Monday, January 11, 2016

Ranking The Star Wars Films After Re-Watching Them All

After re-watching the prequels I heartily endorse Patton Oswalt's assessment of them

I finally managed to see Star Wars: The Force Awakens the week after Christmas, and now, I am finally able to write about it.  There are enough takes flying around out there about the film, so I decline to add my own.  Instead, I'd like to discuss it in context with the other Star Wars films, because I sat down and rewatched them all before seeing Force Awakens.  Here's my annotated ranking of the films now that I've seen them all again back to back:

1.  Empire Strikes Back
This was number one for me before the great rewatch, and seeing it again in juxtaposition to all the others just solidified that position.  In the first place, it looks amazing.  Evidently there were cost overruns in making it, but it looks like it was money well spent.  The original looks a little chintzy in spots, and Jedi has parts that could have looked better, too.  Unlike all the other Star Wars films (except The Force Awakens), the human relationships feel real.  It's practically a flawless film, as far as I am concerned, except maybe for that bad line reading of "two fighters against a star destroyer?"  It is also telling that it is the film among the first six where George Lucas has the least involvement.  He came up with the story, but Lawrence Kasdan wrote the script, Irwin Kershner had a lot of leeway in directing it, and Gary Kurtz did most of the day to day production on set.  (This also led to those aforementioned cost overruns that also led to Kurtz not taking part in the next film.)  Lucas has a real talent for world building, creative scenarios, and drawing the broad outlines of mythical stories, but he needs other people to translate that story into script and to direct actors to say the lines. Five stars

2. Star Wars
(I categorically refuse to call this A New Hope.)  This film is very very close to being number one, but gets edged out due to the more fully human emotional landscape of Empire and the drama that comes with it.  In any case, it is a truly great film.  It blows me away that something made in 1977 holds up this well.  If not for the sideburns and haircuts, it looks almost contemporary.  It also may be the best edited film ever made, somehow propelling itself forward while leaving room for the extended and slower story of the droids landing on Tattooine.  The lived-in universe this films creates is so rich that we still want to return to it decades later, and it is left so open that so many stories can still be told there. It doesn't just build that world, it hits all the right notes and never fails to surprise.  Thinking about it from the perspective of my first viewing, its crescendo is breath-taking.  After blowing our minds for over an hour and a half, Lucas gives us the assault on the Death Star, which feels light years ahead of the film's beginning, which was light years ahead of 70s sci-fi cinema. Five stars

3. Return of the Jedi
When I was like ten or so, I probably would've put Jedi first.  Since the 80s it's come in for some abuse due to the Ewoks and other factors, but seeing it again it is obvious that this is a really good film.  The Jabba's palace adventure at the start and the three-way battle and duel in the throne room at the end are both fantastic.  Yes the Ewok stuff drags the movie down and slows it up, and Han's role seems weird and ambiguous, but that does not outweigh the greatness elsewhere.  I think Mark Hamill really outdoes himself in this movie, he seems to wear his burden to destroy his father on his face.  By ranking Jedi third, this is less by default and more just to say that while it is really good, it's not as good as the other films in the original trilogy.  Perhaps it gets underrated because after seeing the prequels, the seeds of Lucas' future wrong turns are evident.  The Ewok stuff comes across as silly and motivated more by marketing than by art, a harbinger of Jar Jar. Four and a half stars

4. The Force Awakens
Again, this ranking is based on the fact that films ahead of it are so good, not because this film is not good.  In fact, I think it is really, really good.  As I mentioned before, it is the one film other than Empire that really seems to have nailed human relationships.  I was at the edge of my seat several times in the theater.  Unlike the prequels, it seems to have figured out how to incorporate humor and to introduce new characters that the audience actually cares about.  Some touches, like Finn's origin story, are truly brilliant.  This film so good that I put it just about even with Jedi, in fact.  It doesn't quite make it for me, because some of the derivative elements mirror the 1977 original beyond a reasonable point.  Also, while it does a good job of keeping things mysterious and not over-expositioning, the First Order and its motivations, as well as the status of the Republic, are all murky to the point of distraction.  By trying hard not to make the mistakes of the prequels, TFA may have overreacted in this area. Four and a half stars

5. Revenge Of The Sith
Now here we have a change in one ranking slot, but a sheer cliff drop-off in quality.  When I first saw Sith I thought it flawed but as good or better than Jedi.  Now there is no way I would say anything so ridiculous, especially after rewatching Sith.  Ewan MacGregor gives it his all, and thus makes the final showdown with him and Anakin feel meaningful to the point that I get goosebumps for the only time in any of the prequels.  But my God, some things are just awful.  R2D2 is given ridiculous abilities.  The Jedi bodyguards for Mace Windu are all slayed in a matter of seconds by Palpatine in a way that defies belief.  Key dialogue and the reading of it are dreadful, especially Hayden Christensen's "From my point of view the Jedi are evil."  The "Padme died of a broken heart" thing is a stupid cop-out.  The mission to protect baby Luke and Leia could've been a great movie, and it lasts about five seconds with zero tension.  The destruction of the Jedi, supposedly the greatest warriors in the universe, ends up being as easy as microwaving a burrito.  Frankenvader.  Decades of anticipation went into the storyline of this film, it should have been a big fat pitch over the middle smacked for a home run, but instead it was mashed into the ground for a squeaker of an infield single. Three stars

6. Attack of the Clones
Before this set of rankings, I considered this one the worst, but now that title goes to Phantom Menace. Make no mistake, this is a bad movie.  The romance between Anakin and Padme simply does not work, the dialogue is rotten, and the bad delivery of said dialogue is probably down to the lack of proper direction of actors who have otherwise done well.  I should add that I am not as critical of Hayden Christensen's performance as others are, he's just not given much to work with.  His Anakin comes off as an edgy creep with violence lurking below the surface.  That's a good choice, but it's also very, very jarring after seeing the good-natured kid from the first film, who seems to have none of these characteristics.  Apart from the bad romance and bad direction, the film is bloated (the longest of all of them) and has massive set piece action sequences that don't quite work.  The whole droid factory sequence is useless, and C3PO's "humorous" experiences irritating in the extreme.  The CGI is not all that great and it is so ubiquitous that so many crucial scenes are distractingly fake looking. I give this film a reprieve from the bottom for a few reasons.  In the first place, I like the whole Obi-Wan as detective plot.  It's something a little new for Star Wars and interesting, even if I could do without the Boba Fett origin story.  Some of the design elements are also really cool, especially Coruscant.  Lucas never lost that ability to envision breath-taking worlds.  Last and certainly not least, Christopher Lee is in this and brings his wonderful glower.  Why couldn't he have been in the movie from the beginning, or at least halfway through? Two stars

7. The Phantom Menace
This movie is last because so many bad decisions were made in its conception that marred the prequel series as a whole.  Making Anakin a little boy (and thus making the romance with Amadala creepy.) Centering the plot around poorly explained trade routes that nobody can get into or care about. Midochlorians. Jar Jar. Giving the aliens ethnic stereotype accents. Taking the lived-in universe of the originals and making it all shiny, sheeny, and bland.  It's a shame because the lightsabers are so much cooler and the duels well-executed.  There's some great actors here (McGregor, Neeson, Portman, Jackson) but they look lost or like they are phoning it in, especially in Neeson's case.  This movie also has no real reason to exist, in terms of the larger plot. It is fun in places, but that doesn't come close to saving it.  Two stars

1 comment:

Steve said...

I don't if you've seen this. It gave me a greater appreciation of the original.