Presented here in the Star Wars story chronology, not that it really matters.
Star Wars I: The Phantom Menace
1999, Lucasfilm Ltd.
Where oh where do I begin with Phantom Menace? We all know what a struggle it was for George Lucas to realize his vision for the first film, which technically was the first of the middle trilogy—whatever. We all know the resounding, industry-changing, financial universe-altering success it turned out to be. So, what went wrong with his long-planned prequel? Before continuing, "wrong" must be qualified: whereas Menace was almost universally panned, and with good reason, it was still a massive financial blockbuster. This alone creates a logic-defyling paradox.
The original Star Wars was a compromise between Lucas and the studio. Consequently, its success must be viewed in that context. When Lucas arrived at a place in his universe where he could call all of the creative and financial shots, we got to see just how mediocre a filmmaker he really was: boring script, wonky casting, flat performances, and aimless direction. Not to mention one of the most annoying characters ever created: Jar Jar Binks. I really don't need to dig too deeply into its many salient problems; just search YouTube for Menace reviews, and you'll have more than enough honest, insightful analysis. Indeed, Lucas actually threatened one of the reviewers—hit a little too close to the mark there, George?
The only thing saving it from being utter CRAP? Stunning visuals. But, as I've said many times, effects alone do not a good film make—or even a MEH film, for that matter.
Star Wars II: Attack of the Clones
2002, Lucasfilm Ltd.
While Clones was an improvement over Phantom Menace, it was a barely measurable improvement. The nearly universally reviled Jar Jar Binks was replaced by the almost-as-annoying whiny Hayden Christensen as the future Darth Vader suffering through puberty and sharing absolutely zero chemistry—romantic or otherwise—with the uncharacteristically wooden Natalie Portman. Meanwhile, the legendary Christopher Lee was squandered.
Having learned nothing from the avalanche of harsh reviews earned by Menace, Lucas continued to pummel viewers with the painfully ponderous political "intrigue" (using that term with no conviction) between the Republic and the Jedi. The results feel like an empty excuse to play with lots of cool new CGI toys, leaving the viewer with no incentive to invest their emotions in any of the characters. All of which leaves us, once again, scratching our heads over Clones' obscene commercial success.
The only thing saving it from being utter CRAP? Even better visuals than before. But, at the risk of repeating myself, effects alone... And if I hear "I've got a bad feeling about this" one more time, I'm going to fly out to Skywalker Ranch and pull Lucas' fingernails out.
Star Wars: The Clone Wars
2008, Lucasfilm Ltd.
Welcome to the rock bottom of the franchise. George Lucas, in all of his misguided brilliance, deliberately chose to create a new, uniquely bad animation style: using high-end 3D technology to emulate the old, cheap Saturday morning cartoons. Yes, the awful-looking characters in Clone Wars were made that way on purpose. And that's just the beginning of the bad news... Lifeless voice acting. Wooden character animation. And an utterly abysmal script. The film has two modes of operation: long stretches of boring exposition alternating with really bad lightsaber battles. Lucas has succumbed to a terminal case of OCD over the minutiae of political machinations in his fantasy universe, as if everyone is clamoring for every tiny detail he makes up, when, in truth, we just want to be entertained, and detailed theses on play-pretend nonsense is not entertaining. Bottom line, Clone Wars was merely a teaser for an upcoming animated TV series—which, by the way, was every bit as awful as this wet fart.
Star Wars III: Revenge of the Sith
2005, Lucasfilm Ltd.
Once again, Lucas proves he alone regards himself as an accomplished filmmaker. Granted, if this is measured only in terms of revenue, then yes, he is. But when critical reviews of his efforts are objectively gauged, he's lost way back in the pack. With Revenge of the Sith, one might envision a maligned director flailing about in a vain attempt to defend himself—fans and critics be damned.
Sadly, Lucas exacerbated this image when fans voiced outrage over some of the changes he'd made to the original Star Wars, particularly the "Han shot first" controversy: he sternly advised his detractors that Star Wars was his property to do with as he saw fit. That's true from a legal standpoint; from a cultural standpoint, however, the spirit of the film, if you will, belongs to its audience. Tinker with it, and see how quickly your revenue stream can be impacted.
Well, bad reviews or not, Lucas' revenue stream remained solidly intact—merchandise licensing alone has generated multiple billions of dollars for him. So, he feels free, indeed justified, to produce whatever crap he chooses, and pass it off as worthwhile entertainment. But consider: We all knew the ending, so it's not like he was creating anything that would surprise us. Anyway, who in their right mind names a film Revenge of the Sith? Clearly Lucas didn't give jack about potential ticket buyers unfamiliar with the Star Wars universe—I mean, WTF is a Sith? I have but one quote from Revenge to summarize Lucas' so-called skills. Darth Vader: "Noooooo!"
And once again, the only thing saving it from being utter CRAP is a really cool light show. The only reason I can offer for having continued to watch Lucas-produced Star Wars movies is eternal hope for improvement. Well, so much for hope. The only saving grace is that Lucas has at last turned his empire's reins over to much more capable hands, as The Force Awakens has demonstrated.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
2016, Lucasfilm Ltd.
With his property now wrested from Lucas' greedy little hands, we get to enjoy some worthwhile entertainment from people who care as much about quality filmmaking as they do Star Wars. Yay.
That said, I'm not quite prepared to give Rogue One (which for some strange reason is considered a "Star Wars Story" as opposed to a full-fledged franchise entry—don't bother trying to explain why to me) a top score. To begin, it takes itself waaay too seriously. Remember, the original blockbuster that begat all of these descendants was cut from the same light fantasy cloth as Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon: Saturday popcorn fare, with villains to boo and heroes to cheer. Now we have grim, heavy war stories with which to contend.
But this is not to say Rogue One isn't enjoyable; quite the opposite. Perhaps its most rewarding quality is that it offers us a view of the Star Wars universe, however brief, through very a different prism. Supporting this intriguing new take is a solid cast delivering decent performances wrapped in sky-high production value, with truly outstanding effects that don't overwhelm the story the way they did in Lucas' godawful prequels.
Still, I must pick one more small bone: the best dramas are usually leavened with some humor. While Alan Tudyk is priceless as K-2SO—eliciting laughs through bone-dry, cynical wisecracks, which is refreshingly different from the whiny, increasingly annoying C-3PO—he's regrettably underutilized. [SPOILER ALERT: Do not continue if you're one of the five people left on the planet who hasn't seen it yet.] Sadder still, he'll not be seen again, exiting the universe far too soon in an awesome death scene that had me choked up. Seriously.
"And there's a fresh one for you if you mouth off again."
Star Wars IV: A New Hope
1977, Lucasfilm Ltd.
Note that I use the film's current "official" title grudgingly; in my heart—as I'm sure it does in countless others—it's still simply Star Wars, that fresh new ray of light that unexpectedly caused a tectonic shift in the film industry, set new box office records, and acquired a mind-bogglingly enormous fan base around the world. Not to mention it gave rise to the biggest merchandising take in history, making its creator one of the wealthiest filmmakers alive.
What can I say that hasn't been said, or reveal that hasn't been known, for decades? All I can do is reminisce about my own experiences. I feel fortunate for having been an adult when it was released; I had the unique opportunity of seeing it on a genuine big screen, at a time when smoking was permitted in theaters. This may sound bad, but the cigarette smoke actually made the film more spectacular: the lightsaber fights became three-dimensional, with streaks of light slicing through the theater from front to back. It was a genuine thrill.
Strange to think Lucas was so convinced he'd made a flop that he flew to some tropical island to escape the bad press. But then again, given how things went with his prequels, it may have been oddly prescient. And don't forget how Lucas went back and tinkered with his brainchild—more than once—in infuriating ways. Yes, Star Wars is his property, and he may do with it what he chooses, but to alter it with no regard for the fans he's acquired is short-sighted and contemptuous. Improving effects is one thing; changing the story is another. Han shot first, period.
Star Wars V: The Empire Strikes Back
1980, Lucasfilm Ltd.
I'll keep this brief, mostly because there's not much I can add to this film's appreciation. It's actually very slightly more popular than the original. The fact that it wasn't directed by Lucas, and only co-written by him, should provide a smidge of insight to Lucas' true talents—or lack thereof.
Meanwhile, sit back and enjoy the show. Just the chase through the asteroid field is truly the all-time best in its class.
Star Wars VI: Return of the Jedi
1983, Lucasfilm Ltd.
With Lucas back at the helm, the franchise began to strain and crack under ever-tightening chokehold; according to one story, he was unhappy with Empire, and claimed he wanted to "show everyone how it's done." While still an entirely enjoyable effects extravaganza, Return suffers from a lack of originality, sharing entirely too many plot devices with New Hope. Then there's the clumsy, heavy-handed dialog, performances too over-the-top even for Saturday afternoon popcorn fare, and sickeningly cute furball aliens taking on the evil stormtroopers (here playing Keystone Cops) with all-too predictable results.
But wait, it gets worse: don't forget the maddeningly wrong-headed move by Lucas to replace Sebastian Shaw with Hayden Christensen as Darth Vader/Anakin Skywalker in the revised final scene. Nearly as offensive as Han shot first.
Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens
2015, Lucasfilm Ltd./Bad Robot
After lying dormant for a decade, George Lucas' brainchild was dusted off and rebooted by J.J. Abrams and company at Disney, Lucasfilms' new owner. While I'm sure they were itching to make a few hundred million off of their new property, they showed respectable restraint and took their time creating a worthy successor.
While The Force Awakens was a massive financial success (in excess of $2 billion), it was not universally praised by critics and fans. Accusations that it was a remake, as opposed to a reboot, were chief among the complaints. And I cannot argue with this; the parallels with the original were patently obvious.
And you know what? I don't care. Abrams delivered such an outstanding film that it more than compensates for its shortcomings. Perhaps most significantly, it was unabashedly fun to watch. Remember fun? As in the original? It's a vital ingredient that was lost along the way as Lucas churned out more and more sequels and prequels.
While it's not without its flaws, it's still hard for me to run out of things I really like about it. Daisy Ridley is a knockout newcomer; watching Rey go toe-to-toe with Kylo Ren sends chills up my spine. Han Solo's death (oh, don't tell me you didn't know about this) is genuinely gripping, even upon repeated views. The visuals are all utterly flawless; the spaceship graveyard in particular is genuinely awe-inspiring. The breathless pace is maintained throughout, with battle sequences that succeed at raising one's pulse, all accompanied by one of John Williams' best scores to date. Plus, Abrams knows just how far to push BB-8's cuteness without becoming annoying.
I've watched it at least a few dozen times on disc—even the French and Spanish versions, just for giggles—which ought to indicate how deeply I'm hooked. It's given me hope that future entries in the franchise will be as lovingly and skillfully crafted. This is the way Star Wars ought to be, and I refuse to believe Lucas isn't secretly envious. (Well, maybe he isn't, in which case he's a total dick.)
Star Wars VIII: The Last Jedi
2017, Lucasfilm Ltd./Bad Robot
I was so looking forward to enjoying more of the quality Star Wars J.J. Abrams brought to us. And so I eagerly popped the disc in the player the afternoon it arrived. And as the film unwound, I became increasingly less satisfied. Don't get me wrong—it wasn't dissatisfying. It simply didn't stir the blood quite the way Force Awakens did. (I actually started to nod off at one point.)
Its greatest shortcoming, aside from star-destroyer-sized plot holes and markedly inconsistent character behavior, is being entirely too dark—this in spite of the fact that, in the extras, writer/director Rian Johnson insisted he'd created a "fun film." Uh-huh. When the only "fun" is the brief appearance of a cute new alien animal (the porgs), we're definitely way short on fun. Now more than ever I'm anxious to see Ron Howard's forthcoming Han Solo film; the previews look very promising indeed. If nothing else, it simply has to be more fun than this grim eulogy to Luke Skywalker.
One thing is certain, however: Mark Hamill has finally learned how to act! When Luke tells Rey he'd only ever seen that kind of raw power once before, he looked genuinely terrified. It sent a shiver down my spine. The visuals were, as to be expected, nothing short of spectacular, with Snoke being the single greatest example of performance capture yet to be realized. But, once again, great visuals alone do not make a great film; if that were true, plenty of flops spring to mind—Æon Flux, Ghost in the Shell and Valerian, to name just a few—that could be declared "great." I sure hope whoever gets the job to make Star Wars IX learns from Rian Johnson's galactic mistakes. Aside from effects, the only big plus I can award Last Jedi is that it's still way better than any of Lucas' prequels—although that's a pretty low bar to clear.
Copyright © 2017-2018 by David K. Smith. All Rights Reserved.