Thursday, December 22, 2016

Ranking the Star Wars films

Putting things in order is one of the most predictable habits of the common garden nerd, and one of which I'm not actually that fond, but I thought it would be amusing for me to "rate" the Star Wars films that currently exist in order, much as I "rated" the Doctors from Doctor Who some years ago, in terms of my personal preference. This should be noted: I am not by any means trying to rank these films in any kind of "objective" order based on a close and detailed study of filmmaking, because I'm not well informed about filmmaking. This order, rather, is from the film I like the least to the one I like the most. Like my list of Doctors, I'll also do it in "tiers", so you can imagine that groups of films are ordered as well. My reason for this is that I think that films made in the same era are more comparable than those made well apart, and because I think the Star Wars franchise currently lacks any substantial outliers which would make this not work.

Tier 3 (Bottom Tier): The Prequels

10. Episode III – Revenge of the Sith

You can read my thoughts here for why I think Revenge of the Sith is the worst Star Wars film. The main reasons, put simply, are because I think it looks horrible, it's poorly conceived and structured, and it features weak performances. I can't abide the overly-crisp, clean CGI look of everything, such as the opening battle and the clone troopers. I abhor the character of General Grievous, who is an unnecessary and stupid villain, and am consistently frustrated by how much time the film wastes on him and how absurd it is to kill off Christopher Lee's Dooku in the opening scene. Ewan McGregor is completely phoning it in as Obi Wan and Ian McDiarmid's extraordinarily hammy performance as Palpatine is cringeworthy. I really don't like this film at all.

9. Episode II – Attack of the Clones

This film is boring. That's the first and most vital thing that needs to be said about it. It's slow and dull. I'm not just talking about the ineptly-written romance scenes. I'm also talking about, for instance, the weightless and unbelievable CGI chase sequences and battle sequences, especially at the end. As is always said, Anakin is annoying and unsympathetic, with cringeworthy dialogue, while Christopher Lee brings presence but cannot redeem the weak and unbelievable script. Like Revenge of the Sith this also suffers from looking completely fake. Perhaps the only thing that elevates this above Episode III is that McDiarmid's performance is more restrained and it has Christopher Lee and not General Grievous, although there still isn't enough of Lee. The soundtrack also has at least one memorable new tune, "Across the Stars". Returning to negatives, however, I also dislike the depiction of the Clone Wars as clones versus droids, and this film establishes a trend continued in Episode III and the animated series of depicting a universe that I simply can't believe is the same one that is featured in the originals because of how it looks and feels.

8. Episode I – The Phantom Menace

This film is also very boring, being extremely poorly paced with weak direction that derives very unengaging performances from much of its main cast, but I've always been marginally more forgiving of Episode I than the other two. I still don't like the Trade Federation, including both the annoying Nemoidians and the lame battle droids, or the extremely tiresome podrace, but this is one in which I somewhat appreciate the depiction of a world we didn't get to see in the Originals. Naboo shows us a more "civilised" part of the galaxy without being too busy; I can almost see it fitting into the same universe. Of course the problem of an overly busy setting instantly occurs when we go to Coruscant, which always annoys me because I think "Why did we never see Coruscant in the Originals?" Jar Jar is annoying, but I've never found him that annoying; young Anakin is annoying too, but I find him to be less cringeworthy than teenage Anakin. I kind of like Ewan McGregor in this as Obi Wan before he's turned into more and more of a buffoon in the subsequent films, although like all the others his performance suffers from uninspiring direction. Also, while I think that the character of Qui Gon didn't need to exist, Neeson and McGregor make for more watchable leads than McGregor and Christensen in the subsequent films. Even though he's a complete waste, Darth Maul is kind of visually interesting. One of the biggest problems with this is how unnecessary it is, but the biggest problem is the poor pacing. The podrace is far too long, and is completely uninteresting, and too much time is spent with characters tiresomely planning things and discussing them rather than actually doing them, which doesn't work when the stakes are so low and the characters are uninteresting.

Tier 2 (Mid Tier): The Disney Films (so far)

7. Rogue One

In my "Initial Impressions" post I pointed out that I think Rogue One, in contrast to all the praise it's getting, is quite a dull film. My main problem with it when I saw it, and a problem I still feel now, is that the main protagonists are not very interesting and engaging, and I didn't care about them. That's my immediate reaction. There's some decent enough action, and some of the fan service is successful while some isn't. CGI Grand Moff Tarkin looks weird, but I like the inclusion of the character. Vader looks and sounds off, but again I like the inclusion of the character. Jyn Erso and her gang I simply didn't find interesting enough; we're offered a few scraps like Cassian's remark about his life in the rebellion and Bodhi's character development, but I found it insufficient. I mostly kind of enjoyed K-2SO and Chirrut because their pronounced traits gave me something to latch onto, but they were just supporting characters. Jyn and Cassian needed more. All that being said, I can't rate Rogue One lower than any of the Prequels because, even though it suffers from one problem they also have, being boring, this has far less cringe and overall it's more competently made.

6. Solo

Solo is a mediocre film which suffers clearly and obviously from extensive reshoots and rewriting, creating an inconsistent-feeling product, but it's better than Rogue One by virtue of being simply more fun and entertaining and taking itself less seriously. While Rogue One is an empty, hollow film pretending to be profound, Solo is just a romp with no pretensions to the contrary. While it is hindered by a meandering plot (the train job could be excised with no impact on the story) and having too many characters (Val, Rio and L3 serve little purpose), the performances are largely watchable even though the lighting at times is dark and muddy. Ehrenreich and Glover stand out as Han and Lando. While I can't really see this as Han Solo's actual backstory, and while in many respects it actually fails as an exploration of who the character might have been before his development in the original Star Wars, it's diverting enough.

5. Episode VII – The Force Awakens

The Force Awakens has a lot of problems, largely being the laziness of the plotting and some unnecessary CGI. If this film had replaced Maz Kanata with something else, had Snoke as an actor in makeup rather than a fake-looking CGI character, scrapped the rathtar sequence and replaced Starkiller Base with a plot point that wasn't just another Death Star, it'd be a much better film. It also suffers from having a somewhat weak soundtrack lacking in memorable new tunes. All that being said, what elevates this substantially above Rogue One in my opinion is that I personally found the characters to be far more likeable and interesting, particularly Rey, but also Finn and Poe. Finn is probably the weakest of the new characters as he's used too much for comic relief, but overall I find the characters sufficiently entertaining to watch. I also think that the film is visually fairly pleasing in terms of its cinematography, colouring and the like. It's a somewhat decent piece of action sci-fi cinema let down by a number of annoying elements.

4. Episode VIII – The Last Jedi

Despite the frenzied, over-the-top online backlash, The Last Jedi is at least half of an interesting film, albeit grafted to, in my opinion, a rather boring film. Almost everything that happens with Luke Skywalker, Rey and Kylo Ren in this film functions as a fairly interesting character study, exploration of the themes of the franchise as a whole, and effort to take things in a new direction. Unfortunately, this is lumbered by the distracting plots involving Poe, Finn and Rose. While I think, arguably, these plots serve the same thematic interest of the film as a whole, they're so clumsily-presented, and so awkwardly intercut-with and so much less interesting than the other half of the film that they become doubly frustrating to watch in comparison to the rest. That's what I think The Last Jedi's biggest problem is: in its desperation for absolute thematic consistency at every level it over-intellectualises itself to the point at which its ideas become obscured and inscrutable. That being said, everything involving Luke, Rey and Kylo is so stylishly-presented and so much more interesting than anything in The Force Awakens that for me it has to take the top spot of the Disney-era films thus far.

Tier 1 (Top Tier): The Original Trilogy

3. Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back

The received wisdom is that this is the best of the Star Wars films, but it's not my favourite of the original trilogy. I still like it a lot and think from a technical standpoint it's probably the strongest. It also has a number of classic sequences. Things like Han being frozen in Carbonite, Vader force-choking Admiral Ozzel, the AT-AT assault and of course the final duel are all extremely well realised. Yoda is a particular highlight, benefiting from a superb performance both vocally and in terms of puppetry by Frank Oz. The reason this one isn't my favourite is because at times I feel like it's just a little bit too slow, particularly the opening sequence up until Luke's rescue and some of the scenes when the Millennium Falcon is hiding in the asteroid belt. I also think that the development of the characters and progression of the story is just a touch more understated than is effective, because to me the "failure" of the characters in this one could be a touch more prominent in its representation. I'm sure there are plenty of arguments for why the "craft" of this film is the best; my personal reaction to the film is simply not quite as high as many people's is. That being said, it also has a terrific soundtrack and the all-time great moment of Vader revealing that he's Luke's father. This is the film that made Star Wars what it is today.

2. Episode VI – Return of the Jedi

In some respects, Return of the Jedi is my "favourite" Star Wars film because I greatly enjoy Luke's character development in this one, as he becomes a more confident character with greater wisdom. The scenes with Luke, Vader and the Emperor are classic, as is Luke's initial confrontation with Vader on Endor. I also rather enjoy all the puppetry used in the opening act of the film at Jabba's Palace, which is convincing and amusing, although I'm not the biggest fan of the rancor fight. The film's biggest weaknesses, obviously, are the Ewoks and the fact that Han and Leia have nothing to do as characters. I don't hate the Ewoks. I just think they go a little too far, and the earlier idea of setting that part of the film on Kashyyyk with the Wookiees would have been much better. The Battle of Endor, however, is my favourite space battle sequence of the films. Overall, I think this one could have been better in some respects, but is elevated by some extremely strong aspects, the most important of which being that it gives a satisfying ending to Luke's story.

1. Star Wars (or Episode IV – A New Hope)

Star Wars (or A New Hope if you prefer) isn't strictly my favourite but at the same time I think it's the most consistently enjoyable of the Original Trilogy. It has good music, good effects and engaging, likeable characters. The opening sequence is exciting, Luke's journey as a hero is a classic tale, the stuff aboard the Death Star is very fun and the final battle, featuring superb model shots and Vader himself manning a TIE Fighter to take the combat to the Rebels is all extremely entertaining. What I think elevates this film above the others in the Original Trilogy is that in addition to our consistent cast of Luke, Leia, Han and Vader (plus R2-D2, C-3PO and Chewie), this one also features Peter Cushing as Governor Tarkin and the largest role in the trilogy for Alec Guinness as Obi-Wan. These two bring an extremely watchable level of old-school class to the film that you don't get anymore and just elevates it slightly above the other two in my view.

One thing that has greatly improved my experience and enjoyment of the Original Trilogy is the release of the "Despecialized Editions" of the films, and I would highly recommend watching them if possible. I personally think that these are the best way to view the original films and appreciate their achievements and best qualities without the distraction of elements changed or added later.

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