Ranking the Best of the Star Wars Sagas

Taken as a whole, the entire prequel trilogy proved to be a real slog to get through for fans of not only the original trilogy, but of blockbusters in general.  Sure, the first three movies in the franchise were clunky as anything and were mired in their own, respective issues, but these movies were nearly unwatchable by comparison: whatever nascent spark that Lucas had for the franchise apparently long-since snuffed out by his unparalleled marketing success.  These supposedly retro, functionally next-gen entries were understandably not embraced by fans of the first three movies (read: pretty much everybody), and Attack of the Clones was ultimately a big part of the reason why.

9 . Episode II: Attack of the Clones

When push comes to shove, Phantom Menace was silly, yes, but it was hardly a deal-breaker.  Revenge of the Sith was inexcusably over-the-top in almost every regard, but it at least satisfyingly capped off the prequels and bridged their continuity to the later-set films as well as could be expected.  They were fun, if disposable, movies, and that, ultimately, was enough with what these movies were trying to be.  Attack of the Clones, however, proved to be the exact time and place when fans realized that these movies were not going to be the ones that they wanted (and probably never were going to be in the first place).

Bloated, stilted and melodramatic in ways that hadn’t been seen in a major Hollywood production for decades, Attack of the Clones played out more like a doomed romance (ala Brokeback Mountain or Your Name) rather than the action-packed epic that the start of the legendary Clone Wars were supposed to be.  The Phantom Menace at least had the excuse of Jake Lloyd being a child to handwave away his demonstrably terrible acting, but Attack of the Clones had cast Hayden Christianson: a promising young actor with some real talent behind him.  Between his hammy and, quite frankly laughable performance, his jilted chemistry with his supposed romantic lead, a meandering plot that either ignores them entirely or puts them on pointless sideline spirit quests to Tattooine and flat-falling climax that over-emphasized C3P0’s slapstick humor, dizzying light saber twirls and uninspired fight sequences, there really just wasn’t much to actually enjoy in this series entry.

8 . Episode I: The Phantom Menace

Although The Phantom Menace has been resoundingly and deservedly thrashed by the larger film community in the two decades since it first hit theaters, its biggest crime is being a disappointing and by-the-numbers action flick and an unworthy successor to one of history’s most dominant entertainment franchises of all time.  Even after the admitted silliness that was Return of the Jedi, this prequel leaned far too heavily on the nostalgia-fueled carnival ride of George Lucas’ imagination than on grounded stories, lived-in worlds and real-feeling characters.  As a modern-day Hollywood blockbuster, however, it was a perfectly serviceable, perfectly disposable blockbuster that wasn’t especially better or worse than most other movies coming out at the time.  On the whole, it was about as fun – if a Hell of a lot dumber – as movies like Galaxy Quest, The Mummy and The Iron Giant, while being a sizable step above the likes of Inspector Gadget, The World Is Not Enough and all of those Pokemon movies.

That being said, history has justly relegated this movie to essentially being the significantly worse version of The Force Awakens: a eye-popping, nostalgia-saturated, action-laden roller coaster that largely aims to capitalize on the success of its predecessors by recreating its most memorable high points.  The problem is, though, like most prequels, The Phantom Menace doesn’t have anywhere new for the franchise to go.  It’s stuck with a certain set of characters and set at a time when none of them are nearly as interesting as they eventually will become.  And on top of that, every new character was either utterly insufferable (Jar-Jar) or surprisingly boring (Amidala).  All told, this was hardly the new Star Wars movie that fans had been waiting a full decade and one half to see.

7 . Episode III: Revenge of the Sith

Like the entire trilogy that it belonged to, Revenge of the Sith was, at best, just an okay movie.  In fact, it suffers from a lot of the same problems that plagued its two earlier movies: stilted dialog, bloated scripts, awkward acting, shockingly inept directing, bland action choreography and overly-slick visuals that created a striking incongruity with the movies that were supposed to follow it chronologically.  What separated it from its immediate forebears, however, is that Revenge of the Sith finally got to the bloody point.

If nothing else, this movie delivered on the promise of the prequel trilogy as a whole: not in being an objectively “good” movie, but by finally showing us the fall of Anakin Skywalker and the Republic, followed by the rise of Darth Vader and the Empire.  In this context, Lucas’ overly dramatic dialog and staging actually felt at home, the action scenes (unimaginatively rendered as they were) felt epically larger-than-life and the story felt like it actually had someplace to go.  And while that didn’t amount to a classic movie by any means, it was ultimately fun to watch.

6 . Episode VI: Return of the Jedi

 For years, and even as a kid, I never really cared for Return of the Jedi.  It was certainly a fine, fun, action-packed movie with memorable characters and truly epic moments that were imagination-fodder throughout my childhood, but everything about it just seemed so silly compared to everything that came before it.  The Ewoks were cutesy little teddy bears that were somehow needed to bring down the Empire, Luke stuck a decidedly more emo pose than he did three years prior and despite being the climactic end of an operatic trilogy, it felt strangely compressed and insular being set on a backwater forest moon orbited by a half-built superweapon we had already seen before.

However, the movie has actually grown on me with time (and not just because the prequels were all so comparatively terrible).  Although Return of the Jedi might be the most unevenly-good narrative in the entire Star Wars saga, it contains many of the franchise’s strongest and more endearing individual moments.  From Luke’s cathartic rage against his father in defense of his absentee sister, Vader’s return to the light side and then the wordless appearance of Anakin alongside the likes of Obi-Wan and Yoda – silently confirming his absolution from the Dark Side – it’s almost like a non-stop highlight reel for everything that is great about movies as a whole.  In addition, by expanding the scope of the galactic celebration of the Empire’s demise to now-familiar locations on Coruscant and Naboo, it was the only one of the original movies to actually be improved by Lucas’ heavy-handed editing.

5 . Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Rogue One is an interesting and unique case among the Star Wars movies that is only now about to be repeated within the franchise.  It is at once entirely unnecessary – depicting the story that took only a few lines of dialog to tell in its first pass in the first movie – and yet a proving ground for the desired direction that Disney plans to take the franchise in the foreseeable future (replicating their success with the Marvel Cinematic Universe by annualizing the franchise and sprawling ever outward from its historic roots in iterative generations of the Skywalker family and into otherwise unrelated characters and stories set in the expansive Star Wars universe).

And although it is not always successful in what it sets out to do, it largely justifies its (and its successors) existence by being an extremely good movie that meaningfully expands on what it has, until now, meant to be a Star Wars movie.  We’re given an interesting and diverse cast of what essentially amount to Han Solos: down-and-dirty “regular people” whose duplicitous lives are steeped in constant double-crosses and a bloody-knuckled audacity that comes when you don’t have space age magic at your fingertips.  Despite some pacing and script issues, it’s a raucous good ride and a fascinating companion piece to the more Skywalker-centric main trilogies that culminates in a powerful, fatalistic final act and what might be the five most riveting minutes in the entire series when Vader finally shows up like the Shark in Jaws to absolutely wreck every poor rebel unfortunate enough to find himself in his way.

4 . Episode IV: A New Hope

 It’s actually kind of amazing to think that one of the best and most iconic movies of the twentieth century – one of the three legs that propped up the blockbuster as the dominant form of commercial film in the West and a revelatory Best Picture nominee that was, both in terms of the in-politics of the Academy Awards and in terms of what major motion pictures would look, feel and sound like in the ensuing decades – only falls somewhere in the middle of its larger franchise in terms of quality.  It’s a phenomenal movie and an unquestioned masterpiece of every stripe of film it happens to fall under, but, like Iron Man for the MCU, is surprisingly low in terms of its own series.

Beyond that, there’s not much to say beyond what has already been said in the four decades since its release.  It’s a perfectly paced, incredibly well acted, and immediately iconic story set in a lived-in, real-feeling world that as informed virtually every crowd-pleasing movie that has sprung up in its shadow.  And, yeah, looking back on what a monumental success it was and how perfectly each of the principle three leads were in their respective roles, it’s genuinely shocking to think that only Harrison Ford has had a notable on-screen career in the years since (although both Hamill and Fischer had remarkable careers in their own right: in animation, on TV and behind the camera in one role or another).

3 . Episode VIII: The Last Jedi

 Although I was, to one degree or another a little disappointed with the most recent entry into the Star Wars saga, I cannot begin to call it a bad movie (unlike a certain subset of supposed Star Wars fans that find themselves endlessly raging at the thought of its broadened, more diverse cast and the interesting, genuinely affecting risks that it took with many of its key characters).  When you stop to think about it for more than a few seconds, it’s genuinely the biggest and boldest risk that the franchise has taken since, well, the first movie.

What bothers me about this movie is just how much screen time is devoted to plots, sub plots and story beats that ultimately unravel and produce zero impact on the actual story of the film.  The most egregious in this regard is Finn and Rose’s story, which has them crossing the galaxy, getting sprung from prison and break into the enemy starship, only to be betrayed by their new supposed-ally off-screen and forcing them to rejoin everybody else in the chase scene unravelling right in front of them.  It’s a fetch-quest that exists solely to eat up time and give the characters something to do and it feels as if something more substantive could have been found for them to do or the narrative could have ultimately proved more impactful by its end.  That being said, though, the action is fantastic, the new star-crossed settings are varyingly inventive and gorgeous, the emotional beats are powerfully resonant and I am genuinely excited about where they decide to take things in the third part.  Bring on the sequels!

2 . Episode VII: The Force Awakens

 When it comes right down to it, The Force Awakens is every inch the movie that The Phantom Menace wanted to be.  It is interesting, action-packed, steeped in well-earned franchise nostalgia without drowning in needlessly protracted fan service.  Even if its barebone narrative structure does run a bit too parallel with the first movie, it branches off into enough interesting directions so as to make that perfectly justified by the time that the credits start rolling.

This franchise really couldn’t have started on a stronger note, all told.  It satisfied every stripe of fan with its familiar-yet-twisted narrative.  Kylo Ren was an instantly memorable villain, the main three cast members were interesting twists on the Luke-Leia-Han trinity from the first go-around and other than the Indiana Jones-esque monster chase sequence where we’re reintroduced to Han, none of it feels either superfluous in any way.

1 . Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back

 What A New Hope started, The Empire Strikes Back continued in spectacular fashion.  While all due credit has to be given to the prequels for their ambitious resculpting the Star Wars movies into an expansive universe, the first and largest steps forward were taken in this film.

The story was far more epic in scale than even the first, where our hero blew up a planet-sized death ray.  The story shifts from mere physical dangers to of immediate physical threats to the temptations of the Dark Side: the fate of his very soul, same as his father’s.  The script turned everything we thought we knew about Star Wars on its head.  Every expansion on the first film was meaningful and every twist was earned.  It’s the movie under whose shadow the series has been living for the last 38 years.


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