18 December 2015

It's Star Wars Day!, or Ranking the Star Wars Films from Worst to Best

You may have heard that a Star Wars film is coming out today. (Well, it came out yesterday, now that midnight showings have crept backwards to 8pm the previous day!) I have friends who have already seen it... which is why I've set my computer to block facebook, Reddit, and the TrekBBS until after I see it (this coming Monday or Tuesday). I'm not taking any chances on spoilers with this one. Though if you want spoilers, these are the ones to read ("To prevent plot points from being leaked, each scene in The Force Awakens was completely improvised").

I've been waiting for this film ever since... 1995, probably, when some older guy in my Boy Scout troop told me that the plots for the sequel trilogy were all given away if you read the books, and it was about the resurrection of the Emperor. In retrospect, I think he mistook the references in Kevin J. Anderson's Jedi Academy trilogy to the Dark Empire comics as being to the events of a sequel trilogy yet to be made whose events would slot in there. I guess he didn't read the comics, just the novels.

courtesy BevReview.com
yes, that's a web site, apparently
Now, it's like it's 1999 all over again: my wife and I went Christmas shopping yesterday, and we couldn't walk into a store without being confronted by a massive display of Star Wars merchandise. It is kind of overwhelming, though 1) I anticipate finding BB-8 to be the greatest character in the history of cinema, I just know it, and 2) it made me nostalgic for the massive merchandising blitz that accompanied The Phantom Menace, down to the 24 collectible Pepsi cans.

So to celebrate, I'll be ranking the Star Wars films from worst to best. And for lack of a better metric, by this I mean, "How Much Do I Want To Rewatch It?"

The Star Wars Holiday Special (1978)
Do you know that I have never seen this? Like, I've watched clips of it, all of them awful, but I've never actually seen the whole thing. So it must come in last place, because on a scale of "How Much Do I Want To Rewatch It?", it gets negative infinity because it's impossible to rewatch something you've never actually watched. So there, and I bet you feel very illuminated by this whole discussion already.

Star Wars: The Clone Wars (2008)
Look, I know, but it was released in theaters, which gives it more of a claim than the Holiday Special. Anyway, this is arguably better than some of the later installments on this list, but it is literally impossible for me to imagine myself ever wanting to watch this again. Like, everyone who's actually watched it says that The Clone Wars is good stuff, but you won't know it from watching Anakin walk up a cliff in a walker and exchanging "banter" with a snotty kid. I just can't think of a reason I'd want to see this a second time because it's totally nonessential; at least the worst prequels contribute to the story.

Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (2005)
Okay, this is not the best of the prequels. Why do people say that? Did they watch it? Or did they just watch the "Rise of Darth Vader" movie they'd constructed in their head which is way better? I've seen this movie twice (thrice if you count the time I watched it riffed), the least of any Star Wars movie, and I never want to see it again, not really. Like, literally everything about this movie is terrible right from its astonishingly tension-free opening space battle all the way to its astonishingly tension-free final lightsaber duel. Two best friends are trying to kill each other, and you don't care at all as they zip around on lava surfboards. Characters you don't care about fly between planets you don't know what they are for arbitrary reasons up until the whole thing ends for some reason. Meanwhile, Ewan McGregor has clearly given up trying, Ian McDiarmid has lost all his acting talent, I have no idea who Bail Organa is, and Natalie Portman is given nothing better to do than say things like, "Anakin, gosh, sometimes when you murder children, it makes me want to have sex with you slightly less. Please don't. Oh, you're going to anyway? That's all right then."

Episode II: Attack of the Clones (2002)
Yes, this one isn't that great, either. But it does have some things going for it, namely that Jango Fett is pretty cool, and I like the idea of his murder-kid. Kamino is probably the last interesting environment devised for a Star Wars film. I really like the air-speeder chase on Coruscant, and the wacky silent space bomb things. (Ben Burtt really kicks it out of the park on sound design in both cases.) Watto reappears with an awesome hat. And the film even triggers latent nostalgic feelings of appreciation for Jar-Jar Binks. On the downside, the arena battle is dullsville, all of the jokes are terrible, the CGI Yoda is awful, and Hayden "I Hate Sand" Christensen is in it, and you're meant to take his creepy stalking thing as some kind of serious romance. Plus Natalie Portman leads him on in kind of a weird way. "Anakin, gosh, I just like you as a totally non-sexual friend; I'm going to wear my sexiest black leather outfit to dinner tonight. That's just one of the weird things we do on my planet, like how we elect children to run the planetary government."

Caravan of Courage: An Ewok Adventure (1984) and Ewoks: The Battle for Endor (1985)
Surprise! Yes, it's more made-for-TV movies, but one of the things I am looking forward to about being a father (someday) is have excuses to rewatch these things. They're fun. Who doesn't love the Ewoks? In the first one, they don't speak English ("Basic"), and there's a narrator who kind of acts like the whole thing is a nature documentary; in the second one, suddenly Wicket speaks English. Okay, I guess. Even more suddenly, while the whole first movie is about rescuing this girl's family, the second one literally kills them all off in the first five minutes. It's so brazen you have to admire it, I think, and yes I own a copy of these on DVD, while I've never gotten around to buying Revenge of the Sith.

Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999)
Clearly the best prequel film. I used to hate it too, you know, but at some point, I realized it was actually pretty good. Here are some reasons: Liam Neeson is in it. (Really, Qui-Gon is everything a Jedi character should be.) Ian McDiarmid is awesome in both his roles. Palpatine's plan is delightfully complicated, meaning that no matter what our heroes do, he still wins. The Trade Federation guys are awesome. Ewan McGregor is still trying. BRIAN BLESSED is in it. Natalie Portman is actually given something interesting to do: she's still a badass warrior queen. "Duel of the Fates" is great music, and it underscores the only good lightsaber battle in the prequels. The Naboo design aesthetic is pretty great, especially that N-1 fighter. Jake Lloyd is better than Hayden Christensen. The lady who plays Shmi is actually pretty good. I mean, it's not all roses: yes, Jar-Jar Binks is kind of terrible, and yes, the final space battle is awful, and yes, midi-chlorians are dumb, and yes, the podrace is too long. But just listen to McDiarmid smarm up his every line.

Episode VI: Return of the Jedi (1983)
This is where it gets tough, as basically all of the classic trilogy are triumphs of cinema. Return of the Jedi is the weakest of them, but in the sense that Jon Pertwee is the worst Doctor: really, they're all awesome. (Up until I was about fourteen, Episode VI was my favorite one. Then I decided to be "serious" because I was in high school and to like Episode V better. This is also the brief, terrible period of my life where I decided Batman was better than Superman.) Like all the good Star Wars movies, it's just fun from start to finish: strangling Jabba, breaking into the shield generator (I love heist-ish things), every Luke scene with Vader and the Emperor, Lando flying the Falcon, Wedge being a badass, the Emperor's totally evil plan and the Rebels' totally nuts response to it. And yes, I have never had a problem with the Ewoks. Indeed, every time I relisten to my Episode VI soundtrack, I get mad that George Lucas not only expunged the "yub nub" song from the film, he expunged it from the ostensibly "complete" soundtrack to boot!

Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
You already know why this one is good, because if you're like every other human being on the planet, you put this one at the top of your list. Well, your list is wrong, but all your reasoning is right, and we don't need to rehearse it again here.

Star Wars (1977)
It's the first, and it's the greatest, and there's still no Star Wars film I'd rather watch more. (Once I got over my high school seriousness phase and realized fun > serious any day.) This is what a space adventure film should be like. A wacky group of disparate personalities forced by circumstances to work together to save the universe. What could not be infinitely enjoyable about that? This is an action-adventure film that does everything right from start to finish, from that amazing overhead shot of the attacking Star Destroyer to the rousing strains of the medal ceremony. (Indeed, my wife and I used the music of that scene when we processed into our wedding reception.) It's got the best score of all the Star Wars films, the best hijinks, and the trench run is still one of the tensest scenes in all cinema. Plus Alec Guinness is in it. I don't know how George Lucas lost it in the subsequent twenty years, but he sure as hell had it here.

If you've really been paying attention, though, you'll realize there's a problem here. Removing the non-"Episode" films and giving them approximate scores, we get this chart:

I guess what I'm saying is that I hope Episode VII bucks this trend.

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