Is the Force still strong with Star Wars? - Ranking the Disney era entries
The Rise of Skywalker has just been released on Blu-ray and DVD. This, combined with the roaring success that is The Mandalorian, as well as the announcement that all nine entries in the ‘Skywalker Saga’ will be available on Disney’s streaming platform on May 4th, and Star Wars is at the top of everyone’s viewing schedule. Therefore, it feels like the right time to discuss which film best captures that intergalactic magic.
It’s clear to all that the original trilogy will always be the most treasured watch: ranking the Star Wars franchise as a whole feels superfluous as a result, because A New Hope, Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi will top that list. The prequels, similarly, have been analysed and criticised in an equally extensive measure.
So, how do Disney’s additions fare? Which capture the essence of Lucas’ Space-Western hybrid? And which, alternatively, succumb to the Mouse House’s worst impulse: for heavy-handed nostalgia?
5: Star Wars - Episode IX - The Rise of Skywalker
Yes, it’s a dent on Disney’s business plan to suggest that their most recently released entry would be their worst. Yet, The Rise of Skywalker epitomises that flaw in the Disney filmmaking ethos that I mentioned just a moment ago - overuse of nostalgia for the sake of comfort watching, abandoning The Last Jedi’s risky but effective narrative developments in the process.
From the unnecessary and inexplicable return of Star Wars’ ultimate baddie, Emperor Palpatine (whose characterisation is literally lifeless), to forced family tree reveals and resurrected imagery like Luke’s X-Wing making an appearance for a smile’s sake, and The Rise of Skywalker feels more like Disney ticking off a Star Wars checklist than trying to resolve the saga in a meaningful way.
As it recreates the famous image of Luke on the Lars farm with Rey, it forces in a blunt visual connection to the Skywalkers that feels unearned: Rey’s story is one defined by her relationship to Luke, Leia, Han and Palpatine, and that driven obsession with the original three films proved to be this saga’s undoing.
4: Star Wars - Episode VII - The Force Awakens
The nostalgia continues with the first of Disney’s sequels that, while clearly mirroring the original on every level, did so with a little more creativity than The Rise of Skywalker.
Han, Chewbacca, Leia and (briefly) Luke all made an appearance, but these were largely peripheral showings, save for Han, whose connection to Kylo Ren fulfilled the familial revelation that’s now a compulsory part of the franchise’s make-up, rather than an original and effective shocker.
There were hints at originality throughout. Finn’s origin - a stormtrooper with a face behind the helmet - offered a fresh perspective: the conflicted potential was there for his character arc going forward. Then there's the inevitable clashing of lightsabers during a bold battle through the snow, which brought a force-fuelled twist and some visual panache.
But, ultimately, the story and its character archetypes are all too familiar. Rey, the desert-bound dreamer that’s force sensitive. A masked villain with anger issues. An even bigger Death Star with a badder laser. Despite its best efforts, The Force Awakens infamously feels like a remake of A New Hope, rather than something truly new. Ironically though, it inspired more hope than its eventual conclusion, which is why it places above The Rise of Skywalker.
3: Star Wars - Episode VIII - The Last Jedi
The Last Jedi is a film that’s shrouded in controversy. Many fans, to this day, refuse to forgive the Disney executives for green-lighting the script, let alone seeing it through to cinemas. But it gets a bad rap due to some questionable decision-making, when so much of the film is worth a positive review.
Luke Skywalker certainly drew the short straw and that’s where The Last Jedi loses points: the franchise’s ultimate hero deserved better than a hermit lifestyle, milking aliens and mumbling depressive passages about failing where, before, he would see the potential to rise again (no pun intended).
But, The Last Jedi pushed the envelope on so many things. It gave us one of the most breathtaking Star Wars images in a kamikaze lightspeed jump through the First Order fleet. Its use of the Force as a telepathic Zoom call to bond Rey and Kylo Ren together formed a fascinating hero/villain dynamic, blurring the lines between the two brilliantly. Give it another chance. For all its flaws - that Canto Bight casino sequence still baffles on a Jar-Jar level - The Last Jedi took risks that nearly paid off until The Rise of Skywalker autocorrected the new trilogy’s entire plot.
2: Solo: A Star Wars Story
Haters are going to feel the Dark Side flow through them, but I enjoyed Solo: A Star Wars Story. Is it simple? Sure. Does it change the Star Wars game in any way? Absolutely not. But I had a blast from start to finish.
It all starts with Alden Ehrenreich’s excellent portrayal of Harrison Ford’s smuggling scoundrel. Han’s cocky nature is brilliantly offset with a naivety that lends the character a foundation on which to grow into his careful, calculated self from A New Hope. An obvious but effective callback to the ‘Han shoots first’ dilemma in the film’s final act, caps off this transformation.
The film’s supporting cast doesn’t always meet the same standard, whether due to script deficiencies or weak direction. Emilia Clarke is charming as the love interest Qi’ra, but is given little to do until a rug-pulling reveal that comes out of nowhere. Woody Harrelson lacks that weird edge, turning Beckett into a bit of a blank slate.
But, Solo manages to capture the Western essence of the original in some smart ways. From a Once Upon a Time in the West inspired blaster duel, to an early heist scene that draws on classic train robbery iconography, and you’ve got yourself an enjoyable return to the style of storytelling that George Lucas favoured. Don’t expect the same cinematographic colour palette though: Solo appears a little DC drab in this department.
1: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
There you have it, a pick that I’m sure we can all agree on: Rogue One, despite its production woes, achieves exactly what it sets out to do, tying its narrative up neatly from the perspective of interesting characters.
Jyn Erso. Cassian Andor. K-2SO. Chirrut Imwe. While they’re not given the room to breathe any insight into the world of Star Wars, they’re still drawn up to flesh out archetypes that the franchise founded. Chirrut’s wise Force-wielding sage is no Jedi, just a blind badass played by martial arts expert Donnie Yen. Jyn Erso is the rebel hero that isn’t afraid to follow a selfish motivation. Even the film’s villain, Krennic, is a snarly classic that chews scenery thanks to Ben Mendelsohn.
But its greatest success is how it uses familiar imagery to build the story, not to encourage a cringey fist-pump from the crowd. Rogue One does throw in some superfluous callbacks, sure, but they’re mere flashes compared to the film’s focus on its core group. Nevertheless, the presence of staple characters like Bale Organa and Grand Moff Tarkin genuinely work, thanks to narrative reasoning: they serve a purpose, to compel the heroes or villain forward.
Also, to sound like the ultimate hypocrite, the fan service paid to Vader in his showdown with rebel forces is something to truly behold, as he slices through soldiers like he’s practising with dummies. Worth the price of admissions alone.
This list is entirely subjective, so feel free to throw some Star Wars appropriate insults my way: considering the way my hair looks due to the absence of a barber in my life, scruffy-looking Nerf herder fits the profile. How would you list these? Do you want Disney to go in a different direction? Leave some feedback and let me know!
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