Film Editor Rhys Lloyd-Jones takes a nostalgic trip through a galaxy far, far away, examining the highs and lows of the Star Wars franchise
Like legions of Star Wars fans, I owned a toy lightsaber when I was younger. Over time, the toy started to wear thin. The battery constantly needed changing and the blade was slightly wonky. However, when you’d change the battery, occasionally the lightsaber would shine astonishingly bright, brighter than it should, and it was a joy to twirl around with. This faulty, wonky blade with moments of brilliance unintentionally started to resemble the beloved sci-fi franchise it belonged to. Star Wars has had moments in the sun and moments in the gutter. The high points are some of the most iconic in the cinematic history and the low points are some of the most derided and scorned.
For a cultural phenomenon so beloved, the Star Wars franchise is a divisive one. The hits are deified with such reverence that anything contrary is blasphemy, whilst the duds are treated with contempt and bile. Everyone knows their favourite, just as everyone knows deep down what colour lightsaber they would have (Personally, I would have a green one). For that reason, any definitive ranking is futile and subjective, but fun nonetheless. From the sands of Tatooine, to the snows of Hoth, here is one of many rankings of the Star Wars franchise.
11. Episode One: The Phantom Menace
Easy pickings first. Predictably, the first outing of the prequel trilogy is often at the bottom of any list. It is a worn out, battered dart board, which has taken all the hits it could possibly take. The reason for this is quite simple. It is not a good film. Released in 1999, the Phantom Menace was the first new Star Wars film since Return of the Jedi (1983). The excitement was at a fever pitch. New swashbuckling adventures in the far reaches of space? New tales of the Jedi and space pirates that had come before? Well, no one guessed a sluggish plot about corrupt bureaucracy and trade route disputes. This sudden change of pace might have pointed to a darker, more mature side to the saga, but characters such as Jar Jar Binks contradict this. The Phantom Menace fails, not only due to the clunky script, but the constant clashing of tones. In one moment, the film juggles unsubtle allegories for republicanism and fascism, then in the next, Jar Jar and two Jedi are running away from a giant CGI fish monster. The film can’t settle between an adult vision, or a child-friendly marketing ploy and it pays the price.
Despite this, every actor is trying their best in this film. The effects aren’t amazing, but for the late nineties, they were impressive and some scenes are well paced and impressively choreographed, such as the climatic duel between Obi Wan and Darth Maul and, of course, John Williams, throughout the entire saga, is an exemplary composer. Unfortunately, none of these aspects come close to salvaging Episode One. Even when Star Wars isn’t at its best, these films are usually fun to watch. The same compliment can’t be extended to The Phantom Menace, a galactic misfire.
10. Episode Two: Attack of the Clones
Following the poor reception of The Phantom Menace, Star Wars returned to the screen in 2002, with the second instalment in the prequel trilogy, Attack of the Clones. Despite a clear, defined principal cast, much like the original trilogy, the chemistry between the three never gains any traction. Anakin (Hayden Christensen) and Obi Wan (Ewan McGregor) bicker to the point of annoyance and the romance between Anakin and Padmè (Natalie Portman) is at best awkward, and at worst, sinister. The script is a muddled web of conspiracy and intrigue, which breaks apart the cast into several sub-plots. Ewan McGregor carries his half of the film with charm and guile, but he can never quite lift the film into any rhythm. Contrary to this, Hayden Christensen and Natalie Portman struggle with their wooden characterisation and lack of chemistry. This results in a bizarre, uncomfortable situation in which it seems neither actor nor audience wants to be there.
The first two acts of the film plod forward, with very little story told, until the third act explodes into carnage. The film descends so quickly into madness, it is almost hilarious. After two hours of setting up two generic CGI armies, the film throws them at each other like a crazed child in a sandbox. The screen is engulfed in neon lightsabers and blaster bolts, whilst talented actors such as Samuel L. Jackson hack at the nearest thing they can find. By the time Yoda is doing a triple somersault over BAFTA winner Christopher Lee, you’ve lost all sense of reality. Marginally more enjoyable than The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones is still a confused collage of tonal whiplash and alien writing.
9. Episode Nine: The Rise of Skywalker
The culmination of the Skywalker saga is a contradiction. On one hand, it is a film so bland and inoffensive, it is the cinematic equivalent to a breath mint. On the other hand, it is a frustrated and reactionary film, desperate to revise its own history and appease the audience. Both previous instalments of the sequel trilogy, whilst flawed, danced from fun beat to character moment with relative ease. However, due to the obvious lack of planned narrative between the two films, it is the culmination that suffers. The Force Awakens, directed by JJ Abrams, sets up a fresh, likeable new cast and poses intriguing mysteries throughout. The Last Jedi, directed by Rian Johnson, successfully reimagines the traditional Star Wars narrative, and sends the story in a bold new direction. The Rise of Skywalker, instead of following this promising trajectory, just fizzles out.
Abrams, who returns to direct, seems hellbent on ignoring Johnson’s contributions, focusing his efforts on crowd pleasing instead of delivering a satisfying conclusion. This results in what feels like a compilation album (‘Now That’s What I Call Star Wars’). Old villains, familiar faces and the same orchestral swells, this lack of originality leaves The Rise of Skywalker feeling empty and devoid of any real energy. Each beat feels artificial and manufactured not out of creativity, but laziness. Some moments are bound to make you smile and the interplay between the new cast is at its strongest, yet the finale to this show stopping saga is more of a corporate checklist than a movie.
From the outset, this origin story for the roguish smuggler, Han Solo, seemed cursed. The original plan, developed by George Lucas, fell through after Disney purchased Lucasfilm. Once the project was revived, Phil Lord and Chris Miller, the original directors, were fired due to ‘creative differences.’ Production had to be halted and, even under the hand of experienced filmmaker, Ron Howard, much of the film was subject to reshoots. Yet, against all odds, Solo succeeds in what it sets out to do. Poorly lit and lacking comedic rhythm, Solo is still a harmless, affable tale of the beloved scoundrel. Capturing the charm and charisma of Harrison Ford seems impossible but Solo comes seriously close. Alden Ehrenreich imbues the role with his own swagger, never imitating Ford, just echoing him. He brings his own spin to an already established character, a risky gamble, which Han Solo himself would approve of. It pays off, as he riffs well with Emilia Clarke and Donald Glover, who each bring their own personality to a somewhat stilted story. The combined efforts of this cast inject a little fun into an otherwise unnecessary film. The action sequences are slick, yet the bizarre lighting and direction smother the sense of adventure with a macabre aesthetic. Solo is a pleasant surprise each time you revisit it, but it never makes enough of an impact to stay with you for long.
7. Episode Three: Revenge of the Sith
The final outing of the prequel trilogy is the last to appear on this list. The crescendo to the origin of Darth Vader, Revenge of the Sith is cut from the same cloth of the rest of the prequels. The acting comes straight out of a soap opera and the dialogue is a funhouse mirror of normal interaction. The road to this finale has been a bumpy one and the brakes haven’t quite come on yet. So what nudges this higher than its predecessors? Unlike the previous entries, this film is fun. It is a concoction of giddy space battles, cheesy one-liners and hammy villains. The film is best likened to a high budget B-movie, failing in quality, but never faltering in wild, over-dramatic fun. The film is ambitious, and whilst this never always succeeds, the creativity must be applauded.
Despite a flawed script, the relationship between Anakin Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi (played by Hayden Christensen and Ewan McGregor respectively) is far more believable and fleshed out. This camaraderie between the two packs the finale with enough of an emotional punch to deliver a satisfying conclusion to a wobbly narrative. The opening twenty minutes are slick and well paced, whilst the climatic duel is tense and well choreographed. Sandwiched between is a rocky, albeit ambitious, film which acts as a reminder that a bad film doesn’t always mean a bad time.
6. Episode Seven: The Force Awakens
The Force Awakens is a crowd-pleaser. Every shot, callback and quip is designed to unapologetically hit those pangs of nostalgia. There is a rhythm of excitement and mischief that runs through this film, pulsating and popping onto the screen with wild abandon. JJ Abrams successfully introduces a brand new cast of fresh faced actors, melding them with old, beloved faces, for a celebration of the past and a promise of a future. This new era of Star Wars kicks off with a lost sense of fun from the get go. The digital effects are stunning and the practical effects are inspiring. Aesthetically, this is quintessentially Star Wars. Barren deserts, rickety spaceships and slick new Stormtroopers. Tonally, the film embraces a more tongue in cheek approach, similar to the successful Marvel franchise. The script is endearing and clearly written with affection. It doesn’t add much new to this saga, but it reignites it for a whole new audience. Though the film suffers from a rehashed third act, Daisy Ridley and John Boyega share an undeniable chemistry onscreen, whilst Adam Driver is an instantly compelling antagonist. The Force Awakens is a rollercoaster. It may jolt in places, but it is without a doubt a good time.
5. Rogue One
For a multi-million dollar attempt to fix up a plot hole, Rogue One is better than it has any right to be. Set between the prequel and original trilogies, Rogue One is a feature length explanation why the Death Star had a perfectly designed hole for explosives built in. Immediately this sounds like a thankless job, yet with Gareth Edwards at the helm, Rogue One steers away from colourful soap opera, instead delving into a galactic civil war with grit and bravery. Unlike the broad strokes of the original trilogy, the moral high ground is muddied and murkier than previously before. The rebellion is reimagined as a struggling band of insurgents, who toe the line between right and wrong with every passing day. The morose reality of war is handled with surprising deft, never comprising in tone, yet never becoming gratuitous with its violence.
Hope is still at the core of the story, and the ensemble cast are imbued with that brave spirit. However, the characters in this film are never fully fleshed out and are swept up in the bigger picture. An exception to this is the brilliant Ben Mendelsohn, whose performance as the Empire bureaucrat, Orson Krennic, rivals Darth Vader himself for sheer screen presence. Tense, gutsy and often heart-breaking, Rogue One is an interesting change of pace in the Star Wars universe and one that is thoroughly worth revisiting.
4. Episode Six: Return of the Jedi
Ewoks! Jabba! The end of an era! The final instalment of the original trilogy is a blast from start to finish. Return of the Jedi, released in 1983, ties the bow on the galactic civil war with confidence, gliding from Tatooine to Endor, with brazen action and life-affirming adventure. Luke Skywalker is now a fully fledged Jedi and has the cool, enigmatic demeanour to match it. His journey from frustrated farmhand to mystical warrior is a satisfying and memorable arc. Mark Hamill has always been able to adapt his acting to narrative and tone with ease, and, whilst he had been previously outshone by Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford in previous instalments, Return of the Jedi is where he truly takes centre stage. Unlike the archetypal action protagonist of the 1980s, Hamill doesn’t characterise Luke with macho rage or brutal anger. Instead, Hamill refreshingly imbues Luke with a gentle, kind spirit. Overall, the climax to the original trilogy is a hit. The first and final act are fast paced, bursting to the seams with wit, action and iconic moments. The film is let down by a bloated, sluggish second act, yet this does little to spoil the fun. Return of the Jedi is a popcorn blockbuster in the purest, proudest sense of the word.
3. Episode Eight: The Last Jedi
Divisive and destructive, the discourse surrounding the second Disney outing is as bleak as the dark side of the force itself. Yet Rian Johnson’s tale is one of optimism, change and hope. The Last Jedi, released in 2017, is a shot of adrenaline. It strips the franchise to the core and builds it back from the ground up. Whilst a few out of place subplots leave a lot to be desired, the film succeeds in the risks it takes. While Star Wars has never looked so good aesthetically, thematically, the broad strokes of black and white are replaced by a murkier grey. Instead of the usual fan fare of action, Johnson pits these characters against their own worst enemies; themselves. Poe Dameron must deal with the fallout of combat, Luke Skywalker has cast himself away in exile, whilst Kylo Ren reexamines his place in the world. Characters on both sides of the force are confronted with the consequences of mythos and legend, and watching these beloved icons grapple with what it means to be a hero is an enthralling, emotional experience. Johnson veers away from the usual tropes of the franchise for this bold new direction. Instead of battling monsters and robed villains, Rey faces a life without purpose, whilst Skywalker wrestles with his legacy. These stakes are far more existential, and far more terrifying. Visually and thematically, The Last Jedi is a rich, welcome direction for the Skywalker saga.
2. Episode Four: A New Hope
In 1977, after years of turbulent production, Star Wars was released. Alec Guinness, star of the original film, famously thought the film would be a disaster. The film was deemed to be cheesy, childish and ridiculous by those within production. Yet Star Wars is a cultural zeitgeist, a milestone in cinema. Why? Because, despite the low-budget, rocky script and hammy acting, the film oozes charm, wit and heart. It is a classic adventure story for all ages and it brilliantly captured the imagination of a generation when it premiered. Star Wars not only sparked a multi-billion dollar franchise, it breathed life into ‘New Hollywood’, a wave of a blockbuster movies that defined the decades to come. Cinema owes this film a debt untold.
A New Hope is best likened to a modern fairytale. A group of plucky adventurers rescue a princess from an evil tyrant. Yet, the film finds its soul within the characters. The princess is a brave, fiery rebel leader, whilst the tyrant is a menacing, jet black monolithic cyborg. Han Solo is not a daring prince, but a cocky, brash mercenary, whilst our protagonist, Luke Skywalker, is frankly incompetent and out of his depth. These flaws make these characters an endearing joy to watch. Mark Hamill is likeable, Carrie Fisher is magnetic and Harrison Ford is unbelievably charismatic. George Lucas filled each frame with as much sci-fi prop work as he could, and the result is a convincing, lived-in world that is enrapturing. The legacy it has left speaks for itself, but the first instalment of the Skywalker saga is a high bar, which only one film has beaten.
1.Episode Five: The Empire Strikes Back
Similarly to the bottom spot, any ranking of the Star Wars franchise almost always leads to the same top spot. The Empire Strikes Back, first released in 1980, is the sequel the original genesis of the saga. Yet, Empire feels like a much smaller, intimate affair. Much of the runtime is spent between Luke and a green puppet, whilst Han and Leia hide out in the backroom of the Millennium Falcon. The stakes, whilst seemingly smaller, are far more tangible and dangerous. The film is an exceptional sequel, that builds on character and narrative in every conceivable way. Empire is noted to be a far darker sequel, yet this is the funniest film in the franchise. The dialogue between Han and Leia is a witty dance between flirtatious and contempt, which both Ford and Fisher carry off with ease. Their relationship is a perfect undertone throughout, which builds authentically and naturally to its heart breaking conclusion.
Across the other side of the galaxy, Luke Skywalker faces his training with Jedi master Yoda. Hamill has clearly developed as an actor, his performance as Luke deepening, whilst Frank Oz is cheerfully, wonderfully bizarre as Yoda. The film culminates in the strongest point in the saga, the confrontation at Cloud City. Whilst new arrival Billy Dee Williams matches Ford on charm, Luke and Vader duel to the highest reaches of the city. The shocking reveal that Vader is in fact the father of Luke cements the climax of the film as one of the most memorable of all time. Masterfully handling a balance between humour and severity like no other instalment, The Empire Strikes Back is not only a fantastic Star Wars film, but an achievement in Cinema itself.
George Lucas’s fantasy epic begun with a young farmhand in space, jetting off to save a princess, and has since spun off into three different eras; The classic trilogy, the story of an intergalactic war between plucky rebels and tyrannical rulers, the prequel trilogy, chronicling a young man’s fall to the dark side, and the Disney sequel trilogy, focusing on the resurgence of evil and the good that rises up to meet it. Overall, some may work and some may falter, yet it is a modern fairytale I thoroughly enjoyed watching. Imaginative, flawed and unapologetically fun, Star Wars has earned its place in cinematic history.
Need some more trips down memory lane? Check out these other rewinds and rankings from Redbrick Film: