The Saga Ranked
10. Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace
It’s never a good idea to devise a story featuring a junior protagonist if you’re then going to give that role to a moppet with no acting chops. After sixteen 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 demanding 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 nigh arbitrary fashion, and which proved studiously obscure in dramatising the political chicanery by which the future Emperor (Senator Palpatine; an excellent, understated 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…
9. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
I’m well aware Rogue One has its adherents, many crowning it as the best of Lucasfilm's post-Disney purchase output. Unfortunately, it's just the opposite: an empty experience, bereft of life, passion and warmth – everything that made the Original Trilogy what it was. Instead, we're treated to a grimdark Star Wars: everything grownup fans wanting a grownup Star Wars could have wished for. It even has Darth Vader kicking ass! What more could you want? Well, a lot, frankly. Sure, Gareth Edwards (the parts of his vision that remain) ensures the picture is beautifully framed and aesthetically poised, but a succession of crisp visual signatures doesn't a good movie make.
"I am one with the Force, the Force is one with me" could well have been the makers' mantra, desperately repeated ad infinitum in the hope this first anthology movie would work, beset as it was by production issues. It doesn't, but as it turns out, it doesn't matter – fortunately, if you hold shares in Disney – as the first Star Wars Story surfed the wake of The Force Awakens' box office tsunami and made a mint for Lucasfilm. Rogue One is a garbled mess of a movie, partly due to those reshoots and partly due to fundamental design flaws – if Galen can send his daughter a message, why can't he simply send the details of the vulnerability with it? – so we're expected to let the premise that our heroes need to steal the Death Star plans, no questions asked, just go with it, do all the heavy lifting.
Its most damaging aspect, however, is offering no one (centrally at least) to identify with. They say Rogue One is daring. Is it daring to kill off all your protagonists? Only if you care about them in the first place. This is a movie populated by Kenner action figures you never wanted to buy unless they were the only ones left in the shop, and even then. Consequently, Rogue One is disconnected and adrift; the deaths of Jyn and Cassian are pretty enough, in the SWU's equivalent of a nuclear sunset, but bereft of impact.
The film does have a couple of saving graces, though, and I'm not referring to the horrid fan-service of the virtual clones that are the cadaverous Tarkin & his cartoon jodhpurs and uncanny valley Leia, or Vader on 'roids (say what you like about Dave Prowse, he had an imposing presence, and not just at pedestrian crossings). Ben Mendelsohn is as treat as Orson Krennic. He's not only serviced with some classically villainous moments ("Oh, it’s beautiful" he murmurs in response to the destruction porn visited on Jedha's capital), but also the much-underused device of getting the viewer invested in the villain's machinations by putting him in a fix. Mendelsohn duly embraces Krennic's thwarted ascent of the Imperial ladder. The only problem being that his "We stand here amidst MY achievement. Not yours!" rant is against that unfortunately misbegotten CG Tarkin, and is later incapacitated by a bad Vader stand-in, so taking you out of the potential of those scenes.
Then there's K-2S0, Alan Tudyk's vocal performance (and the lumbering, Iron Giant-esque design) succeeding in all the ways Phoebe Waller-Bridge's L3 most recently failed. He's simultaneously civil in tone but contrary in nature, very nearly imbuing Jyn with some personality by association ("Did you know that wasn’t me?" he asks after she blasts a doppelgänger) and undercutting others’ morbid thoughts ("Not me. I can survive in space"). When the project was announced, a common criticism was that we know how it ends, but that isn't the problem with Rogue One. It's that at no point does it leave us thinking it had a good reason to be.
Review: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
8. 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 and 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 could 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.
7. Star Wars Episode II: Revenge of the Sith
Before my 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 a desire to render everything he possibly can through 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 dramatic 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.
6. 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 eight (so far) bar The Phantom Menace (and even that’s questionable). Although, The Last Jedi is a late challenger. Stuck for anything new to do and uninterested in advancing the solid character work Lawrence Kasdan and Irvin Kershner injected into 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 (cf JJ Abrams)? And a couple of hundred teddy bears overwhelm the combined might 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.
5. 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 distinctive 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, engaging and easily wrest attention from the old-timers. Fan service may be much 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
4. Solo: A Star Wars Story
It's ironic that what looks to be the saga's first commercial failure (purely on the basis of the cinema run, as there’s no way it doesn’t profit eventually) is also the Disney era's least narratively problematic and conceptually flawed piece. Which isn't to say the premise of giving young Han his own spin-off wasn't a damn fool idea in the first place, but the storytelling in Ron Howard's hastily-taken over Star Wars Story is never less than confident and engaging.
And Alden Ehrenreich, subject of much criticism for daring to step into the shoes of Harrison Ford and looking nothing like him, offers a winning take on everyone's favourite scoundrel; he and Chewie are exactly right. Donald Glover and Woody Harrelson are similarly engaging. As such, this is very much a boys' picture, ironic given the movie's purported boycott comes at the behest of fans in part aggrieved at the demographic repositioning of the main saga. Of the two more prominent female characters, Qi'ra is simply a victim of miscasting, as she has more potential on paper than either Rey – they still haven't found her character two movies in, and her success is all down to Daisey Ridley – or the vacuum that was Jyn. The L3 is miscasting of a different order, Phoebe Waller-Bridge entirely failing to locate the type of humour that works in the series – they might as well have got Frankie Boyle – and possibly a remnant pointing to the approach Lord and Miller had planned.
Solo does nothing especially spectacular and doesn't revolve around galaxy-saving events, but that's largely to its benefit. Indeed, the final scene cameo, setting up a sequel we likely will not see, feels like an unnecessary push towards the more approved wider canvas of epic saga events. It's a greater shame that we may not get Ehrenreich as Han again (if this had come out in Rogue One's slot, it would surely have been a different story); while I don't necessarily need to have the dots of his relationship with Jabba joined, the Kasdans and Howard have appealingly set him up for more, with even the fan service continuity mostly unintrusive.
Review: Solo: A Star Wars Story
3. Star Wars: The Last Jedi
Is it acceptable to rate a movie for what it gets right over the possibly more numerous instances where it gets it wrong? Well, I've certainly been there recently with Sir Ridders' Alien prequels, so why not?
Many of the criticism of The Last Jedi are valid – the slowest chase in cinema history, Leia's Mary Poppins spacewalk, Hux being reduced to an idiot and so by association the already-less-than-formidable First Order, everything that transpires on Canto Blight aside from Justin Theroux's cameo, forgetting Finn's supposed to be a lead character, teaming him up with the truly inane Rose, the conflict between Poe and Holdo. And it's reasonable to be irritated when poor writing – see everything Rose says and does, the conflict between Holdo and Poe, the latter finally getting a character just not a very good one – clumsily draws attention to the director's agenda rather than integrating it seamlessly with the story; at one point Rose, in duly trite and facile form, instructs Finn to "Look closer". Alas, you’d have to wilfully have your eyes shut and put fingers in your ears to miss Johnson's point. I don't really agree that the issue is his strong-arming "social propaganda" into the SWU; rather, it's that he does it so inelegantly that the tail appears to be wagging the dog.
On the other hand, I have no sympathy with the complaints about Luke. Rey's response to Luke querying her understanding of the Force ("It's a power that Jedi have that lets them control people and makes things float") sounds curiously like the expectation of the naysayers of the choices Johnson has made, and indeed, JJ's appreciation of this mystical element. What's good here is the best the series has been since The Empire Strikes Back, and a direct consequence of trying to deal with JJ's fanfic indiscretions. Consequently, the strangest thing about the movie is that it's credited to just one writer; the gulf in quality between the Luke/Kylo/Rey material and the Resistance pursuit is often both bewildering in its expanse.
Mark Hamill knocks it out of the park as Luke, right down to his drinking green milk straight from the thala-siren's teat. Master Skywalker's far more interesting as a flawed character than an esteemed avatar (both by members of the Resistance and some short-changed fans). The expansions on Force lore are intriguing rather than misconceived. Johnson's bringing Rey and Kylo together in the way he does is a smart move, despatching Snoke a masterstroke. The problem is, he then retreats to a rather conservative polar position again and we’re left with… what exactly? Where's the appetite whetter for the grand finale? It's notable that the title opts for an epithet, forgoing the active phrases of previous middle episodes; Johnson's film is a reaction against Abrams, but there’s no sense he's thinking ahead (aside from "allies scattered in the outer rim").
When there was just the original trilogy, it was easy enough to claim a preponderance of high quality. Now that the flawed is in higher proportion, it becomes a matter of claiming what succeeds despite itself, and The Last Jedi is at least the leader of that pack. Besides, I love the Porgs.
Review: Star Wars: The Last Jedi
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 during 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 again (and 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 in which the peculiarities and idiosyncrasies have a chance to percolate, from the droid captives in a 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 (Edit: but having seen Rogue One since, Dave makes what he does do look easy).
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 classic Star Wars movie has remained unfulfilled for 38 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 stunning 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 eschew out-and-out laser-zap action between Hoth and the Vader-Luke duel, instead taking 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 takeaway 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 that 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 the fuel igniting the generation making the current trilogy (here’s rooting for Episode IX, then…)
Where to Next for the Saga?
"The greatest teacher is failure" instructs Yoda – who ought to know something about that – in the most divisive of Star Wars movies. What lessons will Lucasfilm learn from the vitriolic backlash against The Last Jedi and the subsequent underwhelming box office of Solo? It would be a fool's response to stick their heads in the sand and hope the next movie achieves a happy landing. At this stage, the appetite for seeing how the third trilogy ends is arguably at a low ebb – some might say the tide’s out – and JJ Abrams will have to rustle up something pretty spectacular to rekindle enthusiasm – and more importantly for Disney, enormous box office – for Episode IX. I dare say, short of reincarnating him, that would at least involve a substantial Force ghost presence for Mark Hamill.
Where it leaves Kathleen Kennedy as guardian of keys to the kingdom is debatable. Only one of the four films she has overseen has been smooth sailing, and that's the one that elicited such an outcry and claims of betrayal. Will Rian Johnson's trilogy ever move beyond the planning stage, or will it go the way of Colin Trevorrow? Before this, she could at least point to box office receipts, but now? We're currently promised a Jon Favreau live action TV show set post-Return of the Jedi, a James Mangold Boba Fett picture and Stephen Daldry's Obi-Wan movie (the latter choice suggestive of the period when Bond movies brought in the likes of Lewis Gilbert and didn't care if the first and second unit material remotely matched). The shortfall of Solo will likely put a dampener on at least some of those plans. At minimum, it will slow the flood of releases, the studio having learnt the hard way that they aren’t stablemate Marvel and that there is such a thing as oversaturation. One (perceived) misstep in a hallowed range (The Last Jedi) can impact everything following.
One might berate the consistently inward-looking approach of the post-Lucas era, with every new announcement outside of the main trilogy relating to prequel fare. But then one only has to look at that main trilogy to see those choices aren't just a matter of playing it safe; it's the boon of having a pre-charted galactic roadmap to guide you. One ought to be shocked that Kennedy gave the go ahead to Abrams' flimsy reheating of Star Wars concepts in The Force Awakens – in part surely down to the pressures of meeting that release date and so satisfying shareholders – but she then compounded the error by approving the second instalment without an accompanying strategy for the capper. Some might call it reckless incompetence, but then you recall how George had to bring back the Death Star, gave Han nothing to do and put the fate of the galaxy in the paws of teddy bears. Nevertheless, both the original and prequel trilogies had a sense of overarching story; it will be a miracle if Episode IX can retroactively supply that.
Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.