Legendary film critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert weren't just fans of science fiction cinema. They were also its defenders.
Movie lovers everywhere still mourn the loss of both of these high-profile cinephiles, but the heavy television presence of Siskel and Ebert for so many years means we get to go back and relive some of their finest moments in film discussion over and over again. Take this gem, from a 1983 broadcoast of Nightline with Ted Koppel, in which Siskel and Ebert were asked to discuss the then-recently-released Return of the Jedi with film critic John Simon of The National Review and New York Magazine.
Siskel and Ebert both enjoyed Jedi. Simon ... didn't like it, but that's putting it mildly. He hated it, and the rest of the Star Wars franchise, too, so much so that he was willing not only to express his dislike of the film on national television, but to backhand fellow film critics and filmmaker George Lucas while he was at it.
"Obviously, let's face it, they are for children or for childish adults, they're not for adult mentalities, which unfortunately means that they're not for a lot of my fellow critics who also lack adult mentalities," Simon said. "They are for children, and they're brutalizing children, they're stultifying children, they're making children dumber than they need to be. A great work for children, like Huck Finn, for example, tells a child something about reality, about people, about life, about growing up. These films try to keep children stupid children forever, and that I think is wrong."
Ebert got the chance to briefly hit back at Simon, calling the other critic "old at heart," before Koppel steered the discussion back to the film itself. Simon complained that Jedi suffered from, among other things, "lousy actors," "ghastly dialogue" and "miserable plotting," and called the film "something that Walt Disney could have done just as well with a drawing board." Ebert's response, almost prophetic when you hear it now, was that Disney should be making more movies like Star Wars.
"These are the sorts of movies the Disney people should be making," Ebert said. "It excited me, it made me laugh, it made me thrilled, and that's what a movie like this is for. I also enjoy films by Ingmar Bergman and people like that, I share that taste with Mr. Simon, but I try, I think, in my own moviegoing taste to be broad enough to also understand why a bunch of people might want to get together and see a Star Wars movie and enjoy it."
Koppel also asked whether there was a dividing line between good filmmaking and films that were simply entertaining, and Siskel responded that, while some films can be "campy fun" while still being bad films, Return of the Jedi was not such a film.
"I don't think this is campy fun. This is well-made fun," Siskel said. "This is very good of its kind."
The discussion over whether blockbusters can ever truly be great filmmaking is one many critics and moviegoers are still having today, particularly with people like Christopher Nolan raising the blockbuster bar, and much of what Siskel and Ebert said here in defense of Star Wars still rings true, and could be applied to plenty of other films. The whole clip is definitely worth a look, especially for the part when Simon admits that he kinda, sorta, liked Yoda. Check it out above.