It has been important to seek our comforts during this year. Being stuck inside and with the never-ending stream of crises and horror around us, seeking solace in those things that bring us joy has been a saviour for many of us. Discovering something new, be it a new skill or that book that you never got the opportunity to read, have been the highlights of the year, but so has re-discovering things that you previously left behind.
For me, that re-discovery has been the Star Wars films. Obviously, we have had the new Disney trilogy and spin films in recent years, but those original films and the prequel trilogy have sat unwatched on my shelf for well over a decade. These films were my go-to during my childhood and teenage years, re-watching the adventures of Luke and gang countless times and even dismissing those naysayers that hated the prequel trilogy. I then discovered other films…
I was later than most with this, around 17-18 years old, after listening to far too much Mark Kermode and purchasing a variety of classic films on DVD. Not long after that, Star Wars films started to lose their shine. Their vision of this magical world of incredible heroes and clear villains, suddenly felt one dimensional and empty. What’s more, they were filled with wooden acting, terrible dialogue and awful editing (probably not helped by my only exposure to the original films being the Special Edition). I lost all interested in revisiting them, still remembering the good times with them, but not particularly interested in reliving those moments.
The universe still exerted its hold over me though. I still enjoyed dipping my toes in with a good Star Wars game and seeing the new films on the big screen always felt like an event, even if the result was a rather mixed bag. It probably was inevitable that I would end up watching all the films again. I had hoped that the catalyst would have been Disney releasing a complete set, including the original theatrical releases of the original trilogy. Instead, it only took a pandemic to get me to re-join the Rebel Alliance.
Before jumping in with the list of all these films, it is worth noting that the presentation of them on Disney+ is excellent. I began watching them prior to them adding the Dolby Atmos soundtrack, but now that it has been added there is little reason to go for the Blu-ray version over the streamed. I’m normally an exponent for physical media over streamed, but I would expect there is little noticeable difference between the two versions with this one (if you have facilities to play a 4K blu-ray with HDR and money is no obstacle, then that version is likely to be the absolute best).
This ended up running longer than expected, so I will be splitting this into two parts.
12. Episode II: Attack of the Clones
When it came to the original trilogy, George Lucas smartly decided to bring in extra people to assist with the writing and directing. He remained overseeing the overall direction and controlling the vision, but he knew where his limitations lay. For the prequal trilogy though, he decided to keep a firm grip on the reins and we see him struggling to keep control of the direction here. Some of the mistakes can be seen carrying over from the first film, but there are put into overdrive with Clones, with forced attempts at emotion and action scenes that feel straight out of a video game, rather than a film.
Anakin is the biggest problem, the character that we should be sympathetic to and hope the inevitable can be avoided. Instead, he is arrogant and whiny. He is romancing of Padme comes across as almost stalker-like and, even when she does begin to reciprocate, we are treated to some of the cringiest attempts at romantic dialogue ever committed to film. That is before we get to Anakin’s attempts at political analyses.
Whilst Anakin is tasked with protecting Queen Amidala, Obi-Wan, who is probably correctly regarded as the best thing about the prequel trilogy, is relegated to his own side story about investigating an assassination attempt on the Queen’s life. His story during the film is okay and adds some intrigue to the whole arc of the trilogy, but it takes away the most important relationship that these films should be focusing on. Anakin’s fall should have the greatest weight on Obi-Wan, but we spend little time with these two being friends and their main interaction is him scolding the young apprentice. By the time the third film comes along, we are told that these two are friends, but we never really see this.
This is the biggest failing of the film and why it should be considered the weakest of this trilogy. The main failing is not the terrible romantic plot between Anakin and Padme, nor the annoying young adult that he has become, but the lack of even bothering to try and show a relationship between him and Obi-Wan. The final conflict in Revenge fails because of this film and it should have been what this whole trilogy was about.
11. The Clone Wars
I feel a little unfair bringing this into the list. If it hadn’t of been slightly (and I mean very slightly) better than Attack of the Clones, I probably wouldn’t have bothered. Really, this is an extended pilot episode of a TV series that should never have been released theatrically.
It consists of a rather threadbare plot about the kidnapping of Jabba the Hutt’s child, as both the Separatists and the Republic are fighting for his support in the war. It also introduces us to Anakin’s new apprentice, Ahsoka, as well as Dooku’s apprentice, Ventress, both of whom would go on to become significant characters in the follow-up TV series.
This animated film comes with quite a striking look, that varies in quality. At times it looks rather great and allows for some well executed action sequences. At other times though the characters look quite strange.
The worst crime of the film though is that it is really quite dull. It feels a bit of a Frankenstein’s Monster of a film, with bits and pieces smooshed together, connections vaguely made but for the sake of it having relevance. As I say, it feels like the pilot of a TV series that it is and a TV series that likely needs some more work on it. That seems to appear to be the case for the full series as well, which does have its fans, but I’ve been pushing my way through the first season for quite some time.
10. Episode IX: Rise of Skywalker
Disney’s tenure over the Star Wars franchise has not been an easy one. Even if you do not subscribe to the angry corners of the Internet and the fandom, there have certainly been failures and poor decisions made throughout. These all really come to a head with Rise of Skywalker, where lack of any planning and no coordination of the sequel trilogy project really come obvious for all to see.
To make it worse, we have a director that clearly wants to win back some of the people who feel most aggrieved by the previous entry, with the backtracking of significant plot points and the not so subtle digs and some of the more daring choices made, particularly with Luke’s character. Many of these moments come across as desperate attempts by the film to say “please love me again!”, all of which fail to win people back.
We also have it plagued by the same nostalgia that effected The Force Awakens. There tough, it at least felt comforting and rather quaint, but here it all feels like they are running out of ideas. The return of old characters gives a nice dopamine hit, but even quicker this time around it gives a sense of hollowness. By the time Chewie receives the medal, you just want to cringe and the desperation.
Many people don’t like the directing style of J. J. Abrams. Personally, I’ve never minded it too much and I’ve generally enjoyed the films he makes. Here it is much the same as we have seen from him before and the flashiness works for the most part. However, some of the action sequences are particularly poorly edited, which really comes as a shock. The speeder chase on the not-Tatooine desert planet is particular egregious and at times difficult to follow, as it cuts between the characters. This slight thrown together feel also extends throughout, with the characters jumping around the galaxy to find the next McGuffin they need and every turn the First Order just appearing out of nowhere, forcing them to run off to the next place they have to be.
We also can’t talk about Rise without mentioning the Emperor in the room. Palpatine returns! This is obviously stupid and doesn’t help argue against those that think Disney’s time with Star Wars has been stuck repeating the old stories. Having said that, I actually don’t think the idea that Palpatine being the main villain here is a terrible one. This is pitched as a continuation of the Skywalker Saga, so having the main antagonist of the previous trilogies reappear seems like a logical step. The problem, as with much with this film, is the fact that it is just thrown in at the start of the last film. There is no setup previously here and there isn’t even much explanation as to how this has even happened. Instead, we are just told he is back, something to do with cloning and… err… just accept it. The prequel trilogy even establishes that Palpatine is searching for the secret of immortality, continuing the work of his master, so it isn’t like this isn’t something that is already suggested as possible within the franchise. But, we are again looking at something that is poorly planned out.
All this isn’t to say that you require a complete mapped out plan from beginning to end. As much as Lucas would like to claim otherwise, that certainly isn’t how the original trilogy was put together. However, the lack of the consistent voice and the juggling around of the films between different hands has led to the final chapter of the Sequel Trilogy being a complete mess.
9. Solo: A Star Wars Story
Speaking of changing hands… Solo was originally going to be written and directed by the duo Phil Lloyd and Christopher Miller. They have been known for taking film ideas that really shouldn’t work (The LEGO Movie, 21 Jump Street) and making them into smart, fourth-wall breaking, enjoyable times. They seemed an odd pick for the Star Wars franchise, one that has been known to take itself seriously and a fandom that likes to nit-pick over small inconsistencies. It perhaps didn’t come as much as a surprise that shortly after filming began on Solo, it was decided that the pair be dropped and Ron Howard brought in instead.
What follows is pretty much what you expect from a film that went from a dangerous but potentially exciting pair of hands, into a safe but unexciting pair. Solo is mostly fine, with okay action sequences and likeable characters. Taking on the iconic figure of Han Solo must have been a daunting task, but Alden Ehrenreich settles in nicely to the role and so does Donald Glover, whose Lando Calrissian is excellent. The plot goes along nicely and you leave having had a reasonably enjoyable time.
There is little else here though. There is nothing very surprising or novel here and the whole exercise never gives reason for its existence. When Disney announced that they would be doing these smaller films in-between the big bombast of the Skywalker Saga films, it sounded like an opportunity to explore the small reaches of the Star Wars galaxy and uncover those hidden characters and stories from the galaxy far, far away. Instead, we are presented with the same character we already know and are told things that we never really cared about in the first place. How Han met Chewbecca, how he got the name Solo, how he got the Falcon… all questions that would be the equivalent of how did James Bond get his Walter PPK or what store did Harry Potter pick up those glasses from.
More grating though is the direction of Han’s story feels like a retread of what we had already seen him go through in Episode IV. He is a selfish figure that ultimate ends up helping the people in need here, which is the same path he takes during that very first Star Wars film back in 1977.
There is no way to know whether the film that Lloyd and Miller had planned would have been any better than what we got and it could well be that some of the more annoying aspects of the film were originally their ideas, which simply would not work in the Star Wars universe. They are known for their knowing winks to the audience and the film has plenty of those. I think it is probably safe to say that the film would like to have been less boring though, as it begins to peter out towards the second half of the film.
8. Episode III: Revenge of the Sith
At the top of this, I mentioned how I had stopped watching the Star Wars films for a very long time over a decade ago. It was actually this film that made me stop.
I recall I was in my second year at uni. We had just come in from a night out, presumably fairly early, as we decided to watch a film. Revenge of the Sith was chosen. I think we had all seen it before, so as night started to become morning, a few started to dwindle away. I’m not sure if the others left due to boredom from the film or just tiredness, but eventually it was just me sitting up, at about 2 or 3AM, watching the film. It suddenly dawned on me “this is a bit shit”.
I think it was the direction that really struck me. I remember numerous sequences of two characters circling each other. The camera would circle in the opposite direction. The film seemed to do this dozens of times (it doesn’t, in reality). I had always known the dialogue was a bit ropey, but I hadn’t realised just how grating it was, as Anakin pronounced how wrong the Jedi were, from his perspective. It was at that moment that I realised that the other films were equally not that great.
Watching it again, it isn’t quite as bad as I remember from that mildly tipsy, sleepy evening. It is still not great, but it does have some enjoyable merit, unlike Clones. The action sequences are a step from what they were and we do get the climax we were all looking for from the confrontation between Obi-Wan and Anakin. Palpatine gets his moment to really shine and he manages to chew down the scenery in a delightfully pantomimic way. The music too, continues the tradition of the Prequel Trilogy of being excellent, operatic in scope and ominous throughout.
The faults mainly come from what has gone before and the attempt to cram so much into so little time. Anakin’s moment of turning to the dark side all happens in a matter of seconds; two minutes later he is off murdering Jedi Younglings. We also need to get Clone Wars moments in, as the previous film managed to only just get those started by the end. This means we have Obi-Wan off again doing his own thing while Anakin’s story is playing out. These moments are mostly fine and General Grievious seems like an okay antagonist, but they do not serve much purpose other than to keep him away from the main thrust of the plot.
It is there that we have the main problem with the Prequel Trilogy really coming into play. As mentioned before, we really need to see this relationship between Anakin and Obi-Wan playing out and we never really do. We see him as a struggling teacher early in Episode II, but they really have very little interaction beyond that. We know that Obi-Wan has a duty to his former master to uphold his dying wish and we are told at times that the two are friends, but the films never seem interested in showing us that this is the case. When the final confrontation comes, he seems more concerned about Anakin not fulfilling his prophecy rather than the betrayal of a friend or blindness to what was happening.
So much of the story feels like it should have been brough forward. If we had the Clone Wars start by the end of Episode I, we could have spent Episode II exploring that pivotal conflict for the galaxy and getting some time between Anakin and Obi-Wan. We also should have had Anakin accepting the mentorship of Palpatine at the end of Episode II, so we don’t have this sudden acceptance to do what ever he asks. Really the faults we are seeing here are more to do with what has come before, not really that dissimilar to what ended up happening in Rise. The film taken on its own is mostly enjoyable, even if some of that is veering close to the so-bad-its-good territory, but there was potential to make this whole trilogy into something genuinely great.
7. The Phantom Menace
Surprise! Yep, I’m rating The Phantom Menace the highest in the Prequel Trilogy. Let’s get this out of the way, many of the problems that ended up being the real issues in Revenge can be traced back to here. There are fundamental problems, both taking this as a film in its own right, as well as the decisions made for the whole arc. I’m certainly not going to argue that the film is a complete success, nor will I say that this is even really a good film (we are getting to halfway and we still haven’t actually reached something we can really call a “good” film yet), but there are some elements that were put in place here that are a triumph and I don’t think we can take that away from it.
Let’s start with some of those problems. First off, it is a strange choice to not have Anakin the same age as Luke. This seems like it would be an obvious mirroring of the Original Trilogy, showing the parallels and differences between the father and son. It would have also spared us the terrible depiction of the young Skywalker. His depiction as an excellent pilot could have felt more realistic, with the final space battle and the podracing sequence not seeming quite so ludicrous, and the Jedi Council’s insistence that he was too old to begin training wouldn’t seem so obviously a lie.
Also, the main thrust of the action being related to trade disputes may not be the complete disaster that many make it out to be, but the depiction of it is certainly odd. We all think that sending Jedi, the greatest defenders of the galaxy, is ridiculous. If the film had of made this point and also depicted the Republic as an old creaking bureaucracy that was completely oblivious to what was going on around it, then I could see that working. Instead, the film doesn’t seem aware that this is a strange thing to send these peacekeepers on. Both Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan don’t seem to be put out by their assignment. Imagine if the young Obi-Wan was dismissive of this job and thought it wasn’t what he signed up for. Imagine if the very thing we end up being the cause of Anakin’s fall were present in Obi-Wan too, but he ends up taking a different path. Both on the personal story level between these two and for the wider depiction of the politics of the Republic, this would establish a much stronger base from which to build the story throughout the Trilogy. It really wouldn’t take much of a change to bring those elements to the fore.
There is also Jar Jar. We don’t need to say any more than has already said about Jar Jar.
On the positive note though, the film brings real life to this previously strong and wealth society within these central systems. It regularly looks great, even if the direction is not the best, with some incredible set and wardrobe design. So much love has clearly been poured into this by a dedicated team. They were probably given more money than they should have and a little more control over the excesses might have made a better film, but it also produced some wonderful images. Similarly, the music is fantastic. There is obviously the well-known Duel of the Fates piece that is played during the final lightsaber fight between Qui-Gon, Obi-Wan and Darth Maul, but there are great pieces throughout, such as when they are approaching the Gungan city and the joyful celebration music that plays in the final sequence. John Williams’s Star Wars music is legendary, but I would say that his best music comes from this trilogy and he doesn’t do much better than in this first one.
Speaking of the final lightsaber battle, it is a wonderfully choreographed thing. Darth Maul may have next to no lines of dialogue and may spend most his time hanging in the background, but his character oozes throughout this sequence and it is likely the main reason he comes away from this film being so iconic. It is no wonder that one of the cartoon series decided to retcon his death. And whilst we are on great action sequences, the podracing still looks great and is a real thrill ride. The decision to not use music throughout most of it is a really smart move, an unexpected one considering how much music is associated with this franchise.
So, yes, I will stand up for The Phantom Menace. It is massively flawed, but there is potential for something really great in here. Another few re-writes of the script and a few more people saying no to Lucas could have gotten this on the correct course that could have not only set us up for a very good trilogy of films, but also added further depth to the Original Trilogy.
And there ends part one of the list. Not a single film from the Original Trilogy and only one from the Disney Trilogy so far. Comeback later in the week when I will run through the final 6 films.