I’ve never been a Star Wars fan. Never felt invested in the mythology. As a kid I remember my friends and classmates loving the early films as I would later love Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings. But with the exception of The Empire Strikes Back, they didn’t make an impact on me. Empire remains an outstanding achievement, however, and I’m also pleased to join the chorus of praise for the new series. Here are my rankings of the nine episodes to date. Fans of the series will think I’m too harsh with some of them.
1. The Empire Strikes Back. 5 stars. This is the Star Wars film that engages me on all the right levels. It’s important to remember that Irvin Kershner directed it, not Lucas, who is always the problem. There’s never a dull moment in Empire, whether in its action scenes or pregnant pauses. It introduces Yoda, and the drama on the jungle planet is transcendent. For an ’80s blockbuster it’s dark as hell: the rebels get slaughtered at the battle of Hoth, which is brilliantly shot; Luke faces his dark side and loses a hand; Han Solo is kidnapped and frozen in carbonite. And of course it’s capped off by the brilliant reveal of Vader as Luke’s father, over a vertigo hang that still makes me sweat. It almost seems like Empire is an accidental masterpiece, sandwiched in between two films into which Lucas poured his more misguided efforts.
2. Rogue One. 4 ½ stars. You can actually make a case for this being the best entry in the franchise, but there’s some choppy pacing throughout the first half. Rogue One is Star Wars for adults, which is how I wish the franchise had been done from the start. The third act is a whopper, unquestionably the best battle of the franchise, and ends on the appropriate tragedy of all the Rogue One crew dying for their efforts. Had Disney not given the green light for all the heroes to die, this would have been a wasted film and insincere. It’s the foreordained conclusion that makes us appreciate what the rebels went through to get those Death Star plans. And, as if Jyn dying wasn’t a perfect enough ending, it’s improved on with the surprise “second ending” of Darth Vader kicking ass with his lightsaber and telekinetic abilities on the rebels escaping with the plans, seguing perfectly into the very first scenes of A New Hope.
3. The Last Jedi. 4 ½ stars. I had high hopes for this installment given the director Rian Johnson’s work on other projects like Breaking Bad, and his talents pay off, though not quite to the insane degree implied by the critics. This isn’t the best Star Wars film since Empire but admittedly a close second. Where The Force Awakens plagiarized the hell out of the past, The Last Jedi breaks new ground in impressive ways and delivers some of the most dramatic scenes of the franchise. There are offenses like the porgs, and Leia using the Force to fly, but they’re few and far between. The best performance is Mark Hamill’s, who in the classic trilogy was a poor actor who played a whiny bitch. This chapter finally justifies Luke’s existence. He’s that good, and even outdoes Han Solo in Force Awakens.
4. The Force Awakens. 4 stars. The only weakness is the recycling of so many plot points that it sets a record history in cinema. Another Death Star. Rey, the “new Luke”, climbing around inside it. She watches Han Solo’s death by lightsaber, as Luke saw Obi-Wan’s. She locates the hermit Luke, as Luke found Obi-Wan. BB-8, replaying R2-D2, carries crucial information for which the baddies hunt him down. Jakku is the new Tatooine; the winter planet evokes Hoth. The repeats fill pages. And yet it hardly amounts to a mild bother, due to the dramatic scale. Rey is believable and likable in every way that Luke was frankly not. There is none of the Flash Gordon feel of A New Hope; only first-rate performances by all involved.
5. A New Hope. 3 ½ stars. As I said, I never fell in love with Star Wars as a kid, and as a young adult I blamed the franchise for killing the Golden Age of ’70s cinema. A New Hope may have been “unlike anything before”, as people claimed, but it was a pastiche of tropes and storytelling techniques that certainly had come before (throughout the ’30s-’50s), and it all meshed for me artificially. It felt like a kid’s story putting on adult airs. The whiny character of Luke is frankly almost as embarrassing as Hayden Christensen’s Anakin in the prequels. Still, I can’t deny the epic sweep, and there are impressive sequences — the Tusken raiders in the desert, conversations on board the Millenium Falcon, the infiltration of the Death Star, and of course the final attack on it. The Olympics-medal epilogue is offensive beyond words.
6. Return of the Jedi. 2 ½ stars. The first 45 minutes of Jedi are actually not bad. Jabba the Hut is a wonderfully obscene character, and I love how Princess Leia is used as his implicit sex slave. The metal bikini is so trashy and politically incorrect, and a refreshing reminder of the days before such elements would be decried by regressive leftists. Yoda’s passing on the jungle planet is also fine. But from that point on, Jedi is a complete wreck — nothing like A New Hope and workaday as Empire is grand. And it’s not just the damn Ewoks, though they’re obviously the lead offenders. The entire tone is juvenile. The dialogue could have been scripted by a high-school sophomore. There is no vision, just a lazy Death Star repeat.
7. Revenge of the Sith. 2 stars. It’s the best of the prequels though that’s not saying much. Consider how good it could have been: Anakin turns to the dark side, helps the Emperor take control of the galaxy, and destroys the Jedi Knights. His transformation into Darth Vader, in parallel with the dying Padme giving birth to Luke and Leia, is the stuff of classic tragedy. The tone is as dark as Empire’s, sometimes even more so. The slaughter of the kids in the Jedi temple (granted it happens off screen) is an admittedly shocking move that I never expected from Lucas. Sith could have been a masterpiece in the hands of a competent director. In the end, Hayden Christensen is a horrible casting for Darth Vader, and the cheesy prequel elements remain — lame dialogue, cardboard plotting, and digitally overwrought battle scenes. This is the story that needed soul, and it’s not there.
8. Attack of the Clones. 2 stars. This one is pretty dire, but something of a guilty pleasure because of Yoda. He’s always been the best Star Wars character, and Clones milks him for all he’s worth. His grammar goes hilariously off the scales, as in imperatives like “Around the survivors a perimeter create”. Worth the price of admission alone is his lightsaber duel with Count Dooku, which begins with him hobbling into the room like an old geezer to then explode into CGI acrobatics. There’s some other decent stuff too, like Obi-Wan’s investigation that takes him to visually impressive worlds, Anakin’s encounter with the Sand People, and the plot conspiracy of the clone army. I realize I’m damning with faint praise, but I would watch this film over Phantom Menace any day, and I’m stunned at the number of lists which rank Clones the worst in the franchise.
9. The Phantom Menace. 1 star. One thing can be said for the prequel trilogy. Many of the light-saber duels are superior to those of the classic. And the very best one comes in the worst entry of the franchise. The face off between Qui-Gon, Obi-Wan, and Darth Maul is so amazing to qualify as one of the best melees in cinematic history. Which makes it all the more tragic that the rest of this film is so abysmal that nothing can keep it from a rock-bottom rating. This isn’t just a bad movie, it’s a movie that goes out of its way to be bad, indeed to shit down the throats of fandom. Jar Jar is the foulest to swallow, but like the Ewoks of Jedi he simply encapsulates an overall texture that channels the Force of Disney. What a mess.