We continue with our ranking of the Star Wars series in order from worst to best here.
Also, check out Richie Pepio’s 121 Minutes of Star Wars series, in which he reviews every single minute of A New Hope.
3. STAR WARS EPISODE VI: RETURN OF THE JEDI
SHAWN: This should come as a surprise to no one; I think most people would agree that Return of the Jedi is the weakest of the Original Trilogy.
RICHIE: They should have taken a couple more years off after Empire, before the Jedi Returned.
SHAWN: Some people try to argue that Revenge of the Sith is better, but I completely disagree. Return of the Jedi is disappointing, but it’s still satisfying.
RICHIE: It’s definitely disappointing when you compare it to A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back, but it’s still a lot of fun. I mean, look, if the Prequels had had half the cocaine that Return of the Jedi must have had on set, they would have been way more entertaining.
SHAWN: So true. With Return of the Jedi, there is this feeling of resignation. They knew they had to make a third one, they knew they had to wrap up the story, and that’s where the focus is. And it’s kind of a shame because Empire really raised the stakes emotionally and character-wise and Return of the Jedi doesn’t take it forward it any way. It just kind of stagnates.
RICHIE: Even though Luke is the main character of the Trilogy, Han and Leia are almost on equal footing. They have their love story that’s given a lot of weight in The Empire Strikes Back and here, once they save Han Solo, it’s basically like, “Okay, done deal! They’re in love, so we don’t need to give them anymore time or development.”
SHAWN: It’s kind of like all the pieces are just being moved into place. And it’s a shame after all the character development of Empire to see the characters take a backseat to the plot this time around.
Speaking of plot, Return of the Jedi’s three acts are very distinct, much more so than the other movies. The first act is kind of like the fun, throwaway adventure sequence. It’s the closest the entire Trilogy got to actually being a Saturday morning matinee.
RICHIE: It really feels like a 30-minute episode of Flash Gordon. It’s very self-contained and it’s goofy, but satisfying. It’s a lot of fun to watch.
SHAWN: Right, you’ve got the rescue of Han Solo, you’ve got Boba Fett biting the dust, literally, in a really stupid, underwhelming way. But then we’ve got Jabba the Hutt who is such a great villain. He really makes this first act work. If they didn’t have a villain as good as Jabba the Hutt, none of this would have worked. We also see hints of where the Prequel Trilogy would go with all the dumb muppets and cartoony sensibilities.
RICHIE: But here everything is a lot of fun because it all feels familiar, it feels connected to reality in some way. You’ve got the sleazy gangster type with Jabba, you’ve got this alien band playing smoky night club music. You get a lot of mileage out of these 20 to 30 minutes. And unfortunately, it’s the most attention that Han and Leia get as far as their story. I mean, Leia gets a lot of attention because of the bikini, but that’s another story.
SHAWN: I really do love Luke exhibiting the full extent of his Jedi prowess with his new lightsaber on the sail barge. It’s so exciting and so much fun and then we kind of transition into the 2nd Act which is just a lot of bland setting-up for the 3rd Act. Some of it is good: Luke goes to Dagobah and reunites with Yoda, gets confirmation about Darth Vader being his father; he reunites with Obi-Wan. But it can’t help feeling a little redundant; it’s all just confirming information we kinda sorta already knew. And then they try to match the twist of Empire with the reveal that Leia is Luke’s sister and it just doesn’t work as well and makes their relationship in the preceding films feel so creepy.
RICHIE: I’ll be honest, I don’t mind the Leia stuff. Well, I mean, I wouldn’t mind it if it was justified in the Prequels – I feel like they go out of their way to avoid justifying it by making more plot holes in Episode III. Like, how does Leia remember Padme if Padme just gives up and dies right after giving birth to Leia? But, really, I don’t mind them being brother and sister.
SHAWN: I just don’t think there was any justification for the twist. I think they literally sat down and said, “We need a twist as shocking as Vader being Luke’s father!” and George was like, “How ‘bout this?” We get a hint of their connection at the end of Empire, but I thought that was more because they had a kind of platonic love for one another. Making them brother and sister is just weird.
And so the 2nd Act continues. They go to Endor; there’s the really cool speeder bike chase.
RICHIE: And then they wander around the forest and meet the Ewoks for 20-minutes.
SHAWN: And I’m not that put off by the Ewoks. I get that they’re kind of annoying and a little too cutesy, but I think what bothers me is that they take up so much time in this movie and they’ve been given so much to do. And then they pretty much outpower the Empire. It really reduces the Empire as a villain and takes away any threat they might have presented.
RICHIE: Without the Ewoks, what were the Rebels planning on doing? Are they gonna be like, “Oh well, I guess there are too many Stormtroopers. I guess we should go home now.” It’s just such a distraction. They illogically defeat the Emperor’s entire legion, his best troops. This Empire sucks if they can get beaten by a bunch of teddy bears.
SHAWN: And we’ve discussed this already, but I think the Ewoks would have worked better if they were just a part of a larger whole. Like, they play a big part in this Act, and then our heroes move on to the next part of the story and leave the Ewoks behind.
RICHIE: I wish the Ewoks would just, like, call this creature out of the depths – let’s call him Troglon. And Troglon comes out of the ground and just eats the shield bunker or something. I mean, bear with me, if the Ewoks could lead the Rebels to this all-powerful creature or item that helps the Alliance defeat the Empire, okay, great! I buy that. But, the Ewoks alone? Sticks and stones will not break a Stormtrooper’s bones.
SHAWN: Exactly. So then we move into the 3rd Act and, again, I think what really disappoints me about Return of the Jedi is how inconsistent the characters are from the first two movies to this one. Luke is a little more boring. I mean, he’s a Jedi now, but he’s just not as interesting. With Han and Leia it’s the same thing. And even Darth Vader, who was a huge threat in Empire, is just kind of like, I’ll do whatever the Emperor wants. Feels like it contradicts what he was saying in the 2nd one where he’s like, “We can overthrow the Emperor as father and son!”
RICHIE: ‘I must obey my master.’
SHAWN: Pretty much. But, all the scenes between Luke, Vader and the Emperor are pretty solid. In a movie full of lackluster entertainment, those scenes give us the emotional satisfaction we need. And even though those scenes feel redundant – it’s all just ‘Turn to the Dark Side, Luke!’ The same stuff we saw Vader do in the last movie – I really love the payoff with Vader saving his son and throwing the Emperor into the pit. It’s satisfying on that level. If those moments hadn’t paid off, I think Return of the Jedi would have been much worse.
Return of the Jedi just feels a bit blander; Richard Marquand’s direction makes it feel like a made-for-TV movie. It just doesn’t have the cinematic heft or grandeur of Irvin Kershner’s work on Empire, and the script just isn’t on that level either. But at the end of the day, even though Return of the Jedi is disappointing in some ways, it feels satisfying. It’s a fun movie to watch. I don’t hate myself for liking it.
2. STAR WARS EPISODE V: THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK
SHAWN: Now, The Empire Strikes Back could arguably and deservedly be at the top of this list. A New Hope set the template by being the fun, standalone adventure movie, but The Empire Strikes Back really is the emotional core of the franchise. It gave the characters emotional depth and it gave the story the drama it needed to anchor the saga and make it even more compelling.
RICHIE: Everybody’s so much more desperate in this movie. I mean, they had some level of desperation in the first one with all the stakes at play, but in Empire, it feels much more life and death. The drama is much more serious, but on the flipside the comedy feels even more refined and more adult. It’s got more dimensions all around and a twist that single-handedly turned Star Wars into the saga we know and love today. It proves once and for all that the first one wasn’t a fluke. It paves the way for a larger tapestry of stories that could have all been great. Sadly, the series never reached the same peak that it did here. At least, not at this point. (We still haven’t seen Episode VII)
SHAWN: And it’s easy to take the twist for granted today; it’s such a staple of pop culture. It really is the greatest twist of all-time.
RICHIE: Oh, absolutely.
SHAWN: It’s just amazing what they did with Empire. They could have taken the easy way out and done another fun adventure story, but they really put a lot of time and effort into deepening the world and the characters and their relationship. And they went darker! That’s really shocking when you consider the fact that the first Star Wars was a fun, lighthearted affair. For them to go so dark, for them to have the movie end on such a down note with our heroes defeated, with one of them having lost a limb and the other frozen in carbonite, and the revelation that the ultimate evil in the universe is the main character’s father. The boldness of the storytelling is really impressive.
RICHIE: And Empire is surprisingly just as quotable as A New Hope and the script and the dialogue are even stronger. Yoda’s words of wisdom are incredible.
SHAWN: Lawrence Kasdan had jumped on-board at this point and pretty much every single amazing line of dialogue you hear and love is penned by him.
RICHIE: The scenes between Han and Leia are just fantastic. Just that scene in the back of the ship where she’s working on some handle thing and he’s just trying to help her and it gets all flirty: “My hands are dirty;” “My hands are dirty too. What are you afraid of?”
SHAWN: It’s so good. It feels like a black and white, noir-style romance from the 1940s. And the performances in Empire are just so much more natural, more human. Mark Hamill is excellent; Harrison Ford is great, of course. Carrie Fisher is great. They’re the heart and soul of these movies. And they’re joined by Billy Dee Williams as Lando this time around and he’s wonderful and Anthony Daniels is great comic relief. It’s amazing that a film so dark and serious is still so much fun and a lot of the reason is because we are so invested in these characters. We love them.
RICHIE: And it moves so quickly. And it’s John Williams’ best score, better than A New Hope. It’s got a larger variety of themes and a wider range of emotions.
SHAWN: Now, Empire went way over budget and way over schedule, but it really pays off. Irvin Kershner’s direction is just amazing. This is unquestionably the best-looking Star Wars film.
RICHIE: Hands down. The colors alone and the cinematography is gorgeous.
SHAWN: And Kershner was basically a veteran film director. He was one of Lucas’ teachers in film school! He really gives it a sense of scale and cinematic beauty that wasn’t even really present in the first Star Wars.
RICHIE: Star Wars (A New Hope) was very economical. It got you from Point A to Point B as quickly and as entertainingly as possible. Empire gives itself time to breathe and it’s exploring the world at its own pace and you’re along for the ride.
SHAWN: It’s a visual poem and even though it’s slower-paced everything feels essential. I love the scenes of Luke being trained by Yoda. I love the showdown at the end between Luke and Vader.
RICHIE: It’s the best lightsaber battle in the series.
SHAWN: And it’s so funny because you have these flashy fights in the Prequels that have plenty of pizazz, but zero substance, and then you look at something like the fight in this movie which is just so much more meaningful and ultimately better than the overly-choreographed insanity of the other movies simply because there’s so much emotion going on underneath the surface.
RICHIE: It’s a dialogue between characters.
SHAWN: Right. I think J.J. Abrams said it, but each lightsaber battle in the Original Trilogy works so well because it’s the characters speaking to each other. It’s not about the fight itself, it’s about what each fight represents. And then this whole showdown is punctuated by one of the greatest moments in cinematic history with ‘I am your father.’
RICHIE: You just don’t see it coming.
SHAWN: Really, it’s a tough call as to what the greatest Star Wars movie of all time is.
RICHIE: I usually pick this one.
SHAWN: Me too. A New Hope and Empire really wouldn’t exist as they do today without each other. Star Wars could have been a great standalone movie, but Empire legitimized it.
RICHIE: Empire made it survive a series of sequels that didn’t live up in any way. It’s the reason we still love Star Wars today, because we’re just hoping for something that will make us feel the same way this did.
SHAWN: Exactly. The filmmakers said, “Hey, we know this is fun, but we’re going to take it to a whole other level and make you care even more than you thought you could.” And in that way it’s even more impressive than A New Hope. A New Hope is the heart and the fun of the series; The Empire Strikes Back is the soul.
1. STAR WARS EPISODE IV: A NEW HOPE
SHAWN: Obviously it was going to be a tough call between this and The Empire Strikes Back.
RICHIE: But, this is the one that started it all. We wouldn’t be excited about December 18th. It would just be another day without this movie.
SHAWN: It cannot be overstated what Star Wars did for movies in general. It inspired a whole legion of filmmakers, including J.J. Abrams and Peter Jackson and Ridley Scott, amongst countless others. And don’t lie to yourselves, you pretentious film snobs. You know that if you’re our age and you love movies and want to make them or write about them or whatever, it’s because you saw Star Wars when you were five. I don’t care how many Ingmar Bergman movies you’ve seen…
RICHIE:…or that The Bicycle Thieves is your favorite movie and you saw it while you were sitting on your own thumb…
SHAWN: Star Wars is the reason movies are made. It is a pure joy to watch from beginning to end. It’s got heart, it’s got fun, it’s got humor, it’s got excitement.
RICHIE: Nothing is wasted. Everything is essential. It gets you from Point A to Point Z in 12 parsecs.
SHAWN: And re-watching it, it’s amazing just how economical it is from a storytelling standpoint. You’re absolutely right. There’s no fat; it’s an absolutely perfect movie. It is perfectly structured and perfectly combines Lucas’ love of his old TV serials like Flash Gordon with all the great mythologies of yore and it takes visual storytelling to all new heights in a way that audiences had never seen before. The special effects are just incredible.
RICHIE: And they still hold up. And even though the Special Editions have tried to ‘correct’ things that don’t need to be corrected, the original effects still hold up and look better than any CGI, because it’s a real tangible thing with real actors and real models. Somebody hand-built all those ships and put them up against a blue screen, photographed them, photographed the things being projected on the blue screen – everything is real and there and you LOVE IT.
SHAWN: You know, while a lot of people look at Star Wars as the pioneer for special effects movies, there’s a lot of heart and soul to it and you love the characters. And yeah, Mark Hamill gets some flack for being whiny.
RICHIE: But, at the same time, it’s how he’s written and he has energy and he believes in what he’s saying and he grows up in the movie. He has a character arc.
SHAWN: And few things are more exciting than the whole Death Star battle at the end of the movie with the trench and everything. That whole sequence is just incredible. But it’s the chemistry between the actors and their relationships that really make this movie great. Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Sir Alec Guinness…
RICHIE: Peter Cushing is amazing.
SHAWN: He really is.
RICHIE: If Darth Vader wasn’t in Star Wars, it wouldn’t be nearly as good, but Cushing is still an incredible villain on his own. Darth Vader makes the movie. I mean, he’s one of many things that makes the movie, but he is an element that is so iconic. And I don’t think we have any concept of how intimidating he was at the time, he’s been so over-exposed.
SHAWN: And it’s hard for us because we grew up with these movies already being ingrained in our culture. It’s hard to know what it was like to see it for the first time back in the late Seventies. But, even watching it now, it’s impossible to not be captivated when you first read ‘A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…’ and you see the title and you hear the music and you read that opening crawl.
RICHIE: Oh man, I’m getting so emotional just thinking about it and thinking about seeing it tonight in The Force Awakens!
SHAWN: It’s just so good. It’s the best movie.
RICHIE: SO GOOD.