With a new Star Wars movie out, the first in ten years, now is as good a time as any to see how all the films stack up. Thatâ€™s right, itâ€™s time to put the Star Wars movies through the Pecking Order pacesâ€”much like with have with everything from the Final Fantasy games to, more recently, the Fallout ones.
As with any Pecking Order, this is somebodyâ€™s opinion! My opinion, specifically. If you have a different order, fantastic. Cool, letâ€™s begin.
1. Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back
The default number one choice, but for good reason. Try to put yourself in the headspace of a person seeing it for the first time back in 1980, three years after you saw A New Hope. â€œLuke, I am your father.â€ The revelation was mind-melting. I saw the 1981 theatrical re-release as a small child and the movieâ€™s dark edge made quite an impression, as did the settings, which were different from anything in the previous film.
While the payoff does rely heavily on the previous filmâ€™s groundwork, Empire would be an amazing movie as a standalone. It works as a movie, not simply as a Star Wars one.
Recently, itâ€™s become somewhat in vogue to credit everyone but George Lucas for the good Star Wars films, to the point of overstating what others brought to the table and understating Lucasâ€™s contributions. That being said, the smartest thing Lucas did was to turn over the reigns to another director, and to hire smart writers to punch up the dialogueâ€”allowing them to do what they did best and him to focus on being a creative producer and overseeing the entire production.
Lucas has been at his best when he is collaborating, whether thatâ€™s with Ralph McQuarrie, Irvin Kershner, Lawrence Kasdan, or the filmâ€™s actors. For all the 20th century hype on auteurism and a singular filmmakerâ€™s vision, film is a collaborative medium. Few films prove that better than The Empire Strikes Back.
2. Episode IV – A New Hope
The story goes that George Lucas wasnâ€™t able to secure the rights to Flash Gordon, so he did his version. He cribbed the now iconic opening crawl, but added a healthy dose of Akira Kurosawa, such as the directorâ€™s preference to transition scenes with wipes, and taking inspiration from the 1958 film Hidden Fortress as well as Japanese kimono and armor.
Lucas hasnâ€™t directed that many feature films over the years, and A New Hope is still his best work. It wasnâ€™t an easy film for him to make. While this is the film that launched one of the biggest franchises ever, what really sticks out about it these days isnâ€™t just the trench run sequence or Obi-Wanâ€™s duel with Darth Vader, itâ€™s how many of the scenes linger and are deliberately paced. Modern movies move at a quick clip, but A New Hope takes its time. Characters sit around and talk about their hopes and dreams in a way that you donâ€™t see much these days in mass entertainment Hollywood films. The movie is anything but dull, mind you. But its deliberate pacing sets it apart from the modern blockbusters it helped inspire.
3. Episode VII – The Force Awakens
There is much to like about The Force Awakensâ€”most obviously, that amid intense pressure, the filmmakers delivered an entertaining Star Wars picture. Itâ€™s difficult to make a good movieâ€”any movieâ€”so the odds were stacked against the filmmakers. The fact that, amid all the pressures and lofty expectations, they pulled it off is quite an impressive feat.
But for me, what puts this movie so high on the list is that while itâ€™s a terrific Star Wars movie, it also completely flips what we think of as â€œStar Warsâ€ on its head. We have the Star Wars characters you know and love (Han, Leia, Chewie, etc, etc), but the new ones are quite different. Finn, for example, isnâ€™t entirely heroic. In many scenes, heâ€™s cowardly. In other scenes, heâ€™s selfish. Heâ€™s one of the most human characters Iâ€™ve ever seen in a Star Wars movie, and John Boyega does a brilliant job of bringing him to life in a compassionate way.
The other new charactersâ€”Daisy Ridleyâ€™s Rey and Adam Driverâ€™s Kylo Renâ€”are also fascinating. Rey fits more within the type of Star Wars characters we are familiar with: Sheâ€™s tough, kick-ass, and heroic. However, the character plays a nice foil to Luke Skywalker: While Luke couldnâ€™t wait to get off of Tatooine, Rey feels compelled to stay on Jakku. Kylo Ren looks like the type of evil Star Wars character we are now familiar with (thereâ€™s a hood and a mask), but heâ€™s brash and bratty, throwing fits that send Stormtroopers running. Meanwhile, heâ€™s a dark jedi tempted by the light; an inversion of the temptation Luke so famously faced in the original trilogy.
The movie also has a self-aware quality that sometimes works (such as when Poe mocks Kylo Ren for his mask) and sometimes doesnâ€™t (the numerous recycled Star Wars lines and scenes). This is a movie that aims to please. It wants you to like it. And I do.
4. Episode VI – Return of the Jedi
Another difficult one. I talked to my colleague Evan Narcisse about this, and he argued that because Return of the Jedi is payoff and culmination, it should be higher than The Force Awakens. Honestly, The Force Awakens just edges it out.
I like how the film opens. I love the early set pieces, and I like how it seems like Luke really could join the dark side. The showdown between Darth Vader and Luke is satisfying. There are also lots of things that Iâ€™ve grown to like less over the years. Do I hate the Ewoks? No. Did I like them better when I was six? Yes.
My absolute favorite thing about Return of the Jedi was and remains Lando Calrissian. Itâ€™s his fault that everything went pear-shaped in The Empire Strikes Back. He seems aware of that, which is why he returns in Jedi to help get Han Solo back and fly the Millenium Falcon. Heâ€™s there to set things right. Part of me has always wished the whole movie was told from his point of view.
Originally, the film was going to be called Revenge of the Jedi, but as the story goes, Lucas changed the title because Jedi donâ€™t do revenge. They return. This is the same line of thinking that led to the â€œGreedo shot firstâ€ re-edit (because Han Solo is a hero and heroes donâ€™t shoot first). To me, it marks the start of the Bad George Lucas Era.
5. Episode III: Revenge of the Sith
For all the (deserved) complaints about George Lucasâ€™ newer Star Wars movies, Revenge of the Sith is okay! Corny dialogue aside, itâ€™s easily the best of film of the prequels. Howâ€™s that for a backhanded compliment?
This is still a weird movie. One of the main bad guys is a cyborg with a terrible cough. Thatâ€™s not necessarily a bad thing, and Iâ€™ve always respected how Lucas goes out of his way to change things up with each film. Sometimes, though, heâ€™s changing things for the worse.
Itâ€™s got some big space battles and a neat lava showdown, but at the end of the movie, I was left wondering: This? Weâ€™ve been building to this? We never saw the transformation that was promised, we only watched Anakin go from a wooden child actor to a rather mopey adult.
When I saw Revenge of the Sith, I kept thinking about how artfully Michael Corleoneâ€™s transformation was handled in The Godfather. Lucas wasnâ€™t able to pull off Anakinâ€™s change with nearly the same degree of skill. Thereâ€™s no conviction. Itâ€™s all artifice. Anakin becomes bad because heâ€™s supposed to become Darth Vader. The journey was supposed to be compelling, but it wasnâ€™t. Forget Jar-Jar, the Midi-chlorians, Clone Troopers killing Jedi, and all that other crap, this is why ultimately why the entire Episode I to III trilogy, including Revenge of the Sith, was unsatisfying.
6. Episode II: Attack of the Clones
Dull, dull, dull. There were some bright spotsâ€”namely the action scenes, which were far more inspired than any of the dialogue. I do love the shades of Raiders of the Lost Ark during Obi-Wanâ€™s fight with Jango Fett.
Re-watching the movie now, the CG has aged poorly. The performances havenâ€™t aged poorly; they were poor to begin with. This is a very dull movie thatâ€™s only barely worth watching for some of the fight scenes. At least it was nice to see Christopher Lee in a Star Wars movie. Itâ€™s nice to see Christopher Lee in any movie.
7. Episode I: The Phantom Menace
Well. Where to begin? This is one joyless, flat movie. The acting is terrible, Jar-Jar is terrible, the dialogue is bad, and the ending is awful. From start to finish, The Phantom Menace alternates from disaster to disappointment. That being said, the movieâ€™s soundtrack is excellent. So are some of the fights. Make that, one of the fights.
I remember right before I saw the movie, an art major friend of mine said, â€œOh, youâ€™ll really like the symbolism.â€ Not only was that friend wrong, he was, Iâ€™m assuming, drunk. The religious symbolism in this movie is heavy-handed and bland.
The Phantom Menace probably wasnâ€™t specifically designed to irritate Star Wars fans (the Force is Midi-chlorians? What?) but it managed to do so from start to finish.
To contact the author of this post, write to bashcraftATkotaku.com or find him on Twitter@Brian_Ashcraft.