Because of the power of puns, May the Fourth marks Star Wars Day. (Finally, a day for the internet and pop culture to talk about "Star Wars." Otherwise, when would we get the chance!?)
OK, while you can perhaps side-eye this fake holiday and its now-monolithic place in pop culture (I'm sorry HOW many Disney+ shows are there going to be now?!), you can't neglect the power of "Star Wars." The movies shaped and inspired storytellers young and old with its imaginative journeys into planets far and unknown, opened the boundaries of special effects and cinematic storytelling, and, for many out there, introduced us to the glory of the movies. I know I'm in that final group, quickly falling in love with a golden robo-snob and his bleeping trash-can droid friend wandering through a desert on a basement TV before finally seeing "The Empire Strikes Back" in all its glory on a big screen – one of my first trips to a movie theater, and certainly one of the most memorable. (Partially because I admit I was scared half to death by the pre-movie THX sound effect; everything after that was memorable for far better reasons.)
So with the galaxy far, far away on everyone's minds, I decided to take a look back at the entire big-screen live-action franchise and see where they all rank – the good, the bad and the Binks. Here's my list, from the worst to the best:
11. "Attack of the Clones"
"Phantom Menace" may include the worst parts of the series, but "Attack of the Clones" is the worst overall film-watching experience. It takes a special effort to take an intergalactic adventure set in unfathomable worlds of imagination and intrigue, and make it synapse-shutteringly boring. But that’s exactly what "Attack of the Clones" manages to do, focusing its attention on a forbidden romance without any sense of romance and political intrigue without any sense of intrigue.
As an essential emotional cog in George Lucas’ descent into darkness story arc for Anakin, the love story features all the heated passion and human chemistry of two Crispix boxes talking about filing their taxes. As her three Oscar nominations and one trophy would attest, Natalie Portman is a good actress, and even Hayden Christensen can turn in a capable performance (see "Shattered Glass"), but here, the two are dead-eyed, reciting lines with no feeling.
Then again, what’s to be done when faced with dialogue like Anakin’s infamous "I don’t like sand" romance monologue? Portman and Christensen may be bad, but Lucas’ horrifically robotic attempts at writing and directing a swooning romance drags them down into the same uncanny valley as his once groundbreaking special effects work – on display here as unnatural, texture-less blue screen environments used as the stage for cluttered action scenes both over-caffeinated and lifeless.
Looking back, the real stake in the heart of "Attack of the Clones" is that in a series full of iconic characters and moments – for better and worse – there’s nothing to remember or hold onto in "Attack of the Clones." Even Yoda bouncing around with a lightsaber like he’s possessed by Flubber’s ghost isn’t entertainingly dumb. It’s just dumb.
The only thing "Attack of the Clones" has going for it is that "The Phantom Menace" lowered the bar so far, it was basically underground. And yet it still managed to trip and faceplant.
10. "The Phantom Menace"
Jar Jar Binks. Midichlorians. Jake Lloyd. I won’t argue that these things are not terrible – but I will argue that at least they’re memorably terrible. At least I laughingly eye-roll at Cabbage Patch Anakin howling and declaring, "Now THIS is podracing!" rather than emotionlessly stare at the screen wondering if I’ll even feel joy again.
The truth is the overwhelming stink wafting off "The Phantom Menace" – and make no mistake, it really stinks – tends to mask the few glimmers of good stuff in here. Liam Neeson provides a commanding presence that the rest of the prequels would never recover – and bless his heart, Ewan McGregor is trying in these things. The big climactic battle with the sadly underutilized Darth Maul is also arguably the best sequence from the prequels, with a sense of weight and grandiosity to the lightsaber duels that the later prequels would neglect for toy sales – not to mention the awesome "Duel of the Fates" scoring it all. Plus, this is seemingly the last of Lucas’ "Star Wars" films that would feature characters mostly walking through real environments, whereas the later prequels would blue-screen people roaming through shiny PS3 backgrounds. There are actual places in "Phantom Menace," making its crap adventure at least feel like a real adventure.
The ultimate question when deciding between "Attack of the Clones" and "The Phantom Menace" is which one would I actually rather watch? If I was locked into a very dorky "Saw"-esque death trap that forced me to watch one of these two films or have my voice surgically changed to Jar Jar Binks’, which one would I choose? And I’d choose "Phantom Menace" every time, because at least it bothers to be iconically bad, whereas "Attack of the Clones" would just be another death trap in its own right, murdering me slowly yet surely of sad boredom.
9. "The Rise of Skywalker"
After the brutally divisive "Last Jedi," "Star Wars" brought back J.J. Abrams and made a final installment that everybody could agree on. Unfortunately, everyone agrees that it's a bummer, ending the cinema's most famous franchise – the trilogy of all trilogies – on a waste of energy.
Moving frantically fast in the hopes that all the commotion distracts you from the fact that it has no idea what it's doing, "The Rise of Skywalker" attempts to erase its predecessor, flatly sidelining its newly introduced characters as well as undoing some of its larger story and emotional beats. But if you're going to abolish one story, you better have a decent replacement – and boy, Abrams does not. The ramshackle screenplay is constantly introducing new elements and fetch-quest detours that rarely mean anything to the story (cool random dagger thing, I guess) and sometimes go entirely unanswered. (Remember when Finn had something to tell Rey? Or when we should probably get an explanation for Palpatine returning, therefore undoing Darth Vader's sacrifice and the emotional climax of the original trilogy? The screenplay certainly didn't!)
It's all a cluttered mess, with big moments instantly revoked or rendered meaningless (bye Chewie ... never mind, hi Chewie!) and loud cacophonous action sequences where you forget why anything's happening. And seriously, how dare you make me think about Palpatine getting busy.
For the finale to a story that's endured in hearts and minds for almost half a century, "The Rise of Skywalker" seems designed to leave no trace – of its predecessor or of itself. In the case of the latter, that's its only success.
8. "Revenge of the Sith"
Whoa, #HotTake alert: "Revenge of the Sith" is the best of the prequels – admittedly a feat about as impressive as being the most flavorful item at a cardboard tasting. It gets the closest to mining some actual human emotions in this painfully stretched story (honestly, Ewan McGregor, you deserve an award for putting in the effort), and Lucas has a better handle on the tone of this particular chapter, not bothering as much with trying to make embarrassing jokes in the middle of a political space action drama for the kids in the crowd and finally gathering some climactic momentum to this origin story. It’s neither gallingly boring like Episode II nor gallingly, well, galling like Episode I – and that counts for something, I guess.
There is, however, the whole "Noooo!" ending that gruesomely neutered one of film’s most iconic villains with a blunt hammer of cheesy melodrama. And that whole General Grievous fight that, like "Attack of the Clones," manages to be childishly overblown yet corpse-like unmoving, overdosing on lightsabers and pouring the glowing effects on the screen like a radioactive spill at the Mike & Ike factory. And true, Lucas’ CGI consumption, stiff direction and lackluster writing only become more glaring as the story grows into an attempt at massive grand tragedy. Where there should be a huge emotional climax is instead a digitized blur of fighting in front of Zoom backgrounds and dull mannequins debating whether the most transparently sinister emperor of all time is maybe up to something sinister. And no, the movie's not even fun to watch because it's no longer a space fantasy adventure but a character drama about a grim, dark, increasingly violent fall into murderous evil.
You know, maybe "Revenge of the Sith" is just the best prequel because it ended the prequel trilogy. Fine enough rationale for me.
Oh "Solo," the "Star Wars" movie that made even hardcore "Star Wars" nerds say, "OK, maybe there is such a thing as too much 'Star Wars.'" The first true flop of the franchise, "Solo" turns the adventures of the universe's most lovable rascal wholly beige – and not just literally thanks to the muddy cinematography from the usually terrific Bradford Young.
Forget poor star Alden Ehrenreich, who falls well short in this true Kobayashi Maru test to fill Harrison Ford's iconic vest. (See "Hail, Caesar!" for evidence that he's actually great when he's not being crushed by legacy and clenched into an impression.) The prequel's true sin is the screenplay which insists on answering every question you never needed to know about Han Solo – where his name came from, where the dice came from, even where calling Chewbacca "Chewy" came from. The result is a muddled, half-baked space Western mainly serving as a trivia delivery device, designed to take the intrigue out of a beloved character with less-than-interesting answers. Take the Kessel Run of "Solo's" reality, a blur of meaningless special effects and impartially choreographed action that can't come close to the Kessel Run of viewers' imaginations (even with Donald Glover's enchanting Lando at the helm).
The end result's not unwatchable. After all, director Ron Howard – taking over for Lord and Miller, the masters of turning terrible ideas into greatness, unfortunately fired here – isn't a hack, just safe and unspectacular. But there's a reason why, when you're ranking "Star Wars" movies, you forget this one even exists – a shame for one of cinema's most memorable characters.
6. "Rogue One"
Heck, just the trailers for this first "Star Wars" spin-off are better than the last bunch of movies on this list. But as a whole, "Rogue One" is an entertaining "men on a mission" war movie that does its damnedest to find new wrinkles and angles on the "Star Wars" universe – mostly with success.
The characters may not be as rich as one would hope (probably a side effect of the film's much-ballyhooed comprehensive reshoots) but director Gareth Edwards at least assembled a great cast – Felicity Jones, Riz Ahmed, Mads Mikkelsen and more – that wrings the most gravitas out of their roles. And Edwards really comes at this prequel story with an intriguing take, adding some extra grit to the world (without submitting to grimdark, grounding the story but also giving it levity and some truly gorgeous visuals) and also adding a ton of scale, smartly emphasizing the small characters in this huge war with big stakes. Even with its shortcomings, by the time the mission comes to its inevitable close, it still leaves an impact.
There was hope that these "Star Wars Stories" would open up the franchise to new parts of the galaxy, new stories and new tones; "Rogue One" was a welcome step in that direction – with hopefully more of those steps to come.
5. "The Force Awakens"
Of course "The Force Awakens" ended up being a good movie; it was basically pieces and parts from the good "Star Wars" entries reconfigured and given a sexy new paint job. You want another Death Star? You want another snow planet? You want another cantina scene? You want another adventure starting with a droid sent out with an important message and finding a gifted loner on a desert planet dreaming of more?
You know what? Yes, as it turns out, I would. What "The Force Awakens" lacks in a new adventure, it provides in recalling why we got so attached to the old ones. It’s got warm, rich and jubilant performances from cast members rookie and veteran; a fun adventure plot that, while logically rickety, moves with vigorous energy; and imaginative worlds and creations that look and feel real, like they have a heartbeat and, as a result, instill a sense of wonder. And while it lacks a freshness, what new introductions there are – namely the absolutely stellar new cast – are a thrill to watch, full of heart, humor and character intrigue. We were so looking forward to where they would go next. We were so naive.
But even knowing the dead end the franchise would make its final destination, after three at-best soul-crushing prequels, "The Force Awakens" reminded audiences how it felt like to be excited for "Star Wars," to be amped to see what happens next, to be excited about new worlds and compelling characters – something I hadn’t felt in this franchise since first watching the original trilogy on VHS in my basement. It might lack a true feeling of discovery, but rediscovering something can still thrill too.
4. "Return of the Jedi"
"Return of the Jedi" has the unfortunate distinction of being the likely patient zero of Third-Film-Itis, that most vicious of diseases that strikes down a trilogy’s final installment with an excess of villains, shoe-horned product over story and a general clunky dip in quality from its predecessor. That being said, "Return of the Jedi" also has the distinction of still being a pretty fun adventure movie – nowhere near the highs of its previous chapters, but still enjoyable and exciting.
Are the Ewoks just cute adorable toys for the kids in the audience to beg their parents to get them for Christmas? You bet! Are they also generally fun and charming additions to what is a youthful adventure series starring two quipping robots and a big furry dog-man that flies spaceships? You bet! Anything "Jedi" did would seem childish coming off the dark, hand-slicing, character-freezing "Empire Strikes Back," but the third installment still maintains the overall sense of adventure and excitement of the series at its best. The opening raid of Jabba’s palace and escape from the Sarlacc pit is a creepy creature delight, the battles are thrilling, and the final confrontation is eerie, tense and, in the end, almost uplifting, bringing the beloved characters to a solid, emotionally earned finale.
"Return of the Jedi" is still by far the weakest of the original trilogy; it’s not as fresh and imaginative as "A New Hope," it’s not as daring as "Empire Strikes Back" and you can feel the Lucas screenwriting woes of the prequels already seeping into some of the slackly paced dialogue. But despite the turbulence, it lands the ship safely. (More than we can say about the sequel trilogy!)
3. "The Last Jedi"
I won't argue everything about Rian Johnson's much-debated sequel is perfect; it's a strangely structured story, for instance, and I desperately wish the infamous Leia scene hit me the way the movie wants it to. But when "The Last Jedi" works, it's one of the most exhilarating movies in this franchise and one of the better franchise movies of the past decade – probably because Rian Johnson approached it as making a Rian Johnson movie just as much as making a "Star Wars" movie.
The result combines Johnson's thematic interests – reflecting on the true meaning of heroism – with the classic stories and archetypes of "Star Wars" in thrilling fashion, taking the saga in new and unexpected directions that add more depth to our characters, both old and fresh, and to our universe, widening up new planets, concepts and visuals. And what visuals they are; Johnson and cinematographer Steve Yedlin create a gorgeous and grandiose blockbuster, complete with some really stupendous and memorable action moments.
If "Force Awakens" showed what the old could do, "The Last Jedi" demonstrated what new takes on the franchise could bring to the table. In an era of blockbusters dutifully delivering exactly what its audience wants, "The Last Jedi" showed that franchises could be unpredictable, unexpected and unlike anything before it, challenging audiences and expectations as well as rewriting the rules and pushing its characters and its story in thrilling ways. You know, like a certain other beloved second installment ...
2. "Star Wars"
"Star Wars" is still the ultimate in adventure movies (maybe next to Indiana Jones), gracefully balancing the big show-stopping moments of exciting action with the small moments of character development, world-building and emotion. It’s amazing how George Lucas – who would struggle so immensely with the same mission during the prequel run – does it so simply here, mining earnest performances, hitting big emotions and creating a world of fun, danger, humor, wonder and intrigue that captures that imagination.
The reason "Star Wars" took off was because it created a place full of characters we liked, inhabiting worlds we wanted to explore – with a whole universe at the edge of the screen begging to be discovered. Now, living in a time when expanded universes and world-building are the mission of seemingly every franchise – one often gone unaccomplished – it’s pretty amazing to watch a movie from 50 years ago pull it off with such joyous, wonderful ease, telling a classic universal story of heroism and good over evil in a new inventive way.
1. "The Empire Strikes Back"
If "Star Wars" is the ultimate in adventure movies, then "The Empire Strikes Back" is pretty much the ultimate in sequels, taking everything the first movie did well and taking it in new, intriguing and deeper directions. In the case of "Empire Strikes Back," those directions led it down a much darker path, opening up Hollywood blockbusters to the idea of unhappy endings.
But while it’s easy to give "Empire Strikes Back" the nod as the best of the bunch because it’s more overtly serious and dark and gritty and all the other words that studios use nowadays to convince audiences that their beloved franchises and properties are Very Important now, the beauty of director Irvin Kershner’s work (along with screenwriters Lawrence Kasdan and Leigh Brackett) is that it can plumb into some dark places and go more political in tone while still feeling like a grand adventure, with a sense of humor, wit, exploration and fun. After all, this is a movie that can introduce a tiny Grover-voiced gremlin swamp sage performing all sorts of charming impish mischief ... before delivering Luke to a cave of nightmares and offering that most ominous of warnings: "You ... will ... be."
Plus: Hoth. Hoth is awesome. The monsters on Hoth are awesome. The Walkers trudging through the fog and snow are awesome. Again, "The Empire Strikes Back" was the first film I saw in theaters, and that opening battle was one of the first moments where I fell in love with the movies. So yeah, that alone would nab it the top spot. But add in everything else, and "Empire Strikes Back" takes an almost perfect adventure movie and elevates it to another level, giving the audience everything they loved about the first and more without simply giving the audience more of everything they previously loved.
As much as it is a gigantic cliché to say that one has always had a passion for film, Matt Mueller has always had a passion for film. Whether it was bringing in the latest movie reviews for his first grade show-and-tell or writing film reviews for the St. Norbert College Times as a high school student, Matt is way too obsessed with movies for his own good.
When he's not writing about the latest blockbuster or talking much too glowingly about "Piranha 3D," Matt can probably be found watching literally any sport (minus cricket) or working at - get this - a local movie theater. Or watching a movie. Yeah, he's probably watching a movie.