Skip to main content

Do. Or do not. There is no try.

Star Wars
The Saga Ranked

7. Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace
(1999)

It’s never a good idea to devise a story with a junior protagonist if you’re then going to cast a moppet with no acting chops to speak of. After 16 years without any Star Wars, the anticipation for George Lucas’ promised prequels was at fever pitch, and there was understandable denial in the first instance about how disappointing The Phantom Menace was. It wasn’t just that young “Ani” was miscast, or that the Lucas had compounded the stodge of his often ungainly dialogue by requesting the starchiest of performances from his supporting cast, though.

He also fashioned the most unwieldy of screenplays, one leaping back and forth across the galaxy in a nigh-on arbitrary fashion, and which proved studiously obscure in dramatising the political chicanery by which the future Emperor (Senator Palpatine; an excellent Ian McDiarmid) is restructuring the Republic and acceding to power. There are some interesting ideas and themes set out here, but within the pixel-topia (which would only get worse) of Lucas’ now intangible, unused future, they slip away weightlessly. Good actors such as Terence Stamp are wasted, and Lucas is left teasing out one decent climax (the one with Darth Maul) to breaking point, attempting to compensate for the three that don’t. And then there’s Jar Jar Binks…


6. Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones
(2002)

Great, Ani’s all grown up. That should be better, right? Oh wait, he’s a petulant, whining brat who goes on and on about how unfair it all is, how sand gets everywhere and who shoots his intended looks like he’s the antagonist in a De Palma movie? That isn’t so good. The upside of Episode II is that Obi-Wan Kenobi is granted a solid plotline and Ewan McGregor makes the most of it, injecting some much needed humour into Lucas’ sterile array. Palpatine’s machinations too, an elaborate piece of subterfuge involving playing the long game and manufacturing a common foe to increase his power, is intriguing stuff that goes beyond anything in the Original Trilogy for complexity.

The downside is that the execution is way off. Everything from the arrival on Geonosis surfs a wave of CGI-indifference, complete with a whirling, lightsaber-wielding Yoda and CGI Clone Troopers in conversation with human actors. One is led to the reasonable assumption that Lucas can no longer see the wood for the trees. Mostly because both have been created on a computer screen. Crucially, this a trilogy about the fall of Anakin Skywalker, and Lucas has done nothing to make us empathise with him. In particular, Ani’s romance with Padme (an increasingly ill-served Natalie Portman) is a bust; he’s sketched as a Darth Vader waiting to happen, which rather negates any intended tragedy.


5. Star Wars Episode II: Revenge of the Sith
(2005)

Before my recent revisit, I was more generously disposed towards the latter two prequels, taking comfort in the areas where they improved on The Phantom Menace (and simply for not being The Phantom Menace), but one can only be so charitable in the face of such relentless wretchedness. This is the one every one said was better, where Lucas had finally got it right this time. It wasn’t and he didn’t. Revenge of the Sith’s faults are those of a writer-director who refused to learn from his mistakes with Attack of the Clones (most pointedly, failing his central character; that, and and a desire to render everything he possibly can with CGI) and even decided to cement them.

In its favour, Sith depicts the events that make the prequels viable in the first place; the (all-but) extinction of the Jedi, the turning of Anakin Skywalker, and his confrontation with Obi-Wan on a lava planet. Which, for all its 12-certificate burns and dismemberments, is a massive disappointment; Lucas makes it the least of all lightsaber duels by busying everything up past the point of viewer involvement. Ani and Obi-Wan flow down a lava river swiping at each other in a jaundiced manner, and everything but everything is green screen. Even Ian McDiarmid, who has been reliable throughout the prequels and scores the picture’s best scene as he recounts the tale of Darth Plagueis the Wise, veers into OTT territory when he transforms into the prosthetic explosion that is the Emperor.

Revenge of the Sith is all the more disappointing because it had so much potential; the strongest plot of the six on paper, including some killer sequences (Order 66), but Lucas’ disinterested direction renders them passable at best and ineffectual at worst. Poor Portman suffers the indignity of having her character give up the will to live because George can’t be bothered with her any more. He also foists the saga’s stupidest villain on us, the coughing, wheezing, all-CGI (including his cape) cyborg General Grievous. Whom Obi-Wan must battle on a CGI planet while riding a CGI lizard.


4. Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi
(1983)

The half star difference in rating belies that, in execution and performance, this slipshod Original Trilogy outing is infinitely preferable to the prequels. Alas, its plot stinks, the weakest of the (seven) bar The Phantom Menace (and even that’s questionable). Stuck for anything new to do, and uninterested in advancing the solid character work with which Lawrence Kasdan and Irvin Kershner imbued The Empire Strikes Back, Lucas regresses, and turns up the “fun”. Han is released from carbonite in the blink of an eye, but all the life has drained out of Harrison Ford in the process. There’s a new Death Star, because why work out a new story when you can refit an old one? And a couple of hundred teddy bears overwhelm the forces of the Empire.

Richard Marquand does exactly what a director employed as a surrogate for his producer is expected to do, so there’s none of the magic, mystery or majesty that suffuses The Empire Strikes Back. Return of the Jedi is workmanlike, functional, and goes for the easiest option in every available situation. What it does have going for it, though, is a fully-present performance from Mark Hamill and an effective-enough closure to the Luke-Vader arc, with a rehabilitation of its central villain that is affecting and believable. There’s also a strong showing from Ian McDiarmid (we’ll be seeing more of him) as the Emperor, even if the confrontation/temptation scene goes round and round a few too many times. The speeder bike chase is stands up pretty well, although the Tatooine opener is mostly a damp squib. Salacious Crumb definitely deserves his own spin-off movie, though. The one with the most egregious Special Edition(s) edits, including the horrendous Jedi Rocks, “Noooooooo!”, and the mystifying appearance of Hayden Christensen.


3. Star Wars: The Force Awakens
(2015)

Derivative, yes (borrowing the structure of A New Hope wholesale, down to the unnecessarily intrusive Starkiller Base, which consequently also borrows ill-advisedly from the Return of the Jedi rule book of overused super weapons), and occasionally conspicuous in its self-referential humour, where The Force Awakens fails in terms of plot (contrivance abounds) and myth-making, it mostly makes up for in unveiling a new generation of distinct characters.

Sure, maybe Poe Dameron could use some work, and Captain Phasma should be court-martialled, but Rey, and particularly Finn and Kylo Ren, are vital, interesting and easily wrest attention from the old-timers. Fan service may be in evidence, but it isn’t all-conquering. Added to which, while the whole thing is a bit of a breathless rush, and the Force is closer to a prop than a mystical energy Force that guides our destinies, JJ Abrams directs with the sweep, flourish, confidence and care that were desperately needed to kick-start the series following the disappointments of the prequels.

The Force Awakens is definitely not the masterpiece we all hoped for, but it’s more often than not invigorating and compelling, and few won’t want to find out what happens to these characters next (well, maybe not Poe Dameron), which is more than might have been said for the prequels. Stormtroopers are the most amusing they’ve been since “Open the blast doors”, without being ridiculed, Chewbacca is the best realised Original Trilogy character (who would have expected that?), and BB-8 entirely lives up to the hype (no Jar Jar Binks effect there). An indifferent John Williams score rather tempers the overall effect, and on its own terms this might not be as successful as the 2009 Star Trek reboot (ironically, or perhaps significantly, a property Abrams had no great investment in), but Star Wars has a pulse again.


2. Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope
(1977)

Star Wars, or A New Hope, definitely feels like a product of the ‘70s, and at times you can see the architecture that produced previous and unremarkable science fiction in that decade, such as Logan’s Run, looming behind it, but the sheer breadth of invention and world-building here is extraordinary, all the more potent and resonant for not having every little detail filled in. Where the downfall of Vader, and how he killed Anakin Skywalker, is left to your imagination to sketch out.

Star Wars possibly loses a bit of steam after the Death Star “escape”, as everyone then ups and goes back there again (and with the white knight leading the charge is to some degree biding time until his much more appealing, amoral pal shows up at the last moment), but even that offers a visually arresting new take on the World War II aerial dogfight. Rather than a movie where every corner of every shot is stuffed with wearisome detail, this is a picture where the peculiarities and idiosyncrasies have a chance to percolate, from the droid captives in the Sandcrawler, to the clientele of a cantina, to the indistinct inhabitant of a garbage disposal unit.

Lucas, for all the many variations he went through to get there, depicts his archetypes as if they were rock solid from the off; the naïve farm boy hero, the tough-as-nails princess, the roguish smuggler. And Hamill, Carrie Fisher and Ford are all talented-enough performers to make their characters indelible, and quite capable of saying this shit, George. Added to which, old pros Alec Guinness and Peter Cushing bring welcome gravitas, while James Earl Jones does arguably the really hard work in making Darth Vader the movies’ most iconic villain. Sorry, Dave Prowse.


1. Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back
(1980)

Star Wars would still be Star Wars if there were no sequels, but it’s The Empire Strikes Back that gives the saga its soul, its afterlife (both as a franchise and in terms of Force ghosts) and ongoing potential. It’s the glittering jewel, the image of what this series of multiple trilogies can amount to if it aims high enough. And that’s thanks to Lawrence Kasdan, and even more Irvin Kershner, exceeding the artfulness, the depth, the spirit, if you will, of the little picture Lucas made because he couldn’t get the rights to Flash Gordon.

Of course, George then took fright and headed in the opposite direction, and the idea of another really good Star Wars movie has remained unfulfilled for 35 years (still waiting…) Not exactly greeted with open arms at the time, Lucas was operating in a commendably experimental manner at this stage, fashioning his “Act Two”, such that The Empire Strikes Back is very much a serial-as-movie, embracing the fact that it cannot exist in isolation and making a virtue of it. Much of the proceedings are a chase, and much of the rest is a collection of post-hippy era sage nuggets fed to our hero by a green muppet. It ends on a cliffhanger, and the one of cinema’s most powerful revelations, one Lucas didn’t have planned from the first (but there’s no shame in admitting that, George, it’s nothing next to making-it-up-as-you-go-along of Lost or Battlestar Galactica). Although, Dark Father”/ Darth Vader does make for good spin.

The Empire Strikes Back’s nominal deficiencies as a narrative fall away in the face of the beauty of the telling; the developing romance between Han and Leia (forget about that progressing in Return of the Jedi), the growth of innocent Luke into an apprentice with shading and nuance, the realisation that Vader isn’t just a one-note bad guy, the exploration of exotic, rich new environments (which overtly avoid out-and-out laser-zap action between Hoth and the Vader-Luke duel, but take in the fetid swamps of Dagobah, a not-so inert asteroid field and a majestic city in the clouds).

Then there are the additions, which entirely avoid a feeling of repetition (even where they are doing exactly that), from the wise man/fool duality of Master Yoda (merely mundanely wise after this) to the just-enough-of him-to-capture the imagination Boba Fett (a peerlessly cool design can work wonders, but it also needs a dash of attitude), to Lando Calrissian (like too many of the characters, completely hung out to dry in Return of the Jedi), Billy Dee Williams making the most of an express train arc from smooth talker to traitor to redeemed.

We might opine that Return of the Jedi could have been this good had Kershner accepted Lucas’ offer to return, but the take-away is something else; all you have to do to make a great Star Wars movie is really care about it, strive to ensure every detail is as good as it can possibly be, and every character and action and motivation and piece of dialogue has import and meaning. It’s so simple, really… The Empire Strikes Back just flies by whenever I revisit it, and it’s the saga entry that keeps the potential of Star Wars alive even now. You can bet, more than anything else, it’s what fuels the generation making the current trilogy (here’s rooting for Episode VIII, then…)


Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

You’re never the same man twice.

The Man Who Haunted Himself (1970)
(SPOILERS) Roger Moore playing dual roles? It sounds like an unintentionally amusing prospect for audiences accustomed to the actor’s “Raise an eyebrow” method of acting. Consequently, this post-Saint pre-Bond role (in which he does offer some notable eyebrow acting) is more of a curiosity for the quality of Sir Rog’s performance than the out-there premise that can’t quite sustain the picture’s running time. It is telling that the same story was adapted for an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents 15 years earlier, since the uncanny idea at its core feels like a much better fit for a trim 50 minute anthology series.

Basil Dearden directs, and co-adapted the screenplay from Anthony Armstrong’s novel The Strange Case of Mr Pelham. Dearden started out with Ealing, helming several Will Hay pictures and a segment of Dead of Night (one might imagine a shortened version of this tale ending up there, or in any of the portmanteau horrors that arrived in the year…

Romulan ale should be illegal.

Star Trek: Nemesis (2002)
(SPOILERS) Out of the ST:NG movies, Star Trek: Nemesis seems to provoke the most outrage among fans, the reasons mostly appearing to boil down to continuity and character work. In the case of the former, while I can appreciate the beef, I’m not enough of an aficionado to get too worked up. In the case of the latter, well, the less of the strained inter-relationships between this bunch that make it to the screen, the better (director Stuart Baird reportedly cut more than fifty minutes from the picture, most of it relating to underscoring the crew, leading to a quip by Stewart that while an Actor’s Cut would include the excised footage, a Director’s one would probably be even shorter). Even being largely unswayed by such concerns, though, Nemesis isn’t very good. It wants to hit the same kind of dramatic high notes as The Wrath of Khan (naturally, it’s always bloody Khan) but repeatedly drifts into an out-of-tune dirge.

‘Cos I’m the gringo who always delivers.

American Made (2017)
(SPOILERS) This is definitely more the sort of thing Tom Cruise should be doing, a movie that relies both on his boyish™ charm and at least has pretensions of ever so slightly pushing the envelope of standard multiplex fare, rather than desperately attaching himself to an impersonal franchise (The Mummy) or flailingly attempting to kick start one (Jack Reacher: Never Go Back); remember when Cruise wouldn’t even go near sequels (for about 20 years, The Color of Money aside, and then only the one series)? American Made is still victim to the tendency of his movies to feel superstar-fitted rather than remaining as punchy as they might be on paper (Made’s never quite as satirically sharp as it wants to be), but it at least doesn’t lead its audience by the nose.

Rejoice! The broken are the more evolved. Rejoice.

Split (2016)
(SPOILERS) M Night Shyamalan went from the toast of twist-based filmmaking to a one-trick pony to the object of abject ridicule in the space of only a couple of pictures: quite a feat. Along the way, I’ve managed to miss several of his pictures, including his last, The Visit, regarded as something of a re-locating of his footing in the low budget horror arena. Split continues that genre readjustment, another Blumhouse production, one that also manages to bridge the gap with the fare that made him famous. But it’s a thematically uneasy film, marrying shlock and serious subject matter in ways that don’t always quite gel.

Shyamalan has seized on a horror staple – nubile teenage girls in peril, prey to a psychotic antagonist – and, no doubt with the best intentions, attempted to warp it. But, in so doing, he has dragged in themes and threads from other, more meritable fare, with the consequence that, in the end, the conflicting positions rather subvert his attempts at subversion…

By Jove, the natives are restless tonight.

The Avengers 4.17: Small Game for Big Hunters
I wonder if Death at Bargain Prices’ camping scene, suggestive of an exotic clime but based in a department store, was an inspiration for Small Game For Big Hunters’ more protracted excursion to the African country of Kalaya… in Hertfordshire. Gerry O’Hara, in his second of two episodes for the show again delivers on the atmosphere, making the most of Philip Levene’s teleplay.

Old Boggy walks on Lammas Eve.

Jeeves and Wooster 2.5: Kidnapped  (aka The Mysterious Stranger)
Kidnapped continues the saga of Chuffnell Hall. Having said of 2.4 that the best Wodehouse adaptations tend to stick closely to the text, this one is an exception that proves the rule, diverging significantly yet still scoring with its highly preposterous additions.

Jeeves: Tis old boggy. He be abroad tonight. He be heading for the railway station.
Gone are many of the imbroglios involving Stoker and Glossop (the estimable Roger Brierley), including the contesting of the former’s uncle’s will. Also gone, sadly, is the inebriated Brinkley throwing potatoes at Stoker, which surely would have been enormous fun. Instead, we concentrate on Bertie being locked aboard Stoker’s yacht in order to secure his marriage to Pauline (as per the novel), Chuffy tailing Pauline in disguise (so there’s a different/additional reason for Stoker to believe Bertie and she spent the night together, this time at a pub en route to Chufnell Hall) and …

I think we’ve returned to Eden. Surely this is how the World once was in the beginning of time.

1492: Conquest of Paradise (1992)
Ridley Scott’s first historical epic (The Duellists was his first historical, and his first feature, but hardly an epic) is also one of his least remembered films. It bombed at the box office (as did the year’s other attempted cash-ins on the discovery of America, including Superman: The Movie producers the Salkinds’ Christopher Columbus: The Discovery) and met with a less than rapturous response from critics. Such shunning is undeserved, as 1492: Conquest of Paradise is a richer and more thought-provoking experience than both the avowedly lowbrow Gladiator and the re-evaluated-but-still-so-so director’s cut of Kingdom of Heaven. It may stand guilty of presenting an overly sympathetic portrait of Columbus, but it isn’t shy about pressing a critical stance on his legacy.

Sanchez: The truth is, that he now presides over a state of chaos, of degradation, and of madness. From the beginning, Columbus proved himself completely incapable of ruling these islands…

Cally. Help us, Cally. Help Auron.

Blake's 7 3.7: Children of Auron

Roger Parkes goes a considerable way towards redeeming himself for the slop that was Voice from the Past with his second script for the series, and newcomer Andrew Morgan shows promise as a director that never really fulfilled itself in his work on Doctor Who (but was evident in Knights of God, the 1987 TV series featuring Gareth Thomas).

You keep a horse in the basement?

The ‘Burbs (1989)
(SPOILERS) The ‘Burbs is Joe Dante’s masterpiece. Or at least, his masterpiece that isn’t his bite-the-hand-that-feeds-you masterpiece Gremlins 2: The New Batch, or his high profile masterpiece Gremlins. Unlike those two, the latter of which bolted out of the gate and took audiences by surprise with it’s black wit subverting the expected Spielberg melange, and the first which was roundly shunned by viewers and critics for being absolutely nothing like the first and waving that fact gleefully under their noses, The ‘Burbs took a while to gain its foothold in the Dante pantheon. 

It came out at a time when there had been a good few movies (not least Dante’s) taking a poke at small town Americana, and it was a Tom Hanks movie when Hanks was still a broad strokes comedy guy (Big had just made him big, Turner and Hooch was a few months away; you know you’ve really made it when you co-star with a pooch). It’s true to say that some, as with say The Big Lebowski, “got it” on fi…