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My Master Ranking of Star Wars Movies and TV Shows

I haven’t written anything in this space for quite some time.  I’ve been occupied with other writing projects.  That said, let’s get back into the swing of this movie/tv blog with a master ranking of all Star Wars movies and TV shows!  Only canonical ones, that is, I won’t be ranking the Star Wars Holiday Special here.

The Landmark Motion Pictures

  1. 1. Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back

It’s important to remember how little experience movie audiences had with serial sequel films back in 1980.  The Godfather Part II (1974) received well-deserved critical and commercial accolades, but most sequels at the time were self-contained episodes rather than the continuation of the story from the previous film, like the James Bond films.  If Irvin Kershner’s film had not successfully built upon the characters established in Star Wars, we probably would not have the rich tapestry of serial “franchise” films we have today.

  1. 2. Star Wars (Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope)

Watch the documentary “Empire of Dreams” and you’ll see that it’s a miracle that Star Wars worked out at all.  Star Wars is a landmark in cinema history, unleashing the power of the innovative technology to push the medium of film forward.

Star Wars Rocks on Television

  1. 3. Star Wars: Rebels

It took me a long time to watch Rebels, but I was blown away. To summarize, it combines the rich characterizations of the Original Trilogy with the detailed worldbuilding of the Prequel Trilogy.  The result is one of the best animated television series I’ve ever seen.

  1. 4. Star Wars: The Clone Wars

I’m not counting the “Clone Wars” film, since it’s the pilot for the TV series (and a weak pilot at that).  The only knock on Clone Wars that keeps it ranked below Rebels is that Clone Wars takes a dozen episodes or so to really get going.  But after this week’s series finale, I’m motivated to revisit the entire series.  It’s the Prequel Trilogy as it should have been.

  1. 5. The Mandalorian

If you’re seeing a pattern, there’s a point.  It has become clear to me that television is a better medium for science fiction and fantasy storytelling than film.  The Mandalorian has the potential to move up this list, but for now, Season One plants it at number five.

Excellent Movies with One or Two Issues

  1. 6. Star Wars Episode 7: The Force Awakens

The Force Awakens is damn good.  The only flaw in this film is that its plot is derivative of the original Star Wars.  I don’t consider that much of an issue.  Many films have derivative plots.  Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade has almost the same plot as Raiders of the Lost Ark, for example.

  1. 7. Star Wars Episode 6: The Return of the Jedi

Look, I know plenty of Star Wars fans who would have this higher on the list, even number one.  It’s certainly a satisfying conclusion to the Original Trilogy.  For me, they spend way too much time in Jabba’s Palace before the actual story gets going.

The Stand-Alone Films

  1. 8. Rogue One

Rogue One is the only completely self-contained Star Wars movie, since Solo is the origin story of an existing character.  It is a solid film which lends interesting detail to the background soldiers of the Original Trilogy. I considered ranking it higher, but I simply like the aforementioned shows and movies more.

  1. 9. Solo: A Star Wars Story

Every time I watch this film, the more I like it.  There’s always a bit of a “so what” aspect to many prequels. Ron Howard’s film is well crafted enough that, even if it’s a bit unnecessary from an overall story perspective, it is exceedingly entertaining and just plain fun.

Couldn’t Quite Stick the Landing

  1. 10. Star Wars Episode 9: The Rise of Skywalker

I still have not read a single “think piece” or review about this film (although I’ve seen snippets of commentary and I listened to a podcast that didn’t hate it).  I have my own opinion, and I’m sticking to that.  It is an exceedingly entertaining film.  That said, it tries to cram two movies worth of plot and character beats into one movie, so it could have used more breathing space.  However, in his defense, J.J. Abrams had few other good choices.  He had to craft a compelling, epic conclusion to a nine movie, high fantasy story right after Rian Johnson had gleefully set fire to most of the high fantasy elements.  Episode 9’s biggest problem is Episode 8.

  1. 11. Star Wars Episode 3: The Revenge of the Sith

I’ve always been a defender of Episode 3.  I maintain that if all the prequels were as good as Episode 3, it would be a completely different conversation.  That said, it has glaring problems. First, it’s hard to see Darth Vader as redeemable after he murders children.  Second, Lucas should have made it crystal clear that Vader kills Padme, because it reads as “she dies of a broken heart,” not “she dies because she was force choked and only had enough life force left to give birth.”  Third, it has its share of clunky dialogue.  Other than that, it’s a pretty solid movie.

Not Quite Dumpster Fires

  1. 12. Star Wars: Resistance

Resistance isn’t bad so much as it’s just disappointing.  Rebels and Clone Wars set a high standard for Star Wars animation. Resistance belongs on Saturday morning in the 1980’s.

  1. 13. Star Wars Episode 8: The Last Jedi

I’ve come fully around on Episode 8.  I used to defend it, but I’m done.  Episode 8 doesn’t work because: 1) it’s a “bottle episode” in the middle of what’s supposed to be an epic; 2) it “subverts” the wrong things (like Luke Skywalker’s entire character arc from the Original Trilogy); 3) it contains plot and worldbuilding holes that pull the viewer out of the world; and, perhaps worst of all 4) it writes the Sequel Trilogy into a corner so constrained that it negatively affects the quality of the following chapter.

Dumpster Fires

  1. 14. Star Wars Episode 2: Attack of the Clones

Episode 8 might have problems, but at least it’s a watchable film.  I often go back and forth with which movie is worse between Episode 1 and 2.  Despite its pacing issues, horrid dialogue, and creepy “romance,” Episode 2 at least has good set pieces.  In fact, if we follow Obi-Wan’s story and ignore Anakin’s, it’s actually pretty decent.  The problem is that the film’s structure is “A plot, B plot,” and the Obi-Wan story is clearly supposed to be the B plot.

  1. 15. Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace

The only reason redeeming quality of Episode 1 is the lightsaber battle at the end.  Otherwise, it is an unrelenting malformation of cinema filled with crude stereotypes, bad jokes, and spending so much time on its setting that it forgets to tell a compelling story.  Anakin, of course, is played by a child actor that did not want to be there.  Even well crafted set pieces like the podracing scene lack tension because, c’mon, we know Anakin is going to win.

(c) 2020 D.G. McCabe

 

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Star Wars: The Last Jedi: A Full Analysis Part 2

Since I wrote Part One of my analysis of The Last Jedi, I have done two things.  First, I saw the film a second time.  Second, I re-watched Rashomon (1950).  This has sharpened my view of the movie.  While I initially lauded it as a masterpiece, I’ve dialed that back some.  It is still a very, very good movie, probably the third best Star Wars movie.  But it is an imperfect film, so calling it an unequivocal masterpiece is misleading.

None of The Last Jedi’s flaws particularly bother me, but that does not mean they aren’t present.  Most feel nit-picky to me.  One example is how the film hand-waves away several of the science fiction elements.  Star Wars has never been science fiction – its proper genre is fantasy.  Still, it made some viewers wonder why, for example, a hyper-drive collision hadn’t been used more frequently if it could destroy several ships at once.

The one problem that’s hard to explain away has to do with the characterization of Luke Skywalker.  The film doesn’t do a great job of explaining why Luke wouldn’t have tried to deal with Kylo Ren before going into exile.  The closest to a reason that we get from him is when he tells Rey, “What do you expect me to do? Grab a laser sword and take on the entire First Order by myself?”  Luke has concluded that trying to deal with his nephew would lead to nothing but certain doom.  But why?

I didn’t need to know exactly what happened that made him so jaded – the failure of everything he had fought for was enough of a reason for me.  I also can excuse a lack of exposition in an already jam-packed film.  The counter-argument is that this isn’t Snoke we’re talking about – a character who we didn’t really need a backstory beyond “stock dark-side villain.”  Luke Skywalker is the central character in the Star Wars saga and a film should describe his motivations clearly enough that everyone understands them.  If The Last Jedi did not universally accomplish this clarity, that is a flaw.  But how serious of a flaw is it?

Compare, if you will, The Last Jedi to a nearly flawless film, Rashomon.  Rashomon may be known for its unforgettable images and non-linear storytelling, but at its base it is an extremely well constructed film.  Akira Kurosawa gives us just enough plot and characterization to accomplish his storytelling goals, nothing more.  This limits distraction and allows the audience to be fully immersed in four different versions of the same story.  For example, the audience doesn’t even suspend its disbelief to question why everyone in the story takes a medium speaking for a dead samurai seriously.

The Last Jedi is a well made film, but it is not economical in the same way that Rashomon is.  One could argue that The Last Jedi needed to walk a tightrope between viewer reactions ranging from “this is like the boring, blah, blah, blah from the prequels,” and “we demand more world-building.”  That equates the amount of backstory with economy, but less backstory doesn’t cause a movie to be economical in the same way that Rashomon is.  You need enough backstory to keep the audience from questioning the movie in the middle of the experience, and The Last Jedi does not do this for a good chunk of its audience.

Kathleen Kennedy and her team at Disney are terrified of the prequels, and with good reason.  The first two are bad movies, full stop.  The third is okay, but still disappointing, and not a good enough film in its own right to overcome the problems of the Episodes I and II.  I can understand erring towards annoying the “we demand more world-building” people by cutting exposition, but sometimes you need backstory to make sure that your story is universally understood enough to keep its audience immersed in it.  A more economical movie would understand this – and to some extent this is a problem in the Force Awakens too.  We shouldn’t need to read a tie-in book to know what the difference between the New Republic and the Resistance, for example.

That brings me to why the lack of backstory in The Last Jedi isn’t a fatal flaw in the same way that the flaws of Episode I and II destroy those movies.  The information that The Force Awakens leaves out is available in tie-in books.  If we didn’t know about that information then, we know it now.  The Last Jedi will get its share of tie-ins too, which will fill in some of the missing worldbuilding and potentially clarify Luke’s characterization to viewers who wanted more information.

If this is Disney’s scheme to sell more books, comics, and video games,  so be it – film has always been a commercial artform.  But this isn’t a problem in the Original Trilogy and that made plenty of tie-in loot.  If it is going to be Disney’s strategy going forward to play loose with economical storytelling in order to sell side-content, this will prevent its films from being great movies like Rashomon.

(c) 2018 D.G. McCabe