I had a week off at the start of December and rather than going on Chicago as planned, I got a Disney+ subscription and settled in to watch all the Star Wars films. I like Star Wars, but I’ve never been obsessive about it in the way that I can be about other sci fi. The universe is incredibly rich, and the stories that are created in the films are reasonably solid, if alternately overwhelmed with over-complicated politics, or over-simplified fantasy quests. The writing quality similarly swerves about a bit and relies on charismatic actors to try and overcome the written words. But what makes them re-watchable are the beautiful visuals, the rich details of the backgrounds, the rousing music, and the energetic action sequences.
I watched the 11 films in chronological order within the story, rather than by release date, so started off with the dreaded prequel trilogy, before building up to finally watching The Rise of Skywalker for the first time. Oh, and look out for my review of The Mandalorian in the next few days too. I didn’t dig out the Holiday Special (I tried watching the Lego one but only lasted 10 minutes before getting too bored), and I’m also not counting the Ewok films here.
Star Wars 1: The Phantom Menace – The miss-steps in this film are painfully glaring. How did anyone think JarJar was a good idea? Every time he came on screen I just flinched. The pacing of the film is also all over the place, a weird combination of action sequences that are too drawn out (the pod racing being the key offender) and scenes that are way to short and topped and tailed with transition effects that ruin any flow. Oh and some dialogue that feels like it missed the final draft to take it from functional to realistic. But there’s good in there too, excellent effects, well choreographed action, breathtaking music, a couple of good twists and some good actors trying their best to rise above the dialogue. It just really needed a good polish all over. 6 / 10
Star Wars 2: Attack of the Clones – This whole film could have been improved hugely by removing just about any scene featuring Amidala and Anakin. I know it’s an important part of the whole story… but the scenes really were very bad. They were poorly written, poorly acted (well, Natalie Portman was doing her best, but Hayden Christensen is just not very good), it was creepy rather than romantic and the whole thing was so overblown with multiple costumes and locations that any impact of the doomed romance was truly lost. Remove those scenes and you’ve got a fairly likeable film in the finest tradition of Star Wars with some great action sequences, (Yoda with a light saber!), some funny one liners and an interesting contribution to the wider plot if you chose to pay attention to it. 5 / 10
BONUS Star Wars: The Clone Wars – I can’t be bothered to go down the rabbit hole of whether this is cannon or not, but I’m including it here because I watched it so I want credit. It’s not very good. I did like the animation, and I also like the idea of filling in the gaps between the films and getting to see a bit more of Obi Wan and Anakin’s adventures, but it’s undermined by a not very good voice cast. I never lost awareness that it was actors in a studio reading lines and so any of the nice character moments, flashes of humour or dramatic tension just fell completely flat. Still, at least it didn’t have Anakin and Padme mooning around. 5/10
Star Wars 3: Revenge of the Sith – This film was trapped by the plot it had to follow, i.e. flipping Anakin from hero to villain, giving characters the confrontations they needed but having everyone walk away from the fights to live for the later episodes. It sometimes felt more like the writers were plumbing in pipes to join A to B than writing satisfying narratives. I do think they did about as good a job as they could under the circumstances, but that didn’t make it amazing, particularly given that Hayden Christensen really didn’t have the acting ability to pull off the complexity needed for the character. It did a solid but unspectacular job, it had humour, action, adventure, intrigue, great special effects, interesting fights, but as usual let down by some terrible terrible dialogue that the actors did their best to chew through. The star of the film (and possibly the entire series) however was obviously R2D2 – he flies, he catches, he shoots, he sets things on fire! I think everyone does their best, but when the outstanding thing is a tin can that beeps, it’s not a great sign. 6 / 10
Solo: A Star Wars Story – The film got off to a bad start with a pet peeve of mine – over-colourisation and dim lighting. I thought it was just to hammer home the metaphorical dinginess of Solo’s home planet, but it followed him the whole film. Scenes looked grainy, dull, indistinct and colour filtered beyond any believability. With the visual spectacle crippled, there was more reliance on the story and there was a bit of a struggle there too as too many characters came and went too quickly, and so many betrayals that it was hard to emotionally connect to anyone. The plot also felt too bitty (a common challenge with Star Wars films, and in fact fantasy films in general) – go here, get the thing, go there, get the thing. On a surface level, I was entertained by the film – some sparky dialogue, funny one liners, and good acting, which have been a struggle for some Star Wars films. But it completely failed to immerse me and overall left me underwhelmed. 6 / 10
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story – On the plus side, this film does a much more elegant job that Episode 3 of filling in some gaps in the overall Star Wars story. It’s all a bit “B story”, but in many ways the focus here on some of the “little people” behind the scenes expands the universe even further – everyone in the background has their own story even if they’re not directly connected to a Skywalker. That sentiment is admirable and a nice idea, but the delivery was a little underwhelming. The story was another convoluted sequence of “go here, do this, go to another planet, do another thing etc etc”. It relied on an increasingly ridiculous series of activities, technology and poor decisions and any sense of credibility disappeared quite early on. The characters were all quite one-note, without getting a chance to show complexity, most annoyingly the two lead characters – sanctimonious Cassian and flip-flopping Jyn. The wider cast seemed far more interesting, but with so many people crowding the screen didn’t really get any development. 5 / 10
Star Wars 4: A New Hope – I’ve seen this film more times than I can count, and it’s hard to review it objectively as a film rather than the foundation of a mega-empire. Sitting in the middle of my chronological watch, A New Hope is a breath of fresh air. All the other films have at struggled or completely failed to find the effortlessness of A New Hope. Maybe it was the pressure of trying to fit in and live up to a legend, whereas A New Hope could just do whatever it liked.
The thing about the original Star Wars trilogy is that they’re fun and a spectacle. Yes there are some serious storylines and character developments going on, but they’re not bogged down by that. You’re never far from a laugh or from a stunning effects sequence that even over 40 years later still completely mesmerize. Some of the dialogue is pretty clunky, but the actors are good enough to step lightly over it and move on. The universe that is being created is introduced gradually, starting small and expanding outwards no faster than the plot needs or the audience can take. Nothing in the film overwhelms or feels like it’s trying too hard, it’s just doing its own thing without any care or pressure. Just fun. 8 / 10
Star Wars 5: The Empire Strikes Back – Empire Strikes Back is a great middle installment. It moves everything along, but also manages to slow down a bit and flesh out some of the details. The decision to jump the story forward by a few years is a good one, meaning we jump straight into the middle of a new adventure without getting bogged down in the details of how we got from the end of the last movie to the start of this one. It means the story and the characters have all moved on a bit and it’s like we’ve just dropped in. There’s a good blend of light and dark, plot and action, drama and comedy, big and small. Luke learning more about the force may have dragged a bit if not for the wonderful creation of Yoda an inspired choice to make a master of the mind a tiny green muppet. There’s a lot more darkness in this film than in the previous installment, which as the name implies was a lot more hopeful than this rather desperate fan. I just wish that I could get to experience the shock of the reveal of Darth Vader as that must have been truly something. 8 / 10
Star Wars 6: Return of the Jedi – I watched all three of the original trilogy back to back, and unfortunately Return of the Jedi feels like the series stumbled at the last hurdle. I’m not sure whether they were trying to make something lighter than Empire Strikes Back and just went too far, but the whole film lost the balance of drama and comedy that the previous films had and fell straight into daft. Thankfully the overall plot with Darth Vader and the Empire is still solid and draws everything together well, and the character arcs are also well built. However the main activity of the film is just a bit too focused on cuteness, comedy, and spectacle, so you have to almost look through what is on the screen to see the richness. The first set piece with Jabba the Hutt devolves into slapstick fights (alongside the unnecessary Leia in the gold bikini issue), and the less said about the Ewoks the better. I think maybe it was a reaction to bring it back to a more family focus, and I distinctly remember this being my favourite film as a kid, but now as an adult it feels like a jarring swerve from Empire and a disappointing way to finish. 6 / 10
Star Wars 7: The Force Awakens – This film manages to completely capture the FEEL of the original trilogy, in a way that the prequels just didn’t quite manage. Force Awakens connects into the greater cultural relevance that has grown into the franchise, it’s not just copying or referencing, it has the SOUL of a Star Wars film. As the words “A long, long time ago…” appeared on screen and John William’s still breath-taking score kicked in, a smile appeared on my face. And every time a past character, event or prop appeared or was referenced, the smile grew a bit bigger. The plot is still contrived (as my brother who only recently watched the original said, “the force is a handy little trick isn’t it?”) and either I missed or just didn’t understand how the political situation had evolved from the end of Return of the Jedi. There are also some character development questions that are rather dubious in my opinion. But it’s entertaining, the dialogue is fun, the sets and effects are gorgeous, the action well paced and the emotion hits when it needs to. 8 / 10
Star Wars 8: The Last Jedi – I liked this film a lot. It did all the things that I think Star Wars at it’s best does – character, action, fun, and wonder. Last Jedi had me pretty much gripped throughout and never entirely certain where it was going to go, even with the rather excessive runtime. After the film I started identifying some plot holes and McGuffins, but while watching I was completely carried along. The old and new casts felt much better entwined, with almost all the characters getting development and depth, with the slight exception of Finn. This felt far more a film of it’s own, rather than trying to prove something or having to focus too much on serving lots of different fans. It still had the same nostalgia with the music and the style all there, it’s still 100% a Star Wars film; but it felt like it was being a Star Wars film on its own terms. Completely entertaining from the opening chord and title card, to the final one at the end of the credits. 9 / 10
Star Wars 9: The Rise of the Skywalker – Once again, I think the final film of the trilogy might be the weakest one. Maybe it’s because I watched at the end of watching all 11 Star Wars films over the span of four days and I’d run out of enthusiasm. But I do feel that the plot of this film, compared to the previous, just felt a bit all over the place. There were a lot of new elements introduced that felt a little out of nowhere, and rather too much questing going from A to B to C etc and I lost track of why they needed to go to each place. In contrast though the character stories are very well told and the new cast really does carry the film completely, although the appearances from older characters are still welcome, and very moving. All the nostalgia is still there, the effects and action sequences are good, but I’m afraid overall it fell a little flat compared to the rest of the trilogy. 9 / 10