The release of a new Star Wars film marks the time-honored tradition of reevaluating how each film in the saga stacks up against one another, with The Last Jedi offering a pretty substantial shakeup in how the new installments in the series compare to the originals.
When looking back on the franchise as a whole, the films end up falling into three distinct categories: the original trilogy, the prequels, and the contemporary era of films, with each era featuring many similar, distinguishing characteristics.
Thanks to the Internet, we've learned that virtually every person who's viewed a Star Wars film makes their own unique, personal connection to the films, resulting in a different ranking for every viewer. No matter how you view each film, all it takes is one moment or sequence to catapult it into your top spot, which is one of many reasons that the saga has earned its well-deserved legacy.
One important distinction in ranking the films is the omission of the animated entry, Star Wars: The Clone Wars, as it served as an introduction to the TV series on Cartoon Network. Additionally, the live-action An Ewok Adventure: Caravan of Courage and Ewoks: The Battle for Endor both debuted on television, which is why these three films have all been omitted.
Now let's dig in and see how The Last Jedi compares to the rest of the saga!
The prequels have caught a lot of flack over the years for a variety of reasons, in some cases unjustly and in other cases completely deserved.
The second prequel, Attack of the Clones, had the most daunting task of them all, as it served as the middle chapter that focused on Anakin Skywalker's Jedi adolescence and clouded judgment.
Unfortunately, while the love story between Anakin and Padme might be essential to Skywalker's rejection of Jedi beliefs, watching it unfold is far from pleasant. The romance between Han and Leia in the original trilogy is one of the most memorable in sci-fi cinema, setting the standards quite high for the galaxy far, far away.
The film isn't totally without merit, as Obi-Wan's duel with Jango Fett and seeing Yoda wield a lightsaber created some highly memorable moments. Overall, however, the film was tasked with incorporating too many elements, having to lay out not only the romantic elements of the saga but also explain and set up the entire concept of the Clone Wars.
Much like Attack of the Clones, Revenge of the Sith had the difficult task of setting up the original trilogy directly, as it was the last installment before the events of those films.
Anakin's descent to the Dark Side may have made sense on paper, but his transition in the prequel films is far from organic. The love story stumbles throughout thanks to its necessity to the overall story despite the scenes between Hayden Christensen and Natalie Portman feeling far more melodramatic than one of the greatest romances in science fiction.
The film isn't completely devoid of intense emotional beats, as many of the scenes between Obi-Wan and Anakin adequately convey the sense of betrayal felt by both parties. Additionally, Anakin's slaughter of the younglings and the Jedi being forced into hiding help set the stage for just how evil the Empire was, thereby conveying the stakes of the original trilogy much more cohesively.
Also, the lightsaber duel between Anakin and Obi-Wan is easily one of the best fight scenes in the entire saga.
In ways both good and bad, The Phantom Menace is the film furthest removed from the original trilogy, ultimately feeling the most unique of all of the prequels.
Seeing Anakin Skywalker as a kid did little to improve upon the original films, while everything related to the Gungans is Star Wars Holiday Special levels of absurdity. Additionally, the plot involving the Trade Federation and blockades felt needlessly complicated, and many of us struggle to recall it 20 minutes after watching the movie, let alone 20 years later.
Despite these shortcomings, Phantom Menace gave us two of the entire saga's most compelling characters to not appear in future installments with Qui-Gon Jinn and Darth Maul. Most fans were excited to see familiar faces in the prequel, with these characters commanding the screen so wholly that we were disappointed we'd never get to see them again.
The film's finale may be overlong and busy with its fractured narrative, but the duel between Qui-Gon, Obi-Wan, and Darth Maul is arguably the best lightsaber duel seen in anything related to Star Wars.
The film's pod race is still a compelling piece of action, yet, to quote Jurassic Park's Ian Malcolm, the scene feels more like Lucas was "so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should." Action-packed and exciting, yes, but we could also have cut that nearly 15-minute sequence down and the film would likely be remembered more fondly.
Technically a prequel but not considered one of "the prequels," Rogue One was an ambitious effort on the part of Lucasfilm that mostly paid off, giving audiences a look at the world of the Rebellion as a whole and not related to the Skywalkers.
In addition to giving us a slew of new characters, Rogue One also demonstrated a new type of filmmaking that took more direct inspiration from war and espionage films than serving as a fantastical space opera.
Seeing more diverse characters helped open the world to many audiences, shoving just how devoted many of the members of the Rebellion were and how it wasn't just a few hotshot pilots taking down the Empire.
One of the film's flaws is that, knowing that these characters wouldn't survive past the film's credits, less time was spent developing them, and it oftentimes makes them feel two-dimensional. Crafting the film's narrative was clearly a challenge, as we would have lost out on the intensity and pace of the overall story had the film focused much more on developing each and every character.
Rogue One succeeded in diversifying not just the world of Star Wars, but also how audiences view that world, while also solving a 40-year-old mystery of how it was so easy for the Death Star to be destroyed.
Fans anticipating The Phantom Menace had over 15 years worth of expectations riding on it -- which only added to the disappointment they felt about not enjoying it. The Force Awakens may have only had 10 years worth of anticipation, but, given how Star Wars fans had felt burned before, it's possible fans were anticipating this chapter much more highly, with many of those expectations met or exceeded.
Luckily for fans, J.J. Abrams was at the helm, who had previously already revived the Star Trek film franchise, finding the balance between incorporating familiar elements while giving new perspectives. Seeing what Han, Leia, and Chewbacca had been up to for the last 30 years was exciting for fans, but even more exciting were new characters Rey, Finn, and Kylo Ren. It's a difficult challenge creating characters that rival the Star Wars icons, but one at which Abrams succeeded.
Fans' biggest concerns with the prequel films were how different they felt from the original series, a concern Abrams clearly took to heart. One of the biggest issues with the film comes as a result of being too familiar, with many audiences claiming it was almost a remake of the original Star Wars with just a few modifications.
Despite the overall difficulties with the film's narrative and structure, The Force Awakens accomplished something many thought impossible by satiating our desires to get caught up with our favorite characters while setting the stage for characters that new generations will admire.
Prior to the prequel films, Return of the Jedi was the black sheep of the original trilogy as it had some of the saga's silliest sequences.
From a forest moon inhabited by walking, talking teddy bears to a quasi-saloon owned by a massive, sentient slug, there's a lot of goofy stuff in Return of the Jedi to rightfully make it an experience that was more fun than other entries. Some criticize this sense of whimsy, but what's wrong with a Star Wars movie being fun?
From the deserts of Tatooine to the forest moon of Endor, Return of the Jedi reunited our heroes after their dour adventure in Empire Strikes Back one more time. Many fans focus on the fun elements that feel like they have lower stakes, completely overlooking that this film saw the redemption of Anakin Skywalker with one of the most emotionally heavy finales in the whole series.
Lucas' embrace of the world's wackiness and incorporation of an emotionally cathartic climax results in a film that combines all of the things that make these movies exciting, even if the film suffers from dramatic tonal shifts from one scene to the next.
Heading into the release of The Last Jedi, many fans were expecting the film to thematically mirror Empire Strikes Back, as this was the second chapter in a new trilogy. Interestingly, this installment proved that this prediction was completely unfounded, while also being completely accurate in unexpected ways.
The Force Awakens set the groundwork for writer/director Rian Johnson to take the new characters and explore their full potential, from Rey's quest for identity and Kylo Ren's desires to destroy his past to Finn's desire to end the First Order. Like the Empire Strikes Back, Last Jedi is heavy with emotion and genuinely shocking moments, making for unpredictable sequences that rival that of discovering Vader was Luke's father. The film also crafted multiple massive battles that rivaled the Battle of Hoth, full of not just narrative relevance but also awe-inspiring effects.
The way The Last Jedi is not like Empire Strikes Back is that it's probably the funniest installment in the whole series, not only in the characters' recognition of the absurd situations they've gotten themselves into but also hilarious quips delivered with precision.
Much like Kylo Ren's motivations, The Last Jedi destroys everything you expected from a Star Wars film and introduces audiences to something new and exciting.
In the 40 years since its release, the original Star Wars remains the bar by which all other sci-fi spectacles are judged, and rightfully so.
Without Lucas' unique eye and perspective, the Star Wars films wouldn't have been as memorable as they are, yet another component that solidified the original film's success were the elements borrowed from other stories.
The filmmaker has never made it a secret that he was inspired by everything from Flash Gordon serials to World War II films to craft Star Wars, the story of characters trying to find light in a world full of darkness. Interestingly, Lucas' inspirations might not be as highly regarded as Star Wars is after all these years, due to not only the specific ways in which he blended these sources but also what perspectives he brought to the film that couldn't be replicated.
A great balance of humor, heart, and adventure, the original Star Wars is just as exciting of a watch as it was 40 years ago.
The success of Star Wars is due to its balance of excitement and adventure, but the success of Empire Strikes Back comes from how it takes our characters and makes them face their biggest challenges, refusing audiences a happy ending.
The original film's appeal involved the reluctant motley group that formed, from a farm boy to a princess to a smuggler, and the appeal of Empire is how it takes the group and shatters it. The ambitious farm boy is left interacting with a Jedi Master more than 800 years his senior who constantly doubts Luke's devotions. The princess and the smuggler bicker throughout most of the film's runtime, regularly interrupted by their ship malfunctioning. The film's villain is shown not as a sympathetic character, but as just another cog in the overall Empire, wanting power for himself while also answering to a superior.
After an entire film focused on the fight between good and evil, we also meet those that function somewhere in the middle with Lando Calrissian, a man who merely hopes to run a city among the clouds without having to take a side either way.
If Return of the Jedi is chided for its lack of emotional depth, Empire is championed for the opposite reasons, taking both the love and fear evident in the first film to new heights, creating the most heartbreaking and heartwarming moments in the saga.
While it might not be the most exciting or action-packed entry in the saga, Empire Strikes Back gives us the best of what the saga has to offer, which is ultimately the timeless tale of standing defiant in the face of darkness, even if your dad cuts off your head and your friend gets frozen in carbonite.