A few things were lost in the excitement over the recently released trailer for Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi. As is often the case the trailer itself was exceptional, cloaked in a dark and ominous atmosphere and peppered with brief appearances from new stars and icons alike, it immediately had fanboys the world over erupting with demented glee. The hype is quickly reaching fever pitch, generating a buzz that can’t help but overshadow the massive flaws of the previous episode of the series The Force Awakens, itself a film that was preceded by an incredible trailer. As fun as it was to sit through, the J.J. Abrams helmed continuation drifted along on nostalgia alone, playing it frustratingly safe when it could have used much of the spark and creativity of his Star Trek reboot from 2009.
Strangely enough, it still received a phenomenal reception from critics and fans alike. Most of the goodwill can be attributed to the return to the franchise of its “big three” – Harrison Ford as Han Solo, Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia and Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker – but a small portion could well be put down to a weary audience’s cautious expectations after the lukewarm response to George Lucas’ prequel trilogy. Disillusioned fans were now at the point that anything even slightly decent would amount to a success, resulting in an absurd triumph for the franchise’s return. Unsurprisingly The Force Awakens utterly destroyed the box office, but in hindsight the outpouring of critical love for an otherwise ordinary movie was bizarre at best, entirely frustrating at worst. It was overrated in almost every aspect, a decent piece of entertainment that shamelessly riffed on the original’s storyline in every possible way.
It wasn’t the worst of the lot, but is clearly no chance to bother any list of the top three Star Wars movies of all time. Of the eight feature films released so far, there is a near unanimous agreement over what comes in at number one – despite the legacy left by the original trilogy, only The Empire Strikes Back can justifiably sit at the top of any best of ranking. The first film was obviously ground-breaking and dripping with imagination, yet is built around an awkwardly clunky screenplay only occasionally saved by the natural charisma of its performers. The third outing Return Of The Jedi meanwhile wasted a brilliant first act with a deluge of sentimentality and Ewoks in the second half. Of the two latest releases, it’s Gareth Edwards’ standalone Rogue One that stands out, a rousing adventure benefiting from the brilliant Felicity Jones as Jyn Erso and a heist story unencumbered by the weight of previous instalments. It’s a surprising choice for number two on the list, but also completely deserving. Edwards managed to bring a slightly darker and rough around the edges feel to proceedings, creating an exciting war film both new and refreshing while still expanding the universe.
It’s that third spot that might spark the most debate. The prequel trilogy is usually dismissed immediately by the hordes of obsessives permanently damaged by the horrifically disappointing The Phantom Menace, and while it’s follow-up Attack Of The Clones was only a slight improvement, it’s clear now that the trilogy was saved completely by the third release Revenge Of The Sith, a film that is not only significantly better than its predecessors, but also one that sits comfortably alongside the best in the franchise. It doesn’t have the charm or iconic characters of the original trilogy, but neither does it have the first two prequels’ over reliance on CGI or the entirely irritating duo of Jar Jar Binks and a nine year old Anakin Skywalker. And in its franchise defining third act Lucas finally moulds a film worthy of the Darth Vader mythology.
In fairness to its detractors, this has always been an easy movie to dismiss. As always, the dialogue is borderline atrocious. Lucas just cannot write convincing dialogue in any form, unable to shape natural conversation for any of his characters and unwilling to move away from his melodramatic tendencies throughout. There is still an uncomfortable amount of effects used too – he is clearly more excited by the technological opportunities available than utilizing any of the charmingly lo-fi sets of the original films. There is also the lingering sense that there was a leaner, more impactful story to tell then the one spread over three films here. Lucas’ endless need to build on his grand space opera should be commended, but it’s difficult not to think he would’ve benefited from reigning his vision in here and there.
These are all flaws that can be forgiven by the final act though. The three films were made for one reason – to tell the story of how a promising Jedi under the guidance of a great mentor fell to the dark side, becoming the Sith master Vader – and here it gets a fittingly epic finish. The cast are all at their best too. Ewan McGregor gives one of the great performances of the series as the shattered master Obi-Wan Kenobi, particularly in the devastating final scenes with his lost protégé Anakin. After all the criticism he received from his showing in Attack Of The Clones, Hayden Christensen manages to impress too, surprisingly nuanced in his seething rage as Anakin watches his world crumble around him. The two trade blows and emotion in a brutal battle to bring the series to its bitter conclusion.
It’s those final few scenes that leave the largest impression. The final fight between Obi-Wan and Anakin on the banks of a lava river, burning rocks flying all around them, is incredible. Obi-Wan begs and pleads for Anakin to come to his senses, McGregor’s voice all shredded heartache and desperation. The effects are over the top, but never enough to overshadow the two main characters. Its brilliance is matched only by the moment soon after where Anakin finally dons his iconic mask and lets out his first familiar breaths as Darth Vader. Lucas films it all like he’s been planning for it his entire life, which isn’t far from the truth. As each thread of the storyline slowly reveals its connection to Episode IV – A New Hope, it becomes clear that this is the best work of his directing career.
After three full movies, almost seven hours of viewing, it’s the harrowing ending Lucas set out for from the start. There were problems from the very moment he began work on the three prequels, a crisis of confidence and a critical lambasting the likes of which he had only ever experienced on his 1986 production Howard The Duck. Yet somehow he stuck the landing. Somehow he was able to execute the most important moment of the entire franchise to perfection. Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge Of The Sith deserves to be number three on the best Star Wars movies of all time on it’s phenomenal ending alone.