WARNING: Spoilers Ahead
Now, for the fervent cinema-goer like myself, the current times are one hell of a mixed bag. On a positive side, all the blockbusters have been released a few weeks apart, but on the other side of the coin, when you’re like me, you see all the films in the first week and then spent the following few weeks digging deep for something to watch. This was my long-winded way of saying I’ve already reviewed all the big movies so I’m going to witter on about an opinion that no-one asked for. Enjoy.
In case you didn’t figure out this fact over the last year or so of me writing these pieces (which I still have no idea of what to call, I hate the word blog and column sounds too formal, but I digress) I love Star Wars. Love it so much that over the last few years I’ve stayed up until the early hours of the morning to watch these films at midnight, like a complete loser, so I could see them early and bask in their splendour.
Ranking these films is a double-edged sword, on one hand, the bottom half is simple, as you’ll see later, but the top half may see me lynched by certain segments of nerd culture, so bare in mind that this is MY opinion, and mine alone. With that said, there will be more spoilers here than usual, so in case you missed the bold writing at the start of this list, here’s another warning; HERE BE SPOILERS!
One rule before we start: only theatrical releases are eligible, so no Holiday Special or Caravan of Courage, more’s the pity.
Eleven – Star Wars: The Clone Wars (Directed by Dave Filoni)
I’ll forgive you if you told me that you forgot that there was a cinema-released Clone Wars movie, I certainly wish I could.
If you’d sat through the The Prequel Trilogy and thought you’d like to see more of whiny Anakin and the faceless, character-less Clones, then here’s the movie for you, you weirdo.
It was certainly an odd choice to launch a TV series with a movie, specifically one released in cinemas, fans of the extended TV universe will be quick to point out that Rebels also launched with a movie, the difference being that that one was made for TV and was essentially a pilot episode, which is exactly what this feels like, a pilot episode and not a very good one at that. Probably best to leave this one forgotten to history.
Ten – Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones (Directed by George Lucas)
From one movie with the word ‘Clone’ in the title to another with 2002’s Attack of the Clones.
I’ve seen this movie defended by some as the best movie in the Prequel saga, but honestly, I just can’t see it. I do truly believe that each of the saga has at least one redeeming factor, and this has very, very few of those. The stadium battle scene probably being an albeit brief highlight. It doesn’t have the fleeting spark that made Episodes I and III slightly more watchable.
It’s main flaw for me is it’s casting of Anakin. After the backlash (as harsh as it was) towards Jake Lloyd in Episode I, the pressure must have been on to choose the perfect Anakin, and George Lucas could not have missed the mark more had he been in a different star-system.
Admittedly, not all blame lays on Hayden Christensen, some of it has to lay on Lucas’ reportedly slapdash directorial style, but Anakin really comes off as a whiny, entitled little brat here, and while this may have been the intention at the scripting stage, it’s hardly in-line with the Darth Vader character that we all know he’s going to become.
Not helped by this is the romance subplot between Anakin and Padme. This mostly falls flat because of the two actors involved having as much chemistry as two dead fish, every line of dialogue sounds awkward and almost as if the writer hasn’t heard genuine conversation (when was the last time you flirted by mentioning sand?) they don’t feel like two people pre-destined to fall in love as two awkward wallflowers on prom night.
In this movie’s favour it does introduce a somewhat interesting side villain in Count Dooku, played by the legendary Christopher Lee, but even he can’t save this damp squib, and all we’re left with is another two hours of wasted opportunities, which will become a running theme in the prequels…
Nine – Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (Directed by George Lucas)
Imagine people’s disappointment in 1999, when after all that anticipation, they’re treated to this dull, often incoherent and frustrating mess. After this film, all the goodwill people had for George Lucas drained away, along with several glaringly missed opportunities.
The reason this film is so frustrating is: it could, and should have been so much better. All the pieces were there for a worthy continuation of the Star Wars mythos, building up to the genesis of Darth Vader, it’s just a shame that the film assembled these pieces as poorly as French car-makers.
On the face of it, Episode I was a success. It made over $1 billion at the box office after all, of course we know that making a lot of money doesn’t mean the movie is good, the Transformers films are testament to that, but not only that but it formed the basis for the rest of the prequels, which as we were to find out, is like building a house on quicksand.
Just like its sequel, in fact probably even more so, this is a film built on missed opportunities. A new, interesting Sith lord is introduced and promptly killed in the same movie (a mess that future animated series would clean up), massively talented actors are wasted with a weak script and practical effects that helped characterise the series up to that point were thrown out in favour of gaudy CGI monstrosities. Not only that but we got Jar Jar Binks, and it isn’t often I swear in these write-ups, but fuck Jar Jar Binks.
So after all that, why isn’t Episode I below Episode II? Well, that’s because despite it having an incredible amount of flaws, there are simply more redeeming factors in Episode I. The Pod-Racing, derided by some, but seen by me as a bright spark in a dark period of Star Wars, yes it isn’t perfect and young Anakin is incredibly irritating, but it’s exciting and actually feels like a thrilling scene in a Star Wars movie, set aside from the dreary trade disputes that make up the rest of the movie.
Most of all, however, this movie is almost completely redeemed by Darth Maul and the subsequent fight scene with Qui-Gon and Obi Wan. Take away its ant-climactic end, and you have one of the greatest lightsaber duels in the franchise, brilliantly choreographed and even competently shot, a surprise given who directed, this is the real gem which nudges Phantom Menace above Attack of the Clones. It still doesn’t excuse the decision to kill off your trilogy’s most interesting villain though George, you mad bastard.
Eight – Solo: A Star Wars Story (Directed by Ron Howard)
First, let me preface this entry with the sentiment that there are very few Star Wars films I consider ‘bad’. They pretty much consisist of the previous three movies, every one from here on in has merits that out-weigh positives, but the more I think about Solo, the more complaints begin to emerge.
As a whole, I enjoyed the movie (the full review is available on this blog itself) but found it occasionally lacking, specifically in it’s pacing, which had a habit of screeching to a halt.
I feel like as a spin-off, it is a welcome slice of Star Wars canon, but it doesn’t feel as pivotal as Rogue One felt a few years previous, which portrayed an event which enabled the rest of the saga to continue as we knew it, this merely serves as the backstory for one of the series beloved characters, and had significant pressure to deliver the moments we wanted to see, which for the most part it did, but it also showed us some things that could have been better left to the imagination.
Its performances were where this movie shone, with Alden Ehrenreich leading the charge as Han Solo, although he is arguably outshone by Donald Glover’s portrayal of Lando Calrissian, never before has both a character and actor oozed charisma quite like this.
It’s failings become clear towards the middle of the film where it runs out of an interesting narrative to tell before the climactic final act and the ending twists can be jarring, but the cameo near the end of the film is one begging to be paid off, but whether it is remains to be seen.
All in all, Solo is an enjoyable Star Wars romp, but runs out of steam and ends up as nothing more than a middling outing.
Seven – Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith (Directed by George Lucas)
As I said earlier in this piece, I don’t feel like the prequels are completely without merit, and usually I point to this film as proof of this, the prequel where everything seemed to come together finally and there were more hits than misses.
This is the film that I feel most resembles the classic trilogy, its ambitious beyond anything that the previous two attempted and it executed the turn of Anakin to Darth Vader with sufficient weight and brevity.
Hayden Christensen is still nothing more than mediocre in the film, he does start to feel like he’s hitting his stride after he becomes Darth Vader, and Ewen McGregor proves the star turn of not only this film but the entire trilogy, as he meshes successfully with the Obi-Wan character that he spent the last few films building.
Whereas I struggled to find more than a few positives with Episodes I & II, there are more than a few more examples of redemption from this film, with my stand-outs being: the opening space sequence, Anakin’s defeat of Count Dooku, Order 66 being executed on Kashyyyk and the subsequent fight and last and most importantly, the duel between the newly-minted Darth Vader and Obi-Wan. This sabre duel is actually the longest in Star Wars history and is presented over many different stages, each of which raise the already considerable stakes higher until a well-timed climax leaves Anakin without legs by the lava flow, it’s quintessential Star Wars at its very best.
That’s not to say that it’s perfect, not, this is still a prequel after all so not everything worked, the romance between Anakin and Padme is still forced and stilted, even more so now that they’re having a baby and Anakin’s angst is through the roof, and let’s not forget General Grievous, the slice of prequel nonsense before which this film was almost sacrificed. Yes, the fight with him was exciting but the fact he put up more of a fight than most of the Jedi’s would later is extremely disappointing.
Despite this being the undisputed (for me at least) peak of the prequels, it still falls short against even the worse moments of the original trilogy, which is why it can only make it as high as seventh.
Six – Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi (Directed by Richard Marquand)
It may seem like blasphemy to place any of the original trilogy outside of the top five, but hang on, there’s reasons.
Return of the Jedi is by no means a bad film, as I said earlier, I consider very few Star Wars films to be ‘bad’ such is the quality of the first two that even this perfectly acceptable film feels somewhat inferior. Mind you, following Empire Strikes Back must have been like following Queen at Live Aid.
It has its moments, the climactic battle between Luke, Vader and the Emperor gives a good feeling of closure to the trilogies arc and even the rebels mission to blow up the Death Star is suitably impressive, if not giving us a sense of deja vu.
What does send it over into more negative territories is the Special Edition changes, firstly, that bloody CGI singing monstrosity is absolutely terrifying, not only that but it adds nothing, in fact it takes a hell of a lot away, then there’s the addition of Hayden Christensen as a force ghost at the end, which feels like painting the Mona Lisa with a dried turd.
Apart from that, Return of the Jedi has it’s moments of excellence, but fails to shine like its two predecessors, but you can’t really blame it for that, you can’t always release solid gold, unless your name is Quentin Tarantino, of course.
Five – Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (Directed by Gareth Edwards)
My big argument about big franchises, and in broader strokes, spin-offs (as I’ve said in the past) have to have a reason to exist for me to care. Solo, had a threadbare reason in seeing more of that beloved smuggler Han Solo, this feels like it does have a reason to exist, the events of this film enable the plot of A New Hope to take place, so its importance is paramount.
This of course could be mishandled, like most things in Hollywood, happily this story was handled incredibly well, it ticks all the boxes of what fans were expecting (most fans that is, there is of course a section of Star Wars fans who live with a psychotic constant hatred of any female characters, who can all do us a favour and jump off a large cliff) not only did it tick boxes but it stands up as good film, not just as a Star Wars story, but in general.
Character was the main draw here, Jyn Erso is not just a typical bad ass action girl, she has depth and reasons to help the rebellion that go beyond her sense of justice, her problems with the Empire mount up until it becomes a personal mission as well as a Rebellion mission. Also, there’s another fun robot character to carry on Disney’s streak of fun (and also marketable) robots that the audience can all enjoy, and hopefully buy pricey plushies that look roughly like the characters.
I think my favourite part of the film is the fact that it had the balls to end without pulling a happy ending out of their arse, the characters knew this was practically a suicide mission and that’s exactly what it ended up being, but despite this, we get closure for the characters. Of course we knew that they would succeed as we’ve already seen the results, but the way the characters were written off is a suitable enough emotional punch to write off the characters as selfless heroes sacrifice themselves for the greater good.
Also, before I close this section, there is a big elephant in the room and that’s the CGI reincarnation of Peter Cushing’s Grand Moff Tarkin. Now, I’m the first person to call out unnecessary CGI in movies, and this recreation does have an ‘uncanny valley’ look about it, but I do think that it looks suitably like Peter Cushing and doesn’t look TOO much like obvious CGI Mo-Cap. Would it have been better to just let the actor who played him on set and voiced him, Guy Henry, play him fully? Would it have been disrespectful to Cushing? I am not the person to answer this, I will however say that the rendering of Princess Leia looks considerably worse.
In brief, Rogue One is a welcome addition to the canon with strong performances and a tight focus, exactly what we want from a Star Wars spin-off.
Four – Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi (Directed by Rian Johnson)
Well, here’s a choice that will split the fan-base. Here is my viewpoint of The Last Jedi: It will be remembered as the Star Wars film of this generation, and I don’t say that lightly, especially as I haven’t got to The Force Awakens yet. But I truly believe that in twenty years, we will look back on this as on par with Empire Strikes Back. Fighting words, right?
Firstly, this film is bloody beautiful. Beautifully directed, beautifully paced and beautifully acted. The high point for me is the shot after Vice Admiral Holdo launches through Snoke’s ship. It’s the kind of shot that would bring the most jaded cinematographer to a shuddering climax. Then there’s thee scenes on Crait, where the landscapes look like they’ve been lifted from picture postcards, the red salt only adds to its overall thematic style.
Mainly, I like it because it takes risks, not for risks sake, but to make interesting character and narrative moments. It would have been easy to make Luke take up the mantle and stand up to The First Order without invitation, but with all the character has been through, building up to it not only works on several narrative levels but it shows a level of balls that many wouldn’t have. Luke isn’t the same wide-eyed Jedi hero we left in Episode VI. He’s a broken man, emotionally and psychically, all of his dreams have crumbled before him and the person who burned down his ambition is also his nephew, I’m not surprised someone like that isn’t in a rush to take up arms again, he has lost his faith in the force.
We also saw development between Kylo and Rey, we saw flashes of humanity in Kylo Ren that adds another dimension to the already complex characters, sure, there could have been more development and him killing Snoke doesn’t really lead anywhere except back into his villainous ways, and Rey goes through the character development in finding more of herself, she broke away from Kylo’s influence and is well on here way to becoming the last hope of the Jedi by the end, but in the middle we have the intrigue of how much influence Kylo will have on her. As I say, the plot point doesn’t go far enough for me, but I do like both of their characters arcs as is, and their inevitable climatic battle has a lot to live up to.
The Last Jedi, is by no means perfect, and it’s those imperfections that don’t put it any higher. I still find “Super Leia” absurd like I did on first viewing, it doesn’t take me out of the film like it almost did the first time round, but still annoys me. Also, the whole Canto Bight sequence is self-indulgence personified, it’s over-blown and unnecessarily complex, we didn’t really need to spent that much time in that environment, it was a style clash nightmare against the rest of the film.
It is the above complaints that stop it going any higher than fourth, but it gets this high because of its style, character and narrative development and breathtakingly beautiful direction and cinematography, give it another try, you’ll thank me later.
Three – Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens (Directed by JJ Abrams)
After 10 years in the Star Wars wilderness (not counting the animated TV series) we were all breathless with enthusiasm for our return to the Star Wars universe, and this is where the universe split into two parallel universes, one where the reboot was so awful that we gladly crawl back to George Lucas and his midichlorinans, or, one where a new filmmaker breathes life into a long-dormant franchise, thank Darwin for JJ Abrams.
Rather than wallow in the old characters and making what would have essentially been a fan film, JJ Abrams and Laurence Kasdan instead concentrate their efforts to create new heroes for a new generation and use the old characters to advance the new stories.
Our main two new heroes are Finn: a First-Order Stormtrooper fighting his training and on the run from the very organisation which enslaved him as a child to make him into the perfect soldier, and Rey, a scavenger from Jakku with a mysterious background and untapped power of which she is unaware.
There are other additions, of course, most impressively is Kylo Ren, who surprisingly enough isn’t just a Darth Vader clone, he’s a heavily troubled man, turned to the Dark Side by a sinister authority… okay maybe his backstory is a bit like Vader’s but Kylo has dimensions and layers that Vader didn’t have. Firstly, he’s the son of Han Solo and Princess Leia, estranged from them after he slaughtered Luke’s entire Jedi temple and burned it to the ground (which is totally different to how Vader killed all the younglings, shut up) and suffice to say, his slaughtering isn’t over, unfortunately for his dad in particular.
All of these characters are brought to life effortlessly by a trio of talented young actors, John Boyega, Daisy Ridley and Adam Driver, respectively, all of which go through an arc in this movie alone, they all feel like they’ve moved on from where they were at the start of the film, not only moved but in a position that will launch them into the rest of the series.
As for the old guard, as I mentioned they mostly function to advance the new characters, Han’s death in particular marking a particular turning point for Rey and Finn, then there’s Leia who has moved on from Princess to General, she’s no longer the damsel in distress but a perfectly capable battle-trained tactician and often the wisest character on screen, in other words they also have gone through a journey, although theirs has been off-screen, which we’ll no doubt see in some future inevitable spin-off.
There are quibbles, the most glaring one being that it’s almost a direct remake of a New Hope, but for each similarity there’s something that sets it apart, the mission to blow it up does it no favours, but there’s a nice lightsaber fight thrown into the mix in a forest between two people completely untrained in lightsaber combat somehow defeating a highly trained master of the Dark Side, but we should probably ignore that.
For all the similarities to A New Hope, there’s new life breathed into every corner of the film, the characters, the setting and the direction, even Abram’s love of adding lots of bloom is reined in somewhat, it’s simultaneously a love letter to the series it follows, yet adds just enough to stand up on it’s own, this is how you perfectly add jump leads to a previously dead horse.
Two – Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (Directed by George Lucas)
For all the manure fanboys throw at George Lucas, you can’t deny that he knows how to make a strong start. This is the film that of course launched the multi-billion behemoth we know today and it all started with this comparatively conservative effort. Adjusted for inflation to today’s money, A New Hope had a budget of $46.6 million, which nowadays would barely get you the Cantina scene.
A New Hope works because it takes stock character traits and transplants them into a new setting, in this case, a sci-fi setting. To judge this film we have to realise how well this movie holds up in sci-fi settings in modern times. Let’s not forget that this is only 9 years after 2001: A Space Odyssey, who’s influence is felt heavily in this film, specifically in its very first shot, way to get off on the right foot George.
This is the point where our beloved characters began their journey, Luke was a simple farm-boy, unaware of his genes, Han Solo was busy making the kessel run in 12 parsecs and Princess Leia is busy being a princess and getting kidnapped, like she’s in a Mario game.
For a movie that’s over 40 years old, this film is still jaw-droppingly beautiful. The two suns shot in particular is practically a work of art on its own. For being the starting point for all our beloved characters, its impossible to not love A New Hope, not only does it hold up but it exceeds all expectations even to this day, its a film that’s infinitely re-watchable even today, and still absorbs you into it’s lore, and that’s all you can really ask.
As much as it pains me to point out flaws in this movie, it does have them, one of which is one we realised in a more concentrated way 20 years later, and that is that George Lucas writes dialogue about as well as a salmon climbs trees, it’s not as noticeable here as it is in, Attack of the Clones, say, but it is occasionally noticeable, mainly when Luke is being a whiny little bitch on Tattooine. Also, there’s the inevitable problems that the special editions create, but we have despecialised editions now (even if they are of questionable legality) so that really shouldn’t prove a problem.
In brief there’s a reason this film launched the franchise it did, it’s because it was such a strong launching point that it practically needed to continue, the story wasn’t over and there was a long journey ahead…
One – Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back (Directed by Irwin Kershner)
So here we are, eleven films of varying quality and we finally reach the peak, the first sequel released nearly 40 years ago. The perfect storm of everything that makes this series great, epic sci-fi drama, relatable characters and some climactic battle in a floating city, what more could you ask for?
Everything that annoyed in A New Hope is fixed here, George gained a new writing partner in Laurence Kasdan, who presumably kept George well away from dialogue, who would also be attached to the franchise to this very day. Even the lightsaber fights were improved, as much as I like Ben and Vader’s duel in A New Hope, it was somewhat threadbare, Luke and Vader’s first meeting, conversely, is epic and extremely well directed and thought out.
There’s also character development from the place where we left the characters in A New Hope, the rebellion are gaining traction put are somewhat brutally misplaced after the Battle of Hoth. Han is no longer as mercenary as he was in A New Hope, now a fully-fledged member of the Rebellion, and Leia has moved on from being a damsel in distress to being a key member of the hierarchy of the Rebellion, while Luke seeks further training on the new, fresh environment of Dagobah and the introduction of another long-running character, Yoda, who is introduced here as a somewhat bumbling, senile old man, before transitioning naturally into the wise Jedi master, when the facade he puts up is no longer necessary in the face of the prophesied chosen one.
There are very few films that I find difficult to criticise, that’s because I’m picky and I like to find nitpicks no matter how small, I’m sure, if I tried, I could find one here, but you know what? I don’t want to. It’s a shining jewel of a sci-fi epic in the churning sewer that is most of Hollywood’s output and it’s one of the few films that I love, something that built my love of films, and for that reason alone, it has to stand atop the galaxy of Star Wars films.
Star Wars is a franchise I spend a lot of time defending recently, and the top three films remind me why it’s worth defending that what you love, it’s not all perfect (far from it) and I feel like I’ve baited a hell of a lot of fanboys a few times here, and I’m at peace with that, I’ve been as honest and thorough as possible and I hope you’ve all enjoyed it.