Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Ranking the Star Wars films: worst to best

I thought I'd rank all the films in the Star Wars series, just for the heck of it. Hasn't everyone else? It's a wonderfully imaginative and realized universe in many ways, but some of the movies are stronger than others. 

So let's get to it!

11) The Rise of Skywalker

Rise is such a frenetic assault on the senses, and so lacking in logic, I wanted to walk out of the theatre. Incredibly, the Emperor is brought back off screen, in the text scrawl at the start, and delivered his 'Message to the Galaxy' in... a video game. Say what? 

Abrams tries to cover the senselessness with a manic pace and throwing constant distractions at the audience, like shouting 'Space squirrel!' whenever we are starting to question what's happening on screen. 

Finn is given little to do, neither is Poe, and the newest member of the gang, Rose, is so abruptly and unceremoniously sidelined it'll give you whiplash. The narrative through line between these movies is non-existent, the changes in direction are jarring and derail the audience and take the viewers out of the movie.

The fake out with Chewie supposedly being blown up is ripped from Raiders of the Lost Arc, where one of two trucks explodes and Indy thinks Marion is dead. She isn't. It worked there, it doesn't here.

It's obvious with Rise that if there ever was A Plan for this clusterf*ck of a series, it's not just been abandoned, but dynamited, chopped up, set on fire, and then packed with weights and sunk in the deepest crevice of the Marianas Trench. 

They had a huge task in trying to wrap up the series, but even accepting that it would never live up to fan expectations (likely true), this movie is just bad. 

10) The Phantom Menace

Oh, geez, Wizard! Are you an angel? Awkward and hobbled by stilted dialogue (some of the worst in the entire series, although Attack of the Clones gives it a run for it's money), it does introduce new ideas. It doesn't use the original series as a template to rip off, although it does have a big battle at the end that resembles Jedi's ending (a simultaneous battle on the ground and in space). The lightsaber fight with Darth Maul is particularly stunning. Unfortuantely I never really connected with Qui Gon Jinn. 

There's a huge problem dramatically with putting a stoic Jedi together with another stoic Jedi (even if he is younger). They don't play off each other well. 

The collection of characters in the first film had a wonderful dynamic; they were easily recognized archetypes, and very different people, which added conflict and spark. Here, as Red Letter Media has noted, the characters are hard to describe other than by using their clothing or job. 

And then there's Jar Jar. 

9) Attack of the Clones

I tried to watch this one again, and was stunned by how badly some of the effects work has aged. 

8) Rogue One

Flat characters and an overly convoluted plot don't help this (to me) unnecessary prologue to the original film. I like leaving some things to my imagination. The story felt fragmented and repetitive, like a video game: they go to find the pilot, they then go to find her father, then they finally go to try and steal the plans. People pop up the instant the plot requires: stormtroopers flood into frame to be shot down like ten pins. 

The plot was pushed forward with such clumsy brutishness it reminded me of The Truman Show, while the climactic scene in the data storage facility recalled the engine obstacle course from Galaxy Quest, only it's played straight—more than a couple decades after Quest's satirical take. 

The action scenes lack emotional investment and went on way too long. 

On the positive side, the cinematography is absolutely stunning, and the film is chock full of iconic shots. 

7) The Last Jedi

The most controversial and divisive film of the set, Last recycles The Empire Strikes Back: it opens with a battle and then becomes a long spaceship chase contrasted with training sequences. It throws in a side plot with a visit to Gambling Planet which added nothing, other than to show how the ubiquitous by-the-seat-of-our-pants schemes cooked up by plucky heroes are reckless and destined to fail. Finn and Rose trust the fate of the recycled Rebellion (sorry, Resistance) to some guy they meet in a holding cell. Part of the reason we watch this genre is to see improbable schemes succeed. How much do we really need a finger poked in the eye of the genre's tropes?

On the plus side, it surprised me a couple of times, such as with the perfunctory killing of Snoke. That perked me up! On the down side, I did not find Kylo compelling as the new Big Bad. Hux? Even worse.  

The possibility of Rey and Kylo teaming up? Interesting direction! Also quickly discarded. 

Everything set up in Force Awakens was discarded or undermined. New directions were set up, only to be discarded in turn. WTF?

The original trilogy had awesome villains: Grand Moff Tarkin, Darth Vader, Boba Fett, Jabba the Hutt, and the wonderful, delightfully evil, scenery chewing Emperor. 

Even the Prequels had some half-decent villains: Darth Maul, Count Dooku, General Grievous.

The sequel trilogy? Snoke (killed off before we knew him), Kylo, Hux. I understand Rian was not interested in Snoke as a villain, and was more intrigued by the conflicted Kylo. Fair enough. I wasn't really, and any pay off to this focus was lost in the third film with the non-sequitur reintroduction of the Emperor.

Star Wars is opera in space. It needs good villains and (for me) the sequel series failed to deliver.

Some say this film makes The Force egalitarian. That's nonsense. Attack of the Clones introduced restrictions on Jedi having relationships and kids. So if Jedi aren't having kids, where are all the new Jedi coming from, if not random families throughout the universe? 

Even then, it's not egalitarian: people are still BORN with Force ability. It's not something they develop with hard work and training, as people in Star Trek progress. 

Star Wars is Chosen Ones and feudal mythology tropes (Dark Lords, Princesses, Knights, Royal Family Drama, Sweeping Battles, Magic). 

Being born with a special ability or power is John Wyndham's The Chrysalids for God's sake: you have two classes of people, those with Force powers and those without. 

And we all know the destiny of the people who don't (I'll give you a hint: it's not pretty). 

If you want a series that really promotes egalitarian values, watch Star Trek: TNG. 

6) The Force Awakens

Likeable new characters, supported by old favourites, and fun banter help float this rehash of the original film. 

On the other hand, it turns our original beloved heroes into losers: Han is a desperate bottom feeder and incompetent smuggler, Luke is in hiding after catastrophically botching the rebuilding the Jedi Order, and Leia has failed utterly as a politician and general to stop the First Order, which quickly obliterates the New Republic. 

Logan did terrible things to poor old Xavier, which I didn't like, and yet the story was so good and powerful, it was worth it. With Force Awakens, the pay off isn't. And it only gets worse.

The map to find Skywalker never made any sense (why would you leave a map if you don't want to be found?) and another, even bigger Death Star... was tedious and creatively bankrupt. History occurs first as tragedy and the second time as farce. What's the third time?

That being said, the performances of the new leads (Finn, Rey, Poe) were all great, and their interpersonal energy made the film watchable, despite the stories' relentlessly repetitious nature. 

But they didn't build on it.

5) Solo

Unnecessary (I never needed to know how Solo got his last name) but different enough from the other films to hold my attention. It had some good banter, but honestly I never bought the lead as Han Solo. Anyone else in the Star Wars universe, sure, but he wasn't Solo. 

The overall tone struck me as... dreary. 

Somethings are better left to our imagination. 

At least they didn't blow up another Death Star.

4) Revenge of the Sith

There's a big, gaping chasm between the original trilogy and the rest, just as there's a gap in quality between the first two and the third, but Revenge is the best of the Prequel trilogy. 

One thing that I'll give the Prequels: Lucas had something he wanted to say. Or at least, it seemed to me he had something to say, even if he didn't say it as well as he might have. The Sequels? I never felt there was a driving artistic vision. Just the desire to make lots and lots of money. 

You always have to be careful what you wish for. 

When I was a kid, I wanted to see more Star Wars films. As an adult, in retrospect, I believe it would have been better to stop at Return and leave it at that. 

Live and learn.

I do find The Mandalorian fun (the effects are incredible), and I have also enjoyed watching episodes of The Clone Wars.

3) Return of the Jedi

Lucas originally planned for the Empire to fight Wookies in the final film, as a commentary on the recently concluded Vietnam War. But he'd already included Chewie as Han's co-pilot, so he thought he had to come up with another creature instead. Being a very good businessman, Lucas also wanted something cuddly that could be marketed. He took Wookies, cut out letters and halved their height. Voila: Ewoks are born! 

As a parallel to Vietnam, I don't think it works. Not because high tech military forces are never defeated by less technologically advanced armies: this has happened often, and I would have bought into Wookies defeating the Empire. 

The problem to me is that the Ewoks have stubby little legs and arms, can't move quickly, and can't get much force behind their weapons. Their arms are too short to throw with any real force (which is why I imagine they resort to sling shots), and they have no reach in hand to hand combat. 

Sure, maybe they could lull their opponents into a false sense of security, like the little child like blue aliens in Galaxy Quest, and then pounce and devour them. 

I don't think they made the Ewok threat very believable. 

That being said, it's fantasy, and the film buys a LOT of good will with the first two, with the wonderful characters and effects and the sweeping adventure angle. It is still a weak point for me in the series though. 

Luke's scheme at the beginning seems... really really badly planned, and I imagine if Rian had gotten his hands on it, it would have failed. 

The final battle, and the confrontation with the Emperor, are just splendid, and they carry the film. The space battle, at the time, was beyond breathtaking. Nowadays, you see that in episodic television! 


2) The Empire Strikes Back

A fabulous follow up to Star Wars, although it is dependent on the first film and requires Jedi to conclude it. It's a very much a 'to be continued' middle chapter, albeit an awesome one. I don't have much to say about it: it's awesome.

1) Star Wars

As I wrote in an earlier post

When the first Star Wars hit the screen it was like a hurricane of fresh air. Nothing like it had ever been seen before. Well. Okay: except Flash Gordon. But this was such a huge leap forward, such a refreshing take on the earlier space pulp material that it transcended its point of inspiration and became something else entirely. It became a phenomenon. People went to the theatre over and over again to see it, and cinema has never been the same since. It was the beginning of a four billion dollar franchise, and it was still unhindered by mounds of marketing crap weighing down the original creativity.

I recently heard some of the music from the first film, out of the blue, and out of context. And I was struck by the feelings it dredged up. It felt fresh, hopeful, wistful, like a beautiful lost dream. Just without all the additional hackneyed crap that got stuffed into the franchise over time by dozens and dozens of different, disconnected creators, marketers, writers, artists, and toy and game manufacturers.

As Jonathan Price's High Sparrow might say–if I may mix my franchises–there was something clean and pure about the original 1977 film. Strip away all the bells and whistles and CGI and toy tie ins, and you're back to the first film and something that might even be described as edgy. Daring. Hopeful. It was made by dreamers, invented on the fly, innovated while it was being shot with whatever could be found. No one was saying 'no, you can't do that,' and 'no, you can't do this'.

It was pulp art, but it was art, nonetheless.

A joyous flight of imagination.

Now it's a bloated, multibillion dollar behemoth, and some of that lithe, elegant purity was lost along the way.

It was probably sold off in a value meal.

Star Wars begins with a farm boy, a couple of fleeing droids and some stolen plans. We end with a space station the size of a small moon blowing up just before it was about to vaporize another planet.

Talk about stakes! Talk about tension!

Will Luke save the rebel base and all his friends, or will the Empire be triumphant, destroying not only the Rebellion HQ, but the stolen plans along with it?

The villain here isn't just Tarkin and Vader, but the Death Star itself. It's a menace to the entire galaxy, a mobile doomsday machine. And it's already killed a planet full of people!

And what do they attack this planet sized peril with?

Teeny, tiny fighters.

Drama is about conflict and contrast, right? Scale makes things epic. Well, here we have the greatest, most dramatic difference in scale in pretty much the entire history of cinema: man vs. planet.

Goliath has nothing on the Death Star.

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