Ranking the Star Wars movies

First posted on January 31, 2013. Edited & revised on March 30, 2013 (changed the order of a few of the films and slightly clarified some of the commentary).

At first it seems like an exercise in futility. Ranking the Star Wars movies. There’s only six of them (as of 2013–another is in the works, to be released in 2015*). Why take the time to rank a film series that only has six entries? Because I’ve seen some other rankings of the films, and, in my opinion, they get it wrong. It’s popular to state blanketly that the prequels are worse than the original trilogy… or that The Empire Strikes Back is the best. Each movie does really offer something good… this list will attempt to show a balanced portrait of all the movies. As always, I will ignore the existence of all the animated series, television shows/specials and the Clone Wars movie.

Throughout this essay, I avoid discussions of the plot as much as possible. I hate writing plot synopses, so if you’re new to Star Wars and you want to know what’s going on plot-wise, you might want to sit down and watch these movies before you read the list.


THE WORST:
Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace
Original release: 1999
Director: George Lucas

0If George Lucas hadn’t directed THX 1138, American Graffiti, Star Wars: A New Hope and the latter-two Star Wars prequels, if his aptitude as a director were to be judged solely on the basis of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, Lucas would be forever known as a sort of latter-day Edward D. Wood: the victim of limited talent; a film director of unique vision whose reach far exceeded his grasp.

Phantom Menace is and always will be the worst of the Star Wars movies. Even if the future installments of the series are bad, they will not be as bad as Phantom Menace. It’s the embarrassment of the Star Wars series. It’s Lucas’ Plan 9 from Outer Space.

The Phantom Menace is legendary for introducing the all-digital walking, talking offensive stereotype known as Jar Jar Binks, as well as the establishment of midi-chlorians: microscopic lifeforms that live in the bloodstream and give one the power of the Force. Right. Phantom Menace suffers from a lot of bad ideas.

However, nothing is quite as egregious as Lucas’s decision to portray Anakin Skywalker, the eventual Dark Lord of the Sith, as a gee whiz, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed seven-year-old boy. Even more than the atrocity of Jar Jar Binks, it has always boggled my mind as to why Lucas decided to show Anakin as a little tyke who shouts words like “Yippee!” and somehow has the engineering knowledge and skill to build C-3PO. This decision is more annoying than Jar Jar, more annoying than the fecal jokes, more annoying than Watto.

1Worst of all, though, is the film’s establishment of midi-chlorians. In this one simple plot device, Lucas destroys the mystery, wonder and awe of the Force. Considering that the concept of the Force is the structure upon which the entire Original Trilogy is constructed, the invention of midi-chlorians as a middling plot device was a true slap in the face to all the people who loved the Original Trilogy. It is for this reason that Star Wars fans continue to hate The Phantom Menace. With its desecration of the concept of the Force, Phantom Menace reveals its true colors: it has no soul.

Still, there are a few cool things happening in the movie. Darth Maul is the coolest Sith Lord since Darth Vader. The light saber duel with the end is pretty sweet. And Liam Neeson’s Qui-Gon Jinn is a credible facsimile of Alec Guinness’ Ben Kenobi from the original films.

Still, there’s a lot going wrong in Phantom Menace. I’ve always wondered what Lucas was thinking, or why more of his henchmen didn’t have the courage to say “no” sometimes. When I first saw the movie in 1999, I thought it would improve with age. However, the opposite has been true. Although as a 21-year-old I mildly enjoyed some aspects of the movie, it is absolutely hard to sit through now.

My rating: starhalf-star (out of starstarstarstar)


2ND WORST:
Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi

Original release: 1983
Director: Richard Marquand

6I was four years old, turning five, when Return of the Jedi was released. I’m sure my mother took me to see it in a movie theatre. For most of my childhood, Jedi was my favorite Star Wars movie. I would often defend it against older kids who preferred the original Star Wars (A New Hope) and The Empire Strikes Back. However, my opinion about Jedi began to change in my early teens. For Christmas one year around 1990 or 1991, my mother and father gave me a boxed set of the original trilogy on VHS. I watched the movies over and over again, and each time I found myself enjoying A New Hope and Empire, but not looking forward to Return of the Jedi.

Jedi is the least of the original trilogy. It is a common criticism in film serials that the final chapter usually wraps things up too neatly. However, in the case of Jedi, the criticism is true. Return of the Jedi wraps the story up into too neat of a bow. The darkness of The Empire Strikes Back unravels completely. Return of the Jedi has, as one critic wrote in reference to a different movie, “too many trite resolutions to plot elements and a climax that fizzles when it should explode.”

And I haven’t even mentioned the Ewoks. You know, they really aren’t all that bad. An ex-girlfriend of mine, upon watching the entire original trilogy beginning to end, said Return of the Jedi was her favorite Star Wars movie because of the Ewoks. The idea that the entire Galactic Empire could be defeated by teddy bears with slingshots is pretty interesting. The whole concept is daring. I’ll give Lucas a pass on that, if only because the rest of the movie doesn’t really work anyway.

Return of the Jedi obliterates all of the darkness and mystery that surrounded its predecessor, The Empire Strikes Back.

My rating: starstar (out of starstarstarstar)


4TH BEST:
Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones
Original release: 2002
Director: George Lucas

2I love this movie.

Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones has always been the most underrated Star Wars prequel. In my mind, Episode II is the most comic book-esque of all the Star Wars movies. It’s a lot of fun. Yes, the plot gets bogged down in Jedi/Galactic Senate political machinations. But I’ll be damned if Attack of the Clones isn’t entertaining when it isn’t stopping for a moment or two here and there to discuss galactic politics. Christopher Lee is a riot, as is Yoda, making his first all-digital appearance.

Attack of the Clones is supremely more theatrical than its immediate predecessor: it was a joy to see it on the big screen, in crystal-clear digital magic, in 2002. It is a big movie in ways so many others aren’t.

In recent years, it has been popular to bash Episode II, but it is one of my favorites. From a pure popcorn-munching point of view, Attack of the Clones will always be a great fun movie for me, and that’s enough.

My rating: starstarstarhalf-star (out of starstarstarstar)


3RD BEST:
Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith
Original release: 2005
Director: George Lucas

3Star Wars Episode III is, by far, the best of the prequels. It doesn’t have the comic book fun of Attack of the Clones, nor does it possess the simple joie de vivre of A New Hope. But Sith is a thrill ride, even if the first half drags and the second half drowns in angst.

To my surprise, in the years that followed the release of Episode III, I found that Revenge of the Sith was the Star Wars movie to which I returned the most often. The operatic performance of Ian McDiarmid as Emperor Palpatine is something to behold. Palpatine’s story is the most interesting of the many interrelated plots of the prequel trilogy. His Machiavellian overthrow of Chancellor Valorum, and his gradual debasement of Anakin Skywalker from heroic Jedi to tragic Sith Lord, is writer/director George Lucas’ pièce de résistance.

(Spoiler Alert…)

Anakin finally turns to the Dark Side because he fears he will lose his wife, and he believes only Palpatine’s knowledge of the Dark Side can save her. For only those men and women who have experienced true love would understand how this would lead Anakin to become Darth Vader.

(…End Spoiler Alert)

The fear of loss, of losing one’s true love, is the most powerful emotion, and in this light, Lucas hits it out of the ballpark. This darkness, expressed in Anakin’s downfall and in Palpatine’s revenge, is the stuff of deeper meaning–and significance–than any other movie in the Star Wars series. It is this which gives Revenge of the Sith immortality. Of all the Star Wars films, Revenge of the Sith is nearly the best.

My rating: starstarstarhalf-star (out of starstarstarstar)


2ND BEST:
Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope
Original release: 1977
Director: George Lucas

4Of the movies I saw as a young child (1978 to 1983), none had a larger impact on me than Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope. Only Spielberg’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial and the Christopher Reeve Superman movies ignited my imagination as much as A New Hope. A New Hope touched something very deep inside me, a kind of elemental part of my humanity that no other work of art would reach until I was much older. This feeling is why I, and so many people of my generation, love Star Wars.

If George Lucas had stopped with A New Hope and never made another Star Wars film, undoubtedly I would still have the love for Star Wars that I did as a small child. But in the face of mediocre sequels and prequels, unending marketing and licensing diarrhea, and the bastardization of the story (see my above rant about midi-chlorians), something changed. As I grew older, and especially as I became a teenager, I began to appreciate Star Trek at an even more elemental level than Star Wars. Star Trek, even with the bad movies and TV show after TV show, held true to something inside me that George Lucas’ galaxy did not. Gene Roddenberry’s universe became the stuff of my imagination, and as a teen and later an adult I found myself feeling more and more distant from Star Wars. A New Hope is an amazing movie, but, in some ways, what came after it ruined it for me.

I would love the chance once again to see A New Hope in a movie theater, projected on film, without any of the “special edition” changes. Once again I might fall in love with the movie, and remember it for what it truly was–the classic, unabashed thrill ride set in a galaxy far, far away. That day can’t come soon enough for me.

My rating: starstarstarstar (out of starstarstarstar)


THE BEST:
Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back
Original release: 1980
Director: Irvin Kershner

5It is ironic that the more further-removed George Lucas is from a Star Wars project, the better the project. Such was the case with The Empire Strikes Back. In this, the second Star Wars film to be produced (but fifth in terms of the story’s internal chronology), Lucas merely wrote a story treatment and consulted. The responsibilities of producing, writing and directing the film were given to others, and the result speaks for itself.

Empire Strikes Back is, in many ways, the best movie ever made. It is dark. It basks in creativity, in daring story ideas, in refusing to play anything safe. The movie takes risks.

Empire is the heart of the Star Wars saga. In the simple scenes set on the bog planet of Dagobah, in the sequences in which Yoda trains Luke Skywalker to be a Jedi Knight, the film, and the Star Wars series, finds its immortality.

Darth Vader’s pleas to his son to join (and his son’s rejections of) the Dark Side are the stuff of legend. Han Solo’s freezing in carbonite at the hands of Vader is the stuff of nightmares.

To watch the original Star Wars trilogy is to witness how much these early movies got it right, and how much the prequels got it wrong. These movies have heart, and a soul, that’s missing in the later incarnations of Star Wars. Empire is the most challenging, but also the most rewarding, the most fun, the most clever, and the most haunting. Darkness edged with uncertainty, of unhappy endings (literally, no ending).

My rating: starstarstarstar (out of starstarstarstar)


Footnote:

As I write this, Star Wars Episode VII is entering production under the capable hands of J.J. Abrams. I’m really interested to see how the “sequel trilogy” builds upon, expands, and, most importantly, challenges the stories, characters, and situations of the earlier six movies. I’ll update this list after the release of Episode VII. I have the highest hopes that Abrams can accomplish for Star Wars what he did for Star Trek and Mission: Impossible. Hopefully he won’t be too reverential, but also not forget the “values” of the original trilogy, a feeling that was mostly lost in the prequels. To Abrams, I wish godspeed.

*as of March 30, 2013, the 2015 release date for Star Wars Episode VII could be changing to 2016 or 2017. Only time will tell.

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