Film criticism lost a singularly significant voice Thursday with the death of Pulitzer Prize winner Roger Ebert, who lost his battle with cancer at the age of 70.
Earlier this week, Ebert had announced he would be taking a “leave of presence” from his writing, but the news of death shocked the film community, with many celebrities taking to Twitter to express their sad surprise and warm memories of the man who, with his longtime partner Gene Siskel, patented “two thumbs up” as a major cinematic endorsement.
As a way to pay tribute to Ebert’s lasting legacy and influence, this seemed like a moment to reflect on his thoughts on five landmark fan-favorite movies, specifically, “Star Wars,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “The Matrix,” “Avatar” and “The Avengers.” Not all of them received an unqualified thumbs up.
The following excerpts (and publication dates) are taken from reviews that can be found on Ebert’s website, rogerebert.com. Go to his site to read these, and many more, in full.
“Star Wars,” dated Jan. 1, 1977
“Star Wars” is a fairy tale, a fantasy, a legend, finding its roots in some of our most popular fictions. The golden robot, lion-faced space pilot, and insecure little computer on wheels must have been suggested by the Tin Man, the Cowardly Lion, and the Scarecrow in “The Wizard of Oz.” The journey from one end of the galaxy to another is out of countless thousands of space operas. The hardware is from “Flash Gordon” out of “2001: A Space Odyssey,” the chivalry is from Robin Hood, the heroes are from Westerns and the villains are a cross between Nazis and sorcerers. “Star Wars” taps 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. Read the full review here.
“Raiders of the Lost Ark,” dated Jan. 1, 1981
“Raiders of the Lost Ark” is an out-of-body experience, a movie of glorious imagination and breakneck speed that grabs you in the first shot, hurtles you through a series of incredible adventures, and deposits you back in reality two hours later — breathless, dizzy, wrung-out, and with a silly grin on your face. This movie celebrates the stories we spent our adolescence searching for in the pulp adventure magazines, in the novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs, in comics — even in the movies. Read the full review here.
“The Matrix,” dated March 31, 1999
“The Matrix” is a visually dazzling cyberadventure, full of kinetic excitement, but it retreats to formula just when it’s getting interesting. It’s kind of a letdown when a movie begins by redefining the nature of reality, and ends with a shoot-out. We want a leap of the imagination, not one of those obligatory climaxes with automatic weapons fire.
I’ve seen dozens if not hundreds of these exercises in violence, which recycle the same tired ideas: Bad guys fire thousands of rounds, but are unable to hit the good guy. Then it’s down to the final showdown between good and evil — a martial arts battle in which the good guy gets pounded until he’s almost dead, before he finds the inner will to fight back. Been there, seen that (although rarely done this well). Read the full review here.
“Avatar,” dated Dec. 11, 2009
“Avatar” is not simply a sensational entertainment, although it is that. It’s a technical breakthrough. It has a flat-out Green and anti-war message. It is predestined to launch a cult. It contains such visual detailing that it would reward repeating viewings. It invents a new language, Na’vi, as “Lord of the Rings” did, although mercifully I doubt this one can be spoken by humans, even teenage humans. It creates new movie stars. It is an Event, one of those films you feel you must see to keep up with the conversation. Read the full review here.
“The Avengers,” dated May 2, 2012
Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) sends out a call to the Avengers to team up and meet this threat. He runs SHIELD, the Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division, which is all I know about it. He’s headquartered on a gigantic aircraft carrier that’s also a hovercraft and can become invisible. By bringing the Avengers together, he of course reopens ancient rivalries (i.e, my hammer can beat your shield), until they learn the benefits of Teamwork, which is discussed in speeches of noble banality. So you see this is sort of an educational film, teaching the Avengers to do what was so highly valued on my first-grade report card: the concept of Working Well With Others. Read the full review here.
— Compiled by Gina McIntyre