With the Skywalker saga freshly behind and Star Wars’ future lying somewhere beyond (or, more likely, far in the past), it is time to recap the main nine saga films. Since I watched all of these recently, I have a pretty clear picture of each movie. Note: as of right now, I have only seen The Rise of Skywalker once, so that film is subject to the most movement in future ranking revisions. Okay, let’s get started!
Someone once compared Star Wars to pizza and *ahem* a certain adult activity in the sense that Star Wars, even bad Star Wars, is still pretty fun. Having seen more than my share of bad films, I will echo this statement. While these movies are far from perfect, they can still make for enjoyable movies in the right circumstances.
Episode I: The Phantom Menace
You know, last time I watched this movie, I made a quick list of likes and dislikes, and was surprised to see how much piled up in the “liked” side so quickly. This movie opens with a badass jedi sequence. It features cool looking battle droids, an elaborately dressed queen, an underwater city (complete with many sea monsters), a pod-racing sequence that introduces us to a ton of well-designed aliens, and possibly the best choreographed lightsaber fight in the franchise. This is all great stuff.
The problem? Well, first there’s Jar Jar…and everything that comes with that particular character creation. Second (and more important), however, is the film itself. As has been much dissected online – The Phantom Menace has no real protagonist. There’s no central character to anchor the action through. As a result, the whole film feels strangely lifeless. We don’t really ever get a natural build in tension. It’s more like we’re watching a sequence of events than an actual connected plot.
Add to that it’s overall irrelevance to the greater story as a whole, and it just feels like a wasted first act – a film that did so little that subsequent episodes had to rush to make up for it. Despite this, The Phantom Menace manages something I’ve rarely seen – it turns a movie about a politician abusing a tragedy to make a power grab into an upbeat adventure. I just wish it was more compelling cinema.
Episode II: Attack of the Clones
If you were to describe Attack of the Clones to a friend, it sounds really awesome. A movie that opens with an assassination attempt, features a high-speed chase through the galactic capitol, showcases a noire-ish subplot for Obi-Wan Kenobi, and ends in this arena (once again filled with cool alien monsters) and a battle between dozens of jedi and hundreds of battle droids, sounds like everything a Star Wars fan could want.
And then there are the love scenes. George Lucas has never been one for subtle character moments, but Attack of the Clones takes this to an extreme. When things are happy, they are bounding-through-the-fields-laughing-and-giggling happy. When they are repressed, they are fire-lit-room-at-night-with-just-the-two-of-you-and-a-really-seductive-outfit repressed. And when they are angsty, they are, well, full teenage angsty.
If this film was Episode I, much of its character moments could be forgiven. However, in making a tragedy, Lucas forgot to put his main tragic figure up high before bringing him so low. We don’t see Anakin as much of a hero in this film, but rather as a creepy stalker with serious jealously issues. It makes his soon fall to the darkside all too clear and inevitable.
Add to it the film’s use of Obi-Wan, which is a plot that largely goes nowhere. Who is jedi master Sifo-Dyas? Who cares. Who is this mysterious Count Dooku? Also who cares – he’ll be dead in 15 minutes come Episode III. It just feels like, once again, Lucas is wasting time in a trilogy he’s rapidly running out of.
The Good but Wasted Potential
When I watch these two movies, I enjoy them but I keep feeling like they could have been more.
Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker
I recently reviewed this film so I won’t spend much time on it here. To sum up: Nervous directing and convoluted writing – as well as way too many characters – diminish a plot that I was largely onboard with. Add to its problems the unexpected passing of Carrie Fisher, as well as the abrupt firing of its original director, Colin Trevorrow, and you have a finale that feels half-baked, which is a real shame.
Episode III: Revenge of the Sith
Man, it’s sad that I’m not even to the “good” category yet, but I’m all out of prequels. Revenge of the Sith is undoubtedly my personal favorite of the prequel trilogy. It is the only film of the prequels that, to me, feels focused in its storytelling – it’s a real shame that focus didn’t materialize until now. The time for the fall has come and Revenge of the Sith delivers on it with a dark, brooding film that hits hard, hits often, and doesn’t stop.
That said, it’s really too bad that Padme’s subplot got cut – the scenes that showed the formation of what would become the Rebellion. It would have given her more to do than, you know, get pregnant and die. Revenge of the Sith‘s other problems come from Lucas’ continued inability to pull back and let emotion carry the scene. Why have only a dramatic lightsaber fight on a hell planet when you can have one that includes swinging on cables over a lava river – which then goes over a lavafall? Why have Padme just die when you can say she’s lost the will to live…despite being a new mother and still believing there’s good in Anakin (this really makes no god damn sense)?
George Lucas truly became his own worst enemy in this film, undercutting his triumphs at nearly every turn. While the finished product is still a good one, it’s own shortcomings – plus the fact it is going off of largely nothing from the first two films – really hold it back from being something special.
All right, now we’re in positive territory! While the following film is flawed, I find it too enjoyable to say “well, that could have been better” – besides, that would spark a very open-ended conversation.
Episode VII: The Force Awakens
You know, I once wrote that this film was too safe, but I don’t believe that now. Mostly because I don’t believe “safe” exists when you’re creating a Star Wars movie, not with the toxic elements of its fanbase, as well as the legitimately conflicting viewpoints of where fans want to see the Star Wars franchise go. Yet somehow J.J. Abrams made a movie that managed to make everyone at least a little bit happy – and that’s really worth celebrating, even if it does include an obligatory Death Star sequence.
The Very Good
Nearing the top now and, surprise surprise, we still haven’t covered any of the original trilogy yet. Well, time to end that drought:
Episode VI: Return of the Jedi
This movie is terribly underappreciated as far as endings go. Yes, Vader’s heel-turn is a little abrupt (he’s got nothing on his grandson) and Leia really doesn’t do much besides wear a golden bikini (being one of the only women on set, I’m sure she felt so comfortable), but overall the film nails its main plot, the one that sees Luke Skywalker resist hatred and rise to the level of jedi knight.
While Return of the Jedi looks on the surface like A New Hope, beginning on Tatooine and ending with a Death Star, everything has been wonderfully subverted. Luke is now the most powerful figure in the Tatooine sequence, and we care far more about what’s going on inside the Death Star than in the surrounding space battle. I personally find it very clever.
My only real note of sadness: the special editions have not been kind to Return of the Jedi, and I believe it has suffered the most of the original trilogy. Regardless, this was my favorite as a kid and is still darn good now.
Are you ready for it? A whole group of people are about to hate this list. Here’s:
Episode VIII: The Last Jedi
When you’re doing a Star Wars marathon that’s nine films long, it can be a little overwhelming. I found myself starting to lose steam after the first week. Yeah, the original trilogy is fantastic but how many lightsaber battles and laser blasts and hokey space magic dialogue can a person stand?
Enter The Last Jedi, an exceptional film if, for nothing else, it makes Star Wars feel new again after eight main saga movies. With writing that challenges pre-conceived notions and a pension for genuine, quiet character moments, The Last Jedi weaves a complex narrative that examines what it means to be a hero and a leader. It probes the path between apathy to empathy and challenges previous Star Wars staples in a way that literally no other Skywalker saga film (save one) has dared to do.
Every main character is given a plot that reveals more about their personality and helps them grow into a better person. Every choice is given measurable consequence. Every legend is challenged and then re-affirmed in a daring new way. The Last Jedi is Star Wars at its best because it is Star Wars as it should be: fearless and inventive.
Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back
Remember when I just said there was another Star Wars film that really challenged what was established and opened the galaxy to the potential of richer storytelling – this is it. Empire Strikes Back is one of the best fantasy films ever made and a true gem. While many filmmakers wrongly equate replicating its success to going for a darker tone, what makes Empire succeed is its smaller story. There’s no big planet-killer. There’s no super fleet that is going to annihilate the galaxy.
Instead there are just people trying to stay alive in a very hostile environment. The characters transcend their archetype status and become real beings with complex thoughts and feelings, as well as multiple character dimensions. Despite this, the spectacle is still high with a thrilling intro on Hoth, a fantastically scored flight through an asteroid field, and a stunning finale on Cloud City – complete with one of the best twist endings in movie history.
I could go on and on, but all of it has been said already. This is the film that turned Star Wars from a hit into a franchise. It deserves all the praise I can give it.
The One that Started it All
Episode IV: A New Hope
Is this film better than Empire Strikes Back? Who knows. All I know is that none of the rest of this list would exist without the classic that started everything. A film that is a fantasy adventure in every sense of the word. While Lucas would one day spell his own doom as a storyteller, here he is appropriately restrained and complimented by a budget, cast, and unknown status.
Everything about this movie pops as it introduces us to a world that feels huge, alien, while at the same time, very relatable. I love how the dialogue in this movie is constantly referencing worlds, characters, and situations we have no idea about – but can’t stop wondering at. A New Hope is Star Wars, one does not exist without the other. We meet a compelling cast of characters, an iconic villain, and music that still ranks among the best in cinema.
One last item of praise – the editing. A large part of why this film succeeds is its seamless transition between scenes that keeps the pacing going from beginning to end, ramping up the tension where appropriate. This is because of Marcia Lucas, the unsung hero of the Star Wars franchise. What did she contribute to Star Wars, you may ask. Well – take a look:
So yeah, thanks George and thank you Marcia. You gave us a galaxy.
So there’s my list. Is it definitive? Nope – the opposite in fact. It’s as subjective as every other ranking you’ll see online. For those wondering: here is where I would (quickly) put the three other Star Wars theatrical releases:
- Star Wars: The Clone Wars – Bad
- Rogue One – Good
- Solo – Bad
My favorite part of this list: It’s not over. While the Skywalker saga has reached its end, Star Wars is free (and very able) to keep telling stories, whether it is through books, shows, or films. I can’t wait to see what comes next.