Here’s a post I feel obligated to do, because everybody’s doing it around this time.
The internet has been posting a lot about Star Wars recently, which is something I’ve been doing for a year. I would consider myself a “pretty big” to “above normal” fan of the franchise, and if I were to associate myself with a fandom based on the work it is dedicated to, it would be “Star Wars.”
But I’m not a fan of that fandom in particular, mostly because half of it *hates* half of the movies. Not just mildly, like a “oh, they’re just bad in my opinion, but I could see why you might like them, I just like the others so much more” kind of hate, but a “they are so awful, beyond redemption, I can’t stand the thought of them even existing” kind of hate. It’s an attitude that makes for a very annoyingly unpleasant, even regressive atmosphere in a cult based on a space opera fantasy-sci-fi franchise. Hence, I will not affiliate myself. I’d rather my conversations on the franchise be pleasant and positive, thank you very much.
My dissenting opinion is one I’ve held for a while: There is no *bad* Star Wars film, only superior and inferior Star Wars films. Which is why I knew when I went to see the first film in the sequel trilogy, and seventh film over all, that I most likely would enjoy it whether other fans did or not.
When I went to see “The Force Awakens” on opening night with my pal Ian, I wasn’t quite able to have a clear look at it because I was simply in awe of being there. After finishing up finals, returning home from college for Christmas break, and meeting up with my closest friends from high school to see it for a second time (it would be my buddy Nate’s fourth!), I finally forged an evaluation of it.
I am here to put Episode VII in place with the rest of the saga, as well as show my readers (whoever you might be) my opinions on the other entries. Where does VII fit? Let us see.
7. Episode I: The Phantom Menace
My baptism into the world of Star Wars came from the marketing for this film. As I grew older, I began to notice its flaws, but that didn’t ruin it for me, necessarily. When I went to see it in the 2012 theaterical re-release with my youth pastor Taylor and my younger brother, we left the theater baffled.
Not because we couldn’t fathom how “awful” it was. But because we couldn’t fathom why people would think that it’s so stinkin’ awful.
When it comes to The Phantom Menace (and at this point, the prequels in general), some fans like to pile on rhetoric that makes it seem like the worst movie of all time at best, and a terrorist attack at worst. But after watching it as a child and falling in love with it, a phase of disliking it, and a couple of re-watches, I have come to a (in some cases) controversial conclusion: The Phantom Menace is not a bad movie. It might be the most flawed movie in an otherwise wonderful franchise, but it doesn’t make the cut for any list of “awful movies” (I could name many of those) or even “bad movies”. Rather, it is a mediocre yet often entertaining (albeit loquacious at times) work of fantasy science fiction. Jar-Jar may have been a poor decision as far as providing comic-relief goes, but his contribution to the overall product is so miniscule it’s hard to understand why he is given so much attention. Wooden acting is irrelevant as it is something prevalent throughout the Saga (until now…more on that later). The fact that people get worked up on the heavy amount of politics is understandable, as it muddles the plot and slows the film in a way that makes it probably the most poorly paced film in the series. However, the story IS about how a republic turns into an empire, juxtaposed with how an innocent young boy turns into a machine-man who wears a black mask and murders people. Politics is inevitable.
The ambition this film aspires to is so great that it is easy for me, at least, to forgive Lucas for this one…as easy as it is to thank him for introducing podracing, double-bladed lightsabers, underwater cities, spikey-scalped Sith Lords and other fantastic things from a galaxy far, far away.
Also, Williams delivers his best themes here. Bar none.
What it does well: World-building, production design, costuming, lightsaber choreography, “Duel of the Fates” and “Anakin’s Theme”, and weaving in CGI (which was groundbreaking at the time) with practical effects (surprised? Watch it again.)
What it does poorly: Telling the story (which is actually a pretty good one if you get down to the heart of it), comic-relief, pacing, scripting.
6. Episode II: Attack of the Clones
Not surprised, are you?
Some of you may be, after all, because there are a fair amount of folks who would rank this at 7.
Well, I love it. Besides the fact that it was the first Star Wars movie I saw in the theater (I removed my rose-colored glasses when I got older), I would say the margin of improvement between this and The Phantom Menace is quite big, quite impressive. Lucas tells a much more coherent story, not without its cheap plot points but overall creating a fine slice of sci-fi fantasy action. The common complaints here range from Hayden Christensen’s sand hatred to the forced romance, which I can get behind. The flaws of the Phantom Menace were a little more arbitrary than the flaws here (how much do midi-chlorians and Jar-Jar Binks matter in the long run, anyhow?); our protagonist is a whiney blockhead, and the romance that ultimately tears the galaxy apart is forced and rushed (which, in a 145 minute movie, shouldn’t make sense). But there are parts of this one that make it so enjoyable as a whole. A wonderfully snarky Ewan McGregor, a thrilling chase through Coruscant, and a 45 minute finale that constitutes as one of the most jovially entertaining parts of the entire Saga, in my opinion. George goes lightsaber drunk with this movie, and it’s awesome. Yoda’s leaping, flipping and yelling while dueling a man of greater size and saber is a treat fans have been waiting for; plus, Christopher Lee is a perfectly badass villain, the senior Briton that makes every fantasy series complete (Palpatine may have filled that role as well, but Sir Christopher made everything awesome…may God rest his soul).
Overall, Lucas grew stronger in the Force with this one. Yet, many of his fans are not as forgiving as I (to paraphrase Vader).
What it does well: Improving upon Episode I, action sequences, further world-building, and a love theme from the score that is simply breathtaking. Williams does it again.
What it does poorly: Forced romance, unnecessary pastiche (50s diner? Is that a set piece recycled from “American Graffiti,” George?), and some of the worst possible dialogue in the franchise (mostly coming out of poor Hayden’s mouth). CGI also gets a little overbearing here, but that didn’t hurt the public’s opinion of Avatar.
5. Episode VI: Return of the Jedi
Now HERE’S where people often get surprised.
Yes, an ORIGINAL, not a prequel, is in the bottom 3. Why? Simple.
Poorly paced. Thanks, Ewoks.
Re-hashed. Another Death Star? Are you kidding me?
Boba Fett: prime example of all style, no substance, even more so than Darth Maul.
Sound like some harsh critiques, huh? Only because it is part of the untouchable Original Trilogy. Despite being good, but not great, the finale to the OT is instead looked at because it is of the Originals, and not the Prequels. But seeing as most of it is quite good, it’s easy to forgive these ones. We still have Han Solo, who makes everything gold. The opening sequence at Jabba’s Palace and the following fight on the barges make for a great intro. Also, the story of Anakin comes full circle. A truly powerful story of redemption.
Seeing as the worst of the Original Trilogy is more-or-less on par with the best of the Prequel Trilogy, I can say as a whole that despite one less-than-great movie, the OT is superior.
But we often say that the prequels could have been better while overlooking the crimes of “Jedi.” Let’s treat our Star Wars movies equally.
What it does well: action, romance, a wonderful new villain, and the usual delight of following our heroes Luke, Leia and Han.
What it does poorly: Droid worshipping Ewoks, plot re-hashing, and weighed down pacing in the middle of the movie.
4. Episode III: Revenge of the Sith
This is where I lose friends, I understand.
But hear me out.
Revenge of the Sith is a *good* movie. Not great. But also not decent. Not “okay”. It is a G-O-O-D good movie.
Besides the fact that it is only thought lowly of because it is unfairly clumped in with the other prequels, I’ll tell you why.
It has EVERYTHING. Space battles. Lightsaber drunkenness (again!). Snarky Obi-Wan. R2 kicking ass. Threepio being obnoxious.
It also accomplishes the difficult task of bridging both trilogies, and does it well. Less time is spent on childish humor. Even the romance, not any less clumsy than the last time, admittedly, is reduced to Jar-Jar status and gets less screen time.
But the best part is Palpatine. His masterful dialogue on the power of the Dark Side is not only well-performed, but helps us see how tempting the Dark Side is by touching on a tough yet classic theme: death.
Anakin’s fall is well-told and this time well delivered. Christensen is noticeably more comfortable with his character this time around, and proves he’s better at playing Dark Ani than he is at playing Insecure Teenage Ani. And two of the best sequences…both juxtapositions…in the saga are right here: Order 66 and the fall of the Republic, and the funeral of Padme Amidala and the Resurrection of Anakin as Darth Vader.
George Lucas thought this was going to be the last Star Wars. It would be the last one with *HIM*. So he made it count.
What it does well: Action, production design, continuing the world-building, stronger character development, and an overall outstanding finale.
What it does poorly: There are, predictably, bits of dialogue that are laughably cheesy yet quotable, putting them more in line with the “power converters” line than with the “wish my feelings away” line. Also, the movie is again drenched in CGI where it doesn’t really have to be.
3. Episode VII: The Force Awakens
Everything I was hoping for about The Force Awakens has been realized.
Then again, the one thing I felt would be wrong with it was realized, too.
The Force Awakens is very dependent on A New Hope as far as plotting goes. But it isn’t any half-assed rehash. Plus, this is just continuing Lucas’s rhyme-scheme that he originally intended, right?
Abrams treats his source material with great care, and we are given the best of the old mixed in with the best of the new. People made a big deal about the use of practical effect during production/post-production, but I’m relieved that Abrams decided to use CGI where it needed to be used…to create new pixelized creatures walking around a real world. Plus, the practical effects themselves are great, making use of engineering that has improved since 1983. Overall, with the balance of such effects, I believe The Force Awakens is bound to age the best out of the seven movies currently out.
I’ll say nothing to spoil it for those who haven’t seen it. The story does borrow a lot from A New Hope (much like Phantom Menace, only even more blatantly), but brings enough on its own to make it feel new. John Boyega and Oscar Isaac turn in some wonderful performances, and Boyega’s character, Finn, is particularly compelling. Daisy Ridley does an admirable job as our new protagonist, Rey, and considering it’s her first time in the major leagues (other than this, she has a couple of indies to her name), she handles it quite well. Her character is vaguely developed, but that likely only means that there is a lot to discover about her. More than the cliché “strong female protagonist”, Rey is compelling because she’s an interesting character…who so happens to be female. She’s not perfect, and that’s what’s so good about her.
What it does well: Just about everything the other movies did wrong.
What it does poorly: See for yourself. I’m sure plenty of complaints will surface after initial enthusiasm dies down.
2. Episode IV: A New Hope
I won’t spend a lot of time on this one because I won’t have to. It’s hard to criticize because it has been so mythologized. It was hard to criticize even at the time it was released (Pauline Kael criticized it, but what didn’t she?) because there were no other films quite like it then. I will write about why I put it this high, though that shouldn’t take me long either.
A New Hope, or simply “Star Wars”, as it was known for a time, is the only one in the saga that can be viewed independently. And yet, it does so well in setting itself up to grow into a sprawling saga, which, as we all know, it achieved quite well.
I could more easily fill an essay on the original movie’s cultural impact than I could its cinematic merits, but it sure does have them. The colorful cast of characters makes us fall in love with the world Lucas created instantly. The X-Wing dog fight is still one of the best scenes in the saga. And this is where we were introduced to the coolest guy to grace the big screen since the Man With No Name, Han Solo (who, by the way, did shoot first, but if he didn’t it was because he knew Greedo would miss him).
Perhaps as magical as Luke’s journey is Lucas’s. He had a vision that he wanted to make into a movie. Nobody thought he would actually make the movie, but he did.
And the rest is history.
What it does well: It begins a legend.
What it does poorly: Hard to say, but the dialogue is a little cheesy, and we often forget how unimpressive Hamill’s performance is in this one, though it’s still passable and carries a charm of its own.
1. Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back
Not surprised, are you?
It has become a cliché by now to say that The Empire Strikes Back is your favorite Star Wars, but this one is special because it is the first Star Wars movie to make me cry.
I was 6 years old. Phantom Menace Mania was still in circulation, and my parents thought it was time I watch the Original Trilogy with them. The cantina dismemberment and burnt bodies of Luke’s aunt and uncle bothered me quite a bit, but for the most part I found A New Hope to be awesome, even if it lacked lightsabers.
I was enjoying Empire, but then Vader and Luke’s duel came about. Luke was dismembered and I was terrified. Our great hero, in a place of vulnerability, possibly about to meet his end.
Then the immortal revelation came. Traumatized, I left the room (only to be brought back by my parents to catch the end of the film, when Luke gets a new hand and is all better again!).
These emotions would seem irrational if they were applied to any other film, or any other film series. But Star Wars brings us every emotion: wonder, happiness, sadness, anger, fear, worry. This is best displayed in The Empire Strikes Back, still the darkest in the saga (sorry, Revenge). As one film critic I follow, Josh Larsen, writes, it was A New Hope that gave us the movie and The Empire Strikes Back that gave us the Saga.
What it does well: Continues to develop characters from its last predecessor, explorers darker, deeper themes, and manages the impossible…outdoing its culture-creating original.
What it does poorly: It contains the most gaping plot-hole in the saga.
And there it is, friends! Hope you all enjoy the new movie…it’s a fine one, indeed…and may the Force be with you this Christmas.