This franchise holds a special place in my heart. While it wasn’t my first fandom (that honor belongs to Narnia), it was the first multimedia franchise I was really engaged in, and I was once deeply entrenched in it. Upon (finally) procuring my copy of The Last Jedi, I felt compelled to rank my favorite Star Wars films, so I decided to revisit them (I hadn’t seen some of them for a very long time) and write my thoughts in a list format. I’m only going to include proper episodes in my ranking (and as always, this is based on my own personal preference, not “objective quality”), but here are some brief thoughts on other stories. Rogue One is the only other film I’ve seen (I haven’t watched any of the cartoons), and I didn’t like it much. I did read many of the novels in the extended universe (now the Legends canon), from the prequel tie-ins to New Jedi Order and beyond (or at least one series beyond that). So trust me when I say that there is but one series (or at most one author) that’s really worth the time of any self-respecting Star Wars fan: Timothy Zahn’s Thrawn trilogy. Not only is it easily the best story (even if Zahn’s writing improves in later books), but it’s actually helpful to understand the evolution of the franchise – it was the original New Star Wars Trilogy, and all of the movies from The Phantom Menace onward are indebted to it in some fashion. Speaking of which…
#8 Episode I: The Phantom Menace
This film is a convergence of all of Lucas’ worst propensities. If you look at the story on paper, it seems like it could make for a pretty good film, but the script needed a few more rewrites and probably a different director (actually, DEFINITELY a different director). The Anakin stuff could have added some depth to the character had he had a better actor and more natural dialogue, but ultimately it only adds to the pointlessness of the story. But there’s plenty of negativity for this movie, so I’ll just move onto the positives now. There were three good characters in the movie: Qui-Gon Jinn, Obi-Wan Kenobi, and Shmi Skywalker. Seriously, kudos to Shmi’s actress for making her such a compelling character in her very brief screen time. Ewan McGregor and Liam Neeson had particularly enjoyable chemistry, even if they didn’t really get much opportunity to show it off (I enjoyed reading the juvenile Jedi Apprentice series by Jude Watson as a kid, which is literally just the adventures of Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan). Also, Duel of the Fates. Ultimately, this movie’s greatest sin is simply that so much of it is boring, something I can’t accuse any of the other episodes of.
#7 Episode III: Revenge of the Sith
While this is easily the highest quality of the prequel trilogy, it just takes itself too seriously for my taste. Lucas can’t do tragedy. The first half hour or so has a great balance of humor, action, and legitimately engaging drama! The performances are also much improved – when they’re not hampered by clunky dialogue, that is. There’s still plenty of stupid to go around, but unfortunately it’s the sort of things that are hard to laugh at, like child murder or, y’know, a woman being strangled by her abusive husband. In the end, I think what lost me was the gigantic leaps in logic at the end intended to make things sadder. Padme didn’t have to die (spoilers, I guess). The result would have been functionally the same (and made much more sense) had she lived out the last of her days in hiding on Alderaan and the Emperor had just lied to Vader about her death. And that’s only one of several such issues that took me out of the story. Ultimately, it suffers the same fate of “what could have been” as the other installments in the prequel trilogy.
#6 Episode II: Attack of the Clones
This is not a very good movie, but I always enjoy it. The drama is easy to laugh at (when it’s not just about Anakin being terrible), the action is as good as always, the characterization is actually consistent, and the whole subplot with Obi-Wan is genuinely engaging. The coliseum scene is a standout (one of the precious few times Padme gets to fight), and Sir Christopher Lee just makes everything better (even if he is just playing Saruman Lite). The Jedi Council is kind of a joke, the clone battle at the end feels exactly like a video game, and the film is a little too long, but at least this one serves its purpose of setting up the conflicts for the next movie. It makes me feel something for the characters (even if it’s just WHY?), and it’s actually fun, which is one of the main reasons why I go to Star Wars in the first place, and that’s why I give it an edge over Episode III.
#5 Episode IV: A New Hope
There’s a reason this movie became the phenomenon that it is. It draws you into its story by giving you time to get to know the characters (always a welcome change from the prequels). It blends elements of classic Westerns and old movie serials with science fiction and what’s now known as high fantasy to create a timeless story. It’s a simple story told well. There is some stilted acting here and there, the action isn’t always engaging (the lightsaber duel is really kind of pathetic), and although it’s good at building tension, it doesn’t elicit much powerful feeling in me beyond the thrill of victory. This movie deserves its status as a classic, and it’s a tribute to the strength of the franchise as a whole that there are several better films in this series.
#4 Episode VI: Return of the Jedi
This is easily the most self-indulgent of the original trilogy, so I cannot blame anyone who might not like it. It is overstuffed (even without the special edition “bonus scenes”), I don’t really care about one of the subplots and another is incredibly silly, but the subplot with Luke makes it all worth it. Luke is forced to grapple with uncomfortable truths and find his own way of dealing with them. There’s a level of complexity in the relationship between Luke and Vader and the Emperor that never shows up elsewhere in Lucas’ films, and that combined with the generally wonderful ending for the trilogy makes me enjoy it in spite of its many flaws.
#3 Episode VII: The Force Awakens
Yes, this movie steals the plot of the original wholesale, but considering how much Episode IV relies on mythic archetypes in the first place, it doesn’t really bug me. It reiterates many of the themes of the original, but not without a new spin or two. I love how Abrams utilized the old cast to support the new one, especially having read the EU where the Big Three were always overpowered and effectively invincible (I was honestly slightly relieved that they chose to kill off one of them, because it let me know they were willing to go there). It managed to tread the fine line between nostalgia and innovation, and it introduced two wonderful new characters that I adore (Rey and Finn).
#2 Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back
This is as close to a perfect Star Wars movie as we’ve ever gotten. The action is exciting, the drama is engrossing, and the cinematography is fantastic. The movie also goes a long way in fleshing out the Star Wars universe, on top of the requisite setting up of conflicts for the final film of the trilogy. It still has flaws, but they’re generally of the sort that are easy to forgive and forget.
#1 Episode VIII: The Last Jedi
Yes, this movie has its share of flaws, but I forgive its imperfections in light of its nuance and narrative ambition. I’ll admit part of it has to do with my particular sense of humor (since its humor is also very distinct from the others), but I could just watch this over and over again. It has easily the best characterization in any of the episodes (for new and old characters alike), and Johnson just adds a certain thematic depth that’s rarely present in the others. And that’s why it’s my favorite (despite the lack of a proper lightsaber duel).
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