In preparation for the biggest movie event of the year, here is a look back at the Star Wars franchise thus far. This overview includes the beloved original trilogy, the much-maligned prequels, and the two newest entries including Episode VII as well as the inaugural stand-alone film Rogue One. What will be discussed here will lay the groundwork for the review of Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi, due December 15. Please share similar or contrasting viewpoints below.
Star Wars – 1977 (Later dubbed Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope)
George Lucas’s recklessly ambitious game-changer Star Wars defied expectations to shatter box office records, revamp the entire industry, and forever change the landscape of cinema for the better. Everything fans love about the series got its start here, and nearly every aspect is iconic, from James Earl Jones’ foreboding Darth Vader voice work all the way down to the trash-cleaning Gonk Droid of Tattoine. With innovative special effects, memorable characters, and an undemanding introduction to a rich mythology, Star Wars represents the pinnacle of pure popcorn cinema.
The Empire Strikes Back – 1980 (Later dubbed Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back)
While A New Hope gave the series a glorious introduction in the form of a dazzling lighthearted spectacle, the franchise reached its peak in Irving Kirschner’s The Empire Strikes Back. Darker, thematically deeper and emotionally complex, Episode V featured Luke Skywalker’s tenuous journey of self-discovery as he explored his origins in a profound exploration between good and evil. Opening on the haunting desolate landscape of Hoth, introducing Yoda, and culminating in one of the most renowned cinematic revelations in the history of film, Empire is Star Wars perfection.
Return of the Jedi – 1983 (Later dubbed Stars Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi)
Okay, this is where the series began to hit some snags. Yes, the ewoks were too cute, and their contributions in the Battle of Endor were silly, but the real issue here related to a troubled plot structure. The film’s first act featured a conflict with no real significance to the major story threads other than the rescue of Han Solo. There was just too much time spent on a fat bellowing slug, as well as on objectifying Star Wars’ cherished princess. Once the team got off Tattooine, however, Richard Marquand’s film found its legs and capped the trilogy on an exciting and satisfying climax, ewoks and all.
Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace – 1999
The worst was yet to come, but as the first of the prequels, the The Phantom Menace will forever live in infamy. Decades of religious fan devotion only served to inflate Lucas’s ego, and armed with newly emerging digital effects, the filmmaker exerted a despotic control over the series’s creative output. It wasn’t the franchise’s lowest point, but with wooden characters, uninspired comic relief, and a joyless emphasis on politics, Menace was a slog. In addition, Lucas robbed the series of its mysticism by introducing midi-chlorians, but the film also delivered Ray Park’s striking, unforgettable Darth Maul.
Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones – 2002
Having come first, The Phantom Menace often receives the brunt of fan backlash, but Attack of the Clones truly represents the worst of the entire series. The unforgivable casting of Hayden Christensen yielded a whining, petulant take on Star Wars’ future Sith Lord. An insufferable Anakin Skywalker here selfishly chased his childhood crush in one of the most excruciating love stories put to film. On Tatooine, it only got worse, as Skywalker slaughtered an entire village of men, women and children in an infantile tantrum. Even an all-star Jedi climax on Geonosis couldn’t salvage this disaster.
Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith – 2003
It may have suffered from Lucas’s deplorable misguided philosophy, but Revenge of the Sith still managed to bridge the arc between trilogies in truly spectacular fashion. By taking a dramatic, macro-level perspective of the calamitous fall of the Jedi, the shortcomings of the characters were able to effect less damage. Christensen still robbed Skywalker’s inevitable fall to the dark side of rich potential, but he was easy to ignore in favor of Ian McDiarmid’s blood-curdling performance as Palpatine. With real-world parallels and staggering special effects, the prequels culminated in a grand finale.
Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens – 2015
Though he took some convincing, J.J. Abrams was an ideal choice for an outside perspective to helm Star Wars in the 21st century. After exhibiting exemplary work rebooting Star Trek, Abrams brought Star Wars back to its roots with a nostalgic return to form that benefited from wise casting and a promising new direction for storyelling. Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren furnished a compelling new villain, but his weight was undermined significantly when he was bested by two amateurs in an underwhelming climax. Despite this misstep, the new owners at Disney proved the franchise was in good hands.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story – 2016
Gareth Edwards’ sensational Rogue One from last year proved two things: first and foremost, that Star Wars’ dense mythos could supply fertile cinematic ground unrelated to the Skywalkers and Jedi, and secondarily, that the revived artistic prosperity under new management with Disney wasn’t just a fluke. Inspired by a mission briefly mentioned in A New Hope, it was clear from the start that the cast of Rogue One wasn’t long for this world; even so, Edwards succeeded at delivering an affecting and action-packed joy ride nearly force-free, and the best Star Wars entry since The Empire Strikes Back.
Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi – 2017
After relieving fan anxiety with two thrilling films back-to-back, Disney and Lucasfilm have demonstrated a competent working relationship, and a confident grasp on the franchise. With Breaking Bad and Looper’s Rian Johnson at the helm for Episode VIII, that synergy looks likely to continue. Check back after December 15 to see Film Sentinel’s take on The Last Jedi and a full review.
Fans of the force can rejoice – Star Wars: Episode VIII packs thrills, amazement, jaw-dropping action and surprises galore to deliver the most formidable entry since The Empire Strikes Back. Star Wars newcomer Rian Johnson, a proven director, but a novice for a production of this magnitude, meets expectations in his capacity to ingrain the gargantuan spectacle with an outsider’s affection for the beloved material. Similar to recent Star Wars entries, The Last Jedi adheres a little too closely to nostalgia, but is better successful than its predecessors at forging new paths for the rich franchise.
Read more in the review for The Last Jedi.