Thursday, December 18, 2014

Top 7: "Star Wars" Movies

It is exactly a year from today that Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens hits theaters.  We are entering into a whole new era of Star Wars, the post-George Lucas era.  Whether or not you like everything the man ever did, George Lucas created this vast enterprise that still inspires so much insane loyalty, so much so that Disney is making new Star Wars films to capitalize off of that loyalty.

I am personally a little worried about the post-George Lucas era, because his hand has been so actively involved in everything Star Wars for so long, the change is definitely going to be felt, and if you start up a prequels vs. originals argument from this, then you obviously have no respect for the man that created the very thing that you are so passionate about.  However, I am not wanting to waste time talking about the love/hate George Lucas argument, nor am I wanting to talk about The Force Awakens, but rather take a look back at the seven existing Star Wars films that received theatrical release and take stock of where we are in the galaxy far, far away.

Now, in my personal opinion, there has never been a bad Star Wars movie, and that is something that I want to clarify before I start this list, but there are Star Wars movies that I prefer to others.  Bottom line is, ranking the Star Wars movies is an almost impossible task, because the list could change based upon my mood on any given day.  With that said, I've gone with what is usually my consensus feelings about these movies, rather than the off day where I like one over the other that I normally always like more.  If that makes sense, let's get started with a year of Star Wars celebration by honoring the past.


7.  Star Wars:  The Clone Wars
This is the Star Wars movie that most tend to forget about, and in truth that's because this movie was not intended to be a movie in the first place.  After Episode III, George Lucas started working on two Star Wars TV shows to continue the story.  One was a live action show that never came to fruition, the other was a CG-animated show for Cartoon Network that would follow the Clone Wars that took place between Episode II and Episode III.  This is where this movie came into play.  

Released in 2008, this movie was essentially the first three episodes of The Clone Wars TV show edited together to make a movie.  George Lucas liked what Lucasfilm Animation was doing so much, that he thought it should get the treatment it deserved.  The problems that the movie faced when it was released in theaters was simply the fact that it was a TV show being projected onto the big screen.  The animation did not have the level of detail that the average Hollywood animated movie had, and it was also poorly marketed due to the last minute decision to release these first three episodes in theaters.  In truth, this movie might just be some of the weakest storytelling in the entire Clone Wars series, but it's still a really fun and enjoyable Star Wars adventure.

Series director, Dave Filoni, really understood what made Star Wars so beloved, not with just this movie, but with the show that premiered mere weeks after the movie was released.  As a matter of fact, the birth of The Clone Wars TV show, and the introduction of fan favorite characters like Ahsoka and Captain Rex, are the main reasons this movie is so awesome.  In the grand scheme of the Star Wars saga, this movie really doesn't add much to the overarching storyline other than introducing the idea that Anakin had an apprentice of his own that he was training during the Clone Wars, but it's that idea, and the chance to see Anakin in a more heroic light, that makes this movie, and The Clone Wars TV show, such a delight.  Honestly, if I could rank the TV show as a single entity, it very well might steal the number one spot, but I can't, therefore this will have to suffice.

6.  Star Wars:  Episode II - Attack of the Clones
There will always be fan controversy over the prequels.  Adult fans had two whole decades to dream up the first three Episodes in their own minds, that by the time they all finally saw what George Lucas always envisioned, they were upset because it wasn't what they saw in their heads for all those years.  That's the sad truth, and that's why the prequels never stood a chance with the fandom, and it's the same reason the sequel trilogy wont stand a chance with those same fans.  I for one am a believer in the prequels, and it's because they are as much a part of the reason I love Star Wars as the original trilogy are.

Attack of the Clones was in many ways the polar opposite to the lighthearted adventure of The Phantom Menace.  In the larger context of the saga, this movie was all about planting the seeds as to how Palpatine manipulated the political arena to eventually create the Empire, and it's also the movie that creates the reason as to why Anakin goes to the Dark Side, because of his love for Padme and his fear of losing that love.  This is some pretty heavy stuff for a swashbuckling space opera, and it's what makes this particular entry in the saga so special.  While Attack of the Clones may favor romance or political intrigue above comedy or action, these moments are so crucial to the large story, simply put, there couldn't be any of the subsequent Episodes without this one.

One thing that I think so many fans often forget about Attack of the Clones, is just how forward thinking it was.  This movie once again pushed the limits of what CGI could do, and while it does look dated nowadays, at the time it was cutting edge.  Then George Lucas, ever the innovator, shot on video and not film, signaling the rise of the digital vs. film debate we are currently living in.  Sure, the romance between Anakin and Padme starts out a little more creepy than sweet, and the movie as a whole could use an added dose of adrenaline, but that doesn't take away all of the amazing moments that Attack of the Clones delivers.  From Jango Fett, to the slaughtering of the Tusken Raiders, all the way to the Battle of Geonosis.  And who can forget Yoda vs. Count Dooku.  If you can say that your jaw didn't drop the first time you saw Yoda draw his lightsaber and duel, then you really are the world's biggest liar.

5.  Star Wars:  Episode III - Revenge of the Sith
Finally, this was the moment that every fan had been waiting for ever since the prequels were announced.  Fans finally got to witness how Anakin Skywalker turned into Darth Vader, and while some fans may have been disappointed by what George Lucas cooked up, this fan wasn't.

The greatest thing about what George Lucas did with Revenge of the Sith, was him not having Anakin turning to the dark side and slaying the Jedi as an act of pure evil, he was doing it to obtain the power he needed to keep the ones he loves from dying.  When you think about it, while Darth Vader is very cool and detached by the original three films, he wasn't born that way, no one is, and as we knew from the original films, Anakin Skywalker was once a great hero.  So how does a hero turn into a villain?  By making a wrong decision that brings about personal tragedy, therefore stripping the man of his humanity.

In a lot of ways, Revenge of the Sith is the closest you'll ever see George Lucas come to adapting Shakespeare.  The fall of Anakin Skywalker is so tragic and emotional that it trumps most literary tragedies for me, but I admit that I am biased.  Of course, the biggest thing that differentiates this movie from Shakespeare is the loads of action packed into just a little over two hours.  There are nearly half a dozen lightsaber duels in this one movie alone, and that first thirty minutes is just pure Star Wars magic.  From the moment Obi-Wan and Anakin fly through the battle above Coruscant, all the way to them having to crashland the gigantic space cruiser, it's actually the highpoint of the whole movie for me.

4.  Star Wars:  Episode IV - A New Hope
This was the one that started it all.  Originally known as Star Wars when released in 1977, it did not come to be known as A New Hope until it's re-release in 1981, after George Lucas realized he was going to be able to make more Star Wars movies.  The thing that makes A New Hope still the best place to start when introducing new people to Star Wars, is because the formula of this movie is what every Star Wars movie has tried to capture again in some way, shape, or form.  There is a proper balance between humor, drama, science fiction, fantasy, and action, that marks this as one casserole dish that I enjoy.

Personally I do not like casseroles.  I hate all of my favorite foods being put together, but when it comes to movies, I like having a little bit of everything in one package.  That's why I love blockbusters, because the best ones typically aren't just sci-fi, fantasy, or action, they're also comedy, romance, thriller, and drama.  While Jaws is credited as being the first real Summer blockbuster, I don't think it was until A New Hope that we got the real definition of what a blockbuster is, and it's exactly what I just mentioned.  It's something that delivers a little bit of everything to satisfy every member of its potential audience.  The fact of the matter is, as a fan I could go on all day about how great A New Hope is, and how it introduced all of the characters we know and love while also telling one of the most energetic and gleeful stories of all-time, but that doesn't explain why it's only number four on my list.

The truth is, compared to all of its sequels and prequels, A New Hope is the simplest of all of the Star Wars movies.  The simplicity is why I love it, because there really is no need for any thought whatsoever when watching this movie, you can simply experience it.  The only negative is that when you start thinking about it too hard, you start finding yourself asking:  Would the Rebel Alliance really let a young man, who is still unable to grow facial hair, lead a group on an attack run that hangs all of their fates in the balance?  Presumably they'd have let Biggs or Wedge lead their group, rather than Luke?  But Luke is the hero, and that's one of those things that you just go with when it happens, because as I said, A New Hope is an experience.  If you aren't feeling the Force by that moment, then Star Wars just isn't for you.

3.  Star Wars:  Episode VI - Return of the Jedi
For a long time this was the end of the saga, for nearly two decades in fact.  Return of the Jedi is the textbook example of how you do the third movie in a trilogy and do it right.  This movie ties up all of the loose ends from the first two movies while constantly ratcheting up the stakes and action, culminating in the heroes victorious and a big bow on top.  For me, the thing that I love the most about Star Wars is that it brings out the kid in all of us, and I think that is why I tend to gravitate to the more lighthearted films in the saga, because that's exactly what Return of the Jedi is.

When you essentially have an array of teddy bears as primary characters, you have to be in touch with your inner child to find them awesome.  I am not going to lie, I have always loved the Ewoks, and have always been so sad when so many of them die in the battle at the end.  Alas, the Ewoks wind up being victorious alongside the Rebellion, so the sting of seeing many of them fall in battle is softened.  If you find it hard to love the Ewoks, then you might be too cynical for Star Wars, because Star Wars as a whole is full of funny characters who are cute.  I mean, if you hate Ewoks, but love R2-D2, you're just being difficult.  They're both short, funny, full of personality, and exceptionally cute.  Without characters like this, you would not be able to connect with that sense of childlike innocence.  It is that sense of innocence that marks Return of the Jedi as unique in the Star Wars saga.

Return of the Jedi is completely unpretentious.  It wears its heart on its sleeve and it knows it.  This is a movie that doesn't try to be high brow, it simply is what it is.  There are jokes going along with all of the spectacle and genuinely heartwarming moments, making this one of the ultimate feel good movies.  Everything winds up alright in the end, and that is something that I hope The Force Awakens doesn't completely undo when it comes out next year.  Return of the Jedi is such a joyous ending, I really don't want us to just be told that everyone's lives went to crap after that celebration on Endor ended.  I worry that with the more post-apocalyptic style that The Force Awakens has, it will be that way, but maybe not.  Besides, as with everything, if the movie makes me believe that this was how everything was supposed to go down, I'll be cool with it, but J.J. Abrams and company need to make me buy into it if they're going to cheapen the ending of Jedi.

2.  Star Wars:  Episode I - The Phantom Menace
My brothers will think I have completely gone insane for placing this movie so high on the list, but I am tired of hiding it.  So what if you don't like the prequels?  Stop whining.  You are never going to erase them from existence, they are canon and they have a whole legion of fans, which I am one of, so let us just enjoy the movies that we love.  Getting off my soap box now, here are just a few of the reasons that I love The Phantom Menace:  young Obi-Wan Kenobi, Qui-Gon Jinn, Darth Maul, John Williams, the Jedi Order, and podracing of course.

The Phantom Menace really is a picture perfect adventure story in the classic vein of fairy tales and myth.  A Queen (Padme) has a problem and a hero (Qui-Gon) has to protect her as she tries to solve that problem.  Along the way they meet a Chosen One (Anakin) who can change all of their fates, as well as countless archetypes, from the Shapeshifter (Palpatine) to the Jester (Jar Jar Binks).  These are just a few of the Joseph Campbell archetypes displayed in The Phantom Menace.  So yes, Jar Jar does fit into the mythic idea of Star Wars, or have you never read King Lear and come across the Jester character?  He's pretty much Jar Jar, just speaking in verse.  Just saying, it doesn't make it any different.  I do all of this to point out that The Phantom Menace is so often slighted as being stupid, when it's really a clever working of literary tropes as old as time itself, but seriously, that's not the primary reason this movie makes the number two spot.

In a nutshell, The Phantom Menace is just fun to me.  I laugh at every joke, I get tense and excited at all of the right moments, and I feel sad or happy when I am supposed to.  If that's not a perfect movie, then I don't know what is.  Plus, the action in this movie is bar none.  Podracing is arguably the second coolest thing in all of Star Wars behind the Jedi Knights themselves (yes, I went there).  Not to mention the fact that the duel between Qui-Gon, Obi-Wan, and Darth Maul, is still the most exciting and emotional lightsaber duel in the whole Star Wars saga.  Granted, John Williams' music might have something to do with it.

1.  Star Wars:  Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back
Anyone that knows me had to know this one was going to be numero uno.  This is my favorite movie of all-time, how could it not make the number one spot on my list of favorite Star Wars movies?  Simply put, I believe The Empire Strikes Back to be the most perfect movie ever made.  The pacing of the script is just right, with the story never feeling rushed or slow, the direction is clear and concise, with you never wondering what is happening onscreen, and the movie is just a marvel of believable special effects that continue to fool the eye even 30 years later.  Then there's the simple fact that, not only do I believe this to be the funniest of all the Star Wars movies, while also being one of the darkest, this movie also features so many of my favorite moments from the entire saga.

When Yoda lifts Luke's X-wing out of the swamp using nothing but the Force, it's one of those movie moments that can be described as true movie magic.  Then there's the climactic lightsaber duel between Luke and Darth Vader on Cloud City, which is one of the most visually striking sequences of personal conflict ever captured onscreen, culminating in the ultimate movie twist, with the villain revealing that he is our hero's father.  "No, that's not true, that's impossible!"  There is just a lot to love in Empire, from every quip that Han Solo makes, to every humorous whine of C-3PO, all the way to the eccentricity and nobility of Yoda, you can't find a serious movie that is more intentionally hilarious to alleviate the tension.

Wrapping up this look back at all seven Star Wars movies, Empire really is the crown jewel of the saga that the sequels are really going to have to contend with in every fan's mind, and that's not an easy feat to accomplish.  No movie has ever matched Empire in my books, and I am not sure any movie ever will.  This is in many ways the quintessential blockbuster, and yet it also completely defies every expectation that a blockbuster has in telling its story.  The biggest action sequence is within the first thirty minutes of the movie.  The moment that is usually saved for the climax is the first thing out of the gate, and from there the movie goes from being a war epic to being an intimate character journey, with the real climax of the movie being a personal one, rather than one that's played on a grand stage.

Many movies have tried to emulate the formula of Empire and have failed drastically.  They think that just by making the second movie in a trilogy darker and letting the bad guys win will make their movie just like Empire, but they miss the thing that makes Empire so special and my favorite movie of all-time.  Not only is it unconventional in its storytelling, not only does it feature the best cinematography, writing, and directing, in movie history, but it is a movie that just has a huge heart.  You love every single character in this movie.  You cheer them on, you sympathize with them.  These characters do not hide their feelings, they let you know what they feel, and it's that honesty that allows you to connect with them on all of the base human emotions, even all of the aliens and droids.  While Empire is the movie that transformed Star Wars from a simple Saturday matinee serial into the grand mythical epic that it now is, we must never forget that Empire is what it is because of its heart.  Movies just aren't made this way anymore.

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