Here we are gang. Readying our minds and souls for the upcoming release of a new Star Wars pic. And not just a new Star Wars pic, but the beginning of an explosion of yearly Star Wars movies from here on out. Despite it’s massive and lasting cultural impact, no one thought we’d have been excited for another one of these again. After burning bright for 3 movies at a level never seen before it, they returned with 3 more movies that had the polar opposite reactions. For as high as the series soared, they fell to the depths of cinematic hell. So this list being compiled ranking the movies are clearly delineated between the two eras of Star Wars. This is really gonna be more of a conversational piece about my feelings about the massive success and massive disappointment of the series. Now, I will say this. I have a bit of nostalgic love for Phantom Menace and Revenge of The Sith. But I’m gonna be unbiased here. So sit back and enjoy the list. Ideally you’ll be reading it while killing time before The Force Awakens starts.
6. Star Wars Episode II: Attack of The Clones (2002)
This movie is an utter embarrassment and one that just utterly boggles the mind. After the cataclysmic come down from the shit show that was The Phantom Menace, people hoped it was rust. Lucas hadn’t directed a movie in 22 years. Maybe it was rust. But Attack of The Clones was just the nail in the coffin of Lucas’ respectability. Because this one was so much worse than Phantom Menace that it’s hard to even believe the same guy who birthed Star Wars could shit out something this bad and misguided. All of his weaknesses as a director metastasized in the years and they would plague these prequels in such a massive way. For one, he is most definitely not an actors director. If an actor isn’t the strongest and needs a director to help them out, they are in the wind with Lucas. So the only good performances are from Ewan McGregor, Ian MacDiarmid, Samuel L. Jackson and Christopher Lee. Everyone else is embarrassing. Natalie Portman is lucky they can’t revoke an Oscar win, because her work her is stunningly bad and disengaged. The supporting cast is given nothing to do and the stunningly bad dialogue Lucas has them spew out. But the poster boy for the failures of this series, and rightfully so, is Hayden Christensen. He is terrible. Apparently he can’t emote and his grip on the language of the land he was born in is amateur at best. His performance is whiny, grating and completely unbelievable that this guy could be threatening at any point. Just utterly terrible. Lucas tries to pit Hayden and Natalie in a budding romantic relationship that has all the raw sexuality of a three legged dog taking a shit. Chemistry is nowhere near these two. Sure, Lucas saddles them with utter excrement to say. But even in quiet moments they look like they’re repulsed by the other. It’s astonishing that he thinks they work together at all. Maybe the greatest sin in the movie? It’s boring as fucking hell. Phantom Menace was hella boring too for the most part, but it had some stuff to elevate it, mainly involving Liam Neeson with a lightsaber. Nothing in this movie comes even close to to being thrilling. Nothing comes close to the rightfully iconic fight scene with Darth Maul at the end of Phantom Menace. It’s dull and lifeless, with a nonsensical plot that tries it’s hardest to be a space fantasy set noir story involving all the requisite conspiracies, but it’s just convoluted nonsense that all builds up to a story that’s told in a cartoon. This movie is not just a prequel to the original trilogy but to a fucking cartoon, making it feel totally inconsequential and unimportant. I honestly can’t tell you what happens in this movie in a narrative sense, just that it’s filled with a lot of noise. And this was the first one for George to delve into digital in every way, making a visually unappealing movie. It looks nothing like Star Wars, feeling clean and sanitized. The CGI is trash, making everything feel weightless. It’s an absolute miracle this movie turned out so bad. He even took out 95 percent of Jar Jar and it’s still the worst thing to happen to the series.
5. Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999)
16 years. The wait was very long but people didn’t really think they’d be getting anything in the meantime anyway. Sure, George had mentioned ideas for episodes 7 – 9. But the story was done and it seemed done. So when he announced he’d be doing a prequel trilogy, all on his own, the excitement level was palpable. It was electric and everyone can remember that time. And in 1999, every sat down expecting the movie to be another instant classic. Holy shit were we wrong. This was like the cinematic equivalent of JFK getting shot in the head. The good times were over and things looked really bad. Then George made the RFK assassination of cinema (Attack of The Clones), and the franchise, like America, was forever changed. What the hell happened? It’s like George forgot what Star Wars was. Like he got amnesia and someone with a questionable IQ level tried to explain the appeal to him. There’s no sense of awe or adventure to this. No human characters to ground everything or a straight forward plot. This is a movie about a fucking tax disagreement. His sense of story is totally lost, he’s out of his element and he cares too much about toys and pandering to children. How else can you explain Jar Jar and an entire race of Jamaican fish people? Misguided is the key to this movie, to the prequels in general. Unlike the next two though, it visually had the same look as the original trilogy. That’s thanks to shooting on locations with film, unlike the stage bound digital heavy sequels to this. And it’s got Liam Neeson and Ewan McGregor. Those two fighting Darth Maul (the most wasted character since Boba Fett) to the rousing new music by John Williams is legitimately great and the only moment to capture some of the old magic of the series. But really, this movie is just bad. Making the force a blood disease is a common gripe about the movie, but that’s only because it shows how fundamentally George doesn’t understand this series. He took away the mystique and tried to explain it. Much like a prequel usually does, he took away any mystery. Focusing on Anakin growing into Vader itself isn’t a bad idea, but Lucas fumbled it completely. Jake Lloyd is bad, but he’s only a child so I can’t blame him. George said that was what he wanted and George is the only one to blame. I mean, George fucked it up so badly he managed to fuck up Yoda by making a puppet that looks nothing like Yoda. Somehow, he only got worse from here. Luckily he managed to not make episode 3 the worst thing.
4. Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of The Sith (2005)
This movie manages to be the best of the prequel trilogy thanks to the first two being some absolutely next level trash. Now, don’t get me wrong. This movie isn’t exactly good. It still suffers from the unbelievably bad elements of George Lucas’ filming style, such as bad dialogue and a weird detachment to getting good performances. Christensen is better this time out but only because he just has to be sour and not much else. He still sucks, but it’s an improvement. Portman is just sleepwalking yet again. The scenes she shares with Christensen are hilariously stiff and unbelievably. That movie where Ryan Gosling falls for a mannequin contains more chemistry. The plot this time is still unbelievably convoluted, but it at least ends in a way that is satisfying. The Jedi just playing into the Emperor’s hands. The whole movie is pretty much pointless, dealing with intergalactic war politics that just get tossed to the side when the Emperor orders the Jedi eradicated with the help of the clones and Anakin. Now, this is the movie where MacDiarmid gets some stuff to chew on and he does it, helping to make scenes with Christensen come to life. The way he turns Anakin is nice and insidious. Until the nonsense scene when Mace Windu fights the Emperor, just forcing Anakin to the dark side for reasons. Basically what I’m saying is that this one contains the least amount of horrible elements, as compared to the top to bottom misery of the first two. It still has them, like the infamous Vader “NOOOOO!!!!” and the garbage way Amadala is killed off. But there’s good in it. MacGregor is great as usual, the one steady element in the whole thing. The visuals still have that overly CGI glossy look, but Lucas manages to improve in this area and makes it work for the most part. And this manages to have two scenes that contain some Star Wars magic. The opening of the movie is breathtaking in it’s scope, the best filmmaking Lucas has done in 30 years. Massive and thrilling and visual appealing, it’s the antithesis of his prior work on the prequels. A big ole space battle that feels huge and believable. And the ending, with the cross cutting battles of Yoda vs The Emperor, and Anakin vs Obi Wan being legit great scenes. Now, they could have been much better if you really cared at all about anyone. But the character work in the these left much to be desired, leaving the crux of the scenes to work on pure visual and nostalgic cruxes. And it’s here that one of the main problems with the prequels come to play. The first two don’t play like the tragedy we are meant to believe they are. Anakins story is one of destruction, with the original trilogy meant to be his redemption. But you don’t feel this tragic outcome at all thanks to the complete and fundamental fumbling of his character. The only real positive outcome from this is that it finished up George’s run with the series, making him such a pariah that he just wanted to be done with it and sell it to Disney. And no matter what, it’s nice to know that it literally cannot get worse than Attack of The Clones. And for as much as this movie is a bit of a guilty pleasure of mine, I’m glad it seems like it’ll be a dark footnote in the franchise’s history.
3. Star Wars: Episode VI: Return of The Jedi (1983)
What everyone though was the end of the Star Wars saga, Return of The Jedi has taken some lumps in the years since. It gets a bit lost in the fray when talking about mistakes of the saga, but there are those who have some issues with it. And rightly so. It’s the first one where you feel Lucas’ almost pathological desire to sell toys hinder the movie. The ewoks are given way too much time in the movie, making the ending feel a bit rushed. We could have had more time to focus on the emotional baggage the series had set up for Luke, but those damn ewoks threw the whole thing off. And it doesn’t help that the ewoks turn the tone of the movie into a more kid friendly environment, with the typical chintzy humor that doesn’t work in kids movies. It doesn’t feel natural and makes the movie feel less weighty as it should. The saga is over! We’re watching the final fight between the rebels and the Emperor. This should be huge. But it lacks a good punch. Despite that, this is a damn fun movie and a hell of a ride. The opening of the movie is great set in Jabba’s palace. The actual ending, despite some weight lacking, is fantastic. A three pronged finale set during a space battle, a ground attack, and Luke finally facing down the Emperor. And even if the middle of the movie is a bit lumpy, there’s good stuff. And honestly, just having that cast together is great. It also gets a much better reputation because it now has the luck to not be one of the prequels. And let’s be real. We’ll take this 10 out of 10 times instead of watching a prequel.
2. Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (1977)
The movie that started it all. Not only is it responsible for creating one of, if not the biggest franchise of all time in cinema, it is a movie that fundamentally changed Hollywood and movie making in general. This is really the birth of the summer blockbuster. There’s Jaws before it, but that still feels rooted in the gritty character work of the 70s. Star Wars is very much the prototype for blockbusters for years to come. And not only that, but it was a big innovator for cinematic sci/fantasy. Never before had a movie set in such a world seemed so dirty and lived in. They’d always been very clean and utopian in the visuals. But not Star Wars. There was history here, even if we didn’t see it for ourselves. None of this would matter if the movie itself wasn’t great, but it is. It’s a simple adventure story at it’s core but filled with such details to make it a fully realized, epic piece of cinema. From the characters to the action all the way to the visuals themselves, it’s just one piece of iconography after another. Only minor gripe I have with it is that everything is a little too easy/convenient. But for a movie that was only really meant to be a one off and not the kickstarter of a massive universe of stories, that’s fine. It’s a masterfully told adventure yarn elevated by the perfect execution on all grounds.
1. Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
This is how you do a sequel. How can you top such a massive lightning in a bottle movie like Star Wars? Well, the first thing would seemingly be to get Lucas as far away from the set as possible. Get a writer that’s capable of writing natural human dialogue. A director that films a movie like a well crafted movie, and not a collection of B roll to be assembled into a visually ok movie. But the main thing that you do is to delve into the characters a little deeper, flesh them and the world out around them and make things hurt. After the supreme ease of events in the original, this one doesn’t give anyone an easy out. It’s almost like a direct response to events of the original, as nothing goes right. We think, because the first one trained us to, that everything will be alright. Even though the Empire destroyed a rebel base causing our heroes to flee. Even though Luke’s training doesn’t go well. Even though Han and Leia get captured by Vader. We all think it will turn for our heroes. But it doesn’t. Han is frozen and shipped off to a mob boss. Luke fights Vader and loses a hand before finding out that Vader is his Dad. Leia loses the man she loves. Everything comes up Empire and our heroes have to gather up their strength and prepare to fight back. It’s a straight up masterpiece and a master class in how to make a sequel that’s better than the original and builds on it. We wouldn’t be waiting anxiously for The Force Awakens if we didn’t have Star Wars to start it all, but it was Empire that solidified it as a force to be reckoned with and a viable franchise. It’s the best and the most important movie in the series.