Judging the Jedi: TW’s Star Wars Ranking from Worst to First

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Who am I to rank all the Star Wars films by quality? First of all, I have an internet connection, and a sense of entitlement. Also, I have been a Star Wars superfan since reading the comics in the ’70s (I was too young to be allowed into the actual film then). I saw The Empire Strikes Back at the theater when it came out. I saw Return of the Jedi on bootleg VHS before it came out. I was a founding member of what, I think, became the sort-of, kind-of Official European Star Wars Fanclub for a while (my memory is a bit hazy, and I don’t want to get sued by Disney, or the Actual Official European Star Wars Fanclub if there still is such a thing).

As a teenager, I wrote embarrassing fan fiction about Han and Leia getting it on, complete with crude illustrations (you don’t want to know what I made my action figures do). I kept on writing, dropping the drawing somewhere down the road. In the ’90s, I made a conscious effort to become estranged from Star Wars. Not just because nothing much was going on in that universe then, but also because I felt I was a grown-up now and had to put away my childish things. So, for some time, I stopped quoting Star Wars and quoted The Godfather instead, because I thought that was what grown-ups did. Eventually, however, I came (back) to my senses. I have been a functioning, grown-up Star Wars junkie for several years now. I am married to a non-believer, but I sense that the Force is strong in our daughter.

Sometimes I have to give in to nervous ticks, like ranking all the movies. So, here we go, from bottom to top. Included are all the regular ‘episodes’ as well as the short-lived Star Wars Stories franchise. Not included are TV productions and those Ewok films from the ’80s (except for Return of the Jedi, ha) that were theatrically released in some territories.

10. The Phantom Menace (1999)

I enjoy being a non-conformist smartass as much as the next guy (sometimes even more than the next guy, I fear), yet here I just have to go with the consensus. Some wrecks cannot be spun into beautiful, misunderstood masterpieces. Seeing this one was quite a shock, after downloading it over several nights via the local university’s dial-up connection, and then searching several households for a computer powerful enough to play videos. (I don’t condone piracy, but films weren’t internationally rolled out day-in-date then like they often are now, and I couldn’t wait three entire months until this one would come out in my home country of Germany when I knew Americans were already able to see it).

The notion that you have to have the correct blood type to use the Force makes the Jedi into a kind of intergalactic master race. Going from there, we are introduced to space aliens that can easily be read as inspired by ethnic stereotypes from Planet Earth. I honestly believe that none of this was intentional, but it is a problem. A bigger problem is that thoughtless flirtation with fascist concepts isn’t even the film’s biggest problem. The visuals are as flat as the acting, the comic relief is not funny, the action lacks excitement and purpose. Even the occasionally praised pod race sequence wouldn’t stand out in any halfway competent film. Or was it just heightened expectations, impossible to meet?

A bigger problem is that thoughtless flirtation with fascist concepts isn’t even the film’s biggest problem.

Sorry, no. I watched The Phantom Menace two more times, the last attempt being several years later, in a calm, generous state of mind. It only gets worse. It wasn’t a good film when it came out, and time hasn’t been kind to any aspect of it. These days, when I revisit all the Stars Wars movies in chronological story order (which I do about once a year), I simply just start with Episode II. I accept that Episode I happened (please no silly discussions about what’s ‘canon’ and what’s not in a made-up story, ever). That doesn’t mean I have to relive the horror over and over again.

9. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)

Have you ever lain awake at night, wondering how the rebels got those plans for the Death Star? Neither have I. And I have lain awake over many Star Wars questions that others might find insignificant. Unlike The Phantom Menace, Rogue One isn’t an entirely bad film. It’s just a very inconsequential Star Wars film, with great actors wasted on bland characters, as well as impressive production values wasted on a story that didn’t need to be told.

The battle scenes in space and on the ground are probably the franchise’s most awe-inspiring, but that only goes to show that Star Wars is not really about that. I appreciated the spectacle of machinery crashing into machinery as long as it lasted, but I never felt the urge to revisit it. (I do acknowledge the fact that this is the first Star Wars movie to feature an actually funny robot.)

8. Attack of the Clones (2002)

A friend of mine once likened Episode II to a straight-to-video fantasy movie. He is not far off. Fortunately, I have a soft spot for straight-to-video fantasy movies. Granted, a bit more trimming wouldn’t have hurt this one. Nevertheless, the franchise did get some of its space-opera swagger back here.

The turn-of-the-century digital effects haven’t aged as well as the optical effects from the ’70s and ’80s, still Attack of the Clones boasts some admirable art direction, from the neon-lit cityscapes of Coruscant (not a terribly original look, yet one that had been missing from the Star Wars universe) to the nightmarishly clean clone factories. And what about those awkward romantic moments between Anakin and Amidala? Come on, when has young love not been awkward. Not everybody can be as cool as Han and Leia.

7. Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018)

As a fan, I sometimes enjoy being challenged, and sometimes I like being serviced. Solo is roughly two hours of guilt-free fan service, and that’s great. The story about something being smuggled somewhere by someone for some reason is hardly more interesting than one of those silly Marvel movies about alien artifacts or magical gloves, but it works alright as a device for setting up the three-way bromance between Han, Lando and Chewie. It also bears more meaningful connections to the main saga than that other ‘Star Wars Story,’ in text as in subtext. Too bad this has been the only Star Wars film ever to lose money, so we will probably never see all of its deliberately loose ends tied up neatly.

6. The Last Jedi (2017)

The almost unanimous negativity that greeted this unusual, difficult, flawed, powerful entry (after mostly kind words from professional reviewers, mind you) seems to prove two things. Firstly, even the minds of usually sane, open-minded folks can be swayed by the mass hysteria kicked off by internet trolls and bots. Secondly, people just won’t tolerate being surprised anymore.

I’m sure if the beloved The Empire Strikes Back came out today, it would be savaged for its jaw-dropping twists and revelations, for its darkness, and even for daring to suggest that there might be non-white humans in space.

To be sure, not everything about The Last Jedi is great. The creature and droid jokes are a bit too old school (old school Star Wars fans shouldn’t complain, though). Master Yoda’s dialogue could have used a rewrite or two. I am not entirely sure whether Leia as a comatose supergranny is intentionally or unintentionally funny. And for a showdown, I would have liked a bit more than the bad guy endlessly shooting at someone who is not really there (come on, so obvious). But in the end, there is more light than darkness.

I never cared much for that vanilla do-gooder.

Rose is a fantastic addition to the cast of characters; her and Finn’s romance is the second-most satisfying in the series. While there doesn’t seem to be much progress with Rey’s story on the surface, a lot is going on underneath it. I fundamentally agree with virtually everything Rian Johnson has decided about Luke Skywalker. I never cared much for that vanilla do-gooder. It was about time this character grew some character.

The confrontation between Snoke, Kylo and Rey is amazing in every way (meaning mostly psychology, art direction and choreography). The Last Jedi was the first Star Wars film since 1983 I wanted to watch again right away after leaving the theater. That should count for something.

5. Return of the Jedi (1983)

This is the only standard Hollywood sequel in the series. Instead of pushing the narrative in new directions, the story only recycles beats from the previous entries (another Death Star needs to be destroyed, more Skywalker family secrets are revealed). That said, it is a tremendously entertaining film that has aged surprisingly well – especially considering that it has always been regarded as a bit of a letdown after the towering achievements that were its predecessors.

It has been occasionally mocked for being too sexy or too cute. Yet Leia’s slave outfit wasn’t much of a talking point when the film came out (at least not in free-spirited Europe), and it really shouldn’t be now. It’s only in a small fraction of the film, it makes perfect sense in context, and we don’t respect General Organa any less for it.

The script often abuses the Ewoks for not-very-funny comic relief, but they also get their moments where they can show what they really are: a tribe of fierce, relentless jungle warriors. The greatest asset of Return of the Jedi, however, is the Empire. It never seemed more sinister, more powerful, more uncomfortably fascinating than shortly before its temporary demise. Out of all the Star Wars films, this is the one that is most likely better than you think you remember.

4. Revenge of the Sith (2005)

Dark, dramatic, almost devoid of hope and humor, the tone of the final entry in the prequel trilogy wouldn’t be right for just any Star Wars film. But it’s perfect for this particular one. This time, Hayden Christensen has a much more relatable haircut, and even Ewan McGregor occasionally acts like he doesn’t terribly mind being there.

No, not really. I got carried away. McGregor still needs to be slapped for letting his doubts about these films inform his performance. So unprofessional. Take a cue from a real actor. Alec Guinness, for instance, who also hated all this mumbo-jumbo about the Force and the Jedi, yet you would never know it from his performance.

The first half of Revenge of the Sith suffers from the usual George Lucas shortcomings like stiff staging and placeholder dialogue, but the final hour is flawless, fiery Star Wars drama. I am man enough to admit that I always choke up quite a bit when at the end the events of the prequel trilogy are being connected to those of the original films. Not even a short, final glimpse of Jar Jar Binks can destroy that moment.

3. The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

Many will find it blasphemous not to put The Empire Strikes Back at the very top of this list. So, why not be even more provocative by only putting it in third place? This is a brilliant sequel, one of the best in film history, right up there with The Godfather 2. It opens up and defines what we think of as the Star Wars universe. It propels the story forward and offers true character development, something almost unheard of in Hollywood sequels.

As a stand-alone film, however, it is not entirely satisfying (yes, even a sequel has to be able to stand on its own). It throws one into events without any exposition (except for that yellow text crawl; a device as crude as it is iconic), and the wide-open ending is a bit of a bummer (you are welcome to find it courageous, or even ‘edgy’). And dare I say it? Dare I speak the unspeakable? The Empire Strikes Back is simply not as much fun, not as visually captivating as that other sci-fi movie that came out the same year and got a bit short-changed at the box office in the face of unfair competition. (Flash! Ah-ah!)

2. The Force Awakens (2015)

They built yet another Death Star? Will they ever learn? The fate of the galaxy lies once again in the hands of a tech-savvy orphan on a desert planet? No, the plot is not exactly brimming with new ideas. Still, the film introduces new characters that are instantly relatable and will have no problem carrying the weight of the saga on their shoulders for years to come.

I am aware what a milestone and gamechanger The Empire Strikes Back was, for Star Wars history as well as for film history in general. But for pure Star Wars fun, this is the one I turn to. And fun is really what these movies are about. They are not for the Un Certain Regard section at the Cannes film festival. They are also not for making bullet point lists about how the behavioral patterns and equipment of stormtroopers suddenly have changed from what they were 40 years ago, and how the film sucks because of that. The Force Awakens comes across a bit slight initially, but it rewards repeated viewing. And as the cool people say: It sparks joy.

1. Star Wars (1977)

There are Star Wars movies with more plot twists, more creatures, more spaceships, more bang for your buck. But the first outing is still the most rounded, most balanced. It properly introduces the characters that we will be in love with for the rest of our lives. It tells a straight-forward story with a satisfying conclusion. From cowboy and samurai movies to sci-fi comics and novels, it wears its influences on its sleeve, and yet it molds them into something completely unique. It presents a rusty, oily, lived-in version of science fiction that we haven’t seen on screen before. It establishes everything that is great about Star Wars.

Simply put: If you don’t love this one, don’t bother with the others. It’s okay. It’s an acquired taste (although millions all over the world apparently found it quite easy to acquire). I have no desire anymore to push Star Wars on people who just don’t feel it. We can all get along. On that note: I would like people to stop trying to push Game of Thrones on me. I tried. God knows, I tried.

(This article will be updated in a year or two when I will have formed a tentative opinion about The Rise of Skywalker.)

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