The Saga Ranked
7. Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace
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
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
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
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
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.
Review: Star Wars: The Force Awakens
2. Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope
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.
Review: Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope
1. Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back
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…)