Despite the fashionability of trashing its lackluster prequels, Star Wars still looms large over the cultural pantheon as the definitive narrative of the 20th Century. It’s a multigenerational epic that’s survived everything from Christmas specials to Jar Jar Binks, and with The Force Awakens set to take the world by storm this weekend, it’s increasingly clear that we’ve only just finished its opening chapters. So before we take the next step forward in the Star Wars saga, let’s look back on the highs and lows of the franchise’s almost forty year history.
6) Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999) – When it comes to the prequel trilogy, the only real point of contention is whether The Phantom Menace is worse than Attack of the Clones. Neither is a good movie. Neither is competantly written nor directed. Neither really holds true to the standards of quality that people hold the franchise to. They are both, in short, terrible, misguided movies that lost sight of what made Star Wars such a wonder in the first place.
That being said, however, neither movie is without its merits. Truth be told, swap out Lucas as their director and give the screenplays another rewrite and you would have had a pair of movies that were just as good as any of the first three. For all of their faults, they are gorgeously visualized, narratively ambitious films that do almost everything right. It’s just that where they fail, they do so on a massive scale.
The three-way battle between Qui Gon Jinn, Obi-Wan Kenobi and Darth Maul is probably the coolest thing in any of these first six movies. Sure, it’s not the series’ best executed fight scene, but it was pound for pound more awesome than anything before or since. The Pod Racing was another awesome addition to Star Wars lore (and spawned what’s probably my favorite racing game of all time). By and large, it understood what was cool about the series without realizing what was endearing about it.
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5) Episode II – Attack of the Clones (2002) – The reason why I hold Attack of the Clones in (slightly) higher esteem than The Phantom Menace is that while the two films are only ever as good as the other, Attack of the Clones doesn’t ever get quite as bad as its predecessor. Hayden Christensen isn’t an ideal Anakin, but he’s a class above Jake Lloyd’s bargain bin performance. While we do have to wade through his and Padme’s insipid romance, we see mercifully little Jar Jar (and Lucas has thankfully gotten the poop jokes out of his system).
And with Jar Jar out of the way, Lucas found himself with more time to devote to his all-star cast. Christopher Lee was an absolutely inspired choice for a Sith Lord. Samuel L. Jackson as a Jedi Master finally lives up to exactly how awesome that phrase should be. And now we finally get to see Yoda in action: commanding platoons of soldiers and going toe to toe with Count Dooku in his prime.
Whereas Episode I‘s faults were varied and profound, Episode II largely limits its failings to the conceit of its central romance. And while that is a huge problem for a film whose narrative foundation is buying into Anakin’s forbidden love with Padme, it’s at least only one thing that we necessary have to look over to enjoy the movie.
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4) Episode III – Revenge of the Sith (2005) – After six years and two failed attempts, Revenge of the Sith finally lives up to the dramatic promise of Anakin’s back story. The action is cleaner than it ever was with the other prequels, the story is at its most coherent, the political machinations of the Emperor are genuinely intriguing and Anakin finds himself in an increasingly no-win situation, having to choose between the lives of his wife and children with his duties as a Jedi.
Now that the technology finally caught up with Lucas’ imagination (something that couldn’t have been said even six years earlier), we can finally see his world the way that it was meant to be seen. Sure, the dialog is hokey, the actors miscast and fight scenes drag on for far longer than they need to, but it is an earnestly Star Wars movie, something that we hadn’t gotten since 1983.
What’s more, this movie was worth the wait. Although worse than any of the original trilogy, it more than made up for Episodes I and II. It finally made you believe that this was the wearied Yoda of The Empire Strikes Back and the wiley Obi-Wan of A New Hope. You finally see Anakin transform into Vader and it all works. Regardless of its other faults, this was as good as we could have hoped for with this second coming of Star Wars.
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3) Episode VI – Return of the Jedi (1983) – Although Return of the Jedi erred more than any other film in the original trilogy, it never the less proved itself to be an exceptional movie and a fitting conclusion to the story begun in A New Hope. Yes, Ewoks and all, Return of the Jedi delivered everything that we’d come to expect from a Star Wars movie at that point.
While this rarely seems to be anybody’s favorite Star Wars movie, it does seem to contain most fans’ favorite scenes from the franchise. One frequently cited scene is the celebration after the destruction of the second Death Star. It conveys without a single word spoken that Vader has redeemed himself in the eyes of the Force and his fallen friends. You see Anakin – Human for the first time – in the company of Yoda and Obi-Wan and know, without anybody putting words to it, that Luke won the war for his father’s soul. It’s a scene that actually benefitted from Lucas’ heavy-handed, latter day editing. By showing the celebrations on Naboo and Coruscant, as well as using Hayden Christensen as the ghost of Anakin, it draws powerfully upon the best aspects of the prequels and changes the overarching narrative from “the rise of Luke Skywalker” to “the rise, fall and redemption of Darth Vader.”
For my money, though, the best scene is Luke’s final confrontation with Vader. It’s the most cathartic scene of the franchise, allowing Luke to give in to the temptation of the Dark Side – if only momentarilly – and unleash Hell upon his traitorous father. It perfectly caps off both Luke’s and Anakin’s character arcs: both pulling back from the Dark Side after finally giving into it.
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2) Episode IV – A New Hope (1977) – This is it, the one that started it all. For all of its narrative simplicity and highly suspect dialog, it proved to be the very best version of a coming of age adventure story ever committed to screen.
Although Lucas would later prove himself to be only a marginally above-average director who is far more concerned with making money than movies, this was him at the height of his craft, when he actually cared about film as art (and not film as a glorified toy commercial). The characters were compelling and memorable. The fight scenes were exciting. The highly imaginative world of the film was beautifully realized.
What’s more is that everything about the movie made it feel like it was part of something bigger: something that began long ago and would be around long after we were gone. It started en medias res – as a fourth installment, in the midsts of a decades-long war. The world was populated with knights and magic and fantastical technology and it never once felt like what we got was anything more than a snapshot of a greater whole.
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1) Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back (1980) – 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 budget had exploded since the success of its predecessor, and it showed. The sets were more richly detailed and the special effects even more convincing, both drawing us even further into the world Lucas had set out for us.
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. Vader, our chiefmost villain, was Luke’s. Obi-Wan, Luke’s presumably benevolant spirit guide, had lied to him starting with their first meeting on Tatooine. Luke, our hero, was through no fault of his own fast on his way to joining the Dark Side (from his vision in Yoda’s cave to his master’s grim warning about being lost to the Dark Side if he leaves his training to save his friends).
It, in short, made everything Star Wars-ier than before.