With the release of the latest instalment in the Star Wars saga almost upon us, I believe that now is the perfect opportunity to look back upon the Skywalker story, from the genesis in 1977 through to its supposed conclusion over forty years later. We will look at the highs and the lows over the decades, and have a look at how the imagination of George Lucas created one of (if not) the biggest properties in global popular culture. Although the Star Wars brand has transcended mediums from books, video games, television shows, and everything else you could think of, in this article we will be focusing on the heart of it all, the feature films. Moreover, we will only be discussing the Episodic films and ignoring the spin offs in Rogue One and Solo due to the fact that they will be continuing into the future, whereas (according to Lucasfilm) the Skywalker story will end with Episode IX. The format of this discussion will follow the chronological order in which the films are set within the story as I feel that is how the majority of our readers will have experienced them, although if you haven’t, I would personally recommend watching them in order of release dates to increase the viewing experience. Before we jump into the films, I want to give a quick warning that the rest of this article may contain some spoilers, buts lets face it, if you don’t know that Darth Vader is Luke’s dad by now you probably aren’t that interested.
Picture the scene: Its May 1999, the lights have dimmed, the fanfare has blared, and John Williams’ iconic theme kicks in. Star Wars is back. I imagine that about 2 hours later the wildly excited fans who’d camped out for days probably thought that they were having a bad dream. I am of course talking about Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. I know I will be expected to rant and rave about this film as so many others have (and don’t worry I will), I must first give the film some grudging compliments. Firstly, you cannot deny that George Lucas is a visionary. Some of the world building and look of the galaxy far far away in this film is fantastic; moreover, the CGI was revolutionary and so far ahead of its time that it still looks good today for the most part. However, just because you have a cool new toy doesn’t mean you should use it at the expense of everything else, and I believe that the extensive use of green screen hindered the film more than it helped it. As with most Star Wars films, the sound design and editing is phenomenal, especially during the intense pod racing sequence and, of course, John Williams’ score is pretty much perfect giving us the iconic Duel of Fates. Unfortunately, what talent Lucas has as a visionary and a worldbuilder is outweighed by the fact that, unfortunately, he’s not a particularly great director, and a poor screenwriter. Some of the dialogue in this film is turgid, especially the attempted goofy comedy throughout (step forward Jar Jar Binks). Moreover, he manages to get wooden performances out of some of the most talented actors of their generation through a combination of the script and, I believe, the fact that they had to act against green screens with little direction on how the scenes would play out. In terms of the story itself, I think he made some fundamental errors such as showing us Anakin as an annoying child, and the dull political aspect which felt much more like filler than thriller. There is no real lead character, and none of the characters you do meet are given any real development. On top of this, there are some really contrived revelations about the backstory of popular characters such as C-3PO, and the attempted fan service just comes across as messy. If you couldn’t tell, I really do dislike this film. I think it’s a mess from top to bottom and, despite a few scenes, it really does have few redeeming qualities. The final score for Episode I is: 3/10.
On the surface it looked like Lucas’s second effort in the prequel trilogy had been used to rectify some of the missteps of the Phantom Menace and return the Star Wars franchise to the level of quality that fans had been expecting. Unfortunately, Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones is considered by many to be even worse than its predecessor, and many believe that it is the worst of the franchise. Here there was an opportunity to iron out the problems with the plot, to develop the characters into more rounded individuals, and give the audience an exciting space adventure. Alas, it seemed that the opposite happened, Lucas doubled down on the silly aspects of the first film. From the beginning, the film begins with a daft car chase and it just goes downhill from there with awfully pointless CGI action set pieces throughout. A particular low point is the conveyor belt scene which feels hollow and inconsequential to the plot. They even managed to make Yoda fighting for the first time seem ridiculous rather than breath-taking! Now let’s talk about the acting and the dialogue which somehow managed to get even worse for this film: Hayden Christensen’s performance, and the entire character of Anakin in this story, was handled exceptionally poorly. Instead of him being a tragic character who fell from being a hero to the dark side, he is portrayed as a bratty teenager who you never want to root for because he is so unlikeable. Adding to this, the vomit inducing romance scenes between him and Natalie Portman’s Padme are dripping with the sexual chemistry of a dried up river bed and are painful to watch. Again, I have to blame the direction for this because Portman has proved both before and after this trilogy that she is one of the greatest actors of her time, and the fact that she has this blot on her record is a massive shame. Wooden performances, wooden dialogue, a mind numbingly boring plot, and stale action scenes are not exactly a recipe for success. As a result, my score for Episode II is a dismal 2/10.
Now, most people feel that Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith is a marked improvement on the previous two films, and they’d be correct. But let’s face it, saying that something is better than the previous two instalments is not much of an achievement; sitting and watching paint dry on a wall for 5 hours would probably give you more fulfilment. I don’t want to seem like I’m out here to attack the prequels, if they are your favourite films, then fair play to you. Having said that, I cannot lie about my opinions on these movies, and once again I feel that Revenge of the Sith is a bad piece of cinema. Don’t get me wrong, it has a lot more going for it than its two predecessors, the action is noticeably better and the effects during the opening space battle is truly fantastic. Moreover, the acting seems to have improved and the story is overall much tighter, however some of the slumber inducing dialogue is unfortunately still present. The best thing about this film though (and I think one of my favourite aspects of the prequels overall) is Ian McDiarmid playing Senator Palpatine. You can tell that he really relishes this villainous role of the evil puppet master pulling the strings that will enable him to become the feared emperor of the original trilogy. His performance is electrifying and intriguing, and really stands out amongst some of his co-stars. If I had to describe this film in a word it would be that it’s ‘underwhelming’. Almost every aspect of it feels watered down, like there was potential for greatness somewhere in this story but the execution wasn’t there. For instance, the fall of Anakin and the rise of Vader could’ve been epic, but the emotionless, over choreographed dance routine that concluded this chapter of Anakin and Obi Wan’s journey felt very underwhelming. Likewise, Palpatine’s victory and the destruction of the Jedi didn’t have the impact it could’ve because of the lack of character development throughout the three films. I highly recommend watching Revenge of the Sith immediately after Attack of the Clones because it makes it seem better, but unfortunately, I didn’t, so my score for Star Wars Episode 3 is a below average 4.5/10.
The big problem with the prequel trilogy is that it failed to deliver spectacularly on what it promised. The backstory to one of the greatest villains in cinematic history turned out to be that he was an annoying kid, then an annoying teenager, who then suddenly becomes evil. It took the mysticism of the force and explained it in a way which managed to ruin one of the most integral parts of the world. It had fantastic characters to work with in the form of Yoda and Obi Wan and managed to butcher them, tarnishing the legacy of the original trilogy. Lucas’s ego, and his need to personally control every aspect of the story really made these three films suffer, and perhaps with a bit more collaboration between other screenwriters and directors, the prequels could’ve been a success. Thankfully we will now be leaving the darkness of the prequels and emerging into the light of the late 1970’s, a time where nobody had heard the name ‘Star Wars’.
There isn’t much you can say about Star Wars (1977), or Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope that you can say that hasn’t been said before a hundred times over. Everybody knows the story of the visionary genius, George Lucas’ dream of re-creating the action series of his youth in an epic, galaxy trotting space adventure. When nobody thought it would succeed, it did, and it did more than anyone could have ever imagined, going on to become a box office behemoth and spawning the most popular and lucrative franchise in film history. More than the film itself, this production revolutionised the whole industry, with groundbreaking special effects from ILM that still hold up to this day. What Lucas did magnificently was create a magical world of wonder and endless possibilities through a combination of incredible sets and model work, as well as jaw dropping sound work. There are more sound effects and ship designs etc synonymous with this film than any other in history. But unlike the prequels in Star Wars, you had a great simple story with likeable interesting characters that populated the fantastic world that was built for them to inhabit, and other than some classic clunky dialogue in places, the script flows really well. Luke Skywalker, Princes Leia, Darth Vader, Han Solo and so many more are all household names across the world because of this film and that achievement alone is a reflection on this film’s brilliance. The performances are fantastic, most noticeably from Harrison Ford who just oozes charisma and roguish charm in his portrayal of Han. Another stand out is Alec Guinness, adding that touch of class as the wise old sage who teaches us about the world, and the voice of James Earl Jones as Darth Vader created one of the most recognisable sounding characters in the history of Hollywood. John Williams’ score and the accompanying Star Wars crawl that opened the film is one of the best ideas amongst many that this film had to offer. It became instantly recognisable and unique to the franchise, and without it I am sure that Star Wars wouldn’t have taken off in the way it did. Above anything, this film has a feel-good factor, it truly is a crowd pleasing superbly satisfying summer blockbuster, and set the foundation for all that would come after. Star Wars is truly a landmark in film history, but it isn’t perfect in every aspect so as a result I’ll give it a score of 9/10.
From a near perfect film to one that is even nearer, Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes back is in my humble opinion one of the greatest films ever made, and certainly one of the best sequels. Star Wars had built the beginnings of a great legacy, but it was truly the Empire Strikes back that cemented that legacy in place. Following on from the elation felt at the end of the last film, this throws the audience back in at the deep end as we are shown our beloved characters backed into a corner and beaten down by the baddies. Let’s just talk about the story for a moment. There is a love story in this film, and it works and feels natural, and George Lucas didn’t write the script which probably explains it. Moreover, Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford have amazing chemistry, and their relationship is really the heart of the film and key to it being a success. Whilst this is going on, we also learn more about the mysterious force through the teachings of Yoda, and this aspect helps to fantastically build the world and expand the mythology of the Jedi (all without mention of midichlorians)! What truly elevates the Empire Strikes back though is the enlarged scale and scope compared to the first film; the action is bigger, better and more explosive. Take the opening battle of Hoth as an example, this sequence is one of the most famous battle scenes ever put to film, and the design of the mighty Imperial Walkers help give it an epic feel of impending doom. John Williams once again comes up trumps with the iconic Imperial March theme that represents everything about the evil Empire perfectly. The purposeful powerful orchestral backing that now followed Vader and his troops gave them an added level of intimidation. Talking of Vader, the biggest bombshell dropped at the end of this film as he reveals his true identity to Luke is iconic, and you really feel the tension and emotion in the scene. The ending of this film is truly shocking and powerful, and leaves you with a cliff-hanger of seismic proportions. In many ways this is the perfect second film in a trilogy as it builds on its predecessor, is a wonderful stand-alone tale in its own right, and also ends in a way which pushes the anticipation levels through the roof for its sequel. Star Wars Episode V is faultless and as a result it gets a perfect score of 10/10.
Return of the Jedi is admittedly my favourite Star Wars film, however, I know it’s objectively not as good as its predecessors and begins to show signs of the direction that Lucas would begin to take the franchise going into the prequels. I am talking of course about the Ewok’s who many believe are the first sign of Star Wars becoming goofier and child friendly in order to sell merchandise, and the cynic in me can see the partial truth in this claim. However, for me personally, I like the Ewoks. Yes, it probably is purely due to nostalgia of watching this film when I was young, but I don’t really care because I think they’re delightful. What Return of the Jedi did was stick the landing of this trilogy of films in a fitting and satisfying way. The epic conclusion to this epic story as Luke battles Vader in front of the cackling evil Emperor is one of the greatest personal, emotionally charged final confrontations we’ve ever witnessed on screen. So much careful storytelling and character development had gone into this culmination, and it is pulled off perfectly. Meanwhile, the last stand of the Rebellion as they launch a desperate offensive against the new Death Star gives us a grand space battle which I believe has yet to be topped in Star Wars, and in science fiction films in general. Everything about this ending screams excitement and fist clenching anxiety for the fate of your beloved characters. Almost every element is so satisfying that you can’t help but sit back and admire the story that has unfolded before you over these three phenomenal films. What’s more is that all of them work as stand alone stories much more than other interconnected film series such as the MCU. For this particular stand alone film, Star Wars Episode VI, I grant it a rating of 9/10.
Overall, I think that the Star Wars original trilogy is one of the greatest ever, just being piped by the Lord of the Rings for quality, but its impact on the industry is by far the greatest of anything that has come before or since, not only for its help in developing the technology and storytelling techniques that would change filmmaking forever, but also its simple underdog story of good vs evil within a world with infinite possibilities resonating positively with the public in an almost unanimous fashion. Moving on, we will be talking about the most highly debated period of the Star Wars story, and that is the current crop of films that are completing the Skywalker Saga.
It was 2012 when the monumental news dropped that Lucasfilm had been purchased by Disney in a $4billion deal that would see them developing new Star Wars films, and what’s more, that they would be continuing the main saga with Episodes 7, 8, and 9. Although it was later revealed that George Lucas had treatments and ideas for these sequels that he offered to the new filmmakers, Disney decided to not use them and follow its own formula in writing these next chapters. It was announced that JJ Abrams would be brought on to direct the as then untitled Episode VII and Lawrence Kasdan (writer of the Empire Strikes Back) would be brought on to help craft the screenplay. These were all good signs, along with the constant interviews where we were being told that JJ and his team were going back to the old school feel of Star Wars, with a heavy reliance on practical effects, rather than the cold artificial nature of the CGI heavy prequels.
Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens was always going to have a hard job to be successful. For one, it had to be a good film, and reassure the fans that the franchise was in good hands going forward. Moreover, it had to bring Star Wars back into the public’s consciousness in a positive fashion after the sour taste the prequels had left in people’s mouths. As a result, the film was very safe, perhaps too safe in some parts, but to me it was a necessary step in order to create a positive reaction which then could be built off of. Despite the fact that The Force Awakens follows a narrative structure very similar to that of the original Star Wars, it is much more than just a carbon copy. This is down to the new characters and how they were introduced to us. The likes of Rey, Fin, and Kylo instantly captured the attention of the audience and they all had the beginning of satisfying arcs that looked like they could develop throughout the trilogy. Unfortunately, the Last Jedi rather butchered most of these, but more on that later. Moreover, the old cast were here to hand over the torch and they do this magnificently, the legendary characters feel like a natural part of the story, rather than a contrived presence in the narrative as they did in the prequels. Harrison Ford returned as Han Solo in one of the best performances of the latter part of his career, and alongside the energy of the incredibly talented up and coming young cast helped bring these well written characters to life. Another thing that Episode VII did fantastically well was in building the world at this point in the timeline of the galaxy. It clearly established the players, and hinted at some interesting mysteries to be developed upon, such as the identity of Snoke, and the origin of Rey. Overall, I think JJ and the rest of the cast and crew did a fantastic job bringing Star Wars back and made a film that was interesting, nostalgic in a positive sense, and above all a fun romp back in the style of the original trilogy. As a consequence, Star Wars Episode 7 gets a score of 8/10.
Now we get to perhaps what is the most divisive entry into the series, Episode VIII: The Last Jedi. Following the success of Episode 7, Star Wars fans were on the whole excited for the possibilities of the Last Jedi. Luke Skywalker was back and we had a whole cast of new characters who had compelling stories to continue into the new film. Moreover, Looper director Rian Johnson was at the helm and his talent as a writer/director is undeniable; I’ve just seen his most recent film Knives Out and it is one of the best of 2019. Johnson’s genius is seen at times during the Last Jedi with some beautiful jaw dropping action, especially the fight with Snoke’s guards and the silent sacrifice in the space battle. However, where he made some very interesting stylistic choices he also massively disrespected the legacy of the franchise he was working in, and I believe that his selfishness and desire to leave his own unique mark on the Star Wars franchise jeopardized the entire story going forward. It seemed he was obsessed with subverting fans’ expectations, but this was not done in a good way, and it seemed almost petty. For instance, making epic looking scenes in the last film into punchlines for below par jokes, and deciding to not build on the mystery developed, but rather just quickly answer it with an unsatisfying conclusion, such as the storyline surrounding Snoke. Perhaps most heinously, he managed to mess up the return of some of the legacy characters, most notably the original series’ protagonist Luke Skywalker. It was reported that Mark Hammill clashed with Johnson over the direction his character was being taken and you can see why. I really feel that Kathleen Kennedy and the other higher ups at Lucasfilm have to shoulder a lot of responsibility for this mess as they didn’t step in to rein in Johnson’s changing of the carefully crafted outline to the story. Overall, Star Wars Episode VIII was a real disappointment and gets a score of 4/10.