Like Darth Vader’s out of control ship, the first part of my Star Wars films rankings had many a twist and turn to it. From defending the finer points of The Phantom Menace to forgotten animated features, I hope that it provided some food for thought.
Let’s not hang around dwelling on all that was such a long time ago and get on with the final 6 films in my countdown on every Star Wars film.
6. Episode VII: The Force Awakens
“Chewie… we’re home” were the words that concluded the initial trailer for The Force Awakens. Trepidation was felt by all going into that trailer, but everyone breathed a bit of a sigh of relief. For the most part, that sigh of relief was relived leaving the cinema upon the film’s release too.
There probably isn’t much more to be said that hasn’t already been said about this film, one of the most anticipated films since… well, probably since Episode I, both on the positive side and the negative side. For better or for worse, the film zips along at a good old pace, not giving you too much time to stop and overthink what is going on. Pausing for a moment would likely not be a good thing, as the flaws start to creep in, but the film urges you to not stop for that moment and just enjoy the ride.
These are the kind of films that J.J. Abrams is best suited for and he does a great job of establishing where we are in this trilogy and who we are going to be spending our time with. As ever, his casting choices are a resounding success, with everybody getting right into their roles wonderfully, be they a hero or villain. Similarly, those that are returning to their roles after decades, fit snuggly back in their parts as if it were the insides of a taunton. In fact, the whole thing manages to capture the feel of those older films rather perfectly, whilst not abandoning modern aesthetics and pacing.
Of course, it mostly achieves that by sticking incredibly closely to the old formula and not daring to do anything too unique. We are once again seeing our heroes needing to rebel against a strong authoritarian regime. How did The First Order come about after the Rebel Alliance’s victory at the end of Return of the Jedi? The film doesn’t really care that much and we are just meant to accept that that is the case. I have no doubt that a reasonable explanation is given to us in the novels or in comics or in whatever additional material was put out ahead of or around the time the film came out, but most of us are only going to go on what is said during the film and the film doesn’t have much interest in establishing what happened in those 20 odd years.
Which is a choice that is an okay one to make. I don’t think spending too much time on establishing the intricacies of how the remnants of the Empire were brought together again and how they managed to re-establish control is that important or that interesting. Accepting that it just happened and creating our own fan-wanky explanation is probably the right approach. The problem mainly comes with the fact that the whole direction is the least interesting. Switching things up so that the remnants of the Empire are now suddenly the underdogs and the ones eating away at the New Republic would surely have been the more interesting setup. Even better, don’t worry too much about the galaxy wide conflicts and focus on the personal stories of the Skywalker family and the attempts to start training the Jedi again. Okay, Star Wars kind of requires galaxy wide conflicts, but we don’t need to have them kicking off from before the film has even started.
We can’t completely judge this on what we didn’t get though. And what we did get was a really enjoyable romp. This was released around Christmas time and it was really the perfect family Christmas film. The nostalgia is on point and avoids the cringe that Solo went for, whilst the kids had a brand-new hero to cheer on in the wonderful Rey. I feel about The Force Awakens much as I do about J.J. Abrams other first dip into a classic sci-fi franchise, Star Trek, in that I came away having had a good time, an achievement in itself, but also with a sense of anticipation of what is to come. In itself, the film is just okay when you really look at it, but it is with what it establishes and the potential that it offers that the real delight comes.
5. Episode VI: Return of the Jedi
From the beginning of one trilogy, to the ending of another. Return of the Jedi is often considered the weakest of the original three films. As my ranking show, that isn’t an opinion that I can disagree with. However, it is still a wonderfully enjoyable film and manages to provide a satisfactory conclusion to what has gone before.
After the cliffhanger of an ending that we saw in Empire, Return doesn’t spend much time before jumping right into resolving one of the main plot points that people were eager to resolve. The rescuing of Han Solo drives us straight into the action and the film doesn’t let go from that point on. The action sequences are top notch, all the while letting the plot move at an equally steady pace. Anticipated confrontations all lead to mostly satisfying conclusions.
Perhaps at the time, the inclusion of the violent furry Care Bears that are the Ewoks might have seemed trite and merely there to sell toys, but their presence now feels very in keeping with what we consider the franchise to be and they don’t feel that out of place. Of course, Star Wars was already a toy selling juggernaut, so it seems unlikely that they were that surprising an addition then either. Their small stature and low tech lifestyle making them the perfect allies for the Rebel’s final conflict with the Empire and they lead to some enjoyable moments in the battle, even if those moments might serve as an unwanted reminder to some that these films are mostly aimed at kids. They add to the good time that this film is and serve as a nice release from the darker tone that the downbeat second entry in the trilogy gave us.
There is still some darkness to be had though, albeit played mostly as pantomime. The Emperor puts in his first true appearance and it is a wonderfully evil depiction from Ian McDiarmid. The be-cloaked figure of Palpatine manages to create an even greater embodiment of evil than Darth Vader, allowing us to buy the moment of redemption that comes to Vader in the closing moments of the film. Making one of the greatest villains in film history into the hero by the end is an impressive feat and one that only works because we have his master cackling away as lightening spews from his fingertips.
All in all, I actually had more fun re-watching Return than I was expecting. I may need to whisper this, but I actually had a more enjoyable time with this than one of the other films from the original trilogy. That isn’t to say that it is better than that film, which we will come to shortly, but it completes the trilogy nicely and firmly cements the Star Wars franchise up to this point as being a playground for the imagination, with its creatures and sights.
4. Episode IV: A New Hope
This is where it all begin. The cultural sensation that was Star Wars (as it was called when it was originally released), completely dominated the summer of 1977. Opening the eyes to millions upon millions of children and big children alike to this incredible galaxy of possibilities. This simple fairy tale in space captivated the minds of many, offering just enough to entice them into this world and clamouring for more.
If it had of just ended there, with no Episode or subtitle added to the name of the film on re-releases a couple of years later, that pandemonium created likely would be more remembered than the film itself. For really there is very little going on here, beyond it being a fun blockbuster. The story plods along reasonably nicely, with little time given to expanding upon the characters beyond the broad stroke archetypes that they are initially depicted as. We have the young farm boy who is desperate for adventure, an old wise wizard that will mentor him, the evil lord that uses dark magic against all that stand in his way, and the smuggler that ends up having the heart of gold. The only character that really gets much more characterisation beyond the usual fairy tale tropes is Princess Leia, who is made slightly stronger willed than her Sleeping Beauty/Snow White counterparts (she still needs rescuing by the brave men, of course).
What it does manage to do, slightly hidden by the continual forward momentum of the main plot, is give you a sense of the history of this place. Even if there was never a real intention to explore the past and future of this galaxy, there is this feel that we are joining the story of the conflict as it is already in full force. We see this obviously from the very start, as we join Leia’s ship on the run from a star destroyer, but also during Grand Moff Tarkin’s meeting soon after, in which he announces the Emperor dissolving the senate. Although this tale of Luke is clearly the central focus of the film, there is already this sense that there are other stories taking place within this galaxy, setting the groundwork for the huge expanded universe of tales that would be enjoyed in the form of other films, books, video games or the bedroom floor of a child.
The action is also brilliantly put together. For the final confrontation against the Death Star, Lucas’s choice to use Battle of Britain films as a template feels like a bit of a masterstroke. Most people would have been used to the slowed down space travel of films like 2001: A Space Odyssey or Kirk’s naval combat in the Star Trek series. Instead, ships were able to zip around the place at great speeds and pull off incredible manoeuvres that would be impossible in actual zero gravity. It also makes it into something that is easily recognisable to everyone viewing.
In many ways, the big bombast on display could be argued to have had a negative effect on films in general though, with each summer needing to find its own Star Wars. The summer blockbuster came to be the box office highlight of the year and other films were less important for the execs. The cinema slowly moved to be the domain of the adolescent boy, as they chased the market that would see the film and buy all the toys that would go with it. We still feel the effects of that on today’s films, for better or for worse.
Can you really blame A New Hope for that though? I have no doubt that Lucas intended the film to be a big success amongst kids on its release and to get them buying the merchandise too, but it is unlikely he would have had the arrogance to plan to upheave a whole industry. It also only achieves the success it does by having great characters and moments, achieved through simplicity.
3. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
I think what separates these top three films in my mind from the previous entries in the list is the sense of daring to do something different and to explore the franchise from a different angle. They aren’t always entirely successful in doing that and the faults can often be easy to find, but if we are to think of Star Wars as a playground for the imagination to explore and can be bent to allow all sorts of stories, these films demonstrate that better than all the others.
Here we have a film that shouldn’t really work. It is developing a whole film around a single line of dialogue and taking a small piece of the original film’s narrative that was merely there as a McGuffin. From there it is really putting the war into Star Wars. This focus on a small band of Rebel fighters, who we all know from the off will both succeed and perish in their mission, strikes a much darker tone than we have experienced in other films from the franchise, with the possible exception of Revenge. We have rain drenched sniper missions and beach landings presented during the course of the film, all borrowing inspiration from classic war films. As already mentioned, A New Hope did use Battle of Britain as a touchstone for its space battles, but those shiny space ships masked that far more to the viewer than the squads of foot troopers that are mowed down here.
Yet, it doesn’t abandon the core principles of a Star Wars film and remembers to be a story about family, both of the actual and found variety. Of course, our central character becomes who she is because of daddy issues! It doesn’t feel tired though and plays central throughout the film as she deals with these moments of feeling lost, betrayed and, ultimately, hope. The same goes for the family she makes during the film, with this ragtag band of characters being even more ragtag than previous groups. They work well together. They may not be able to sustain a trilogy themselves, but for this single piece they have a great energy and vibe together, even if it isn’t until the final moments that they really come together. All films are helped in this regard by having Alan Tudyk voicing one the characters, of course.
Rogue One had a troubled production, much like the other A Star Wars Story film. There is rumours and speculations that director Gareth Edwards had little to do with putting together the final cut, with the fact that the original trailer for the film featured little footage that made it into the final release. We will never really know how much of that is true and word from those involved seems to indicate that nothing particularly unusual had happened. Although some people believe it shows from the film itself, I don’t think there is anything here that would be particularly noticeable to those that hadn’t already heard the stories about the supposed troubles. The film feels unique and a real attempt to do something different. It even manages to play with the most iconic character, giving them a vicious moment in the finale that brings them to live in a way that we haven’t ever seen before.
Speaking of bring to life, there is the unfortunate use of CGI to awaken characters whose actors have passed away in the real world. It does feel like a mistake to give such prominence to one in particular. The tech is clearly incredible and although it looks… odd… for most of the film, it is quite an achievement. We are not in a position where this can be sustained for so long without making you feel like you are watching a cartoon though and it should have been used far more sparingly. More importantly though, the moral questions it raises are something that should really be discussed and given a lot of thought. I can see these questions being significant in this decade and likely not just in the film industry.
2. Episode VIII: The Last Jedi
I hear the million voices crying out. I only wish they would be silenced.
The Last Jedi is brilliant film. It dared to challenge its characters to be better than they were, not content to just accept them as perfect people. It also challenges the audience to see them as people that sometimes, perhaps even often, make mistakes and that they aren’t as important as they think they are. It also tells everyone that they can be heroes too.
It is quite incredible that this behemoth of a franchise would allow Ryan Johnson to play with these toys in such a manner. Considering the stories we have heard regarding the side films and the switching around of directors that we saw with Rise, you would think that they would have kept a watchful eye on this director that hadn’t done much in the way of big budget films and had established himself as willing to twist conventions. Fortunately, at least for me, it appears that they did allow him to do mostly as he pleases and reports suggest that they had no issues with the direction that he decided on.
From a visual point of view, they certainly shouldn’t have worried. Perhaps not as overly flashy as the J.J. Abrams films, The Last Jedi is still a treat to look at. The battle on Crait in particular is one of the most visually impressive moments from the Sequel Trilogy and the suicidal attack on the chasing star destroyer is beautifully subtle. The casino planet section might have its problems and the chase doesn’t look great, but the overall design of the place fits really nicely within the universe, whilst still remaining unique.
From a story perspective many may well have taken umbrage with the direction that Johnson decided to take this trilogy, but taken as an individual film within the franchise there are some fascinating choices that are unexpected, but certainly logical. There shouldn’t be much arguing around Poe’s story, with him playing the role of the hero fighter, with no time for the chain of command and no time to follow. We are used to our heroes defying superiority and ultimately proving them wrong, but here Poe needs to remember that should be a team and he needs to play his part within the team. He can’t always be off doing his own thing and expect everyone else to follow him along, as deaths are surely going to be the result. As already mentioned, the section on the casino planet is less successful. The story told feels a bit tagged on in order to give Finn something to do, a trouble throughout the Sequel Trilogy. The overall payoff of the New Republic and the First Order both acquiring their vehicles and weapons from the same people is a noble one certainly worth exploring, but the minor nod to it here feels very throwaway and required much more to give it purpose.
It is the story of Luke and Rey that is the highlight though. The place that Luke is in may have felt a betrayal to some, but it speaks to the loss of hopes and dreams of us all as we grew. His failure to live up to the ideals that he had set for himself are identifiable to many people that had idealistic aspirations for themselves in their younger life. Losing someone that he has familial love for to the dark side through what he believes to be his own failings no doubt just capped that off. Johnson shows this crisis of faith he is experiencing in a dirty and almost aggressive way to the viewer, as Luke dismisses symbols of his past and adopts an incredibly physical way of living, rejecting the mystical and the powers of the force.
For those that wanted to see Luke be a complete badass and singlehandedly take on The First Order, you still get that in the fantastic final moments. Him standing in front of the huge wannabe AT-ATs that threaten the New Republic base on Crait is a powerful image, capped off delightfully with the brush of the shoulder when he appears to withstand a barrage of laser fire. The schooling of Kylo Ren in the subsequent fight is great too and the whole sequence gives this old Luke his moment to shine. Not too much though. His sacrifice hear is acknowledging the handing of the baton to a new generation.
Which is core to what we get here. The Last Jedi wants to tell us that the future is more important than the past. Nostalgia can be nice, but it isn’t something to dwell about. Rey’s parentage is ultimately irrelevant, for example, as it is her own actions that should define her. This film was followed by Solo and then Rise of Skywalker, two films that demonstrate Disney need to learn the lessons of this film themselves when considering the next steps of the franchise.
The closing scene shows us some captive children on the casino planet, playing out stories of the old battles between the Rebel Alliance and the Galactic Empire. As one child looks up at the stars and magically pulls a broom to his hand, we are reminded of all the childhood imaginations that Star Wars inspired. It isn’t the angry Internet forum writers that want things to be when they were young that are important, it is the children that will look up at the screen and be inspired to create their own powerful stories that matter.
1. Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back
And with that, we come to the predictable conclusion. No surprises to be found here, as I place the obvious choice at the number one spot. I’m sure many could argue that this is the rightful spot for the original film, but that would be more because of what it inspired. Perhaps younger viewers might consider The Force Awakens their favourite, with its new cast of characters to love and more modern aesthetics, but we all know that it really is just a pale imitation of previous films. No doubt there is someone out there that would try to argue the merits of Revenge of the Sith and consider it a satisfying depiction of how the greatest cinematic villain came to be.
Most would agree that they would all be wrong though. Empire takes the basic archetypal characters and the foundations of the worldbuilding that we saw in the original film, expanding them both out to something that could actually sustain the franchise that would still be going decades later. It does this whilst creating a story that is satisfying within itself, containing some of the most iconic places and scenes in film history, and concludes that story with us clamoring for more.
We can’t know for sure, but judging by the Prequel Trilogy, Lucas giving up the writing and directing duties to other people is probably the best thing that could have happened to the Original Trilogy. That isn’t to take away from his own contributions, as there is no doubt that his steering of the ship manages to keep these following films consistent and gives the story direction that it could have otherwise lacked (see the Sequel Trilogy), but it allows the films to expand and create its own language, both through its visual style and dialogue. Much of this is already present in the first film, but Empire manages to really build upon this and interesting ways to make it a much more interesting film than it could have been if Lucas had of been left on his own.
The characters in particular are given much more interesting direction than they had before. Han remains the roguish character that we have seen before, but it is also shown that it is mostly front. The film shows him as a bit of a fool on occasions, such as how Leia manages to play with him and his advances appear to make little headway or how he can’t get the Falcon working properly. This foolishness ultimately leads to his downfall by the end, as he puts his trust in the wrong place. Leia too gets expanded upon, as we see her fill the role as general more.
Even Darth Vadar is given much needed character. He isn’t merely a figure of evil in Empire, but more of a complete character, someone that even has a sense of humour. A sense of humour involving the murder of incompetent subordinates, but a sense of humour nonetheless. We are also given our first glimpses of the Emperor, making it clearer that there is a greater evil behind the scenes.
Of course, it is with Luke that we get the most development of his character though. This moisture farm boy from the little outer planet of Tatooine is thrust into a world of responsibilities and of power and he doesn’t know what to do with it. He is arrogant and cocky, quick to judge and won’t listen to the advice of others. His meeting with Jedi Master Yoda shows him up of all these things and he still doesn’t pay too much attention to this. His rush away from his training from the Dagobah system doesn’t even result in a successful rescue of his friends, just the loss of his hand. This is the midpart of the story, so it shouldn’t be such a surprise that we see our hero at his lowest point, but it still comes in stark contrast to the light fluffy film that we saw in A New Hope.
There is of course also the reveal of Luke’s parentage. I can’t imagine there are many viewers going into this film without knowing that Darth Vadar is Luke’s father, but it still manages to be a powerful moment. As Luke is gripping on with his one hand, this news hits him harder than any physical blow could have done. The striking image of him tumbling down through the air after the reveal is obvious but effective in showing how hard this hits him. Brilliantly though, it isn’t the news itself, but the betrayal of those he had put his trust in that affects him most. Finding out that Obi-Wan and Yoda didn’t believe he would be able to handle the news is what he finds most devastating. As he sees his hand becoming a machine, we are left seeing the possible path for Luke, as he becomes one step closer to fulfilling the prophecy he witnesses in the swamps of Dagobah and taking the place of his father as the mechanical horror that is within his blood.
Beyond the characters, we also see incredible new elements and sights that make up the Star Wars universe. There are giant creatures living on ice planets that would terrify a yeti. There are even larger creatures that live in asteroids and are so large that you could fly a ship through their mouths and land inside without even knowing. There are bounty hunters that travel the galaxy to compete with each other on jobs. There are cities that exist within the clouds. There are small, silly creatures with funny ears that are amongst the most powerful warriors in the galaxy. Although A New Hope might have given us a bar filled with crazy creatures and funky music, Empire changes these from merely props in a background and actually allows them to live and breathe within this world. These creatures and places actually exist and have a purpose within their habitats or within a society. The world feels much more lived in as a result.
Which is why this film is such a success and is the best of the franchise. Whereas A New Hope may have set up a template for Star Wars, Empire uses that template to make this galaxy far, far away feel real. It becomes a place that people actually exist within. A New Hope may well have been the first, but without Empire, there would be no Star Wars franchise.
Which would be a great shame. These may not be the best films ever made, many of them may not even be very good, but as I approach 8500 words written about these silly films, I can’t deny that I love them, warts and all. Seeing the words Star Wars on a big screen, with the fanfare blasting out of a sound system is a thrill that takes you right back to the moment you first experienced these films. I started this ranking to say we needed some escape this year from the world outside. I can’t think of a better place to spend that escape than a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.