DARKE COUNTY — Star Wars, Episode VII: The Force Awakens will debut in American theaters beginning December 18.
The prospect of a new film trilogy both thrills and terrifies Star Wars fans. Will it be a great new chapter in the ongoing space saga, or a floppy-eared failure? We will find out soon enough.
For the benefit of those those who haven’t seen the prior movies, here’s a recap of the first six films of the series, ranked from best to worst. (Warning: Spoilers Ahead)
1) Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980) is the best film of the series, without question. It is the undisputed king of sequels and is a contender for greatest film of all time — the perfect blending of action, drama, romance and science fiction in cinema. From beginning to end, everything that went right for the Rebel Alliance in Episode IV seems to go wrong in Empire. At any given point in the film, audiences plausibly believed the good guys really could lose this thing. Let’s review:
• Luke barely survives being thrashed by a Yeti-like Wampa.
• The Rebels get hounded from their secret base on ice planet Hoth.
• Han Solo, Chewbacca, Princess Leia and C-3PO are relentlessly pursued by Imperial forces through an asteroid field because the Millenium Falcon’s hyperdrive is kaput.
• Luke sinks his X-Wing fighter in a swamp on Dagobah and meets up with Yoda, who is reluctant to train him as a Jedi.
• C-3PO gets dismembered by pig-nosed Ugnaughts and spends the tail end of the film being carried around in a bag.
• Solo, Leia and the gang are betrayed to the Empire by Han’s erstwhile friend Lando Calrissian.
• Darth Vader tortures Han Solo, has him frozen in carbonite, and then hands him over to bounty hunter Boba Fett.
• Luke gets his hand sliced off, then finds out the galaxy’s most-feared villain is his father.
By the end of the film, the group (sans Han Solo) finds safety aboard a Rebel medical frigate. C-3PO is reassembled, Luke gets a new robotic hand and Lando and Chewbacca head off to find their carbonite-encased buddy.
Maybe the only “bad” thing about The Empire Strikes Back is that it encouraged Hollywood movie studios to believe that every moderately successful film needs a sequel. (I’m looking at you, The Matrix Reloaded).
2) Episode IV: A New Hope (1977) was the one that started it all. Released in May 1977, Star Wars was not only a blockbuster hit, it became a cultural phenomenon. For those of us who saw the film in the theaters during its original run, a kindred fellowship exists.
The moniker “A New Hope” was a later addition to the film, derived from the opening space scroll at its opening scene. Originally, the movie was merely titled “Star Wars.”
Episode IV introduced a refreshing new lexicon to moviegoers: Jedi, light saber, Wookie, droid, Jawa, Death Star, and perhaps most importantly, The Force.
The themes explored by the movie are multifold: a young man’s coming of age, the victory of good versus evil, trusting in something greater than yourself, heroism, loyalty, perseverance, sacrifice. A New Hope has it all.
As well, the special effects were, for its time, extraordinary and unprecedented. Filmgoers felt like they too were skimming the surface of the Death Star, seeking to drop photon torpedoes in the battle station’s thermal exhaust port.
Anyone alive who has not yet seen A New Hope has not yet lived. And don’t let subsequent, revised versions of the movie fool you: Han shot first.
3) Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (2005). Among hardcore Star Wars fans, there is little deviation from the opinion that Episodes IV and V are the cream of the crop. Below those two, however, opinion varies.
I’m plugging Revenge of the Sith into the number-three slot. It isn’t because Episode VI: Return of the Jedi is a bad film, but more because Episode III features a superb performance by Ian McDiarmid as the Emperor Palpatine.
Those who saw Episodes IV through VI knew exactly where this was going: The Emperor would, indeed, lure Anakin Skywalker to the dark side of The Force. The most intriguing and entertaining element of this film, in my opinion, is Palpatine’s final transformation into the Emperor. McDiarmid’s portrayal is scary mesmerizing.
Obi-Wan Kenobi’s duel with Anakin was enjoyable to watch, putting an end to speculation about how Luke’s dad ended up in the iconic black armor. But seeing Palpatine reveal his true self, pulling out that red light saber, offing four Jedi (including Mace Windu), triggering Order 66, then squaring off with Yoda in the Senate chambers? That’s magic.
Emperor Palpatine is pure evil and we’re inexplicably drawn to this cackling, perverse, wretched monster of a man. Perhaps it speaks ill of humanity that we enjoy it so.
4) Episode VI: Return of the Jedi (1983). Let’s get this out of the way first: I don’t hate Ewoks. Do I believe the little balls of fur would stand any chance against blaster-armed Imperial stormtroopers in a real-life scenario? Nope. Do I think they add anything of importance to the plot of the film? Not really. But as my wife pointed out, she loved the Ewoks when she saw the movie as a child, and if it draws in the younger set to the goodness that is the greater Star Wars universe, so be it.
In some ways, Episode VI is a repeat of Episode IV. The Rebel Alliance must find a way to destroy the Empire’s new Death Star. Anyone walking into the theater knew it would go “KABOOM!” at the end. However, the film is really about redemption. First, the redemption of Han Solo from the clutches of Jabba the Hutt. Second, the redemption of Luke from his impetuous, reckless failures in Empire. Mostly, it is about Darth Vader’s final redemption from the dark side of the Force.
More than anything, Return of the Jedi is a wrapping up of loose ends. Sometimes that’s good enough.
5) Episode II: Attack of the Clones (2002). I tried really hard to like this film. After Phantom Menace (more on this below), I was hoping for some better acting, or at least that the filmmaker could make the two lead characters likeable. This is where Clones fails.
The romance angle between Padme (Natalie Portman) and Anakin (Hayden Christensen) was a necessity to the furtherance of the story, lest there be no Leia and Luke down the road. But it’s cold and wooden. Other than his over-the-top, puppy-dog protectiveness and his skill with a light saber, what in the world does Padme see in him? Anakin was annoying as a kid and he is annoying as a teen. I had real difficulty relating to these characters, despite myself having once been an annoying kid and an annoying teen.
Ewan McGregor’s take on the maturing Obi-Wan Kenobi is watchable. Seeing Samuel L. Jackson’s Mace Windu lop off bounty hunter Jango Fett’s helmeted noggin is memorable. The Yoda light saber duel with Count Dooku was admittedly satisfying. Overall, though, the heavily contrived Padme-Anakin relationship sucks what is good right out of this film.
6) Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999). Star Wars fans patiently waited 16 years to see the prequel films of the series. Their reaction can largely be summed up in three words: “Jar Jar Binks.”
I’ll try to be fair here. Like the Ewoks in Episode VI, Jar Jar was intended to engage children. Fine, we understand that. But his clownish buffoonery grew tiresome within minutes of his introduction and his barely decipherable mish-mash of a language didn’t win him favors, either.
Possibly even more annoying than the “Gungan Menace” was young Anakin Skywalker, portrayed by Jake Lloyd. Who? Yes, Jake Lloyd. The name not sound familiar? In contrast to Episode IV, where every cast member quickly became household names, the young actor’s portrayal of the future Jedi knight was so obnoxious, Star Wars fans have banished him from their collective memory.
Filmgoers are often called upon to suspend their disbelief. However, no one was buying that snotty little Anakin was going to survive a shootout in space in the cockpit of an under-gunned Naboo starfighter, much less single-handedly knock out the Federation control ship, thus ensuring victory on the planet’s surface. Jar Jar as a general was more feasible.
Watch the film, if for no other reason that to see the origins of the story at large. On repeated viewings, however, save yourself time and skip ahead to the light saber fight pitting Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi versus Darth Maul.