The Saga Ranked
This is an update of my 2018 ranking, with the addition of highly-acclaimed The Rise of Skywalker along with revisits to the two preceding parts of the trilogy. If you want to be generous and call it that, since the term it makes it sound a whole lot more coherent than it plays.
11. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
I’m well aware Rogue One has its staunch admirers, many crowning it 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 delivered a grimdark Star Wars movie: a dream come true for grownup fans wanting a grownup Star Wars! It even has Darth Vader kicking ass! In fairness, Gareth Edwards ensures the picture is beautifully framed and aesthetically poised (at least, the parts of his vision that remain), but a succession of crisp visual signatures doesn’t a good movie make. Just ask Godzilla.
In spite of a degree of stylistic elegance, Rogue One is a garbled mess. This can partly be put down to those popcorn-friendly reshoots (Darth Vader kicking ass!) and partly down to fundamental flaws with the premise; if Galen can send his daughter a message, why can’t he simply send the details of the Death Star’s vulnerability with it? In a breezier, sprightlier affair, the MacGuffin of the Death Star plans might get a free pass, but since it has become the focus, and in a very po-faced way, it needs to withstand a degree of analysis. And it isn’t up to it.
The movie’s most glaring issue, 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 characters? Only if you care about them in the first place. This is a movie populated by the Kenner action figures you never wanted to buy unless they were the only ones left in the shop, and even then (it beggars’ belief that Lucasfilm is hatching a prequel TV show). 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.
There are a couple of saving graces, though. And I don’t mean the cadaverous, fan-servicing virtual clones of Tarkin & his cartoon jodhpurs and uncanny-valley Leia. Or Vader on ‘roids (say what you like about Dave Prowse, he had an imposing presence). Ben Mendelsohn is memorable as Orson Krennic. He’s granted some classically villainous moments (“Oh, it’s beautiful” he murmurs in response to the destruction porn visited on Jedha’s capital) along with the much-underused device of securing the viewer investment in the villain’s machinations by putting him in a fix. The only problem with Krennic’s thwarted ascent of the Imperial ladder being that his “We stand here amidst MY achievement. Not yours!” rant is against that misbegotten CG Tarkin, and he 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. K-2S0 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 doppelganger) 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’s far from the problem with Rogue One. It’s that at no point does it leave us thinking it had a good reason to be.
10. Star Wars: The Rise of the Skywalker
Revisiting The Rise of the Skywalker as a reluctant completist, I was mostly conscious of how much it confirmed my first impression, albeit with a too-generous star rating. The quest plot is hot garbage, following The Last Jedi’s epic fail as a fit-for-purpose middle chapter in a trilogy and further testament that Kathleen Kennedy hasn’t the faintest clue about a functional screenplay. Nevertheless, the first hour of The Rise of Skywalker – a terrible, tone-deaf title; even saying it feels like a trip to the dentist – is, for the most part, quite watchable. The last hour, however, outright stinks.
I probably spent enough time highlighting elements that didn’t make sense in initial review. Regarding the nonsensical treasure hunt for a resurrected Emperor who, in turn, has ever-changing explanations for what exactly he wanted from Kylo/Rey/the galaxy; they feel no more forgivable a second time. Being an Abrams production, I’m only surprised no one self-referentially says at any point “None of this makes any sense!”
Ian McDiarmid’s performance is equivalent to one of the latter-day Davros appearances in Doctor Who, where all nuance has been sublimated to cartoonish spluttering evil. That said, I can completely see why Abrams went there; he, in consort with Rian Johnson – in as much as neither he nor Johnson were helping out whoever came next – contrived to leave the story with precious few options apart from pulling an old villain out of a hat and manufacture some enormous, monumental threat (like, I dunno, an entire fleet of star destroyers plucked from the ground like less impressive Ray Harryhausen skeletons).
But if anything can be said to save this – in direct contrast to the pictures either side in this ranking – it’s the central performances. Whatever criticisms can be made about their characters, or lack thereof, both Daisy Ridley and Adam Driver are troopers, doing their level best to salvage the proceedings and paper over the chasms of inconsistency.
Others are less lucky. There’s an attempt to foist Luke/Leia/Han camaraderie and repartee on Finn/Rey/Poe. This might feel more convincing if the latter two hadn’t met for the first time in the final minutes of the previous adventure (underlining how completely ill-conceived these movies were). Abrams attempts to make up for John Boyega being used so badly last time – not coincidentally, he ensures Rose Tico is entirely side-lined – but does in a largely clumsy fashion (Finn just happens to run into another ex-stormtrooper to swap anecdotes with?) He also rather half-heartedly pays lip service to Johnson’s Force-user average Joe idea (probably because it’s a lousy one). And makes Finn a general (although, the Resistance/Rebellion throwing around arbitrary officer ranks probably goes some way to explaining why they’re so prone to failure).
Poe meanwhile suffers his second retconned characterisation. No longer is he just a shit-hot pilot, or merely a hot-headed insubordinate. Now, he’s also a former spice runner with a helmet fetishist ex-squeeze (so no, Oscar, Poe is not gay; JJ was clearly listening to your petitioning and all that fan shipping and having none of it). The end result is the trio’s reunion at the end doesn’t really land. They so clearly haven’t been through all this together. Whatever “this” is.
Still, Poe’s isn’t nearly as silly a retcon as Leia’s being a Jedi master now, and managing to train Rey through about a couple of cobbled together lines of Carrie Fisher dialogue and a few pensive outtakes. As for poor Mark Hamill, anyone would think Abrams had something against him for dissing Luke’s barely-an appearance in The Force Awakens... Fat Lando? Poor Billy Dee Williams couldn’t be more cluelessly relaxed if he was sitting in the window of his favourite pie shop. There are attempts to service everyone with a special moment – even bloody Wedge – including C-3P0’s memory wipe, a Chewie fake death and inane medal gift, as well as introducing new characters there’s barely time for (Zorii, Jannah, D-O, Babu Frik). REG is good as General Pryde, but it would have been nice if he had a bit more to do than kill Hux.
Even with the extraordinary Force powers now being thrown about like so much confetti, The Rise of Skywalker only succeeded in losing me completely around the point Rey heads off to Ahch-To (I like how the rebels are back at their base while Ren is still gazing into the surf; he’s obviously having a good long brood). Abrams is generally a sure hand at building set pieces, but The Rise of the Skywalker’s third act is entirely devoted to throwing as much random CGI at the screen as possible and hoping some of it sticks. The massive space battle is the height of tedium when it isn’t plumbing the depths of inanity (riding horses across a star destroyer), and the confrontation with the Emperor has nothing going for it even before the latter starts pulling some David Copperfield moves and zapping the Resistance fleet with bolts of lightning.
There are various rumours about the different forms the movie went through before we got this slop. I’m not sure anything could have been a marked improvement, but killing off Kylo and so failing to have him live to atone was surely the laziest of routes. Which shouldn’t be surprising; The Rise of the Skywalker goes out of its way to badly zerox greatest-hits moments from the previous instalments, so of course he was going to die redeemed.
9. 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 cast a moppet with no discernible acting chops in that role. 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 over quite 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 managed to fashion the most unwieldy of screenplays, one leaping back and forth across the galaxy in nigh arbitrary fashion. One that 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 here, but within the pixel-topia (which would only get worse) of Lucas’ now intangible, unused future a long, long time ago, 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…
8. Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones
Great! Ani’s all grown up. That ought to 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 shoots his intended looks like he’s the antagonist in a De Palma movie? That isn’t so good. The upside of Attack of the Clones is that Obi-Wan Kenobi has a solid plotline and Ewan McGregor makes the most of it, injecting some much-needed humour into Lucas’ sterile promontory. 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 onwards surfs a wave of CGI-indifference, complete with a whirling, lightsabre-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 III – Revenge of the Sith
Relatively speaking, I’m more generously disposed towards the latter two prequels (in part, 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 culpably, failing his central character and succumbing to a desire to render everything he possibly can through CGI – and even decided to compound them.
In its favour, Revenge of the 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 lightsabre duels by busying everything up past the point of dramatic engagement. Ani and Obi-Wan flow down a river of lava 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, one that includes some killer sequences (Order 66), but Lucas’ disinterested direction renders them passable at best and ineffectual at worst. 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: The Last Jedi
In my previous ranking of the saga, I commented that, in spite of the things that flat-out don’t work in The Last Jedi, the things that do were more than enough to outweigh them. I’ve revised that view somewhat. I’ll still go to bat for certain things here much of fandom despises, but pretty much everything relating to the B-plots of Poe and Finn (and, gawd help us, Rose) endeavour to capsize the Rian Johnson’s sequel.
Do I think it was the right move to make Luke fundamentally flawed the way he is? Well, I’m not up in arms about it the way many are, and I don’t necessarily see it as a fundamental betrayal of the character, but neither do I think it was thought through. Indeed, the whole “moment of weakness, but really not even that, I didn’t actually do anything” is a pulled punch smacking of nervousness to go in a bold direction, one that makes Luke look bad however you flip it. He’s unsure of his actions and prone to reflexive whims when he should have matured by this point: “It passed like a fleeting shadow”. Better to have had him straight-up decide to kill his evil nephew than indulge in tepid half measures. I maintain that Abrams is much more to blame than Johnson for this situation (there’s more than enough to blame the latter for elsewhere), since the ending of The Force Awakens was a poisoned chalice. No reason for Luke running off would have looked good.
Added to which, killing Luke off serves very little purpose other than to rub fans’ noses in his failure. It’s a measure that needs to be earned, and cool as his showdown on Crait is – yes, I do like the brushing off of lint, and no, I don’t mind him drinking green milk earlier – it simply is not. The “exertion killed him” thing – and Johnson foreshadowing with a line about the toll of mental projection – never seemed to count for much before, when Yoda made a big thing about size not mattering in The Empire Strikes Back. More than that, though, it squanders the potential for (by that point) easily the most interesting actor of the original cast to do something rewarding with his one iconic character. Hamill was right to be pissed off, particularly since JJ did zero to redress the balance with an entirely perfunctory Force ghost appearance in the finale.
But if Luke needed a good talking to, so it seems do the other men here. Again, I’m not that caught up in the much-cited grievances against a perceived woke desecration of the saga’s principles on Johnson’s part, but he’s undoubtedly allowed virtue signalling to get the better of him. Poe, who lacked any character in The Force Awakens, is now given one. Unfortunately, it’s of an age-inappropriate hothead with no respect for his female superiors; someone with more charisma and exuberance than Oscar Isaac might have pulled this off, but I doubt it (no one could pull off that your momma joke).
As it is, his dressing down, first by Leia (now wonder the Resistance is up shit creak if slapping a subordinate is deemed acceptable) and then by Laura Dern’s Holdo, is an unholy mess of transparent gender grandstanding (Johnson would boast a similar lack of subtlety in Knives Out, but at least that was his baby). You can’t lead with an agenda in this kind of fare. Well, you can, but you’re highly unlikely to succeed (see also the recent Terminator: Dark Fate). Star Wars had enormous goodwill going for it, despite Lucas’ attempts with the prequels, and yet Disney managed to drain the Dagobah swamp.
Somehow, Poe learns to be a good leader from all this, in an “arc” that had no business being there, and is extraordinarily tedious to sit through. It also makes no sense that, in a Resistance as small as it is, he doesn’t know Holdo by sight (not with that hair, certainly). As for the faux-motherly exchange between Leia and Holdo after all is sorted out and his coup attempt put down (“That one’s a troublemaker. I like him”) … Words fail me. And all this going on during a really stupid space chase.
Finn’s journey, for what it was worth, is left high and dry, never to recover. Maybe there was nowhere left for him to go anyway, but Boyega made the character likeable and sparked off his co-stars in The Force Awakens. That’s all gone here, and he’s required to learn patronising lessons from the utterly redundant millstone that is Rose Tico, an annoyingly earnest character performed as exactly that by Kelly Marie Tran (“That’s how we’re going to win” should have had audiences tearing up the seats). The scenes on Canto Blight are prequel-levels bad in execution, utterly redundant in plot and excruciatingly banal in messaging (“Look closer”).
Of course, Rose herself is inserted to embody Rian’s high-fiving sermon that everyone is special. Screw making the story fit into a three-movie arc; emphasise that tangent in order to end The Last Jedi as if it were the finale in a trilogy. Anyone can now shift a mountain of rocks with their mind. The failures of Rose are entirely on Johnson’s shoulders, as you can’t simply create an aggressively uninteresting main character like that and not expect blowback (no wonder Abrams ignored her so obviously).
Perversely too, by emphasising that Rey’s parents were nobodies, filthy junk traders who sold her for a lousy dollar, Johnson takes away the one thing she did have in terms of characterisation, weak though that was: enigma. Consequently, Rey really does become a Mary Sue. Add to that Leia’s Mary Poppins act, and it seems everyone (female) is now supremely capable Force wise with no apparent need of training (and if Leia is so au fait with the Force, why isn’t she out there, confronting her son?) Don’t worry, though, as it turns out, you do have to be in a bloodline family to warrant any significant saga screen time as a Force user (of which, “You went straight to the dark” at least allows JJ some ammunition for the Palpatine lineage).
All that said, there’s still a lot I like about The Last Jedi. The interactions between Rey and Ren re-emphasise that Abrams picked a couple of very good leads. Likewise, the conflict between Luke and Rey on Ahch-To is engaging. It’s nice to see puppet Yoda. Porgs. And if Johnson’s contempt for Abrams’ groundwork is childish in some cases (the business with the ridiculous mask), he’s right in giving the entirely derivative Snoke short shrift. Although, ironically, he allows him some decent character work (“He split your spirit to the bone!”) And the confrontation with, and turning the tables on, Snoke is a superbly executed sequence.
Unfortunately, Johnson also decided Domhnall Gleeson should ham it up to the max as Hux. When Adrian Edmondson’s the straight man in a scene, something’s going a bit wrong. But The Last Jedi goes more than a bit wrong, exposing in the most unflattering manner that this sequel trilogy had no backbone going in, leaving it with all at sea with almost wilfully perverse glee. Previously, I was unequivocal about The Last Jedi’s superiority to The Force Awakens, but if there are sequences here that are better than anything in Episode VII, they’re ultimately overwhelmed by those that are much, much worse.
5. Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Even before the debacle of The Rise of Skywalker, many had written off the Disney trilogy on the grounds of the Johnsonator’s social engineering of The Last Jedi. That film at least took some risks, even if it also put its foot in some mighty bear traps (above). The Force Awakens, in contrast, took absolutely none. It’s easy to dismiss on that basis alone. Most elements are complete copy-and-pastes of A New Hope (the First Order equals the Empire, the Resistance bizarrely equals the Rebellion but only in a nonsensical way, Starkiller Base equals the Death Star, and the quest for Death Star plans equals the quest for a… map to Luke). If they aren’t, they invariably lacking anything more than a basic idea or inversion (a female Jedi/Force user, a Stormtrooper protagonist). Or worse, one with zero preplanning (someone else can decide why Luke disappeared). It's been said Kathleen Kennedy's "plan" for the new trilogy was essentially to remake A New Hope, but with a female Luke, which would figure.
All of which means, JJ Abrams being JJ Abrams, that much of The Force Awakens is quite enjoyable to watch, because he’s nothing if not a dab hand at spectacle, and tangible spectacle at that (a breath of fresh air after the prequels – now, if the Abrams of The Force Awakens had been there to direct the prequels…). But it launches a trilogy entirely lacking the element that the prequels, for all their multitude of failures, had in spades: a story to tell. Abrams and Lawrence Kasdan don’t even try to disguise how slipshod this construction is, such that if you don’t even begin to buy the myth spun by the opening crawl. It’s a promise to leave you high and dry, no matter how engaging individual elements are.
Because there’s a lot to like in the first hour. With the exception of Isaac, and Poe isn’t really his fault (it’s like making Wedge a lead), Abrams has cast his movie well. There are problems with the characters of both Finn and Rey, of course. They don’t have the balls to make the former an actual stormtrooper, rather than a guy bottling it on his first mission. Rey’s issue isn’t entirely the Mary Sue-ishness. It’s more particularly that she’s set up as mystery, so there’s nothing to look into, not unlike John Murdoch in Dark City; you’re watching her character waiting for a reveal, which is entirely the wrong way to go about business. But both Boyega and Ridley are very good, and both strike up an engaging rapport with sleepy-headed curmudgeon Ford, who is also intermittently quite watchable (when he isn’t struggling with crap about bowcasters or that awful moment when he “casually” shoots a trooper while looking in the opposite direction).
What’s true of Finn and Rey is also largely the case with Kylo. Adam Driver may be stepping in the character footsteps of petulant Hayden Anakin, but he does so with so much more conviction and authenticity that there are occasions where it doesn’t matter too much that the First Order is a paper-thin construction led by a couple of teenagers and a giant CGI hologram. The confrontation/death of Han never has the impact it ought, but that’s more in the overall construction than because the potential wasn’t there.
There’s nothing to kindle interest in Snoke, any more than the derivative approach to Phasma (outfit design leads the way) or Maz (bland Yoda clone). And the scars of a rocky development process are all over the plot, of course. Wasting Max von Sydow like that. Poe not staying dead. Luke’s lightsabre retrieved from Cloud City (okay, I kind of like how that never gets an explanation, rather than a completely ridiculous one). More damaging is that, for all his ability with the visuals, Abrams is utterly at a loss with the magic, such that The Force Awakens can only pay lip service to the Force. One never feels its makers “believe” in it (something only made worse as the trilogy progresses). But yeah, Daniel Craig delivers “Aaaand I’ll drop my weapon” very amusingly.
John Williams’ score is probably the biggest clue to this being mutton dressed as lamb, since it’s at best a greatest hits, with none of the energy or inspiration that was present even in the prequels (which have some great themes, whatever else is wrong with them). Amazingly, one can find a couple of pointers here that do feed into what happens next: “When he gets what he wants he’ll crush you. You know it’s true” Han tells Kylo, so informing his action against Snoke next time. Okay, one.
Others have torn apart everything here in a much more ruthless fashion, often predicated on its failure to show Han, Leia and Luke together again. I’m not sure the new trilogy needed that, as something having gone wrong in the meantime was essential to creating drama; there had to be some ruthlessness somewhere, and confounding expectation has a part in that (or you’re left with Lucas’ play-it-safe approach in Return of the Jedi). But having such disregard for any kind of plan of action, and proceeding with a that’ll do, fix-it-later ethos doomed it to ultimate failure.
4. Solo: A Star Wars Story
It’s ironic that the series’ first commercial failure 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 an affable take on everyone’s favourite scoundrel; he and Chewie hit the right notes. Donald Glover may not be Billy Dee smooth, but Lando and Woody Harrelson’s Beckett are similarly engaging. Qi’ra has potential on paper but becomes a block of wood as essayed by Emilia Clarke (and there’s zero chemistry with Ehrenreich). The L3 is miscasting of a different magnitude, Phoebe Waller-Bridge entirely failing to locate a style of humour that works in the series. One wonders if her abrasive vocal performance might have been an indicator of Lord and Miller’s approach.
Solo does nothing especially spectacular and doesn’t revolve around galaxy-saving events, but that’s largely to its benefit. Indeed, the final scene’s cameo, setting up a sequel we’ll never see, feels like an unnecessary push towards the more convoluted canvas of epic saga events. Of course, Solo itself is unnecessary, never more so than in the clumsy attempts to mine the character’s limited backstory. That said, while I didn’t need to have the dots of his relationship with Jabba joined in the Part 2, it would have been a lot more welcome than anything in the sequel trilogy.
3. Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi
This slipshod finale is really where the Star Wars rot set in, but even as a half-assed Star Wars movie, Return of the Jedi gets a relative pass for being part of the original trilogy. Alas, its plot sucks; if The Force Awakens was a redo, it was a redo of Jedi’s Star Wars redo. Stuck for anything innovative 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 another 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 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 focus 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 stands up pretty well, although the Tatooine opener is mostly a damp squib. Salacious Crumb definitely deserves his own spin-off series. This is the one with the most egregious Special Edition(s) edits, including the horrendous Jedi Rocks, “Noooooooo!”, and the mystifying appearance of Hayden Christensen.
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 for not having every little detail filled in. A brief anecdote charting the downfall of Vader, and how he killed Anakin Skywalker, fires the imagination (and least, until Revenge of the Sith).
Star Wars possibly loses a bit of steam after the Death Star “escape”, as everyone regroups and then 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 sequence offers a visually arresting new take on the World War II 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. Until you get to the Special Edition, anyway.
Lucas, for all the many variations he went through to get there, depicts his archetypes as if they were conceptually 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 arguably does the really hard work in making Darth Vader the movies’ most iconic villain. Sorry, Dave Prowse (although, in fairness, those who have worn his duds since have entirely failed to fill them).
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 lure of what this series of multiple trilogies can muster 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 40 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. It actively embraces the fact that it cannot exist in isolation, 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 did not 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).
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 an alluring city in the clouds).
Then there are the new additions, which entirely avoid a feeling of repetition (even where they are doing exactly that). The wise man/fool duality of Master Yoda (merely mundanely wise after this). 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). Lando Calrissian (like too many of the characters, completely hung out to dry in Return of the Jedi), whereby Billy Dee Williams makes 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, to 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 flies by whenever I revisit it, and it’s the saga entry that keeps the potential of Star Wars alive even now. Well, just barely.
Where Does the Saga Go from Here?
I’m not sure how many caring are left, although it seems the generally positive responses to The Mandalorian suggest just enough do and that, despite it all, all haven’t yet given up all hope. The recent rumours regarding Lucas coming back to his creation with a mandate to do things his way is alarming if there’s any truth to it, though. Are fan memories so short that sequel movies delivered in the manner of the prequels are now appealing? Even if Lucas doesn’t direct (and he probably won’t), it says how low the saga’s stock has fallen that this idea should be greeted with anything other than contempt.
According to Overlord DVD, Disney is considering three options, one of which comprises releasing the Lucas cut of The Rise of the Skywalker and special editions of The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi, the latter repairing some of the damage to Luke’s reputation done by Johnson, it seems. Apparently, Disney execs were aghast that The Rise of the Skywalker Lucas cut was passed over for cinemas by Kennedy, since it’s so much better. I’ll take that with a pinch of salt, since tantalising nuggets include things I can’t imagine substantially helping the movie at all. Such as a moment with Luke, Leia and Han and an appearance by Anakin (because Hayden Christensen is exactly what was missing).
The other alleged options being considered include some kind of veil of the Force ensuring Palpatine dies permanently at the end of Return of the Jedi, so the trilogy we just had becomes a “legitimate”, acknowledged alt-timeline and Lucas’ envisaged trilogy can arrive as a replacement. Because those things generally turn out so well (Terminator, Halloween). The other is that sequel trilogy is ignored completely, and Lucas makes his trilogy. Oh, and somewhere in the mix, Disney makes The Adventures of Luke Skywalker with Hamill/Hamill’s deep-fake avatar.
Yeah, it doesn’t sound like Disney is any closer to having a clue what to do. Of course, they’re crashing and burning across the board. It might not just be their Star Wars that is being boycotted before long.