Saturday, December 23, 2017

All the Star Wars Movies Ranked

You probably have seen all or most of the major theatrically released Star Wars movies, but with an animated film, made-for-TV productions, who knows how many stand-alone films, and an infamous holiday special, there are many more out there than just the eight episodes. Some are good, some are bad, and some are uglier than Jabba himself. Below is my official ranking of all of the Star Wars films released so far:

14. The Star Wars Holiday Special
You have not lived until you've seen The Star Wars Holiday Special. I almost simply want to leave it at that. Why was there a desire to turn the hit 1977 blockbuster into a Christmas special one year later on TV? Money, I guess. Money, and the fact that people often like movies that are so bad, they're good. This "holiday special" opens with Han and Chewie being chased by a Star Destroyer, some mumbo-jumbo about a Christmas-like holiday called Life Day, and then a bizarre introduction of the cast. The regulars are all there--how they were convinced to do a TV holiday special, we'll never know--but we also have Bea Arthur, Art Carney, and Harvey Korman. And an animated portion. And it's a musical. And Carrie Fisher was high. And George Lucas has famously said that if he could destroy ever boot-legged copy, he would. Watch this mess of a movie, and then watch Harrison Ford's reaction to it.

13. Caravan of Courage: An Ewok Adventure
Released a year after Return of the Jedi, which (love it or hate it) featured lots of furry little teddy bear-like Ewoks who stage guerrilla warfare to help take down the Empire, Lucasfilm's TV movie Caravan of Courage took the Ewoks from cute to ugly and annoying. Instead of wanting to cook and eat the humans of Return of the Jedi, the Ewoks (including Wicket, played by Warwick Davis) find two young kids abandoned in the forests of Endor and take them in, even learning a bit of English along the way. (It takes place before Return of the Jedi, so why don't the Ewoks want to eat the humans?)

"," one of them says. The little girl is sick, but of course the Ewoks have all-natural herbal miracles to save the day--hurrah! Star Wars isn't exactly known for its Olivier-esque acting and Shakespearean dialogue, but it's quite embarrassing here. We get a lot of Ewoks talking to each other and Burl Ives (of all people) doing his best to narrate our way to some sort of meaning. Despite what should have been a hefty budget, the production features cheesy-looking puppetry and animatronics. It's all tremendously boring as well, with a lame villain (the Gorax monster) and dull, flat action sequences.

Why was this movie made? If you couldn't stand some of the prequels, just watch this, and it will make any scene involving Gungas feel like Citizen Kane.

12. Ewoks: The Battle for Endor
The sequel to Caravan of Courage, this one is an improvement, but only slightly. In it, the adorable Aubree Miller returns as Cindel, whose father, mother, and brother are immediately killed by marauders during an attack on the Ewok village. She and Wicket (Warwick Davis) escape and meet a grouchy hermit named Noa, played by Walter Brimley.

One of the improvements is that the villains, while being essentially something out of Power Rangers, are for more enjoyable than any Gorax monster, and the Ewoks, as annoying as they were in the previous made-for-TV movie, are reduced to just Wicket. Brimley is surprisingly enjoyable to watch as well; he provides an ounce of humor and humanity in a movie that for the most part lacks it. This movie is still by no means good, with visual effects looking more like something out of The Giant Claw than something out of Star Wars, and this movie feels more like Willow or Labyrinth, which, depending on whom you ask, is a good or bad quality.

11. The Clone Wars
The animated film from 2008 that spawned the equally difficult-to-watch animated show, this is one of the most pointless films in the entire franchise. With lame animation and boring sequences, this is an entry that should undoubtedly be skipped. The powerful voice of Christopher Lee could not save this movie from clunky action and cringe-worthy stereotypes that make Jar Jar Binks seem politically correct.

10. Attack of the Clones
I remember initially being excited in 2002 at how much (I thought) this movie was an improvement over the previous episode, The Phantom Menace. I've since watched it again (and again) and saw just how wrong I was. Truth be told, there's not much of a difference between Episode I and Episode II. There's less Jar Jar Binks here, so that's a good start. And Christopher Lee adds a great deal of respectability here as the villain. We see Samuel L. Jackson fight with his BAMF purple lightsaber, and there's an epic climactic battle that's part Gladiator, part Braveheart. And who can forget that MTV Best Fight-winning duel between Yoda and Count Dooku? I haven't even mentioned Ewan McGregor's hair.

Still, this movie is bad, plain and simple. Lucas' dialogue for a very horny Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) is among his worst. The chemistry between Christensen and Natalie Portman is forced and awkward. (Portman is an Oscar-winning actress and among the best there is, and even she couldn't effectively deliver the dreadful dialogue in a believable way.) There are far fewer sets here; instead there's the ubiquitous green screen. Attack of the Clones is probably the worst of the major Star Wars releases.

9. The Phantom Menace 
Episode I, the most anticipated film of the 20th century, was also one of cinema's great disappointments. Much ink has already been spilled about what did not work with this movie: Jake Lloyd's performance as a young Anakin Skywalker, Jar Jar Binks, and a whole host of issues. Fans over the years have tried to "fix" the mistakes in this movie, with the first being cleverly called "The Phantom Edit," but even those are bad.

That being said, this movie is at least better than Attack of the Clones, regardless of what most people say. Why? For one, there's the climactic duel between the Sith lord Darth Maul (Ray Park) and the two Jedi, Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) and Qui-Gon Jin (Liam Neeson), set the tune of John Williams' perfect "Duel of Fates" theme. Yoda is still a puppet (until he was changed in later Blu-Ray editions for some reason to CGI). There are sets, too, and you'd be surprised at how much that matters.

Fans morphed into bullies when they treated Lloyd, then a young boy, as if he had utterly ruined their lives. The Daily Beast's article on Jake Lloyd's fall is one of the most depressing articles on Hollywood and fame I have ever read.

8. Spark of Rebellion
The 2014 44-minute animated television movie was the start of the animated series called Rebels. With its opening line ("The Jedi knights are all but destroyed..."), it starts with the pessimism of Revenge of the Sith but quickly shifts to the adventurous and optimistic feeling of A New Hope. And who says that opening line? None other than Darth Vader, and the audience is lucky enough to be able to hear James Earl Jones' voice again in his most famous role. He warns a nefarious-looking individual identified as the Inquisitor about the "children of the Force," and that if they do not join the Empire, they are to be destroyed. It's not the best cameo ever, but it is nevertheless fantastic to hear his voice again.

Speaking of voices, from here, much of the villains are predictably voiced by Brits, lecturing subjects of the "Em-piyah" and ordering them about. With animation, this goofy dialogue and exaggerated physical movement is more tolerable than in the live-action films. We meet a young boy named Ezra (voiced by Taylor Gray) who is meant to be sort of a hybrid of Luke and Han, an orphan strong with the Force but also an arrogant "street rat" and unfortunately one of the most annoying, bland characters in the series.

The characteristics are enough to remind audiences that the franchise often likes to recycle, as is also the case here with speed race chases, TIE Fighter fights, and mumbo-jumbo about light speed. Spark of Rebellion has its humorous moments, but at times is just as implausible as any other Star Wars movie, with a villain who cheats death way too often, Stormtroopers who can't shoot straight, and heroes who are way too lucky. Still, the animation is impressive, and it's nice to see other elements of the Expanded Universe. Starting a series that would also feature voice performances from Freddie Prinze, Jr., Jason Isaacs, David Oyelowo, and Star Wars alumni Frank Oz, Billy Dee Williams, and Anthony Daniels, it's a recommendable and fun short film.

7. Revenge of the Sith
In my original review of The Force Awakens, I wrote that Revenge of the Sith was the superior of the two. I was wrong. Revenge of the Sith, the darkest of the films, was a step in the right direction after two missteps, utilizing a necessary bleakness to a set of stories that often are overly happy. This also features the best acting of the prequel trilogy. Hayden Christensen is not exactly Marlon Brando, but he improved enough in time. Portman also gives her best performance of the three movies, even if her dialogue is atrocious. Ian McDiarmid as Palpatine gives a tremendous (if not over-the-top) performance, seducing young Anakin to the Dark Side. Jackson gives a good send-off, and McGregor is fantastic as always.

But especially compared to The Force Awakens, Revenge of the Sith often is a CGI mess, covered with awful humor that falls flat. Many times it's boring, much more boring than the following films. The villains (aside from Palpatine) are also disappointing. Christopher Lee's Count Dooku is killed off early in the film. General Grieveous is probably the dullest of all the bad guys. And instead of seeing Darth Vader as we know him for much of the movie, he doesn't appear until the end in one of cinema's most disappointing cameos.

Still, this is one of the most powerful, disturbing of the franchise. The scenes of Anakin and the clones' betrayal of the Jedi is masterfully captured by Lucas and crew. Anakin's murder of younglings is especially heartbreaking, as it is reminiscent of the Sandy Hook massacre.

Dark, yes, but this was surely the best of the prequel trilogy.

6. The Force Awakens
Yes, there are legitimate complaints against this film: there are numerous plot holes, it's another example of Hollywood's nostalgia problem, it's phobia of the political allegories of the prequel trilogy resulted in no explanation of the historical and geopolitical allegories of the Republic and the Resistance, its probably the only boring Andy Serkis motion-capture performance (as Snoke), and it is almost painfully unoriginal. I think I actually enjoyed watching the three trailers more than this much-anticipated film. The characters are awesome, but here too there are problems: It's nice that there is a tough-as-nails female protagonist, but J.J. Abrams et al made her too flawless--she not only is an exceptional pilot, but can also defeat a Jedi trained not only by Luke Skywalker but also Snoke.

But The Force Awakens also reignited in me my childhood fascination with this franchise and made me want to revisit all the novels, video games, and comic books of my youth. John Williams' score, particularly Rey's theme, is his best in years. There is also a bit of thought behind it: the depressing reality of getting up right after the events of Return of the Jedi to fight a permanent war, or that Kylo Ren represents the bigotry prevalent still in many Millennials for example. Smart stuff, actually.

The Force Awakens was given a pass by many critics and fans who were thrilled that it wasn't a repeat of some of the prequel movies. But ultimately, it was still a very enjoyable film.

5. Rogue One
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is the Star Wars movie that could. The first in the series' anthology stories, this was the tale nobody cared about, and yet was much better than the highly hyped Force Awakens. The special effects are spectacular, the tension is real, and this is practically the only Star Wars movie that recognizes that the second word in the franchise's title has important weight to it. There's true delight in not only seeing familiar faces from the original trilogy (like Vader and, somewhat controversially, Grand Moff Tarkin), but also the prequel trilogy (like Jimmy Smitts as Bail Organa). Its most notable flaw, however, is the lack of character development. While Ben Mendelsohn as the villainous Director Krennic hits just about every note right, and Alan Tudyk as K2SO provides plentiful comic relief, there is not much depth to many of the other characters. Perhaps there didn't need to be, as this was only a standalone film with no planned sequel.

4. The Last Jedi
Screw the fans! This is the best one Lucasfilm has made in a long time. This movie, as many have said, doesn't care about your Snoke theory, or your brilliant ideas about who Rey's parents are. It does it's own thing. There is respect for what has come before it, but there's also a sense of urgency in trying to avoid letting the series become stale. Rian Johnson, who will direct a new Star Wars trilogy that will likely feature entirely new characters, has been taking a beating for writing and directing what apparently is one of the most controversial in the series. Why? I still don't quite know. Maybe, as some have speculated, it's because people (by people I mean racist, sexist people) are opposed to how these newer films are more diverse. Maybe it's because people have thought Johnson deviated too much from the established canon and precedents. Maybe it's because they really hate porgs. I don't know.

Like The Force Awakens before it, there are problems: Some things are tied up too quickly, there's too much dues ex machina, and some segments drag on too long and are too unnecessary. Nothing is perfect. Luke Skywalker has come full circle and is now the Obi-Wan character, and Mark Hamill is great to watch. Carrie Fisher gives a fantastic final performance. Rey, Finn, Poe, BB-8, and Kylo Ren are terrific, Kylo in particular. Here's how Alison Willmore at Buzzfeed describes the character: "Vader was an epic villain. Kylo was a kid who started idolizing his infamous grandfather because his parents were too busy to pay him enough attention, and even as a man he holds onto to Vader's burnt-out helmet like a teenage outcast hoarding Axis memorabilia left behind by the generation no one talks about at family reunions." Like The Force Awakens, there often is a lot of intelligent symbolism here.

So I will repeat: this is the best Star Wars movie in a long time.

3. Return of the Jedi
What can I say? I like Ewoks (at least the ones that appear here and not on television). Like The Empire Strikes Back before it, while it has a boring second act, this entry, the final in the original trilogy, introduces us to iconic characters (e.g. Jabba the Hutt, Emperor Palpatine) while adding depth to the characters we've fallen in love with. In Darth Vader, audiences witness the final stage in a six-part story arc that offered the best example of a tragic hero's rise and downfall (and redemption). Ian McDiarmid's Palpatine is (as with Revenge of the Sith) occasionally over the top but a terrifying presence. And Denis Lawson finally gets to use his own voice as Wedge Antilles, one of fans' favorite minor characters. (Lawson also is the uncle of Ewan McGregor, who played the younger Obi-Wan Kenobi.)

This is about as good a conclusion to a trilogy as there has been, though my only advice is to do yourself a favor and find a copy of the original 1983 ending, not the nauseating changed edition from the late 90s.

2. The Empire Strikes Back
This is the film that famously elevated the franchise away from simply a hugely entertaining blockbuster and into some serious stuff. Whether it's the introduction of Yoda, the powerful brass of John Williams' "Imperial March" theme, or that immortal twist, this film is a classic. It's not, however, as perfect as everyone says it is. Of the original three, it arguably moves at the slowest pace, and in a post-Harvey Weinstein, #MeToo world, watching Han basically sexually assault Leia and then Lando's creepy advances toward her and really awful to watch. And Leia kisses her Luke...only for us to find out in Return of the Jedi that they're siblings.

If you can get past all that, you'll love The Empire Strikes Back. There's an exciting battle in snow in the first act, a daring chase through an asteroid field, Boba Fett (everyone's favorite secondary character), possibly the best lightsaber duel, and iconic lines throughout. I don't blame people for saying this is the one they like the most, I just don't agree with them. For I think the best Star Wars movie is...

1. Star Wars (aka A New Hope)
I don't care what anyone says; nothing beats the original. A New Hope is better than The Empire Strikes Back. This one has far more wonder and magic than any after it. It's true that the dialogue is at its most wooden, with whiny lines about power converters and fast ships. But there's just something there that the others don't have. 

This is a motion picture unlike any before or since. Its mixture of mythology, science fiction, groundbreaking special effects, history, politics, that awesome musical score, and old-fashioned fun must have felt like a welcome breath of fresh air in the cynical late seventies. That opening scrawl, C-3PO and R2D2 lost in the desert, the introduction of the Jedi and the Force, Vader and that iconic voice by James Earl Jones (and thank goodness not the original), Han and Chewbacca, Peter Cushing as Tarkin, Alec Guinness as Obi-Wan Kenobi, and all those unforgettable lines (like "Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi. You're my only hope").

George Lucas literally nearly got himself killed making his passion project. After a more mature science fiction flick called THX-1138 and a successful nostalgia picture called American Graffiti, he could have played it safe and direct films more similar to those of his mentor, Francis Ford Coppola or his buddies Martin Scorsese and Brian De Palma, both of whom didn't understand the movie when he screened it for them. (But who did? Steven Spielberg, who predicted it would be the most successful movie of all time.) Exhausted, he fired his editors when the space battles weren't fast enough. He took chance after change about a story that featured basically a dog that walks on two legs and wizards with laser swords. 

And the final product has so much energy that it is not surprisingly in the slightest that the franchise has lasted forty years. Should it last for forty more? Probably not. Star Wars is not SNL, it's not Marvel. But for the time being, Lucasfilm can keep 'em coming.   


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