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Worst to First: Ranking the Star Wars Movies

Happy Star Wars Day, everyone!  To celebrate May 4th (“May the Fourth be with you”, get it?) I’m going to rank all eight of the live-action theatrical Star Wars films from Worst to First.  As usual, you’re invited to play along.  Reader rankings will be shared in a follow-up post.  I have a bad feeling about this, but let’s get to ranking.

8. Attack of the Clones (2002)

Box Office: $302,191,25 (#6)

Adjusted For Inflation: $459,788,400 (#8)

RT Score: 65%

Episode #: 2

Summary: At the risk of spoiling the suspense, my rankings will largely reflect my preference for the original trilogy over the prequels that followed.  I don’t hate the prequels.  I just feel they were poorly executed by George Lucas.  The story of the rise and fall of Anakin Skywalker had potential.  But Uncle George didn’t map out his trilogy in advance and the end result was an uneven mess.  Many will point to Episode One as the low point with each prequel improving relative to the reduction in Jar Jar Binks’ screen time.  But for my money, the middle chapter is where the prequels truly bottom out.

While I appreciate the fact that Lucas saw fit to sideline the ever annoying Mr. Binks in the second movie, he made up for that by turning up the volume on the already shrill C-3PO to the point that I had to question my fondness for the character.  But that was far from Clones‘ biggest problems.  There’s the ridiculous CGI light-saber duel between former puppet Yoda and the ancient Christopher Lee or the Sifo-Dyas subplot that goes absolutely nowhere.  Those are missteps to be sure, but they are not the movie’s fatal flaw.

The reason I rank Attack of the Clones lowest on the list is that the movie – and really the whole prequel trilogy by extension – is centered around a love story that doesn’t work at all.  Hayden Christensen takes over the role of Anakin in this movie and he is more petulant teen than bad-ass Jedi knight.  Natalie Portman has never looked more bored on screen than when she is sleep-walking through her would-be romantic scenes.  Adding to the “ick” factor is the fact that the last time we saw these characters Padme was a young adult and Anakin was ten.  (Technically, there is only supposed to be a five year age difference between these two characters, but the casting does not convey that.)

The actors aren’t helped by George Lucas’ notoriously terrible dialogue.  There’s a reason Lucas usually has collaborators.  He’s a wiz-bang idea man, but not a gifted writer.  To call Lucas’ dialogue “clunky” is an understatement.  But even by the low standards of Star Wars scripting, Attack of the Clones contains some howlers.  I doubt even the most ardent prequels apologist is going to argue in favor of the infamous “sand” speech.

Next: The Phantom Menace

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Posted on May 4, 2017, in Movies, Star Wars, Worst to First. Bookmark the permalink. 18 Comments.

  1. The only difference between your ranking and mine was that I switched ROGUE ONE and THE FORCE AWAKENS, based on fun, Han, Leia, and Chewie. Plus, I also love Rey.

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  2. My rankings are modestly different but not enormously. Jar-Jar and midichlorians mean that Phantom Menace will always trail the field for me, but all three of the prequels have serious problems. First, as you note, Anakin, the supposed protagonist, is not written as a very attractive character, so people aren’t invested in what happens to him.

    Second, while I am not opposed to the idea of taking the prequels in a different direction, Lucas never seemed to have a clear sense of what that new direction was going to be. Was it the romance? The political intrigue? Furthermore, Lucas simply wasn’t the writer to make either of these work very well. And his control-freak reputation meant he wasn’t able to bring in the kind of creative talent he would have needed to execute whatever his vision turned out to be.

    I still haven’t seen Rogue One, but I can’t imagine it being as bad as the prequels and by all accounts it is pretty decent, so I rate it ahead of the prequels but behind the others that I’ve seen.

    I’m actually rather fond of The Force Awakens, and would rate it more or less even with Return of the Jedi. While TFA has a depressingly unoriginal storyline, I think it’s got some very strong performances. Daisy Ridley is terrific, with just the right blend of street-smart scavenger and wide-eyed innocent. John Boyega is very good and Harrison Ford is there to anchor the whole show. Jedi has the strength of, as you note, bringing the original trilogy to a satisfying conclusion—as a story, it’s stronger and more original.

    And then we have the Big Two. Empire is definitely the better film, and I rank it #1, but as someone who was around, and seeing it five times during that summer of 1977, I think it’s easy to lose sight of what a game-changer Star Wars was back then.

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    • Picking the worst of the prequels is a real loose-loose proposition. I won’t argue with anyone who prefers Attack of the Clones to Phantom Menace. They are both deeply flawed. I agree completely with your assessment of the prequel trilogy as a whole. One thing that differentiates the original trilogy from the prequels is the level of collaboration. For Empire, the best of the series, Lucas handed a lot of the creative choices over to Lawrence Kasdan and Irvin Kershner who made a very different movie from the one George wanted.

      I may be overly hard on The Force Awakens. Partially, I think I am compensating for the fawning reaction that movie gets from a lot of fans. To me, it succeeds in not being awful. I like a lot of the new characters, but the script doesn’t really give them anything to do. I’m hoping they get put to better use in the next movie and then perhaps it will raise my estimation of TFA.

      It is hard to overstate the cultural impact of the original Star Wars. I can’t think of another movie that even comes close. I could argue that it has changed movies for the worse, but good or bad the change was massive.

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  3. daffystardust

    I can’t make any good argument against the order of your choices. While I might flip flop some here or there, none of those differences would be changes I would consider significant.

    The basics are:
    There are 2 possible answers for the best of the group. Those two are-
    Star Wars (1977) &
    The Empire Strike Back (1980)

    A group of entertaining, but very flawed films-
    Return of the Jedi (1983)
    The Force Awakens (2015) &
    Rogue One (2016)

    A single member of the prequels that aspires to be in this second group but just can’t be-
    Revenge of the Sith (2003)

    And two utterly terrible members of the prequel trilogy-
    The Phantom Menace (2001) &
    Attack of the Clones (2002)

    That, of course, is coming from a person who saw the first Star Wars film when it was released in 1977. I have seen people who I assume are younger claim that TFA is the best of the films. Maybe they are basing their judgement primarily on the advanced special effects in that movie in comparison to those in the origin of the explosion of these effects. While my eyes can recognize that progress has been made in that realm, I don’t think it’s a valid way to judge a film as a whole.

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    • Your grouping is perhaps the best way to approach these movies. I wouldn’t quibble with any shifting around of order within those groups.

      I will disagree vocally and vehemently with anyone who puts The Force Awakens anywhere near the same status as Empire or Star Wars. It’s just not in the same league. If someone argued it was better than Jedi, I would disagree. But I can easily chalk that up to personal preference.

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  4. May the the fourth be with you, ha ha; although for myself, I’m going to be more like the animatedMark Hamill when he played Nathan Detroit (“Guys and dolls…we are all just a bunch of guys and dolls…”) and told Homer Simpson to use the forks.
    I had “The Empire Strikes Back” at #1, “Star Wars” at #2, “Return of the Jedi” at #3, “The Force Awakens” at #4, “Rogue One” at #5 (admittedly, I haven’t viewed the two new ones, but I wanted to play anyway), “Revenge of the Sith” at #6 (the only prequel I like a little), “The Phantom Menace” at #7, and “Attack of the Clones” at #8.

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  5. I thought the summaries for the films were right on point, as least from my perspective; it’s exactly how I feel about the films in the franchise I’ve viewed (it doesn’t particularly motivate me to view the two newer films, but that’s fine by me).

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  6. True Force Awakens shouldn’t be in the same league as the original trilogy and while the criticisms of it have merit, is it possible, they just established them for the first one and the next two of the new trilogy, they will get fleshed out properly and really establish them? Like what the original Star Wars did, but back then it was done much better, so in that sense, it was wise to have the original crew

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  7. jeffthewildman

    Aside form flipping the bottom two, I pretty much agree with everything said here.

    Thinking about writing a Worst To First entry on the other big sci-fi series that came out of the 70s. Of course, I’m referring to Alien. Although I’ll probably wait until I see Alien: Covenant.

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  8. Bravo, well done! Excellent retrospective of the series. Although, disclaimer, I have not seen any of the prequels. Anger and outrage from my contemporaries of the time convinced me not to, and no regrets. As far as your rankings, well again that may not even matter so much as you captured the flavor and spirit of the Star Wars saga so well… I might flip your 4 and 5, only because Rogue One had an ending that can’t be watched twice. I’d rather be bored than depressed and devastated, and TFA wasn’t boring for me. The mix of old and new characters was actually quite intriguing. Also I have to go with the first movie as being the best, for objective reasons because Return of the Jedi gets me all emotional and I would have to switch my 1 and 3 accordingly, which wouldn’t be right. Don’t get me wrong I loved Empire but the blatant cliffhanger was something that belonged on TV, not a stand alone movie. The 1977 release was a game changer and contained novel yet enduring elements that have stood the test of time very well. The pacing was definitely 1970s, not a negative for me, and the characters, music, writing, plog, effects, action, dialogue, nonverbal communication, etc etc etc were transformative. At any rate, great post!

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    • Always good to hear from you, RB. Hope all is well with the family. Glad you enjoyed the piece.

      As usual, the rankings could shift around on a different day. I could very easily flip Phantom and Clones or Force Awakens and Rogue One. I feel pretty strongly that the original trilogy should outrank the prequels and the newer movies should hang out somewhere in the middle. I probably like Episode VII less than most people, but I’m open to revisiting it if Episode VIII really delivers. As a childhood fan, I want to like Star Wars. I just don’t want to be indiscriminate about it.

      As a kid, the darker tone and cliffhanger ending of Empire wasn’t what I was looking for. I wanted what The Force Awakens actually delivered, a retread of the first movie. Now that I am older, I appreciate the relative complexity of the middle chapter. If I put on a Star Wars movie, it will usually be Empire. I do agree that the cliffhanger was not appropriate for a movie which would not be followed up on for three years. That was torture. It also saddled Jedi with some awkward pacing as the first act was dedicated to finishing the previous story.

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      • daffystardust

        Maybe I was a sucker, but the cliffhanger ending of Empire had the effect on me which was probably desired by the filmmakers. It didn’t anger me in the least. It just made me wish I could see the next chapter immediately. I spent the intervening years making up where the story would go from there through play with my Star Wars action figures and other toys.

        I don’t think I would blame Jedi’s story problems on Empire. If my 3 years of storytelling through Kenner can be believed, there were plenty of ways they could have written themselves out of the corner they were in relatively elegantly. The fact that they didn’t doesn’t convince me that they couldn’t.

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        • I wasn’t angry about the ending to Empire. I was 9. I took things at face value. But I felt like the movie was missing something and looking back I realize the lack of a happy ending probably had a lot to do with that feeling. The entertainment I had consumed up to that point always ended with the heroes triumphant. Like you, I spent the next three years playing out that scenario with my Kenner toys.

          I am sure the cliffhanger coild have been resolved more elegantly in Jedi. But I have been kicking around ideas for how I might do that and I have to say there are tradeoffs involved. Do I really want to sacrifice Leia in a gold bikini to streamline the narrative? No. I don’t.

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        • I don’t really like cliffhangers in general, but since I viewed the trilogy after it was already released I was unaffected. If I saw the Empire film fresh out of the can though, I wouldn’t have been thrilled at all, like how I felt about “Back to the future” handled things at the time.

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