With the absolutely awesome conclusion of Star Wars Rebels I think it’s time to go back and do that most destructive and pointless of all possible tasks: ranking! Chatting with a friend about where Rebels falls in the screen canon of Star Wars has gotten me itching to revisit a ranking of the entire Saga to date; I should wait until Solo comes out, but I’m concerned that the movie is going to be a bit of a bummer. So why not do it now, while I’m on a Rebels-induced Star Wars high?
This is a ranking of screen canon only – ie, Genndy Tartakovsky’s Clone Wars is not, from what I know, actual canon in the post-Disney purchase world. The new novels and comics are technically canon, but a) I haven’t read most of them and b) they can potentially be overwritten by future movies and TV shows, so I tend to not think of them as hard canon.
Yes, this is nit-picky nerd shit. Anyway, on with the ranking:
Attack of the Clones
Last year I read a great book called The Dharma of Star Wars (it influenced me to start this blog, in fact), and afterwards I decided to rewatch the Prequel Trilogy. The book found lots of Buddhist thought in those movies, and I was excited to revisit the films with a spiritual outlook.
Spiritual outlook or no, the Prequels are rough going. Especially Attack of the Clones, which has a weird distended structure that drags on and on. The Obi-Wan private dick stuff is… ok, but the Anakin and Padme storyline is a nightmare. And even the ending – which has our heroes battling monsters in an arena before a wave of Jedi show up to kick ass and which should have been AMAZING – is tedious and janky. This is the movie where Lucas spent a lot of energy reacting to negative Phantom Menace opinions, and that’s a big part of why it stinks.
Note: Yoda vs Dooku remains the low point for the whole series, in my opinion.
Revenge of the Sith
If anything in this movie works it’s because we’re invested in the basic outline of the story, as it’s the story we wanted from the Prequel Trilogy in the first place. But Revenge of the Sith feels like the capper to a plot that was never properly unfolded… unless you watch the Clone Wars cartoon (which came years later). That’s bad enough, but what’s worse is that the big final moments of the movie – Order 66, the Obi-Wan and Anakin fight – simply don’t work. They’re all too CGI looking (especially Mustafar, which is actually constructed like a Mega Man level or something) and lack emotional heft. The Obi-Wan/Anakin duel should be a series high point, one of the great moments of epic adventure cinema… but it’s pretty silly and uninteresting.
Mostly Revenge of the Sith is a film of missed opportunities. The broad strokes are here, but the details are absolutely missing.
Star Wars: The Clone Wars (movie)
Admission: I haven’t seen this movie since it came out. Maybe I should revisit it with the knowledge of the Clone Wars TV show under my belt, but I haven’t. All I can say is that I saw this film while visiting The Ranch and that I met George Lucas while doing it… and I still hated the movie when I saw it. Ziro the Hutt… yikes!
The Phantom Menace
This is the Prequel film that has seen its star rise over the years. Don’t get me wrong – it’s not very good, and it’s only getting more racist with every passing year – but it’s a unique piece that is clearly coming from deep inside George Lucas’ own weird interests and preoccupations. And there’s no sequence in any of the Prequel films as great as the pod race, which is still one of the high water marks for setpieces in this franchise.
This is popular wisdom, so I’m not inventing anything here, but TPM truly suffers from the fact that Lucas lived in a vacuum while creating it. That vacuum was formed by an army of yes-men sucking on his butt the whole time, never giving him proper creative pushback. There are terrific moments in here (and I’ll be honest – Jar Jar has, in his own way, grown on me), but they’re bogged down in a shockingly boring mess.
The Force Awakens
If those four entries were the bad things, we’ve now entered neutral territory. The Force Awakens is totally fine! It’s lukewarm, a movie that is really good for about a third of its running time and then turns into a fairly generic movie for the last two thirds. It’s when Han shows up that the whole thing gets uninteresting, but it never gets SO uninteresting that the movie is bad. The Force Awakens is super watchable, but in a background kind of way. None of the OT films are like that (and, it seems, neither are the Prequels – you’re magnetically drawn into their badness when they’re playing).
What’s fascinating about TFA is that it is retroactively improved by The Last Jedi; this is similar to the relationship between Revenge of the Sith and The Clone Wars cartoon show. But a retroactive improvement doesn’t save this from being a safe, unadventurous lark lacking in weight and thematic resonance – perhaps the only film in the Saga without any powerful themes at play. The themes that are here – the generational conflicts and betrayals – are sharpened by TLJ, but were very watery when TFA first came out.
But perhaps this is what Star Wars truly needed – a reset. After all, it had been twenty years since Star Wars felt like Star Wars (like them or not, you have to admit that the Prequels feel fundamentally different from the OT. By design, of course). In an ideal scenario we would have gotten the reset AND a movie that had depth and meaning, that was more than a rehash of the familiar, but I’ll take what we got – a film that is fine and is buoyed by some truly excellent casting.
The Clone Wars (TV show)
I struggled with where to put this show. It’s quite good, and it only gets better as it goes along. But it’s also got a bunch of filler in it, and even the most die-hard fans will tell you that there are plenty of episodes you can skip.
Set between the events of Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith, The Clone Wars tells the story of that titular conflict – a story Star Wars fans waited to see since 1977! It’s kind of crazy that the movies just skipped over the whole damn thing, but I’m glad that this show filled in the gaps.
One of the reasons this show works is because it’s a show – they have multiple episodes to tell stories. The best Clone Wars stories are mini-arcs, two to four episode groupings that show us specific battles or diplomatic missions or Jedi quests related to the larger war. The show is VERY action heavy, but even within all those action scenes is space for more character growth and more exploration of the corners of the Star Wars galaxy.
That space allowed the show to do some really cool stuff. In The Clone Wars the clones become actual characters, and there’s an arc where we follow them from the growth tanks through training to battle. The mythology of The Force got expanded in major ways, as we explored the more metaphysical aspects of the Jedi religion, including getting to know weird beings called The Mortis Gods. We got to meet the best character to never appear in a STAR WARS movie, Anakin Skywalker’s padawan Ahsoka Tano. All that Sifo Dyas shit from the movies actually makes sense now, and General Grevious sucks less. And we got to know the main characters better, understand the Jedi more and get a better view of the weird and complex politics of the Clone Wars themselves. Watching this show actually makes Revenge of the Sith kind of… cool (except for the lack of Ahsoka), because the characters who feel thin in the movies have a whole new life, backed up by hours and hours of adventures.
Clone Wars is a triumph of expanded universe storytelling, adding such richness to the main Saga while rarely feeling like an exercise in continuity porn OR a self-indulgent series of winks and nods. If you never heard of Star Wars you could watch Clone Wars and find yourself immersed in a full world with complicated moral quandaries and real, intense stakes.
This might be the most controversial ranking on this list (maybe The Force Awakens will rankle more), but I stand by it. My love of Rogue One started the day I first watched it and has continued in the years since, through multiple viewings in theaters, at home and on planes. I really, really like this movie.
It’s not ‘perfect.’ You have to say that upfront, as if any movie is ‘perfect.’ But it’s damn good, and its logey first half is punctuated by greatness and is in service of a truly spectacular back half. This film does something extraordinary – it looks and feels like a Star Wars film but does not at all behave like one. Forget the ending, where all the characters die, just look at the scene where Jyn Erso finally reunites with her father, who has been mortally wounded. She cradles him amid flames and wreckage, they lock eyes, and he begins to deliver a death monologue. “I have so much to tell you,” he says.
AND THEN HE DIES.
That’s the moment I fell in love with the film. This is a a clear eyed representation of how life works; it’s not cynical so much as its honest. As our heroes in the main Saga have their ups and downs, as they discover truths and pierce mysteries, as they conquer evil, the soldiers on the ground have unfulfilling missions, never get their questions answered and, in the end, get vaporized. But what’s amazing is that Rogue One doesn’t sell this as a bummer – it sells it as heroic! The Star Wars Saga is a Chosen One story, an ultimate tale of the individual conquering all. Rogue One rejects that, and is communal in its heroism, allowing sacrifice to take its spot on the victory podium.
The characters in Rogue One rule, and Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen) is the kind of Force-adjacent character the franchise has needed for decades. Some might say the characters are thin, but I find them to be lightly sketched, and they remind me of characters in classic “men on a mission” movies, often defined by one dominant trait. That’s all you need – I don’t have to get a ton of backstory on everybody in The Dirty Dozen.
Finally, Rogue One does a prequel right – it addresses the stuff we actually thought about (how the hell did the Empire make a weapon with such a dopey weak spot? It was on purpose!) and doesn’t bend over backwards to insert too many winks and nods. What’s more, I like its light smattering of Rebellion politics, politics that get fleshed out in Star Wars Rebels. It’s just enough, and it gives you a sense of the magnitude of the choice the Rebellion has to make in going to full open warfare.
Return of the Jedi
Recently I had the chance to revisit JEDI in the optimal environment: on an airplane. Okay, maybe you don’t want to watch a movie the first time on a seatback… but the 100th? I don’t know how many times I’ve seen JEDI, but I was able to mouth most of the dialogue along with the movie as it played, like singing along with a favorite album.
JEDI’s place in Star Wars has changed and morphed over the years. It was the first disappointment – the Ewoks! How we hated them in 1983! – but once the Prequels came along it relinquished its spot as the worst of the Saga. With a larger pool of movies to compare it with, Jedi began looking better and better. And I’ll tell you what – as I get older the Ewoks don’t seem so bad.
Jedi really foreshadows the Prequels in that it’s a mishmash of truly operatic and enormous emotional storytelling alongside a bunch of kiddie stuff. The kiddie stuff has aged well, but the operatic stuff has aged even better. The film remains the weakest of the OT, but the final Vader and Luke duel may be the best duel in the series. There’s so much going on, and the film really leverages our familiarity with these characters. This is a movie that knows Luke and friends are legends, and treats them as such.
Note: all OT films are listed as the original cuts, not the Special Editions. I don’t want to talk about Hayden Christiansen showing up in Jedi.
What? A cartoon show this high? Better than Jedi? You heard it right. In fact, I think the Rebels series finale takes the ending of Jedi and one-ups it, at least in terms of primitive beings conquering the highly mechanized Empire. To say anything more would be to spoil a show that aired less than a week ago, so I won’t.
Beginning about five years before the opening of the original Star Wars, Rebels started life as a perhaps too-small show. A young orphan named Ezra harrasses the Empire on his homeworld of Lothal, and he eventually meets up with an independent resistance cell featuring a man named Kanan – a Jedi who survived the purge and now lives in hiding. Kanan sees that Ezra is a Force adept and begins training him.
But those small beginnings, with the crew of the ship The Ghost largely stuck on Lothal, eventually grew bigger and bigger. They started hassling the Empire on other worlds, then they began meeting other independent resistance cells and started laying the groundwork for the Rebel Alliance. Along the way Ezra and Kanan examined the mysteries of the Force, and met Darth Vader, Ahsoka Tano and even Darth Maul (who The Clone Wars had established survived his bisection). The scope of Rebels opened up, as did the maturity of the storytelling… until in the final episodes they brought it all back to Lothal, and we saw our heroes create what would be the true spark of the Rebellion.
When the show began many of us wondered how two Jedis could be running around pre-Star Wars, when everyone in the OT tells us the Jedi are extinct. I’ll just say that Rebels deals with that elegantly. Along the way they also folded fan-favorite EU villain Grand Admiral Thrawn into things, and they went deeper and more philosophically into The Force than any previous Star Wars property had before.
Where Clone Wars was riddled with filler, Rebels was a wonderful slow burn, with each episode truly building into something bigger and more incredible. The show works week to week, but it really pays off in binges, where the slow-moving epic nature of the series becomes apparent.
On top of that the crew of the Ghost – Hera and Sabine, Zed and unruly droid Chopper, Kanan and Ezra – are all-time Star Wars characters, and none of them are the son or uncle or half-brother of anybody else. This show stands alone but also functions as a vital building block in the greater Star Wars universe.
The Last Jedi
All of the hate that The Last Jedi has gotten since its release has convinced me of one thing: it’s a masterpiece. It’s a rich, layered movie that honors what is best about Star Wars while also going deeper into things that don’t get a lot of screen time in previous instalments. Rian Johnson took the speed of the OT (it’s hard for younger audiences to understand this, but when Star Wars was released in 1977 it was considered almost too fast paced. George Lucas redefined how movies work) and ramped it up, while staying dedicated to an exploration of character and spirituality the likes of which we haven’t seen since Empire.
But perhaps the most magical thing about The Last Jedi is the way that it almost always zigs when you think it’s supposed to zag; I understand how that can leave an audience trained to expect certain things from this franchise unmoored and upset, but for me it’s incredibly rewarding. I go to the movies always hoping to be surprised, and the surprise I want isn’t about ridiculous reveals or out-of-thin-air plot twists, it’s about characters behaving in unexpected ways or about motivations being more complex than we anticipated.
The most exciting thing about The Last Jedi, having seen it a few times (and eagerly awaiting getting it on Blu)? That the movie is in direct conversation with the films that came before. It is certainly talking to The Force Awakens, having a discussion about what it means to be the next generation, about picking up the baton, about choosing what to leave behind and what to take forward. More than that, it’s having a discussion with the whole Saga about the meaning of heroism and sacrifice, and The Last Jedi looks to take macho, loner iconography away from heroism and sacrifice and replace them with inclusive, communal and supportive iconography.
Out of all the films it’s the movie most picking up on the themes of Empire, where Luke’s foolishness was laid bare… and then he was rewarded with becoming a badass Jedi in Jedi. The Last Jedi comes back around to that, to Luke’s isolationist tendencies and his mythic power trips, and it shows where those things are destructive… but also where they can fuel the imaginations of new generations. The Last Jedi doesn’t make simple statements, but rather asks broad questions, and it understands the Taoist concepts that underlie all of Star Wars’ spirituality – there can be no light without the dark. Luke cannot overcome without the struggle. But it also understands that the struggle doesn’t need to be violent, and between Luke and Rose (the new Luke, as far as I’m concerned), The Last Jedi offers a new path forward.
The Empire Strikes Back
A few years ago I had the opportunity to watch the OT – the pre-Special Edition cuts! – on 35mm in a secret theatrical setting. It was incredible, and it was informative. I tried to watch Empire with the eyes of an adult, not someone who grew up on this stuff, and I have to say that it was illuminating as all hell.
The movie is nuts. Characters run around making references to all sorts of things we never heard of in the first film. There’s a fucking puppet who plays a major role. And there’s no structured story, per se – our heroes aren’t actually doing anything or after anything. They’re just running away. On top of all that, the movie doesn’t end – it just sets up the sequel. Modern moviemaking was born right here.
It was interesting to watch with those eyes, but I had to make an effort, because sinking into Empire is so easy to do. The movie is perfect, beautifully paced and with the best character work of all nine Star Wars movies to date. The character work is effortless, coming from a time when the actors and the filmmakers weren’t trapped inside an idea of what Star Wars had to be, and they were just free to take what they had started in Star Wars and go to another level with it.
That the movie takes time to stop amid all the action and the chases to have a puppet give Luke Skywalker lessons in a Taoist/Buddhist hybrid religion… well, that’s just the icing on the cake. It was such a bold choice for what was still seen as a children’s movie, and I think it’s one of the choices that makes this series worthwhile. If Yoda hadn’t popped up in Jedi – if Luke had just done some sort of training montage that was absent spiritual principles – I don’t think Star Wars would have lasted this long. Empire is the movie that took the foundation Lucas laid down and made something truly meaningful on top of it.
Over the years the top spot on this list has changed between Empire and Star Wars (I will never call it A New Hope ever again), but for the last little while Star Wars has felt quite secure as the number one film, and I’m starting to think it’ll never be unseated.
Sure, some of that could be nostalgia. It’s the first, the trailblazer, the one that led the way. All else is built on this movie. But there’s something more to it. Star Wars is the only story in this whole Saga that is self-contained. You can’t just watch Empire or Jedi alone, and the rest of the movies are incredibly dependent on one another (although one could argue that Phantom Menace is equally standalone, although I think the ending telegraphs that the whole thing is just getting started, and the identity of the titular villain is murky). But Star Wars? It’s a fractal thing – the whole Saga is present here in this one movie. All the arcs and the stories and themes are present and complete. It’s a whole.
More than that, it’s an innocent whole. It’s the only Star Wars movie made without any idea of what a Star Wars movie has to be. There are no expectations; the film is beholden to nothing but itself. This means it’s the only Star Wars movie ever made, or ever will be made, that is just a movie. It’s not a franchise mover or a prequel or a character examination or a meditation on the Saga or anything else.
Star Wars, taken as a whole – not as the start of a story or ground zero for EU or any of that – is a beautiful thing. It’s a simple, classic tale told with the kind of verve that only a bizarre genius could bring to it. It’s a singular work, the effort of a visionary who, it turns out, doesn’t always understand his own vision, and definitely couldn’t recapture it. It’s a product of limitation and experimentation, and watching it in 2018 the movie feels as unique and left of center as it did in 1977, even with 40 years of spin-offs and rip-offs. Nobody has ever managed to match the magic Lucas captured in that film, a movie that is childish yet wise, serious yet silly. It doesn’t live at the intersection of trash and art, it defines the intersection – it’s a work informed equally by Kurosawa and nameless serial directors, by film school and countless hours wasted in front of the TV.
There’s never been another movie like it, and there never will be. It’s so easy to lose sight of what makes Star Wars so special, now that it’s been buried by decades of other Star Wars. But the truth is that the weird, unexpected and bizarrely personal 1977 film is, even in its own franchise, a work of art that stands utterly alone.