Friday, December 18, 2015

From Clone Wars to Death Stars: Ranking the First Six Star Wars Movies

Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker in "The Empire Strikes Back"
I like the Star Wars movies.

That may appear to be a banal assertion of preference—after all, every cinephile makes it his business to like or dislike individual motion pictures—but nothing involving this behemoth of a franchise is ever quite so simple. To be sure, Star Wars is deeply embedded into our divisive popular culture, and there are undoubtedly two distinct camps of moviegoers who classify as fans or non-fans. But for the former, what exactly are we fans of? At times, it feels like George Lucas's saga of good and evil has morphed from a sextet of discrete films into an altogether different beast, a shape-shifting leviathan of toys and memes and videogames and literary spinoffs and special editions and virulent fan petitions. This is a perfectly happy consequence of the series' success, and I don't begrudge my brethren (OK, and myself) from using their passion to transform a half-dozen films into the cultural equivalent of an AT-AT, implacably marching toward its goal (merchandising!) and crushing everything in its path. At the same time, the franchise has grown so monolithic that it's become increasingly difficult to evaluate the Star Wars movies as, well, movies.

I am hardly immune to this phenomenon. As with many men (and plenty of women) of a certain age, I grew up obsessed with Star Wars, which was a staple of my childhood (and, almost assuredly, a harbinger of my cinematic taste). But because I came to the franchise so young, I didn't watch the original trilogy so much as absorb it, to the point that it simply became a strain of my movie-viewing DNA. To wit, I don't even remember when I first saw the Holy Trilogy (though I do remember how—my father dutifully recorded the first three films from their HBO broadcasts onto VHS tapes before such practice was popular). And I certainly don't remember experiencing what I've now learned to be one of cinema's all-time most stunning reveals: that [redacted] is [redacted's] [redacted]. That was simply a piece of information that I grew up knowing, like my home address or Ty Cobb's career batting average. The three much-maligned prequels, which I actually watched in the theater in high school and college, are of course different, but I still inevitably filtered them through my childhood conception of the first three films.

And so the question emerges: Can I objectively evaluate the Star Wars movies as works of art in a vacuum? Or will my perception of them always be colored by their foundational role in my development as a consumer of motion pictures? I don't know the answer, and I don't know that it matters. Nerdy navel-gazing aside, part of the magic of the movies is that everyone approaches identical films differently, bringing their own unique experiences to bear on the same strips of celluloid (or, these days, arrays of binary code). But it's worth remembering that the following rankings—and virtually any such rankings compiled by fans who spent much of their youth in a galaxy far, far away—are presumably informed by my own subconscious biases, tendrils of thought that have snaked their way into my brain after years of repeated viewings. Which is all to say: The Star Wars movies are only movies, even if they're also somehow more than that.

As a certain evil emperor once said, so be it. Here are the Manifesto's rankings of the first six official films in the Star Wars universe (yes, I'm ignoring 2008's animated curio The Clone Wars):

6. Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999). It's difficult to distill the myriad opinions of legions of viewers into a unified view, but if there's a common consensus regarding the Star Wars movies, it's that the originals are amazing and the prequels are awful. That's overly reductive, but it understandably stems from the massive disappointment with which audiences received The Phantom Menace, which dropped in theaters in 1999—after a 16-year wait following Return of the Jedi—as arguably the most anticipated release in cinematic history (though tonight's unveiling of The Force Awakens may top it). It's unclear just how good The Phantom Menace needed to be in order to sate ravenous viewers—perhaps doing so was impossible—but it certainly needed to be better than it is. And while I generally label myself as a staunch defender of the Star Wars prequels, I freely concede that significant elements of this movie are just plain bad. Jar Jar Binks may have been a CGI revolution, but as a character, he ranges from irritating to disastrous. Jake Lloyd's performance as the young Anakin Skywalker is painfully wooden, lacking any hint of the tortured depths that would eventually consume his character. And the advent of microscopic "midi-chlorians" as a literal embodiment of The Force—the mystical energy source that, for the first three films, was so tantalizingly nebulous—feels like a betrayal of the series' sweeping mythology.

And you know what? The Phantom Menace is still, for the most part, a blast. Working with technology that he could finally bend to his will, Lucas creates dazzling environments and breathtaking action sequences, turning a confusingly structured drama into a rip-roaring adventure. The pod race remains one of the most thrilling car chases ever made, a wondrous combination of digital effects and supple choreography. John Williams's "Duel of the Fates" is one of the franchise's great music cues, the choir's bellows of fear mingling with shimmering woodwinds and spurts of brass. And if you were sitting in a movie theater in May of 1999, you will remember the buzz of giddy excitement that enveloped the audience upon realizing that Darth Maul's lightsaber went both ways. Measure it against the original trilogy, and this first prequel feels inferior, a kid-friendly continuation of a trilogy that is revered with fanatical seriousness. But on its own merits, The Phantom Menace is a perfectly enjoyable piece of sci-fi entertainment. It's a minor movie with major pleasures.

5. Episode II: Attack of the Clones (2002). The problem with prequels is that they deny their creators any choices. The destination is predetermined—it's simply a matter of prodding the pieces until they fall into place. And so, while the concept of building a Star Wars movie around the burgeoning love between Anakin Skywalker (now played by Hayden Christensen) and Padme (Natalie Portman) might be artistically dubious, Lucas didn't really have any choice; he needed to establish Luke and Leia's parentage, and to sow the seeds for Anakin's eventual transformation into Darth Vader. This lack of freedom becomes magnified in Attack of the Clones because, for all of Lucas's talents, he just isn't good with dialogue, particularly romantic dialogue. (Detractors will be quick to point to Christensen's infamous "I don't like sand" line, but that's far from the most grievous offender.) It's understandable that he tries to develop chemistry between Anakin and Padme, even devoting significant stretches of the film to the characters doing little more than eating in a diner or sharing a picnic. But nothing about the love that blooms between these two pretty humans feels organic—it's all engineered to fill in the blanks of the larger story, and it feels hopelessly artificial.

Which is a shame, because if you can ignore its faltering romance, Attack of the Clones is fantastic. It's arguably overplotted, but in an intriguing way, splintering its major characters off into their own mini-quests. The strangest of these—a noir-ish mystery in which Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) searches for information on an alien planet populated by squid-like beings (plus a certain bounty hunter)—is also the most rewarding, as it gives McGregor some room to really establish himself as Obi-Wan; he's perfectly fine in The Phantom Menace, but here he actually delivers a real performance, laced with intelligence and humor. And while Christensen struggles opposite Portman, he actually does fairly well evoking the glimmers of Anakin's dark side. Finally, if the action scenes in The Phantom Menace are gee-whiz fun, here they're simply stupendous, most notably a night-time speeder chase that features both characters and camera diving through multiple levels of urban sprawl, as well as a gladiator-style brawl that is astonishing in its scope and cinematic sophistication. Throw in a crowd-pleasing Yoda and a hammy Christopher Lee, and Attack of the Clones delivers the goods on virtually all fronts. It may fail to provide a stirring love story, but for movie-lovers, there remains plenty of passion to go around.

4. Episode VI: Return of the Jedi (1983). Those goddamn Ewoks. Look, I get that Lucas wanted to make the final installment of the original trilogy enjoyable for all ages. Return of the Jedi is a film about the triumph of good over evil; it delivers an unambiguously happy ending that results in satisfying closure for all of our heroes. (Earlier drafts of the script involved Lando Calrissian dying while attempting to escape from the Death Star in the Millennium Falcon, but Lucas scrapped those, along with any suggestions that Han Solo should die.) But that still doesn't excuse centering a significant piece of the film around a band of furry creatures who speak in gibberish and who believe C-3PO to be a metallic god. The Battle of Endor has its moments—Leia's "I know" to Han is a wry inversion of one of the franchise's greatest scenes—but it lacks the dramatic heft of the rest of the film, and its flimsiness feels silly rather than playful.

Fortunately, the rest of the movie is so satisfying that Han and Leia's bumblings with the Ewoks become insignificant rather than crippling. The opening-act return to Tatooine could have felt like a rehash of the first film, but Luke's tussle with the dinosaur-like Rancor is a visceral jolt, while the battle on Jabba the Hutt's sail barge is a marvel of multi-planed mayhem. And the extended triangular finale involving Luke, Darth Vader, and the Emperor is a powerhouse, a brilliant crystallization of the trilogy's themes of loyalty and decency. Luke Skywalker was never my favorite Star Wars character—like the rest of the universe, I'm a Han Solo guy—but there's real gravity in his existential duel with his father and his father's keeper; the wordless shot where Vader looks from Luke to the Emperor and back is a deeply resonant moment that serves as the emotional culmination of the entire trilogy. Return of the Jedi may not be as transcendent as the movie that preceded it, but it clearly knows how to satisfy its fans.

3. Episode IV: A New Hope (1977). It is without doubt that when A New Hope (née simply Star Wars) premiered in theaters in the summer of 1977, it changed the face of blockbuster cinema forever. But ignoring the movie's influence on form and distribution, what's interesting about the first installment in Lucas's game-changing franchise is how simple it is. At its heart, A New Hope is a corny space opera about a boy who wants to save the world; everything else is really just fabulous window-dressing. There's honor in that sort of simplicity, and the movie receives much of its kick from the old-fashioned way in which it positions its heroes and villains, like Western foes warring for supremacy.

Not that simplicity should be confused with tedium. Much of A New Hope remains bracing in its execution, from the ambush of the Sand People to the videogame-like battle with TIE fighters to that final streak through the trench toward the Death Star. Still, the movie relies as much on guile as brawn, and its spirit is best exemplified by a pair of sly performances: Alec Guinness's cagey portrayal as Obi-Wan Kenobi and, more significantly, Harrison Ford's pitch-perfect turn as Han Solo. Together, they bring a spark of rascally ingenuity to a generally cheesy affair. A New Hope may have been revolutionary, but it also demonstrated the enduring appeal of two characters bickering about fools and foolishness.

2. Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (2005). Most of the Star Wars films are about unsullied victory. Hell, A New Hope actually concludes with a presentation of medals in a throne room, as though its characters had just won the Olympics. But Revenge of the Sith is a tragedy, and a startling one at that. Here is a movie in which the ostensible hero abandons his pregnant wife, slaughters a roomful of children, and has his legs sliced off by his best friend. So much for cheerfully invigorating pod races.

Of course, darkness isn't a cinematic good in itself, but Revenge of the Sith is breathtaking in the way it harnesses its more devastating elements and packages them into a thrilling, furiously compelling whole. Yes, Lucas's clunky dialogue still falters at times, but it's less egregious here, largely because most of the major developments have already taken place, and the one that hasn't—Senator Palpatine insidiously nudging Anakin toward the dark side—is goosed by Ian McDiarmid's stealthy performance as the future emperor. And Lucas's mastery over action remains, whether it's in the frenetic space sequence in which hundreds of ships careen toward one another, or the climactic duel between Anakin and Obi-Wan that seems to take place within a sweltering volcano. (The movie also supplies my second-favorite villain in the entire franchise in General Grievous, a skittering, wheezing droid with a threadbare cloak and a shriveled heart.) But all of these majestic light shows are now tinged with sadness and inevitability—consider the wordless montage in which a handful of drones mindlessly execute dozens of Jedi on Palpatine's orders—lending the movie a stinging pathos that its immediate predecessors valiantly fought for but never attained. Revenge of the Sith is as brightly colored and dazzlingly directed as any installment in the franchise, and it is an enormously accomplished feat of large-scale filmmaking. But it is also grander than that. In stunning fashion, it fractures the heroes of our childhood into figures of grief.

1. Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980). I enjoy all of the Star Wars films, but The Empire Strikes Back is the only one that I believe to be a legitimately great movie. If A New Hope served as the franchise's launching pad, this installment is the saga in marvelous flight, astounding audiences with its ambition and execution. It is also, thanks to the sharp script by Lawrence Kasdan and the sturdy direction by Irvin Kershner, a decidedly grim affair, replacing the black-and-white simplicity of its precursor with brilliantly ambiguous shades of grey. At least, that's true in narrative terms; visually speaking, The Empire Strikes Back is just as arresting as its peers, particularly in the frigid white tones of the ice planet Hoth and the bright, sun-streaked orange of Cloud City. The action sequences have tangible weight; you can feel Luke hit the ground as he detaches from one of those AT-ATs, just as you can sense the frisson that sparks from every clash of lightsabers between Luke and Darth Vader. And Williams's "Imperial March" theme for Vader remains one of the most iconic music cues ever composed for a film.

But every Star Wars movie looks and sounds incredible—it's the story of The Empire Strikes Back that elevates it to true greatness. The film's second half delivers one emotionally reeling scene after another, from the discovery of Yoda to the betrayal of Lando Calrissian (an excellent Billy Dee Williams) to that gasp-worthy reveal of the finale. And as poorly conceived as the romance was in Attack of the Clones, the chemistry that crackles here between Han Solo and Princess Leia is perfectly pitched, a tart love story amid a fantastical epic. That combination of humanity and mythology is what makes The Empire Strikes Back such an exhilarating motion picture experience. It may be audacious and exciting, but it is also funny, surprising, and deeply moving. It's a reminder of what movies can do—how they can take us to a faraway galaxy and still make us feel at home.

1 comment:

Casey Roche said...

This is a joke right? Episode 3 is better than Jedi, but not Ep 4, 5 or 7. Anything with Hayden Christensen cannot be ranked above the original trilogy