Monday, 7 March 2016

Rank the Films: Star Wars


As any regular reader of this blog will know, I think lists are pretty darn nifty. I have a profound appreciation for straight-up lists. This is the thinking behind Rank the Films, a regular feature that pulls apart the pros and cons of a series of films, ranking them in order from worst to best. 

Under the microscope on this occasion is the hugely influential Star Wars franchise. Now that Star Wars: The Force Awakens is reaching the end of its stint in cinemas, I thought it would be a great opportunity to reflect on the series as a whole and rate them from worst to best. Where does your favourite entry sit on my list? Read on to find out...

8th - The Clone Wars (2008)

Rotten Tomatoes: 18% 

Okay, let's get this one out the way - in case you'd forgotten, there are actually eight Star Wars films; three Originals, three prequels, The Force Awakens and then this...abomination.

Back in 2008, when all the future held for Star Wars was unending digital remasters of the iconic Original Trilogy, George Lucas also unveiled his plan for a fully-CG television show set during the height of the Clone Wars, with none of the original cast such Hayden Christensen and Ewan McGregor returning to lend their voices to the frankly quite cheap looking animation. Thus Star Wars: The Clone Wars was born, a 98-minute adventure that, despite being released in cinemas, actually served as an extended TV pilot for the weekly show.

Maybe TV is where this film should have stayed. It's not really a film at all; it's just four episodes of the series stitched together to form one 'bumper' adventure. Complaints about the gnarly animation aside (it doesn't look great), Clone Wars gets some credit for introducing us to Ashoka Tano (Ashley Eckstein), Anakin's apprentice who goes on to become one of the best things about the show. Their relationship isn't developed much in the movie though - like I said, the whole thing is just a cobbled together launchpad that should have been left to screen on Cartoon Network.

7th - The Phantom Menace (1999)

Rotten Tomatoes: 56%

In the 17 years since it hit cinemas, The Phantom Menace has become a byword for disappointment. Hype surrounding George Lucas' return to Star Wars had reached fever pitch - so when the final product was less than satisfactory, the crushing disappointment was a hundred times

The main issue with Phantom Menace (if I can pinpoint just one) is the pointlessness of the story. Do we really need an entire chapter dedicated to Anakin's discovery? When we hear about the mythological Clone Wars in A New Hope, we picture vast battles and an arrogant but skilled young Jedi called Anakin Skywalker - not a whiny mop-haired 10-year-old who built C3PO. It tinges our memory of Darth Vader with that of a kid yelling "whoopiee!"

The entire episode feels sort of redundant when you consider the wider narrative - characters like Qui-Gon (Liam Neeson) and Darth Maul (Ray Park) are swiftly killed whilst pivotal characters like Obi-Wan (Ewan McGregor) leave little impact at all. Why not cut straight to the chase or bring the events of Anakin's entrance to the Jedi Order closer to his steady downfall in Attack of the Clones?

Anyway, I could go on for much longer (and have in the past), so feel free to read my full review of Phantom Menace here. Or stick around for the rest of the list.

6th - Attack of the Clones (2002)

Rotten Tomatoes: 66%

This is a tricky one; Attack of the Clones, at the time it was released, was essentially my favourite film ever. To 9-year-old me, it was everything I wanted in a Star Wars film. It had colourful action (the Arena scene), exciting new characters (Jango Fett, like Darth Maul, is done a great disservice) and returning favourites like Obi-Wan and Yoda.

Problem is, it really hasn't aged well at all. The visual effects, of which there are many, look hideously dated and the complete lack of practical sets are glaringly obvious.

Meanwhile, the dialogue hasn't improved much from Phantom Menace. The scenes on Naboo between Anakin and Padme are famously bad ("I don't like sand...") whilst the captivating opening scene quickly transitions into a stale, boring discussion between numerous senators. For every exciting moment, like Jango and Obi-Wan's landing platform duel, we're forced to suffer through another that is dull, lifeless and stiff - like the dinner scene that Anakin and Padme share.

Credit where credit is due, Lucas does broaden our understanding of the galaxy. New planets like Kamino and Geonosis provide new and interesting backdrops for us to gaze at, whilst the escalating political conflict between the Republic and the Separatists does feel galactic in scale - even if that's not the exciting seat-of-your-pants adventure that we're looking for in a Star Wars film.

5th - Revenge of the Sith (2005)

Rotten Tomatoes: 79%

The best of a bad bunch, Revenge of the Sith finally gets to the point we were all waiting for - the actual Clone Wars. After two movies of build-up, the satisfaction of seeing the Republic being torn to pieces is almost as great as seeing the credits roll on the Prequel Trilogy as a whole.

Okay, maybe that's a little harsh. Revenge of the Sith is still a pretty decent film with a lot of fantastic moments - the only problem is, Lucas has crammed them in so tight that the whole affair feels sloppy and rushed. Squeezed into the tight runtime is Anakin's fall to the Dark Side and betrayal of the Jedi Order, the collapse of the Republic, the final conflict between Obi-Wan and Anakin, the birth of Darth Vader, the formation of the Galactic Empire and the birth of Luke and Leia. Where Attack of the Clones feels like treading water, Revenge of the Sith feels like a mad scramble to get everything into place before the Original Trilogy arrives.

Scenes like the execution of Order 66 are superb, but subsequently undone by the ludicrously choreographed fight between Obi-Wan and Anakin. Yoda facing off against Sidious is cool, but Padme's sudden demise is bereft of logic and contradicts Return of the Jedi. In hastily putting all the pieces together, Lucas crafted a sporadically spellbinding film filled with messy character choices and cringe-worthy dialogue.

4th - Return of the Jedi (1983)

Rotten Tomatoes: 80%

Return of the Jedi gets a bad wrap from certain corners of the Star Wars fanbase, mostly because it introduces the Ewoks. To those people I say, "Hey, it could be a lot worse. Just look at Jar Jar Binks".

The biggest issue that Jedi has, in my mind, is the uneven pace. Things start with a slow-burn that catches us up on the intervening space since Empire Strikes Back before the thrilling Sail Barge set piece that sees our heroes escape the clutches of Jabba the Hutt. After that we visit Yoda and reconvene with the Rebel Fleet before arriving on Endor for that superb speeder bike chase. But after that? It slows to a crawl. I know it's to give Luke and Leia chance to get on the same parental page, but everything in the Ewok village feels strung out. The soaring finale more than makes up for it, but the lull in the middle certainly tests my patience every time.

Going back to that finale though - it's punch-the-air great. Luke and Vader's duel is one of the best in the series and the space fight with Lando is fantastic, especially when you consider that it was made in 1983. You really feel that resolution in both a character and narrative sense as our heroes celebrate their victory and commiserate the deaths of their fallen friends.

The introduction of the Emperor (Ian McDiarmid) is genuinely terrifying whilst supporting characters like Jabba, Salacious Crumb, Wicket and Nien Numb showcase Lucas' imaginative character design. All in all, this is a great film that sees one of cinemas greatest trilogies conclude in entertaining fashion.

3rd - The Force Awakens (2015)

Rotten Tomatoes: 92%

The latest film in the Star Wars saga has its fair share of detractors - but you won't find any on this blog. If you ask me, The Force Awakens did everything it needed to do to qualify as a huge success; reintroduce us to the universe, establish a crop of new characters and generally remind us why Star Wars is such a big deal in the first place.

Incoming director JJ Abrams introduces a quartet of lead characters that seamlessly slot into place and instantly feel at home in Star Wars universe. John Boyega's Stormtrooper deserter Finn is an exciting new character the like of which we haven't seen before whilst Rey (Daisy Ridley) is a revelation. Oscar Issac's Poe is brilliant but underused whilst Adam Driver's Sith Lord Kylo Ren makes for an intriguing and rough around the edges villain who feels familiar yet new. He's a Darth Vader wannabe without the calm, collected demeanour - and hands-down the most captivating character looking forward to Episode VIII.

Where Return of the Jedi is thin and slow during the second act, The Force Awakens is only just getting started. Abrams has so much ground to cover that the film does feel a little breathless at times. Just when you think it's starting to settle into a slower groove, JJ plucks up the pace once again and plunges us into another soaring action set piece; the junkyard dog fight on Jakku is my personal highlight.

The Force Awakens is by no means perfect; the conclusion is noticeably similar to the Original Trilogy, but I would argue that this comfy familiarity will help springboard into new, more exciting territory later down the track. Abrams' highly-anticipated sequel is vintage Star Wars and the rigid adherence to formula only serves to remind us of what we loved about Star Wars so much in the first place.

2nd - Star Wars (1977)

Rotten Tomatoes: 94%

For many people of a certain age, Star Wars was a watershed moment in their cinema-going life. Combining a dashing young cast, revolutionary special effects and an ambitious premise that whisked audiences off to a galaxy far, far away, George Lucas' Star Wars caused a pop culture storm so large that we can still feel the effects to this day.

Every frame of this film is burned into my brain, from the iconic opening shot of Darth Vader's imposing Star Destroyer passing overhead to the stirring medal ceremony at the end. The characters leap from the screen - Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker is your archetypical small town hero, whilst Carrie Fisher's Princess Leia becomes a female cinema icon the second she graces the screen. And what can we say about Han Solo (Harrison Ford) that hasn't already been said. He's one of the most famous antiheroes in cinema history. 

It's bold, audacious and striking - what other summer blockbuster opens with almost 20 solid minutes of just two droids, one of which one communicates via bleeps and whistles, and refuses to introduce our eventual protagonist until well into the first act? It might be the go-to film when discussing the 'heroes journey', but Star Wars does a lot to carve it's own path. To audiences in the 1977, it was instantly familiar yet refreshing.


1st - The Empire Strikes Back (1980) 

Rotten Tomatoes: 94%

1977's Star Wars set the franchise in motion, but its the follow-up, The Empire Strikes Back, that goes above and beyond. It sets the template for successful sequels, both deepening our understanding of the Star Wars universe and furthering the character development established in Episode IV. It's darker without straying into morbidity, as well as exciting, humorous and emotional.

The film suffered a famously troubled production period. The rapidly ballooning budget nearly bankrupted Lucas and adverse weather conditions, script issues and financial constraints all pointed towards Empire sullying the name of the original film. In fact, upon opening in cinemas, Empire was on the receiving end of several unenthusiastic reviews.

However, in the intervening years, the film has gone on to earn widespread acclaim and is regarded as an equal to Star Wars. For me, it's an intensely close call; I love the original, but Empire is where we really get into the meat of the story. We meet Jedi Master Yoda, Han and Leia get serious and Luke charges headfirst into his duel with Vader, discovers his true parentage and flees having lost the battle.

Thrilling from start to finish, Empire Strikes Back is a game-changing sequel to a film that already changed the game. It's the benchmark by which I measure all sequels and continues to astound and entertain me to this day.

Which Star Wars film is your favourite? Where would The Force Awakens rate on your list? Let me know your thoughts in the comments section below!

4 comments:

  1. Oooh love this post! I went to see The Force Awakens again at my local cinema over the weekend as they were down to 1 showing a day, I think I loved it even more on the 3rd viewing, ha! Completely agree with your ranking too, nearly. I'd swap 2nd and 3rd place ;)
    - Allie

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    1. Thanks Allie! I've seen TFA twice, and it's just left cinemas near me. Blu-ray comes out soon though so not long to wait until I can watch it again!

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  2. Excellent post. I tried watching The Clone Wars, heard Ahsoka call Anakin "sky guy" and turned it off. lol. I do watch Star Wars Rebels now with my son, and I've been very into that.

    I'd rate
    Empire Strikes Back
    The Force Awakens
    A New Hope
    Return of the Jedi
    Revenge of the Sith
    Phantom Menace
    Attack of the Clones.

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    Replies
    1. Yeah, Rebels is pretty good! It's interesting to see that TFA rates above Star Wars for you. Empire is pretty universally accepted as #1, right? Attack of the Clones comes close to usurping Phantom Menace is terms of suckage on my list too, but I think the amount of Jar Jar in the latter just slips it below Clones haha ;)

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