“Every once in a while I have what I think of as an out-of-the-body experience at a movie. When I use the phrase, I simply mean that my imagination has forgotten it is actually present in a movie theater and thinks it’s up there on the screen,” Roger Ebert once wrote. “The movie’s happening, and it’s happening to me.”
This was in Ebert’s review of Star Wars, the first one, the jagged little masterpiece of ’70s sci-fi. Kind of a beautiful thought, this—art begot of art. He gave it four stars, before they renamed it Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope because, in part, DVD box sets were once a very profitable business.
Andrew O’Hehir just didn’t feel any of that big, sweeping, other-worldly love Tuesday night at the new Star Wars: The Force Awakens, even if he wanted to. He felt like he had seen it all before. He kept getting pulled out of it.
The movie wasn’t happening to him. It was happening at him, in big, predictable, even enjoyable strokes. Like a seventh chorus after a seventh verse, his brain knew knew what to hum.
In fact, he basically liked the movie, but he had a question: What did this movie actually accomplish?
Happy, if unchallenged by the whole thing, he headed home to sit at his laptop and absolutely ruin all inbound communications on the Internet for the next 24 hours.
Unbeknownst to him, he was about to write the first negative review on Rotten Tomatoes by a “Top Critic.”
“Indeed, all the spoilers I could throw at you right now—but I won’t, I promise—would seem familiar, because the whole damn movie seems obsessively and insistently familiar,” he wrote. “It’s the Citibank of movies, literally too big to fail.”
And, blam, there was Andrew O’Hehir: a big, fat splat amidst 44 ripe tomatoes. For the morning of its release, The Force Awakens had a perfect score among top critics, except for O’Hehir, society’s temporarily largest monster who wrote a very well-written article that was ambivalent or maybe tempered and earnest or potentially even, in the long run, right.
Of course, that’s when the weird, over-the-top hate came in. This is the Internet, remember, where visibility is now almost exclusively bad for you.
“I have gotten some hate mail today,” he said. “The funny thing is that I write about politics, and the mail I get from Donald Trump supporters is not necessarily any meaner than some of the Star Wars fans.”
Come on, show off the most grievous one. What’s the one that stung?
“Somebody said, ‘You should emulate Roger Ebert’s example and die,’“ he said.
“Yeah, that’s a pretty gratuitous drive-by shooting of one of the most beloved figures in film and Internet history,” said O’Hehir.
The hate slowed down for O’Hehir, a writer at Salon, as a few more negative reviews began to trickle in. The Force Awakens stands now at 94 percent, precisely the same number on the site as the initial classic.
The number of fireballs launched into the scorched Earth that is his inbox will dither even further tomorrow, when pharma ghoul Martin Shkreli will challenge an equally reprehensible person to a rap duel or Donald Trump will pick out another race to blame for all the world’s problems. The Web already started to move on by the time The Daily Beast called O’Hehir on Wednesday night.
But what if, when the dust settles, O’Hehir is right?
When America gets off its nostalgic amusement park ride with this film, when it is back at the hotel and repacking for the plane ride home, where it will steep back into a Han Solo-free reality, sober and contented—will it feel any different? When all is said and done, will we be able to separate the ghosts of our dreams—which red-blooded, sub-50-year-old didn’t watch the original on a tired-out VHS tape somewhere warm and nice as a kid?—plus a very nice experience at the movies from what we know makes a good movie?
In a few months, will anybody ever remember if this movie was simply fine?
And if a critic feels that’s how it will be perceived—and feels that way right away—is he or she allowed to write it?
“It’s probably something that’s emerged in the last decade or two at the most—that you’re expected to not trample on the fun or not invade the space of people who like these movies. Criticism was not like that until a few years ago. It wasn’t the job of the critic to take into account commercial concerns,” said O’Hehir. “Certain movies, like Christopher Nolan movies, are infamous for this. I start out by saying, ‘Of course, this is a great thing!’ then glide into whatever slight reservations I have.”
This is the movies, remember. They are simply not that important. Do not call the ACLU. But it seems a little bit safer—if not for your job, then for your sanity the next day—to skew your review of a blockbuster closer to the top of the grading curve in the age of social media, right?
“You don’t enter into panning something lightly, especially something you know everybody’s gonna like,” said Roger Moore. “I’m not cynical enough to troll for traffic. But after the third big kick-me-out-of-the-movie moment, I thought, ‘I’m getting too old for this shit.’”
Roger Moore writes at MovieNation and was the first critic on RottenTomatoes to give The Force Awakens a not-positive review. (Again, it wasn’t all that negative.) He got some weird hate today, too, although a lot of people inexplicably used his heavily moderated message board to say truly random anti-Semitic stuff about director J.J. Abrams, because this is how, as a society, we’ve decided to use the most powerful mass communications device known to man.
Still, he had to have thought about it last night: Is this worth it?
“Thomas Jefferson once said, ‘On matters of taste, swim with the current. On matters of principle, stand like a rock.’ This one’s a matter of principle,” said Moore.
Makes sense, since Moore has been reviewing movies since Rocky IV in 1984.
“You look at the Hunger Games movies and now that that’s all over, we can wash our hands of it. People tended to succumb to the hype, all the morning TV shows, all the ticket sales. It’s a blockbuster before it even opens,” he said. “But [in Star Wars] when you see that Girls TV star (Adam Driver) [do something very spoilerific], it simply takes you out of the movie. And when you’re on your way home, thinking about what you’re going to say about this movie, it’s easier to defend panning it than praising it. It is.”
As Ebert would put it, the movie is happening, and the movie is just happening. It wasn’t happening to Moore.
“I think people should go see it if they’re inclined to see it,” he said. “I think people just have a very fond memory of the original, and they’re waiting for things that they know are coming, then are inevitably un-shocked by the things they see and hear.”
Look, again: This is the movies, and the critical reception of a film has a particularly insignificant role in how the world operates. But it is at least 50 bucks for a family of four with a couple of very good coupons to see this one movie. That’s a pretty significant chunk of cash for some families.
So shouldn’t movie reviewers be able to tell them it may not be worth it without Reddit threads attempting to ban them from Rotten Tomatoes?
“In a sense, it’s slightly troubling to me. I basically liked this movie. But it’s a beloved cultural enterprise from decades ago that, at this point, got handed over to a major corporation to build a new franchise on top of it,” said O’Hehir. “Nobody wants to look at it in systematic terms. For some reason, we have to look at it as a product. We have to look at it from within its own world.”
O’Hehir cautions that he doesn’t want to get too existential about the whole thing, but he does believe there’s “something a little bit totalitarian about that.”
“Once you can’t question the greatness of something that is that big, it is the endpoint of the conquest of pop culture,” he said. “I loved pop culture. I had absolutely no problem with it. But in the totality of its victory, any dissenting voices are not really desired or allowed.”
And that might trickle down to you, if you’re as slack-jawed and dumbfounded as Moore was while seeing Star Wars this weekend.
What if you’re with your family and you just didn’t like this movie? Are you allowed this? Are you allowed to not have an out-of-body experience? Are you allowed to dislike Star Wars?
Yes. You are allowed to dislike Star Wars.
“You need to know that you’re not alone. You should know that the balloon will come back to the Earth on this,” said O’Hehir. “This too shall pass.”