Wednesday, May 25, 2022

Top Ten Things: Star Wars Films

Welcome to a Special Edition (See what I did there?) of Top Ten Things, here at!  It's time for a ranking of the live-action Star Wars films, making this technically a Top Eleven Things....

I literally can't remember a time before Star Wars came into my life.  I was 18 months old when it came out, and I'm not sure when exactly I saw the original film.  I think it was probably during the 1979 re-release but I can't be sure.  I am however certain that I saw Empire multiple times in the theater between 1980 and 1982, and rushed out to see Return of the Jedi in '83.  The original unaltered trilogy is still my favorite series of films (I can't watch the Special Editions anymore, I just can't), and it's still the yardstick by which I measure every other movie trilogy.

When the prequels were released from 1999-2005 I was hooked on those right away too.  Only later as I actually thought about them did I realize how far short they fell, and for the better part of a decade I'd resigned myself to being an OT purist.  But then Disney bought the property and took the series back to all the things I'd originally loved about it - enduring characters, profound themes, thrilling battles, and visually stunning worlds and creatures.  The Star Wars series was ready to expand, for realsies this time.

But how do the films stack up against each other?  Well if you read my intro the lowest-ranked entries should be no surprise.  So let's get to it - here are my rankings for the Star Wars live-action films.....

11. Attack of the Clones

Sigh... yeah, I gotta get through the three bad ones before I get to the good ones.  Look, when the prequels first came out I was so blinded by my love of Star Wars that I couldn't see the glaring, logic-defying, nonsensical plot contrivances that made the story being told incomprehensible.  And I was so dazzled by "oooh, lightsabers!" that I forgave the embarrassing performances from nearly every cast member (Seriously, Natalie Portman is an Oscar-winning actress and George Lucas failed to get even one passable performance out of her in these films).  The specific problems with the prequels have been explored ad nauseum, so I won't go into too much detail, but suffice it to say, there really isn't one redeeming thing about Attack of the Clones.  The storyline of Obi-Wan discovering an illegally created clone army that the Republic then actually uses(??) makes no sense and is pointless as the main plot of a film.  Why wasn't the middle chapter of this trilogy dedicated to the actual Clone Wars?  Isn't that what everyone was looking forward to, aside from seeing the creation of Darth Vader?  Instead we get the very beginning of the Clone Wars here and it turns out to be a fake war orchestrated by Palpatine just so he can remain in power, while not one of our protagonists can see through this shovel-to-the-face obvious ploy.  Plus we get the worst love story ever put to film.  Plus we get PlayStation One-esque CGI in every frame.  Plus the aforementioned terrible acting.  Plus the "I don't like sand" speech.  This stuff is Ed Wood-bad.  Attack of the Clones is the worst live-action theatrical Star Wars film.

10. The Phantom Menace

Only slightly less terrible is Episode I, in which the dialogue is every bit as cringeworthy, the story every bit as preposterous, and the acting equally wooden.  Plus fucking Jar Jar.  Damn, this is a tough call....  But what The Phantom Menace has over Clones is twofold - the pod racing sequence is fun, despite being a totally convoluted way just to get Anakin off Tatooine, and Darth Maul is a badass villain, despite only having ten minutes of screen time and no real character to speak of.  From a technical standpoint the lightsaber duel in this film is the best of the series (Sure, there's exactly zero going on between the participants, but the choreography is cool at least).  So those two aspects are enjoyable, even if the rest of the film isn't.  But yeah, The Phantom Menace is drivel.

9. Revenge of the Sith

Easily the best of the prequels (by default) is Episode III, where we get to see Anakin turn evil (thanks to him being a gullible moron who just accepts his new role even after learning he's been duped), we get the highly anticipated Anakin-Obi duel (which starts out fine but devolves into a videogame farce that goes on for 15 minutes), and we see the pieces put into place for Episode IV (even though 19 storyline years separate the two films and all this feels like frantic base-covering).  Plus the scene everyone was excited about, Anakin going into the Vader suit, is one of the most unintentionally hilarious things ever filmed.  Really think about this.  Anakin has lost all his limbs and been burnt to a crisp, and Palpatine brings him to this weird laboratory where he just so happens to have the Vader suit all ready to go.  He shoves this charred husk of a man into the suit without say, treating him medically first, and the last piece of the suit to go on Anakin is his life-saving respirator mask.  Yeah that's right, the mask goes on AFTER THE CAPE.  How much thought went into the construction of this sequence?  Was it more than four minutes?  Even before the mortifyingly awful "NOOOOOOO!" moment, the legend of Darth Vader was already ruined by this calamity of a scene.  On the plus side though, Ewan MacGregor and Ian McDiarmid turned in solid performances (at least until Palpatine becomes disfigured and turns into a cackling cartoon villain) and this movie at least had a purpose in the story.  Hell, this trilogy really should've just been one standalone film like Rogue One.

8. Rogue One

Okay, the bad Star Wars films are out of the way and we can get to the enjoyable ones.  The weakest of the good movies is Rogue One, which shows us in great detail (really much greater than we needed) how the Rebels came by the Death Star plans and were able to destroy it in A New Hope.  The protagonist Jyn Erso, whose father designed the Death Star and deliberately included a fatal flaw (the infamous exhaust port), leads a ragtag team of, well, rogues to acquire the plans and transmit them to the Rebel higher-ups.  The film features possibly the greatest space battle scene in Star Wars history, plus a fantastic nerdgasm of a Darth Vader scene where he wipes out a whole squandron of Rebel soldiers in seconds.  My problem with Rogue One though is I didn't care one whit about any of the characters.  Not one of them is given a real arc or motivation beyond what the plot requires; they're just warm bodies to steal the Death Star plans and then get picked off.  Director Gareth Edwards has made the most expensive, best-looking Star Wars fan film ever.  But sadly it isn't much more than that.

7. Solo

A shockingly unpopular standalone film, Solo of course gives us the backstory of one of the most beloved of all Star Wars characters, chronicling his rise from a small-time hoodlum on Corellia to successful smuggler and pilot who eventually joins the Rebels.  Solo isn't exactly an essential SW film but what it lacks in urgency it makes up for with likable, quirky characters, fun small-scope action sequences, and a gritty atmosphere somewhere between Western and gangster film.  Alden Ehrenreich is quite servicable and charismatic as young Han, while Donald Glover makes a suave Lando and Woody Harrelson shines as usual as Han's mentor Tobias Beckett.  We get to see the beginning of Han and Chewie's friendship, the beginning of Han's love affair with his famous freighter ship, and the vaunted 12-parsec Kessel Run.  The fan service in Solo feels much more organic than in Rogue One, the character interactions drive the story, and it really feels like a different type of Star Wars film.  Solo is in my estimation the best Star Wars prequel to date.

6. The Rise of Skywalker

The grand finale to not only the sequel trilogy, but the entire nine-episode saga, JJ Abrams' return to the series had A LOT to live up to.  Making a 9th episode that would please everyone, particularly a fanbase as rabid (and often toxic) as that of Star Wars, would be nothing short of miraculous.  Could JJ have worked a little more with what Rian Johnson had set up in The Last Jedi?  Yes.  Could JJ have taken more risks with the story and not cared so much about the "backlash" from that film?  Absolutely.  Could this film have used a good ten additional minutes so the first act didn't feel quite so rushed and disjointed?  Sure.  The Rise of Skywalker, like its 1983 trilogy-closing counterpart, is flawed, messy, and at times feels like the filmmakers weren't sure how to tie up all the loose threads.  But ya know what?  It's still a damn fun Star Wars movie, wherein the colorful, relatable characters we've come to love in the previous two films take center stage, as do their conflicts.  Rey's origin is at long last revealed and her ongoing love-hate relationship with Kylo Ren reaches its climax.  We learn where Poe came from and why he's always marched to the beat of his own drum.  We're treated to the best Ian McDiarmid performance in the entire series (Yes, I'm serious), even if bringing back Palpatine at all reeks of lazy fan service.  We get a slew of exciting action sequences that feel right at home in this saga.  Like Return of the Jedi this film is given the unenviable task of following the most complex episode in its trilogy while attempting to bring the third act in for a soft landing.  I'd love to know what Rian Johnson would've done with this film.  But for all its faults, JJ and his collaborators gave us a memorable, worthy conclusion to both the latest Star Wars trilogy and the Skywalker Saga as a whole.

5. Return of the Jedi

Alright, now we get to the really good stuff.  When I first saw it (twice opening week) at age 7, Return of the Jedi was the greatest cinematic experience of my young life.  Seeing all the threads from Empire play out in such epic fashion blew my prepubescent mind and this instantly became my favorite movie.  I loved the first half where our heroes venture to Jabba's palace to rescue Han (one of the most visually inventive and idea-rich segments in the entire trilogy), I loved the gigantic space battle toward the end, I loved the resolution of the Luke-Vader-Palpatine conflict (Vader's babyface turn at the end was earth-shattering at the time), and yes, in 1983 I even loved the Ewoks.  So, does ROTJ hold up as a great film now?  Not really.  There are a lot of flaws and it seems like George Lucas wasn't equipped to resolve everything he'd set up in Empire, nor did he have the right director for the job (if only the DGA would've let him hire Steven Spielberg, ROTJ would be a very different film).  Plus the Ewoks are an absurd concept - really, a tribe of teddy bears with sticks is gonna beat an Imperial army?  If only Lucas had stuck with the Wookiee planet like he originally envisioned.  Regardless though, ROTJ has enough going for it to be a worthy conclusion to the greatest film trilogy of all time.

4. The Force Awakens

My sentimental favorite of the Disney Star Wars films so far, The Force Awakens relaunched the series in style, introducing fascinating new characters, catching up with a few of our old favorites, and above all making Star Wars movies fun again.  Director JJ Abrams captured the look and feel of the original trilogy and gave us a wonderful new hero in Rey, a plucky scavenger searching for her lost parents, and maybe the most complex of all Star Wars villains in Kylo Ren, son of Han and Leia and grandson of Darth Vader.  Kylo is shown not as a terrifying Vader sequel, but an obsessed, insecure fanboy who thinks he's Vader's true heir but falls considerably short, in no small part due to a latent sense of morality which he mistakes for weakness.  We're also introduced to a deserting Stormtrooper named Finn, who has a crisis of conscience and joins the Resistance despite feeling petrified and ineffectual, and a daring, hotshot Resistance pilot named Poe, Leia's star protege.  Boasting moving character interactions and thrilling action set pieces, TFA ushered in a new era of Star Wars films and reminded us all why we fell in love with this galaxy far, far away in the first place.

3. The Last Jedi

Here we go.  The most divisive Star Wars film to date, The Last Jedi has had fans at each other's throats since its release, with opinions ranging from "best Star Wars movie ever" to "#SJW #NotMyLuke #RoseSucks #PrequelsWereBetter #RuinJohnsonRuinedMyChildhood #BoycottDisney."  For me it falls much closer to the former.  In fact I consider this the best film of the sequel trilogy even if I cite TFA as my "favorite."  The Last Jedi is a challenging film full of intriguing ideas that flew in the face of most people's expectations (hence the fanboy outrage) and emphasized themes over action.  Perhaps too ambitious for its own good, TLJ presents so many threads and concepts it sometimes has trouble keeping everything clear.  But it's full of great sequences, strong character development, and focuses not on the franchise's past but its future.  Rey spends much of the film trying to persuade a defeated, aged Luke Skywalker to join her and save the Resistance (now reduced to a handful of cruisers), but Luke teaches her that the Jedi are not the be-all, end-all of The Force and that her answers can be found within herself.  Meanwhile Kylo Ren struggles with the good and evil inside him and forms a bond with Rey, essentially making these two characters a double protagonist, each trying to turn the other.  A few heavyhanded OT references and a bit of preachiness aside, The Last Jedi nonetheless opened up the sequel trilogy to endless possibilities for a resolution (which ended up being perhaps a little too safe) while also containing some of the best acting of the series.  This film has grown on me with every viewing.  It's also visually the most gorgeous in the pantheon.  So stop bitching about it!

For our in-depth podcast about The Last Jedi, click HERE

2. The Empire Strikes Back

These last two are really #1 and #1A.  I begrudge no one for liking Empire the best, but for me it's a very, very close second.  The unanimously praised prototype for how to do a blockbuster sequel right, Empire took the universe and characters established in A New Hope and expanded on them, introducing new layers to the mythos and climaxing with the most iconic plot twist in cinema history.  Despite destroying the Death Star, our Rebel heroes have been chased across the galaxy and reduced to a scrappy group of survivors.  Luke Skywalker travels to Degobah to learn about The Force from the original Jedi master Yoda, while Han, Leia and the others struggle to stay out of Darth Vader's evil clutches.  Empire follows the traditional second-act dramatic structure by putting the protagonists through their darkest times and setting up an epic third-part resolution.  Directed by Irvin Kershner (known for smaller, character-driven films), Empire focuses on developing the heroes and villains and helps elevate the material above its pulpy sci-fi roots.  For most fans this is the series apex.

1. Star Wars

For me though, no Star Wars film will likely ever eclipse the original.  In 1977 George Lucas released a cinematic milestone, an homage to the serials of the 1930s and the mythological dissertations of literary experts like Joseph Campbell, set against a sci-fi/fantasy backdrop.  This good vs. evil morality play followed an unlikely band of heroes in their struggle for freedom against a massive galactic Empire and introduced us all to some of the most memorable characters and settings ever put to film.  Farmboy Luke Skywalker was the young everyman we could all relate to, in over his head but destined for bigger things.  Swashbuckling scoundrel Han Solo was the coolest dude in the galaxy we all wanted to emulate.  Firebrand Princess Leia showed us how a young leader should conduct herself.  And the imposing, monolithic cyborg Darth Vader instantly became the greatest of all movie villains.  Blending aspects of futuristic science fiction and old-world myth, the original Star Wars captured the imaginations of literally millions of people and launched one of the most beloved multimedia franchises ever created.  It was the cinematic equivalent of The Beatles - born of its time and place, yet completely timeless.  In a hundred years people will still be talking and arguing about the original Star Wars.  It is an absolute masterpiece.

That'll do it for this installment of Top Ten Things.  Join us on Facebook, MeWe and Twitter!

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