Film Critics Spar on ‘Star Wars’ in 1983 ‘Nightline’ Interview

Jan 29, 2013 6:43pm

“Ghastly dialogue, terrible plotting, miserable characterization” and “all those special effects begin to look totally unreal.”

These are not words typically used to describe the “Star Wars” film franchise. When George Lucas began his sci-fi creation, it was hailed as ahead of its time. They still top “Greatest Films Ever Made” lists.  It is a film series considered so epic that many believe it is destined to wow generations to come, a trilogy so ingrained in American pop culture that many say it has become part of the fabric of America itself.

But the critic John Simon isn’t one of them.

A film and fine arts critic for over 50 years, Simon told Ted Koppel in a 1983 “Nightline” interview that he thought ”The Empire Strikes Back” (1980) and the rest of the “Star Wars” trilogy, was “so bad,” with “ghastly dialogue, terrible plotting, miserable characterization” and “three lousy actors.” He said the films were “dehumanizing,” only appropriate for children or ”childish adults” because it wasn’t an accurate portrayal about life.

“There is a very primitive sense in which the empire is bad and the very primitive sense in which the others are good, but it is all such a chaos, such a jumble, such a confusion, such a mechanical, technological whirligig, that– you don’t have any chance to associate yourself with anyone,” said Simon, who was a film critic for the “National Review” and theater critic for “New York” magazine at the time.

“You see one set of robots, some of them ostensibly flesh and blood but actually just as mechanical as the three other robots, attacking another set of robots. It zaps you, it races past you, projectiles are hurling this way and that, there’s nothing to get involved with,” he added.


ko star wars 3 mi 130129 wblog Film Critics Spar on Star Wars in 1983 Nightline Interview

Credit: LucasFilm/The Kobal Collection

But surely Simon was impressed by the “Star Wars” films’ special effects that produced humming light sabers, star-streaked hyperspace travel and galactic battle – wasn’t he?

“When you have a film that’s 90 percent special  – and that’s a kindly estimate — 90 percent special effects, you might just as well be watching an animated cartoon, because finally all those special effects begin to look totally unreal,” Simon told Koppel. ”What you are left with is something Walt Disney could have done just as well with a drawing board and pencils and colors.”

Funny he should say that. Almost 30 years after that interview, in 2012, the Walt Disney Company (the parent company of ABC News) announced it was acquiring Lucasfilms in a $4 billion transaction and starting production on a new installment of the “Star Wars” franchise.

But getting back to “The Empire Strikes Back” and the rest of the trilogy, two other prominent film critics, the late Gene Siskel of the Chicago Tribune and Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times, also joined Simon for the 1983 “Nightline” interview, and disagreed with his review.

Siskel, who thought the movies were “a lot of fun” and called “Return of the Jedi” (1983) “very good of its kind,” said, “I feel badly that this other critic, John Simon, didn’t have a good time at these pictures.  That’s too bad for him.”

“I don’t know what [Simon] did as a child,” Ebert said. ”But I spent a lot of my Saturday matinees watching science fiction movies and serials and had a great time, being stimulated, and having my imagination stimulated, and would have all sort of visions take place in my mind that helped me become an adult, and to still stay young at heart.”


ko star wars 1 mi 130129 wblog Film Critics Spar on Star Wars in 1983 Nightline Interview

Credit: LucasFilm/The Kobal Collection

As Koppel tried to wrap up the interview, Siskel couldn’t resist tweaking Simon once more.

“I’ve got to ask Mr. Simon a question,” Siskel said. “Here’s sort of a test question. Wasn’t your heart warmed, even a little bit, by Yoda?”

“Well yes, I mean a little,” Simon said. ”But let’s say if I saw him in a window at FAO Schwarz and I looked at him for three seconds and said, ‘That’s a kind of cute little figurine,’ I would have had enough of Yoda.”

So, that means no, right?

ABC News today reached John Simon for comment. Now 87, Simon is currently a theater critic for the Westchester Guardian and the Yonkers Tribune in the New York suburbs.  He said that while he hadn’t seen “The Empire Strikes Back” or the other “Star Wars” films in some time, he “pretty much” stands by his words.

“There have been times when I’ve changed my mind…but [this] wouldn’t be one of them,” Simon said. “I don’t think much of science fiction anyway and that has something to do with it, of course.”

When asked what he thought of  ”Star Wars” as a part of American pop culture, Simon said, “I don’t think much of pop culture, either.”

And as for Yoda, would he still look at him in that woebegone FAO Schwarz window?

“Oh sure,” he said. ”Maybe five seconds.”

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