George Lucas, Irvin Kershner, Richard Marquand
A generation later, Skywalker’s son Luke unknowingly embarks on his own quest to lead the Rebel Alliance against Vader's evil Galactic Empire, alongside Princess Leia, Han Solo and others, to bring freedom and peace to the galaxy once and for all.
This time around, I decided to watch the STAR WARS saga in "chronological" order from Episode I through VI, in the hopes that doing so might validate the existence of the prequels or highlight exactly what they bring to the overall table. In short, still not much. (Also, yes these are the Special Edition versions of the original trilogy that feature even more George Lucas enhancements.)
THE PHANTOM MENACE
Looking back now, it’s easier to see that for whatever reason, the first Star Wars prequel was made to be a kids movie. That might make it a bit easier for a new, younger audience to jump on board the Millennium Falcon, but it doesn't make it any less of a disappointment for fans that waited decades only to be greeted with Jar Jar Binks and one of the worst child actors ever.
There's really no excuse or reason for Jar Jar, other than to appeal to a child's sensibilities for slapstick humor and toys. His character is constantly annoying and painfully unnecessary, even in the face of an overall plot that, frankly, just isn't very interesting. Despite spanning multiple unique worlds, Lucas manages to make both the story and the action feel small, including the final grand CG battle. Thankfully the pod racing sequence works really well and the final duel between Darth Maul and the Jedi might be the best lightsaber fight in the entire series, which helps to make THE PHANTOM MENACE more memorable than it should be.
Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman and Liam Neeson also do what they can to elevate things. Neeson especially brings a certain level of gravitas to his fairly thankless role. (He's almost good enough to make you buy the whole midi-chlorians BS.) It's just unfortunate that his dying wish and legacy ends up being Anakin Skywalker. His choice might be more believable without the terrible casting of Jake Lloyd in the all-important role. Lloyd remains embarrassingly bad in PHANTOM MENACE, dragging down nearly every scene he's in and competing with Jar Jar for Biggest Reason to Turn Off This Movie..
If this was the first STAR WARS movie you saw, you would probably think it was big budget childish nonsense. Even with an entire decade to digest it, still doesn't make it any better.
2.5 out of 5 stars
ATTACK OF THE CLONES
This was where we all lost hope that PHANTOM was just a fluke and came to terms with the fact that all the prequels were probably going to be crap.
Lucas’ eye for terrible casting continues with Hayden Christensen, who like Lloyd is just an eye and ear-sore in the pivotal role. His Anakin Skywalker is whiny and unlikable, which is a poor setup for his ultimate downfall. The other main takeaway is that greenscreen acting just doesn't work. It's the only explanation for why seasoned pros like MacGregor, Portman, Sam Jackson and even Christopher Lee come across so stiff and lifeless in their performances. (Though none are still as bad as Christensen.) Where that hurts the most is the love story between Anakin and Padme, which needed to be the emotional anchor to this entire trilogy, but fails in a laughable mix of "M'lady's" and cheesy lines. Lucas doesn't seem to understand that romantic scenery doesn't automatically make a romance work.
ATTACK OF THE CLONES is thankfully less childish than the first prequel, which helps, but still, very little is memorable here. Yoda’s CROUCHING TIGER fight with Count Dooku left probably the biggest impact due to the gimmick of seeing two elderly CG characters duke it out. The stuff with young Boba Fett is a bust, as is the big gladiator-style battle at the end, which is about as entertaining as seeing a hundred people wave fake swords around a green screen. I will always dig McGregor's Alec Guinness impression though.
3 out of 5 stars
REVENGE OF THE SITH
I never understood why this was met with such praise upon its release in 2005. Sure, it's the best movie out of the prequels, but there was so much potential for drama here that is squandered by bad acting and a lifeless script.
Despite the flaws of the previous two films and the fact that we know the eventual outcome of Anakin Skywalker, the set up was still here for a powerful story reminiscent of a Shakespearean tragedy. While the result is still fairly good, it's not as great as it should've been, and REVENGE OF THE SITH again feels like Lucas just going through the motions—no surprises or excitement. Both Portman and Christensen may be at their worst here, acting-wise; neither can sell the characters' tragic love or the emotions behind their ultimate demise. As a result, this final prequel comes close to demystifying and destroying everything that was cool and scary about Darth Vader. A movie where our fallen hero murders a bunch of children should not be devoid of meaningful drama– but this is.
There are some legitimately good bits here and plenty of dark material that takes the series to new levels. The execution of all the Jedi (Order 66) is a harrowing and moving sequence (mostly thanks to John Williams continuing brilliant score). The Emperor's big reveal is also fun to watch, especially his confrontation with Samuel L. Jackson, who despite the actor's denial, does go out like a punk. And I would be lying if I said I didn't get goosebumps seeing Darth Vader being put together, or his final shot standing next to the Emperor in front of the Death Star.
But again, that's something that relies on our love for the original trilogy, not something new that George Lucas created. At the end of the day the prequels remain completely unnecessary and there’s no greater reminder than this movie.
3.5 out of 5 stars
A NEW HOPE
What can you say about the first (yes, the first) STAR WARS? It's just a product of great world building, a stellar cast, creative storytelling and an immense amount of obvious love and hard work.
A NEW HOPE is a movie made by a hungry young filmmaker with something to prove and a cast brave enough to join him. Sure, the seams are there and the actors seem almost amused by some of the silly things they have to say, but the result is well worth the risk.
For one, there's so much character and life to this film that the prequels misses out on with its cold digital landscape. We get the first signs of real chemistry between Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill and others actors/characters that we would grow to love. And having Sir Alec Guinness doesn’t hurt either, especially when explaining far out concepts like the Force and Jedis.
There are plenty of other sequences and moments that are still exciting and emotional. The opening shot of the Star Destroyer, Vader's entrance, the first time we hear the hum of a lightsaber—all still give me chills. The epic space battles, the trash compactor escape, and Luke's victory in the end still get audiences cheering. There's a thousand other big and little things I could list about this movie, but if you're reading this site, I shouldn't have to.
4.5 out of 5 stars
THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK
One of the rare instances where a sequel is better than the original, EMPIRE STRIKES BACK is by far the best film out of the Star Wars series. It also is a perfect example of why everything else following it has paled in comparison: George Lucas let other people write and direct the movie based on his ideas.
AMERICAN GRAFFITI and THX 1138 are both good, but when it comes to Star Wars, Lucas clearly needs an outside hand to help reel in and craft his framework in to something truly great. Here writer Lawrence Kasdan and director Irvin Kershner take the saga to the next level by naturally growing the characters, expanding the universe and not resting on their laurels.
From the opening on the ice planet Hoth, it's obvious that the filmmaker's have upped the ante and are taking chances (putting our hero inside a Tauntaun? Bold.) Lucas and Co. could have gone all action and given everyone countless lightsaber duels and space chases, but the best moments in EMPIRE are the character interactions, from Luke's training with Yoda on Dagobah to Han and Leia's budding romance and constant bickering. (Ford's "I know" response right before being frozen in carbonite is such a pimp line. It doesn't work as well on my girlfriend though.)
It all culminates to an epic conclusion on Cloud City. I don't think I need to elaborate any further. Luke's scene with Vader at the end might be the most memorable moment in movie history.
5 out of 5 stars
RETURN OF THE JEDI
Ewoks, really? Okay, so JEDI doesn’t close out the series with the same quality of the previous sequel, but it still does a pretty good job.
What works best here are still the characters; the chemistry between the actors is at its peak. (Even Harrison Ford seems to be enjoying himself.) The other thing that works: Princess Leia in the metal bikini. That works so well it makes me consider the fact that Jabba the Hutt should be considered the hero of the franchise. Clearly, he was on to something.
In terms of a satisfying conclusion, RETURN OF THE JEDI is fairly successful. Still, ending the series on Endor always felt like an odd choice to me. The speeder chases are fun, and again it's another creative and different setting than what we've seen before, but the Ewoks, while cute, are kind of throwaway characters without much to offer during such a dramatic final battle. They feel sort of shoehorned in for merchandising. (A grim foreshadowing of PHANTOM MENACE.)
The final showdown between Luke, Vader and the Emperor doesn't disappoint though. It's predictable, but still exciting and well executed. The lighstaber battles feel fresh and the ultimate unveiling of the elder Anakin Skywalker works. As for the ending scene? An epic space opera having its big finale on a forest planet with a dance party with small woodland creatures was not exactly how I imagined Star Wars concluding.
4 out of 5 stars
Wow where do I start? There are three (3!) Blu-Ray discs worth of special features here, each packed to the brim with a variety of bonus material. There's one for the prequels, one for the original trilogy, and another for random documentaries and features. It's so much stuff it was almost a chore to go through it at one time. This is definitely a set that you can take your time to appreciate. (The painted artwork throughout the book-style case was especially nice.)
And yes, George Lucas did alter the films even further for this Blu-Ray release. Some of the new changes are quite annoying. (Vader's added "Nooo's" during the final showdown with the emperor in JEDI are especially infuriating.)
Commentaries: The disc for each individual film includes two commentaries from George Lucas and random other cast and crew members (from Carrie Fisher to influential sound designer Ben Burtt). Each is pieced together from previous tracks and new interviews, so don't expect everyone to be in the same room together hanging out. This is not my favorite style of commentary, but it does give you a wealth of expert knowledge and information. There's probably some new tidbit here for even the most die hard Star Wars geek.
Disc 1: Episode I-III Archive Features
Episode I: Naboo
Overview (4:51): Members of the design team discuss combining real sets and models as well as CGI to create the planet, underwater sequence and final CGI battle.
Liam Neeson Interview (2:22): Neeson with mutton chops talks about what attracted him to the script and what was below the surface.
Deleted/Extended Scenes: (1:31): Three short clips of trash-talking droids, a bad Anakin one liner and an appearance by Dominic West from "The Wire."
The Collection: 360 degree virtual galleries, videos and concept art for random characters, ships and costumes.
Episode I - Tatooine
Overview (3:40): Cast and crew discuss returning to the planet once again.
Rick McCallum – Podracers: (1:03): The producer briefly touches on the podracers and how the models were so huge they had to be transported in Russian military planes.
Rick McCallum: Tunisia (2:32): Funnily enough, nobody remembered where exactly they shot the original film, so the production had to consult a fan who wrote a thesis on the locations in Tunisia and use his knowledge.
Deleted/Extended Scenes (2:03): More leading up to the podrace.
The Collection: More 360 turnaround and concept art for the podracers, Watto, Sebulba and more.
Episode I - Coruscant
Overview (4:35): A bit about the design of Coruscant.
George Lucas on Preparing to Write Episode I (3:05): A chat from 1994 about how technology freed the filmmaker to finally portray what he saw in his imagination onscreen. He also mentions how he feels no pressure and is glad to do it by himself—all bad omens.
Deleted/Extended Scene (0:28): A brief appearance by Bail Organa.
The Collection: Designs for some of Queen Amidala's Costumes.
Episode II - Coruscant
Overview (3:56): The crew discusses how the planet was different in the second prequel and how they needed to imagine what "street level" was like on the giant city.
Ewan McGregor (1:12): Ewan reveals that STAR WARS was the first movie he saw in theaters when he was six years old and how he only went to see his uncle, who played a fighter pilot.
Deleted/Extended Scenes (2:15): An extended speeder chase and a little more back story on Count Dooku's history with the Jedi.
The Collection: 360s, videos and concept art for Dexter Jettster, Youngling outfits, and more.
Episode II – Naboo
Overview (3:10): A brief glimpse at how Naboo has changed since Episode I.
Deleted/Extended Scenes (2:00): Anakin has a nightmare about his mom and speaks with Padme's father.
The Collection: 360 turnarounds, video commentaries and concept art for Shaak Maquette, Anakin's Peasant Costume, and Padme's Peasant Costume.
Episode II - Tatooine
Overview (3:54): Crew discusses how Anakin's home planet has changed since he left as a child and how they represented that onscreen.
The Collection: 360 turnarounds, video commentaries and concept art for C-3PO, a Tusken Raider Woman and Child.
Episode II - Geonosis
Overview (3:35): A bit on the design of the planet that set the stage for the climactic battle in Episode II. (The architecture was based on giant termite mounds.)
Hayden Christensen (1:30): Anakin himself discusses what it takes to wield a lightsaber and how to act poorly. (Just kidding.)
Blue Screen Acting (3:38): Both Christopher Lee and Hayden Christensen talk about the painful process of acting against nothing and all but say they hate it.
Deleted/Extended Scene (4:30): A bit of an extension on the end fight in the arena.
The Collection: 360 turnarounds, video commentaries and concept art for Jango Fett, Super Battle Droids, Clone Troopers and more.
Episode III - Coruscant
Overview (5:19): A look at the making of the opening space battle above the planet.
Samuel L. Jackson (2:34): Mace Windu discusses his love for his purple lightsaber.
Deleted/Extended Scenes (6:22): Some more exchanges painful between Obi-Wan and Anakin and another escape sequence.
The Collection: 360 turnarounds, video commentaries and concept art for Separatist Cruiser ships, Count Dooku's Lightsaber, Palpatine and Anakin Costume.
Episode III - Utapau
Overview (4:52): Visual FX Supervisor John Knoll discusses their work on creating the planet, which provided the backdrop for Obi Wan and Grievous' fight.
Deleted/Extended Scene (8:34): This previz sequence is an extended version of the big chase and was done by none other than Steven Spielberg himself!
The Collection: 360 turnarounds, video commentaries and concept art Obi-Wan, General Grievous and more.
Episode III - Mustafar
Overview (4:30): A look at how they created an entire planet made of lava for the prequel's climactic battle.
Natalie Portman (2:10): Padme talks about her character's journey in the third film.
Deleted/Extended Scenes (7:19): A couple longer animatics of the final duel between Obi Wan and Anakin. (You can probably skip this.)
The Collection: 360 turnarounds, video commentaries and concept art for Obi-Wan and Anakin's Lightsaber and Burnt Anakin's head!
Episode III - Kashyyyk and Order 66
Overview (5:43): Ha! The design team actually based much of this planet's look on the Star Wars Christmas Special!
Deleted/Extended Scenes (14:45): Probably the best group of deleted scenes on the prequel disc. We get a longer previz of the Order 66 sequence and Yoda's senate fight with the Emperor, Anakin killing Jedi Shaak Ti in the Jedi Temple and Yoda Communing with Qui-Gon! Unfortunately, Liam Neeson does not return but it's nice that it's at least acknowledged.
The Collection: 360 turnarounds, video commentaries and concept art for Chewbacca and Darth Vader's costumes.
Disc 2: Original Trilogy Features
Episode IV - Tatooine
Overview (3:49): Members of the art department, camera crew and sound designer Ben Burtt all discuss different aspects of Luke Skywalker's home planet,
Mark Hamill (2:15): Hamill talks about working with George Lucas and Alec Guiness
Anthony Daniels (1:21): The man inside C-3PO talks about his special relationship with R2-D2.
Deleted/Extended Scenes (15:10): A full scene with Luke hanging out with Biggs and his other friends, some more of Aunt Beru's gross blue milk, a rough version of the Cantina scene with Han Solo playing his pimp game and more!
The Collection: 360 turnarounds, video commentaries and concept art for Landspeeders, the Millenium Falcon, R2-D2, Jawas and more.
Episode IV - Aboard the Death Star
Overview (5:47): Sound genius Ben Burtt, who did all the "voices for WALL-E, discusses how much fun he had coming up with sound effects for the various elements of the Death Star.
Carrie Fisher (1:45): Fischer talks about auditioning for George Lucas and seeing herself on screen.
Deleted/Extended Scene (0:36): A quick scene of Darth Vader that was used for the Star Wars Holiday Special.
The Collection: 360 turnarounds, video commentaries and concept art for the Death Star and more.
Episode IV - The Battle of Yavin
Overview (4:22): A look at how they filmed the flight through the Death Star trench.
Deleted/Extended Scene (00:36): An alternate version of Biggs and Luke's reunion at the end.
The Collection: 360 turnarounds, video commentaries and concept art for the various spaceships.
Episode V - Hoth
Overview (3:31): A look at how they did all the effects for the ice planet without the use of CGI, including a lot of composite and stop motion work. Some pretty cool BTS footage.
George Lucas (3:25): An old interview from 1979 where Lucas talks about his editing technique.
Irvin Kershner (3:02): The director on working with the cast and under George Lucas.
Deleted/Extended Scenes (8:30): A bunch more character interactions, including more of Han and Leia's playful bickering, disturbing footage of Luke and Leia almost kissing again, and an entire cut sequence where a poorly executed stop motion Wampa attacks the base.
The Collection: 360 turnarounds, video commentaries and concept art for AT-AT Walkers, Tauntauns Leia and Han Solo's Hoth Costume and more.
Episode V - Dagobah
Overview (4:29): A glance at the Dagobah set and Frank Oz discussing how Yoda's unique way of talking was born.
George Lucas (5:20): A new interview where the Star Wars creator discusses the concept behind The Force. Stupid midi-chlorians.
Deleted/Extended Scene (1:20): Another training bit where Yoda is hard on Luke.
The Collection: 360 turnarounds, video commentaries and concept art for Yoda, Luke's Severed Head, and Dagobah.
Episode V - Pursued by the Imperial Fleet
Overview (3:25): A look at the filming of the asteroid field scene.
Deleted/Extended Scenes (3:05): Another take on Han and Leia's kiss, as well as some funny raw footage of the cast reacting to explosions that aren't there.
The Collection: 360 turnarounds, video commentaries and concept art for the Millennium Falcon, Space Slug, Darth Vader's Star Destroyer and more.
Episode V - Cloud City
Overview (2:54): A brief bit on the architecture of Cloud City.
Deleted/Extended Scenes (2:01): Leia explains to Luke about Han's carbonite demise and Lando's comrade is captured.
The Collection: 360 turnarounds, video commentaries and concept art for Cloud City Models and more.
Episode VI - Tatooine
Overview (3:35): A featurette on the design and creation of Jabba's palace.
Deleted/Extended Scenes (5:06): Darth Vader reaches out to Luke telepathically and a Han Solo weathers a Tatooine Sandstorm
The Collection: 360 turnarounds, video commentaries and concept art for C-3PO's Head, Jabba's Palace, the Sarlacc Pit Matte Painting and of course Leia's Slave Costume.
Episode VI - Endor
Overview (4:52): A look at the speeder chase, both planning and execution.
Harrison Ford (1:34): A rare interview with Han Solo himself, discussing his iconic role and working with George Lucas.
Deleted/Extended Scene (2:20): More on the Rebel raid on the bunker.
The Collection: 360 turnarounds, video commentaries and concept art for the Speeder Bike, Ewok Hang Glider, and the Ewok Costume.
Episode VI - Death Star II Space Battle
Overview (4:04): A look at the model and miniature work that went in to creating the climactic sequence.
Deleted/Extended Scenes (12:09): A character I don't recognize gets a few more lines and a nearly 10 minute sequence of footage cut from the Battle of Endor, mostly featuring more nameless pilots.
The Collection: 360 turnarounds, video commentaries and concept art for the TIE Interceptor Fighter, Death Star, Millennium Falcon and more.
Disc 3: Documentaries
The Making of Star Wars (49:00): This is an old documentary from the film's original 1977 release, but it's still fun to see all the cast and crew so young and clueless about the impact they were going to have on pop culture.
The Empire Strikes Back: SPFX (48:05): Another Making Of doc from around the second film's release, with a heavy focus on the special effets for some of the movie's most famous scenes.
Classic Creatures: The Return of the Jedi (48:07): Princess Leia and Lando (circa 1983) host this nearly hour-long look at all the aliens and critters created for the original trilogy. Silly Ewoks.
Anatomy of a Dewback (26:17): This may cause some ire among fans: Watch as a computer animator translates the rubber Dewback puppet in to CGI for the Special Edition of A NEW HOPE.
Star Warriors (1:24:00): A very in-depth look at a group of hardcore Star Wars cosplayers. If you miss Comic Con, this will tide you over until next year.
Star Wars Tech (45:36): This is pretty fascinating. Scientists from all backgrounds discuss how plausible the sci-fi concepts mentioned in Star Wars would be in a realistic future. A little nerdy but a cool idea. Also, nobody calls George Lucas on the stupid midi-chlorians.
The Empire Strikes Back: 30 Years Later (25:11): This all-too-short documentary looks back (along with Lucas, Irvin Kershner and John Williams) at the series' best film and its enduring legacy amongst fans.
Star Wars Spoofs (1:37:30): The idea to gather as many Star Wars pop culture references and parodies is a good one, unfortunately this fails in execution. You get clips from SNL, Robot Chicken, That 70s Show, CLERKS, The Daily Show, Fanboys, How I Met Your Mother, Buffy, The Simpsons, the MTV Movie Awards, viral YouTube videos and of course SPACEBALLS. Unfortunately they're haphazardly edited in to one jumbled 1.5 hour mess with no organization. It'd be great to be able to select them from the Blu-Ray menu, but no dice.
Extra Tidbit: Unknown actors and actresses you might spot in the prequels include: Rose Byrne, Keira Knightley and Joel Edgarton.