On this May the Fourth, we celebrate 37 years of “Star Wars.”
Most of you reading this weren’t born when the first movie blew minds at cinemas around the world (disclaimer, I wasn’t). Heck, a lot of you might not have been old enough to see “Star Wars: The Phantom Menace” in theaters, and yes, that freaks me out.
“Star Wars” is a phenomenon like no other, having spawned a cross-platform universe that includes seven movies and seven TV spin-offs (including one ill-fated Holiday Special), and of course, the upcoming and recently cast “Star Wars: Episode VII.” What better way to celebrate this holiest of “Star Wars” days then by ranking every single one of them?
Here is our definitive list of the good, the bad and the ugly of the “Star Wars” franchise.
14) “The Star Wars Holiday Special” (1978)
You’ve probably heard the legend of this insane — and insanely bad — “Star Wars” spin-off that was meant to celebrate Earth Day or something. We don’t know; we’ve blocked it out of our minds. The problem with the Holiday Special is that it’s not even so bad it’s good — it’s just really, really bad. It’s like watching the most boring trainwreck of all time, except Bea Arthur is there for some reason. It’s no wonder George Lucas ordered this, this thing to never be shown again. Unfortunately for him, the Internet exists, and we can all bask in the special’s glorious awfulness.
13) “Caravan of Courage: An Ewok Adventure” (1984)
It’s hard to remember a time when Ewoks weren’t simply a punchline and a punching bag for people who argued that they presaged the likes of Jar-Jar Binks and some of the least liked aspects of the prequel trilogy. But there was a time (the ’80s) when they were insanely popular, so much so that they got two made-for-TV film spinoffs. The first “Caravan of Courage,” is the first, and the worst of the two, focusing on the friendship between Wicket (the hero Ewok from “Return of the Jedi”) and little girl whose family crash lands on the moon of Endor a few months before the events of “Jedi.” It has some fun adventure moments and some cool stop-motion monsters, but it’s probably the most juvenile entry in the canon.
12) “Ewoks: The Battle for Endor” (1985)
Yep, that’s right. The first Ewok TV movie was apparently so successful that they just had to make a second one. “Battle For Endor” is, unfortunately, not an epic tale of the Ewoks waging a guerilla war against leftover imperial troops that’s one part Care Bears and one part “Saving Private Ryan.” Instead, it focuses again on the little girl from “Caravan of Courage” who, now orphaned (jeez guys, getting dark, don’t you think?), has to help Ewoks regain control of their village from evil maurauders.
Oh also, Wicket has learned English (sorry, Basic), and can talk now, which, considering the movie takes place before “Return of the Jedi,” means that he was just kind of being a dick that whole time pretending he didn’t understand Leia.
11) “Star Wars: Ewoks” (1985-1987)
I’m sorry, I forgot to mention that the two made-for-TV movies spawned an animated TV series called “Ewoks,” which lasted for two years and 35 episodes. In this one, Wicket’s the main character, everyone speaks perfect English, and they fight a witch and a race of Ewok-like creatures named Duloks. None of that was a joke. Though all this was clearly a cash-grab aimed at kids, the series had its charms. The animation was fairly lush and made the Ewoks even cuter (if that’s possible), and I’ll always have a soft spot for Wicket.
10) “Star Wars: Droids” (1985-1986)
Ok, this at least made more sense for a TV series. The animated show featured everyone’s favorite droids, C-3P0 (voiced by the man himself, Anthony Daniels) and R2D2. The animated style is as hokey as they come, and the opening theme is, well, amazing in a totally ’80s way (it was performed by Stewart Copeland from The Police), but, unlike “Ewoks,” the series at least feels like a “Star Wars” show, bridging the gap between the then non-existent “Episode III” and “A New Hope,” and introducing elements that would actually be expanded on in a comic book series of the same name and the prequels. If you watched it as a kid, you might have fond memories. If not, then these aren’t the droids you’re looking for.
9) “Star Wars: The Clone Wars” (2008)
Don’t worry, this isn’t the surprisingly good animated series, but the film that spawned that series. It had the honor of being the first “Star Wars” spin-off film (meaning it’s not one of the “Episodes”), but unfortunately, the film is simply not very good. It has no idea what kind of tone it wants to strike, considering it’s both for kids and taking place in a period of all-out war. Also, there are electric guitars in the score for some reason. The best thing the movie did was introduce Anakin’s apprentice Ahsoka, who would become a far better character in the ensuing series.
8) “Star Wars: Episode II — Attack of the Clones” (2002)
Oh, I can feel your anger. “Episode II,” worse than “Episode I”? Abso-freaking-lutely. “Episode I” has redeeming qualities that I’ll get into later.
“Episode II”‘s cardinal sin is that it’s so, so boring. The dialogue is horrid. (“I don’t like sand.”) The characters behave like idiots. Half the movie is devoted to a mystery that never even gets truly solved and doesn’t really matter in the end. And the main battle scene is almost incomprehensible to watch, a mess of CGI. Oh, and R2D2 gets to fly for some reason. Oh, and all the stormtroopers are clones of Boba Fett’s dad, and Boba Fett is a whiny kid, and… ok, I’ll stop.
There are some good parts to this movie: the music is awesome (John Williams’ love theme for Anakin and Padme is gorgeous); the five seconds of anticipation where you realize Yoda’s going to fight with a lightsaber are great (before he spins in the air like a rag doll); and the final scene is well-done, mostly because we get to hear the Imperial March and because Padme and Anakin’s wedding makes us think of “The Empire Strikes Back.” You loved that one, right?
7) “Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace” (1999)
You can trace all the negativity about “Star Wars” that now exists back to 1999, and most of the hate is because the hype was just so huge, and the first trailer (above) was so…freaking…good. I was so excited that my mom faked a doctor’s appointment for me and pulled me out of school to see it, and as a kid, I loved it. As I’ve grown up, it’s clear the movie doesn’t hold up, with wooden performances by everyone except Liam Neeson. Midichlorians are dumb, Jar-Jar is annoying, and the Trade War between Naboo and the on-the-nose named and kind of racist Trade Federation is pretty boring. Still, it gave us “Duel Of the Fates,” an epic lightsaber fight, and a fun, if pointless, podracing sequence.
Even though it’s not a good movie, and it did steer the prequels in an unfortunate direction, “Menace” feels the most like a “Star Wars” movie of any of the prequels.
6) “Star Wars: The Clone Wars” (2008-2014)
While “The Clone Wars” TV series needed a little time to hit its stride, it ended up telling some very good stories with a distinct visual style which arguably felt more in tune with the spirit of “Star Wars” than the prequels themselves. Canceled before it could offer a more satisfying conclusion to the saga of Ahsoka and the wars, the series still managed to recapture some of the magic that made kids fall in love with “Star Wars” in the first place, and it should be commended for that.
5) “Star Wars: Episode III — Revenge of the Sith
Here’s the weird thing about “Revenge of the Sith”: the first half of it is really not very good. Outside of a tense, interesting scene between Palpatine and Anakin at the weirdest opera ever, it’s a lot of meandering action sequences with terrible one-liners, a strange tone, and a way over-the-top villain in General Grievous. But then, after the clones turn bad and Order 66 is announced, the movie finds its footing, and becomes easily the best of the prequels, giving us some dramatic scenes with Padme, Anakin, and Obi-Wan.
Sure, there’s still some bad dialogue in there (be thankful Mr. Lucas is not writing Episode VII), but the Order 66 scene packs a punch, the rendering of the lava world of Mustafar are gorgeous, and dang it if the ending doesn’t bring a slight tear to the eye of a “Star Wars” fan. If only the whole movie could’ve been as good as the second half, it might have stood on its own among the originals.
4) “Star Wars: Clone Wars” (2003-2005)
I love this series. Not to be confused with “The Clone Wars” (articles make all the difference sometimes), this was a series of short episodes (all between 3 and 15 minutes per episode) which took place between “Clones” and “Sith” and introduced General Grievous as the big bad for the Jedi. And while in “Sith” Grievous comes off as a live-action cartoon, in the cartoon he is just a total badass (check out the montage above to see for yourself). That goes for the Jedi in general, who actually use their Force powers in awesome ways.
The animation was hand-drawn and led by Gendy Tartakovsky, mastermind behind “Samurai Jack” and “Dexter’s Lab,” and the animation is gorgeous, with some incredible large-scale effects shots and vistas and wonderfully expressive characters who channeled their live-action counterparts while also fitting into Tartakovsky distinct visual style. If you watch one “Clone Wars” animated series, make it this one.
3) “Star Wars: Episode VI — Return of The Jedi” (1983)
This is a tough one for me. As a kid, “Jedi” was my favorite “Star Wars” movie. I loved the Emperor. I loved Jabba. I loved the final Death Star sequence. I liked the Ewoks, and Slave Leia. I’m sure every kid has the same story for that one.
As I’ve gotten older, I understand the criticisms against it. I get that it would probably have been cooler with Wookies than Ewoks. the Death Star plot isn’t too original. It maybe ends a little too happy… but too bad, it’s still awesome. The final fight between Luke and Vader is more emotionally charged than any other lightsaber fight in the series, and the Emperor is a perfect cross of campy villainy and nightmarish villainy. “And now young Skywalker… you will die,” makes my spine tingle as if Force lightning were shooting through me.
Plus, Lando and his sidekick on the Millennium Falcon are the best buddy movie ever. Oh, and before I forget…
2) “Star Wars: Episode V — The Empire Strikes Back” (1980)
This might get me more flack than putting “Episode I” above “Episode II”. Look, I love “Empire.” It does exactly what a second film should do: it expands the world of the first, introduces us to amazing new locales and characters (I really hope Lando’s in “Episode VII”), puts our now very-developed characters in real emotional stakes, and culminates in perhaps the greatest twist in film history. The dialogue is sharp. The set pieces, especially the Asteroid Field fight, are awesome to behold. And the finale packs the biggest emotional punch of anything in the series.
So why is it only at number 2? Mostly because, when watched independent of “Jedi,” I was struck by how incomplete it feels. It’s maybe the best cliffhanger of all time, but it still might as well have “To Be Continued” slapped on to the end. The journey is wondrous, but I do think it’s considered as great as it is because “Jedi” at least competently completed that journey. None of this is “Empire”‘s fault: as the second movie in a trilogy, those problems are unavoidable. It’s the best sequel of all-time, and one of the best sci-fi fantasy movies of all time. But it’s just below the best of them all.
1) “Star Wars: Episode IV — A New Hope” (1977)
Known only as “Star Wars” when it first came out, people sometimes forget how freaking awesome this movie is. The 1977 effects somehow are not that dated (even without the improvements from the Special Edition). The story is a brilliant update on a centuries-old formula. The music is some of the best ever put to film and influenced movies for decades to come. And this isn’t just hindsight: “Star Wars” was nominated for Best Picture in 1978, losing out to Woody Allen’s “Annie Hall.” It was a phenomenon like nothing before and nothing since, and most of it was just because it was, and remains, a wonderful movie.
From the opening crawl, to Luke looking longingly at the twin suns, to Han coming back for the most heroic rescue in movie history, the movie is a goosebump machine, whether you’re five or 55.
The Force is strongest in this one. It’s the first, and it’s the best.