“Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens” hits screens on December 17. Until then, Star Wars fans must content themselves with the stellar original trilogy, and the slightly more earth-bound prequels.
To prepare our readers for the grand opening, PJ Media has decided to rank the first six films from worst to best. Feel free to vent, rage, and disagree in the comments. Without further ado, here is our ranking.
6. “Episode II: Attack of the Clones”
Worst in the series, but nevertheless a solid action film, “Episode II: Attack of the Clones” tells the love story of Anakin Skywalker and Padmé Amidala, and then delivers the action fans wanted to see. This film shares the same general failing of the entire prequel trilogy — the new films tried to boil down Star Wars into a purely action franchise, when it was always something more.
“Attack of the Clones” features some great chase scenes (with dashes of humor mixed in at the right moments), an epic battle scene, and two great lightsaber duels, but lands light on the dialogue and character development that made the films of the original trilogy such classics.
This movie tried to show the bright side and the dark side of the central character — Anakin Skywalker — but ended up a mess. In “Episode I: The Phantom Menace,” Anakin is a sweet, innocent little boy who truly cares for other people and wouldn’t hurt an Ewok. In “Attack of the Clones,” the little boy has become a teenager, enflamed with boyish passion and easily driven to anger and recklessness. He rushes to face Count Dooku alone, unleashes his anger on a group of savages, and expresses his undying love for Padmé Amidala.
Lord only knows why Padmé reciprocates. Here’s a taste of Anakin’s winning dialogue: “From the moment I met you…there hasn’t been a day when I haven’t thought of you….I’m haunted by the kiss that you should never have given me…you are in my very soul, tormenting me.” Shockingly, Padmé does not respond with “get away from me, you creep!” the way any normal girl would. Rather, she risks her life to go with him on a dangerous mission.
Despite the hauntingly beautiful background music, this romance makes absolutely no sense.
Regardless, “Attack of the Clones” has some absolutely wonderful moments. Obi-Wan’s “You don’t want to sell me death sticks, you want to go home and rethink your life” may be the best instance of Jedi mind tricks in the entire series, and Yoda’s lightsaber duel with Count Dooku is fantastic. The growing menace of a Clone War shades the film with a perfectly eerie sense of foreboding, and the march of the clone army with Vader’s theme at the end is perfect.
5. “Episode III: Revenge of the Sith”
“Revenge of the Sith” aims for the classic tragedy — familiar as Oedipus — where the hero risks everything to avoid a horrible future, only to bring it to pass through his own efforts. Haunted by a glimpse into the future –Padmé’s death in childbirth — Anakin gives up his very soul to save his wife, and ends up dooming her to her fate.
As in “Attack of the Clones,” weak dialogue and character development plague “Revenge of the Sith.” The film presents Anakin’s difficult position well — his concern for his secret wife (Jedi are not allowed to get married) conflicts with his loyalty to the Jedi Order, even as his ambition to become a Jedi Master conflicts with his loyalty to Chancellor Palpatine (who is the Dark Lord of the Sith). Events force the hero to choose his wife and Palpatine over the Jedi Order, a decision which costs him Padmé’s and nearly his own life.
The story works, but the pacing fails spectacularly. Mere moments pass between Anakin’s action of incredible loyalty to the Jedi — revealing Palpatine as a Sith Lord — and his oath to destroy the order completely. While Palpatine tells Anakin, “Do not hesitate — show no mercy — only then will you be strong enough with the dark side to save Padmé,” it does not follow that the former Jedi would so quickly turn to kill other Jedi without any strain of conscience.
When Anakin does become a Sith, his expressions from the Dark Side sound more like the mewling protestations of a frustrated teen, rather than the cunning dictates of a forceful villain. Anakin laughably tells Obi-Wan, “I have brought peace, justice, freedom, and security to my new empire,” then warns, “don’t make me kill you.”
The worst dialogue in the entire series then commences: “If you’re not with me, then you’re my enemy!” Obi-Wan responds — to the confusion of everyone. “Only a Sith deals in absolutes. I will do what I must.” Isn’t it an absolute to kill a Sith? Anakin cockily responds, “You will try.” Then comes a tremendous lightsaber battle — one of the best action sequences in all Star Wars, but one completely devoid of compelling dialogue. It’s evil Anakin against good Obi-Wan, no questions asked as to why or what they’re really fighting about. Action for action’s sake.
Nevertheless, “Revenge of the Sith” features some fascinating world building — from the Nordic landscape of the Wookiee planet Kashyyyk to the volcanic Mustafar, which features the epic Obi-Wan/Anakin duel. While the destruction of the Republic comes off as trite (with Padmé’s “This is how liberty dies — with thunderous applause”), Palpatine’s use of senate platforms as weapons in his duel with Yoda is particularly apt.
4. “Episode I: The Phantom Menace”
Despite the much-lamented over-presence of Jar Jar Binks, “The Phantom Menace” has all the elements of a great Star Wars film. What it lacks in dialogue and character development (like the other prequels) it makes up for in world-building, political intrigue, and action sequences.
While “Revenge of the Sith” rushes Palpatine’s dissolution of the Republic into the Empire, “Phantom Menace” builds the political intrigue at the right pace, setting the stage for Palpatine’s power grab.
“Phantom” also sets up a fascinating political dynamic between the Naboo –Padmé’s people — and their quirky aquatic neighbors, the Gungans. A strong political alliance ensues, with a dash of good old-fashioned humor.
Good and evil, ironically, are clearer in “Phantom Menace” than in the other prequels, with Anakin and the Jedi wholly good and the Sith mysteriously (but wholly) evil.
“Phantom Menace” revolves around two central battles, much like “Return of the Jedi” before it. The first act closes with the fantastic pod race — a riveting galactic version of the Chariot Race in “Ben Hur.” The final battle features multiple conflicts happening simultaneously, with superb pacing. The heroes each win, but at a cost.
“Phantom Menace” is widely attacked for two good reasons. The character of Jar Jar Binks seems to serve no purpose except comic relief, and the heroes largely win due to luck rather than skill. While these are valid points, the movie’s action, non-Jar-Jar-related humor, and creativity well make up for them, and the victory of the underdog — even with a bit of luck — proves heartwarming.
3. “Episode IV: A New Hope”
From the chilling entrance of Darth Vader at the beginning to the triumphal march of Luke Skywalker and Han Solo at the end, “A New Hope” ranks as a true classic. Strong themes of good and evil complement the innovative action, all sprinkled with the comic relief of droids C-3PO and R2-D2.
The presence and character of Darth Vader embodies evil in a fantastic way with his famous, chilling force choke and his summary execution of underlings who “disappoint” him. Luke, by contrast, embodies the classic coming-of-age hero.
Dialogue in “A New Hope” proves far superior to the flimsy chatting of the prequel trilogy, especially Obi-Wan’s description of the lightsaber, “an elegant weapon for a more civilized age.” Even the banter between the skeptical pilot Han Solo and the willing believer Luke Skywalker proves superb: “there’s no mystical energy field controlling my destiny.”
“A New Hope” also captures the quintessential reason why good always defeats evil. Despite the seeming power of Vader and the Empire, Vader’s own pride leads him to make Obi-Wan “more powerful than you can possibly imagine,” and the Empire’s own bureaucracy enables the heroes to defeat it.
Despite his death, Obi-Wan returns in spirit to guide Luke — again showing how good triumphs over evil, which fails to understand it. Every moment in Luke’s attack on the Death Star is riveting, and each last-minute save stuns and impresses the audience.
2. “Episode VI: The Return of the Jedi”
“Return of the Jedi” delivers stunning action and compelling plot twists, but goes overboard on the reversals. Luke’s defeat of Jabba the Hutt proves fantastic, as does the Emperor’s plot toward the end. Only by becoming a full Jedi does Luke defeat the Emperor and save the Rebellion from near complete destruction.
Luke’s cunning defeat of Jabba the Hutt illustrates his power with the Force and features cool vignettes, like the enslaved Leia using her chain of bondage to strangle her master.
The elaborate traps of both the Rebellion and the Empire require careful attention from the audience, but prove quite stunning. Luke’s trust in his father, and the Rebels’ strategy seem naive at first, but once again, the Dark Side’s overreach and underestimation cause its ruin.
“Return of the Jedi’s” tandem battle — the archetype for “Phantom Menace” — also transfixes the audience, as the Emperor reveals his plot and tempts Luke to join the Dark Side of the force. Through the dialogue in Luke’s final battle with Vader, this movie captures the hero’s struggle when tempted by evil.
Only love can conquer evil. Luke’s moment of triumph — “you’ve failed, your highness. I am a Jedi like my father before me” — is not enough. It takes the Emperor’s act of killing Luke to redeem Vader and end the Dark Lord of the Sith.
With a thrilling chase, a dialogue-rich and meaningful final lightsaber duel, and the joyful celebration at the end, “Return of the Jedi” strikes a triumphant finish to the original trilogy. The complex plot and introduction of the Ewoks as a deus ex machina — an unlikely, somewhat manufactured explanation for how the heroes defeat the villains — weaken the film, but it only ranks second due to the superb nature of the best “Star Wars” film yet.
1. “Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back”
Almost every strength in “The New Hope,” “Empire Strikes Back” does better. From the frozen planet of Hoth to the swampy marshes of Dagobah to the warm, smoggy “Cloud City,” this Star Wars film creates new worlds — and makes each location not only packed with action and significance, but central to the plot.
On Hoth, the audience enjoys Luke’s brief battle with a snow monster and the epic speeder chase against Imperial Walkers. It is also on this icy planet that Leia delivers what might be the best line in the series, saying to Han, “Why, you stuck up, half-witted, scruffy-looking Nerf herder!” To which Han hilariously responds, “Who’s scruffy looking?!”
Han’s adventures in the Millennium Falcon also prove thrilling. He braves an asteroid field, spends time in the belly of a space beast, and hides the Millennium Falcon on an Imperial Star Destroyer. Han’s impertinence finally wins the heart of Leia, in a twist that makes immensely more romantic sense than Anakin and Padmé. “You like me because I’m a scoundrel. There aren’t enough scoundrels in your life.”
“Empire Strikes Back” provides further accentuation to Vader’s evil. Even after forcing Lando Calrissian to betray his friends, Vader declares “I am altering the deal — pray I alter it no further.”
Meanwhile, Luke’s training with the Jedi Master Yoda is fantastic. Yoda hilariously acts the part of an ignorant yokel to test the young adventurer, and Luke falls for it. Each training scene moves with purpose, as Luke learns of the force, confronts the specter of Darth Vader, and tries in vain to lift his spaceship from the swamp. The young hero’s decision to end his training early strikes the perfect note of defiance and loyalty to his friends which can doom many an idealist.
“Empire Strikes Back” culminates with the ultimate spectacle — the premature battle between Luke and Darth Vader. Vader powerfully uses the force to his advantage, proving the power of the Dark Side with every object he sends hurtling at Luke’s unsuspecting head.
The crown jewel of the battle and the film is the cunning twist: “I am your father!…Join me, and together we can rule the galaxy as father and son.” Luke’s unbelieving “Nooo!” is not denial, but acceptance, as he knows “it to be true.”
The Hoth battle, Han’s impressive flying, Yoda’s training, Vader’s prowess, and the final reveal make “The Empire Strikes Back” the unimpeachable best film of the trilogy — and the entire saga. While “Return of the Jedi” comes close, no film matches the simplicity and depth of this masterpiece. The reveal of Vader as Luke’s father still ranks as one of the best movie twists of all time.
Let us know what you think in the comments below!