A Saga In Review: Star Wars Episodes I-VI

For your reading pleasure we've amassed our reviews of all six Star Wars features. Enjoy.



Here we go again. Another rambling review of a terrible Star Wars movie by a die hard fan boy. Are you ready?

Episode I -The Phantom Menace: Because everything needs an explanation. 

After years of waiting, fans were finally given the first prequel they had been waiting for, The Phantom Menace. Boy, were we let down. Instead of a return to the glory of the '70s and '80s, Star Wars Episode I is a two hour exercise in a grown man showing off his brand new, over used techie toys while forgetting what his very own franchise was initially about: story. 

Centered on Lucas' love for all things CGI and weighed down dialogue, the movie sold out every show but ultimately let the starving fan base down. Seeing the movie multiple times in theaters when it was first released, it quickly became apparent why a loyal Star Wars following quickly developed so many problems with this painful story of a youthful Anakin Skywalker and his off the charts midichlorian count. To put it bluntly, The Phantom Menace is the opposite of everything we always loved about the original movies. It's a boring, long winded journey about a boy and his struggle to talk like a normal human being. 

"Qui Gon is like a galactic
Abe Lincoln."
Focusing too heavily on trade embargoes, a flawed script, a wasted Darth Maul, and way too much Jar-Jar, The Phantom Menace lacks the charm and wit of the classic trilogy. With Lucas spending way too much time trying to explain the hows and whys, the first entry in the prequel saga is an uncomfortable watch that pairs the awkward talents of a nine year old boy with a beautiful teenage girl that grow up to make babies together. Almost as uncomfortable as Luke kissing his sister, this portion of the script is a negligible failure that could have been easily fixed by either making Padme younger or Anakin older. Either way, an ego driven Lucas made amateurish choices that to this day make The Phantom Menace the worst of the entire franchise. With the overbearing use of computer generated characters and environments, this prequel looks like a cartoon that shares nothing in common with the movies I grew up with.

The film is laden with issues from front to back. From stilted line delivery to the idiocy of Anakin accidentally destroying a starship,The Phantom Menace deserves the passive hatred it gets. With Lucas back at the helm after not directing for years, his struggle to draw realistic emotion drags Episode I through the deep bowels of the Sarlaac, turning Star Wars into a painful affair, that hinges strictly on the final duel between Qui Gon, Obi Wan and Darth Maul. Clumsily, Lucas chose to wipe the slate clean of Maul before fans (new or old) ever had a chance to get to know the character. In all of Star Wars history, the death of Maul will go down as one of the biggest mistakes Lucas ever made besides the dim witted death of Boba Fett. 

"Anakin, do you know
how babies are made?"

Other than a few great action sequences and the obviously awesome music of John Williams, The Phantom Menace remains the low point of the Star Wars universe closely followed by its sequel, Attack of the Clones. Its hard to imagine why George chose to do the things he did with this first prequel but its easy to see the glaring flaws and horrible performances. Not everything needs an explanation. Not all mysteries need to be solved. Fans were fine accepting The Force as it was before The Phantom Menace came along. Between midichlorians, wooden speech patterns, needless slavery sub-plots, goofed up political mumbo jumbo, a bumbling Gungan, and the introduction of modern trade themes, The Phantom Menace is just not an enjoyable movie. 

Luckily for fans, Ewan McGregor's uncanny ability to capture the vocal inflections of Sir Alec Guinness and his overall standout performance as Obi Wan ties this thing neatly together with the original films. With the Duel of the Fates serving as one of Williams' best pieces of Star Wars work, the last act is at least semi-watchable. If Lucas would have shown some self control by not playing too heavily to the kids, this could have been so much better. As it stands, I may never watch it again.

Score

-CG





Episode II - Attack of the Clones:


Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones is one of the best Star Wars movies of all time.  It had no parts that my son didn't like. It's just a solid movie from beginning to end.  He especially liked the bad guy because he was strong, and the best part was where the bad guy beat up and “almost killed” Anakin Skywalker.  Oh, that Anakin. What a pantywaist.

"Let's just sit here and give each other
crazy eyes for a while.
Then you can run off and ride that
 CGI beast in the background.
But first, let's get drunk on Romulan Ale.
Whoops. Wrong franchise."
But despite my 5-year-old son's glowing review, I did detect a few problems with Attack of the Clones, and it really goes to a bigger issue that plagues a lot of movies these days.  It doesn't make any sense.  When asked what were the bad guys doing, George really didn't have much of an answer.  I don't attribute that to the limited story comprehension of a kindergartner, either.  He gets what's going on in The Avengers and The Lego Movie, but why didn't he get Attack of the Clones?  Why couldn't he give at least a partial explanation of what the movie was about?  Well, that's because it's a mess.  I'm not really gonna spend any time going over the myriad plot holes, the inconsistencies in the characters, and how nothing anybody does makes any sense whatsoever because that's been done to death.  We all know all of that already.  Two major things bother me, though, and I'm gonna talk about them because I can't help myself but to be more than a little offended by them.


First, Yoda.  Let's take a look back at The Empire Strikes Back.  “Wars not make one great.”  “No!  No different.  Only different... in your  mind.”  “Judge me by my size, do you?  ...And well you should not.  For my ally is the Force.  And a powerful ally it is.”  That last one especially gets to me, I get chills just thinking about it.  That whole training montage is so incredibly powerful that people built almost an entire fake religion on just those bits we got to see.  And then we get the prequels, in this case, the damned Clones movie.  Yoda fighting with the Force (why was Yoda straining to use the Force to keep Obi-wan and Anakin from getting smooshed?  Doesn't “size matters not?” Whatever).  Yoda saying dumb things that make no sense.  Yoda whipping out his light saber and jumping and flipping all over the place wipes out all that magic in a few short minutes.

"They just called me a pantywaist.
I think it's time to execute some
little kids."
Yoda should never have been portrayed as a violent, ninja-like maniac.  Mr. “Wars not make one great” should never even touch a light saber.  Why not give the movie some interesting moments and have him take on Count Dooku in a creative, non-fisticuffs/lightsaber duel way?  Well, obviously it's because George Lucas just wanted to see the little green imp go out and fight this ridiculous battle.  Plus, thinking up something original, something we've never seen before is really hard work.  It takes a lot of time and effort, and I'll be honest and say that as a novelty, it is a little amusing to see him move like that (like I said, my 5-year-old son loved it) and violence can get you out of a boring jam really easily.  But does it make for a good movie?  Nope.  No transcendent wonderfulness here.  Nothing in this movie means anything.


And I'm going to completely ignore a smooth transition and just start complaining about the other thing that bothers me about not just this movie, but a lot of movies these days: the origin story.  I don't need to see Boba Fett's origin story.  The fact that we didn't know quite where he came from made him even cooler.  The same goes for Stormtroopers.  Had Lucas decided to keep doing Star Wars movies, would we have gotten origins for those two Stormtroopers from Ep. IV on the Death Star who were talking about the new model of speedsters coming out?  We don't need to know where everything comes from, even if the idea is good, the stories pale in comparison to the interesting or powerful things they do later.  Another good example is Spider-Man.  Peter Parker getting bitten by that spider is not as interesting or compelling as him fighting Dr. Octopus or Venom (also, Spider-Man, just like Star Wars, was ruined by clones, you can do no good with clones).  And the same is true here.  Anakin and Obi-Wan squaring off with Count Dooku just isn't as interesting as Darth Vader fighting Luke Skywalker for the first time in The Empire Strikes Back.  Anyways, origins for everything sucks.  Just tell a good story. There are plenty of good examples of telling us about a character without resorting to clunky exposition or a long, boring, nonsensical origin story like this thing.

"Artistic integrity be damned!!!
This paycheck will support me for years!"
And even though my son said that there were no parts of it that were bad, he got bored.  I give the kid credit. Man, he was determined to sit with Dad and watch the whole thing from beginning to end, but there is so much boring dialogue for looooooooooooong stretches of this movie, and his determination only stretched so far before he took a break to run a marathon around the living room before he could sit back down and watch bugs... do... something.  Do the bugs have a name?  I don't know, probably they do.  It doesn't really matter, they were on some fire/desert planet.  That's another thing, the settings for this movie were so dramatically different from each other, if you wandered out at one point and came back 20 minutes later you'd think that a different movie had come on.  It doesn't make any sense, there's little in the movie that strings it together.  But hey, not all is lost. My son loved it. For a 5-year-old, there were no parts that were bad. 


Go and re-watch Attack of the Clones through the eyes of a kindergartner, you may be less disappointed, although no less confused.  Hell, all the actors on screen looked confused the whole time. So, you'd have company.


Score

-Matt Streeter






Episode III - Revenge of the Sith


George Lucas sees the errors of his ways and makes Revenge of the Sith, the only prequel film to capture the essence of the classics. 

What serves as the stepping stone to the far greater original trilogy is undoubtedly the best of the prequels and falls within close proximity of being one of the better entries of the entire series. With a shift in tone from the goofy mentality of the first two films, Revenge of the Sith is the more adult oriented concluding chapter in Anakin's fall from grace and the darkest of the entire Star Wars saga. Lucas takes most of his wrong doings of The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones and finally begins the transition to the Darth Vader era with more precise story telling and design work that definitely comes much closer to the original three movies. With Jar Jar's annoying hijinks scaled back and a more visceral attack of story, Sith has the makings of a great Star Wars movie that is minutely hampered by the overuse of CGI. 

star wars
Medical droid:You 
kinda smell like
chicken right now.

Mind if I have a taste?
Anakin: Noooooooooooo!!!!!!
Taking cues from the spectacular Empire Strikes Back, Sith goes full dark side with the slaughter of Padawan children, the expected but sad death of a main character, the series defining separation of the Skywalker twins, the execution of Order 66, and the detailed burning and mutilation of Anakin Skywalker. With one small scene, Lucas took the typically PG rated series, turned it on its head, and gave audiences the fiery fate of Anakin at the hands of his best friend, Obi-Wan Kenobi. Although it could have gone no other way, this was an undoubtedly gutsy move on the part of Lucas. Instead of shying away from the morbid fate of numerous characters, he offered up some of the most violent scenes of the Star Wars franchise while finally taking control of a trilogy spiraling out of control. 

Of the prequels, Revenge of the Sith is definitely the best. Of all the Star Wars films (so far), it falls just below A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back as my third personal favorite. With a nearly iron clad transitional tale of doom and gloom, the weakest point remains Hayden Christensen's abysmal performance as Anakin Skywalker. With more angst than a thirteen year old girl at a Justin Bieber concert, Christensen is wooden, nearly unwatchable at times, and doesn't ever come close to the portrayal of evil necessary for a character like Darth Vader. Playing against a-list players like Natalie Portman, Samuel Jackson,and Ewan McGregor, the non-talents of Christensen stick out like a sore thumb. 

With epic battle sequences, monumental space combat scenes, and somber inflections of brotherhood and the afterlife, Revenge of the Sith is a nearly perfect Star Wars film that doesn't meander. Finally offering up another worthy opponent in General Grievous sets this apart from the nearly worthless Attack of the Clones and brings a much needed new twist on the tired lightsaber formula. This motion picture may not be perfect but it's definitely a shade closer to what people were expecting from the first two films. Revenge of the Sith has its flaws but it's easy to see that Lucas was finally doing something right again. His grasp on story telling was returning just as his time with his creation was coming to a close. 

Score

-CG





Episode IV - A New Hope:

They say that it is more difficult to write a positive review than a negative one.  It is more difficult still when the film you're reviewing is 38 years old and considered by anyone's definition to be a classic.  But as we stand just weeks away from yet another Star Wars renaissance, we revisit the past to celebrate the greatness that came before, and regain perspective on those parts of history that we hope do not repeat themselves.  And so we return to that galaxy far, far away, where good and evil have perhaps never been so clearly defined, and search our feelings for what we know to be true.  With the prequels out of the way, our focus shifts to the revered original trilogy, beginning with Episode IV: A New Hope.

A New Hope is one of the most beloved films of all time, and for good reason.  It is Joseph Campbell's A Hero's Journey applied to a vast, elaborate science fantasy universe rich with interesting, mysterious characters.  It succeeds as both a standalone adventure and as the origin story of something much greater.  Controversial retcons aside, it has stood the test of time, excitedly passed down by generations of parents who grew up watching the films to their equally wide-eyed children.  There is action and adventure, comedy, drama, horror, suspense, shocking twists, and good triumphing over evil.  It is basically anything anyone could possibly want from a film.

Alas, so few films can truly be considered completely flawless, and A New Hope is certainly no exception.  The dirty little secret among fans of the original Star Wars trilogy is that everyone knows that the acting and dialogue in the original films (particularly ANH) is a bit shaky at best.  George Lucas, while nearly peerlessly innovative, has never really been an actor's director.  The downside of working with relatively unknown actors is not really knowing what you're going to get performance-wise.  Combining unseasoned actors with a director like Lucas can make for some occasionally awkward performances, particularly that of Mark Hamill (who certainly improved over the series and beyond, eventually earning acclaim for voicing The Joker in several animated Batman films and TV series.)  Lucas's screenplay unfortunately does his actors no favors either, and while we still fondly remember and quote much of the dialogue, there are still plenty of exchanges that make us cringe a bit on the inside.

"No. The walking dog doesn't get a reward.
He'd just chew it up."
Perhaps the greatest understatement that can be made about ANH is that "the good outweighs the bad".  There are a great many more things that ANH does exceptionally well.  The primary exception to the acting discussed above is Sir Alec Guinness, who despite famously hating the film brings his A-game here and gives the film just the right amount of gravitas.  The action sequences, particularly the climactic trench battle on the Death Star, are among some of the most exciting ever filmed even to this day, and even before the special editions the effects were light years ahead of their time.  The sweeping score is John Williams's masterpiece, which considering his vast and unmatched resume is saying something.  A New Hope is Lucas's labor of love, a magnificent tribute to the old adventure serials and war films he loved growing up.


Cynics will say that Lucas's endless tinkering and the saga's over-commercialization have tarnished the legacy of A New Hope.  Most others continue to see it for what it is: a fun, nearly perfect film that aims mainly to be a fun, exciting adventure movie and succeeds with flying colors.  It's a movie that generations of film lovers of all walks of life continue to enjoy and rewatch and pass down to the next.  It is one of only a few films in history that can take credit for transforming the entire filmmaking industry as we know it forever.  Whether or not this is a good thing is perhaps up for debate, but no one can argue that A New Hope is a revolutionary, visionary film, and one that will assuredly continue to stand the test of time far into the future.  May the Force be with us, always.

Score

-Mike Stec





Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back:

After the groundbreaking success and cultural phenomenon of Star Wars: A New Hope which revolutionized the film industry and with Steven Spielberg's Jaws singlehandedly gave birth to the Summer Blockbuster film, modern cinema was now George Lucas' oyster.  An unqualified triumph and epic event ending on exaltation and marking a new chapter in cinema history, Star Wars and its beloved cast of characters had no place else to go but up.  In a daring and still debatable move that would turn audience expectations and the series itself on its head, George Lucas passed the directorial reigns to the more serious minded Irvin Kirshner and brought aboard additional writers such as director Lawrence Kasdan to create undeniably the darkest, most intense and realistic offering of the Star Wars saga: Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back.


"Pew Pew Pew!!!"
Set three years after the Rebel Alliance's triumph over the Imperial Empire in A New HopeThe Empire Strikes Back finds its heroes in hiding deep within the Arctic planet of Hoth.  Foraging for survival as the Empire systematically hunts them down, The Empire Strikes Back opens on an intentionally dour and cold note.  From the oppressive ice Hoth planet to Yoda's squalid planet of Endor and finally the sterile yet foreboding City of Clouds, all in all the world of The Empire Strikes Back is a less than pleasant one to be in.  Shot by David Cronenberg's eventual longtime director of photography Peter Suschitzky, The Empire Strikes Back's desaturated color schema effectively deflates all the warmth felt in A New Hope, providing viewers with a far bleaker looking film overall.

Clearly influenced by Ridley Scott's Alien (including but not limited to certain sound effects), the Millennium Falcon, Luke Skywalker's X-Wing and environmental designs have a far dirtier and leaky motor oil look to them than in A New Hope with the Falcon often breaking down at the drop of a hat.  Also more elaborate is the sound design which works to amplify all the technological deficiencies of the Falcon, the heavy industrial atmosphere of the carbonite chamber during Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader's lightsaber battle and heavy winds in the city of clouds.  The Empire Strikes Back in an audiovisual sense bears the distinction of feeling used and slightly worn around the edges, making the fantastical elements of the Star Wars universe surprisingly believable.  If any film paved the way for Christopher Nolan's realistic take on the Batman movies, it's The Empire Strikes Back.

"And then she said, 'size matters not'."
Edgier in tone and far more violent this time around than previously, The Empire Strikes Back gave us that rare great Blockbuster film in which the protagonists lose the fight.  Greater risks are taken with the characters' fates, notably with the cliffhanger encasing of Han Solo in carbonite.  Everything that could possibly go wrong for these characters inevitably goes wrong with the Empire winning the upper hand.  It's also a far more thought provoking effort than A New Hope, particularly with the introduction of Jedi master Yoda and even more Joseph Campbell inspired mythologizing imbued into the story of Yoda's training of Luke Skywalker on his path to becoming a Jedi knight.  Arguably the film's greatest image involves a surreal nightmare where Luke Skywalker battles and defeats Darth Vader, decapitating him.  As the severed head of Vader rolls on the ground the face mask explodes revealing Luke Skywalker underneath, suggesting Skywalker will either vanquish the evil in himself or destroy himself in the process of vanquishing Vader.  It's a striking image of high art you would not expect to see in a big budget franchise film.

Equally daring in its grand revelation of Darth Vader's identity is Empire's deliberate lack of closure, playing as a middle chapter which as Kershner put it, left you "feeling satisfied to have seen some sort of closure but wanting to see more".  Where A New HopeReturn of the Jedi and arguably the Prequel trilogy left viewers with a pretty clear indication as to where the series and its characters were, The Empire Strikes Back ends on a note of uncertainty with some degree of finality but clearly left open ended for the next movie.  It's a bold and still daring movie in the Star Wars saga for effectively undoing everything optimistic A New Hope strove to create.  While the final shot of the Falcon careening towards a galaxy leaves viewers with a dogged sense of hope at the end, you're as unsure of the characters' fates (notably Solo's) as they are.

"This looks like a great spot for
bungee jumping!"
When A New Hope first came out, no one at the studio or the filmmaking team knew it would become the revolutionary box office smash that it was.  Without that film's monumental success, a film that takes as many risks with an established mainstream film franchise as The Empire Strikes Back does would not have been possible.  Save for a souped-up sequence involving the Wampa ice monster and a digitally recast Emperor in the Special Edition re-release, The Empire Strikes Back is something of an outlier in the Star Wars saga for having undergone the least amount of retooling.  It's an impeccable masterpiece of dystopian science fiction action adventure, classical mythology and that rare opportunity in which its makers took everything you loved about A New Hope and pulled the rug out from under you.  If that's not indicative of The Empire Strikes Back being one of the greatest films of all time, nothing else is.

Score

-Andrew Kotwicki








Episode VI - Return of the Jedi

Despite three decades of fanboy backlash over Ewoks and the Lucas propensity to make things all about the kids, Return of the Jedi was a tidy ribbon on the package known as the original trilogy. Giving fans a conclusion that nearly saw the turn of Luke Skywalker to the dark side, a massive space battle over the moon of Endor, slave Leia, and the end of the Empire as we knew it, Return of the Jedi is a much better Star Wars film than most let on. This third chapter brings our characters full circle as their lives are once again in the throes of battle against the sinister Palpatine and his loyal Force choker in command, Darth Vader. However childish the film may be at times, director Richard Marquand, working from a screenplay by Lawrence Kasdan and George Lucas, had a true challenge trying to follow up The Empire Strikes Back. His work is nearly flawless.


For some, Return of the Jedi ranks just behind the prequel trilogies when naming their favorites. Yet, Episode VI is a fitting end that puts all the heroes in peril as our the main focal point fully shifts to the fate of Luke Skywalker and whether his father can be turned back to the light side of the Force. With Palpatine the most visceral and manipulative of the entire series, and his powers at full tilt, the final sequences are some of the most hardcore of the six existing films and continue to amaze with emotive detail from every key player. Mark Hamill's dramatic performance is the best of the three movies while the ever evolving romance between Han and Leia finds clarity and solidarity that makes the forest moon battle an astute presentation of their undying love for each other. Once again, setting aside the bemusing idea of Ewoks (Lucas) and a terrible musical number (Lucas), Marquand's ROTJ fully realized a fitting end game for our heroes, never knowing that we might get a sequel 30 years later. 

"Soooo, I hear you made out with
your sister. Care to tell me how
that doesn't qualify
as 'joining the dark side' "?
Not only does the film bring the saga to an end but it also features some of the best special effects of the original trilogy. With excellent puppet work on Jabba the Hut, nearly flawless looking model designs, and space fights that will easily contend with modern CGI, ROTJ delivers on most fronts, only shrugging off more realistic looking FX in a few lesser defined areas that suffer due to the era much less than dedication the craft.  With an ever expanding crew of ILM effects wizards, Jedi truly pushed the envelope for visuals during a time when other movies were no match for their ever elusive creative techniques.  Films like Krull and Space Hunter feverishly tried to cop the look and feel of the Star Wars franchise but undoubtedly failed while not being able to reach the impeccable heights of their marvelous looking visual elements. 

Of course The Empire Strikes Back set a darkened theme for the series. With ROTJ starting off more family friendly, the tone shifts about halfway through with the struggle becoming bleaker and more resonant in its themes of father versus son and then the ultimate sacrifice of life for the good of all. While Jedi will never meets the psychological prowess of Empire, it's hard to imagine a better conclusion to the three films. With Luke shrugging off the dark side as his father finds the light of forgiveness, this third chapter still holds true as a nearly perfect finale. If you haven't seen it in a while, watch it again. 

With that said, I truly hope that The Force Awakens doesn't try to change the mythology as it stands by altering the finality of Luke Skywalker's story. His fate as a Jedi should hold true. He chose well. 

Score

-CG









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