Star Wars hype: Should you trust early reviews of 'The Force Awakens'?

A long time ago in a galaxy not so far away, “Star Wars” returned to theatres with the first installment in a much-anticipated new trilogy that delighted fans and critics alike – until the euphoria wore off, and people realized “Episode I: The Phantom Menace” wasn’t a very good movie.

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“The Phantom Menace” was released 16 years after the original “Star Wars” trilogy wrapped up, and just like today, there was a strong sense of nostalgia driving people to the theatres to see the movie. Most fans and critics had a blast in their first viewing, but the flaws have become very apparent in the years since: the painfully unfunny Jar Jar Binks, the weird chemical explanation for the Force, the generally stilted dialogue and the heavy use of digital effects all serve to drag the film down, more than prop it up.

Many now consider "The Phantom Menace" as the weakest instalment in the “Star Wars” franchise – though you’d never know it from reading the critical reviews when it was released.

With glowing reviews already pouring in for “The Force Awakens,” it’s worth remembering that critics were also excited about some of the worst films in this franchise, and cranky about some of the more beloved ones, too. Here’s a look back at what some of the more prominent film critics had to say at the time each movie was released.

Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999)

Top critic Roger Ebert had high praise for “The Phantom Menace,” giving it 3.5 stars out of four in a review posted to his website. “If it were the first ‘Star Wars’ movie, ‘The Phantom Menace’ would be hailed as a visionary breakthrough,” Ebert wrote on his website.

Ebert couches his review in the idea that “Star Wars” is a thrill ride for the eyes, and not the kind of thing you attend “with the hope of gaining insights into human behaviour.” He also hit on some of the points that would irk fans for years to come, including the clunky dialogue, wooden acting and emphasis on boring politics (i.e. embargoes and trade blockades).

Nevertheless, Ebert is quite positive in his review, hailing the special effects-heavy film as a “fanciful” and “cheerful” visual treat.

Rolling Stone’s Peter Travers was not nearly so caught up in the hype with his review, which came out on the day the film was released.

“The actors are wallpaper, the jokes are juvenile, there’s no romance, and the dialogue lands with the thud of a computer-instruction manual,” Travers wrote in the first lines of his review. However, even Travers’ cynical approach leaves a soft spot for Jar Jar Binks, the oft-maligned CGI sidekick introduced in “Episode I.”

“Comic relief – and boy does this movie need it – arrives with scene-stealer Jar Jar Binks, a gangly, floppy-eared Gungan, voiced hilariously by Ahmed Best but otherwise a fully digital creation.”

Kevin Smith – director of “Clerks” and a self-professed supergeek – wrote his own review of “Episode I” back in 1999, and posted it on his website. In his review, Smith says the film ranks “right after ‘Empire (Strikes Back)’ in a list of fave ‘Star Wars’ flicks,” and went on to say it “starts great, ends great, and has great stuff sprinkled in between.”

Smith wrote that he particularly enjoyed the lightsaber fight with the villainous Darth Maul, and gave the film an overall grade of “B+ or A-.”

“I’m sure in about a week,” he adds, “it’s going to become quite fashionable to bash this flick – hard. But I’d like to go on record as saying I dug it.”

Episode II: Attack of the Clones (2002)

The hype was not nearly so feverish for 2002’s “Episode II: Attack of the Clones,” the sequel to the disappointing “Phantom Menace.”

Roger Ebert gave “Attack of the Clones” a mediocre two-star review, describing it as a film more for the die-hard fan than for the casual movie-goer. His review focuses largely on the dialogue, which he described as “strangely stiff and formal,” particularly because of the “romantic clichés” in the love scenes between Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) and Padme Amidala (Natalie Portman). “They’re incapable of uttering anything other than the most basic and weary romantic clichés,” he writes.

Ebert also griped about the visuals, saying they “didn’t pop out and smack me with delight, the way they did in earlier films.” He wraps up the review by calling the film “a technological exercise that lacks juice and delight. The title is more appropriate than it should be.”

New York Times reviewer A. O. Scott railed against the “promotional machinery” around “Attack of the Clones,” predicting that “the American moviegoing public will line up out of habit and compulsion, ruefully hoping that this episode will at least be a little better than the last one, and perhaps inwardly suspecting that the whole elephantine system is rotten.”

He then slammed the movie as “not really much of a movie at all, if by movie you mean a work of visual storytelling about the dramatic actions of a group of interesting characters.”

Scott also took aim at creator/writer/director George Lucas, saying he has “lost either the will or the ability to connect with actors, and his crowded, noisy cosmos is psychologically and emotionally barren.”

Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (2005)

As the finale to the contentious prequel trilogy, “Revenge of the Sith” actually managed to wrap things up in a way that critics and fans were at least OK with. “Revenge of the Sith” has stood the test of time, with a higher rating on Rotten Tomatoes (79 per cent) than either of the other prequel films (55 per cent for “Episode I” and 68 per cent for “Episode II”).

It also met with largely positive reviews when it came out. Roger Ebert gave the film three-and-a-half stars, calling it “a return to the classic space opera style that launched the series.”

However, Ebert was once again rankled by Lucas’ clumsy dialogue, particularly in the romance scenes between Anakin and Padme. “To say that George Lucas cannot write a love scene is an understatement; greeting cards have expressed more passion,” he wrote.

The New York Times’ A.O. Scott said “Revenge of the Sith” was better than the original “Star Wars” of 1977, and “by far the best film in the more recent trilogy.”

“The sheer beauty, energy and visual coherence of ‘Revenge of the Sith’ is nothing short of breathtaking,” Scott added.

Stephen Hunter of the Washington Post also called it the “best of the three second-cycle ‘Star Wars’ films,” and hailed it for its visually spectacular finale, when Anakin Skywalker and Obi Wan Kenobi duel on a fiery lava planet.

“’Revenge of the Sith’ is a brilliant consummation to a promise made a long time ago, far, far away, in a galaxy called 1977,” he wrote.

Episode IV: A New Hope (1977)

This is the film that started it all: the unexpected smash hit that made “Star Wars” a household name, and the franchise that allowed George Lucas to make billions through merchandising.

In his review for the Chicago Sun-Times, Roger Ebert said the film “taps into the pulp fantasies buried in our memories, and because it’s done so brilliantly, it reactivates old thrills, fears, and exhilarations we thought we’d abandoned when we read our last copy of ‘Amazing Stories.’”

Vincent Canby of the New York Times called it “the most elaborate, most expensive, most beautiful movie serial ever made.” Canby name-checks a wide range of films in his review, comparing “Star Wars” to everything from “Superman” and “Ivanhoe” to “The Wizard of Oz” and “The Gospel According to St. Matthew.” He adds that the plot “could be written on the head of a pin and still leave room for the Bible. It is, rather, a breathless succession of escapes, pursuits, dangerous missions, unexpected encounters, with each one ending in some kind of defeat until the final one.”

Other critics were not so kind. John Simon of New York Magazine criticized “Star Wars” for its “dialogue of overwhelming banality,” while Pauline Kael of the New Yorker said “it’s enjoyable on its own terms, but it’s exhausting, too: like taking a pack of kids to the circus.”

Stanley Kauffmann of the New Republic described the movie as “unexceptional.”

“The only way that ‘Star Wars’ could have been interesting was through its visual imagination and special effects,” he wrote. “Both are unexceptional… I kept looking for an ‘edge,’ to peer around the corny, solemn comic-book strophes.”

Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

As the dark second chapter in the original “Star Wars” trilogy, “The Empire Strikes Back” remains one of the most beloved, if not the favourite, film in the franchise among fans and critics alike. (“A New Hope” and “The Empire Strikes Back” each have a 94 per cent critic score on Rotten Tomatoes, while “Return of the Jedi” has a score of 79 per cent.)

“The Empire Strikes Back” received several four-star reviews from top critics, including Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert. Siskel said it “balances bloodshed with charm, spectacle with childlike glee. It’s a near flawless movie of its kind.” Ebert, who reviewed the film in 1997, said it is the emotional “heart” of the entire franchise: “It is because of the emotions stirred in ‘Empire’ that the entire series takes on a mythic quality that resonates back to the first ahead to the third,” he wrote.

Judith Marin of the Washington Post called it a “good junk movie,” adding that that label “is no insult.”

“This is no monumental artistic work, but a science-fiction movie done more snappily than most, including its predecessor,” she wrote. “The total effect is fast and attractive and occasionally amusing. Like a good hot dog, that’s something of an achievement in a field where unpalatable junk is the rule.”

Vincent Canby of the New York Times, who wrote a glowing review for the first film, was not so generous with its sequel. “It’s a big expensive, time-consuming, essentially mechanical operation,” he wrote. “One’s impulse to know, to understand, cannot be arrested indefinitely without doing psychic damage or, worse, without risking boredom.”

He went on to admit he did not understand the plot, although he enjoyed “the rubbery little Yoda with the pointy ears and his old-man’s frieze of wispy hair.”

Episode VI: Return of the Jedi (1983)

The finale to the original “Star Wars” series never quite reaches the heights of “The Empire Strikes Back,” but it was still a fitting end in the eyes of most critics.

Roger Ebert gave “Return of the Jedi” a four-star review, calling it “fun, magnificent fun.

“The movie is a complete entertainment, a feast for the eyes and a delight for the fancy,” Ebert wrote.

Gary Arnold of the Washington Post called “Return of the Jedi” a “feat of mass enchantment” that pushes its luck as far as it can with its wide range of monsters, including the slug-like Jabba the Hutt and the teddy bear-like Ewoks. Arnold also criticized the film for shying away from the darker themes present in “The Empire Strikes Back.”

Vincent Canby – who wrote a sour review for “The Empire Strikes Back” – was just as dour in his review for the New York Times.

“’Return of the Jedi… contains some battle scenes that are more busy than violent and one death scene that evokes no emotional response whatsoever,” Canby wrote. “The film’s battle scenes might have been impressive but become tiresome because it’s never certain who is zapping whom with those laser beams and neutron missiles. The narrative line is virtually nonexistent, and the running time, thought slightly more than two hours, seems longer than that of ‘Parsifal.’”

Canby also dismissed “Return of the Jedi” as “the dimmest adventure of the lot.”


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