His thumb was more powerful than most people’s words. And he had a Pulitzer prize to prove it.
Roger Ebert, the fun, grey-haired master of the movie review, died Thursday after a battle with cancer. He was 70.
Ebert was one half of the original “At the Movies,” which later became “Siskel & Ebert & the Movies,” was the must-watch syndicated show to find out which movies were worth the box office ticket, and which were destined to be forgotten. Even after the untimely death of partner Gene Siskel in 1999, Ebert continued on, later partnering with Richard Roeper.
Ebert’s system of judging movies was simple. If he liked it, thumbs up. If he hated it, thumbs down. Few movies would promote what critics thought if they didn’t get thumbs up from Ebert and any of his partners.
While he had an affinity for Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey,” Ebert was never a huge science-fiction fan. He did, however, name “Dark City” — the cult classic film from Alex Proyas — one of his “best of the year” films along with “Minority Report” in 2002 and “Pan’s Labyrinth” in 2006.
So what did Ebert think of some of the film industry’s most famous genre movies?
Star Trek (2009)
The 2009 “Star Trek” film goes back eagerly to where Star Trek began, using time travel to explain a cast of mostly the same characters, only at a younger point in their lives, sailing the Starship Enterprise. As a story idea, this is sort of brilliant and saves on invention, because young Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Uhura, Scotty and the rest channel their later selves. The child is father to the man, or the Vulcan, and all that.
The Matrix (1999)
Both “Dark City” and “Strange Days” offered intriguing motivations for villainy. “Matrix” is more like a superhero comic book in which the fate of the world comes down to a titanic fist-fight between the designated representatives of good and evil. It’s cruel, really, to put tantalizing ideas on the table and then ask the audience to be satisfied with a shoot-out and a martial arts duel.
Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring (2001)
It is a candidate for many Oscars. It is an awesome production in its daring and breadth, and there are small touches that are just right; the Hobbits may not look like my idea of Hobbits (may, indeed, look like full-sized humans made to seem smaller through visual trickery), but they have the right combination of twinkle and pluck in their gaze — especially Elijah Wood as Frodo and Ian Holm as the worried Bilbo.
Star Wars (1977)
The movie relies on the strength of pure narrative, in the most basic storytelling form known to man, the Journey. All of the best tales we remember from our childhoods had to do with heroes setting out to travel down roads filled with danger, and hoping to find treasure or heroism at the journey’s end.
Star Wars – Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999)
What [George Lucas] does have, in abundance, is exhilaration. There is a sense of discovery in scene after scene of “The Phantom Menace,” as he tried out new effects and ideas, and seamlessly integrates real characters and digital ones, real landscapes and imaginary places. We are standing at the threshold of a new age of epic cinema, I think, in which digital techniques mean that budgets will no longer limit the scope of scenes; filmmakers will be able to show us just about anything they can imagine.
“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.
Science-fiction in the movies has recently specialized in alien invasions, but the best of the genre deals with ideas. At a time when we read about cloned sheep and tomatoes crossed with fish, the science in “Gattaca” is theoretically possible. When parents can order “perfect” babies, will they? Would you take your chances on a throw of the genetic dice, or order up the make and model you wanted?
Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011)
The movie has its pleasures, although human intelligence is not one of them. Caesar, to begin with, is a wonderfully executed character, a product of special effects and a motion-capture performance by Andy Serkis, who earlier gave us Gollum in “Lord of the Rings” (and returns in the upcoming “The Hobbit”). One never knows exactly where the human ends and the effects begin, but Serkis and/or Caesar gives the best performance in the movie.
The strength of “Contact” is in the way it engages in issues that are relevant today, and still only rarely discussed in the movies. Consider the opposition to stem cell research, which in sense is “pure research.” Consider the politicians who disparage separation of church and state. When Ellie was asked by Congress if she believed in God, the correct reply would have been, “that is none of your business.”
Blade Runner (1982)
I have always been moved by the special cruelty done to the replicants, who are supplied with phony memories (they have a life span of four years, yet think they remember their childhoods). One of the film’s poignant scenes has [Harrison] Ford coldly telling [Sean] Young what she remembers from when she was a little girl — because she has the same memories as all other replicants.
Donnie Darko (2001)
The movie builds twists on top of turns until the plot wheel revolves one time too many, and we’re left scratching our heads. We don’t demand answers at the end, but we want some kind of closure. Keyser Soze may not explain everything in “The Usual Suspects,” but it feels like he does.
Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)
All of that work would simply be an exercise if the character itself were not effective, but T1000, as played by (Robert) Patrick, is a splendid villain, with compact good lucks and a bland expression. His most fearsome quality is his implacability; no matter what you do to him, he doesn’t get disturbed and he doesn’t get discouraged. He just pulls himself together and keeps on coming.
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)
The peculiar thing about Spock is that, being half human and half Vulcan and therefore possessing about half the usual quota of human emotions, he consistently, if dispassionately, behaves as if he possessed very heroic human emotions indeed. He makes a choice in “Star Trek II” that would be made only by a hero, a fool, or a Vulcan. And when he makes his decision, the movie rises to one of its best scenes, because the Star Trek stories have always been best when centered around their characters.
Roger Ebert was born June 18, 1942, in Urbana, Ill., and spent his entire career with the Chicago Sun-Times, beginning as a film critic there in 1967.
Ebert first dabbled in television in 1975 when he and Gene Siskel, his counterpart at the rival Chicago Tribune, start a show on a local public broadcasting channel called “Sneak Previews.” There they would develop the movie review style they would later incorporate into “At the Movies with Siskel & Ebert.” Ebert continued on the show, even after Siskel died in 1999, but would eventually leave in 2008.
By then, he was already suffering from cancer and other health issues that would eventually force the removal of his lower jaw bone. Despite surgery and medical treatment, Ebert continued to review movies, and become very popular on Twitter — not just for his thoughts on movies, but his thoughts on religion and politics as well.
Ebert is survived by his wife, Chaz Hammelsmith Ebert, whom he married in 1992.
He was able to respond to what Hollywood was making, but Ebert also had a knack to look into the future of filmmaking. In fact, he even shared prophecy of the future of Star Trek in one film he will not be able to review, May’s “Star Trek: Into Darkness.”
“The new movie essentially intends to reboot the franchise with younger characters and carry on as before,” Ebert wrote of the original 2009 film. “The movie deals with narrative housekeeping. Perhaps the next one will engage these characters in a more challenging devious story, one more about testing their personalities than re-establishing them.
“In the meantime, you want space opera, you got it.”
That was Roger Ebert. And as he would always say, “See you at the movies.”