Although its universe will continue, thanks to additional films by Rian Johnson, in addition to Obi-Wan Kenobi and Cassian Andor (two characters of similar clout) TV shows on TheMouse+, the decades-spanning Skywalker saga is coming to an apparent close on December 20. In preparation, I watched each film in the franchise (including the non-episodic anthology films, Solo and Rogue One) in story order* (Prequels, Solo, Rogue One, Original Trilogy, Sequel Trilogy) and wanted to write-up a lil’ something special. Lil’ is funny because this is almost for sure going to end up the longest single post I have ever written.
*There is a lot of debate as to the proper order to watch these movies. I think when it comes to getting someone to watch them for the first time, I’m going to be a fan of New Hope, Empire, Prequels, Return of the Jedi, Sequels and then Rogue One and Solo after the core story is wrapped up. For this, since I’m building to a final film, I felt story order made the most sense.
A little bit of background of my relationship with these movies, first. Although I can recall watching the original trilogy as a child, I would not say that I had any strong feelings towards the franchise for most of my life. I probably enjoyed the prequels upon release, as I was a foolish child who could be tricked by visual effects. I only recently began to read even a small portion of the previously canonical Expanded Universe, which, having been removed from the official canon by The Mouse by the time that I read them, did not really interest me, as none of it really mattered. (Also, there’s an evil clone Luke whose name is just Luuke. That’s objectively stupid and if you disagree, you are a fool.) Weirdly it wasn’t until The Mouse bought the series from George Lucas that I became as entrenched in all of this as I am, which would probably be considered treason by some more seasoned fans of the franchise, but a lot of them are probably mad that someone named “Luuke” is no longer canon, so I honestly don’t care what they think. (I’m not usually this combative, but that’s what the name structure of “add another vowel to make evil” does to a person).
Since the release of The Force Awakens in 2015, I’ve re-watched the Episodic films a small handful of times, but never with any real intent behind it. This was the first time in a long time (a long time) I’m really opened myself up to these films, considering the successes and failures of each film.
The way the rest of this is going to go is I will break this article out into three major sections: The Great, The Good, and The Less Than Ideal (presented in reverse order). In each of those sections, I will say a thing or two about each movie that I believe to be great, good or less than ideal. After each section I will throw in a little something special, like a ranking of droids/action set pieces. It’ll be fun and chaotic and you should lower your expectations.
How I Ranked The Films Before I Began This Process
- Empire Strikes Back
- Last Jedi
- A New Hope
- The Force Awakens
- Rogue One
- Revenge of the Sith
- Return of the Jedi
- Getting karate chopped in the throat
- Phantom Menace
- Attack of the Clones
In this, I would consider the first three to be nearly bulletproof, the next two to be very good, the next two to be good but with a single fatal flaw, Solo just felt like a misfire, and then the last two are Bad to the point that I would prefer violence brought unto me.
Please do not karate chop me.
The Less Than Ideal
The Phantom Menace
You’ve heard this all before. This movie has a lot wrong with it, and people have been appropriately dunking on it for two decades now. I’m not going to pretend that I have anything unique to say about what makes this movie not work. It has a core arc so boring (something about a trade embargo?) that most of the cast feels like they are sleepwalking through this movie (to the point it is difficult to differentiate between a talented actor who does not care and a significantly less talented actor), and that doesn’t even begin to touch on the shockingly racist portrayals of Gungans and the Trade Federation or the anti-Semitic Watoo. The second lap of the podrace easily could have been excised, leaving us with two fairly entertaining laps that make the sequence feel less worthless. I will eventually have nice things to say about this movie, but the bad things have been controlling the conversation on this movie for twenty years, and a rewatch shows that it’s for good reason.
Attack of the Clones
This movie’s core arc is at least a little bit easier to understand than its predecessor, but, again, the issues out-weight the positives. Here the biggest thing that stands out is the love story that is going to play a major role into the downfall of Anakin Skywalker. We should really buy into this relationship so that when he makes the choices that he does in Revenge of the Sith, we are able to understand them, even if we are heartbroken by them. Instead, we have Hayden Christensen, who just seems completely over his head for the majority of these movies, seducing Academy Award winner Natalie Portman, who has since consistently shown that she is a capable actress being dragged down by bad material. Their utter lack of chemistry is not helped by scenes where Anakin caresses Padme’s arm, while saying “I don’t like sand. It’s coarse, rough and irritating and it gets everywhere. Not like here. Here everything’s soft and smooth.” This all works, by the way. They kiss like five seconds after this. It’s insane. Also, Anakin is right about sand, it’s bad, and I’ve told my wife this while touching her arm, and all I get is a look of regret (not really, my wife is very sweet and puts up with way too much of my idiocy).
Revenge of the Sith
This one gets so close to being one of the best. Alas, the issues from the previous films carries over into this, and whether it be Christensen’s talent in general, or an inability for George Lucas to harness his potential, but this performance really brings this film down. And it’s not even the entire performance. When Christensen just gets an opportunity to let his face do the performance, it works surprisingly well. His face is showing off his pain and anger in that final confrontation with Obi-Wan better than his voice does. But, unfortunately, he speaks quite a bit, and McGregor just acts circles around him, and that’s really saying something, because while I think McGregor does very well in these movies, this isn’t a The Maker-tier performance by any means. I feel bad for Christensen, I do. From what I’ve heard, he’s a decent enough actor in other movies he’s done, but very little of that gets to be displayed in these movies, and I think that’s impacted his subsequent career.
I’ll obviously touch on this more later, but this movie is easily the one that most benefited from a re-watch. A movie I once thought was riddled with evidence of its misfire status is only left with the end of L3-37’s arc as a major issue for me. Phoebe Waller-Bridge brings the wit that helped her win an Emmy for the second season of Fleabag (and probably should have won her one for season one, but that’s a different article) to Lando Calrissian’s co-pilot/lover, who fights for droids’ rights while having some of the best navigating skills in the galaxy. When she is fatally wounded during a droid uprising on Kessel, Lando brings her corpse onto the Falcon and Han tries to pilot them to an escape. However, they need a navigator. So, the obvious solution is to take the undamaged operational system out of L3 and upload it into the Falcon. Which…when combined with L3’s whole thing about droids rights and droids being treated the same way as humans, is…well it’s less than ideal. I don’t think this movie is intentionally positing that a droid’s own good as far as it is useful to everyone else, but it’s something that will probably never sit well with me, no matter how many times I end up watching this movie.
From the movie that most benefited from a re-watch to the one that was most hurt by it. Not that I think this movie is bad, but that first half really drags when compared to some of the other films. It feels like we’re meeting a new character at every turn, with little for us to really grab onto them. It’s unfortunate, because a lot of the cast feels like they’re really making the most of the little that they are given in the early goings of this movie. I’d be interested to see how many of them, if any, will be needlessly shoehorned into that Cassian Andor show we’re apparently getting. That semi-relevant transgression aside, my main issue with this movie is its use of digital face replacement to bring back Peter Cushing’s Grand Moff Tarkin and bring back a younger version of Carrie Fisher’s Princess Leia. The problem here is that in neither case does this feel particularly necessary. Tarkin is a major character in A New Hope, but I cannot imagine that anyone would have been upset had they just recast the role. Alternatively, Carrie Fisher was still with us when this movie was made, and I don’t entirely understand why they couldn’t just put some makeup on her, or shoot it in such a way that her age wouldn’t stand out. In neither situation does the use of this far from perfect technology seem necessary, and it ends up just sticking out like a sore thumb.
A New Hope
Four of these last five get a little bit tricky, and honestly, will probably include a couple of cop outs (this one included). I would imagine that if I watched this film, as presented in 1977, I’d be hard pressed to really find something that stands out as an issue to me. Alas, it is now basically impossible to watch this film as it was originally presented in 1977. The special editions of the original trilogy are usually referred to with derision, and that is particularly apparent here. CGI creatures are all over Mos Eisely, which makes those outside sequences feel like they belong in the prequels instead of with the practical sets and models that really help these original movies feel real and lived-in. Other changes are scattered throughout this movie, including changed sound effects, an added scene with Jabba (which is almost worth it because I now want to call people “My Boogie” and Han steps on Jabba’s tail because when they originally shot this scene Jabba was a Scottish dude) and the now infamous Greedo scene (my preferred version: Han is the only one who shoots, but we still include Greedo saying “Maclunky!”) Saying changes made to this movie are the worst part feels like a cheat, but it also feels like the truth to me.
Empire Strikes Back
Uh. I don’t know. The Emperor originally having monkey eyes was weird?
Return of the Jedi
Although this movie ended up being way better than I remembered, for reasons I will discuss in a bit, my enjoyment is still pretty heavily impacted by just how much the Ewoks are in it. Listen, I’m not opposed to cute things. I find the porgs to be an enjoyable little treat in The Last Jedi. But the porgs are also used in moderation, with brief appearances meant for comedic relief scattered through the film’s runtime. The Ewoks pervade the very core of this movie. Once we meet Wicket, the Ewoks never stop. They own almost every minute that the films spends on the Forest Moon of Endor. Also they defeat the Empire using sticks and logs. The decades’ old empire, complete with men in armor, are defeated in no small part by a bunch of teddy bears. It’s insane.
I think the most popular complaint about this movie is that it’s basically just a retelling of the same story told in A New Hope (desert dweller rises up to defeat a great evil while some pilots blow up a giant sphere that can destroy entire planets/star systems), which I do think is valid, but I also think it was something that almost needed to happen. The Mouse needed to put out a movie to show that they could execute a Star Wars movie in order to get our trust, and once they did that, they would be able to move on to different, weirder and hopefully better things (more on that in a second). I think my biggest issue with this movie is actually the decision to end the movie on a cliff hanger of how Luke would react to seeing a stranger has found him on his secluded retreat of a planet, and that the stranger has the lightsaber he lost after his climatic confrontation with his father in Empire Strikes Back. An ending like that forces the following movie to pick up immediately afterwards, which kind of handcuffs the story in a way. We don’t get the time between A New Hope and Empire Strikes Back where the war has been waging for years, and our heroes were able to develop a little bit over time. Instead we have to pick up with Luke and Rey on that mountain, and with Finn in a coma. The last shot of this movie is, admittedly, powerful, as we get a bird’s eye view of our hero from the past meeting our hero of the present, but since nothing is given in terms of a real interaction, that’s where we have to pick up, leaving the next storyteller with the requirement of landing a very significant leap that he did not take.
The Last Jedi
Can I say the discourse around this movie is the worst part of it? Because, Good The Maker, has it been an exhausting two years. And, honestly, I started a version of the rest of this paragraph where I called out the issues that I had with the movie but then transitioning into being frustrated with people who detest this movie, but that plays into the very discourse that has exhausted me for twenty-four months. So yeah. Here’s a third cop out. The discourse that came from this movie is by far the thing I dislike most about this movie. (Alternatively, another cop out issue I have with this movie is that it, combined with the feel I’m getting from Rise of Skywalker, shows the cons of what happens when a continuous story isn’t planned from start to finish, and has different people’s different visions taking it where they want it to go).
Random Rankings #1
- The nurse droid that deliver’s Padme’s babies that says “Ooo-ba” a bunch
- The mouse droid that Chewbacca scares in A New Hope
This is mostly a joke to dunk on C-3PO, who is a kind of a tool. Also, I’m mad that the nurse at my son’s birth didn’t say “ooo-ba” a bunch.
Best Lightsaber Battles (One Per Movie)
- Luke vs Vader- Empire Strikes Back
- Luke vs Vader- Return of the Jedi
- Obi-Wan vs Anakin- Revenge of the Sith
- The Throne Room (Rey and Kylo vs The Guards)- The Last Jedi
- Finn v Ren/Rey v Ren- The Force Awakens
- Duel of the Fates (Qui Gon and Obi-Wan v Darth Maul)- The Phantom Menace
- Vader vs A Bunch Of Dead Dudes- Rogue One
- Obi-Wan vs Vader- A New Hope
- Anakin vs Count Dooku/Yoda vs Dooku- Attack of the Clones
Obi-Wan vs Vader is obviously a classic, but you add some younger participants/a bigger budget? It never stood a chance. Duel of the Fates might have been higher if it the movie didn’t keep cutting away to Anakin failing up and Padme just kind of running around.
Ahmed Best is good in The Phantom Menace. I know what I’m saying sounds insane, and maybe it is. Maybe this movie broke me in ways I’ve never been broken before, but Ahmed Best is good in this movie. To be clear, I still do not like Jar Jar as a character, and I still think the Gungans are problematic. But in a movie where basically everyone feels like they’re sleepwalking through it, seeing someone commit to something, even if it’s something that doesn’t work, is kind of a joy. Knowing the hell that Best has been through (content warning: suicidal thoughts) since this movie came out certainly plays into this decision, but I actively remember thinking to myself while watching this movie “at least Best is enjoying himself” and that goes a long way in this movie. Knowing that he will be coming back to Star Wars with a Legends of the Hidden Temple-style show for TheMouse+ fills me with joy. I hope it’s the start of him being welcomed with open arms in the franchise that should have jump started his career.
Attack of the Clones
The placement of this one is tricky, because I think he could realistically fit anywhere in the Good or Great for any of the prequels (except for maybe Phantom Menace, where he is sidelined for most of it), but Ewan McGregor’s casting as a young Obi-Wan Kenobi is one of the unquestionably good things in the prequels. He seems to fall right into the shoes of a younger version of the man we meet within the cliffs of Tatooine, and he seems to enjoy himself throughout all three of these movies. His relationship with Anakin feels most at home here, with him being the tired teacher of a young and rebellious young padawan. There’s a sequence early on in this film where he and Anakin are chasing the would-be assassin of Padme through the busy skies of Coruscant where you genuinely feel like their relationship has been going on for how ever many years it’s been since Phantom, and a lot of that falls on McGregor’s performance. He really is quite good in these movies (I’d say he’s better in Sith but I wanted to talk about something else there), and I’m genuinely kind of excited to see what he’s up to when that TheMouse+ show comes to be.
Revenge of the Sith
Easily the best of the prequels, this is the first time I really feel like I had to hone in on one thing that works really well in this set of films, and I feel like one of the best (but not the best part) of this movie is watching Order 66 be executed. We know that in A New Hope that Obi-Wan is one of the last of a long line of Jedis, and now we know exactly how that happened. Watching a badly scarred Palpatine give the order to a series of clones, who we learn in the Clone Wars TV show were literally programmed to execute this order (i.e. they had no choice), to execute their Jedi is a heart-wrenching and borderline difficult sequence to watch. We may not know many of these heroes, but watching them be blindsided by their soldiers is striking, and just how quickly the Emperor is able to change the game feels significant and hopeless. The only people who escape the Jedi genocide are the extremely force-sensitive Yoda and the kind of lucky Obi-Wan (Commander Cody really needs to follow-up on his work). The game has changed and it really sets up the series well to go into movies where the power of the Empire is strongly felt.
So obviously, after commenting on how strongly the evil of the Empire will be felt for next few films, the thing I’m going to talk about Solo is how much fun it is. Seems like the best transition possible. But, honest to The Maker, this movie works as a fun little trip between our boogie Han and some of his close good friends. It’s a little weird that basically everything significant that happened in his life prior to meeting him in A New Hope (meets/saves Chewie, gets the Falcon, the Kessel run) happens in like, a long weekend, but whatever, it’s a trip getting there. Alden Ehrenreich never quite hits Harrison Ford levels of Han Solo, but nobody was going to be able to, and he has the right amount of charm to make this character work. Donald Glover feels pitch perfect as a young Lando who is apparently super into wearin’ capes and lovin’ droids. The end has a series of twists that are pleasant and fun in their execution (Enfys Nest being a young woman rules extremely hard, in my opinion). This isn’t a movie that needs to exist by any stretch of the imagination, but if you’re looking for a Star Wars movie that’s a pleasant little watch and doesn’t really ask much of you/require additional viewing to get the full story? Solo is your man. (The trailer still should have the song from that Star Wars DDR game, though).
As I alluded to at the outset of this piece, these movies were far from a major role in my childhood, so the fact that the Empire built its super weapon with a massive self destruct process just kinda hangin’ out was never something that super bothered me, but I think this movie does a commendable job of explaining why the Death Star’s greatest weakness seems so simple. Galen Erso (played by my boi, Hannibal Lecter [Mads MIkkelsen. Y’all need to watch Hannibal]) was forced into working with the Empire to create this great weapon, and had to watch his wife murdered in the process. So the decision for him to build in a “fork you” plot device in the super weapon feels like a reasonable fix for the previously perceived plot hole. Galen Erso is the true hero of this franchise, you cannot convince me otherwise (watch Hannibal).
A New Hope
Alternatively to how some of the next few films had cop-outs for the Less Than Ideal section, there’s quite a bit to choose from when it comes to complimenting these films (even Return of the Jedi falls into this category). The original film feels particularity tricky just because we straight up would not be here if this movie did not work. It had to work as its own little story, but it had to work in a way that people would crave more. And I think that very idea is what I’m going to go with here. This movie sets the stage for a much grander universe so incredibly well in a myriad of ways. It introduces us to classic characters like Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia Organa, Obi-Wan Kenobi, Jek Porkins, Han Solo and Darth Vader, and makes us love them or love to hate them or mourn them (RIP Porkins. Your name upsets me deeply and you are the true hero of the Battle of Yavin). It gives us just enough about the Force that we feel like we understand the gist of it while still wanting more. The practical sets made this entirely new world feel old and familiar to us, as if we had been living in all of our lives. That doesn’t even touch on that last action sequence (spoiler: you’ll read about that in a bit). Again it feels like a cop-out by just saying that this movie is good, but it’s my blog and I’m already at 4,000 words so this feels right to me.
Empire Strikes Back
The thing that has kind of defined this movie, and really, the franchise as a whole, is the shocking reveal that comes towards the end of the film. It follows what is hands down the best/most tense lightsaber sequence that the franchise has ever given us, and it captures the overall tone that this movie has given us so well (more on that in a bit). Our hero has just been beaten, and had his hand lopped off. Luke thinks he’s as low as he can be. He is barely holding on for his life over a seemingly never-ending chasm as Vader growls “Obi-Wan never told you what happened to your father.” “He told me enough,” Luke spits, as he readjusts his grip. “He told me you killed him.” “No,” Vader says, with James Earl Jones adding a helluva pause. “I am your father.” Even knowing that it’s coming, it’s this incredibly executed sequence and just leaves Luke feeling absolutely lost and hopeless. Dude throws himself into the chasm shortly after this, because potential death is better than joining his evil father/participating in one of the most awkward family reunions (Luke and Leia kiss more than you would like in these first two movies).
Return of the Jedi
The interesting thing about Return of the Jedi is that the lows of the Ewoks are pretty consistently matched by some pretty good highs, too. Obviously the highest of them will be discussed in the next section, but the overall arc of Jabba the Hutt certainly stands out. Jabba is a gross, gross space worm who makes the people who work for him dance seductively for him or wear pretty much nothing, or else he will presumably kill them. He’s an absolute creep, and he is atrocious to look at, especially the way his tongue moves around his gross lips. It really is an incredible character design and character execution that upsets you in all of the right ways (especially if you look at Leia’s outfit as gross and misogynist, instead of sexy). It makes the first half hour of this movie a pretty uncomfortable watch, but then you get to watch Leia use her literal chains to choke Jabba the Hutt to death, which is amazing. This whole sequence is very much where the mileage you get out of it may vary, but I think the execution is overall very strong, even it is a bit queasy along the way (which, again, I like to hope is the point).
One of the best things about this new batch of episodic films is the chemistry that exists between our new cast members, and just how quick it all seems to develop. It’s to the point that I think everyone has their preferred one true pairing from this franchise, whether it be Finn and Rey (even as they scream across the hallways of the Falcon that first time they fly together, you feel like these two have known each other for the longest time), Kylo and Rey (heavy sigh, yeah these two have chemistry together, chemistry that Rian Johnson leans into quite well in The Last Jedi, but watching their back and forth as Kylo searches her mind while she is strapped down to his Force Torture chair is a neat little sequence), or, the correct pairing, Finn and Poe. Part of this might just be that Oscar Isaac is so damn charming, he could probably have chemistry with C-3PO, but, y’all, when these two cuties first meet on Starkiller base, and then that escape scene, I really just want things to work out between them. And then when they reunite and Poe notices how well Finn is wearing his old jacket? This happens.
I love these characters so much, and the way they work together in the first movie really helped this trilogy work as well as it has.
The Last Jedi
In the world of Star Wars, we are not introduced to a lot of examples of purely gray characters. People are good or they’re evil. It’s all very black and white. The closest we come is probably Han when we meet him in A New Hope, but even by the end of that movie he’s well on his way to just being a straight up good guy. Even Anakin/Darth Vader is pretty much on one side of the spectrum or the other. The introduction of Benicio del Toro’s DJ gives us that gray character that a world like this kind of desperately needed. He’s an extremely selfish codebreaker who is constantly on alert for what is going to benefit him most in a given situation. Finn and Rose offer him money in assisting with their plan to disable to tracking device on the lead Star Destroyer? Sure, he’ll help them. They get caught? He betrays them immediately for protection, and betrays them further for some new gear. He’s good one minute, he’s bad the next. That’s the point. Good or bad doesn’t matter, because there’s no overarching thing punishing the bad or celebrating the good. Because of that, you have to protect yourself. As he leaves, Finn spits at him “You’re wrong.” DJ, unphased, shrugs and says “Maybe.” Who’s to say what is wrong or right? Play the game. Survive. Don’t join. It’s a bleak outlook to take, but it’s one we’ve never seen committed to on quite the level that Johnson commits to it with DJ. And that feels special.
Random Rankings #2
Best Non Lightsaber Action Set Pieces
- Battle of Yavin- A New Hope
- Assault on Hoth- Empire Strikes Back
- Destroying the Dreadnaught- The Last Jedi
- Train Heist- Solo
- Jabba’s Ship- Return of the Jedi
- The Falcon Flies Again- Force Awakens
- Fighting The Empire on Jedha- Rogue One
- Chasing Zam Wessel- Attack of the Clones
- Opening Space Battle- Revenge of the Sith
- Podrace- Phantom Menace
Ranking of Actors By How Bewilderingly They Are Utilized In The Mouse Films
- Max Von Sydow
- Gwendolyn Christie
- Domhnall Gleeson
- Thandie Newton
TBD: Keri Russell and Richard E. Grant. I’m going to guess that both will end up on this list.
Despite its many, many flaws, the presence of Darth Maul is almost able to save Phantom Menace into something worth returning to on a frequent basis. From Ray Park’s physical presence, to the sparsely used dialogue delivered by Peter Serafinowicz, Maul is a true force to behold in this movie, and when he’s on screen, he demands attention. The major lightsaber sequence in this movie, as Maul goes One-v-Two against Obi-Wan and Qui Gon, goes on a tad too long, but it has one of my favorite singular shots of a Star Wars villain. After pretty easily dispatching Qui Gon (who, to be fair, is kind of a bad Jedi), he turns to Obi-Wan, who is trapped behind extremely necessary and not at all plot-based laser walls, and simply paces, like a predator eagerly anticipating its next prey. It’s a tense moment, and, even though you know Obi-Wan is going to survive (the problem with prequels), you’re at least a little worried about what he might lose along the way. Park is an incredible physical performer, and when coupled with the striking makeup design, it’s a truly unforgettable moment in a movie otherwise devoid of them.
Attack of the Clones
Unsurprisingly, the moment I think to be the absolute best part of Attack of the Clones includes a major scene in Obi-Wan’s part of the story. After some investigation of the dart that killed Padme’s would-be assassin, Zam Wessel, leads him to the mysterious planet of Kamino, he learns that a Jedi had processed an order with the alien race there for an army of clones. He learns that the army is intended to be used by the Republic, the current governing body of the galaxy. Obi-Wan is shocked, but plays it off well as he is given a tour of the facility and is able to meet the army he will soon fighting alongside. The build-up is slow, and we are given the hint of what to come as we see a number of clones suit up. But then Obi-Wan steps out onto a balcony, as ominous music builds, and sees hundreds of clones lining up and ready for battle, looking disconcertingly like the stormtroopers of the original trilogy. The music crescendos as we realize we are looking at Obi-Wan unknowingly viewing the army that will ultimately be the downfall of the Republic and lead to the rise of the Empire. Again, it’s one of the few things that has stuck with me from an otherwise frustratingly forgettable movie.
Revenge of the Sith
Even though there was a period of time where I feel like the scene was memed to death, the opera scene, specifically Palpatine telling Anakin the Tragedy of Darth Plagueis the Wise is easily the best moment of the prequels, and is genuinely one of the best moments of the franchise as a whole. A lot of attention should be duly paid to likely series MVP Ian McDiramid, who plays the subtle evils of Chancellor Palpatine so incredibly well, that seeing him steer into scene-chewing evil as the badly scarred Emperor all the more satisfying, but you have to give credit to Lucas’ script here. It’s an extremely solid bit of world-building, as Palpatine tells Anakin about a Sith who basically has the power to defeat Death, but was too conceded to notice that his student was going to murder him. The story is executed in a way to perfectly set the trap for Anakin to fall into the Dark Side, while also showing just how enticing that the Dark Side can be that Palpatine basically comes out and says “Yo, I’m the Emperor, LAWL” and Anakin is mostly just like “Yes I would like to save my secret wife, please.” Place it all in this striking setting, as the lights and sounds and bubbles of the opera play in the background, and it’s a nice reminder of why we fell in love with this franchise in the first place, while showcasing just how good McDiramid still is as the Emperor, a character he will return to in just a few days.
The trouble with focusing on the story of Han Solo is that the go-to action sequence of the franchise (a good, ol’ fashioned lightsaber battle) is basically impossible, as Han avoided dealing with the top of the Empire for so long, that throwing Darth Vader in this movie would have felt disingenuous. So they had to get a bit more creative with what action scenes could be in a Star Wars movie, and get creative they did. We get a grittily-shot and brutal war scene from when Solo was commissioned into the Empire’s Navy. We get two separate prison breakouts, one significantly smaller than the other. And, best of all, we get a train heist. It’s unlike anything we’ve really scene in the franchise before, as Han, Chewwie and their new buddies Woody Harrelson, Thandie Newton and Jon Favreau as an alien monkey, try to steal coaxium. As storm troopers come onto the train, the train also twists itself along the tracks, at times going parallel to the ground. We also lose forty percent of the party, with Jon Favreau monkey being mortally wounded and Thandie Newton sacrificing herself when she blows up the bridge in order to help ensure that the heist succeeds. Having Han decide to drop the load in order to ensure that they full party doesn’t die is a small, but essential, knife twist as we watch the gang fail. It’s not a space battle. Not a lightsaber in sight. But it is still able to stand out as one of the best action sequences that the franchise has offered, which is truly saying something special of this scene.
Of the two anthology films, Rouge One is the one that really seemed to be filling an actual hole in the story that deemed exploring (even if it did not end up filling that hole in an interesting enough way to be a better film experience than the less necessary Solo). We start A New Hope with a small ship being chased by a significantly larger ship, as the rebels aboard run around, looking for a way to safety. Two droids stumble on Princess Leia, who has somehow come into possession of the schematics of a planet destroyer, the very schematics that brings Darth Vader aboard the small ship, ready to force choke some fools. It really does work as the opening to this world, but finding out what, exactly, led to this exact situation does seem interesting. And that’s where Rogue One comes in and excels. Our rebels have recovered the schematics and sent them into space, offering a small sliver of hope despite everyone losing their lives in pursuit of this victory. One ship receives them, but immediately find themselves in the same small space as Darth Vader himself. Even if Vader is a bit slow in battle against Obi-Wan just a little bit later in this story, a bunch of random rebels with puny guns are no match for him. One is able to hand off the schematics before getting straight-up impaled, and that person is able to board a familiar looking ship that is able to dispatch from the one that Darth Vader is currently using as a lightsaber range. The message is delivered to Princess Leia (again, stupid CGI face takes a bit away from this), who declares that they have received hope. Thus begins the story as we originally met it. It’s an exciting way to get to the story that we know, and it is still an incredible thing to watch.
A New Hope
It’s the Battle of Yavin. This is straight-up the best action sequence that this franchise has offered us, and that’s not meant as a slight to what else its given us. It’s just how good this sequence is. It’s incredibly tense, as we watch members of Red Squadron get picked off one-by-one in their pursuit of hitting the sweet spot of the Death Star to blow it up before it destroys the rebel base. It perfectly cuts between close-up shots of the pilots in their X-Wings, to impressive shots of the X-Wings pursued by Tie-Fighters in space, to shots of the camera running through the trenches of the exquisitely designed model of the Death Star that helps like all of this is really truly happening, not just a space fantasy set in the distant past. It does all this while able to show how strong Luke is with the Force, as ghost Obi-Wan guides him through the battle and assures him that he does not need the targeting guide that the rest of his squadron has used. Just when things feel hopeless, as Vader locks onto his son’s ship and is ready to blow him away, Han returns to save the day, “Whoo!”-ing his way into legend. The look of relief on Hamill’s face as he watches his ship’s pulses enter the Death Star’s exhaust port is shared by anyone who watches this sequence, no matter how many times they’ve seen it before. It’s a genuinely perfect sequence (I didn’t even mention Porkins! RIP, Belly Runner.) As important as this film is for the overall story, you can absolutely pinpoint to this sequence as the one that captured the attention of the world. It’s incredible, and really does not feel like it has aged a day in the last 42 years.
Empire Strikes Back
Imagine feeling as victorious as you do at the end of A New Hope. Luke destroyed the Death Star. Han came back. R2-D2 is alive. Everyone who isn’t Chewbacca gets a metal because fork Chewbacca, I guess? Now imagine having all that taken away as Luke gets captured by a snow monster. The Rebels face a serious defeat on Hoth. Our heroes are split up as Luke begins his training anew with Yoda. Han’s old friend Lando betrays him in order to save his mining company. Han is frozen. Luke’s hand is chopped off and he finds out that he shares DNA with the ultimate villain. The nerve and courage all of that had to take is honestly kind of mind-boggling. People loved seeing the heroes win in the last movie, they wanted more of that. Instead, this movie is filled with nothing but significant losses, and things feel hopeless despite us having just received a new hope so recently. But somehow the movie is able to end on something that resembles hope for the future. Luke is with Leia, and has a dope new cyborg hand. They look out the window into the permanence of the universe. Somewhere out there, there has to be hope. They’ll find it. They know it. Despite everything, we even sense it to be true, too. What this movie is able to pull off is truly astounding, and I’m not sure we will ever see anything like it in a heavily franchised universe like this again. We’re lucky to have it.
Return of the Jedi
Everything that happens between Luke and Vader, and especially when you add in the Emperor, really helps this movie ascend beyond the Cuddly Bears of Death of it all. Even from the very first interaction, when Luke hands himself over to Vader in hopes of convincing him to leave the Dark Side, this film feels appropriately tense in the display of their relationship. Luke’s going out on a limb, and even though we’ve seen basically no evidence of it, you want to believe that he is right, that there is still good in his father. And then Vader turns on the lightsaber with Luke’s back turned to him. The air feels like its drained out of the sequence, and the rest of their (significant) time together feels fraught. Throw in McDiarmid joyfully taunting from his egg chair, and it’s some of the tensest scenes of dialogue this film has to offer. When everything comes to a head and Luke attempts to strike the Emperor, only to be met by his father, and Palpatine makes this face:
It’s so damn good. The rest of the fight is matched only by the previous film’s climatic battle, as Luke does his best to avoid the Emperor’s taunts to engage and kill his father, building to a head as Vader taunts Luke about Leia, causing the son to lose his damn mind and go berserk. John Williams (the true MVP of this franchise) music here doesn’t ramp up, but instead comes off as kind of sad as our hero flirts with evil, chopping his fallen father’s hand off and nearly delivering a killing stroke. The Dark Side is so close, and so easy. But he pulls off. The whole thing is just so tense and emotional and heartbreaking. And it’s not even over! Everything else with The Emperor’s disappointment and attempted murder of Luke and Vader finally being like “Oh no, I’m the baddie” and yeeting the Emperor three and a half decades into the future is just all so pitch perfect. It’s exactly how this father-son story needed to end, and as much as I have enjoyed the sequels, if this was it, I think we’d all be pretty lucky with what we had.
The way this movie is set up, we obviously knew that Rey is pretty strong with the Force. She was able to fend off Kylo’s advances into her mind, and even flip it around on him, calling out his fear of never living up to his grandfather, Darth Vader. She is able to tricky an unfortunately non-Southern Daniel Craig (see Knives Out. It’s directed by a real cool guy named Rian Johnson who everyone needs to be better to, including people who are already very good to him. He rules) into releasing her from the torture chair, and even leaving her a weapon. There was also that whole JJ Abrams-mystery box sequence in the Not Mos Eiseey Cantina with Maz Khanta, where she is confronted with images from her past, and the voices of both versions of Obi-Wan guiding her along the way. But, y’all, when she gets up from being knocked away by Super Cool Guy Kylo Ren (why do people want them to date?) and harnesses her raw Force abilities to steal Anakin’s lightsaber away from Ren? Y’all, I still get chills just thinking about it. And, yeah, I hear your complaints about how she is able to do that without being trained in the Force, to which I say, “I don’t know, but something that’s basically an infant stopped a giant creature that was full-on charging a guy on The Mandalorian, so maybe sometimes the Force is just naturally strong with people. Why do you feel the need to rain on people’s parade when they’re excited/happy about something?” (Oh no, the discourse is calling me). Either way, it’s a powerful moment, seeing a strong female character get to whip some ash, and an even rarer occurrence when that happens without people feeling the need to question why it’s happening (dissssscouuurrrrsssssee). It rules. It’s significant. It’s powerful. Moving on to a less discourse-laden film.
The Last Jedi
Before I dive-in to the absolute best part of this movie, I want to mention how breathtaking it was witnessing the sound go out as Admiral Holdo sacrificed herself in order to save what remained of the resistance. I’ve never been in a theater where I thought I could hear a pin drop, and I don’t think I’ve ever felt anything like that before. So that was very dope. But also dope, and more significant in the grand scheme of things, is Luke’s arc in this movie. And I’m going to have to tread carefully here, as this is one of the biggest issues that people have with this movie, which I think is a shame, because I genuinely believe that its one of the best executed character arcs this franchise has to offer. At the end of Force Awakens, JJ left us with Rey meeting Luke on a secluded island on a secluded planet. Why would he be in hiding? We know that he feels like he failed Kylo Ren/Ben Solo, but what happened that drove him to this? What kind of head-space would he be in? It turns out that head space is basically done with anything and everything to do with The Force, including any responsibility he may hold to the galaxy. Almost murdering your nephew because of the fear that his attachment to the Dark Side brings you will do that to you. But that’s the thing about being “Good.” It’s a constant battle. You don’t just get to win it once after you almost rage-murder your dad while trying to protect your sister. You have to win it every day. There will always be easier ways out, especially when it comes to the Dark Side of the Force. There will always be obviously wrong thoughts (“I should kill my nephew” falls into an extreme version of this category). But stopping yourself is key. And Luke did. It was just too late, and because his connection with the Force caused that thought, he ran away from it and his responsibilities. He failed, and because of his failure, he knew he couldn’t be the hero the galaxy expected him to be anymore so he ran. But what he forgot is that failure doesn’t need to be an end. In fact it shouldn’t be. It should be a teacher. Puppet Ghost Yoda reminds him of this, and Luke is able to save the day from the distance, as he Force Projects the hero the galaxy needed him to be onto Crait in order to distract his Murder Nephew. It’s an emotionally raw sequence as we realize what he’s doing, and such an intense encounter with the Force, after having avoided it for so long, that he fades away. But before he passes on, in the same way as his previous teachers, he is greeted with two suns. Luke’s story ends as it began.
It’s powerful and risky and really requires us to step back from this thing that we love and think about it in a new way. Heroes don’t always have to win, and something our heroes fail in disappointing ways. But they can recover. Rian Johnson challenged us with this arc. I deeply hope you were open to it, because I’m not sure that we’ll see anything like it ever again.
How I Rank These Films Now
- Empire Strikes Back
- Last Jedi
- A New Hope
- The Force Awakens
- Return of the Jedi
- Revenge of the Sith
- Rogue One
- Getting punched really hard in the arm
- Attack of the Clones
- Phantom Menace
In general, this rewatch did a lot for me when it comes to appreciating this franchise as a whole. Again, the first three are The Maker Tier films, with Last Jedi really biting at the heels of the greatness of Empire. The Force Awakens is still a great film with powerful stuff that is able to sneak ahead of Return because it doesn’t have Teddy Bears With Sticks saving the day. Solo really impressed me on a rewatch, as a fun little movie that just kind of understands itself to be a fun little movie. Revenge of the Sith is a casting/direction decision away from a truly great status. Rouge One is probably the only movie that was hurt by a rewatch, with the early goings really dragging out the movie in general, and then having the climax be 40% of the movie is a lot to ask. Even the bad movies are doing better, because now I would only prefer getting punched in the arm as opposed to the throat. Improvement!
Please don’t punch me.
So that’s that. That’s the franchise as it currently stands, a number of hours before I watch the story as we know it come to an end. I’m not sure what to expect, but I’ve enjoyed the ride leading up to this.
Also, thanks, as always for reading. I love all of you.
Header Image Credit https://cdn.images.express.co.uk/img/dynamic/36/590x/Star-Wars-rumour-theory-skywalker-game-of-thrones-lord-of-the-rings-episode-9-1102901.jpg?r=1553182450766
One thought on “Star Wars: Before The Rise”
Love you back! I don’t think I agreed 100% on everything. But we’re mostly in the same boat.