Click here for Part 1, as we order the saga from weakest to strongest
3. Episode VI: Return of the Jedi (1983)
‘I am a Jedi, like my father before me’
If Revenge of the Sith recovered from a dire opening to draw the series to a solid conclusion, Return of the Jedi fails to capitalise on an excellent set-up and drops the ball a little towards the end.
The opening set-piece, an audacious rescue mission to free Han Solo from carbonite, builds the tension nicely, until an eruption of brutal action on Jabba’s barge. The extended sequence plays host to a number of fan-favourite moments – Luke’s fight with the Rancor, Princess Leia’s gold bikini-clad struggle with Jabba the Hutt, and Boba Fett’s miserable end in the Sarlaac Pit.
Unfortunately the film then shifts tone into child-friendly silliness, as Luke, Han and Leia’s meet with the Ewoks of Endor – furry, teddy bear-esque creatures with an improbable resilience to Stormtroopers. For many, this marks the beginning of the end of Star Wars’ classic era, point at which narrative decisions began to be motivated by commercial, rather than creative, concerns.
They’re not the only regrettable aspect of the Endor sequences however – the revelation that Leia is Luke’s sister feels like a twist too far, and casts a dubious shadow over their kiss in A New Hope. The reveal also accomplishes nothing except to conveniently end the awkward love triangle between the protagonists, although hopefully Abrams will be able to realise the potential of Leia’s secret Jedi identity when Carrie Fisher returns for the next film.
However, Return of the Jedi manages to pull itself together for the final battle. The X-Wing dogfight may rehash A New Hope’s ending, but it nevertheless remains the series’ best space battle. Luke’s confrontation with Vader is tense and emotional, whilst Ian McDiarmid is a scene-stealer as the evil Emperor. The moment when he electrocutes Luke, prompting Vader to find the goodness inside himself and rescue his son, is solid gold cinema – Anakin’s character development is more believable in these heart-wrenching final minutes than it is in all three prequels. Ultimately this is The Dark Knight Rises of the original trilogy – despite some hiccups and questionable story developments, it serves as a thoroughly satisfying and dramatic finale. At least until Christmas 2015.
2. Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
‘Anger, fear, aggression; the dark side of the Force are they’
The best sequel ever made? I’d go with The Godfather: Part II, but this one cuts it awfully close, with a darker, more compelling and ambitious story than its predecessor.
Whereas A New Hope confines itself mostly to exploring Tatooine and the Death Star, Irvin Kirshner’s The Empire Strikes Back expands the universe significantly. We begin with Luke in a bad place on the ice planet of Hoth, and move through the galaxy – Luke meets sage, syntactically-challenged Yoda in the Dagobah swamps, whilst the Millenium Falcon escapes from living asteroids intent on devouring the ship, all while romance sparks between Han and Leia. Everyone reunites in the facile-seeming Cloud City, which harbours sinister new inhabitants…
Everything great about A New Hope is developed here – viewers hear the Imperial March for the first time, but even as Darth Vader’s character becomes a more unstoppable screen presence he begins to be humanised. First we witness Vader’s head without the mask, and then our jaws drop at the immortal twist, which in one line transforms the entire series from escapist space adventure to tragic family saga.
The battles are bigger and hold up better today than the original’s, particularly the AT-AT assault on Hoth, and Luke’s climactic fight with Vader. The lightsaber battle at the end of The Phantom Menace may edge it out on pure spectacle, but this is the more terrifying and exciting sequence, with so much at stake for the characters involved.
If the film has any flaws, it’s the rigidly episodic structure, which slightly hampers the flow of the narrative. Aside from that it’s difficult to pick faults with The Empire Strikes Back, the film that cemented the franchise’s place in cinematic history. However many subpar prequels and spin-offs are made, the pillars of the first two movies hold up the franchise indestructibly.
1. Episode IV: A New Hope (1977)
‘May the Force be with you’
A New Hope may not be the greatest movie ever made, but it is by far the most indelibly etched in the human consciousness. Children born since 1977 have been raised in a post-Star Wars world, where conversations are inflected with quotes and references, where religions and US missile defence systems are named after the film, where the Hollywood blockbuster, from Indiana Jones to Guardians of the Galaxy, has been forever shaped by its influence. As the late Roger Ebert once said, ‘George Lucas’ space epic has colonised our imaginations.’
The film takes the ancient, archetypal story – a young hero sets out from his home on a quest into the wider world, facing trials of good and evil – and clothes it in science fiction rags. We begin with an extended shot of a behemoth Star Destroyer, before following its droid stowaways down to the sand-swept Tatooine. It is here that we meet Luke Skywalker, who looks to the stars with powerful longing (a beautiful moment highlighted by John Williams’ best score), before discovering his extraordinary destiny.
To surround and support Luke, Lucas populates the world with some of cinema’s most memorable protagonists, from rogue adventurer Han Solo, to feisty Princess Leia, mysterious Obi-Wan Kenobi, bickering droids C3PO and R2D2, and the terrifying Darth Vader, whose presence onscreen portends doom for heroes and villains like. Vader possesses an aura matched only by a select group of cinematic antagonists – The Joker, Hannibal Lecter, Nurse Ratched – aided by his menacing black costume and helmet, imposing height, and thunderous voice (courtesy of the inimitable James Earl Jones).
Lucas’ direction conveys the wonder of space in a manner reminiscent of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, but whilst that film retained a clinical aesthetic, A New Hope’s world looks lived in – grimy, ravaged by events a long time ago…at the same time the planets are colourful and vibrant, filled with wonderfully-crafted aliens and droids. The scene when the heroes enter the seedy Mos Eisley Cantina is a veritable feast of inspired species design. Every other component of the universe, from the metallic corridors of the Death Star to the Millenium Falcon’s DIY architecture, is equally memorable. No wonder the internet got itself into a frenzy earlier this year when J.J. Abrams revealed just a small portion of the Falcon’s Force Awakens iteration.
Watching A New Hope in 2014, some of the effects are a little dated – the lightsaber duel between Obi-Wan and Vader is a notable disappointment in light of some of the fantastic choreography in the prequels – but that barely detracts from the sheer fun to be had viewing the film. It’s cheesy, but for every duff line (‘But I was going into Tosche Station to pick up some power converters!’) there’s a classic: ‘don’t get cocky, kid!’, ‘these aren’t the droids you’re looking for’, ‘I find your lack of faith disturbing’.
This is not just the best Star Wars film. It is one of the great cultural achievements of the 20th Century, a timeless story that has captivated generations of audiences, and will delight and thrill generations more.