"Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens" is just a few days away from its eagerly awaited release on Friday, December 18. The epic space fantasy series that revolutionized movies as we know them today is the most beloved modern myth of our time, as well as one of the greatest pop culture phenomenons in history. With all the excitement in the air, there is no doubt that fans and movie lovers have revisited the first six episodes in the "Star Wars" saga so that they are fresh in the mind before finally going to see "Episode VII."
It has been four years since the last time I watched these films, so naturally, I plowed through all 13 hours of the series (in one day) and took careful notes regarding my thoughts on each episode. Some of my opinions have changed now that I'm older, but of course, they weren't enough to completely alter my view of "Star Wars" as a feast for the imagination and the heart. So without further ado, I present my critique of the first six episodes of the "Star Wars" saga.
NOTE: These reviews are based on the versions found in the 2011 Blu-ray release of the saga, which are now considered canon.
"EPISODE I - THE PHANTOM MENACE"
The much-discussed flaws of "Episode I" are present early on in this film. The mere mention of trade negotiations and other political disputes is admittedly hard to swallow in a "Star Wars" film. And of course, there's Jar Jar Binks, who isn't really all that annoying, but he's definitely borderline cartoonish. However, there is more to enjoy about "The Phantom Menace" than there is to despise. The pacing is steady, and the film's adventurous tone doesn't let up for most of the runtime. For all its noticeable faults, "Episode I" does a fine job setting up the various characters and themes that are explored in the rest of the saga. Stand-out sequences include the exhilarating pod race involving a young Anakin Skywalker and a thrilling lightsaber duel between Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn, his apprentice, Obi-Wan Kenobi, and the agile Sith Lord, Darth Maul (who is sadly under-used by writer/director George Lucas). The exotic landscapes of the planets seen throughout the film are also wondrous to behold.
"EPISODE II - ATTACK OF THE CLONES"
This chapter in the saga has just as much riding on its shoulders as "Episode I." There is much that George Lucas had to establish in order to pave the way for the conclusion of the prequel trilogy, and it is established fairly well. Lucas even takes an incredibly mature approach to "Episode II" by incorporating elements of film noir and mystery. It's an admirable effort, but this approach unfortunately sacrifices a great deal of excitement, resulting in a pretty bland first act and an uneven second act. Thankfully, the third act is jam-packed with some stellar battle sequences involving an army of Jedi Knights. Speaking of Jedi, watching Yoda hop around the scenery while fighting with a lightsaber is really hard to do without cracking a smile. It's far from terrible, but "Attack of the Clones" is still the weakest episode in Lucas's galactic odyssey.
"EPISODE III - REVENGE OF THE SITH"
There is a line spoken by Anakin within the first five minutes of "Episode III" that sums up the entirety of the film. "This is where the fun begins." Absolutely riveting from start to finish, "Revenge of the Sith" is a major improvement over its predecessors in terms of character development, visual splendor, and even humor. The opening sequence, which includes a starfighter battle, a lightsaber duel and a massive crash-landing, showcases some of the best filmmaking in any "Star Wars" film. Contrasting these first 20 minutes in spectacular fashion are the remaining two hours of the film, which surge with darkness and heightened emotions. Anakin's fall to the dark side of the Force and his eventual transformation into Darth Vader are handled with surgical precision by Lucas. When everything comes to a head and tragedy ensues, there is an undeniable power to be felt within nearly every frame. Some moments are a tad overblown, but I mean that in the best sense of the word. "Epic" is truly too small a word to describe this wildly entertaining thrill ride.
"EPISODE IV - A NEW HOPE"
What is there to be said about this film that hasn't already been said? "Episode IV" is nearly 40 years old, and it is still as marvelous as it was for audiences back in 1977. The pacing is fluid, the editing is fast-paced, humor is aplenty, the cinematography is beautiful, and the groundbreaking special effects still hold up to this day. "Episode IV" also benefits from charming performances by Harrison Ford as Han Solo, and Oscar-winner Alec Guinness as Obi-Wan Kenobi. Not surprisingly, there is little in the film to complain about, unless you are a die-hard fan who is too distracted by the CGI elements George Lucas added to the film for its re-release many years later. Perhaps the only moderately irksome aspect of the original classic is Han Solo's slightly misogynistic attitude towards Princess Leia. Nevertheless, looking past the dated gender politics is facilitated by the many memorable moments of "A New Hope," such as the exciting dogfight between the Millennium Falcon and a few TIE Fighters, and the phenomenal Death Star trench run, which is one of the greatest climaxes ever put to film.
"EPISODE V - THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK"
Trading fast-paced spectacle for a more somber tone with attention to character is perhaps the smartest move any sequel could make. "Episode V" is a master class in how a sequel can exceed the expectations set by its predecessor and yet still retain certain elements that made it so enjoyable. It is also the funniest film in the entire saga. There is less action here than there is in "Episode IV," but with improved special effects and more perilous set pieces this time around, it is arguably more exciting. The tension between good and evil is raised significantly in "Episode V," and even though this is achieved through a relatively slow second act, it's still fascinating to watch the characters get a break from all the action and interact in more intimate settings. The intense third act of "Episode V" is a doozy, featuring a heated lightsaber duel and the "father" of all plot twists. In short, "The Empire Strikes Back" is a thematic and technical marvel.
"EPISODE VI - RETURN OF THE JEDI"
Episodes IV and V are hard acts to follow, so of course, expectations for "Episode VI" should be higher than ever. "Return of the Jedi" takes some pretty unexpected turns, which simultaneously captivate and complicate. The introduction of new creatures, such as the Ewoks, makes for a fine addition to the "Star Wars" universe. However, the nature of some of these creatures confuses the tone of "Episode VI," which aims to be the darkest of the original trilogy. Seeing child-sized teddy bears throw stones and spears at Imperial Stormtroopers is enjoyable albeit slightly too comical for its own good. On the other hand, the conclusion of Luke Skywalker's arc and his conflict with Darth Vader is handled well and creates a fitting end to the original trilogy. Some of the effects haven't aged well and the pacing is moderately uneven, but there is more than enough excitement to be had while watching this satisfying send-off to one of the greatest trilogies ever made.
Finally, just for good measure, here is my rank of all six films:
1. "Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope"
2. "Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith"
3. "Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back"
4. "Star Wars: Episode VI - Return of the Jedi"
5. "Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace"
6. "Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones"