6. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)
“Rogue One” was an interesting experiment in how differently to make a Star Wars movie. Not concerned with the traditional themes and style of the franchise but rather taking things more underground. We follow small, unsung heroes in the universe that contributed a small piece of the puzzle to destroy the Death Star in the original film. Told more through war and revolution rather than philosophical journeys of the force or democracy. Its style keeps itself grounded, lots of camera angles looking up at the large machines and weapons the Empire uses.
It almost feels like something out of “Saving Private Ryan” or “Apocalypse Now”, but still manages to capture that feeling of Star Wars. Many of the characters do fall flat; namely Jyn, Cassian, Orson, Saw, and Bodhi. But others are real highlights like K-2SO, Chirrut, and Baze. And of course, shall we forget the best fan service moment of all time with Darth Vader? It’s a different type of Star Wars film and one that echoes a theme of war and revolution in world history, that being the unsung heroes who die in battle for a greater cause.
5. The Force Awakens (2015)
After so many years of our last memories of Star Wars being the despised Prequel Trilogy, JJ Abrams brought us back to the world we all knew and loved with “The Force Awakens”. Right off the bat, many drew the comparisons between this and “A New Hope”. And yes, the mirror images can be distracting, especially once it recycles the same Death Star type of climax with Star Killer Base. But as a re-introduction to what we loved so dearly, it works very well. A lot is set up with our new brand of characters, and to be fair they’re treated differently and have new vibes to them. Finn is a Stormtrooper that abandons the First Order, Rey is a scavenger left on her own path, and Kylo is a conflicted mess with rage and turmoil.
The story beats can be too fan-service and formulaic for my liking, but one of the themes in Star Wars has been the cycle repeating itself. The force is a higher power that moves us and binds us. But on top of all of that, it looked and felt like the gritty, dirty sci-fi world that was Star Wars. Not a great film by any means but as a call back while also being the star of something new, this delivered exactly what it was meant to.
4. The Last Jedi (2017)
Stop! I’ve heard every complaint there is with “The Last Jedi” but I don’t care. Star Wars as a franchise has been repetitive for a long time, using the same routines and tropes for many decades now. What Rian Johnson does is break down previously held notions of its mythos and expands the universe of Star Wars to another level. We see Kylo Ren and Rey as their own respective avatars of the concept of change.
By the end of “The Last Jedi” we’re left questioning the past and how each character perceives the past and what that has done for the current set of events that are unfolding. Kylo has been conflicted with his past, as an offspring of the Skywalker family and the son of Han Solo, feeling his need to resurrect the past of Darth Vader into himself. By the end, he wants to destroy it, erase the history that has happened and start a new because fascism doesn’t grow from its failures. Rey on the other hand represents the ideal of failure being the greatest teacher, how we learn from past mistakes and failures to change the future we hold in our hands. They’re connected enough in their mission, yet drastically different in their ways of accomplishing said mission.
I know many were put off by its revelations coming off of “Force Awakens”, and yes I was mystified upon first glance as well. But upon reflection it really is fascinating that Johnson made that decision, as he put it “The easiest thing for Rey and the audience to hear is, Oh yeah, you’re so-and-so’s daughter. That would be wish fulfillment and instantly hand her a place in this story on a silver platter. The hardest thing for her is to hear is she’s not going to get that easy answer … You’re going to have to find the strength to stand on your own two feet and define yourself in this story.” Star Wars isn’t defined by bloodlines, tradition, or formulas. It’s a journey into the unknown where we create our own identities and futures for ourselves.
3. Return of the Jedi (1983)
I don’t think it should come as any surprise that the original trilogy is taking the top spots here, and it probably doesn’t come as a surprise that “Return of the Jedi” is the number 3. This is commonly regarded as the weakest of the original trilogy, and when taking in the overly long Jabba the Hutt sequence in the beginning to rescue Han and the cutesy crap with the Ewoks it’s not hard to see why.
But make no mistake, when this film gets going it’s some of the best stuff in the entire saga that’s on par if not better than its predecessors. Particularly with the dynamic created between Luke, Vader, and the Emperor. Ian McDiarmid debuts his signature role and my lord is he absolutely perfect. The look with his yellow eyes is like something out of “The Exorcist” and he acts him to utter perfection with the art of camp. The ultimate blend of cunning, deliciously evil, vile, and even a little humorously over-the-top at times.
I think Roger Ebert put it best “If “Star Wars” was a brash space opera and “The Empire Strikes Back” was a visual feast, “Return of the Jedi” is a riot of character invention.” The characters that take up the screen in “Return of the Jedi” are blistering with personality and memorability, even when the pacing of the story feels a little off it doesn’t even seem to matter because we’re entranced by the disgusting nature of Jabba and his minions or the mesmerizing presence of Palpatine. It then furthers the connection between Luke and Vader as the good within Vader is coming out more, and subsequently fulfilling that prophecy of the prequels. It felt like the perfect ending, and truthfully looking back maybe they should’ve left well enough alone.
2. A New Hope (1977)
Films like “Star Wars” are the perfect storm, a special dichotomy that only comes about once in a generation. The film that is made by the right people, has the right thing to say, and is released at the right time where it takes the world by storm and nothing is the same again. Star Wars is a universe that reflects our own in a fairy tale/sci-fi type of way. To this end, it’s a wonderful tribute piece to vast stories and cultures.
From “The Hidden Fortress” structure of Japanese folklore in Kurosawa’s films (not to mention the samurai shaped helmet for Darth Vader), the caricatures of character types so universal and well known we feel like we know them instantly, the episodic style of the “Flash Gordon” serials, the sci-fi world of works like “War of the Worlds”, the spirituality of Buddhism and higher powers, and the cycle of fascist dictatorship that’s lived throughout world history. These are stories and characters we know so well, and yet we’re still entranced by the magic and wonder of Lucas’ creation that feels like its own world. What stories are original anyway? Everything is inspired by something.
What matters is that we follow the hero’s journey, the warrior princess, the rebel with a heart of gold, and we become attached to it. With that said, it’s not a perfect film and we all need to admit to that. The acting is bad from time to time, the dialogue can be really hokey, and some aesthetics haven’t aged particularly well. But the moments of divine are too much to count and lift it into another realm. The best of which being the Binary Sunset as Luke stress out, not only into the distance, but into his future. The mystery of the unknown awaits as we go through the journey of a lifetime.
1. The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
Yeah no surprises here. I think what people need to remember about “Empire Strikes Back” is that this was a sequel to the highest grossing film of all time at that point. If it wanted to be lazy and just copy what the previous film did, it could’ve done that and it likely would’ve still made its money. But no, they took the universe of Star Wars to another level and leaped head and shoulders into creating something that was one of a kind.
The first Star Wars film was notoriously cut down and budgeted, a very infamous production history to say the least. But with “Empire” you get the sense that no money was wasted here, the worlds were created to be more elaborate and diverse with so much more going on. The action was heightened, the effects better, and the scope unparalleled for its time and of all time. But what ropes us in is the evolution of its content, expanding the forces of good and evil in the mythos of its creation.
The connection between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader furthered more as the two confront the inevitable destiny’s their future holds. To this end Luke trains with Yoda as the concepts of what the force is and what it means are progressed to another realm. And Vader is made to be the quintessential villain, he was good in the first film but now he’s truly the one who takes center stage and commands every action of the film.
When critics talk about the great science fiction works one of the common phrases spun around is “the sense of wonder”. “Empire Strikes Back” creates a sense of wonder that captures the hearts and minds of all who watch it, young and old. We watch with a sense of awe that connects with us emotionally because these characters are meant to be universal and relatable, they are us. But we’re stimulated by the larger world that can only be imagined and dreamt of, one that pushes boundaries and takes us on a journey we need. This is what movies were made for.