Wednesday, June 20, 2018

The 14 'Star Wars' Movies, Ranked from Worst to Best


[The following article was sponsored and assigned by our Patreon subscriber Charles Testrake. To learn how to sponsor and assign articles to William Bibbiani and Witney Seibold for publication at Critically Acclaimed, visit our Patreon page.]

You will be disappointed.

Modern internet film discourse has – as I'm sure you've noticed – come to dictate that pundits and critics write extended retrospectives of long-running film series every time a new installment of said series is released in theaters. Every new Marvel, every new James Bond film, every new “Star Wars” film warrants a revisitation and a re-ranking of all the films in the series. A curious pattern you may notice: The newest installments typically rank high on these lists. Only the passage of time will see them slip.

Although I have worked in film journalism for years - going back long before Disney's acquisition of “Star Wars” - it may surprise the reader to learn that this will be my first ranking of all 14 of the “Star Wars” features. I am fine having avoided this, as (and this may have me pilloried and ostracized from certain corners of the internet) I have never been much of a “Star Wars” person. I wasn't weaned on the films like many of my peers, having seen my first “Star Wars” film in 1996 at the age of 18.

I have, however, seen all 14 of the films that have been released to date, and I do have a good idea as to their relative standing. And, yes, to erase any ambiguity, I do consider the TV specials and the animated released to count among the canonical chapters of the “Star Wars” saga; many pundits tend to conveniently “forget” them in such rankings.

Here, then, is my ranking, with each film ranked on the Critically Acclaimed scale of C- to C+.


14. THE STAR WARS HOLIDAY SPECIAL (1978) 

Lucasfilm
Rating: C--

Unavailable for many years except via bootleg VHS tapes traded surreptitiously at sci-fi cons, “The Star Wars Holiday Special” had accumulated a legendary status as the forgotten mutant sibling of the 1977 hit. Was it as bad as the legends said? Why was it so notoriously unavailable? Did George Lucas really regret it that much? When the “Holiday Special” was resurrected by the internet, a new generation of fans came to know the answers to these questions: Yes, it's just as bad as you've heard.

“The Star Wars Holiday Special” is a painful experience. It's a comedy/music/animation revue show without much in the way of laughs, entertainment, or quality. It's set on the Wookiee homeworld, and the fate of Chewbacca's family – preparing for the Christmas-like holiday Life Day – hangs in the balance. It's far too long, the songs are horrible, the Wookiee characters roar (un-subtitled) for an interminable amount of time, and audiences drink heavily.

Oddly, I think I've seen the “Holiday Special” more than any of the other “Star Wars” films.


13. ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY (2016)

Lucasfilm/Disney
Rating: C-

When Disney acquired “Star Wars,” there was a brief moment of hope. Maybe, some of us thought, the corporate megalith was going to use its powers for the creative good, allowing audiences to see new and unexplored vistas of the “Star Wars” universe. Disney's first flick in the reworked series, “The Force Awakens,” came under some fire for repeating the beats and characters of the 1977 original (I even wrote an article for Legion of Leia paralleling “The Force Awakens” with the reboot ethos of “Tiny Toon Adventures”), but perhaps a $200 million restart of a well-beloved sci-fi series was the perfect time to play it safe.

“Rogue One,” then, was to be a time to finally be daring and to explore and look outward, right? Not only does “Rogue One” not look outward, but it obsessively fixates – far too closely – on the details within the “Star Wars” universe. Watching “Rogue One” was, for me, a dark vision of what the world had to look forward to: a long, unending series of “Star Wars” movies that were going to stay adamantly with the exact same characters, the exact same events, and the exact same themes ad infinitum. We will never escape. Watching “Rogue One” filled me with rage.


12. STAR WARS: THE CLONE WARS (2008)

Lucasfilm/Fox
Rating: C-

The George Lucas-directed “Star Wars” prequel films that were released over the course of the '90s and '00s were incredibly successful, but came to be loudly ballyhooed by the series' fans and by many critics. While some of the ire toward the prequels has been (perhaps bafflingly) walked back in recent years, there is still no affection for the animated “Clone Wars” feature that slipped into theaters almost unnoticed in 2008.

The animation is ugly. Given the CGI marvels that the prequel films presented us with, it was disappointing to see animation this blocky and clunky. I understand that the animation was fashioned into a popular TV series, but for the feature, the filmmakers would have perhaps been wise to enhance the look rather than hobble it. The events of the film are insignificant, the characters are the versions we like the least, and the plot – about a baby Hutt – is downright silly. It's the most forgettable film in the series.

11. STAR WARS: EPISODE I - THE PHANTOM MENACE (1999)

Lucasfilm/Disney
Rating: C-

For many years, if you were to ask any twentysomething white male geek, “The Phantom Menace” was the worst thing that had happened to cinema. (This couldn't possibly be true, as that honor still, currently, rests with “Space Jam.”) But while the film was an enormous hit, it eventually came to be hated for its weird plotting, bad characters, horrible script, and racist caricatures; even at the time, some critics viewed Jar-Jar Binks (played by the actually quite talented Ahmed Best) as a character escaped from a minstrel show.

Time has been kind to the popular opinion surrounding “The Phantom Menace” – we've gone from “worst thing ever” to “not that bad” – but it is still not an entertaining film. It's visually busy, the story is just as hard to follow, and it's still odd that “Star Wars” is going to be about civics and treaties rather than heroes and spirituality. I was bored by it in 1999, and I was bored by it years later.


10. STAR WARS: EPISODE II - ATTACK OF THE CLONES (2002)

Lucasfilm/Disney
Rating: C-

I have trouble separating the “Star Wars” prequels in my mind so I will rank them in rapid succession. The three films are tonally alike, all visually busy in a similar way, and are all paced and characterized by an equal amount of dullness. 

There isn't anything in “Attack of the Clones” to set it apart dramatically from “The Phantom Menace.” I could comment on the plot, but the plot doesn't really feel creative or amazing. I am forced to rely on tiny details to distinguish it. I liked the assassin caterpillars. I liked the “death sticks” scene. I really, really hated the Yoda swordfight. The monster arena scene felt like a classic cinema serial for a brief moment. But apart from these little things, it's only slightly better than “The Phantom Menace” by a hair.


9. STAR WARS: EPISODE III - REVENGE OF THE SITH (2005)

Lucasfilm/Disney
Rating: C-

Although the best of the three prequel films, “Revenge of the Sith” has the same problems. The three prequel films function as a singular lump, slithering into your brain, entwined together in an amorphous mass. 

It features a lot of death, which is always fun – Anakin Skywalker decapitates Christopher Lee before going on to murder a room full of children – but its most distinguishing feature is that it finally links up to the events of “Star Wars.” For the first time, the prequel films felt like they were connected to the rest of the “Star Wars” universe. That's not an amazing virtue, of course; such references are lazy writing. But it's something I was able to get my fingers into.


8. SOLO: A STAR WARS STORY (2018)

Lucasfilm/Disney
Rating: C-

I called “The Clone Wars” the most forgettable film in the “Star Wars” series, but “Solo” may give it a run for its money. Seeing that Disney has elected to grease up the money pipe and stab it deep into our cranial nostalgia gland, I suppose we could have done worse than a film about Han Solo's early days as a young smuggler, but the result was largely bland and unnecessary. “Solo” was seemingly conceived as a comedic film, and was in the midst of being directed by modern spoof masters Lord & Miller, but Disney – we must conjecture – likely wanted a more “serious” tone, and hired Ron Howard in their place. This was after most of the film's shooting had been completed.

The result is a serviceable but unremarkable film that doesn't enrich the character in the least. I did appreciate the dark humor behind the nature of droids in the “Star Wars” universe – they are essentially slaves, but they're robots, so it's okay (?) – but “Solo” can't seem to escape its nature as a stop-gap until the next chapter inevitably rolls around.


7. EWOKS: THE BATTLE FOR ENDOR (1985)

Lucasfilm/Disney
Rating: C

Following “Return of the Jedi,” there were two made-for-TV features all about the Ewoks, those savage alien teddy bears that took out an invading Empire force. This second of the two Ewok-based TV movies is the lesser of them, but it does gain a lot of cognitive and narrative purchase by acknowledging what “Star Wars” has always been: a fantasy epic.

As such, we have a movie about a ragtag group of tragic Ewok outsiders, Wilford Brimley, and a small girl facing off against an evil wizard, a wicked sorceress, and their dank castle keep. “Star Wars” has always been more interesting when it cleaves close to its pulpy sci-fi serial origins, and creating a “Star Wars” film with warlocks and castles – constrained by a low budget, no less – at least makes it palatable.

6. CARAVAN OF COURAGE: AN EWOK ADVENTURE (1984)

Lucasfilm/Disney
Rating: C

Although “Return of the Jedi's” Ewoks were, for many, a clear sign that “Star Wars” ad taken a sharp turn for the commercial – many felt the teddy bears were included to make the series a little too kid-friendly and too toyetic – “Caravan of Courage” still manages to be dynamic enough in its own regard to be intriguing. 

Smaller in scale than any of the “Star Wars” films to date, “Caravan of Courage” is about a first-contact experience between humans and Ewoks. The absence of violent mayhem is a relief, and the Fate Of The Universe is no longer hanging in the balance. “Caravan of Courage” offers a calming change of pace.

4 & 5. STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS (2015) and STAR WARS: EPISODE VI - RETURN OF THE JEDI (1983)

Lucasfilm/Disney
Rating: C (both films)

Although featuring different groups of characters and released a generation apart, both “Return of the Jedi” and “The Force Awakens” occupy the same space in my mind: they are both slickly produced, extensive, great-looking, amazingly designed, ultimately “kinda fun” space adventures. 

Richard Marquand's “Return of the Jedi” features some of the most amazing practical creature effects this side of “The Thing,” and J.J. Abrams, the director of “The Force Awakens” sought to include as many practical effects as he could, giving his film a similar visual vibe, at least when it came to the creatures and aliens.


Lucasfilm/Disney
“Return of the Jedi” and “The Force Awakens” also feel tonally similar in that they get all of their dramatic power from repeating the plots of films that came before. “The Force Awakens” apes the story of “Star Wars” very closely, while “Return of the Jedi” repeats at least one of the central twists from “The Empire Strikes Back” (i.e., a well-known character is a surprise relative), as well as the climax (the Death Star again). “The Force Awakens” is tighter narratively, but the two are more or less equal in quality.

Personal note: I did watch “Return of the Jedi” in theaters when I was perhaps 5 years old. I remember nothing of the film – no Luke, no Darth Vader, no Ewoks – save for one moment. In one scene, Luke Skywalker does battle with a 15-foot tall monster in a pit underneath Jabba the Hutt's party room. I recall that a human killed the creature with a portcullis. Once the creature was dead, another person emerged from the shadows, crying over the dead monster's body. It was a sad scene. It's the only scene I remember.


3. STAR WARS: EPISODE V - THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (1980)

Lucasfilm/Disney
Rating: C

Conventional wisdom has been, for decades now, that “The Empire Strikes Back” is the best of the “Star Wars” films. Fans point out that it makes more complex the characters from the original, giving them more difficult ideas to confront and more intense situations to survive. It also, thanks to the popularity of the character, inflates the importance of Darth Vader, putting him square in charge of most Empire dealings, a change that fans seemed to appreciate: there must have been a clamor to see more choking-from-a-distance scenes, because “The Empire Strikes Back” features many of them.

I like “The Empire Strikes Back.” I don't love it. I prefer “Star Wars” when it's hearkening back to a previous era of light, pulpy sci-fi serials. “The Empire Strikes Back” abandoned the pulpy, artificial tone of the original for something decidedly more serious and genuine... which is, oddly, less interesting to me. I appreciate the film's exploration of the Jedi philosophy, however cursory it was, but the rest leaves me cold.

Yes, I'm a heartless bastard with no taste. Slander me if you must.


2. STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI (2017)

Lucasfilm/Disney
Rating: C+

“The Last Jedi” is an exhausting film. At 153 minutes, it's the longest of all the “Star Wars” movies, and it feels like we were treated to two episodes at once. There are several climaxes, a giant plot thread that, by design, proves to be futile, and the stakes are higher than they've ever been. The future of the Rebellion (or the Resistance or whatever it's called now) is at stake. By the time “The Last Jedi” ends, it feels like all of “Star Wars” is kind of over and done with.

Which is exactly why I like it. Given the frothing, frantic manner in which “Star Wars” is covered by entertainment media, and the way it's been held up as some sort of Platonic ideal of sci-fi entertainment, it was striking – even daring – for a “Star Wars” film to announce openly that perhaps we need to let the past go and move on. This is a series that has, since at least 1983, banked hard on its own nostalgia.

Here is a movie about, well, the last Jedi dying. The Jedi books get burned, the rebellion is crushed, the old guard is destroyed, everything is finally at an end. The slate is clean. “Let the past die,” the villain says. “Kill it if you need to. It's the only way to become what you were meant to be” This is a film that seems to be addressing “Star Wars” fandom directly. It's a game that, essentially, is asking you to stop playing for a little bit. Which is an important step in this “Star Wars” saturated age. 

Put down the old toys and open your mind to a world where we can do more. Whether Disney will follow that advice remains to be seen, but it's a confrontational message for “Star Wars,” and it's a message I am rather fond of.

1. STAR WARS (1977)

Lucasfilm/Disney
Rating: C+

The first is still the best. 

We all know the write-up, as more has been written about “Star Wars” than any other film. It was inspired primarily by the sci-fi serials that George Lucas loved as a kid, but expanding that super-low budget 20-minute serial into a big-budget feature. The “Episode IV” at the beginning was never meant to imply that prequel films were distantly in the works, but to emulate the experience of catching up with a serial midstream, as so many kids did back in the '30s, '40s, and '50s. The broad character archetypes were echoes of characters like Flash Gordon, et al. 

So when “Star Wars” plays melodramatic or adventurous, it feels like its distilling decades of film tradition into a new, streamlined entertainment. It's a modernization of marginalized fluff, a handshake between the cinema junk of the past, and the glorious technicals of the present.

It's also not 100% slick. If you've seen the unretouched versions, you'll see some weird effects, some continuity errors, and some questionable character moments. The original “Star Wars” has thumbprints on it, and I like that. There were moments, when watching “Star Wars” for the first time, that I understood why this connected with audiences the way that it did. It has nothing to do with Joseph Campbell, the eventual legacy, or the universe that was being created. It had to do with understanding what is primally entertaining in movies for little boys.  

Top Image: Lucasfilm/Disney

5 comments:

  1. Interesting list. After reading this I realized that while I like Star Wars I apparently haven't re-watched any of their films to the extant of a "normal" fan, nor have I checked out their Ewok movies and animated feature. Anywho, of the few movies I did see I'd rank them as such:
    10. Phantom Menace (I literally haven't seen this in over a decade, so can't really say where this would land if i had watched it recently)
    9. Last Jedi (This movie did nothing for me when I was expecting nothing...)
    8. Attack of the Clones (Uggggghhhhhh)
    7. Rogue One (Everything I hate about modern Star Wars)
    6. Force Awakens (I have so many problems with this movie, but it's surprisingly easy to watch which is weird)
    5. Solo (I find this to be the best of the modern Disney Star Wars. It's still not good, but I find it to be an actual movie compared to the others)
    4. Return of the Jedi (Used to be my favorite as a Kid, haven't watched it as much since)
    3. Revenge of the Sith (I was the right age when it came out and I identified with it way too closely)
    2. Empire Strikes Back (Yeah, that's right. I put it in the number 2 spot)
    1. Star Wars (How is this not number 1 on anyone else's list?)

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  2. I too saw ROTJ at age 5, but I also attended Star Wars '77 in utero and kicked in time with the music. I haven't seen any in the theater since Force Awakens, but you make me want to check out Last Jedi.

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  3. EMPIRE STRIKES BACK was the best because it topped the original, but RETURN OF THE JEDI failed because of all those &$#@* puppets. The prequels were pretty good. I saw them before I heard anyone weigh in. I think once it became the thing to hate them, and especially Jar-Jar Binks, then everyone jumped on the bandwagon and saw them through tinted glasses. ROGUE ONE sucked, no doubt about that. SOLO -- zzzzzzz. I got through about 30 min. of one of those Ewoks movies without too much discomfort. The holiday special -- how much drugs were they doing?!! However VALERIAN is to LAST JEDI what A NEW HOPE was to the old Flash Gordon serials. They need to make an adaptation of Jorowsky's INCAL comic and forget about the umteenth rehash and just call it STAR WARS EPISODE 15: AND NOW FOR SOMETHING COMPLETELY DIFFERENT.

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  4. Fair. Although to be honest, I've been so disappointed I haven't bothered to see The Last Jedi or Solo. Can't really argue with any of this, though.

    I was one of the lucky people who watched the Star Wars Holiday Special live when it broadcast. I was 10 at the time, and even then I realized what a train wreck it was.

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