The other day I was on Hollywood Boulevard for the red carpet premiere of Star Wars: The Force Awakens. I asked Oscar Isaac, who plays X-wing pilot Poe Dameron in the new movie, what makes Star Wars different from other movie franchises. “I think a sense of spirituality,” he said. “At the core of this is the idea of the Force. There’s more than what we see. There’s more than the material world.”
Minutes later, I was talking to Lawrence Kasdan, who co-wrote The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi, and now Force Awakens. He remembered working on those original movies, a long time ago. “It was all about fun,” he said. “It was about delight.”
The eternal Star Wars paradox, maybe: It’s very serious, and it’s very silly. It’s Joseph Campbell and it’s Flash Gordon. It’s a modern-world myth — a Heavy, Man oversoul post-religion assembled from hippie-era NorCal spirit vibes — and it’s a thrill-drunk carnival theme park. It’s an energy field created by all living things, binding the universe together, and it’s a piece of junk. (Doesn’t look like very much; got it where it counts.) It’s all about the Skywalkers, a family of sincere dreamers. Or it’s all about Han Solo, the rogue.
Thirty-eight years after the first Star Wars movie, a decade after we all saw the obviously bad Star Wars movies, pretty much everyone has thought about this franchise enough to come up with their Theory of What Makes a Good Star Wars Movie. Hell, George Lucas invented the whole idea of Star Wars, and I think the central anomaly of the thing confounded even him. In almost every film Lucas worked on after The Empire Strikes Back, the impulse toward kid-friendly action-figure wacky shenanigans runs right alongside a dual impulse toward monolithic self-serious messaging.
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Or this was just a George Lucas paradox. He has a story credit on the Ewok spinoff movies, Caravan of Courage and The Battle for Endor. The first one is a fantasy-genre rescue quest, with a shipwrecked brother and sister joining a Fellowship of Ewoks to save their parents. They do — and then Battle for Endor starts with mysterious new bad guys killing the parents and the brother and a flock of Ewoks. (Battle for Endor is the missing-link Alien 3 of Star Wars.)
You could argue that all this spirituality talk is just gilding. Maybe Star Wars is a monument to brilliant production design and kinetic special effects. (One of the most famous Star Wars characters ever, Boba Fett, is essentially a cool helmet with a jetpack.) Maybe Star Wars only really works when the characters can banter. (The best Star Wars movie is the one with all the funny lines.) Maybe Star Wars is a delivery system for John Williams music. Maybe it only really makes sense when you’re a kid.
Any ranking of the mainline Star Wars movies before this week was, spoiler alert, a ranking of two brilliant entertainments and four movies tied for distant third. The release of Force Awakens promises a new beginning for the saga. How does it stack up? Read on.
The worst Star Wars movie ever is a perpetual hot load of incoherent nonsense, which should be just a little fun. Here, you will find the forbidden love of a braid-haired space monk and a dethroned activist aristocrat. Here, a secret army of clones brewed from the genome of a paid assassin — an assassin who demanded, as payment, his own little clone-son. (When Boba Fett watches Jango Fett die, in the armor he will someday wear, isn’t he weirdly watching himself die?) Here, the chief executive of a peaceful democratic Republic conjures up a fake war. (Palpatine obeys vintage vampire rules of engagement: Democracy needs to invite tyranny in.) Here, Messiah figure kills the tribe of Indigenous archetypes who killed his virgin Madonna mom — kills the warriors, kills the women, kills the children — and declares war on death itself.
This all sounds ripped from the best sci-fi book cover ever. In practice, it’s the sloggiest of slogs, still the longest Star Wars movie and by far the most misbegotten. The Padme/Anakin plotline is a romance the way a screensaver is a movie. The waste of Christopher Lee is a federal offense. (“Count Dooku” is a low-point for names in this series.) The Yoda lightsaber fight looks cool but is an embarrassment. The movie equivalent of a Mid-Life Crisis Dad getting frosted tips and just one pierced ear.
Not even worthwhile to recite the liturgy of problems herein. Perhaps, for a moment, worth considering the curious merits of this, the last movie George Lucas made when everyone unequivocally believed in him. The Phantom Menace has the lowest stakes of any film in the franchise: A history book would record the events of Episode I as a minor matter of trade disputes. (This isn’t a war; it’s a police action.) Naboo is the loopiest of Star Wars planetscapes, a Greco-Japanese terranean Atlantis with two distinct stratified species and an undersea worldcore where there be monsters. What a wild offense, to make a movie where the entire second act is a long digression: “There’s a battle brewing, but damn it, this child must win this race!” “Duel of the Fates” is the most adventurous motif on any Star Wars soundtrack, John Williams doing Morricone.
It’s all terrible, of course. Jar Jar, terrible. Portman and Neeson, terrible. The hair, terrible. The Trade Federation, the Galactic Senate, the Jedi Council: terrible, terrible, terrible. Fascinating, though. At the height of his power, the Creator returned to his universe. Once, in that galaxy far, far away, he found warriors and scoundrels, rebel princesses and magician warlords. In Phantom Menace, it’s a galaxy of middlemen.
Like I said: At a certain point, they’re all tied for third. But do I promote Return of the Jedi just because it feeds directly into my own childhood nostalgia? Do my memories of loving the film then counterbalance the obvious stupidity I see now, the terrible instincts underlying every decision that made this movie, besides maybe the production design? Jabba’s Palace is the magnum-opus moment for makeup designer Stuart Freeborn, a parade of gorgeous monstrosities — but at a certain point, you start noticing that “Jabba’s Palace” is just one big room where actors yell at puppets. (You would notice this in the Mos Eisley Cantina, probably, if they spent half an hour in the Mos Eisley Cantina.)
Do we accept the repetition of Return of the Jedi as purposeful, or just lazy? After a second movie that expanded the Star Wars vision, here we retract. Back to Tatooine; another Death Star; another forest planet. Do you love Chewie? Here, have a couple dozen munchkin Chewies. Do you love Darth Vader? He’s a good guy now, eventually, just because. Leia is Luke’s sister — a twist that only makes sense if you accept that the Star Wars galaxy is much smaller than you ever thought. It’s hard to see now, when the original trilogy has blurred into our collective myth, but Jedi is the movie that introduces “cuteness” as a standard operating procedure.
Schadenfreude is a weird foundation for an adventure film. And, in fairness, probably nobody involved with Revenge of the Sith had enough sense of humor to get the dark joke powering the final prequel. Lucas finally settles on the idea that this has all been a political allegory: “This is how liberty dies. With thunderous applause.” It turns out Darth Vader, one of cinema’s great villains, Broke Bad in the silliest way possible. Bless Hayden Christensen for trying whatever he’s trying, but you reach a point in this movie where you realize he’s the galaxy’s greatest patsy, going down a bad road because he’s too dumb to notice when Space Hitler starts twirling his mustache.
But there is a real inadvertent appeal to Revenge of the Sith, which tears down everything that made the prequel movies so inconsequential. Anakin kills the Trade Federation, kills the younglings, winds up crawling out of a lavastream looking like something Hieronymus Bosch dreamed about. The best thing about the prequel trilogy was always Ewan McGregor, and in Sith he finally has something to play: betrayal, confusion, desperation. In the middle of yet another CGI puppet parade, General Grievous is the one villain with the scant wisp of actual mythology — those asthma coughs, that lightsaber collection. Is this a good movie? Have I talked about any good movies yet? Gun to my head: The aggressively fatalist badness of Revenge of the Sith has a stupid lysergic crap-pop power, and I’ll take that over anything that happens after Jabba dies in Jedi.
No spoilers here, I promise, unless you think “not as good as the first two movies” is a spoiler. (How many movies are?) The real question you’re asking, I guess, is: “How much better is Force Awakens than the prequels”? Some filmmakers that take on long-established franchises have to struggle with the anxiety of influence: the difficulty of honoring the original director’s vision, while also establishing their own take on the material. When J.J. Abrams took on the task of creating Episode VII, he had a trickier task: honoring the vision established by a young George Lucas, while also doing the complete opposite of whatever middle-aged George Lucas was doing.
The results are so obviously better — for a while. The things you didn’t like about the prequels aren’t in The Force Awakens. Everything you have been promised is here: location photography, a renewed focus on practical effects. Characters are constantly running places, and feeling all the big emotions Natalie Portman never got to feel.
It is said that on the set of the original Star Wars, George Lucas only ever gave one direction to the actors: “Faster and more intense.” Force Awakens is the fastest and most intense Star Wars movie. That’s a compliment — and it isn’t. Suffice it to say: It is possible, when you are trying hard to be Not Boring, to overcorrect too far in the other direction. To be too manic — too overstuffed, too relentlessly focused on momentary thrills — that you wind up shortchanging some of your best ideas.
It’s a kick to see X-Wings, TIE Fighters, and the Millennium Falcon soaring through the skies again. But X-Wings, TIE Fighters, and the Millennium Falcon were new once. There’s not necessarily much new in Force Awakens. You’ve seen this before. Now it’s faster, more intense.
Maybe not even worthwhile to recite the liturgy of wonderment herein. Maybe better, here in second place, to consider the occasional flaws of this first film, most of them only really obvious when you watch the near-perfect movie that followed it. Star Wars — A New Hope, Episode IV, whatever man — isn’t as funny as Empire, not as romantic. Later films would struggle mightily to build out some kind of societal-chronographical cohesion to the universe: Governments and chains of command, dead parents mourned. You can occasionally spot how this first movie was cut down to the bone; you may wonder, now, why Leia stops caring about Alderaan a couple minutes after it gets blown up.
Or maybe not. If every other movie on this list is tied for third, can we admit that Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back are tied for first? Is that a cop-out? This first movie really could work on its own, not that it ever has to. This could have just been a quick snapshot, a couple big days in the middle of a conflict with no obvious beginning and no clear end. There’s something appealing about how not mournful these characters are. Luke loses his surrogate parents, Leia loses her planet — and soon enough, they’re doing Errol Flynn banter as they swing through a bottomless Death Star chasm. There’s a noir-ish brutality and dark humor here, which disappeared when Lucas got nervous about kids. Han Solo, walking away from Greedo’s sizzling corpse: “Sorry about the mess.” Like, the Millennium Falcon. Like, monster chess. Like, R2-D2.
Did I say “near-perfect”? Check that. In this perfect movie, director Irvin Kershner and screenwriters Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan took Lucas’ idea for a Star Wars sequel and made the jump to lightspeed. We meet our Rebel heroes on the run, hiding out in gorgeously grim Hoth. How all occasions do inform against them. The Empire is on their trail. Bounty hunters want their heads. Old friends can’t be trusted. Ben Kenobi lied. And all that comes after the giant ice-bear tries to eat Luke for dinner.
You cannot list the iconic scenes, because there are only iconic scenes. The space-ballet introduction of the Super Star Destroyer, with “The Imperial March” (John Williams’ best piece of Star Wars music, period) playing as flagship’s shadow makes a mere Star Destroyer look measly. Chewie, screaming, as the doors close in the Rebel base, leaving his friends out in the cold to die. The tauntaun’s deathscream, and the mulchy sound of its warm innards opening. The monstrous AT-ATs, Harryhausen myth creatures gone metallic. The bantering flirt-hate between Han and Leia, an A-level Howard Hawks rom-com airdropped into a chase movie. Cloud City, floating in the Vanilla Sky.
Empire moves fast, but it can be leisurely. Only in Empire does Yoda get to be funny. And the long lightsaber battle between Luke and Vader is a gracefully staged shadowplay, going ever deeper into the neon-dark depths of Bespin. Bespin, Dagobah, Hoth: This is the Star Wars movie with the most evocative, distinctive settings. How good is Empire? Every other Star Wars builds up to some explosive final confrontation — or, in most cases, one big explosion. The best Star Wars movie is much too clever for that. In Empire, the big climactic moment is a movie-length joke finally finding its thrilling punchline: at long last, someone finally fixes the hyperdrive.