I guess there’s a Star Wars thing this week? Oh what’s the use. I don’t think I’ve gone 10 minutes without hearing Sar Wars music, seeing Star Wars stars or a Force Awakens trailer for weeks. Like the rest of the world, I had a #StarWarsRewatch over the last week or so starting with the original trilogy and then the prequels, just to get in the mood for the new filme. And I discovered something very alarming.
If you ask people “What is the worst Star Wars movie?” 9 out of 10 will say without hesitation “Phantom Menace.” Some people even go so far as to say the proper order for watching the movies is IV, V, VI, II and III, leaving out TPM entirely.
But they are wrong.
The worst Star Wars movie, BY FAR is Attack of the Clones.
I know what you are saying. Jar Jar! But if you can somehow just tune out the loathsome Gungan, Phantom Menace is actually a tight little story. Oh sure the trade blockade intrigue is about as exciting as watching CSPAN. But Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan have a nice relationship, Darth Maul is great, the pod race has great sound editing, and the story proceeds in a logical fashion.
But Attack of the Clones has the life sucked out of it by the dreadful “romance” storyline which is, line for line, worse than anything Jar Jar does or says. It’s so forced and unrealistic and lifeless. I used to think that the Detective Obi-Wan storyline and the arena scene made up for for bad ro-mah-mah bad romance. But it doesn’t. Whether it’s Anakin’s hatred of sand or Natalie Portman’s very clear unease and awful costumes, or just the total lack of chemistry…it’s almost unbearable.
There’s something else about AotC that becomes more apparent in context. It’s horrifically edited. It’s as if either George Lucas had no interest in making it at all (a likely story) or the people surrounding him purposely made things bad to see if he’d notice. Some of the scenes play like first takes that should have been scrapped and instead someone said “moving on!” (Example: Padme falling out of the trooop carrier and moaning in pain in the sand, then hopping up when asked if she’s okay.) It’s death.
The ONE GOOD THING about Attack of the Clones is what may be the greatest line in all of the Star Wars films: “Around the survivors, a perimeter create.” I don’t get why more people don’t quote that one.
Revenge of the Sith still packs a punch—by his own admission Lucas put 60% of the story in the movie and it shows. The final lightsaber battle on Mustafar is easily the best thing in all three prequels — probably because Steven Spielberg directed it, or at least helped storyboard it.
And jesus, I can’t imagine what it’s like when little kids watch it the first time: from the Jedi slaughter to Yoda’s failure to Padme’s death, it’s unending misery and terror. And the final scene of the limbless, charred Anakin writhing in the dirt is still disturbing.
The prequels do have some elements that are much better than they’re usually given credit for. The Star Wars “imagination” is there and the CGI is used much more intelligently than in many subsequent films where people fight swarming armies of bugs and robots. (Choose your Avengers movie.) General Grievous and generally anything with Obi-Wan in it are entertaining.
John Williams also did excellent work on I and II. Duel of the Fates, Anakin’s Theme and even the Love Theme are all stunners. Oddly. Revenge of the Sith has the most lackluster score, although maybe there wasn’t much to be done with what was essentially a series of funeral marches.
And what of the original trilogy? I hadn’t watch any of them in over a decade and even though I have only the remastered versions (complete with incongruous and ugly CGI) they still have all the power and wonder I felt when I saw them in the theater when they first opened. A New Hope is just as fresh and funny, with a breakneck pacing that is still a thrill. Return of the Jedi has its problems but time has made them nearly inconsequential. Han’s rescue and Luke’s final battle with Vader provide a great payoff for the whole storyline.
And Empire? As I wrote a few weeks ago, nothing that I ever experienced in a movie theater can surpass seeing it on the screen in 1980, spoiler free. Hearing the Imperial March for the first time. The discovery of Yoda. Do or do not. There is no try. The total, utter shock of the defeat at the end. As I watched it on my home TV a few days ago, the first shot of the Snow Walkers coming through the mist actually made me cry.
But watching it again, I made a new discovery: The Empire Strikes Back is a great movie, period. The direction, editing and story are by far the best of all six movies. Irvin Kershner may have made The Eyes of Laura Mars before it and RoboCop 2 after it, but he knew how to get actors to give good performances and wasn’t afraid to shoot them in close-ups that revealed emotion, something pretty much lacking in the other five movies. Ultimately, it’s the humanity of the film that makes it such a classic.
As wonderful as Star Wars is, it still amazes me how they have become such a part of our culture. Nearly every line in A New Hope is fodder for parodies and humor. It’s like the Bible or Shakespeare! And the stories can be retold so many ways, from Jeffrey Brown’s gently humorous Star Wars books (Darth Vader and Son, Vader’s Little Princess, and Good Night, Darth Vader), to Robot Chicken to Family Guy to Star Wars Rebels to 8 trillion other things.
I read a few stories over the weekend that talked about this overtly. This charming profile of writer Alex Irvine how the films have affected three generations of his family — a common phenomenon. IN my family, love of Star Wars has spanned four generations.
This piece, called ‘Star Wars’ is different for different generations helps put the prequels in context for us original star warriors. It’s okay that kids like Count Dooku—it’s part of the innocence of youth. The piece identities five separate relationships with Star Wars based on age. Of most interest to me is what they call Generation Jawa and Jedi, those born from 1965-1979. It is true that just about every guy I know in that age bracket was OBSESSED WITH STAR WARS IN THE 90S! Right up until Phantom Menace, in fact. Before the internet got so big, it was possible to be a fan of something and have it be more of a private thing. As in, you wouldn’t know someone was a Jedi-lover until you went to their apartment and saw a glass case full of Boba Fett statues. Now, a twitter avatar announces it to the world.
This generation had an abiding love for Star Wars that saw Phantom Menace as the Original Betrayal. Nothing would quite be the same after that. For younger folks, Jar Jar is just part of the story, and the imagination is what still draws people in.
But now that generation is getting its own possible Moment of Truth with The Force Awakens. Can it possibly as good as we want it to be? No. Nothing could even live up to that. (The movie that rewrote everything we loved about the 80s in a better, truer way was Mad Max Fury Road, but it didn’t have much of a canon to rewrite.)
The Force Awakens will be the “And what happened next?” that people of all ages have been wondering about for 40 years. And then Star Wars will be something completely different. The brand has been licensed and merchandised to death by a Disney machine more ruthlessly efficient than a clone army. Friday morning (when I have my tickets) can’t come soon enough just so the darned thing can be over at last!
And, as Wired pointed out, there will be no more 10 year gaps. There will be Star Wars movies every year from now on, endlessly, until the world cracks from global cooling. And more video games and toys and blankets and shoes and cars and cereals and gum and shower heads. Endlessly. Heck, maybe Star Wars is bigger than the Bible. No one cosplays as Ezekiel these days.
Many of you reading this will have barely more than 24 hours until you see the new Star Wars movie. Hold tight, avoid spoilers and try to remain calm. Watch this 1977 clip of the way promotion USED to be done.
And may the Force be with you.
Heidi MacDonald is the founder and editor in chief of The Beat. In the past, she worked for Disney, DC Comics, Fox and Publishers Weekly. She can be heard regularly on the More To Come Podcast. She likes coffee, cats and noble struggle.