Pretty much every movie that we now consider a classic had some people who hated it when it first came out. This is true for two simple reasons: One is that art is subjective, and the other is that having opinions every day is hard. Movie reviewers see like three or four movies a week — they’re going to occasionally be on the wrong side of history for the same reason that I will, occasionally, get to the end of a paragraph, realize I didn’t include any jokes, and hastily try to sneak one in at the last-minute dog penis.
But, sometimes, classic movies were almost universally hated for what we now understand to be their best parts. Which just goes to show you: The whole of everything is stupid.
#5. Critics Thought The Empire Strikes Back Was Too Much Of A Bummer
Universally considered to be the best Star Wars film by people who know what they’re talking about, The Empire Strikes Back is also notable for being the only VHS tape in my home that childhood-me was allowed to watch (the other two were Dirty Dancing and Staying Alive). By taking a darker tone and broadening the Star Wars wor- uh, galaxies, Episode 5 of the Star Wars sextology (a real word, people) cemented its franchise as the No. 1 thing that 8-year-old boys would scream at their mothers to buy them in Target for at least three more decades.
The Negative Reaction
When people first started reviewing The Empire Strikes Back, they weren’t reviewing a follow-up to a sci-fi classic; they were reviewing a sequel to a successful summer action movie. And that’s why the reviews tend to sound like a bunch of old folks trying to describe a video game. The New York Times reviewer said he didn’t understand the plot and that the ending was too depressing. The Telegraph reviewer didn’t care about the world and said that the dialogue — which includes lines like “Do or do not. There is no try” and “I am your father” and “Never tell me the odds” — was “dull.”
These aren’t the outliers, by the way — the initial critical reception of The Empire Strikes Back was “mixed, lukewarm, and indifferent,” largely because of how dark, slow, and brooding it was. Now if anyone can prove that Lucas actually read those reviews, then we know who to blame for the Ewoks.
“You want cheerful and kid-friendly? I’ll give you cheerful and kid-friendly!”
#4. Horror Fans Hated The Thing For Not Being Like The Original
In The Thing, Kurt Russell plays a man-shaped slab of raw, uncut man meat who must mannishly do battle against the coolest monster effect in the history of the world. It’s loosely based on an older film called The Thing From Another World, about a plant-like alien that reproduces through spores, but John Carpenter’s remake ups the ante by making the alien a shape-shifting demon-monster that can imitate humans perfectly before transforming into any kind of horrific beast it wants.
Even a Wilford Brimley.
It’s so cool, guys, like — OK, so there’s this one dope scene where they’re trying to defibrillate this guy, but his chest turns into a giant shark’s mouth and bites off the dude’s arms, and the guy’s all, “Argggh, my arms!” And then the first dude — the one with a shark-mouth chest — his head straight-up falls off and crawls away like a fucking demon spider. Do you want to watch this movie right now? Seriously, let’s blow off the rest of the day and I’ll come over and we’ll just watch The Thing.
The Negative Reaction
Critics hated The Thing (legendary critic Roger Ebert called it a “barf-bag movie” and guy-whose-name-I-recognize Vincent Canby said it was a “moron movie,” which is, jeez, rude), but that’s to be expected. It’s a gory creature flick; mainstream critics always hate those movies. What matters is what horror fans think, right?
The problem is that horror and sci-fi fans hated it too. Including the director of the original movie.
“Yeah, fuck you too!”
Turns out that people liked The Thing From Another World so much that they felt like turning it into a gory monster flick where a guy’s face splits open and eats another man’s head was sacrilegious. Meanwhile, because the movie bombed, the studio was pissed at Carpenter for being so stupid as to release a scary alien movie the same month that E.T. was seducing the box office with its charming story of a goofy alien visitor who dooms his host family to federal prison. Poor Johnny Carps was getting brutalized on both sides.
So, full disclosure, my brain can’t actually process the information I just told you. I saw The Thing when I was so young that I think it technically qualifies as child abuse, so in my mind, those special effects are the benchmark against which all other creature scenes are judged. So what is the next generation of movie fans going to see as a classic? Will Transformers be seen as a CGI masterpiece? Is Star Trek Into Darkness a seminal entry in the pantheon of action movies that had the balls to not make any goddamn sense?
#3. TRON Was Denied An Oscar Nomination Because It Used Computers For Its Effects
I make fun of a lot of movies for getting details wrong, but TRON is a great example of why I should just shut the fuck up every once in a while. Sure, it understands computers about as well as my cat understands the StarCraft II metagame (she still builds proxy starports), but that’s fine because it’s just a fantasy movie set inside a hard drive. It’s like Chronicles Of Narnia with a Commodore 64 instead of a wardrobe. Also a laser gun.
This scene is way more horrifying than I remembered it.
The Negative Reaction
We’re changing things up here a bit, because critics and audiences absolutely loved TRON. In fact, almost everyone did, except for the Academy Of Motion Picture Arts And Sciences, which decided to disqualify it from the running for a special effects Oscar because they thought using computers was like cheating. Now, I’ve been critical of the overuse of CGI in contemporary film before, but holy shit.
And The Abyss won a few years after that for making this guy, also with CGI.
But TRON, which kicked off the entire digital effects revolution, got the shaft specifically for kicking. The lesson here is that if you’re making art, do it for the love of the craft, not recognition, because the people in charge of recognizing stuff have no understanding of irony.
#2. Alien Was “Just A Haunted House Movie In Space”
The strength of Alien was that it took all the best tropes from classic haunted house movies — the isolation, the darkness, the penis monsters — and successfully adapted them to a sci-fi setting. Despite how alien the alien in Alien is, it still has familiar enough qualities to tap into our deepest fears the way all great monsters do: It trades in the cold detachment of machinery, homosexual panic, the discomfort of gender ambiguity, and its head is shaped like a huge penis.
That’s what your dick looks like too, right?
It’s a perfect monster design, which is why I keep a giant magnetic one on the front of my refrigerator. Gotta keep the fear close. Can’t let myself get too comfortable. Can’t lose my edge. Gotta keep the fear. The fear that drives me.
The Negative Reaction
Everything I just said is exactly why people didn’t like it. One of the positive reviews said that it seemed like it was trying to combine The Exorcist with Star Wars but failed. Another review said that it had no respect for the old-timey monster movies it was ripping off. The most baffling review said that the best parts were the “disco-inspired art direction,” implying that I don’t know as much about disco as I thought I did.
Even Roger Ebert — Roger Fucking Ebert — said it was “basically just an intergalactic haunted house thriller set inside a spaceship.” Which makes the point that you can throw the phrase “basically just” into any movie premise and suddenly it sounds stupid: “Star Wars is basically just a movie about space wizards.” “Band Of Brothers is basically just a 10-hour war epic that explores the human cost of fighting on a scale never captured before.” “Pacific Rim is basically just a movie where huge robots punch inter-dimensional Godzillas.” “Cracked is basically just some comedy website.”
Pff. Well, “basically just” are basically just two mismatched modifiers that need to be more careful what sentences they find themselves interrupting, unless they wanna end up on the wrong end of a backspace key. Ya feel me?
#1. The Shining Was Nominated For A Worst Director Razzie
Stanley Kubrick, or “The Skube” as he likes to be called in this one dream I keep having where we run a surf shop together, has gone down in history as one of our greatest directors. Or, at the very least, the most diligent: Considering he was willing to spend 300 days on principle photography, film 127 takes of a 30-second scene, and traumatize Shelley Duvall just so she could more accurately portray a traumatized person, it’s hard to say if The Skube was a great director or just the only person who’s ever been willing to go to the psychotic lengths necessary to make a truly great film. Regardless of how you answer, The Shining is perfect. It’s so goddamn good that someone made a documentary about how crazy its fans are, and even that movie (Room 237) is good. Or at least worth watching. If you get stoned first.
The Negative Reaction
Not only did the critics hate The Shining (fucking what?), it also somehow nabbed one of the first-ever worst director Golden Raspberry Nominations, while Robert Redford ended up winning the best director Oscar for Ordinary People, a movie most memorable for the fact that not a single person reading this cares about it at all.
This may seem strange, but it’s really not all that different from the Empire Strikes Back situation. The Shining is based on a book by Stephen King, who is the lord commander of English literature at this point, and then we hire the guy who made Barry Fucking Lyndon to direct it? That wasn’t a horror movie, it was a movie about … wait, what was that movie about?
At least, that’s my best guess. My point is, never listen to anyone who has an opinion about movies on the Internet ever again. Unless they’re me, obviously.