Ranking the Star Wars films: Part 1

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Image: Lucasfilm
Image: Lucasfilm

6. Episode II: Attack of the Clones (2002)

For all of its faults, at least The Phantom Menace ended by setting up a lot of exciting threads for the rest of the series. Obi-Wan had taken on Anakin as his apprentice, and fans were eagerly anticipating the development of their relationship. What events would lead two great friends, once master and apprentice, mentor and chosen one, to engage in a fatal battle aboard the Death Star?

Attack of the Clones squanders all of that potential – the two discuss their adventures together woodenly at the beginning of the film, and are then separated for most of the running time. In several scenes that scream ‘filler’, Obi-Wan travels to Kamino, a cool, Apple Store-like planet to find out the origins of the Clone Troopers (ordered by Master Sifo-Dyas, apparently, a character never mentioned again in the films).

Meanwhile Anakin becomes involved in one of the all-time worst screen romances, frolicking around bad CGI environments with forbidden love Padmé. Terrible performances from Hayden Christensen and Natalie Portman, a complete chemistry void, and turgid dialogue from writer-director George Lucas, abound:

‘I don’t like sand. It’s coarse and rough and irritating and it gets everywhere. Not like here. Here everything is soft and smooth.’

Eurgh.

The film isn’t irredeemable however. Lucas had the sense to cast Christopher Lee, cinema’s ultimate geriatric badass, to bring gravitas to the role of villainous Count Dooku. John Williams’ fantastic score makes the romantic scenes just about bearable, and the arena fight that cuts them short is also spectacular – the only time in the franchise which shows mass Jedi battle scenes, as the sand pit dissolves into a flurry of lightsabers and lasers.

Unfortunately, what follows once the titular Clones arrive is a bland CGI skirmish between the new soldiers and battle droids. J.J. Abrams is partially missing the point when he champions practical effects for The Force Awakens – it’s not the CGI that’s offensive, but the lack of empathy for generic faceless characters fighting other faceless characters. Lucas and Abrams need to watch James Cameron’s Avatar, which gets FX onslaughts completely right because audiences actually care about the protagonists involved in them. Unfortunately what we are left with here is the most disappointingly wasted film in the series.

Image: Lucasfilm
Image: Lucasfilm

5. Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999)

Just a few of the things wrong with The Phantom Menace:

  1. A sleep-inducing credits teaser where the villains are embroiled in dastardly…tax disputes and trade wars.
  2. Battle droids, the least threatening fodder ever committed to screen.
  3. Annoying coincidences: Darth Vader built C3PO! R2D2 saved Obi-Wan!
  4. Midichlorians.
  5. The brilliant, intense Samuel L. Jackson reduced to sitting in a debate chamber conducting sombre discussions.
  6. Lifeless planets, from the people-free Naboo to surprisingly dead galactic hub Coruscant.
  7. Terrible Yoda puppet.
  8. Terrifying villain allotted about ten seconds of dialogue.
  9. ‘Meesa Jar Jar Binks. Meesa your humble servant’ – how to kill a franchise in a single line.
  10. The most anticipated film ever resulting in a painfully mediocre end product.

However, there are a lot of elements that film does gets right, for which it is not always given due credit. It captures the tone of A New Hope better than any other film in the prequel trilogy, with the scenes set on Tatooine in particular filled with genuine emotion, and evoking nostalgia in a way that feels earned.

The acting is also the finest of the prequels, with Ewan McGregor doing an excellent Alec Guiness impression as Obi-Wan Kenobi. Liam Neeson, playing both of his typecast roles as wise mentor and aging action hero, is also excellent as Qui-Gon Jin, whilst Pernilla August upstages most of the better-known actors as Shmi Skywalker, Anakin’s mother. Even Jake Lloyd isn’t terrible as Anakin (and better than his replacement in the next film), at least until the end when he lets loose with some irritating ‘yippees’ during the assault on the Trade Federation blockade.

Lucas also manages to create a number of iconic franchise moments that explain why, of the prequels, this has proven the most influential in popular culture. The use of the force here, for instance, is far cooler than in the original trilogy – the Jedi get to move fast as powerful warriors, rather than labour slowly around, using force runs and other tricks which simply couldn’t be realised onscreen sixteen years previously. The Ben Hur-inspired pod race is also breathlessly exciting, and the only time any of the planets in the film feel alive. The final lightsaber three-way between our heroes and the iconic Darth Maul is arguably the best in the entire franchise, thanks to balletic choreography, superb use of lighting, and John Williams’ ‘Duel of the Fates’ score.

Image: Lucasfilm
Image: Lucasfilm

Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (2005)

The first hour of Revenge of the Sith encapsulates all of the ineptitude of the prequels in one embarrassing onslaught. For starters, the first major space battle since the assault on the second Death Star is a confusing mess – after several viewings it is still almost impossible to tell who is fighting who. Once Anakin and Obi-Wan land on their targeted ship, the film falls further down the rabbit hole – battle droids are reduced even further to cringeworthy comic relief, talking in silly voices and slipping ‘hilariously’ over oil slicks. Count Dooku is then unceremoniously killed off, in a major anticlimax given his escape at the end of the last film. His replacement, General Grievous, turns out to be a rather gimmicky addition (four lightsabers!), and seeing him fight Obi-Wan is about as exciting as watching someone else play a videogame.

Christensen’s performance is also as bad as ever, and as such his conflict with the Dark Side falls somewhat flat. It says a lot when the best-acted sequence of the film is completely dialogue-free, a silent framing of Anakin brooding in his room, with a dark sense of foreboding. Ian McDiarmid’s Emperor becomes a pantomime villain, and in an otherwise quite dramatic scene set at an opera, resurrects the derided Midichlorians to explain the workings of the force.

However, once Lucas lets the final showdown begin, the second half of the film goes some way to redeeming the prequels. The infamous Order 66 is a superbly-directed, heart-breaking montage that heralds the end of the Jedi council, and echoes in the best way the final sequence from The Godfather. Fortunately the long-awaited duel between Anakin and Obi-Wan that follows doesn’t disappoint. Set against a suitably melodramatic volcanic landscape, it’s well-directed, and interspersed with some awesome scenes of jumping Yoda and the Emperor tearing up the Senate back on Coruscant.

The film ends on a high, with a series of fan service sequences as elements setting up the next film fall into place. C3PO and R2D2 are stowed away on Captain Antilles’ ship, Luke and Leia are separated and taken to remote parts of the galaxy, and Obi-Wan becomes a recluse in the desert, the final shot set against A New Hope’s binary sunset, as John Williams’ sweeping musical cue plays for supposedly the last time.

Check back soon for Part 2 of our countdown…

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