Having now watched five Star Wars movies (the originals and two of the prequels – I skipped The Phantom Menace), I’ve discovered that my feelings on Star Wars vary so greatly from movie to movie it’s almost impossible to sum them up in one blog post.
There were times when I found myself on the edge of my seat, unable to look away. But there were also times I found myself rolling my eyes and checking the time about every fifteen minutes. The quality varied from movie to movie on so many levels that I really still can’t say whether I like or dislike Star Wars, only that I liked certain parts of it and definitely did not like others. It would be even harder to give an opinion on whether it’s good or worthwhile. But I will say that, for the most part, I found the original films to be better than the prequels; despite their more antiquated special effects, they have better acting, better-plotted stories, and are infinitely more believable. I also found the darker, more serious movies to be better than the light and funny ones, but that might just be a matter of personal preference.
When something is almost universally accepted to be The Best, I tend to raise a skeptical eyebrow. This had better be good, I think to myself, if it’s going to live up to all that hype. But I find myself having to agree with the hype. The Empire Strikes Back is definitely, hands-down, the best Star Wars movie. The characters are deeper, the battles more meaningful, the moral decisions more complicated, and the stakes more personal than in any of the other Star Wars movies (excluding Luke’s storyline in Return of the Jedi). I loved seeing Leia have to make the decision to wait for Luke and Han Solo or lock the gates and protect the rebel base. I loved seeing Han’s old friend Lando have to choose between helping his friend or turning him over to the Empire to protect his city. I loved seeing Luke struggle to master Jedi training, although I have to admit I didn’t love Yoda. Even the Imperial officer who takes the blame for his troops’ failure lends a new layer of complexity to the story. While the Empire is still undeniably evil, one gets the feeling that its soldiers are – well, soldiers doing their duty, whose loyalty is to the wrong side, rather than evil in and of themselves. Everything in The Empire Strikes Back is handled with more thought, more gravity, and more careful consideration than in any of the other Star Wars movies I have watched. It’s on a completely different level. In fact, I have to wonder, if it hadn’t been one of the earliest ones, whether Star Wars would ever have become what it is now. Whether any more of the movies would have been made.
On the other end of the spectrum, I didn’t really have much patience for the pointless, endless battles of Attack of the Clones. The space battles in general were not my favorite part, but in Attack of the Clones they seemed endless and gratuitous, with no clear purpose in a larger narrative, broken up only by an awkward, forced-feeling love story that I wanted to buy into but really, really didn’t. I’m pretty sure, based on the release year and the little flashes of déjà vu I felt early on in the movie, that Attack of the Clones was the movie I mostly slept through as a kid. Looking back, I can understand why.
But beyond that, one of the things that bothered me the most, with the whole series but particularly the prequel movies, was how many things that should have been ethical dilemmas were glossed over. Sentient robots with distinct personalities are seen as property, to be sold, destroyed, or memory-wiped without a second thought. Tattooine is a haven for slave traders, bounty hunters, and all kinds of criminals, ruled over by the disgusting slug Jabba the Hutt. The prequel movies feature a cloned army, genetically engineered to be mindlessly obedient, which everyone in the Republic – including the most heroic of characters – is happy to accept. No attention is given to any of these things, except when they become inconvenient to the heroes. The galaxy is deeply flawed in ways that go far beyond the Empire’s control, and while that could be a good thing – giving more depth and realism to the setting – it’s not really explored and just feels like a series of missed opportunities and good characters condoning bad things.
I can’t help but wonder if one prequel movie might have worked better than a whole trilogy. I ended up feeling like Revenge of the Sith was all I really needed to know about Anakin Skywalker to explain both his fall to the Dark Side and his eventual decision to save his son’s life. He didn’t fit in among the Jedi and had trouble living by their code, giving up his emotions and personal attachments. He had lost his mother and was terrified of losing his wife, who he had married in secret. He turned to the Dark Side in order to save her, but his actions led to her death and the rise of the Empire. Cue the fight between Anakin and Obi-Wan and the final transformation of Anakin into Darth Vader. That alone would have made it all believable; there was really no need to see his younger days as a Jedi apprentice, or the beginnings of their romance, or the endless and pointless space battles of Attack of the Clones, much less its predecessor The Phantom Menace. (I can’t fairly criticize a movie I haven’t seen, and I won’t try to, although I’ve read enough reviews to know they are almost universally negative; it’s enough to say that I felt little loss from having skipped it in terms of understanding the rest of the story, and that even Attack of the Clones felt like unnecessary buildup and backstory for the third movie in the prequel trilogy.) I did end up liking Revenge of the Sith, better than Attack of the Clones at least, but I think a single prequel movie, mostly following the storyline of the third one and acknowledging more openly how messed up the galaxy was even before the rise of the Empire, could have been a much better option.
Return of the Jedi was a mixed bag. I wasn’t crazy about the Ewoks, the vicious teddy bear aliens who help to defeat the Empire. But Luke’s storyline alone was powerful enough to make the whole rest of the movie worthwhile. His decision not to fight – not to let himself be turned to the Dark Side – was a powerful moment, as was Darth Vader’s decision to save his son’s life, finally rejecting the Dark Side himself. There’s something to be said for a series that’s all about war and violence ending when the hero throws down his weapon and refuses to kill, and the huge number of parallels between Luke’s story and his father’s make for a powerful resolution. Luke is not only choosing to reject the Dark Side, he’s actively breaking the cycle by making a different choice than his father – and at the same time, he’s reminding Darth Vader of what he once stood for by declaring himself “a Jedi like my father before me”. I didn’t love Return of the Jedi, with its teddy bear aliens and icky slug monsters and repetitive threat in the form of a second Death Star, but I did love that particular sub-plot. Luke Skywalker, the character I described as the least interesting after watching A New Hope, at this point became the most compelling – and I definitely mean that in a good way.
In the end, I didn’t love everything about Star Wars, but there were parts of it that were definitely worthwhile. The Empire Strikes Back was undeniably a great movie, and I enjoyed at least certain aspects of both Return of the Jedi and Revenge of the Sith. A New Hope was not a personal favorite, but it was certainly a respectable movie and was good enough to make me want to keep watching. The only one I really couldn’t stand was Attack of the Clones, and I certainly don’t want to judge the whole franchise by one disappointing movie.
In other news, I’m probably going to watch Rogue One and The Force Awakens this weekend, so I’ll be back with more thoughts on those once I’ve seen them.