The Star Wars saga comes out on Blu-Ray for the first time next month, a hugely exciting event, and I’ll clearly be out there on the first day to get it. So it seems like a good time to look back and review the six films that make up the series. I’ll do it in ‘story order’, rather than chronological order, I’m sure George Lucas would approve…
One of the most eagerly-anticipated films ever released and, consequently, one of the most disappointing. The first Star Wars film for 16 years, it begins with the trademark preamble, but uses phrases like ‘taxation’ and ‘trade federation’, and reads a bit more like something from the Financial Times than a space opera. Obviously, if Lucas was going to spread out Anakin Skywalker‘s fall from grace across three films, it had to start with the universe still in some kind of order, but did it all have to be so mundane? Ah yes, Anakin. Another danger with starting with such a young ‘future Darth Vader’ is that you end up with Jake Lloyd’s little moppet, who struggles to convince in the role, not helped by largely stilted performances from Ewan McGregor (as young Obi Wan) and his mentor Liam Neesom. Oh, and Jar-Jar Binks, one of the most irritating characters in movie history. There’s lots of good things about Phantom Menace, not least fantastic music from John Williams, while Darth Maul is an under-used menace, but it’s still hard not to feel like Lucas got too much wrong as a writer and director.
Much better, Attack Of The Clones pushed the action on a decade, with young Anakin now a broody (and occasionally homicidal) teenage apprentice to Obi Wan and Queen Amidala now just a senator who doesn’t look ten years older, but does at least have less ridiculous costumes. Despite the (supposed) age gap, love inevitably blossoms between the pair, which is handy if they are to spawn Luke and Leia in time for the original trilogy. Professional Bad Guy Christopher Lee provides some gravitas as ludicrously-named Count Dooku, while Jango Fett and his little boy Boba provide a bit of action and continuity for the superfans. Yoda’s acrobatic fight with Dooku towards the end is a definite highlight and there’s lots of great scenes, but the romance between Hayden Christensen and Natalie Portman is painful to watch (George Lucas is many things, but not a writer of profound – or human – dialogue), and that holds it back. Having said that, it is a definite improvement on the dullness of its predecessor.
Having made two films that weren’t anywhere near as beloved as the original trilogy, Lucas had only one more shot when it came to his slightly unnecessary story of why Anakin Skywalker became Darth Vader. And he… didn’t quite get it right. I’d say it’s again a slight improvement over the other two, with the tone becoming a lot darker as the trilogy moves ever closer to the Jedis being all-but wiped out and the Empire taking total control. In the hands of a more able writer/director, it could have been so much more, but Lucas avoids too many missteps, with great scenes showing Palpatine’s unmasking, the massacre of the Jedi and Anakin’s battle with Obi Wan. There’s an awful, ham-fisted scene involving a medical robot towards the end, but Revenge Of The Sith is, for me, the most satisfying of the prequels. And you barely even glimpse Jar-Jar…
Episode IV: A New Hope (1977)
Or, as everyone else calls it, Star Wars. The film that spawned a thousand pieces of merchandising and lots of copycats. It’s full of iconic characters and moments and never looks like it was made by the same man who made the mistakes he would make a few decades later, because there’s plenty of humour and heart. Star Wars feels like rattles along at quite a pace, but sometimes when I watch it, I’m quite surprised at how little happens in comparison to some of the other installments. Leia gets captured, Luke meets Obi Wan, they meet Han, they go to rescue Leia, Obi Wan dies, Luke destroys the Death Star. There’s a few set pieces involving rooms that want to crush them, and games of chess that move, but it’s mostly carried along by the fantastic music of John Williams and a sense of wonder and adventure that sets it aside from any of the pretenders.
The one that all the clichéd fan-boys say is the best. Mainly because it is. Darker (or at least more successfully dark) than any of the others in the saga, it starts with the Rebels getting pounded by a vengeful Empire on icy Hoth and introduces the wonderful Yoda as Luke’s new Jedi mentor. With the (soon-to-be-icky) love triangle blossoming between Luke, Han and Leia, there’s even more human emotion on display than usual, presumably because Lucas allowed Irvin Kershner to direct and Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan to write the screenplay. The closing scenes on Cloud City are fantastic, particularly the gut-wrenching moment when Han is encased in carbonite and still hasn’t escaped by the end of the film. Oh, and of course, there’s THAT revelation by Vader to Luke. Just a really great film.
One definitely positive thing I can say about the prequels is that the reaction to them has hopefully helped people realise how good Return Of The Jedi actually was. Before then, it was all ‘Ewok this’ and ‘Ewok that’, with lots of very serious people complaining about the Empire being brought down by the Care Bears. Maybe it’s my age, but I never had a problem with the Ewoks or their role in the film, and it’s daft to criticise everything that is so good about it because of them. From Jabba’s Palace to Luke’s final confrontation with Vader and The Emperor (with a huge space battle in the background), it’s a rollercoaster ride of excitement and emotion, right up to Anakin Skywalker’s redemption when he turns on his master in favour of his son. It makes for a perfect end to a saga that changed cinema, but is basically just a load of good fun (when it works).