A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, there was no Star Wars, and the business and art of movies were vastly different.
Yes, it was technically a mere 42 Earth years ago and in our own Milky Way galaxy, but it was before studios spoke of “franchises” (outside of Burger Kings and Mobil stations), “tentpoles,” “universe-building,” or mass (toy) merchandising as a factor in giving a project a green light. It was before a film could make anywhere near a billion dollars. It was when there was still a separation between A and B movies, meaning that sci-fi/fantasy films were budgeted and distributed differently and played to a niche market. We were coming off an era of astounding independence in Hollywood, where grown-up films that could never have been made in the U.S. before — among them Bonnie and Clyde, The Graduate, Midnight Cowboy, M*A*S*H, The Godfather, and Taxi Driver — drew large and responsive audiences. There was no Comic Con at which teenage nerds could join forces to wield their power over marketing and media coverage of movies with people firing ray guns at one another.
I was 15 when I saw Jaws — thought to be the first “modern” blockbuster — on its opening night in the summer of 1975. It was and remains one of the great cinema-going experiences of my life. From the first low burbles of John Williams’s score to the orgasmic explosion of one of the movies’ scariest monsters — a monster rarely seen, in part because the mechanical shark malfunctioned so badly that brilliant young director, Steven Spielberg, and his editor, Verna Fields, had to cut around it — we knew that the game had changed. I’ve never felt so electric a response in a packed theater. I wish you’d been there.
Two years later, there were rumblings that George Lucas — a pal of Spielberg’s — had something even more game-changing. I saw Star Wars (there was no Episode IV: A New Hope attached to the title) the week after its opening, in a big, full theater. As a piece of filmmaking, it was no Jaws. The acting was variable (to be kind), the shootouts were as lamely staged as in any grade B oater, and the climax was all too predictable. But it was hard not to get caught up in the hype. I’d never experienced anything like the effect of the first spaceship seeming to pass right over my head and onto the screen. Like many people, I was blown away by the cantina scene with its giddy mix of Casablanca, Star Trek, and old Westerns. I wore out the LP of John Williams’s energetic score, with its thunderous martial opening and inventive motifs, one exquisitely yearning, the other (for Darth Vader) as stirring as the best of Tchaikovsky. As an Ealing Studios and Hammer buff, I was in heaven seeing Alec Guinness and Peter Cushing — reunited, to my delight, with David Prowse, the weightlifter under the Vader costume who’d previously played the monster in Cushing’s last appearance as Dr. Victor Frankenstein. Horror-nerd trivia!
In HBO’s new Spielberg documentary, Spielberg mentions an early cut of the film that Lucas screened for his director pals — who, Spielberg excepted, thought it was pretty bad. Brian De Palma in particular told Lucas that he didn’t know why he should care about any of these cardboard characters. Lucas took that to heart and prevailed upon De Palma to write the opening expository titles, which Lucas (or someone) had the ingenious idea of designing so they’d slant and recede into the frame as if traveling away from us through space — and subliminally preparing us for that ship that would then pass over our heads.
Yes, it was long ago and far away. The other day someone in his 20s said to me, “My favorite Star Wars film is A New Hope,” and I cringed. Call it what you will but to me it’s Star Wars, the movie we bonded with and the memory of which has kept us watching through some very boring films.
Which brings me to the ranking of every Star Wars film.
9. Episode I: The Phantom Menace
Asked how a new viewer should begin watching the Star Wars saga, Lucas said (reportedly) to start with Episode 1: The Phantom Menace. Needless to say, if that had been the first Star Wars movie, there wouldn’t have been a second.
It was understandable that after a wait of a decade and a half (and reports that some fans had camped outside theaters for weeks), people wanted to love this movie. They were so pumped that they sat agog through a film that should have sent them into a coma. From the opening titles — “Turmoil has engulfed the Galactic Republic. The taxation of trade routes to outlying star systems is in dispute” — it seemed intended for an audience of IRS inspectors.
Actually, Lucas’s first prequel was ambitiously conceived to portray the defeat of the ancient Jedi order, which was closely tied to the corruption of Darth Vader — here introduced as an obnoxious little kid. To use the Force properly, you see, a Jedi must purge his or her emotions, particularly anger and fear. Young Anakin Skywalker is an angry lad. “Clouded this boy’s future is,” said the Jedi master, Yoda. But most of the movie focuses on Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor, and Natalie Portman — good actors hobbled by unspeakable lines. (“I do sense an unusual amount of fear for something as trivial as this trade dispute.”) It’s as if Lucas conceived The Phantom Menace as a Japanese Noh pageant and directed his actors them to stand stiffly in the center of the screen against matte paintings of space or some futuristic metropolis and stoically observe things like, “This is an odd move for the Trade Federation.” Those are Medusa lines: They turn actors to stone.
The nadir, of course, is the most repulsive comic-relief character in sci-fi history: Jar Jar Binks, a man-size dinosaur with pop eyes and a vaguely West Indian patois who says “Ex-squeeze me!” while simpering and running away from battles. Talk about a disruption in the Force.
A step up from The Phantom Menace — only 75 percent dead on the screen. It has three or four impressive action set pieces, more Yoda and less Jar Jar, and the 79-year-old horror idol Christopher Lee. A fight on a Droid assembly line has a “top this!” quality. A battle in an arena features a scary, crablike creature with lethal stabbing pincers and a trapezoidal head. The Galactic Senate is almost literally a circus with its floating platforms and freaky representatives. The climactic lightsaber battle, between Count Dooku and Yoda, is smashingly designed and edited (the crowd whooped at Yoda’s appearance to rescue Obi-Wan and Anakin), but it’s not exactly Gene Kelly dancing with a cartoon mouse: A fleet swordfighter in his day, the elderly Lee required an obvious stunt double.
But once again the Flash Gordon giddiness of the first Star Wars trilogy is long gone, replaced by turgid pageantry tricked to life with gargantuan amounts of computer-generated busyness. Lucas put all his passion into the design of the aliens and beasties, the fluid line of the sets, and the palette of steel grays and blues. Two characters cannot converse in front of a window without scores of shuttle crafts whizzing by at sundry angles, every inch of every frame crammed with stuff, every color supersaturated, every pixel sprinkled with cyber-MSG. It’s runaway digititis.
Still, without the effects we’d have to concentrate on lines like, “We will not exceed our mandate, my young Padawan learner.” The love duets between the one-note Anakin of Hayden Christensen and the plainly miserable Natalie Portman as Sen. Padmé Amidala, former Queen of Naboo, are of a high twittiness. (“You are in my very soul, tormenting me.”) Only Temuera Morrison as Jango Fett and his cloned son, Boba, suggests an autonomous existence. Too bad his clones didn’t take over the movie.
Historical footnote: Attack of the Clones came out at the summit of now-disgraced fanboy blogger Harry Knowles’s prestige. He got his own early screening and put out a preemptive, vaguely threatening rave exhorting his readers to get on board or be damned as killjoys or — worse — professional critics.
The first tangential Star Wars spinoff isn’t terrible. It sets out to answer one of the most vexing questions in pop culture, after, “Why there was a handy pail of water for Dorothy to drench the Wicked Witch of the West?”: Why did the all-powerful Death Star have a nook where Luke Skywalker’s well-placed torpedo could make the whole thing go boom? It turns out it was the work of the Death Star’s guilty architect, whose heretofore apolitical daughter (Felicity Jones) ends up risking martyrdom for the sake of the rebellion. Rogue One rehashes the plots of a thousand World War II and/or Western films in which a brave squadron — a Magnificent 7, a Dirty Dozen, a Force Five — prepares to sacrifice itself in the name of a greater cause. (Here they’re different genders and species — there’s even a blind warrior-monk.) The action scenes are mostly noise, with Stormtroopers as casually mowed down as in any video game. But there’s a rare (for a “franchise” movie) definitive resolution, a hip multinational cast, and supercilious Imperial droid who isn’t the usual lovable comic relief: He really is a pill.
Rogue One has one nightmarish element. It brings back Hammer Films legend Peter Cushing (dead for decades), with his head computer-generated and an imitator doing his voice (not very well). Even Cushing’s best-known character, Dr. Victor Frankenstein, would blanch at that kind of grave robbing.
6. Episode VI: Return of the Jedi
The hardest call in this Star Wars ranking, since anything in the original trilogy with the original trio of heroes (plus Obi-Wan and Yoda) should by rights tower over what follows. But this thing was lousy in 1983 and — even with its conclusive action — is borderline unwatchable now. After assigning the dialogue for The Empire Strikes Back to more accomplished writers, Lucas returned to penning lines that would have tripped up Daniel Day-Lewis — and Mark Hamill is no Daniel Day-Lewis. Still, Hamill doesn’t mug and camp up his lines the way Harrison Ford does, in his most appalling, face-pulling performance. This is the one in which Carrie Fisher — as the captive of the obese pasha Jabba the Hutt — was forced to wear a metal bikini. At least she got a ton of comic mileage out of that in later years. One of the set pieces in her books and one-person shows was about how many aging men confessed to her that she was the first woman they’d masturbated to. What can you say to that, really?
Although director Richard Marquand made some stylish thrillers — Eye of the Needle, Jagged Edge — he couldn’t stage large-scale action scenes (they’re a shambles — I felt for the poor editor), manage the actors, or shoot the various rubbery puppets and dwarves in furry suits to make them look less fake. It’s like a decadent episode of Sesame Street. Ian McDiarmid’s Emperor is so broad he’d make Flash Gordon’s Ming the Merciless roll his eyes and advise him to get better material. For all the money Lucas had, he couldn’t think of any other threat besides a bigger Death Star — which reminded me of the Knights Who Say Ni declaring, “We want … another shrubbery!”
Lucas, a lefty at heart, had in mind an analogy to the Vietnam War: He sought to demonstrate how a small, resourceful native force could conquer a much-better-equipped invading army. (James Cameron would do something similar — albeit well — in Avatar.) For reasons known only to him, Lucas made his guerillas teddy bears with a Native American–like patois and babyish whoops that likely inspired the Teletubbies, which were created to engage 2-year-olds.
To relaunch Star Wars under the Disney banner — and without the guidance of George Lucas — the intuitively unoriginal director J.J. Abrams remakes the first movie (A New Hope) beat for beat, while also mixing Han Solo, Princess Leia, Luke Skywalker, Chewbacca, and others into a plot centering on young ’uns Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Finn (John Boyega). The latter is a Stormtrooper who has an attack of conscience and throws off his white armor, whereupon he meets the latter, who becomes the first female candidate for Jedi-hood in this male-dominated universe. The gimmick is that Boyega keeps trying to rescue his damsel in distress but ends up far more distressed than she does. Adam Driver is the junior Darth Vader, who stops the show with an amusing lightsaber temper tantrum and goes on to do the unspeakable. This is in contrast to past Star Wars characters, who had to speak the unspeakable. With Pavlovian cunning, Abrams uses familiar camera setups, scene-change wipes, costumes, fighter ships that emit groans, the Millennium Falcon, and, of course, those human stars, longer in the tooth but essentially comfortable. (Carrie Fisher’s cracked, deepened, post-rehab voice gives Leia new depth.) The one-liners are largely second-rate, but The Force Awakens gives you the joy of reunions and the tragedy of loss.
Still, I thought of poor Lucas, who with a touch of sadness said that The Force Awakens was the movie the fans wanted — and that by implication he wasn’t willing to give them. His words reminded me of a young woman I met at a Lord of the Rings marathon, who said that director Peter Jackson did a good job because he was a fan — whereas Lucas had forgotten why people responded to the first Star Wars films. It was the basis of a manifesto that said fans were better suited to take over from creators who might want to move their work in new directions. As bad as Lucas’s second (i.e., first) trilogy, he was at least trying to do something different.
Lucas finally gets to the point and the saga once again takes hold: Those humorless Jedi get picked off; the lean, hard, visuals of the Empire ships reappear; and John Williams’s old musical motifs creep back in. It’s the final movement of The Last Temptation of Ani, preparing the way for Luke and Leia. Not that there aren’t howlers along the way. Although Lucas reportedly brought in another writer (Tom Stoppard was rumored) to polish the dialogue, you still get stuff along the lines of, “Hold me like you did by the lake on Naboo.” As the budding Vader, Hayden Christensen tilts his forehead into the camera, rolls his dark eyeballs up, and tries to look like Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange, but the acting force isn’t with him: He looks in the grip of a bad migraine. And there are few sights in movies as incongruous as Samuel L. Jackson whispering into the floppy ear of Yoda.
But the last hour is stunning. We watch the remaining vestiges of the headstrong juvenile Anakin Skywalker (literally) burned away and Darth Vader rise from the bowels of hell. And Lucas’s anti-fascist politics finally come into focus when the senate rises to cheer the new order of the First Galactic Empire, and Portman’s Padmé realizes that she and everyone else have aided in the dismantling of a democracy by ceding more and more power, in the name of security, to an unscrupulous dictator. It’s worth saluting Lucas for not rehashing his old work, for trying to turn a Saturday-matinee space serial into something that would probably have needed the combined forces of Milton and Shakespeare to do it full justice.
Rey, Ren, and the rest of the gang are back, but this second film in the third trilogy beats its predecessor by a wide margin. The new writer-director, Rian Johnson, pinpoints the intersection between a character’s desperate need to belong — to find a place in the cosmos — and the special effects that lift those longings into the realm of myth. Saddled with a mandate to tell three stories simultaneously (and a plot that moves in circles), Johnson gives each story line its own distinctive palette. The showstopper is the throne room of the snooty Supreme Commander Snoke (the CGI love child of Gollum and Voldemort) with its luminous crimson walls that silhouette an array of elite samurai guards. In the stupendous lightsaber battle that follows, Johnson doesn’t cut on the saber clacks the way Lucas did: He has the fighters go at it in breathtakingly long shots, their whole bodies charged. He achieves what no one else has since The Empire Strikes Back: a fusion of junkyard genre parts and passion.
It is disconcerting to see how the once shiny-eyed Luke Skywalker has evolved into a hirsute, get-off-my-lawn old fart — Luke Cavesulker is more like it. But you know he’ll pull himself together to pass on the Jedi’s collective wisdom, and when he does, his Obi-Wan serenity amid chaos gladdens the heart. Carrie Fisher doesn’t get as many big moments as you’d hope for, since the filmmakers were holding off for the trilogy’s final film, which was meant to be her showcase. But it’s moving to hear her soulful croak for the last time. It took 40 years, but she and Leia finally merged. The best thing is Driver’s Kylo Ren, making his entrance in a skinny black head-helmet like an 8-year-old in a Darth Vader Halloween costume. Told by the Supreme Leader that he looks like an idiot, he smashes the helmet to a pulp. Good, since Driver’s actual visage — a Modigliani portrait come to life — is more unnerving. It’s Vader’s mask incarnate.
2. Episode IV: A New Hope
See the introduction above for my account of seeing this (as plain Star Wars) in 1977 and the ways in which it changed the world of movies. It’s not gracefully made, but the universe Lucas envisioned was an exhilarating mix of old movie tropes and newfangled technology, and his then-wife, Marcia, allegedly help to make the characters somewhat more human than the ones he’d written. Although Lucas needed Harrison Ford’s Han Solo for the traditionally macho stuff, with the Force he ushered the samurai code and its Zen underpinnings into a culture primarily peopled by hotheads and vigilantes.
There was also a lot of yammering about Lucas having modeled Luke Skywalker on Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces, which sent generations of screenwriters to the book to find and repurpose one of the other 999 — with often disappointing results. There was simply no way to replicate Lucas’s faith in his own talent and originality — which was sometimes misplaced, but without it, we’d have no Star Wars.
1. Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back
The one in which pop achieves mythic grandeur, in part due to tight screenwriting (by Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan) and in part to director Irvin Kershner’s insistence on mining deeper, more primal emotions.
The movie needed them because, as the middle installment of a trilogy, it had to leave audiences satisfied while ending on a downbeat note, a note of irresolution. The characters — maimed, carbonized, equipped with traumatizing information about lineage — had slunk off to rethink this whole rebellion thing.
Almost every sequence is a tour de force, something that hadn’t been seen before onscreen, from Han stuffing Luke inside (amid the innards) of a camel-like beast to keep him from freezing to death to the battle with the Imperial Walkers — terrifyingly implacable giants inspired by construction machines Lucas passed many days in San Francisco Bay. (Have the effects dated? Sure, but compare them to the big set pieces in Return of the Jedi and you’ll see what a difference it makes when a director knows how to storyboard and edit an action sequence.) The capture and freezing of Han is even more devastating for being preceded by the trilogy’s best line, which was conceived by Harrison Ford himself. Kershner stages and shoots Luke’s climactic lightsaber fight with Vader so magnificently that it’s worthy of its patriarchal punch line, which has entered the lexicon.
The Empire Strikes Back isn’t just the best Star Wars film. As a piece of filmmaking, it’s all by itself. Lucas has since denied that he complained about Kershner’s slow pace and obsession with detail, saying, “You’re making it better than it needs to be.” But a comparison with the shoddy look and feel of Return of the Jedi suggests that if Lucas didn’t literally say that, he conveyed it to the next director he hired. Although this was Lucas’s universe, he needed opposing forces (his ex-wife, perhaps, and pains in the ass like Kershner) to take it to the next level — to make Star Wars really as good as it is in our dreams.