Star Wars Episode VII, “The Force Awakens,” will be released in late December, and if we know one thing, it’s that fan reactions will almost certainly be polarized. Some will say it’s the best Star Wars movie yet; some will say George Lucas should be tried for war crimes at The Hague. Others will simply be glad that Jar Jar Binks doesn’t make an appearance (here’s to hoping, anyway).
The release of the full trailer this month predictably occasioned a great deal of fan speculation and debate. We can expect more of the same when the movie itself comes out. Whatever the public response to the movie, it’s important that we take stock of the entire series in order to determine “The Force Awakens’” place in it. I am afraid that, due to a dense fog of nostalgia and sentimentality, most people are unclear as to which Star Wars movie is the best. Well, I’ll tell you right now and save you the trouble of a movie marathon weekend: the best Star Wars movie is “Episode III: Revenge of the Sith.”
I know, I know. I was a bit surprised when I realized it myself. After all, doesn’t everyone know the new trilogy sucks from beginning to end? Don’t episodes IV through VI blow episodes I through III out of the water? Well, no, they don’t. I will gladly concede that episodes I and II are bad films, and that after making them George Lucas should have publicly apologized and then retired in shame. But I am lost as to why the original trilogy is held in such high esteem. It is, all things considered, a largely boring and unsatisfying trio of movies. When it comes to an authentically good cinematic experience, Episode III is the only legitimate contender.
Compare Episode III to the Others
As the great economist Walter Williams might say, let’s look at it. A cursory review of Episodes I and II is enough to establish that they suck. Episode I is a genuine mess, and Episode II is largely a pointless movie punctuated by truly dreadful dialogue and a dumb climactic lightsaber battle. When you toss in the irritating “midi-chlorian” instance of retroactive continuity, you have to wonder what exactly Lucas was thinking when he made these films—and then quickly conclude that he was not thinking when he made these films. Episodes I and II are no good. Assuredly even their director knows this.
Then there is the original trilogy: “A New Hope,” “The Empire Strikes Back,” and “Return of the Jedi.” These movies are fairly boring, uninspiring, and bad.
The characters, for starters, are mostly flat and unappealing. Luke Skywalker is an annoying goofball of a Jedi who experiences no real convincing character development throughout the trilogy. He becomes a bit more morose and reflective once he figures out who his dad is, but not in any way that really resonates with the viewer. Carrie Fisher’s acting in the films is bad enough to preempt any real likeability for Princess Leia. Obi-Wan is a tired old man who instructs Luke in the ways of the Force only out of a sense of lazy responsibility. Han Solo’s cocky, swaggering smuggler act is a bit overplayed (would that they had gone with Sylvester Stallone for the part). And while Darth Vader can be an interesting villain, he is for most of the trilogy a flat and colorless one; his truly compelling side arises only in his moments of vulnerability, such as when he watches in weak and confused silence as the Emperor slowly tortures his own son to death.
The ‘I Am Your Father’ Moment? Lame
Fans usually hold up “The Empire Strikes Back” as not only the strongest in the original trilogy but the strongest overall. It is at least the former—although that, of course, is not saying much. The two climactic moments of the film—Han Solo’s capture and the big reveal of Luke’s parentage—are not very moving. In what is supposed to be a shocking turn of events, the Empire transforms Han Solo against his will into…a block of carbonite.
So he’s not dead, he’s not in pain, he’s not even conscious or self-aware, nothing has fundamentally changed about him and he is in no danger (and, as revealed later, he is insanely easy to re-animate and there are no lasting side effects from the process). Meanwhile, Luke clumsily engages Vader in a lightsaber battle (all the lightsaber battles of the original trilogy are clumsy and disappointing), which culminates with Vader revealing to Luke that he is Luke’s father. Luke’s response? He wails about it and then throws himself over a cliff. Chills.
Given that this is one of the seminal twists in American cinematic history, I think we are tempted to imbue the “I-am-your-father” moment with more importance than it really deserves. Vader being Luke’s father means big things for Luke, but as non-omniscient movie watchers, it’s simply confusing for the rest of us. How did he become Luke’s father? How did they get separated? Why didn’t Vader know he had a Jedi son out there somewhere? Without answers for these valuable questions, we’re left with what appears to be little more than an opportunistic plot device invented in a moment of directorial desperation. To truly form an emotional connection with the father-son relationship of Luke and Vader, and with the circumstances of the original trilogy in general, we need answers. We need background information, and lots of it.
Let’s Review Episode III’s Strengths
Which is where Episode III comes in. The movie is certainly not without its flaws, but it has the least shortcomings out of any of the films, and of all the films it contains the most affecting and heart-rending events and depictions. Let’s take a look at the incredible developments that happen in a little over two hours of “Revenge of the Sith”:
- Palpatine convinces Anakin to kill a man in cold blood.
- Anakin’s wife, Padmé, has become pregnant within a furtive and dangerous marriage. Anakin is immediately struck by fears that she will die a painful death in childbirth.
- Palpatine slowly and systematically turns Anakin against everyone, instructs him in the ways of evil, and convinces him that Padmé will die without his, Palpatine’s, help. Feeling impotent and scared, Anakin falls under the Emperor’s spell.
- Palpatine is revealed to be a Sith lord. The Jedi attempt to arrest him, at which point Palpatine kills three of them and engages in a furious lightsaber duel with Mace Windu. In a desperate attempt to save his wife, Anakin intervenes, slicing off Windu’s hands. Palpatine then brutally murders Windu by electrocuting him and throwing him out a window.
- Anakin succumbs to the Dark Side and becomes the Sith Lord Vader. He then proceeds to murder dozens if not hundreds of defenseless children in the Jedi Temple, openly crying while he does so.
- Palpatine, meanwhile, orders the surprise execution of thousands and thousands of Jedi, and then proceeds to suspend democratic governance in the galaxy in favor of an imperial autocracy.
- Anakin slaughters the last of the (defenseless) trade separatists on the volcano planet Mustafar, and then tries to convince his pregnant wife to join him in his evil ways. She realizes that Anakin, the man she’s in love with and the father of her child(ren), has become a child-murdering psychopathic Sith lord. She refuses. Anakin becomes convinced that Padmé has betrayed him to Obi-Wan, at which point he chokes his pregnant wife into unconsciousness.
- Anakin and Obi-Wan then engage in a vicious lightsaber duel, culminating in Obi-Wan’s cutting off all of Anakin’s limbs and leaving him to burn to death by a river of fire. Meanwhile, Yoda battles Palpatine at the Senate, but is injured and forced into an ignominious retreat, thus sealing the fate of the Republic (now the Empire) for the time being.
- Padmé gives birth and then dies. Anakin is resurrected as a mostly-cybernetic, ghoulish, barely-human monster, at which point the Emperor informs him that he, Anakin, killed his wife and child.
- The new babies are flung to the far corners of the galaxy and everyone goes into hiding for fear that they will be murdered by the Empire.
That’s an unbelievable amount of sturm und drang for one film, especially when you compare it to the stuff that “Empire” had to offer:
Leia: I love you.
Han: I know.
Which do you think makes for better drama: a confused, terrified and angry man lashing out at his confused and horrified wife, accusing her of betrayal and attempting to kill her, and then fighting his best friend to the death beside a lava river? Or Han Solo being turned into a high-relief sculpture? Is it more interesting to watch a wacky fuzzball Ewok army try to take down an AT-ST, or would you prefer to watch the heartbreaking galactic-scale mass murder of the Jedi? Which offers more bang for your buck? I think the answers are clear.
As we get closer to the newest Star Wars release, it’s important to keep these facts in mind. Overall, Star Wars is a disappointing franchise; the movies have more often than not been letdowns, and their staying power seems to be borne out of a sense of duty on behalf of the public rather than the quality of the films themselves. We should not expect too much from “The Force Awakens.” But one thing we can probably be sure of is this: it will not be as good as “Revenge of the Sith.” Perhaps it will at least beat out “The Phantom Menace,” unless they decide to bring an elderly Jar Jar out of retirement, in which case all bets are off.