As a long time Star Wars lover I honestly believe there are only two terrible Star Wars films. The first: The Star Wars Christmas Special, which remains the holocaust of television. It’s technically not part of canon but it’s so bad I have to mention it.
I’m ignoring the Ewok films because they are not canon. Besides, I've only seen them once and I was a kid so I remember nothing about them.
The Clone War animated series is technically canon Star Wars but it's five seasons long. Perhaps one day I will get around to watching them. Today is not that day.
So it really just comes down to the other Star Wars movie that I think is terrible. A film so awful I will go out on a limb and proclaim it to be one of the worst ever made, but we’ll get to that in a minute.
Aside from that one film, most Star Wars movies are -- well, mediocre. Which means I am splitting hairs deciding that one mediocre film is better than another. You know what, I’ll assign letter grades to help with the process. I mean, we all understand that a C + is better than a C, which is better than a C -, despite the fact they are all average. This also means that my opinion of them is so close that I could easily shuffle a lot of those C movies around, but for today, here's where they stand.
But how can I claim to love Star Wars and then say the majority of the movies are -- "Meh, they're okay." It all about the execution, man! So, the SW universe continues to enchants me. When they're good, they're great. When they're mediocre, they're still - set in the SW universe (and they probably feature light sabers!) =)
To be fair there is plenty to like and dislike in most Star Wars films. And while going to the movie theater can be an experience it's sometimes hard to separate that experience, from the movie itself. I mean, seeing Star Wars in the theater when you are five years old is AN EVENT. And from there it's hard to create an objective analysis of what works and / or does not work in the movie itself.
But I’ll try. Though, Luke is probably right -- “This will not work out that way you think.”
As a final note, I am fascinated with the Star Wars Ring Theory and, if it’s one hundred percent accurate, it means that the directing sophistication of all six of Lucas’s SW films are staggering to comprehend. If the Ring Theory is not one hundred percent accurate then, well -- George Lucas still remains an incredible producer and a very skilled director. Regardless, neither one of those things make Lucas a better writer. And that's always been the pratfall of the execution of Star Wars films. I honestly believe that George Lucas creates great stories. But when it comes to transforming his broad story into a day to day detail of what characters say and do -- well ...
Take Star Wars Episode 4: A New Hope (which I will henceforth refer to as, “Star Wars”). A lot of George’s dialogue is clunky and hamfisted and it’s a testament to the skill of the actors that they pull it off with any sort of believability. Harrison Ford is famously known for making fun of George Lucas’ dialogue, he shared this story in a GQ interview while promoting The Force Awakens:
“George usually sits near a monitor, far removed, so I had to convey my impression…or my feelings…about the dialogue across a great space," the actor recalled. "So I did shout it. ‘George! You can type this shit, but you sure can't say it! Move your mouth when you're typing!’”
Later, Ford was asked if he thought he offended George by making fun of the dialogue and Harrison replied, "He sold the company for, you know, $4 billion. He doesn't give a shit what I think."
Maybe. But it is true that Star Wars has always had ham fisted dialogue. And when you cast well, your actors can absorb it and make it believable as Ford, Fisher, Liam Neeson, Peter Cushing, and Alec Guiness did. If you do not cast well and / or end up with child actors, like Jake Lloyd and CW-esq. over emoter Hayden Christensen -- then dialogue issues become exacerbated.
And that’s it. Dialogue. Acting. Adventure. Entertainment. Tone. That’s Star Wars for me. That's what I watch for - though, not necessarily in that order. And finally, if you’re going to make a SW film -- it better have a lightsaber in it. Just sayin.
My Star Wars Feature Film List Ranked Worst to First:
WORST: Episode 2: Attack of the Clones. Director: George Lucas. Writers: George Lucas & Jonathan Hales (w/ rumored uncredited script “doctoring” by Carrie Fisher and Tom Stoppard). It’s very easy to trash bad movies, but Episode 2 is so staggeringly bad it defies -- well -- it kind of defies words. Attack of the Clones is, frankly - completely incompetent. The poor actors in Clones are saddled with a specifically brutal level of hamfisted sentences and each and every one of those inglorious lines are mangled beyond acting comprehension by Hayden “fucking” Christensen. Natalie Portman suffers with the same dialogue that Christensen does, but she is clearly the more talented actor of the two and is at least tolerable to watch on screen. Christiansen is so bad in every scene I can’t actually blame the actor. It’s the director's exact responsibility to notice when an actor needs help finding acting choices that work. Lucas is clearly just couldn’t do it. Lucas uses the same two directing phrases over and over, “Say the lines faster (or slower)” and “Yes, but better next time.” If you’re Liam Neeson, you can work with that level of non-direction. Hayden Christensen is not Liam Neeson. Nothing about Clones works; from the ridiculous over the top droid factory scene, the soul crushing amount of actors trapped in CGI hell (as in, an actor “acting” to an empty green room which does nothing but create wooden performances) and / or Hayden Christensen just flat out ruining scene after scene with the mind numbing dialogue. Can you imagine all the other humiliated actors who read for teenage Anakin Skywalker and did not get the part? I wonder if each and every one of them saw Attack of the Clones and thought, “Wait, Lucasfilm casting department thought THIS GUY was better than me? I should probably go kill myself now!” I honestly believe if Attack of the Clones was not a Star Wars film it would be widely regarded as a Battlefield Earth-esq disaster of a movie. Sadly, the SW moniker creates too many apologists. Episode 2: Attack of the Clones: F
Epispode. 3: Revenge of the Sith. Writer / director: George Lucas. And here begins the run of mediocrity. There is not much to hate in Sith. Instead it's is more like a film of giant missed opportunities. Nothing in Episode 3 is as good as it should be, no moment as satisfying as it could be. Much like the action sequences in Clones, they are equally over produced. The drama plays exactly as you expect it to. Christiansen, a bit older, isn’t as awful as his blisteringly bad Ep. 2 performance. To be fair, Christiansen evilly hams it up to the degree Lucas probably directed him too. Ewan McGregor remains the minimal heart and soul of the film, in that - he’s fine. He’s no Luke Skywalker or Han Solo or Princess Leia but his Obi Wan is -- well, fine. He’s a little too bitchy and harsh in Ep. 2 and I never warmed up to him as a lead in Ep. 3 I think as written, Kenobi is flat and hollow and McGregor doesn’t do much to wake the character up. I certainly take issue with a few questionable script choices; the Darth Vader -- “Nooooooo!” probably could have been handled better. Or that fact that, once again, the Jedi totally forget they have powers that they have actively demonstrated to possess - over and over again. I’m specifically thinking of the opening space battle over Coruscant where Ani and Kenobi should both just use the bloody Force to knock the buzz droids off each other’s ships instead of the ridiculous and dangerous flight stunts they perform. It’s just one of those moments where “the screenplay says it happens this way” despite the fact it ignores all of the rules SW has created in the previous five films. Revenge of the Sith, much like Ep. 2 completely abandons the oft used “less is usually more” rule, Lucas directs scenes of lifeless, mediocre action & emotionless, predictable drama. Finally, I know this actor was in the previous two movies but Sam Jackson is totally miscast and should not be in the SW prequels. Episode 3: Revenge of the Sith: C -
A Star Wars Story: Rogue One. Director: Gareth Edwards. Writers: Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy. This film, I suspect, many of my SW loving friends and allies will put much higher on their list. Fair enough. I just don’t understand the love. Rogue One wants to be a war film first, a SW film second. You already lost my support. There are plenty of options for filmmakers to create dark and cynical movies with war themes that focus heavily on believable trauma and the horrific toll created by war. But SW has a well established tone and Rogue One wants it both ways. The film wants to be about war, and trauma, and sacrifice but it also wants dopey SW humor & push cuts which creates a massive tone clash. I mean, what’s next? A Superman film that turns Kal-el into a bitter, brooding, cynical jackass who murders people to solve his problems? Because no one would do that! (Suck it Man of Steel). I haven’t even mentioned the fact the Rogue One has like, thirty lead characters. Who are all these poorly drawn characters and why should I care about any of them? Well, I don’t. As a matter of fact most folks who love Rogue One can’t answer this basic question, “Name one of the characters in Rogue One?” I usually get sputtering, “Ummmm” response and of the one or two folk who can name the lead female protagonist, I have yet to meet someone who can name a second character from Rogue One. That is certainly suggestive of something. Even the drama of Rogue One is suspect - The protagonist party goes to a planet. The Empire, coincidentally, happens to be there. Huge fight -- this repeats for two hours. Not exactly the stuff of dramatic legend. For some reason Forest Whitaker and his bulbous mind reading alien have worthless cameos. Ben Mendelsohn who is so, so mesmerizing in Bloodline plays Adequate Evil Villain One and spends the entire movie desperately trying to suppress his southern drawl. Tarkin is CGI thrown in, because the producers want to show us what they can accomplish -- a five minute rewrite could (and should) have taken Tarken out of the film entirely. And Darth Vader should not be in the movie at all! I really like that the cast is super racially diverse but what a wasted opportunity to have thirty poorly realized lead diverse characters with -- um -- well, no chance of a sequel. Finally: no fucking light sabers! A Star Wars Story: Rogue One: C -
Episode 6: Return of the Jedi. Director: Richard Marquand. Writers: Lawrence Kasdan, George Lucas. I did love this movie as a kid because, well, what else did I have to compare it too? Return of the Jedi has not aged well and I lay blame on the shoulders of its strange choice of a director - Richard Marquand. He had mainly done TV until Jedi. Sadly, it shows. Action sequences are blocked awkwardly - as if Marquand didn’t understand a widescreen format. He does not have an eye for the camera and shoots scenes with seemingly very little concept of how dramatic motion moves forward. Marquand certainly has no idea what to do with puppets, framing each of them perfectly on for the camera, as one would do for TV, which just highlights their fakeness. Compare the cantina scene in Star Wars to Jabba’s palace in Jedi. Jedi has several years of additional technology but looks amateurish compared to the original cantina scene. Marquand is just the wrong guy to be directing. Plus - Ewoks. Okay, I get it. SW is a family friendly adventure movie and kids love Ewoks (despite the fact that Ewoks were totally going to burn Han and Luke alive and then probably eat them!). I was eleven when Jedi came out and therefor too old to like Ewoks but still a bit too young to hate them. At the time I remember thinking they were kind of cute. Later in life I was able to see the obvious primitive technology vs. advanced technology story trope and that Ewoks were clearly designed to sell toys. Jedi is the first SW movie that made story choice less important than marketing, a sad trend that continues through the prequels. Jedi is universally considered the weakest of the original trilogy for good reason but still there things to like, but mostly a lot to - “meh.” None of the character work plays out as well as it should. Ford hams it up too much. But the final Jedi duel between Luke, Vader, the Emperor is very emotionally satisfying and intercut with, probably the best of all the SW space battles but then cut back to - stupid Ewoks fighting on the moon of Endor. Return of the Jedi should have been much better than it was. And to prove there was a calculated, giant marketing strategy to sell Ewok toys to kids, think of this -- in Return of the Jedi, how many times is the word,“Ewok” used? You probably just guessed it -- not one single time! And every kid and their best friend knew what an Ewok was a month before the movie came out because of - stupid marketing. Episode 6: Return of the Jedi: C
Episode 1: The Phantom Menace. Writer / director: George Lucas. I know, I know. Midichlorians, trade agreements and something about space taxation, blockades and the fact that the drama plays out as a series of meetings (seriously, the Jedi have a meeting with one person, then the next, then the next, then the next…) and finally -- Jar Jar Binks. I hear you. I dislike large portions of Phantom Menace. I will offer only this in its defense -- Liam Neeson’s Qui-Gon Jinn. I posit that Neeson’s Qui-Gon single handedly picks up The Phantom Menace and carries the entire film on his acting genius shoulders. I am not suggesting Qui-Gon is Neeson’s greatest acting achievement. Neeson, much like actors from the previous trilogy, takes the gobbledygook SW dialogue and makes it believable. In fact, he makes it look easy. Neeson creates the only consistently great and likable character in the prequels. Qui-Gon is the Jedi we’ve always wanted to see in SW. He’s a great combination of Solo and Luke - honorable, wise, heroic and roguish. Qui-Gon breaks the rules when the rules aren’t just. He disobeys orders and, despite having an apprentice -- he’s a solo rogue. But he’s also a good guy. He’s pretty much everything we love in SW characters. Also, he’s played by Liam Neeson! If I haven’t convinced you that Qui-Gon is the best character in the prequels and arguably the best character in the SW film universe, then I haven’t. But The Phantom Menace is eminently watchable because of Qui-Gon. Not only that, but PM gives us the most physically imposing, unexpectedly charismatic and acrobatically dangerous SW villain in Darth Maul. Maul only gets a handful of lines but immediately after his introduction his presence is felt for the rest of the movie - just like all great villains. Yes, there is much to dislike in Phantom Menace, and as it was the first SW movie in almost two decades, it's an easy target and is far from being a perfect movie. Poor Jake Lloyd needed a lot of actorly help and Lucas was not able to deliver. Lloyd is universally hated in the role of young Anakin, his performance mocked as “Mannequin Skywalker.” Fair enough. He’s a kid actor. Most of them suck. Lawrence Kasdan tried to get Lucas to cast older in order to avoid just this problem. Lucas ignored Kasdan. The rest is history. Other things about PM - Padme should have been a stronger character, Jar Jar is half awful - and I will only say he is half awful - because Jar Jar Binks is written to entertain children. And children LOVE Jar Jar Binks (adults -- not so much.) Another thing I dislike about Ep. 1 is that it’s the beginning of “Jedi forget they have Jedi powers” in order to create artificial drama. The main example -- at the beginning of PM the Jedi use the Force to run super fast to avoid battle droids. At the end of film when Qui-Gon is in danger, Obi Wan runs to the aid of his master and forgets to use his super fast Force running power -- because the screenplay didn’t want him to get there in time to save Jinn. Argh! That being said, of all the prequels, PM remains the only one that has exciting action sequences. The pod race is fantastic and has an exquisite sound design. The Duel of the Fates combat between Qui-Gon, Obi Wan and Darth Maul remains the most physically beautifully choreographed of all the SW lightsaber fights, though -- ultimately that final battle between the three doesn’t have much dramatic weight (but that’s another story). Which leads me to, what a shock -- the moment the prequel trilogy kills off its single great compelling character -- it’s all downhill from there. Episode 1: The Phantom Menace: C +
Episode 7: The Force Awakens. Director: JJ Abrams. Writers: Lawrence Kasdan, JJ Abrams, Michael Arndt. The Force Awakens feels like two separate movies. Movie one: the entertaining story of Rey and Finn. Movie two: all that poorly conceived Han Solo garbage. Now, before you say anything -- I adore the character of Han Solo but his return was a mixed bag for me. Who doesn't want to see Solo back to his old shenanigans? But most of the Solo portion of the film doesn’t feel quite right. Characters make choices because the screenplay demands them to make that exact choice in order for the story to continue. Nothing feels organic. The entire scene with Solo, Chewie, Rey and Finn encountering each other on the Falcon was undercut by the dopey gang that tries to kill them all. Then, someone thought it would a grand idea to thrown in silly, rolling tentacled aliens. Because -- funny. The reunion between Solo and Leia wasn’t given enough time to develop. In fact, the Force Awakens does a huge disservice to the character of Leia. Princess Leia, the woman who led the defense of Hoth, and oversaw the destruction of Death Star I, the women who, by herself, strangles Jabba the Hutt to death. In Force Awakens she’s nothing more than background fluff who, when she finds out Solo is killed -- runs to comfort Rey! Rey?!?!? A kid that Leia has known for like five minutes -- instead of going to comfort Chewbacca! (Abrams has gone on record to say this was a huge mistake on his part). And that’s the problem with Force Awakens. For each new scene involving the two young, very compelling characters of Finn and Rey we are subjected to really strange (stupid?) character choices by the old guns. I adore Rey and Finn and want to see more about them. Solo’s scenes deserve better than what FA offers. Leia is under utilized. And for a film about “the search for Skywalker” the characters don’t seem to make a lot of active choices to, you know -- look for Skywalker. And as for resident villains Snoke and Kylo Ren. Well, Snoke (a terrible name) has secrets to be revealed I’m sure, but as presented in Force Awakens he’s just an Emperor knock off. But Kylo Ren, well, I found him more compelling then I expected. A rich, white, privileged young man who has it all handed to him on a silver platter is then tempted with power and wants more and more and more. Seems legit (and kind of scary). Anyway. Of all the SW films this is the one I am most conflicted about. I adore and loathe portions of it in an equal 50/50 mix. Episode 7: The Force Awakens: C +
Episode 8. The Last Jedi. Writer / director: Rian Johnson. It’s certainly a far more complex movie than its predecessor, Force Awakens. Vast portions of Johnson’s SW deconstruction film are rich, beautiful and deeply satisfying - if not slightly heavy handed. Rian's use of color metaphor works well as he stages one grand action sequence (in the throne room) bathing it in front of blood red walls with the heroes fighting red armored warriors and a second decent sequence (the final fight) bathing it in red salt rock powder; mimicking extreme violence, loss of life and blood shed without resorting to showing a drop of gore. The heavy handed deconstruction continues with Skywalker’s off putting “get the fuck off my lawn” attitude. Rey and Ren come off the best as all their scenes are well written and play out far more sophisticated than the trailer suggests. Adam Driver is particularly good as Ren and the film wisely takes his helmet off as an actor's face is way more interesting than costuming or special effects. Carrie Fisher is, again, just like in Force Awakens, underused. And sadly, due to Fisher's untimely death she will continue to remain so in the trilogy end (which is too bad because there is a scene in the movie involving her that begs further exploration) Alas. Finally, all that being said, as much as there is to admire and as much as there is to love -- there are things that I can’t stand. I strongly rebelled against the shocking large amount of really, really awful, dopey “humor.” And I don’t mean, “Jar Jar Binks trying to make the kids laugh” humor. I mean the sheer unbelievable extended jokiness of characters in dramatic situations. The opening sequence with Poe facing off against the First Order is terrible. It is so bad it deserves to be in Ep. 2. As the first ten minutes of the movie played out I literally thought, “I am going to rage hate this entire movie.” I mention above that I can’t wait to see more about Rey and Finn. I will amend that. I can’t wait to see more about Rey. In Last Jedi we get multiple scenes of Finn bumbling around with his new partner Rose both continuously saved via coincidence in the film’s most grating story arc (designed to teach Finn his lesson - which is what this whole dam film is about - learn your lesson - you bloody child!). Yes, yes. We get it. But now I hope to see much less of Finn in the final film. And don't get me wrong - SW needs comedic relief. I mean, I thought the best part of Rogue One was the prickly comic relief droid. Maybe LJ just doesn’t have my kind of comic relief. I suppose Johnson’s writing / directing track record could have told me what I was going to like / dislike in LJ. His best film, Brick, is filled with fantastic characters and drips with beautiful noir drama. His worst film, The Brothers Bloom, desperately tries for chaotic, quirky charm and falls flat on its face more often than not. The Brothers Bloom reminds me a lot of the Finn sequences in Last Jedi. But, as for The Last Jedi - when it’s good, it’s really good - the throne sequence might be my favorite thing in all of SW. When it’s not so good … Finn is probably involved. Episode 8: The Last Jedi: B -
Episode 4: Star Wars (I still refuse to call it A New Hope). Writer / director: George Lucas. To be honest I go back and forth with my preference between Star Wars and Empire. But for now Star Wars is where it is. Also, I have been working on a very long piece about Marcia Lucas, one of the film’s main editors and how she, basically, saves Star Wars from being as dull as THX 1138 (but that’s a different story). Much has been written about this film, I won’t elaborate too much. Perfectly cast, well paced, well acted - well for the most part. Both Hamill and Fisher are very young and inexperienced. Fisher comes over better than Hamill but honestly, we can forgive one performance moment where a certain beloved character whines about power converters, right? Anyway, SW is revolutionary and mind blowing (for its time). Multiple Academy Award nominations. Multiple wins. Adored by hundreds of millions. The movie that introduces lightsabers to the world. The names! Oh the names - Millennium Falcon. Darth Vader. Han Solo. Chewbacca. Luke Skywalker. Princess Leia. Those are names! Hero names. Villain names! I can’t accurately describe to you what it was like being a five year old and being in a theater watching Star Wars for the first time. Perhaps modern day kids feel the same way being five and seeing Harry Potter. As for my five year old self, I remember the day. I sat in that theater and the opening music hit, the text crawls by and then a ship appears and it goes on and on and it keeps coming and coming and coming. You know what I’m talking about. And all I could think of was, “I’m in love.” Now and forever I am in love. Episode 4: Star Wars: A
FIRST: Episode 5: The Empire Strikes Back. Director: Irvin Kershner. Writers: Leigh Bracket, Lawrence Kasdan, George Lucas. I know Empire is universally viewed as the best of all the Star Wars films and I can’t find a single reason to disagree. First off, listing Leigh Bracket as a writer isn’t entirely fair. She did turn in the first draft of the screenplay but Lucas universally hated everything about it. And then Miss Bracket died. So Lucas decided that, even though he and Kasdan rewrote the entire script, he would forever keep her name on the film. But who’s to say her influence doesn’t remain somewhere in Empire - I don’t know the exact answer to that. The addition of Kasdan as writer seems to, for the most part, clear up a lot of the clunky dialogue bits that plague Star Wars. Any minor quibble I might have is drowned out by the flood of greatness. The directing, the strong character work and the incredible action sequences all flow together. Hamill is a much better actor than he was in SW. Also, the character of Yoda was never better. I watched Empire many times as a kid but then went about fifteen years without seeing it. As an adult I watched it and was not prepared for how delightful those early Dagobah / Yoda scenes are. It made me a bit sad to know he turns into CGI boring old wise wizard Yoda (although Johnson’s LJ remembers what I am talking about). Yoda is a perfect character in Empire. Beyond Empire he becomes more of a storytelling device used mainly to dish out cryptic sounding wisdom. Empire has, arguably the two greatest action sequences in all of Star Wars canon - the Hoth invasion and the Cloud City lightsaber duel between Luke and Vader. The stakes are never higher than that Luke / Vader battle leading up to the great story reveal. And finally, Empire introduces the first non white character in the SW universe -- I love Lando! Plus, ugnaughts are way better than ewoks and Lobot is super cool. And, finally -- what a hell of a cliff hanger! Even the silly space asteroid monster that almost eats the Falcon doesn't dethrone the SW big boy on the block. The Empire Strikes Back remains the greatest of the SW films and one of, if not the best space opera movies in cinema history. Episode 5: The Empire Strikes Back: A