Happy May the 4th, folks. Now is the time to consider the ever-present cultural impact of Star Wars. It’s rather remarkable to consider that the release of A New Hope was now 40 years ago, and amazing on some level that a property born four decades ago would still be one of the most popular worldwide tentpole franchises of pop culture. There’s something innately magical about the Star Wars universe—a power that not even the prequel trilogy could snuff out, try as it might.
Since 1977, there have been 12 canonical Star Wars films, both theatrically released and made for TV. This obviously doesn’t include animated TV series with multiple seasons such as The Clone Wars, Rebels, Droids or Ewoks, though it does include the theatrically released Clone Wars movie that kicked off that series in 2008. Basically, this is exclusively a ranking of every “feature film” set in the Star Wars universe so far.
Can Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi usurp the top position, when it releases on Dec. 15? Unlikely, but who knows? Perhaps the Force will be especially strong with this one.
Listen. If you’re a big Star Wars geek, then you’ve no doubt heard of the legendarily awful Star Wars Holiday Special, which aired as an immediate cash grab in 1978 to follow up the success of A New Hope. The special’s sordid reputation precedes it, like the rolling clouds of stench emanating from Jabba the Hutt. But have you actually watched this thing? Because I have, and I wish I hadn’t.
The Holiday Special is like a trap. It seems like it would be amusing to watch for fans of cheesy, poorly produced cinema; something you could throw on at a Christmas party and people would chuckle and have a good time. Let me assure you: It’s not that. The Star Wars Holiday Special is such potent anti-entertainment that it will actively hurt your appreciation for the entire brand as a whole. Nothing can prepare you for how boring and flippantly unrelated to Star Wars the majority of it is, although this becomes clear almost immediately when you begin watching. For 20 minutes or more, we spend time visiting Chewbacca’s wookiee family on Kashyyyk as they prepare for “Life Day,” eavesdropping on people in bad wookiee suits as they communicate entirely sans dialog. That’s right—you get about 20 minutes of silent wookiee mime theater and growling, intercut with inane cooking programs being viewed in the kitchen by Chewie’s wife. It’s utterly mind-numbing. And that’s not even getting into the variety show-style musical numbers.
The only saving grace is the unexpected animated segment in the middle of the Holiday Special, which graces us with a bizarrely proportioned and embarrassed-sounding Han Solo, along with the canonical introduction of Boba Fett, who actually has far more lines here than he has in the entirety of the live action films. You’re much better off watching this segment on YouTube than making a brave attempt to soldier your way through the rest of the Holiday Special. Even for a Star Wars completist, it’s simply not worth it.
That’s right, I’m putting the made-for-TV Ewok movies ABOVE Attack of the Clones, because this film deserves nothing but contempt. The middle chapter of the prequel trilogy is terrible even by the prequel trilogy’s meager standards, and represents the point at which many Star Wars loyalists turned away from the series for good. I remember that moment myself: The rationalization and bargaining, following the disappointment of The Phantom Menace, when fans assured themselves that the series just needed “one movie to get rolling again.” Now we’re going to get some Clone Wars stuff! A big, unknown chapter of Star Wars history is about to get filled in! How can you go wrong?
As it turns out, the answer is “in every way imaginable.” Hayden Christensen debuts as Anakin, somehow managing to be more grating than even Jake Lloyd was in Phantom Menace, and that kid can barely speak. Where Lloyd irritated audience members via ebullience, Christensen’s petulant teenage Anakin made them just want to deliver a good, stiff slap across his face. Of all the main “episode” Star Wars films, it has what is almost certainly the most forgettable central plotline, revolving around the discovery of the clone army and the very opening battle of the Clone Wars. That’s really all you can say, in terms of plot—those two plot points are basically all that happens in Attack of the Clones. It’s a loud, oafish string of clattering action sequences that offers no insight into the character of Anakin or his growth in the Force since we last saw him as a child in Phantom Menace. The only thing audiences were ultimately talking about afterward was Yoda’s amusing but highly impractical lightsaber aerobics in the penultimate action scene.
And special notice: The worst bits of dialog George Lucas ever wrote are all in Attack of the Clones.
I must admit that it’s difficult to evaluate the two Ewok movies. They were made for TV in the mid-‘80s, and aired on ABC in 1984 and 1985, respectively, but unlike the Holiday Special, they involved the personal attention and creative control of George Lucas, who learned the hard way 6 years earlier how wrong a TV special could go. This at least helps contribute some degree of Star Wars feeling, in the sense that at least these films have a freakin’ narrative, but the much, much lower budget is immediately apparent and consistently limiting. They feel less like feature films, and more like a child’s fever dream of stepping through a Narnia-esque portal onto the forest moon of Endor, where Wilford Brimley and the principal from The Breakfast Club are waiting for you.
Battle for Endor is a TV movie sequel, which isn’t doing it any favors, but even more than the first film, the tone seesaws up and down hilariously. The Shirley Temple-esque Cindel is again our lead character, as in the first film, Caravan of Courage, but this time her fantastical hijinks are spurred on by the fact that her entire family is murdered shortly after the film begins. Yeah! The film is more brutal toward this little girl than it is toward Anakin Skywalker—one wonders at what sort of horrifying Sith she might become if she was force sensitive. Beyond that, you’ve got reptilian marauders, witches and the aforementioned Brimley as primary hero. It’s a light, breezy, completely nonsensical 90 minutes.
The first of the Ewok movies is more or less the same as the second, at least in terms of production values. It may actually have less plot, if that’s possible, owing to the fact that Lucas originally envisioned the story as a 30 minute special and was then asked to rewrite it into a 2-hour movie of the week slot. This is no doubt why we spend so much time simply wandering around the Forest Moon of Endor, but on the plus side, it does give him a lot of time to simply expound upon the mythology and bestiary of Star Wars. Both Ewok films ultimately contributed a surprising number of aspects that became canon, such as the giant “Gorax” alien that serves as the ultimate antagonist here.
The characters, meanwhile, are dumb as bricks, and quickly get across that this is meant for a child-exclusive audience, even if it does include moments that are oddly terrifying. The children befriend the Ewoks (who are initially planning to kill and eat them), who then surprisingly learn to speak English/Basic—where was this during Return of the Jedi, guys? None of it is inspiring, but I promise that you’ll have more fun putting this on during a movie night than you would if someone forced you to rewatch Attack of the Clones. That’s no joke.
Looking back on The Phantom Menace now, 18 years later, it’s become easy to separate the wheat from the chaff in terms of which content Star Wars fans choose to to acknowledge and which they’d rather forget. The plusses of Phantom Menace more or less come down to the following:
- Qui Gon Jinn and Obi Wan
- Darth Maul
- Maybe a bit of pod-racing, if you can edit Jake Lloyd out of the proceedings entirely
And that’s it. Those portions almost make The Phantom Menace worth a rewatch today, but the problem is that in order to get that content, you need to navigate a dense cinematic minefield of stupidity and boredom. Every criticism ever leveled at Jar Jar Binks in The Phantom Menace is completely justified—he was one of the most miscalculated, irritating characters in blockbuster film history, and was unsurprisingly written out of any significant role in the prequels immediately thereafter. But it goes far beyond Jar Jar, or the constant refrain from Star Wars fans who lambast The Phantom Menace for being about “politics.” Politics isn’t the problem. It’s the tone of a film that takes the beloved Star Wars universe and coddles it, swaddling it in pablum and banality. It’s supporting characters like Boss Nass, which someone looked at and thought “sure, that looks Star Warsy enough.” It’s the likes of Jake Lloyd, a kid who was somehow better in Jingle All The Way, and who more or less hasn’t worked in Hollywood ever since.
You can argue fairly easily that the lows of The Phantom Menace are even worse than the lowest moments of Attack of the Clones. But at the very least, its highs are significantly higher, which earns it just enough credit to surpass live action, made-for-TV Ewok movies. That’s the small boost that “Duel of the Fates” gets you, folks.
Revenge of the Sith represents an incremental improvement over the other prequel films, but all too often, Star Wars fans get a little overzealous in anointing it as the best of those movies. Believe me when I say that being a passionate Revenge of the Sith defender is like arguing that Moe is the smartest of the Three Stooges—you might be technically right, but there’s little to no point.
Like the other prequel films, Revenge of the Sith deals with scenarios that Star Wars super-fans had salivated about seeing depicted on the big screen for years, primarily the temptation and fall to the Dark Side of Anakin Skywalker. It’s depressing, then, that his eventual fall, meant to be construed as some great tragedy, instead comes off as a narrow-minded dullard being suckered in by Palpatine, the most grinningly obvious vaudeville antagonist in existence. More terrible lines (“from my point of view, the Jedi are evil!”) build to a disappointing final duel on Mustafar, which tries too hard to exceed any previous lightsaber duel for “epicness” by slathering it with CGI and collapsing environments, only to come to an end because Obi-Wan’s “high ground” is five feet above where Anakin is standing. But hey, at least Anakin ditched the Padawan rat tail, right?
On the plus side, Revenge of the Sith boasts some of the best action scenes from the prequels, and Ewan McGregor is as good as ever. And I suppose we all owe it for giving us the enduring internet memes of “Do it!” and “Did you ever hear the tragedy of Darth Plagueis The Wise?”
The animated Clone Wars film is a little difficult to rate on its own merits, because it served as the starting point for the animated TV series of the same name. It was like the classic ‘70s or ‘80s-style “backdoor TV movie pilot,” in which a network would run a TV movie that turned into a series if the initial reception was good. In the case of the Clone Wars, reviews were fairly savage at the time of its release, criticizing everything from the animation style to the cheapening of the entire Star Wars aesthetic, but time has arguably been more kind to this film than to any of the prequels.
No, the cast from the prequels aren’t back in their roles, but seriously—did you really want to hear the voice of Hayden Christensen some more? If anything, The Clone Wars gives us the best portrayal of Anakin as a troubled young man who is inherently virtuous, but prone to temptation and short cuts. The rest of the vocal portrayals are fine, especially that of James Arnold Taylor, who went on to imbue Obi-Wan with a bit of the wry, winking sarcasm you get from Alec Guinness in A New Hope.
Ultimately, The Clone Wars is more important for the fact that it launched the TV series than anything, as that story grew rapidly from a weak beginning to become cherished by many of the franchise’s hardcore fans. As a stand-alone piece of Star Wars arcana, though, it sits somewhere in the middle.
There’s nothing wrong with The Force Awakens that can’t be chalked up to a lack of overall ambition. After the derision of the prequels, it was clear that George Lucas wasn’t going to be doing any more good by being involved with future Star Wars episodes, so the reins were passed off to J.J. Abrams and Lawrence Kasdan as director and principal screenwriter. Their vision was to gestate a likable, easily accessible reboot that would attempt to recapture the magic of Star Wars by emulating it as closely as possible. And in this, they more or less succeeded.
I don’t need to fill this space with a long list of comparisons between The Force Awakens and A New Hope, because you’ve surely read all of those comparisons before. The only question to answer is whether Abrams’ slavish devotion to the original 1977 film somehow cheapens this product, to which I say: Maybe a little. Although it regurgitates most of the plot points concerning “Starkiller Base,” as well as Rey’s origin story, it at least does so with the sort of genial humor and visual panache that recalls Whedon’s original The Avengers.
What The Force Awakens really does best is assemble a new crew of characters we want to learn more about, and allow them time to build relationships with one another. Its integration of Han Solo and Chewbacca into these relationships is paramount, giving fans a heartbreaking send-off for Han while establishing the star power of the future. The Force Awakens is solid, but fans are desperately hoping that it’s just the jumping off point for a more uniquely imaginative Star Wars experience in The Last Jedi. Let’s hope they’re right.
I can understand the argument to flip-flop the rankings of Rogue One and The Force Awakens, but of the two of them, Rogue One presents significantly fewer hang-ups or objects for criticism. It’s simultaneously more streamlined but more ambitious, being the first “stand-alone” Star Wars film of the new era, and the first of the theatrically released films to not primarily be based around the exploits of Force-users and the Skywalker family.
This distinction is actually rather freeing for Rogue One—it’s unfettered by the grand galactic struggle between light and dark. In doing so, it’s free to focus on a somewhat more modest person’s story, that of Jyn Erso. She’s a compelling protagonist who is given an all-star supporting cast, although it’s a shame the film doesn’t grant many of them a greater degree of character development.
What I do admire about Rogue One, though, is that for once, Star Wars fans were given a film that is a self-contained complete thought. For once, we’re free to simply observe a slice of the greater story that has a satisfying arc for its main protagonist, all within the space of one movie. The fact that a “Rogue One sequel” was impossible from the beginning was the greatest gift that was given to the screenwriters, and left them free to present Erso’s noble sacrifice.
Plus: Darth Vader at the end. I mean, come on. It’s the greatest piece of sci-fi fan service of all time.
Okay, here’s where we get contentious. A good number of Star Wars fans—possibly a majority—wouldn’t dare place Return of the Jedi above A New Hope. There are of course fans out there as well who still maintain that A New Hope is the best film of the entire original trilogy. But that’s simply not true.
It’s hard to miss that the biggest of the New Hope purists are usually those cinemagoers who were alive to see it in theaters when the film arrived in 1977. For them, the movie simply titled Star Wars was a mind-blowing revelation in terms of pop culture and VFX, the likes of which it’s almost impossible for younger audiences to comprehend today. It was such a quantum leap forward, on so many fronts, that its reputation has since been built up to monolithic proportions.
Watching it today, though, A New Hope comes off as ever-so-slightly chintzy in comparison with its two sequels. The performances are more stilted, especially from young Luke—and Mark Hamill will agree with that sentiment! It’s a simpler, less ambitious story than either Empire or ROTJ, and is imbued with more of a young George Lucas DIY work ethic as a result. It tiptoes around deeper questions of the Force that would be explored much more satisfyingly in the next two films, and lacks the emotional punch of either, especially without the initial knowledge of Luke’s parentage. On its own, A New Hope is still one of the greatest sci-fi (although it’s really more of a fantasy) movies of all time, but it also happens to be graced with two of the best sequels in history. Of the original trilogy, it’s the most easily digested in one viewing, because it simply doesn’t have quite as much to say.
Look, I’m not here to defend Ewoks. Really, I’m not. But there’s a certain subset of Star Wars fans who go really profoundly overboard on their Ewok hang-up. Yes, the little fuzzballs probably could have been phased out of ROTJ altogether, but outside of them, the film offers the most incredible action sequences and epic conclusion of the entire series. So please, forget about the Ewoks for one moment and appraise the film on the rest of its merits.
It’s all here: Incredibly varied settings, from the grime of Jabba’s palace (please, don’t watch the Special Editions with their hideous added musical number) to the overgrowth of Endor and the cold, steely sparseness of Imperial command ships. A fully matured Luke proves that his powers have grown considerably, and that he’s not simply chasing “delusions of grandeur” in the rescue of Han. And then there’s the true introduction of Palpatine as the face of ultimate evil—is there any more badass way to introduce a character for the first time than for Darth Vader, who we’ve personally witnessed choke numerous officers to death for trivial offenses, to say “The Emperor is not as forgiving as I am”?
Really, it’s the film’s final act that seals the deal for me as besting A New Hope. Even though there are Ewoks involved, we’re given two things to make up for it. First, the space battle above Endor is the greatest that the series has ever produced, and probably ever will produce—the only thing that comes close is the conclusion of Rogue One. The sheer scale and dizzying choreography that ILM managed to pull off with practical effects in 1983 is still one of the most amazing VFX feats in cinema history.
Second is the ultimate confrontation between Luke, Vader and The Emperor, the tipping point of the entire trilogy’s arc and Luke’s final test—both of his Jedi resolve and his deep-seated belief in the spark of Anakin Skywalker left burning deep within Vader. The moment when Luke casts his lightsaber down and declares himself to be “a Jedi, like my father before me,” bringing a bitter scowl to the Emperor’s crestfallen face, is an emotional triumph that nothing in A New Hope can match.
What else? The Empire Strikes Back would surely win any poll of film critics on the best entry in the Star Wars saga, and it would probably win most of the fan polls as well, with good reason. It’s Exhibit A in the category of sequels that surpass the original, taking the wondrous world we were granted in A New Hope and deepening its purview in every direction. It gives flesh to the idea of the “Rebel Alliance,” showing us how this ragtag band of freedom fighters operates while slowly winning the ideological battle and drawing more support to their cause.
Every character undergoes positive growth. Leia moves from “princess” figurehead to military commander and tireless organizer of a resistance. Han has become a leader of men, completing the transition he began when returning to help Luke destroy the Death Star in A New Hope. And Luke finally starts down the path to becoming a Jedi in earnest. His Dagobah scenes with Yoda are heavy with omens and portents—never in the series have the arcane mysteries of the Force felt so compelling as they do here, as he levitates rocks and digests philosophy. It’s these very scenes that have made audiences so rabid for The Last Jedi, which will clearly be channeling them on some level.
The mysticism and wonder of Star Wars are at their zenith in Empire. The space-piloting scenes have their most goosebump-raising moment, as the Falcon dodges asteroids and T.I.E. Fighters. The petty squabbles of the Imperial Navy and its never-ending parade of dead officers give us a glimpse into the structure of the enemy. A colorful array of bounty hunters is assembled. A classic romance blossoms. And it builds to what is perhaps the biggest “oh my god!” reveal in cinema history, completely redefining the audience’s perception of all the events that led up to it. There’s a subreddit for “retired .gifs,” where .gifs are consigned to reside after they’ve been used in the “most perfect” possible manner. The Empire Strikes Back effectively retired the idea of doing a big “I’m your father” reveal in a blockbuster film ever again. That’s how big that moment was.
It’s hard to imagine that Empire will ever be toppled as the greatest Star Wars film of all time. But if it somehow is, that will indeed be a momentous disturbance in the Force.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and Star Wars quibbler. You can follow him on Twitter.