With the release of Solo: A Star Wars Story in May of this year, the Star Wars saga has produced its tenth cinematic outing and expanded its galaxy even more. To celebrate, we’ve been ranking all ten of the live-action canonical films.
With those out of the way, it’s time to count down the top five Star Wars films. So once again, sit back, engage the hyperdrive and let’s return to that galaxy far, far away…
5: Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017)
Dividing the fanbase in a way not even the prequels could, this film really diverges from the Star Wars formula, doing things we would never dream a conventional Star Wars film would do. For a start, it’s extremely dark, taking a character we all grew up with for so many years and twisting him into something a lot of people hated. Luke is in no way the man we remember from Jedi, now a tough, hard-to-reach, quietly reserved individual with no hope in his heart anymore and guilt weighing heavily on his shoulders.
I personally think the approach that Rian Johnson takes with Luke is superb. It has been 33 years since Return of the Jedi, let alone the years between that and A New Hope, so how could Luke conceivably stay the same in such a long period of time and remain credible? He couldn’t. All people, cinematic heroes or not, change over that amount of time, so why do we constantly expect unreasonably static characterisation from our on-screen heroes?
I think the problem is the fanbase itself.
So many people expected Luke to be the same as he was at the end of Jedi; that he would simply pick up his classic green lightsaber and come crashing in to fight the First Order, destroying ships, walkers, stormtroopers and a certain rogue Jedi. But that’s not who he is now; he’s experienced extreme guilt and loss over his part in destroying young Ben Solo’s promising career as a Jedi and letting his new order fall. Luke is just a man, in the end, feeling powerless in his role as master and mentor, too overshadowed by the legend of Luke Skywalker, Jedi Knight.
Despite some minor plot and pacing issues, The Last Jedi copes beautifully with its subject matter, and I believe this breath of fresh air and depiction of age and change in its protagonist was what the franchise needed. All of the film’s tone makes the denouement all the more worthwhile for Luke’s character in that he has become the new Obi-Wan, sacrificing himself all the way across the galaxy to give his friends and family time to escape, so the Rebellion can begin anew. His death scene is superbly handled too, with his final view being the twin suns of Ahch-To, his island home, setting behind a clouded, orange landscape – mirroring his initial dream of destiny and fortune in A New Hope’s twin sun sequence.
Overall, I think The Last Jedi, for all the risks and differences that it engendered, has come to be one of the best Star Wars films in the entire franchise. Its use of darker tones, a changed Luke Skywalker, and the next difficult step in Rey’s journey with the Force cements its position as a very fine film indeed, not just in the franchise itself, but in general.
4: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)
No one would have ever thought that a Star Wars film based off one sentence in the opening crawl of A New Hope could have produced a full movie, let alone such an epic masterstroke as Rogue One.
But it did.
The ensemble cast is part of the reason Rogue One works so well, with its heist movie ambience firmly in place, the film handles its balance between humour (mostly delivered by Alan Tudyk) and desperation excellently. Indeed, this is the first Star Wars film in which you feel the Wars part is justified and where the waters are a little murkier than we remember; no one except the two former Guardians of the Whills and Bodhi Rook seem wholly good, with Cassian Andor killing an informant at the start, and Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker) and his group of partisans who taking more extremist approaches than their fellow mainstream Rebellion counterparts. Gerrera’s rebels seem more like terrorists, and really do invoke the images of the Taliban and Al Qaeda that we’re all so familiar with from the early 2000s, thus cementing that not every part of this rebellion is ‘good’, just as not everyone in the Empire is a faceless thug.
There are two cameo roles in this film however, that take the cake for being so well done and integrated so seamlessly into the narrative that they feel like natural progressions in the story: Grand Moff Tarkin (played in motion and voice capture by British actor Guy Henry) and the much-awaited return of Darth Vader (voiced once more by the legendary James Earl Jones, and physically portrayed by both the huge Spencer Wilding and Daniel Naprous). This inclusion sets the film up perfectly to lead into A New Hope, as both characters play pivotal roles in that film too. There’s a sequence toward the very end of the film where Vader corners a group of rebels in a corridor leading to the Tantive IV (the ship from the memorable opening sequence of the original film), with one of them desperately attempting to get the plans through a jammed door, while Vader tears through the rest like a hot knife through butter. The sequence is spellbinding, giving us a sight we’ve wanted to see for so long: an unbridled show of power from the Dark Lord of the Sith himself.
With a stunning conclusion, and the balls to completely wipe out the main cast, Rogue One delivers the Star Wars experience we only saw glimpses of in the past: a proper fully-fledged war film, with grey-area characters and questionable motivations, but through whose courage, dedication, and ultimate sacrifice, leads to the victory the Rebel Alliance needed in A New Hope.
3: Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi (1983)
There was a lot of pressure for Lucas to get this one right; otherwise the end of his beloved trilogy could ruin the series’ reputation entirely.
Fortunately, most of the disappointment surrounding this film stems from the fact that Jedi is the end of the story (or rather, it was). Seeing as Lucas and co. did deliver another perfect feather in the cap of what is arguably pop culture’s greatest phenomenon, this disappointment was always deeply wounding as a child; after all, what was there after Star Wars? The prequels were 16 years in the future, and the sequel trilogy a further decade, so all we had were the expanded universe novels, comics, games, and miscellany to entertain us.
While some cite Han not being killed off as a missed opportunity, and others lament the inclusion of the Ewoks as Lucas’s first foray into creating alien races solely for the purpose of merchandising, to me, Jedi is the perfect end to moviedom’s perfect trilogy. It marks the end of everyone’s respective storylines: Han is rescued and reunited with Chewie and, more importantly, Leia; Luke finally becomes a Jedi Knight by confronting his father for the final time and destroying the Emperor; and most importantly of all, Anakin Skywalker, the man around whom this entire saga of films revolved, returns to the light, and fulfils the prophecy of the chosen one, set out all those years ago, to finally vanquish the Sith and bring the force back into balance.
The final lightsaber fight between Luke and Vader in particular – wherein Luke strays dangerously close to becoming his father before witnessing the similar circuitry protruding from Vader’s wrist and ultimately defying the Emperor – is arguably one of cinema’s greatest cathartic moments. It’s one which this whole trilogy has been leading towards, and the cinematography, music, and editing is just superb in achieving this. This is part of the reason the original trilogy stands head and shoulders above all the other films; because it dares to use visuals and special effects to help tell the story, not to dictate it in every frame.
2: Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
No one could envy Irvin Kirshner back in 1979 when he was given the director’s chair to the sequel of the biggest cinematic success of all time; indeed, the director of small-time affairs such as 1976’s uniquely-named The Return of a Man Called Horse, and the effective thriller, Eyes of Laura Mars (1978) must have been more than apprehensive himself. If he delivered, he too would go down in history as part of cinema’s most successful saga. If not…then Star Wars was finished. Doubly so, seeing as Lucas self-funded The Empire Strikes Back out of his own pocket with the profits from Star Wars, including a $33 million loan from the Bank of America. This was a high-risk gamble, where everything was at stake.
Obviously, we all know now (what a beautiful ally hindsight is) how right he was on all counts: using Kershner as director gave him time and space to organise the film as its producer and co-writer, along with Lawrence Kasdan (fresh off of writing duties on the preliminary script for Raiders of the Lost Ark) and with the blueprints of his initial first draft with famed science-fiction author Leigh Brackett (who sadly died of cancer just after it had been submitted in 1978, then simply called Star Wars II), and free from all the directorial stresses associated with the making of the first film.
Empire is, without a doubt, my favourite Star Wars film of all time. It has everything: a final-act battle in the first act, the sophistic wisdom of Yoda, (portrayed flawlessly by Frank Oz in both voice and body), the introduction of Lando (the king of cool in the Star Wars universe), and the fact that, for a change, the good guys lose. That wasn’t that familiar a concept pre-Empire, yet now it seems to be the norm, in superhero films particularly.
And this, right here, is the staying power of Empire, its unafraid to push home the idea that the bad guys can be just as exciting and interesting (if not more so) than the good guys, and it’s all down to one word: ‘Vader’. Vader exemplifies and personifies this film wholeheartedly. When he’s on screen you fear him, worship him, unable to stop gazing; when he’s off-screen, you lament it, and wish for his return, no matter the consequences. This is the film where we get more insight into his headspace, more exposure to his cruelty, the first glimpse of his master, and ultimately, the most devastating piece of information on Luke’s lineage as a Skywalker, and the truth about Anakin’s fate.
Let’s just talk about that twist for a second: imagine being either in line or just getting to the end of your first viewing of Empire, there’s no internet, no way of being spoiled, and no way of knowing at all what will happen. Then that hits you. Four words, delivered with such intensity, ferocity, cruelty, and manipulation, yet in their own twisted way, the only true words Luke has heard on his family’s murky past: “I am your father.” It’s a line that sees infinite variations, misquotations, parodies, tributes, works of art, and imitations, and it’s easy to see why. It’s the watershed moment of the saga; the truth, whether or not you are old or willing enough to accept it in its raw and dark entirety. It changes everything from this moment on, and no one will be untouched by its implications. It is still, to my mind, the purest and most earth-shattering twist in cinema history, greater than any fantasy epic’s and rawer in its baseness than any horror film’s.
There is simply no way to measure the success of the original trilogy without the inclusion of The Empire Strikes Back, so complete is its status as a wholesome and functional second part that it continues to find no competitor today to rival its status as the best sequel of all time, and my personal favourite of all ten films. But despite that fact, it isn’t the number one…
1: Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (1977)
This is it. The end of the list, but the beginning of the adventure.
It’s the most iconic film of all time and the start of the greatest of all cinematic journeys, one which revolutionised the way we tell stories, and one that – through the countless rampant successes and inspirations it has produced – still maintains the blockbuster trend for success in fantasy and science-fiction in the film industry to this day.
Go back and imagine, if you can, the lights dimming in the cinema for the first time, the bright blue introduction letting you know that this was quite some time ago, in another far away galaxy, and then…black. Then massive yellow stylised letters blaring the name ‘STAR WARS’ careen onto the screen before transforming into the now-famous title crawl (minus the Episode IV: A New Hope subtitle, an addition not included until the 1980-81 re-releases). “Rebel spaceships, striking from a hidden base, have won their first victory against the evil Galactic Empire” and “the DEATH STAR, an armored space station with enough power to destroy an entire planet” were the two most original thoughts I can recall in my film-watching history, and the most imaginative. Who are these Rebels? Who is the Empire? Why are they evil? Who is the enigmatic Princess Leia? What’s this Death Star thingy? And how can it destroy planets?! And what the hell was that giant triangle shooting lasers that just whizzed overhead?
This is the wonder that audiences in 1977, and now, if they are first-timers, will see, hear and experience upon seeing A New Hope for the first time. Every part of it is crafted to perfection, written with excitement and fun in mind, and acted with that very same elation that only action-adventure movies can produce. So many shots and images in this film are pure primordial, mythic magic: the aforementioned overhead opening shot of the star destroyer; the first time Luke ignites a lightsaber; the flawless introduction of everyone’s favourite smuggler and his co-pilot, and their beloved “piece of junk” that makes 0.5 past lightspeed and finished the Kessel run in 12 parsecs; the introduction of cinema’s greatest villain in Darth Vader; the Death Star; Obi-Wan’s lightsaber duel with Vader; the trench run; and the final, gratifyingly happy medal sequence.
George Lucas was and is a genius. A storyteller unrivalled in today’s age. A yarn-spinner of admittedly derivative mythology, but who created this whole world for us to revel and live in. That is why, despite the misfire of the prequels, Lucas will always be the man that sparked my imagination on many a night, lit the fire of many a friendly discussion down the pub of who was more powerful than who, what colour lightsaber I’d have and why I love X-wings, and ultimately the man who gave millions of people the chance to relate to their world in a way no other filmmaker had.
So I’ll just sign off by saying thank you George Lucas; thank you for everything.