Science-Fiction Weekly – Ranking The Star Wars Films
My original plan for this week’s column was to review Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, but I decided to shift gears after a number of people on social media asked me where I thought this new prequel ranked among the other Star Wars movies. There are technically 12 Star Wars films to consider for this list, but if we throw out the garbage (the Holiday Special and Caravan of Courage: An Ewok Adventure), stick to the live-action format (which knocks The Clone Wars off), and remove The Battle for Endor since it was only on television (but was decent), that leaves us with eight solid entries. Don’t roll your eyes – I said “solid” not “good.”
Before I dive into the ranking that you are about to tear to shreds, I want to point out that I appreciate elements of each of these films. They all strengthen the core Star Wars story in their own unique ways. The Phantom Menace is a movie most people mock for Jar Jar Binks, but without it we wouldn’t have gotten Darth Maul or that awesome scene where Qui-Gon Jinn melts a metal door with his lightsaber. Return of the Jedi delivers one of the coolest space battles in all of cinema, but also a fight in which the Empire is trounced (handily even) by tiny bears.
Additionally, film technology evolves at a rapid rate, and each Star Wars film embraces it for good and bad. Rogue One’s visual effects are top tier, with the exception of a couple of CGi characters who may look worse than anything in Attack of the Clones (let’s debate this in a future column).
All of these things come into play in my ranking, but I’m mostly weighing my picks on the impact they had on me, both when I originally viewed them and today. As always, I appreciate your feedback in the comments section below, but above all else, would love to see your ranking of the films. Without further delay, on to the list…
8. Episode II: Attack of the Clones
While establishing the foundation and tone of the excellent Clone Wars animated series, Attack of the Clones is a mess of a story, struggling mightily to tie a large-scale, green-screen war to a chemistry-free love story. George Lucas has a knack for strong beginnings, and Attack of the Clones is no different with its excellent (and clever) assassination attempt on Queen Amidala via space centipedes. The film quickly unravels from here, but does give us a great look at Coruscant in the process. The sequences that follow are shockingly bad: a bug army, Jedi looking foolish while battling the bug army, Amidala starring in a platforming game, C-3PO losing his head, "I don't like sand. It's coarse and rough and irritating and it gets everywhere," and floating fruit. Oh god. Make it stop! The bombardment of awful is constant, but there is some good stuff amid the blasts. Jango Fett, Count Dooku (terrible name, great character), Anakin Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi's playful chemistry, senator Palpatine, every second on Kamino, and less Jar Jar Binks. Attack of the Clones is easily the worst Star Wars film, but there's still a wealth of great content for fans to appreciate.
7. Episode I: The Phantom Menace
I don't think there's much debating Star Wars' lowest point: Jar Jar Binks. This wacky abomination of CGi completely derails the story when he is introduced. Would the film have been better without him? Absolutely, but the narrative would still suffer from odd logic. Journeying through the center of the planet to reach Queen Amidala's palace makes little sense, and Lucas ended up putting too much emphasis on a kid being able to do amazing things. The podracing bit was cool character building for Anakin (which would be infinitely better without the announcers), but watching him win the space battle was cringe worthy. Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon Jinn were fantastic, as were Darth Maul and Palpatine. The Phantom Menace is a rocky ride through a fascinating (and beautiful) new era of the Star Wars universe. Lucas had the right idea; the story just got away from him.
6. Episode III: Revenge of the Sith
I went into this film expecting Darth Vader to be the best part, but he ended up being the worst. It was the "Nooooooo" heard around the world, and it was terrible. Outside of this one moment, and that often horrible prequel CGi, Revenge of the Sith is a respectable Star Wars film. I'll even get the hyperbole train rolling by saying Order 66 is one of Lucas' biggest successes as a director. That particular sequence is beautifully shot, and the story it tells is as dark as Star Wars gets. Palpatine's seduction of Anakin to the Dark Side is also disturbingly good. The big payoff of Anakin versus Obi-Wan is exciting and captured nicely in a few moments, but sadly suffers from a need to focus on the environment for goofy action. The film ended the way it needed to, with great, little moments showing the Skywalker twins and Anakin transforming into Vader. On a different day, I may say Revenge of the Sith should be in the five spot instead of Return of the Jedi, but not today. Gasp all you want, but these films are neck and neck, in my opinion. Here's why...
5. Episode VI: Return of the Jedi
The picture above brings back a flood of awesome memories from Return of the Jedi. Luke, Vader, and the Emperor are electrifying. I didn't want those scenes to end, but they did, and Lucas and company knocked them out of the park. I couldn't think of a better way to conclude this saga. The redemption of Vader is beautifully told, unlike the rest of the film. Yes, I love the visualization of Jabba's Palace and Endor as a battleground, but even as a little lad, I had issues with the events at hand. The Rebels send their top brass into Jabba's Palace one by one to save Han Solo...really? Why not send a trained assassin instead of Leia? As much as I love the idea of Ewoks eating humans for lunch, they took the punch out of the final battle. The Empire looked silly going against them. It was almost like two movies were playing at once; a dark story on the Death Star, and a goofy one on the moon. People say Lucas lost his touch of Star Wars with the prequels, but I think it started in Return.
4. Episode VII: The Force Awakens
I loved The Force Awakens. Loooooved it. Sure, we can criticize it for having a similar story arc to A New Hope. J. J. Abrams went too far with the love-letter approach. Most of the content that doesn't fall under that umbrella is new, exciting, and damn good. Rey, Finn, Poe...what an ensemble! Each brings something different to Star Wars. I'm also a huge fan of Kylo Ren and Snoke. They specialize in a different kind of evil, and I can't wait to see where it goes. The Force Awakens is a film I periodically reflect on, mostly because it brings mystery back to Star Wars. Who are Rey's parents? What is Snoke up to? Why did Luke leave? Even side characters like Maz Kanata are brimming with intrigue. Remove the Starkiller Base angle, and that feeling of "I've been here before" would largely be gone.
3. Episode ?: Rogue One
I know, I'm just as surprised as you are. When I first heard Lucasfilm was making a prequel movie about the Rebels who stole the Death Star plans, I thought it was a terrible idea. Although the story ends exactly how we all expected it would, director Gareth Edwards turns it into an enthralling and action-packed affair. The battle scenes are intense, dark, and exactly what I wanted to see as a huge Star Wars fan. Lose the camp. Make the battles have impact, just like the Battle of Hoth. Edwards nailed this tone. Rogue One is a fine story on its own, with a wonderful cast of characters, but its biggest success is how it makes me appreciate A New Hope more. I also view that film differently now. Rogue One doesn't shy away from painting the Rebels as terrorists capable of evil acts. The only thing I would change: Pull the camera back from the CG characters. They looked like they belonged in Shrek more than Star Wars.
2. Episode IV: A New Hope
Should A New Hope be number one? I debate this question all of the time. When it comes to stories that embrace good-versus-evil or David-versus-Goliath tones, A New Hope is a towering success. You can't help but root for Luke and the Rebel Alliance. Within the first act, Lucas did a phenomenal job of establishing evil, and making it seem like all was lost. Our only hope was a farm boy, an old man, a princess, and a scoundrel and his wookiee friend. Vader emerged as the ultimate bad guy, using a mystical art with precision to kill his enemies and even his own people. The journey that unfolded was exciting and unique, and filled with suspense and unexpected surprises. It's the perfect film that somehow was bested by a film that wasn't quite as good.
1. Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back
That's right, The Empire Strikes Back is worse than A New Hope, but is still the best Star Wars film to date. How is this possible? The storytelling evolved. What began as a tale of hope turned into a story of no hope. Lucas flipped the script on his heroes, but still managed to grow them as characters. Luke went off on his own to explore a gift from his father. Leia and Han began falling in love. The biggest change of all, Lucas humanized Darth Vader with one line of dialogue: "I am your father." The Empires Strikes Back kicked off with an exciting battle on Hoth, but slowed significantly to develop its characters. It wasn't as high octane or as much of a spectacle as its predecessor, but the decision to change the tone payed off handsomely, making The Empire Strikes Back a masterpiece, the kind of which we rarely see.