Today, sci-fi geeks across the country will celebrate “Star Wars Day.” This particular day, May 4th, was designated by fans as the day to honor the series, not because it holds any real significance in the history of the film’s releases, but due to the fact that, by simply altering one word of the series’ most famous tag line: “May The Force be with you,” one is able to express dedication to the space saga by greeting fellow "Star Wars" fans with the words “May the fourth be with you.” Get it? It’s kind of like a secret handshake for us nerd types.
I have been a huge fan of the "Star Wars" series, as far back as I can remember. Somewhere in our dusty, family photo album is a picture of me sporting my Han Solo underoos, pretending I was escaping the Mos Eisley Cantina after blasting Greedo to smithereens. (I didn’t even let him get a shot off. Just blew him away. It was pretty hardcore.)
Despite the series’s legions of obsessive fans, there is fierce debate within the "Star Wars" community as to whether some of the installments in the seven movie series are…how do I put this? Any good.
The release of a set of special editions in the late 90s and the long awaited prequels that were released starting in 1999 raised the ire of many fans who believed that creator George Lucas had dropped the ball and sullied his remarkable original trilogy with obnoxious CGI aliens and poor writing. I agree with this assessment but, for me, there are still moments in the prequel trilogy that achieve that "Star Wars" magic that I became addicted to as a child. So, in honor of this special day, allow me to present you with my ranking of all the "Star Wars" films, from best to worst.
If you disagree with my assessment, please direct all complaints to the nearest angry Wookie.
1. "Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back" (1980)
It’s very rare that a sequel to a successful film can top the original. But among true "Star Wars" fans, "The Empire Strikes Back" is widely regarded as the best film in the entire series. With the exception of "The Godfather," it's probably my favorite film of all time.
The film is darker than its predecessor in that, unlike most adventure films, the bad guys emerge victorious at the end. "Empire" also contains one of the greatest reveals in movie history. (If you don’t know what it is, then you obviously don’t care about "Star Wars" at all. Why are you even reading this article? Go back to your needlepoint, grandma.)
By 1980, fans had already fallen in love with "Star Wars." After seeing “The Empire Strikes Back”, they decided to introduce it to their parents and marry it.
In “Empire,” fans were introduced to the 900-year-old, Muppet, Jedi Master, Yoda and the enigmatic bounty hunter, Boba Fett. Additionally, we learn that Billy Dee Williams is a huge jerk when he hasn’t had a few Colt 45s. Also, a human being gets frozen in a block of ice and a dude kisses his sister. (If you still don't want to see this movie after the description I just gave you, then you have no soul.)
"Empire" is the sci-fi film by which all other sci-fi films are judged and turned what most Americans believed was a one-off cultural phenomenon in the original 1977 "Star Wars," into the the most beloved film franchise in history.
2. "Episode VI: A New Hope" (1977)
The film that started it all.
In 1976 a young director named George Lucas began shopping the script for "Star Wars" to major studios. Most of them took a pass. Finally, 20th Century Fox gave the film the green light and the rest is movie history. Using mostly unknown actors (With the exception of Alec Guinness, who earned an Academy Award nomination for his portrayal of Obi-Wan Kenobi) and with a limited budget, Lucas set a new standard for the use of special effects in motion pictures. The result was a cultural phenomenon.
Ticket lines filled entire city blocks. Characters like C-3PO, R2-D2 and Chewbacca the Wookie created an entirely new market for movie based toys. Harrison Ford became an international superstar and to this day, Darth Vader is considered to be one of the most badass villains in the history of cinema.
Sadly, while "Star Wars" was nominated for Best Picture, it lost out that year to Woody Allen’s romantic comedy, “Annie Hall.” Annie Hall action figures sell for hundreds of dollars at comic book conventions across the globe. But only if they are still in their original packaging.
3. "Episode VI: Return of the Jedi" (1983)
It was going to be very difficult for “Return of the Jedi” to live up to the sky-high expectations that had been set by “A New Hope” and “Empire.” Some "Star Wars" curmudgeons still rag on the film, largely due to the introduction of a tribe of teddy bear-like aliens that help Luke Skywalker and his friends finally destroy the empire. Those people are idiots.
In my view, “Return of the Jedi” stands toe-to-toe with the first two films. Not only does it bring the Skywalker family’s strained relationship to a satisfying conclusion, but it also features the vile gangster Jabba the Hutt. A massive slug who was operated by five puppeteers in one giant costume. (There was one guy whose only job was to move Jabba’s enormous tail. That must look awesome on a resume.)
If pure fun could be diluted into liquid form and then brewed into a movie, that movie would be “Return of the Jedi.” By the time the whole thing is over, you are simultaneously overjoyed because the good guys won and disappointed that the series has ended and there are no more bad guys for the good guys to vanquish. And remember I was 5 years old when I saw this movie. All those conflicting emotions are very difficult for a child that age to comprehend.
So that was it, right? After “Jedi” everyone basically assumed that the "Star Wars" Saga was complete. Except for one small problem. The first "Star Wars" film was “Episode IV.” Lucas started the damn series in the middle! You would think that the geniuses over at Fox would have immediately started work on episodes I, II and III, but they apparently had better things to do. “Revenge of the Nerds” was scheduled to be released in July of ’84. They had to prioritize.
As a result, it would be 16 years before fans would get a "Star Wars" film that gave us the backstory to the original trilogy. But it would be a whopping 32 years before we would find out what happened to Han, Luke and Leia AFTER the events of “Return of the Jedi.”
4. "Episode VII: The Force Awakens" (2015)
You may have heard of this one, since it was released like, 5 months ago and is the highest grossing film of all-time. If not, again, who are you and why are you still reading this article?
"Star Wars" fans were understandably nervous in the lead up to "The Force Awakens" after the widespread disappointment caused by the prequel trilogy. The studio had to get this one right.
Disney bought the franchise, fired George Lucas and replaced him with acclaimed director J.J. Abrams. They managed to assemble the main actors from the original cast and wrote several drafts of the script before settling on the final version. The result was an incredibly satisfying return to the "Star Wars" universe that successfully merged elements from the original storyline with a new generation of heroes and villains. It scrapped many of the CGI effects that were overused in the prequels and went back to putting actual human beings in alien costumes which led to a much more realistic effect.
Audiences fell head over heels in love with “BB-8”— an adorable new droid that was capable of saving the day AND selling billions of dollars worth of tie-in toys at the same time. And like “Empire” the film contained another shocker of a plot twist that hardly anyone expected. The last 30 minutes of the film were enough to elicit tears from this "Star Wars" fan. But they were the good kind of tears. Not the bad kind which many "Star Wars" fans shed after having spent the last 15 years watching the prequel trilogy, which we will now discuss in some detail.
5. "Episode III: Revenge of the Sith" (2005)
By the time Episode III was released, "Star Wars" fans were a pretty disheartened bunch. While met with box office success, the first two installments of the prequel trilogy were largely seen as Bantha-sized disappointments by lifelong fans. That being said, “Revenge of the Sith” isn’t a bad film. In fact, it's quite good. If Lucas had started the story of the prequel trilogy with "Revenge of the Sith" instead of “The Phantom Menace,” film historians may have been far kinder to the now infamous prequel saga.
The story is compelling in that it finally gets to the heart of the reasons for Anakin Skywalker’s turn to the “dark side.” In the last five minutes of the film, viewers FINALLY get to witness his physical transformation into the terrifying, walking respirator that is the primary villain in the original films.
While easily the best of the prequels, “Sith” repeatedly comes to a screeching halt every time Anakin and Natalie Portman’s character, Padme Amidala (Luke and Leia’s mother) share the screen. These unbearable scenes were placed in the film in order to advance a mostly unnecessary love story that makes the "Twilight" saga look like "Romeo and Juliet." The lack of chemistry between the two is truly cringe-inducing and should be skipped by viewers at all costs. But again, the rest of the story is absolutely worth watching.
6. "Episode I: The Phantom Menace" (1999)
The summer of 1999 was an exciting time in my life. I had just completed my Junior year in college. The economy was booming and I was about to head out to L.A. to pursue a career in acting. But what I was most excited about was the upcoming release of Episode I. AT LAST! A new "Star Wars" film! It was the most anticipated film in movie history. People lined up around city blocks to be the first to see George Lucas’s new masterpiece. Action figures flew off the shelves. It was finally here! I entered the theater. Took my seat. I got chills when the first notes of John William's epic Star Wars theme began to play and settled in for what was sure to be the most memorable movie experience of my life.
Then my dreams went up in flames like a Jawa who stumbled onto the wrong moisture farm.
For the first half an hour I was patient. I kept telling myself that a classic "Star Wars" scene was right around the corner. Any second now this thing was about to get super awesome.
About a half an hour in, I realized that something was terribly wrong. I realized that this wasn’t the "Star Wars" movie I was looking for.
Moon-sized space stations that could destroy entire planets had been replaced with a political dispute between a trade federation and the galactic senate.
In place of legions of armor clad Storm troopers were legions of malfunctioning, CGI battle droids that exploded if a character so much as gave them a slightly confusing order.
And worst of all, instead of a ferocious Wookie that would rip your arms out of your sockets if you beat him in a game of space chess, we got the most annoying character in the history of modern cinema; Jar Jar Binks.
If you are not familiar with Jar Jar Binks, consider yourself lucky. He has earned his place as the most despised character in the "Star Wars" universe and he gets extra points for accomplishing this as a protagonist. It would take hours to describe just how insufferable Binks is and if I even attempted such a feat, my brain would collapse from an unbearable combination of anger and sadness.
“The Phantom Menace” took it’s toll on all long-time "Star Wars" fans. Seeing Darth Vader as a young boy was sort of cool for about five minutes - but, Jake Lloyd, the adorable lad who portrayed young Anakin, couldn’t act his way out of a paper bag. George Lucas's terrible dialogue didn’t help much either. Last April, Lloyd was transferred to a psychiatric facility after being diagnosed with schizophrenia. I’m guessing that “The Phantom Menace” had this effect on a lot of people.
There are a couple saving graces that kept “Menace” from being completely unwatchable. The first was a cool podrace scene. The second was a high quality lightsaber duel between two Jedi and the best character in the film; A terrifying sith lord known as Darth Maul. But Lucas somehow managed to screw that up as well by killing Maul off at the end of the film.
As bad as it was, I saw “The Phantom Menace” two more times in the theater (Like I said, the economy was really good in the late-90s.) Sadly, it didn’t get any better upon subsequent viewings.
But not all was lost. There would be another "Star Wars" movie in three years. There was no possible way it could be as bad as “The Phantom Menace.” No chance in Hell.
7. "Episode II: Attack of the Clones" (2002
I was wrong.
Somehow, against all odds, George Lucas managed to make a "Star Wars" film that was even less entertaining than “The Phantom Menace.”
Remember what I said about the love scenes in Episode III? Okay. Imagine a full hour of those.
Yeah. Not fun.
At least Lucas was smart enough to limit the role of Jar Jar Binks to a few lines (although if he had cared at all about the fans, Binks would have been eaten by a Rancor immediately after the opening crawl.)
Anakin Skywalker had grown up and was now a brooding teen as opposed to an annoying 10-year-old with ADD. Unfortunately he hadn’t received acting lessons between movies and Hayden Christensen’s portrayal of the character was just as stilted as Lloyd’s.
I could go on for hours about how bad “Attack of the Clones” is and if you want to have a debate over which is worse, Episode I or Episode II, I’m totally willing to go there. However, for the sake of this article I’d really like to end this analysis on a positive note.
For all of the grief I give the prequels, I still find myself watching the films when they are broadcast on TV. This may seem like an odd thing to admit after spending the last ten paragraphs complaining about how terrible they are. But the truth is that, despite all of their foibles, they are still “Star Wars.” They are still a part of my favorite childhood story and that gives them value. I give them a pass that I wouldn’t give other bad films because I know that the storylines and events in the mediocre prequels lead to the extraordinary chapters that follow.
I’m not going to sit around watching the nine and a half hour Hobbit trilogy, no matter how good “Lord of the Rings” is, but for some reason, the magic of “Star Wars” draws me in, time and time again.
Happy "Star Wars" Day. And May the Fourth Be With You.