A (somewhat) cursory ranking of the Star Wars films

Throughout the course of my life, I have on multiple occasions run into someone who hasn’t seen Star Wars.  After I ask them if they are of this planet, I generally get a somewhat snarky response: “I’m not into geeky stuff.”

In honor of these people, who are wrong by the way (I’ll get into that in a moment), I have categorized this post and future posts like it, you guessed it, “geeky stuff.”

I can appreciate a good joke at the joyless’ expense every time.

I poke fun, but the truth is, I’m not exaggerating all that much.  The reasoning for the easy dismissal, that it’s just “geeky stuff,” is off-base, but more importantly (at least for me), it is revealing of a lack of imagination.

That’s what these movies are all about, capturing the imagination, and if you yourself don’t have the creativity to see the possibilities of something outside your own comfort zone being entertaining, well, that’s reasonably close to being joyless in my eyes.  It’s certainly boring.

Maybe I’m too romantic in general?

But I digress, even though this is all very timely, as the newest episode in the series, The Force Awakens, is set to hit theaters in December. For the fans, it’s an exciting time (tickets already purchased thanks to my better half!).  For me, it’s also an excuse to rank the existing movies in an order that will no doubt bring upon my house scorn and ridicule (or at least minor disagreement).

Why a potential onslaught of derision? Well, because I’m a fan of the prequels.

That this is a somewhat controversial position to take is sort of fundamentally ridiculous.  Star Wars, after all is Star Wars. To me, it’s like pizza or sex, as the saying goes (and you know how that saying ends). It seems bizarre to quibble over the merits of part of the saga over another, even though … wait, what was I saying about ranking these movies again?

Ha!

But again I digress. If you want to read a defense of the prequels, there are options available to you. If you want to dismiss them sight unseen, you do you. But I’m going to include them here and not just automatically put them at the bottom. Instead, read on for my honest rankings and my thoughts on each movie.

And may the forc… nah, not doing that either. That would be a little too cheesy.

I’ll just say, judge away.

6. The Phantom Menace — This is generally the most maligned movie of the bunch, but I don’t harbor any ill will toward it. I was off in Germany when the movie was released in the States, so from afar, I witnessed it break box office records to thunderous applause, then get ripped apart in backlash I couldn’t at the time understand. I eventually watched the movie in my own time afterward, with the benefit of knowing that raised expectations would not be kind toward my enjoyment of the movie. Thusly, I enjoyed it a great deal more than many of the same people who are hyping themselves into a frenzy now.

I go back and forth on bumping it up the list, and there are times I do. To be sure, there’s a lot to like about this film, critics be damned. Start with that amazing Darth Maul duel at the end of the flick, spliced into a land battle and space dog fight, three intense sequences cut together reminiscent of Return of the Jedi, but done so arguably more effectively (even though the individual components of the Jedi montage were much stronger). But that light saber duel and some sharp editing really punched things up here. I also enjoyed Liam Neeson’s performance as Qui-Gon, the novelty of a young Obi-Wan, the awesome puppet-master level manipulation from Darth Sidious, and the action involved in the pod race (again, cut together brilliantly).

The negatives are numerous enough to fill an entire article, so I won’t nitpick them here, but if I have to pin down this movie’s biggest failing, it’s probably just that not enough happens. Here we have the main characters meet, Anakin gets taken under Obi-Wan’s wing, and Palpatine gains power … and that’s basically it. It’s like the political stuff and intro to Anakin stuff got too ambitious, leaving little room for anything else (including development of Obi-Wan/Padme/anyone).

Again, there’s a lot to like here. But I’ve watched this film with the kiddos a couple of times recently, since it’s a movie that can stand on its own story-wise and is mostly kid-friendly, so I’ve seen it enough recently to have had my fill … and that’s the main reason it sits at the bottom of my list for now.  One should never experience a fill of Star Wars.

5. Attack of the Clones — Oh what a lovely tire fire this movie is. And I sincerely mean every word of that: this movie is a lovelytire fire. George Lucas whiffed in so many appreciable ways here. But he shot for the moon, and there is something deeply commendable about that.

I like nearly every idea in this movie. A sweeping romance. A strained teacher-student relationship. Some cool bounty hunter exploits. A detective story. Anakin flying off the rails into a murderous rage. A giant chaotic friggin’ war erupting. Yoda being a badass. People losing limbs everywhere. I could go on and on, honestly. From the chase on Coruscant to the concept of the final lightsaber duels, with nearly everything in between, it’s a series of good ideas and bold ambition.

And yet…

Much of the execution is just not there. And it goes beyond the writing/direction of dialogue (which is widely panned … fairly, I would add). The romance comes off as mostly silly and unbelievable. The great mystery often makes no sense and leads basically nowhere. And even many of the smaller details stick out for poor reasons. Why is Padme’s midriff exposed at the end? Why does Obi-Wan insist on calling Anakin “Padawan?” What’s with the goofy diner? Why did Padme put Jar-Jar in charge of anything? The questions go on for days, and in most cases there are no acceptable answers.

But like I said, you evaluate this one on two levels: what the movie tried to be, and what it ended up being. If you value the first on some level, you can justify moving AOTC up the list some.

So basically in the debate between Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones, you’ve got a polished, safe little film vs. a tremendous mess of ambition.

I’m pretty sure I respect more and prefer the latter.

For me, it sits at No. 5.

4. Return of the Jedi — My personal experience involving this movie is important here as well, as I was a little kid, around six years old, when this movie was released. So things that bothered a lot of people, such as cuddly Ewoks, a derivative second Death Star, the confused and lengthy Jabba sequence, and several of the actors in the film phoning it in, did not phase me in the slightest.

With the benefit of time and maturation, I see the warts. But I love the film just the same. Call it the nostalgia effect, if you will.

It’s a stirring end to the trilogy and eventually the saga (though now that’s not the case anymore, so never mind). Luke’s confrontation with the Emperor is handled perfectly, with the battle for Luke’s soul a very real and present issue. This is cut together with some genuinely clever action sequences on the forest moon, and what I consider to be the best space battle in the entire six-movie span.

In a lot of ways, this film mirrors the Phantom Menace (in plot, pacing and in those special little flourishes). So what elevates this movie above the other one? For one, the stakes involved here are much higher. Each side in the battle is “all in” in an effort to win the war, what with the Rebellion risking its entire fleet and the Emperor’s gambit to draw them in by making himself a target. Obviously, there’s a finality to Luke’s decision to face off against his enemies as well, so an “it’s us or them” feel pervades the entire final stretch of the film, raising the drama (much to the film’s benefit).

I also think there’s something to be said for being more invested in these characters (and their fates) three movies in, rather than trying to get emotionally involved with a bunch of people you’ve only just met (several of whom, for many fans, are annoying them along the way).

This movie is good enough to not be lumped in with the bottom two, methinks, but it’s also definitely below the top three (at least for me).

3. Revenge of the Sith — I have a few specific problems with this movie, whereas I consider the two above it to be basically beyond critique, so here it sits. I still like it better than Return of the Jedi though, for the simplest of reasons: I can sit through the whole movie a whole heck of a lot easier and be entertained throughout, whereas I often start zoning out or get distracted with Jedi (the stuff with the Ewoks can get tiresome real quick).

The opening sequence is epic in scope, attempting to grab the audience right out of the box, then we proceed to the seduction of Anakin, the fascinating goings-on between Obi-Wan and General Grievous, Anakin’s turn, Order 66, and finally the last gasp of desperation from our heroes. Even the nice touches at the end are compelling, as we get to see how everyone ends up where they are at the start of Ep. 4.

The warts here are more minute than in the films below — a piece of dialogue here, a little too much CGI there — for me to want to run through them all. Most of them just don’t take me out of the movie. The exceptions are the buzz droid sequence at the opening of the movie, which seems unnecessary and deprives us of what we actually want to see, which is dogfighting, and the choreography of the final duel between Anakin and Obi-Wan, which is simply too over-the-top (and that cuts into what should be one of the most emotional of all the lightsaber duels). Honestly, it’s a pity that either of these missteps were made, because without them, I’d be downright in love with this movie the way I am with ANH and ESB.

There are still many parts of the movie I love. Grievous is enormously entertaining as the mustache-twirling villain. Dooku’s end is handled perfectly. The relationships between Obi-Wan, Padme, Palpatine and Anakin are done well (this is noteworthy given the warranted criticisms levied at the writing/acting of these relationships in previous films). Order 66, naturally. And Yoda. His confrontation with the Emperor with Duel of the Fates swelling is one of my favorite things in any of the movies.

Perhaps more so than with AOTC, I feel an overwhelming sense of “what if” with this movie, which as I said before, keeps this out of my top two. But it’s still a tremendous film and accomplishment as it stands, and in my mind, if you take nostalgia out of the equation, it exceeds Jedi.

2. Star Wars (A New Hope) – This is the most important film in the saga, and it’s the one movie above the others I’ll always recommend to any newbies as the proper introduction. It’s the gateway drug. Ask me my favorite movie of any genre, and it’s my standard response.

But do I legitimately enjoy it the best? That’s the harder thing to evaluate

As of this writing, I have to say no, it isn’t No. 1. This comes down, as with the other movies, to basically picking nits and trying to come up with an answer to a philosophical question, because it’s really just a question of taste when comparing this to Empire Strikes Back.

Do you prefer the darker, more emotional film, or do you prefer the grand adventure?

Right now, probably at least in part because of where I am in my life, I prefer the former. But I don’t think you can go wrong with either choice.

The downright corniness of certain parts of A New Hope (such as Luke’s “Tochi Station” line) are actually endearing. The “special edition” changes aren’t even very irksome, despite what the purists would have you believe. Because the movie itself, so grand and imaginative, rises above such matters. You could edit in a dance number for Jar-Jar Binks and the movie would still excel (not as much, granted, but it would still excel). If there is diminishment due to George’s tinkering, it isn’t significant.

And that’s about all I can find in terms of faults or weaknesses. It’s a classic, and it’s brilliant. Nothing more needs to be said.

1. The Empire Strikes Back – For all the lavish praise of Star Wars that centers on things such as the cinematography, the iconic score, the action, and even some of the dialogue, the human drama is the emotional core of the series, and no movie better realizes that fully than Empire.

Impressively, the filmmakers accomplish this despite expanding the scope of the first film with more effects, sets and so forth. The action here, both in the first act and the final act, is superb. The Battle of Hoth has become so iconic that it has become the gold standard for licensed video games. “Can you fight on Hoth? No? GTFO.” And Vader’s “trap” for Luke is played out in agonizing brilliance. This is how it has to happen, with Luke being humbled, beaten, and very nearly broken.

When I was younger I felt compelled to skip over the middle act due to a lack of action, but that was certainly misguided of young Dave. The emotional center of the film, with Luke’s training interspersed with the trials and romance for Han and Leia, is almost perfect. The tension builds, the characters develop, and then boom, everything goes to hell.

The ending of this movie probably deserves its own post. I mean, given the buildup, it would have been downright ridiculous for the good guys to emerge from this firestorm unscathed, and that they don’t is a testament to the movie. If the plot had been, “Welp, our heroes got out of a tight spot again, three cheers,” this movie would have been a failure.

(It’s worth noting that, again even though it has numerous failings, Attack of the Clones gets this part of the equation right also … the heroes lose limbs, get thrown into a war they cannot win, hand over more power to the eventual Emperor, and the romantic leads decide to go through with one of the most ill-fated marriages a person could ever conceive of.  In terms of foreboding mainstream cinema, very few things begin to even approach this … the one example that springs to mind is Harvey Dent face lying face down in a pool of gasoline as the Joker runs amok in The Dark Knight. But that didn’t end the damn movie, either. Mr. Lucas knows how to set the pins up for the final movie in his trilogies, I’ll hand him that for sure.)

They got it right. Heck, they got everything right.  This movie is perfect.

Why are you still reading this? Heck, why am I still writing it? Let’s all go watch Empire instead.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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