A long, long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, George Lucas created an instant-classic mythos that remains, despite the passage of time and the production of prequels, a fresh, relevant and downright amazing as this weekend’s box-office reports. Here is our tally of the Top Ten episodes in the “Star Wars” franchise.
10. Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999)
Yes, Jar Jar Binks is indisputably obnoxious. Yes, Jake Lloyd, the child actor cast as the precocious young Anakin Skywalker, conveys all the stomach-curdling sweetness of a cute kid in a bad sitcom. And, yes, it’s likely that no film could have fully satisfied expectations raised during the 16 years following “The Empire Strikes Back” (1983). But the real problem with this first of the three “prequels” is the sloppy storytelling. Franchise creator George Lucas had not actually directed a film since “A New Hope” (1977) — and it’s clear he was a little rusty when he assumed full control again here. Despite all the flash and fury of the action set pieces, there are long stretches of “Phantom Menace” when the pace slackens as key scenes dawdle aimlessly, then end abruptly. The continuity is spotty, the acting is wildly uneven, and the plot is at once simplistic and confusing. Of course, Jar Jar Binks doesn’t help matters.
9. Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones (2002)
The second episode of the prequel trilogy is a considerable improvement over “The Phantom Menace.” Consider: Bunches of hairbreadth escapes, an abundance of epic-scale action-adventure, an absolute minimum of Jar Jar Binks, Christopher Lee tangling with Yoda — and no sickly-sweet pod-racing brats whatsoever. On the other hand, there is a muddled plot that has something to do with secessionist factions within the Republic, and something else to do with Anakin Skywalker’s long-simmering love for queen-turned-senator Padme Amidala. Lucas spends far too much time on the latter, developing the budding romance with much stilted dialogue and syrupy sentimentality. (It doesn’t help much that everybody refers to Anakin as “Annie.” No wonder the poor dude has identity problems.) By the way: It’s a bit odd that the age difference between the two characters, firmly established in the previous episode, is almost entirely ignored here. (Maybe Annie has mommy issues as well?)
8. Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (2005)
Easily the best of the prequels — which, yes, is kinda-sorta damning with faint praise — “Revenge of the Sith” brings the trilogy to a dramatically and emotionally satisfying conclusion. There are no great surprises here because, if you really stop to think about it, there can’t be. But give Lucas fair credit: The climactic lightsaber battle between Obi-Wan Kenobe and Anakin Skywalker amid the fiery eruptions of a volcanic landscape comes off as a sci-fi Gotterdammerung, complete with Wagnerian levels of intensity, tragedy and majesty. Unfortunately, despite this and other undeniably exciting scenes, Natalie Portman remains inexplicably bland as the tragic Padme Amidala, who appears to experience the most rapidly accelerated pregnancy in movie history. And Hayden Christensen remains underwhelming with his petulant whining as Anakin. But when he finally puts on the mask to reveal himself as You Know Who… well, for a few minutes at least, the Force is with him.
7. Star Wars: The Clone Wars (2008)
Sure, some purists will insist this warp-speed animated feature — which received a theatrical release prior to spawning a TV series of the same name — doesn’t belong on any list of “real” movies in the franchise. But it actually functions surprisingly well as a narrative link between “Attack of the Clones” and “Revenge of the Sith,” and is in many ways more freewheelingly entertaining than both. Better still, it allows Christopher Lee another chance to play, or at least voice, Count Dooku. As Yoda might say: For small favors grateful you should be.
6. Star Wars: Rogue One (2016)
Not unlike “The Clone Wars,” the very lively live-action “Rogue One” is a stand-alone feature that partially bridges some narrative gaps. In this case, the movie’s plot unfolds immediately before the events of “A New Hope” — and it’s actually quite amusing to watch both films back to back. Felicity Jones capably does mucho derring-do in the lead role of Jyn Orso, a career criminal turned Rebel Alliance irregular who’s charged with locating the designer of the Death Star — who just happens to be her father, Galen Orso (Mads Mikkelsen). “Rogue One” overall is slightly darker and scruffier than most other episodes in the franchise. (And since Jyn didn’t figure into the original trilogy, you pretty much know right from the start what her fate will be.) But that’s not meant as criticism, just observation. Besides: It’s a stand-alone feature, remember?
5. Star Wars Episode VI: The Return of the Jedi (1983)
No doubt about it: The Ewoks were a big mistake. But never mind. While arguably the weakest of the original trilogy, “Return of the Jedi” has lived long and prospered — wait, sorry, wrong franchise. “Return” remains remarkable and repeatedly rewatchable, if only for the immensely satisfying way it wraps up an epic narrative that is equal parts Joseph Conrad, Flash Gordon and Akira Kurosawa: Heroes achieve their goals, destinies are fulfilled, and just desserts are generously served all around. Plus, lots of things blow up real good. Would it stand on its own merits as a stand-alone film? Probably not, and why should anyone expect it to? The key to enjoying this grand finale is to think of it as just that — a final chapter, a quietus that allows characters you have come to embrace, who have moved heaven and earth and assorted planets on their long journey, an opportunity to at long last get some peace. Well, at least until the next trilogy.
4. Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens (2015)
For this terrifically entertaining launch for the post-Lucas phase of the franchise, director and co-scripter J.J. Abrams neatly balances his obvious fanboy respect for Lucas’ legacy (which is pretty much what you might expect from someone who wasn’t yet 12 when “A New Hope” premiered) with burning ambition to strike a new path even while carrying the torch. “Force Awakens” repeatedly harkens back to elements and incidents from the first trilogy, but cleverly adds fresh spins and cheeky touches. This is best illustrated in the characterization of Rey (Daisy Ridley), the feisty scavenger turned Forceful warrior, who is even less of a distressed damsel than the original trilogy’s Prince Leia. (Note how, early on, she rejects a patronizing hand-grab from John Boyega’s ex-stormtrooper Finn as they avoid enemy fire.) And speaking of Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher): It’s swell to see her, Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and, briefly, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), mainstays of the first three “Star Wars” films, back in action here. But the joy engendered by their return makes it all the more devastating when one of them is written out of the story.
3. Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi
OK, here comes the tricky part: Making a spoiler-free case for a film most people haven’t yet seen. As the second installment of the third trilogy, it’s impressively effective as it provides intriguing additional depth and detail for characters and relationships introduced in “The Force Awakens.” Indeed, the evolving dynamic between Forceful antagonists Rey (Daisy Ridley, well on her way to becoming a total badass) and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) is so fascinating, it’s almost (but not quite) annoying whenever writer-director Rian Johnson cuts away to more action-packed parallel storylines. Mark Hamill gives the performance of his career as a bitterly disillusioned Luke Skywalker, who gets the movie’s best line and, more important, fits perfectly into a “Rashomon”-style subplot. New characters (most notably, Kelly Marie Tran’s resourceful and resilient Rose Tico) are shrewdly introduced to both fill narrative needs here, and suggest additional complications for the next exciting episode. (It appears that, much like the original trilogy, this new triptych will at least hint at a romantic triangle.) And there’s an emotionally wrenching near-death scene in which… No, sorry, can’t go there. Not yet, anyway.
2. Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
For many folks long steeped in the “Star Wars” mythos, this second installment is the best film in the first trilogy, if not the entire franchise. And they have a compelling argument to make: Like “The Last Jedi,” “Empire Strikes Back” adds additional depth and detail to characters introduced in the previous episode, introduces colorful new characters (hello, Lando Calrissian!), and acknowledges that, even though it may always be darkest just before the dawn, things can get so dark that dawn seems awfully far away. Then as now, such an acknowledgement can make you even more impatient for the next sequel.
1. Star Wars (1977)
But as great as “The Empire Strikes” is, it isn’t the original. It’s not the first kiss, it’s not the initial liftoff. For anyone too young to have purchased a first-run admission ticket to the first “Star Wars” film — and therefore has never seen on a big screen that, yes, Han Solo really did shoot first — it may be impossible to fully appreciate the explosive impact it had on audiences who may have seen something like it before, in comic books or old movie serials, but never before so prodigiously enhanced with such awesome spectacle and envelope-pushing technical wizardry. (It didn’t hurt that it provided irresistibly exciting escapism during the creeping malaise of the post-Vietnam, post-Watergate era.) But “Star Wars” or “A New Hope” or whatever you want to call it has a lot more than nostalgia value going for it. Forty years after its premiere, it continues to attract new audiences, in all platforms, as an essential part — the gateway drug, if you will — for an ongoing pop-culture phenomenon. Yes, you guessed it: The Force is still with “Star Wars.”