To celebrate this year’s May the 4th, here are all the live-action Star Wars films in my order of preference.
14. The Star Wars Holiday Special (1978)
I first saw this infamous TV movie on a pirated video about 20 years ago. I’d heard it was awful and misjudged and corny. What I hadn’t realised, however, was just how *boring* the thing is. Not even a cartoon interlude, a cameo from Bea Arthur and the notorious moment when Carrie Fisher sings the Star Wars theme tune can prevent this being 90 of the most tedious minutes you can spend.
13. Caravan of Courage: An Ewok Adventure (1984)
When I was a Star Wars-loving child, my passion was facilitated by VHS. Born in 1979, I grew up with a video recorder at home and was allowed to rent one tape per week from our local video shop. So when I spotted a movie all about Ewoks, I assumed it was a bona fide Star Wars adventure. The fact that Luke, Han, Leia and the rest were absent didn’t seem to matter. Watching it now, I can see it’s pretty tatty stuff – a cash-in TV movie that was given a cinema release in the UK.
12. Ewoks: The Battle for Endor (1985)
Better than the first Ewok film by a couple of notches, the sequel is more in keeping with those kids films of the 1980s that weren’t afraid to be a bit spooky – like Return to Oz, Labyrinth and The Goonies.
11. Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999)
Oh, Phantom Menace. Because of my age, this was actually the first new Star Wars film I saw at the cinema. I went with my mate Will Haywood and we picked a Monday morning screening, hoping it would be quieter. (It was.) The film had been released in America a few months beforehand – remember when blockbusters had that kind of delay? – and we’d all heard about the poor reviews. Nevertheless, on that day in August 1999 I enjoyed the experience very much indeed. Then the bias and expectation faded away, and so did the film’s lustre. You know what, though: I don’t think it’s *all* bad. Liam Neeson’s quite fun. The design work is spectacular. Darth Maul, though underused, is great. And of course there’s John Williams’s score. However, the script is still utterly appalling – both in terms of its story construction and in the way it’s told – while there are cast members who just aren’t good enough.
10. Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones (2002)
The bar wasn’t set very high – be better than The Phantom Menace! – and Attack of the Clones only just cleared it. This is a more impressive movie, thanks to a meatier plot, more jeopardy, a touch of darkness and some successful comedy. I also like Obi-Wan Kenobi going off on a film-noir subplot, while the Yoda-gets-out-his-lightsaber scene has always struck me as joyful. But all that has to be balanced against yet more terrible writing and acting, most notably in Padme and Anakin’s anus-scrapingly horrible romantic scenes. Also, the swathes of videogame special effects certainly have an effect but don’t leave you feeling special.
9. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)
There’s no other Star Wars film where the critical consensus leaves me so bewildered. Many, many people adore this film, but I just can’t see what they see. For me, Rogue One is a muddled mess. The lead character is cold and unlikeable, and she gets dragged along by events rather than trying to achieve things. The whole story is built on explaining away a minor plot hole from the 1977 movie. Some of the cast seem bored and lifeless. And it was a mistake to use CGI to recreate a long-dead actor. Admittedly, it’s not all bad news – the film ramps up the excitement levels in the final act, while some of the supporting characters are fun. But this grim, humourless film doesn’t seem very Star Wars-ish to me. Feels more in keeping with the spin-off novels that have flourished since the 1990s, books that focus on mythology and continuity at the expense of derring-do.
8. Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (2019)
Hmm. The expectation was enormous, of course, as this was the much-heralded finale to the nine-film symphony of Star Wars ‘episodes’. Shame it wasn’t better, really. Whereas the finest Star Wars is free-spirited, buccaneering and driven by storytelling clarity, this film reeks have having been churned up by a committee with short attention spans. Let’s have a Lando cameo! Let’s give Poe a girlfriend! Let’s ignore plot threads from the previous film! Elements are thrown in willy-nilly. There are too many characters, some without any real purpose. Following the central plot is like watching a game of snakes-and-ladders – it all feels arbitrary and is made up of short-term tasks rather than character development. Even worse is the plethora of cloying continuity references. Nevertheless, I did have a lovely evening the night I saw this film at the cinema. I went with my pal/colleague Fraser Dickson (he and I have been to see all the Disney-era Star Warses together). As excited as we were to finally complete the Skywalker nonagon, the movie came a distant second to the lovely meal we’d had beforehand at the pub owned by Ian McKellen in Limehouse.
7. Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith (2005)
This one also felt huge at the time – in those pre-Disney days, it seemed fairly certain that this would be the last ever Star Wars film. Given the significance, I was thrilled to be able to see it in special circumstances. Not only did I go to the first screening on the first morning of the film’s general release (10.10am on Thursday 19 May 2005), but the venue was the grand and storied Odeon Leicester Square. My friend Simon Guerrier had arranged the tickets and we took our seats in the packed house with some nervousness. When the film began, and the caption ‘A long time ago…’ came up, someone shouted out, ‘I’ve seen this one!’ which broke the tension brilliantly. In the cold light of day, you wouldn’t call Revenge of the Sith a ‘great’ film. But it is a good one. Easily the best of the prequel trilogy, the movie succeeds because it’s a tragedy. There’s an inevitability that hangs over the whole thing, and we watch on helplessly as events spiral out of control.
6. Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017)
It’s fair to say that The Last Jedi has divided opinion, right? Some people have *lambasted* it, while others have called it the best of the series. My feelings have wavered a bit over the last three and a half years. In the cinema, I felt underwhelmed – there were plenty of elements I’d loved, but I kept thinking about all the things that don’t work. The half of the story featuring Poe, Leia, Finn and new character Rose had so many flaws – bad pacing, characters keeping things secret for no reason, an irritating diversion to a CGI casino planet – that I came away a bit sad. However, a few months later, a rewatch improved things and allowed me to focus on the great stuff. Every scene with Luke, Rey and/or Kylo is absolutely terrific, feeling both Star Warsian and daringly fresh at the same time. The whole movie has momentum and bags of fun, while the action is great. It’s not my favourite film directed by Rian Johnson – go Knives Out! – but The Last Jedi is a lot better than I’d first given it credit.
5. Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018)
I can probably specify the very moment I became a film geek. As a young child – about six, say – I was already keen on watching rented VHSs again and again. Two series that I loved seeing were the Star Wars trilogy and the two Indiana Joneses that existed at that point. These films seemed the epitome of excitement. And while this may be my rose-tinted mind playing tricks on me, I believe I can remember realising that Han Solo and Indiana Jones were played by the same actor. It was an epiphany; I felt like I’d uncovered an amazing truth that had evaded everyone else. This realisation only increased the appeal of both Han Solo, already the coolest character in all of popular culture, and Harrison Ford. So when, more than 30 years later, the part was *recast* for a prequel, I felt a pang of anxiety. How dare they even try?! This is stomping over sacred ground. However… I was wrong. While obviously not topping the original, Alden Ehrenreich gives a tremendous performance as the young Han. It’s all there: the swashbuckling heroics, the playful cheek, the romantic streak, the hubris and failure. But because this is a younger Han, he’s more optimistic and idealistic. The film itself is also a marvel. A science-fiction Western-cum-heist movie, Solo: A Star Wars Story rattles along with a huge amount of panache and joie de vivre. *Very* Star Wars.
4. Return of the Jedi (1983)
I don’t think I’m in a minority when I say that Return of the Jedi is my least favourite of the original trilogy. But unlike many, this has nothing to do with Ewoks! I first saw this film at a young age, so they’ve never bothered me. No, I think it’s just a slight sense of ‘after the Lord Mayor’s show’ – a feeling not helped by the repetition of having a second Death Star to attack. But this is still a 10-out-of-10 film: thrilling, exciting, very entertaining. When I was watching it endlessly as a kid, I was always bored by the grown-up, talky stuff between Luke and the Emperor, but those scenes are now some of my favourites. And speaking of drama that flies over the heads of a youngster, I now think Return of the Jedi has the most moving line of dialogue in all of Star Wars. When Luke pleads with Darth Vader to ‘search his feelings’ and realise there’s still good inside him, Vader says softly, ‘It’s too late for me, son.’ Oof! What a brilliant bit of writing. Those six words justify the entire six-film Anakin/Vader story arc. Meanwhile, the Death Star assault still stands as one of the most impressive special-effects sequences ever filmed – after nearly 40 years, the model work is still better than anything seen in a modern Marvel superhero flick.
3. Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)
My single favourite moment from any film ever made is in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. It’s the final scene. The character of Rey (Daisy Ridley) has finally tracked down the long-missing Luke Skywalker. She lands the Millennium Falcon on a rocky, deserted island and slowly begins to climb up to the top of a huge hill. John Williams’s score swirls and dances around, building tension and mystery. Then Rey crests the hill and sees a figure in the middle distance. The man has his back to us, his head covered by a hood. He turns, cautiously, then pulls down his hood. We see his grey beard and straggly hair and world-weary eyes.… In this moment I had completely forgotten I was a 36-year-old sitting in a cinema. For a few seconds, I was totally ‘in’ the fiction. The man wasn’t the actor Mark Hamill in costume and make-up and standing under movie lights; it was the Jedi knight LUKE SKYWALKER, a hero of both the Rebellion and my childhood. I don’t know how else to explain it – for a beat or two, the notion that this was a film had faded away. Bear in mind that – brilliantly – no images of Luke had been used in the trailers or posters or advance publicity. So there was an unexpected *vividness* to seeing Luke again. It seemed so real. To be honest, even without this moment, I would still love this film utterly. My mate Fraser and I went on the first evening of the general release, but there’d been screenings since midnight the night before. So after a day of avoiding social media and spoilers, we headed up to a gorgeous Everyman cinema in central London full of nerves. Two hours later, we walked back out onto Baker Street in a daze. The Force Awakens is *stunning*. Great storytelling, compelling characters, slick action, winning comedy, a reverence for what’s gone before but a willingness to push things deeper. Profoundly wonderful.
2. Star Wars (1977)
I don’t remember my first viewing of the original Star Wars. You may as well ask me to recall my first night at home after being born. I would have been about five years old, watching a rented VHS at home, so the film has essentially always been in my life. As a child, I saw it so many times that at one point I was able to show off to school friends by reciting the entire script (at least until they got bored and told me to stop). These days, I only go back to it every few years, but – like with any great movie – Star Wars always works, always draws me in, always entertains me. But why? What’s so special? Many people have pointed towards the mythological underpinnings – all that Joseph Campbell stuff about story arcs – and that’s certainly a big factor. There’s a noble young hero, a wise old mentor, a dressed-in-black villain, a princess that needs rescuing, a roguish sidekick, comedy characters, henchman, battles, challenges, sacrifices and quests. But if Star Wars were *just* these cliches, we wouldn’t still be talking about the film now. What George Lucas and his team did was imbue the whole thing with pace, momentum, fun and *heart*. Above all else, Star Wars is exciting. The lead cast perfectly understand the tone, playing it sincere but not po-faced, while the filmmaking craft – the sets, the costumes, the special effects, the incidental music – creates a fascinating fictional world that feels like it stretches off into infinity.
1. The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
The Empire Strikes Back takes everything that had worked in the first movie, improves it, then adds more. There’s still the exuberance and flamboyance, the action and comedy, the sense of adventure and the battle between good and evil. But this first sequel – surely one of the best sequels ever made – also adds new environments, new threats, new characters (first appearance Yoda makes) and a new, more dynamic visual style. Crucially, the film also deepens the emotions and complicates the subtext. As I child I was always fascinated by the sequence on Dagobah when Luke, while training to be a Jedi knight, seems to encounter Darth Vader. In moody, dreamy slow motion, the two men fight with lightsabers – and Luke manages to decapitate his opponent. However, under the helmet’s mask, Luke sees his own dead face staring back at him. What did it mean?! As I grew older and rewatched The Empire Strikes Back, of course the thematic nuance became more and more compelling: Luke is seeing a premonition; he’s in danger of becoming another Vader. Another area of the film that improves the older you get is the endlessly joyful bickering between Han and Leia, who trade His Girl Friday quips and sarcasm that ooze with sexual tension. When I reviewed The Empire Strikes Back for this website in 2015, I half-jokingly scored it 11 out of 10. I still stand by that.