10 Beloved Summer Blockbusters the Critics Got Dead Wrong

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It’s easy to get jaded, in this season of After Earths and Hangover IIIs and Furious 6 es, but let’s remember: sometimes big summer blockbusters attain that phenomenal degree of success for a reason. There’s nothing wrong with a good, old-fashioned popcorn movie, and those that do it well deserve our praise. But in researching a recent roundup of favorite summer movies, your film editor was shocked to discover how many presumably beloved modern classics were not, in fact, universally acclaimed. So, as with award winners and cult classics, it’s time for another round of “movies the critics got dead wrong.”

Jaws

“The ads show a gaping shark’s mouth. If sharks can yawn, that’s presumably what this one was doing. It’s certainly what I was doing all through this picture… The direction is by Steven Spielberg, who did the unbearable ‘Sugarland Express.’ At least here he has shucked most of his arty mannerisms and has progressed almost to the level of a stock director of the ’30s — say, Roy del Ruth.” – Stanley Kauffman, The New Republic

“The characters, for the most part, and the non-fish elements in the story, are comparatively weak and not believable. When the fear level drops off, for example, you’ll begin questioning the realism of how this little town fights the fish that threatens to close its beaches and thereby destroy its summer tourist economy. You’ll wonder why they don’t ultimately call in the Coast Guard, and you’ll wonder, when it comes to killing the fish, why three men have to risk their necks. Why doesn’t somebody just get a big mother of a gun and blow the shark out of the water?” – Gene Siskel, The Chicago Tribune

“While I have no doubt that ‘Jaws’ will make a bloody fortune for Universal and producers Richard Zanuck and David Brown, it is a coarse-grained and exploitive work which depends on excess for its impact. Ashore it is a bore, awkwardly staged and lumpily written.” – Charles Champlin, The Los Angeles Times

Alien

“Occasionally one sees a film that uses the emotional resources of movies with such utter cynicism that one feels sickened by the medium itself. Alien … is so ‘effective’ it has practically turned me off movies altogether … The movie is terrifying, but not in a way that is remotely enjoyable.” – David Denby, New York

“An overblown B-movie… technically impressive but awfully portentous and as difficult to sit through as a Black Mass sung in Latin … Alien, like Dawn of the Dead, only scares you away from the movies.” – Michael Sragow, L.A. Herald Examiner

“An empty-headed horror movie with nothing to recommend it beyond the disco-inspired art direction and some handsome, if gimmicky, cinematography… Director Ridley Scott relies on suspense techniques that looked tired in The Perils of Pauline.” — Dave Kehr, Chicago Reader

Raiders of the Lost Ark

“I don’t myself find that a host of snakes will restore drama to a sagging thriller, but I must tell you that I’ve never seen a more determined attempt to do so. Serpentine central casting must have been worked to a frazzle… After the escape from entombment and the cobras and asps, the film is simply a bore… So save your money.” – Christopher Hitchens, New Statesman

“…confusing, ultimately piddling entertainment. Raiders tells us less about society as a whole, I’m afraid, than about Hollywood, which of late seems to be laboring under the illusion that today’s moviegoers are sub-literate teenagers unable to distinguish between good and bad comic books. Or worse, perhaps films are now made by people who are no brighter than the dullest members of the audience they have in mind.” – Robert Asahina, New Leader

“Conceived by George Lucas, the picture is an amalgam of Lucas’s follies — plot for its own sake, dissociated from character or drama; the affectless heroine, Marion (Karen Allen), who’s a tougher version of spunky Princess Leia in Star Wars — and effects that Spielberg the youthful magician has already dazzled us with. Kinesthetically, the film gets to you, but there’s no exhilaration, and no surge of feeling at the end. It seems to be edited for the maximum number of showings per day.” – Pauline Kael, The New Yorker

Star Wars

“… about the dialogue there’s nothing to be said. In fact the dialogue itself can hardly be said: it sticks in the actors’ mouths like peanut butter. The acting is the School of Buster Crabbe, except for Alec Guinness, who mumbles through on the way to his salary check… The only way that Star Wars could have been exciting was through its visual imagination and special effects. Both are unexceptional.” – Stanley Kauffman, New Republic

“O dull new world! … It is all as exciting as last year’s weather reports… It is all trite characters and paltry verbiage, handled adequately by Harrison Ford as a blockade-running starship pilot, uninspiredly by Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker… and wretchedly by Carrie Fisher, who is not even appealing as Princess Leia… Sir Alec has a wistful yet weighty dignity of tone and aspect that is all his own; why he should waste it on the likes of Luke, whom he befriends, protects, and bequeaths the Force to, remains the film’s one mystery.” – John Simon, New York

“The reviewer’s lot is not an easy one and, at the risk of sounding like myself as a prissy 14 year-old, dammit, Star Wars is childish, even for a cartoon.” – Molly Haskell, Village Voice

The Dark Knight

“The generation of consumers who swallow this pessimistic sentiment can’t see past the product to its debased morality. Instead, their excitement about The Dark Knight‘s dread (that teenage thrall with subversion) inspires their fealty to product.” – Armond White, The New York Press

“The narrative isn’t shaped coherently to bring out contrasts and build toward a satisfying climax. The Dark Knight is constant climax; it’s always in a frenzy, and it goes on forever… The Dark Knight has been made in a time of terror, but it’s not fighting terror; it’s embracing and unleashing it — while making sure, with proper calculation, to set up the next installment of the corporate franchise.” – David Denby, The New Yorker

Die Hard

“First there was Sylvester Stallone, then came Arnold Schwarzenegger, and now—Bruce Willis. Bruce Willis? Not exactly a name that springs immediately to mind when thinking of muscles ‘n’ mayhem movies. But such distinctions mean little to the perpetrators of Die Hard, the noisiest, ugliest, and most relentlessly stupid movie of the year.” – David Ehrenstein, Los Angeles Herald Examiner

“…it’s a mess, and that’s a shame… Thrillers like this need to be well-oiled machines, with not a single wasted moment. Inappropriate and wrongheaded interruptions reveal the fragile nature of the plot and prevent it from working.” – Roger Ebert, The Chicago Sun-Times

E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial

E.T. is really Lassie in science fiction drag… I was so flabbergasted by Spielberg and Mathison’s transparent manipulativeness that I didn’t have time to ract with the mindless emotionalism that has clouded the acuity of supposedly sharp-eyed critics like Pauline Kael, who found the film ‘enchanting.’ ‘Sappy’ or ‘simple-minded’ would be more accurate.” – Robert Asahina, New Leader

“There is fun Disney would have been proud of in this brilliantly manipulative movie. But to weep at a celebration of infantilism, however fancied up with intimation of innocence? A good laugh’s one thing; and so is a good cry. E.T. is a far, far cry, a bleat rather, self-pitying, for the the moon. Or a moon-toy.” – John Coleman, New Statesman

The Empire Strikes Back

“The Force is with us, indeed, and a lot of it is hot air… I’m not as bothered by the film’s lack of resolution as I am about my suspicion that I really don’t care… ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ is about as personal as a Christmas card from a bank. I assume that Lucas supervised the entire production and made the major decisions or, at least, approved of them. It looks like a movie that was directed at a distance. At this point the adventures of Luke, Leia and Han Solo appear to be a self-sustaining organism, beyond criticism except on a corporate level.” – Vincent Canby, The New York Times

The Empire Strikes Back… is malodorous offal… Stale, limp, desperately stretched out, and pretentious…Infantile is the operative word…This witless banality is made even less bearable by the nonacting of the principals. Harrison Ford (Han) offers loutishness for charm and becomes the epitome of the interstellar drugstore cowboy. Mark Hamill (Luke) is still the talentless Tom Sawyer of outer space – wide-eyed, narrow-minded, strait-laced. Worst of all is Carrie Fisher, whose Leia is a cosmic Shirley Temple but without the slightest acting ability or vestige of prettiness. Though still very young, she looks, without recourse to special effects, at least fifty – the film’s only true, albeit depressing, miracle.” – John Simon, National Review

Back to the Future

“Yet another in a series of endless close encounters of the Steven Spielberg kind. Someday movies may return to normal. Meanwhile we’re stuck with bubble-gum fantasies conceived by people who have OD’d on comic books… The smell of an equally silly sequel permeates the air like a gas leak.” – Rex Reed, The New York Post

Toy Story 3

Toy Story 3 is so besotted with brand names and product-placement that it stops being about the innocent pleasures of imagination — the usefulness of toys — and strictly celebrates consumerism. … But none of these digital-cartoon characters reflect human experience; it’s essentially a bored game that only the brainwashed will buy into. Besides, Transformers 2 already explored the same plot to greater thrill and opulence. … When Toy Story 3 emulates the suspense of prison break and horror films, it becomes fitfully amusing (more than can be said for Wall-E or Up) but this humor depends on the recognition of worn-out toys which is no different from those lousy Shrek gags. … The Toy Story franchise isn’t for children and adults, it’s for non-thinking children and adults. When a movie is this formulaic, it’s no longer a toy because it does all the work for you. It’s a sap’s story.” – Armond White, The New York Press