a movie I thoroughly enjoyed was just not good. He was able to put inexplicable feelings into words and to articulate the anger that many of us felt towards what he deftly called “stupid movies.”
His death left a power vacuum in the world of movie criticism, one that many internet celebrities and YouTube channels have rushed to fill with their fan theories and reviews. Though professional critics such as Richard Roeper are still around, their voices seem drowned in the sea of internet criticism.
Much like the music industry, the world of film criticism has been taken over by amateurs who largely think of things within the context of the present, without a vision toward the future. However, there are exceptions. One can hardly claim that the folks at Belated Media don’t know their stuff. However, these from-the-ground-up movie critics have inspired everyone to add their own input to the discussion, oftentimes without any notion of historical or artistic context.
Nowhere is this more obvious than in the reaction to “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.” The films of the original “Star Wars” trilogy are the first movies that I can remember seeing, and the main reason why movies are so near and dear to my heart. Many fans (including myself) had waited years for the sequel to appear, after waiting years for the film to even be announced.
My own reaction was quite positive; I felt that the film borrowed enough from previous entries to firmly ground it in that universe, while exploring new themes that “Star Wars” had never really touched on before.
While it does have its flaws (like needing some more character setup here and there, with an added sequence in other places), I feel like it captured the magic of what a film should be: inspiring, heartfelt and a labor of love. The heroes are not only likeable, but intensely relatable. Finn’s fear of his past and Rey’s inability to let go of hers both resonate with me on a deeply personal level.
However, the film had its detractors. Though they’re a small number, these would-be critics have been very vocal about their dislike for the film, and their opinions have become click-bait for those of us just looking to start a fight.
These are the contrarians who think they’re being edgy by disliking something that is well-liked by others. While the fact that “The Force Awakens” seems poised to become the highest grossing film of all time is irrelevant to its quality (Michael Bay’s “Transformers” franchise is an example of quality being irrelevant to success), it does say something that many people thoroughly enjoyed themselves, enough to necessitate multiple viewings.
My point here is that while many of us have our opinions about the movies that we watch, a large portion of would-be critics insist that their opinions are gospel without any idea of the historical context of movies. While the greats like Siskel, Ebert and Roeper would certainly insist that their opinions were true, disagreement with them never implied idiocy in their minds—nor should it in anyone’s mind. However, these internet personalities accuse “The Force Awakens” of being a shameless rip-off of the original “Star Wars” film, without being able to recognize the difference between an homage and a remake.
An homage uses images, ideas, or even dialogue from previous work to explore a new idea or to make a point. The divide comes when the idea or point that’s being made is either the same idea, or if the idea doesn’t serve the story in a new and exciting way.
The original “Star Wars” film was an homage to science fiction and adventure serials of the past, like “Flash Gordon.” It used images (swords in space), ideas (damsel in distress), and character types (the puckish rogue), but turned them on their heads and used them in new and exciting ways.
The new film is no different, except that it uses images and ideas from the original film to tell a new story. However, that context, and the cultural context of many films, is lost on this new generation of amateur critics who, as previously mentioned, are just looking to start a fight. They want to be edgy and go against the grain—much like the hipsters who hijacked music criticism several years ago.
While the opinions of the average person can often be profound by looking at things from a simpler angle than those who overthink things, as some professionals do, the weight of a professional’s analysis cannot be taken for granted in a modern day world where everyone is a critic.