Sunday, 27 May 2018

Rank the Films: Star Wars


Who doesn't love a good list? On the slate this month; Star Wars ranked from worst to best.

To mark the release of Solo: A Star Wars Story, I've put my thinking cap on and ranked every Star Wars film (except those infamously bad TV movies from the 80s) from worst to best. Nothing gets people on the internet arguing like Star Wars – so be sure to sound off in the comments below with your thoughts on why I'm wrong. Thanks for reading!

10th – Star Wars: The Phantom Menace (1999, dir. George Lucas)


In the 19 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 "yippee!"

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.

9th – Star Wars: Attack of the Clones (2002, dir. George Lucas)


This is a tricky one; Attack of the Clones, at the time it was released, was essentially my favourite film ever. To nine-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 is 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.

8th – Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith (2005, dir. George Lucas)


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.

7th – Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016, dir. Gareth Edwards)


This is where things get interesting; in my mind, you can essentially split the Star Wars films into two camps – the terrible prequel era and the rest. Everything grouped into the former is pretty bad; everything above the fold ranges from great to excellent. Rogue One therefore can be described as the weakest of a good bunch.

Strangely, it's the inverse of The Force Awakens in that it starts out on shaky ground before building towards a truly terrific finale. After a first act that hops around like a bunny that's popped too many blue Skittles, Rogue One wastes time trudging through a sluggish second act where Jyn Erso (played with gusto by the underappreciated Felicity Jones) loses not one but two father figures.

The brief stopover on Eadu is a narrative dead end that creates a rift between Cassian (Diego Luna), only to quickly wind back said rift when the ragtag group of rebels set sail from Yavin IV on their ill-fated suicide mission to Scarif. Everything from this point onwards is the dog's bollocks; in classic Star Wars fashion, the action splinters into several strands, from the skirmishes on the beaches and the duelling fleets in space to Jyn, Cassian and K-2SO (Alan Tudyk) sneaking through an Imperial facility to snatch the infamous Death Star plans. It's tense, thrilling stuff that culminates in the emotional sacrifice of every core character and that instantly iconic Darth Vader scene.

That said, I can't help but feel that Rogue One leans too heavily on the indulgent fan wank aspects; for example, R2-D2 and C3PO's cameo is unnecessary, as well as those two dudes from the Mos Eisley bar on Jedha. And the less said about CGI Tarkin, the better. A lot of this can probably be pinned on the much-discussed production issues, which saw substantial reshoots take place during the promotional campaign (go back and look at the original teaser to see a very different take on Forest Whitaker's Saw Gerrera).

6th – Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018, dir. Ron Howard)


After the troubled production period that is becoming commonplace on these newfangled Star Wars spin-offs, Solo: A Star Wars Story is a pretty decent stab at putting a new face on a classic character.

Alden Ehrenreich does a pretty great job of embodying the swagger and the smarminess of Han Solo, albeit with more idealism, naivety and less cynicism. He's not doing an impersonation of Harrison Ford; he's just playing Han Solo and trying to give it his own spin, which is probably the better of the two options.

The plot, unlike Rogue One, isn't as directly tethered to the main Skywalker saga films. With less 'galaxy in peril' doom and gloom and more character-driven stakes, Solo is akin to a crime caper or a Western. The film is split into three distinct sections and it's the second – where Han meets Lando (Donald Glover) and travels to the spice mines of Kessel – which is the strongest. There's rarely a dull moment as the action zig-zags from snowy mountain tops to a swirling maelstrom in space and a barren ramshackle desert outpost.

An inherent issue is Solo's insistence at showing us all the wink-wink, nudge-nudge stuff that we really don't need to know or see; from how Han got his iconic DL-44 blaster to how he gets his surname, it's the same kind of fan wank stuff that diminished Rogue One. We've spent 40 years hearing about Han's legendary Kessel Run – do we need to see it played out?

5th – Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015, dir. JJ Abrams)


Up until very recently, The Force Awakens could lay claim to the biggest global opening weekend of all time, and with good reason. The excitement and expectation for this film was palpable in the run up to its release; every corner of the internet exploded with each and every minute trailer and carefully curated trailer. In hindsight, the finished product doesn't quite meet those admittedly astronomical expectations – how could it?

Removed from the hype, The Force Awakens is a really great Star Wars film. It's a thrilling introduction for newcomers and a stirring homage for older fans. Some would say it errs a little to much towards the latter, and that criticism is more than justified. The whole third act, complete with Death Star Starkiller Base trench run, is essentially JJ Abrams remaking and reforging classic Star Wars imagery with his own image. The opening act, with a hopeful and talented orphan on a desert planet stumbling across a big secret inside a runaway droid, is almost beat for beat the opening of Lucas' original.

However, with all that said, I can't help but get swept up in the magic of it all every time I watch it. Our three new heroes – Rey (Daisy Ridley), Finn (John Boyega) and Poe (Oscar Isaac) – possess enough charisma to fill a starcruiser, especially Ridley. Our new villain – Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) – strides onto screen and is immediately an improvement over prequel-era Anakin Skywalker.

The adherence to practical effects – from BB8 to the animatronic aliens in Maz Kanata's (Lupita N'yongo) castle – is another big step up from Lucas' CGI-laden prequels. And the return of our favourites – Han, Leia and Luke – is handled wonderfully. That cliffhanger ending – literally atop a cliff – is an all-time classic Star Wars moment; I love how the camera pans as the music swells and the credits close in, encircling Rey's outstretched hand and Luke standing ominously against the sea. Brilliant stuff.

4th – Star Wars: Return of the Jedi (1983, dir. Richard Marquand)


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 (if not 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 – Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017, dir. Rian Johnson)


Divisive doesn't even begin to cover it when discussing The Last Jedi. Has there been a blockbuster film in recent memory that has divided audiences as markedly as Rian Johnson's profoundly strange and subversive sequel to The Force Awakens?

I'll be the first to admit that I was at a loss for words after my first viewing of The Last Jedi. Johnson packs so much into the gargantuan runtime (the longest Star Wars film to date) that it feels like the middle and final chapter of a trilogy all rolled into one film. From Snoke's (Andy Serkis) sudden demise, Holdo's arc from uncertain leader to sacrificial martyr and Rey and Kylo's emotional tug-of-war, The Last Jedi has a lot of ground to cover – and that's just the new characters.

Carrie Fisher is afforded an emotional farewell while Mark Hamill serves up what might just be his best-ever performance as Luke Skywalker, the jaded and resentful hermit who faces an insurmountable and formidable legacy. Luke's farewell, while unexpected, is a beautiful, poetic moment that both pulls the rug from under the audience and causes everything to click neatly into place.

Johnson doesn't shy away from traversing new territory either; not since the original trilogy has the Force been explored in such a new and meaningful manner. From new Jedi abilities to a nuanced and powerful examination of the harmful light/dark dichotomy, Johnson's film restores a sense of mysticism and magic to the Star Wars universe. In dispensing with galactic politics and narrowing in on meaningful relationships and emotional character beats, The Last Jedi somehow accomplishes the impossible in forging a narrative that is innately personal to our protagonists – Rey, Kylo and Poe particularly – and huge in scale. That final shot is stirring and masterful stuff that surmises in the simplest terms the power of hope, love and imagination.

It's not perfect – that Fathier chase through the streets of Canto Bight is overlong and Benicio del Toro's DJ presents a missed opportunity – but The Last Jedi only gets better and better the more I think about it, and more than deserves its placing amongst Lucas' iconic originals in this list.

2nd – Star Wars (1977, dir. George Lucas)


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 – Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back (1980, dir. Irvin Kershner) 


1977's Star Wars set the franchise in motion, but it's 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, The 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? What did you think of Solo: A Star Wars Story? Let me know in the comments section below! Thanks for reading.

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