Step right up, ladies and gentlemen, for a sensational three-ring outer space circus featuring amazing planets, phenomenal creatures, stunning acrobatics and very little believable plot or character development. Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi (B) is basically Rian Johnson’s Galactic Exposition of 2017, in which the visionary sci-fi writer/director assembles an absolute cavalcade of activity while neglecting the delights the preceding film breathed into a trio of new central characters, a bratty villain and a spherical droid. During its bloated running time, Johnson introduces far-fetched new technologies and powers for his ensemble but requires most of them to tread water until what is expected to be the conclusion of this trilogy when J.J. Abrams retakes the reigns. This middle film’s marvels include a pretty casino planet and at least one intergalactic dogfight with pizzazz, lots of cotton candy for the soul. Misfires involve both old and new characters, who behave with perplexing lack of clarity and continuity; some are done no favors through long periods of separation. There’s a gas shortage that rivals the taxation disputes of the prequels in terms of dramatic inertia and at least one moment of sky walking that defies both gravity and belief. Laws of space and time, be damned! Even for this fantasy space opera, this one hits some bizarro notes. For all its fussy audacity, you may leave this funhouse a bit dizzy and more confused than you should feel for the ride.
Gareth Edwards’s Rogue One (B) is the Star Wars film that puts its titular wars front and center with a Dirty Dozen style assemblage of warriors embarking on a strategic mission. This first standalone film outside the typical trilogy format is graced with whiz-bang visuals and bursts of muscular action, some of it a little too self-conscious as if the special effects folks came up with too many of their own ideas. The actors don’t embarrass themselves as they did in the prequel trilogy (I suppose this counts as a prequel too, just really close to the action of the original Episode IV), but they sure don’t stand out much in this crowd. Felicity Jones is fairly one-note as the understated leader of a ragtag offshoot of the Rebel Alliance in search of the original Death Star plans and the built-in vulnerability in the planet-destroying space station. Diego Luna is so subtle, you might forget he’s normally a pretty charismatic screen presence. Other actors are wasted, with only Mads Mikkelsen getting a plum part as a conflicted Imperial engineer. It’s not a great sign when the new droid – an acerbic malcontent named K-2S0 voiced by Alan Tudyk – is the primary scene-stealer. Furthermore, resurrecting the late Peter Cushing through CGI as one of the primary villains gives a dead-eyed Polar Express character effect. The film is markedly better in the second of its two hours and introduces some pretty spectacular stunts and set-pieces. It feels like a lived-in universe but doesn’t give much of the character-based humor so emblematic in the original epics or even in last year’s Force Awakens. After three films now involving the Death Star (and Force‘s Starkiller Base), this franchise could benefit from a new charged object.
Over the years as latter films in the Star Wars pantheon have produced diminishing returns, there’s been a bit of a grading curve – “pretty good acting … for someone in a Star Wars film,” “fairly cool action scene … in an otherwise lackluster prequel” and the like. So it’s good news indeed that J.J. Abrams’ Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens (A-) earns its accolades outright in terms of solid acting, layered characters, genuine high stakes, some earned comic relief and relentless action. The film achieves most of its delirious highs in the first hour as it splendidly introduces four fantastic new characters (Daisy Ridley as fierce scavenger warrior heroine Rey, John Boyega as naive reformed Stormtrooper Finn, Oscar Isaac as cocksure pilot Poe and the precious spherical astromech droid BB-8). There’s considerable descent into incomprehension (alas Abrams gets rather Lost) during the final acts with strange pop psychology that only works in spurts and some tedious retreads of some action moments already depicted in six previous films. Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren makes for a so-so villain, albeit with an awesome lightsaber, and his CGI mentor is a bit of a misfire. Harrison Ford is a highlight reprising his role as everyone’s favorite rakish scoundrel Han Solo, this time showing more of his soft side along with his trademark quips. The art direction and physical production are gloriously rendered and are such a welcome return to form: sequences in the desert are lush and the first glimpse of evil TIE Fighters sleek indeed. The film works best when it functions as an archaeological dig into the myths and iconography of the original trilogy; in fact, much of the most spectacular parts of the quest – rescuing antiquities, piecing together lost maps, being chased in the desert and around sinister corners and plumbing the well of characters’ souls – resemble an Indiana Jones installment. The fresh storyline of new characters is actually the film’s novelty since Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill are shamelessly underused. But it’s hard to begrudge a big studio enterprise that is this packed with thrills and adventure, good characters and surprises. It largely hits the mark and sets the stage for some great new revelations.
Finally, the mess of a prequel trilogy gets some moments of badass as George Lucas’s Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (B) restores some dignity to the series. Hayden Christensen’s Anakin Skywalker and Natalie Portman’s Padmé Amadala are still the soapiest of characters – and now they are pregnant with Luke and Leia (guess it’s not a spoiler alert when you’re already in a prequel!) – and Anakin is still ticked at Obi-Wan (Ewan McGregor) for not making him a full Jedi. Lots of battles occur, and ultimately we get the anticipated volcano fight when Anakin finally transforms fully into part-man, part-machine Darth Vader. Of course, Lucas almost spoils that with a strange Frankenstein homage (the Ewoks weren’t available for a chorus of “Yub Nub”?) There’s at least some symmetry in this film that helps match it to the classic trilogy and foreshadows the continuing Skywalker saga to come. Did we care much about any of these prequel characters? Not really. There were some cool effects, and I guess it’s better to have a Star Wars movie than not (at least in some of Episode II ‘s case and most of Episode III). Fans will appreciate the plunge into darkness and the higher stakes than usual, even though the characters are still pretty undercooked.
George Lucas’s Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones (C) upgrades the effects and the action from its prequel predecessor but leaves at its centerpiece a burgeoning and head-scratching love affair between Hayden Christensen’s pouty Anakin Skywalker and Natalie Portman’s listless Padmé Amadala that is so poorly written and acted that it threatens to bury the whole franchise in the sands of Tatooine or the waters of Naboo. Some bounty hunter espionage helps put a spring in the film’s step, and Anakin gets to show a darker side when he kills some Tuskin Raiders (hey, aren’t those guys bastards anyway?); and the action of the passive voice title seems to partially occur. It’s largely an attack on good sense. John Williams’ love theme is pretty but underscores a Harlequin romance. Ewan McGregor is again wasted as Obi-Wan Kenobi solving a parallel mystery.
It’s the prequel turkey that will live in infamy: George Lucas’ Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (D). Presenting virtually no interesting characters that inhabit early galactic life and a storyline about tax disputes, the film sends two Jedi knights (Ewan McGregor and Liam Neeson) with mullets and rat-tails and their piercingly annoying CGI sidekick Jar-Jar Binks to pick up a bratty kid (Jake Lloyd) and an inexpressive queen (Natalie Portman). It’s not clear what they’re supposed to do then except bide time between now and when this moppet becomes an angsty teenager. Meanwhile, there’s an interminable pod race, a cool double-edge lightsaber battle and some revisionist history about how you activate the Force in your bloodstream. Lucas’ clunky direction and dialogue miss the mark in each and every way in this very embarrassing opening salvo to the prequel trilogy.
Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi (A-), directed by Richard Marquand, concludes a magnificent saga with an adventure to save Harrison Ford’s Han Solo, an excursion to a forest planet where Princess Leia confronts some family secrets and a battle between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader for control of the universe. Treading some familiar territory, we have to blow up another Death Star and endure a few other retreads of movies past. And we may have some Ewok teddy bears as a merchandising tie-in. But it’s still wall-to-wall action, amazing new creatures (Jabba the Hutt! The Rancor Monster! Admiral Ackbar!) and lots of great moments in the details. No matter which of Lucas’ special editions you may be watching, you’ll be humming a tune as you complete the saga – and that tune will include the unspoken lyric, “I just watched awesome.”
Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (A), directed by Irvin Kershner, deepens the human emotions of the Star Wars characters, giving Harrison Ford’s Han Solo and Carrie Fisher’s Princess Leia a witty repartee and Mark Hamill’s Luke Skywalker a more self-assured step into his destiny to becoming a Jedi Knight. But the villains – Darth Vader and his boss The Emperor – are ready for some payback, and tragedy and disappointment may be on the menu. This is the movie that introduces us to AT-AT imperial walkers that move like giant beasts through frosty terrains, freezing people in carbonite, a fantastic city in the clouds, Tauntauns, Wampas, Yoda and so much deepening of the folklore. Billy Dee Williams joins the cast as Lando Calrisean, and he’s a refreshing addition; like many other elements in the film, it’s hard to know whose side he’s on! It’s lush and lyrical, passionate and poetic and all the while still adventurous. This is the epic “space opera” that comes from George Lucas’ story with someone else directing and Lawrence Kasdan writing. The stakes are higher, and the adult drama comes brilliantly to life. It’s still basically a comic book storyboard come to life, but it’s epic as hell.
George Lucas’s Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (A) is a swashbuckling outer space adventure inspired by Akira Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress. Reluctant hero Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) teams up with a surly smuggler Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and a mysterious wizard (Sir Alec Guinness) to help rescue the strong-willed Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) from the clutches of the Evil Empire, lead by villainous Darth Vader (voice of James Earl Jones). Exotic desert spaceports filled with amazing creatures, just-in-time escapes in battleships and military-precision missions all factor in to the plot as our heroes venture forward to save the “Rebellion.” This film is amazing fun for all ages and is the one movie from this series that stands alone or can be viewed as the first part of the “classic trilogy.” Borrowing from fantasy serials such as Flash Gordon, the film creates its own good-versus-evil mythology and consistently entertains with cliffhangers and close calls. John Williams’ superb score and many of the film’s classic lines have simply become iconic.