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Ranking the Star Wars Movies

December 12, 2015

12 December 2015

You may dispense with the pleasantries, I’m here to put you back on schedule. With everybody about to drop their shipments at the first sign of Star Wars: The Force Awakens at the cinemas next week, it’s time to reveal the definitive ranking of the best ever Star Wars movie. This list won’t be as clumsy or random as a blaster, to automatically slam the prequels as the worst ever. It will be an elegant perspective, for a more civilised age, that will examine each film’s intrinsic value to the Star Wars universe, the individual story within the film itself, and the pure entertainment value. For many fans, they will find themselves mistaken… about a great many things.

Darth Vader - I am your father

6) Episode 1: The Phantom Menace

Hardly a surprise for nearly all Star Wars fans that it’s ranked sixth, the Phantom Menace, is actually ridiculously under-rated and suffered mostly because expectations were so high, Jar Jar Binks was an unnecessary inclusion and for the neolithic absurdity it “wasn’t Star Wars of old”. Of course it wasn’t. It was a new Star Wars movie. It was never meant to be like the old, nor could it be. It’s not just that the characters and the time were wildly different, so were our own perceptions. Most important for this movie was to lay the foundations for subsequent ones, which it did successfully. You don’t see a movie 9 times at the cinema if it’s a poor movie. If not for Jar Jar Binks and some other padding, we’re talking fourth best for this movie.

Immediately the Phantom Menace had the feel of a Star Wars movie, as it landed you in a mystery of a strange new set of events, and at period in the universe that the Jedi were at their most powerful. It was fascinating to see. While so much of the settings and characters were new and the visuals updated, it was still very much a Star Wars movie, carrying many of the hallmarks of the previous movies. The battle droids provided the classic Star Wars humour that the contrived Binks could not.

There’s also the obvious: what was the origin of Darth Vader? For a fan to say they weren’t ultra curious about this, they’d be lying. Then there was the origins of the Emperor and the Galactic Empire itself. We also learnt more about the Sith, more about Tatooine and saw so much of the Star Wars universe (like the capital, Coruscant) that was only ever a reference. The film itself was exciting, with the pod race, the Battle for Naboo and the 3-way light-sabre duel (complete with the brilliant “Duel Of The Fates” music score). Repeat viewings would reveal more layers to the film, particularly the juicy innuendo and revelations exposed in the dialogue that were behind the title of the film. Remember: Your focus determines your reality.

5) Episode 6: Return Of The Jedi

This movie constantly floats about in my list, ranging from third best to sixth. At times, the epic space battle and the battle between Luke and Darth saves it. At other times it’s mired in a pedestrian and predictable start, and then a listless middle that focuses too long on the relationship and eventual alliance between the Rebels and the Ewoks. The narrative was poor, particularly with the Emperor’s revelation the Rebels were walking into a trap. There would have been far more tension had the viewers been alert to this in advance. Or was the Emperor joking, trying to goad Luke? Nor should we forget that an “entire legion of the best Stormtroopers” were too easily dismantled by glorified teddy bears.

All of the original trilogy I saw once at the cinema on initial release (as a boy). For the 20th anniversary editions, it was three times for this episode, and four times for the other two. It would have been four for this one had it a longer run in the cinemas.

Handling of the revelations from Episode 5, like whether Darth was Luke’s father, the fate of Han Solo and that there was another potential Jedi, were anti-climatic. Particularly the latter that represented a bigger problem developing relationships that – in a portent of worse to come in the prequels – suffered embarrassingly with poor scripting and acting. Even basic direction, Leia was overly diminished and trivialised, and Luke was too smug. In contrast with any scene involving the Emperor, it was dial-a-quote, with the most memorably lines of the saga and brilliant acting of the three protagonists.

Within the narrative of the saga itself, it’s quite ironic that the two films when the Empire were at their powerful (possessing Death Stars), they were at their most vulnerable. While this was caused by the prospect that only one of the six episodes would be made, it totally jumbled the story for the saga. Ideally, the Death Star should have been in progress in episode 5 and revealed in episode 6. Many Bothans died to bring you this information.

4) Episode 3: Revenge Of The Sith

Like episode 6, this film was to finalise a trilogy, so potentially could leave us with a hollow feeling. The key difference being that the mystery here was not in the outcome, it was in the journey. Whereas episode 6 was clumsy as it was stupid in delivering the narrative, episode 6, for the most part, served us well. The epic space battle and rescue mission that opened the movie kicked us off superbly. Obi-Wan and Anakin were at the height of their powers (as too was R2D2), and the height of their friendship, which seemingly placed Anakin’s distance to the dark side at the farthest point possible and requiring major events to turn him. All of the intriguing dialogue and character establishment from the first two episodes was coming to fruition.

The two plots that ran through this movie were told with contrasting proficiency, and the lack of intrigue meant only 7 viewings at the cinema. While the formation of the Galactic Empire was told flawlessly, Anakin’s transformation to the dark side was haphazard at best, and lame at worst. At the dramatic and pivotal moment of transformation, Anakin offers a meek “what have I done”. In consoling Anakin, Palpatine anoints him Darth Vader and Anakin says thank you. Are you serious? This needed to be far more intensive, prolonged and agonising. The film also went way too long, finalising every single detail that fans knew in advance from the original trilogy (episodes 4, 5 & 6 for padawans). Ideally, Anakin is never anointed as Vader, he’s not rescued so we presume he dies, and we don’t know the fate of Padme and her pregnancy. Only a Sith deals in absolutes.

3) Episode 4: A New Hope

The original, and the best as a stand alone movie. Of all George Lucas’ 20th anniversary updates, it’s had the best one with the final battle over Yavin being far more dynamic and exciting, the valuable introduction of Jabba The Hutt, and Mos Eisely spaceport being the hive of activity that it should be. Arguably it had the worst update too, with the “who shot first” fiasco. The final outcome, as seen in the blu-ray release, of simultaneous is best. I never liked that Han blew poor Greedo away so callously, and equally don’t accept Han could dodge a blaster shot if Greedo shot first.

The movie’s only weakness is that, in terms of action, after the blistering start, not much happens until the end. Its success is that it is such an ultra convincing science fantasy containing a curious adventure that ends with the most heroic and dramatic of finales. Even today, it’s so far head of its time. If you only ever see one Star Wars movie, this is obviously it. Who’s the more foolish, the fool or the fool who follows him?

2) Episode 2: Attack Of The Clones

After the relative disappointment of episode 1, Star Wars returned with a vengeance with Attack Of The Clones. It easily had the most mystery and layers to any of the films. Who is Sifo Dyas? Why did he order a Clone Army 10 years before it was required? Was Dooku/Tyranus masquerading as Dyas? While there’s an official answer now, at the time it was a huge mystery. Also, why are there so many Australian and New Zealand accents? Part of Star Wars’ charm is nothing is familiar, so hearing your own country’s accent affects the fantasy. Best to stick with the mild English ones from the original trilogy, even if AU/NZ accents would feel alien to an American audience. The film opened with the most important mystery: the attack on Padme. That drove the main plot and intertwined events to the grand conclusion.

The weakness was, of course, the romance between Anakin and Padme, thanks to shoddy dialogue and bland acting, particularly from Anakin. Not that all of it was stupid. Wrestling with the Jedi code was paradoxical in Anakin’s chosen path. Considering these are kids, no doubt virgins, and without a party lifestyle or reality TV to learn about typical human pair-bonding behaviour, there’s an over-reaction to it. When these are kids from an alien culture, it’s even more probable the scenes will appear as camp and insipid as they often did. Events could have been handled better, like when Padme brushed off Anakin’s confession of being a genocidal maniac. This should have been kept secret from her, and further endorses the view about episode 3 that particular events are best served as secrets or never told. Just imagine watching these movies in chronological order and seeing Darth Vader in episode 4 for the first time. At the time, before the prequels, he was a menacing villain. Now we know he’s patsy Anakin who hates sand.

Like episode 1, I saw this 9 times at the cinema, and over a longer period. It was that good, and still remains captive viewing. Beyond the layers of intrigue in the film’s dialogue and sub-text, there was so much else. The Jedi in full battle. The amazing world of Kamino. The greater breadth of Coruscant and the Jedi Temple. The origins of the iconic Boba Fett. The epic ground battle on Geonosis that launched the Clone Wars. Most of all, Yoda fighting with a light-sabre. This moment caused the cinema to erupt in applause, and there was more applause come the credits. Whether that’s the audience’s response to seeing a truer Star Wars movie than episode 1, it still remains the first and only time I’ve witnessed applause at a cinema. While many may deride episode 1 as a worthless start to the saga, episode 2 was an integral start and done brilliantly. Why do I get the feeling you’re going to be the death of me?

1) Episode 5: The Empire Strikes Back

Words cannot fully justify the greatness of this movie. It took A New Hope, and improved on everything. The battles were bigger, the Empire more menacing, Darth more evil, the heroes more brave, the plot more dramatic and, thanks to the development of Han Solo and C3PO, it was the funniest of all the movies. While the prolonged sections with Yoda and learning about the Force were a bit dreary for myself as a boy at the time, they were pivotal to understanding the Star Wars universe and propelling the saga further.

The updates were also good, particular Cloud City fully realised. Note the flying sections through the beautiful city and also note the city backdrop through the windows. The script change from “Luke Skywalker” to “the young rebel who destroyed the death star” when the Emperor and Darth were discussing their new enemy was wise. At this point, they could only speculate about Anakin’s offspring. Changing Boba Fett’s voice to the patsy sound of Jango (his clone) was not, even though understandable. You see how fanatics can be intolerant about the most trivial changes?

The phenomenal music through the saga was at its zenith for this movie. Darth’s classic “The Imperial March” theme was often evoked, “Finale” ensured the movie left the viewer in a whirlwind of deep and contrasting emotions, and “The Duel”, which started with the final segment of Luke’s battle with Darth and ended with Luke’s rescue by Leia, is the best few minutes of the entire saga’s score. Afraid I was gonna leave without giving you a goodbye kiss?

Don’t bother disagreeing with this list. For my ally is the Force, and a powerful ally it is.

Episode 7: The Force Awakens

It’s Star Wars, surely you can’t stuff it up? Most pleasing to read is that the director wanted to make a Star Wars movie for the fans. In other words, a Star Wars movie for adults. From the trailers, it looks a success. The big anticipation will be seeing the lives of the iconic Star Wars characters 30 years in advance, and the status of the Republic after the Rebels’ victory that finished episode 6. Beyond that, it’s a case of letting the film unravel. Hope is not lost today, it is found.

  1. Simwad permalink

    You do RotJ a disservice with its placement. The last third of the movie takes it well up the ladder alone. The sinister nature of the Emperor and the second luke/darth duel are epic. The turmoil they both felt, even in that little exchange on Endor still give me chills.

    The music during Luke losing it at Vader and the Emperor showing his force lightning skills is simply awe-inspiring and some of Williams best work. Whilst the Imperial March is great I’ve always enjoyed this segment the most, as well as the Astroid Theme from Empire

    For what we assumed would be the final movie it sent everyone off with a bang. True the Ewoks were a misstep.

    Really I can take or leave the Prequels now, watching them all together just showed how bad they were side by side with the originals. Terrible acting, dodgy effects, worst dialogue ever and changing the mythology of the universe relegate them to the trash compactor. Like a Hutt they have no redeeming features.

    ESB does deserve the accolades. Tragedy is easy, comedy is hard has never been more noticable then between the prequels and originals. Lucas hit us over the head with slap stick in the prequels yet the originals (especially ESB) were funnier films with the banter between the characters. It’s like Lucas had a personality replacement. Actually we all know now he was power hungry and had final say on everything and look where we ended up.

    Best thing about TFA…no Lucas

    • Always glad to hear from a Jedi.

      Yes, “The Asteroid Field”, another brilliant part of the movie’s score. That’s in the top bracket of best sequences from the entire saga’s score.

      Lucas was a kid with all the new technology and went crazy with it. Jar Jar was funny enough here and there (like “ex-squeeze me” and snatching fruit with his tongue), so ok to use sparingly, not pollute the entire film. More excessive use of technology was the submarine section where they were twice attacked by a giant creature only for “a bigger fish” to save them. A deleted scene had the craft about to fall off a waterfall once in Naboo city. It’s interesting that other than Ep2 with a line here and there and the mix-up between C3PO and a Battle Droid, the remaining sequels were bereft of humour.

      As I said, I’ve moved Ep6 around my list over the years. It’s subtleties separating the bottom three, and watching episode 6 recently during a marathon and then again with episode 5 last night, it confirms my view. Knock out 20 minutes of Ewok nonsense and tweak a few other areas, and Ep6 is maybe ranked two.

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Star Wars: The Force Awakens – Review (No Spoilers) | The Warrior Factor
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  3. Star Wars: The Last Jedi – who is the last Jedi? | The Warrior Factor

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