The Star Wars Saga
Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace (December 11/15)
The saga begins with this relentlessly erratic installment detailing the rise of the long-dormant Sith, with the narrative following Jedi knights Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) and Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) as they attempt to forestall a growing rift between the Republic and the Empire. (The pair also encounter and work with a young boy named Anakin Skywalker.) Though far from the disaster one might have expected, Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace is rarely able to wholeheartedly able to capture one's full interest - as writer/director George Lucas has suffused the rather impenetrable narrative with a host of ill-conceived, underwhelming elements. Ranking near the top of that list is, of course, the character of Jar Jar Binks, with the clumsy, computer-generated figure setting the viewer's teeth on edge virtually from the word go. Jar Jar's relentlessly bumbling behavior is compounded by some seriously questionable special effects and Ahmed Best's annoying vocal performance, and it's clear that the character brings the proceedings to a dead stop with each and every appearance (of which there are many). And while both Neeson and McGregor are typically solid in their respective roles, Jake Lloyd's less-than-competent turn as the perky Anakin ensures that one's efforts to form any kind of rooting interesting in the infamous figure fall hopelessly flat. Lucas' notorious reliance on computer-generated effects prevents many high-octane sequences, such as the exciting yet empty podrace, from making the visceral impact one might've anticipated, although, to be fair, there's no denying the effectiveness of certain other action-packed moments sprinkled throughout the film - with the highlight unquestionably a three-way duel between Qui-Gon, Obi-Wan, and Ray Park's scene-stealing Darth Maul. It's ultimately impossible to label Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace as anything more than a passable yet consistently erratic blockbuster, with the movie hardly standing as an ideal introduction into George Lucas' justifiably legendary universe.
Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones (December 14/15)
As perpetually uneven as its underwhelming predecessor, Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones follows a now-adult Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) as he embarks on an illicit affair with Natalie Portman's Padmé - with the narrative also detailing Obi-Wan Kenobi's (Ewan McGregor) investigation into a failed assassination attempt on Senator Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid). It becomes clear fairly early on that writer/director George Lucas intends for Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones to correct the mistakes of Episode I, as the movie, for the most part, boasts a more adult-oriented sensibility that proves a refreshing change from the almost non-stop silliness of the earlier film - with the most obvious example of this a severely (and appreciatively) reduced role for Ahmed Best's pointless, annoying Jar Jar Binks. There's little doubt, however, that the heavy emphasis on the burgeoning relationship between Anakin and Padmé hardly fares well at all, with Christensen and Portman's total lack of chemistry together merely the tip of the iceberg in terms of this subplot's ineffectiveness. (It doesn't help, of course, that Lucas floods the proceedings with ill-advised instances of dialogue, including Anakin's infamous "I don't like sand" line.) The less-than-enthralling narrative is compounded by Lucas' overuse of computer-generated effects, as there's a pervasive lack of reality to many of the movie's action-oriented moments - with, for example, a flying car chase through a busy cityscape more cartoonish than anything else. It's ultimately the ongoing emphasis on Star Wars-specific elements that sustains one's interest through the far-too-long running time, with the inherently-compelling nature of many attributes ensuring that Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones is, at the very least, a watchable big-budget extravaganza. (It'd be nice for a little more substance, of course.)
Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith (December 14/15)
Easily the best of the prequels, Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith primarily revolves around Anakin Skywalker's (Hayden Christensen) turn to the Dark Side and the Sith's long-gestating rise to power. Filmmaker George Lucas has, with Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith, mostly jettisoned the unfocused, kid-oriented bent of The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones, with the increased emphasis on Anakin's story ensuring that the film suffers from few dull spots (eg Obi-Wan Kenobi's investigation from Episode II). The impressively dark atmosphere - Anakin does, after all, murder a room full of children - proves instrumental in both confirming the movie's unqualified success and separating it from its lackluster predecessors, and it's worth noting, too, that Anakin's decision to embrace the Dark Side is handled with a degree of unexpected subtlety by writer/director Lucas (ie it doesn't just come out of nowhere). And while Lucas' penchant for stiff dialogue and simplistic characterizations remains an issue, Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith benefits substantially from the ongoing presence of thoroughly electrifying moments - including a mesmerizing scene in which a menacing Senator Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) espouses the benefits of the Dark Side to Anakin (and even hints that he's the would-be Jedi's father!) The better-than-anticipated atmosphere paves the way for a briskly-paced second half that culminates with an enthralling battle between Anakin and Obi-Wan, with the film's final stretch leading quite nicely into Lucas' original (and superior) trilogy - which, in the end, secures Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith's place as a strong capper to an underwhelming prequel series.
Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope (December 16/15)
Set about 20 years after Revenge of the Sith, Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope follows Mark Hamill's Luke Skywalker as he teams up with dashing smuggler Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Wookiee sidekick Chewbacca to stop Darth Vader from unleashing a planet-destroying weapon. The differences between Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope and its three predecessors could hardly be more vast, as the movie boasts a far simpler (and far more down-to-earth) feel that instantly sets it apart from its frenetic and relentlessly overstuffed forebears - with writer/director George Lucas offering up a straight-forward narrative that is, while not always engrossing, entertaining from start to finish. Ranking high on the film's list of positive attributes is its myriad of affable performances, with Hamill's effective (and affecting) turn as the sympathetic hero matched by an impressively charismatic roster of supporting players. (It's clear, however, that Ford's work as the justifiably iconic Han Solo remains a consistent highlight.) The refreshingly pared-down narrative admittedly does take a while to get going, as Lucas offers up a less-than-engrossing opening half hour revolving around the exploits of droids C-3PO and R2-D2 - with the foundation-laying nature of this stretch paving the way for a midsection that grows more and more compelling as it progresses. And although the final space battle does outstay its welcome by a small margin, Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope ultimately stands as a stirring introduction to such legendary figures as Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, and Princess Leia.
Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back (December 16/15)
Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back continues the storyline established by its immediate predecessor and follows Luke (Mark Hamill), Han (Harrison Ford), and the rest of the rebels as they attempt to stay one step ahead of the villainous Darth Vader. The first Star Wars installment not directed by George Lucas, Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back nevertheless falls right in line with A New Hope and effectively expands on the universe established in that film - with the narrative boasting more of the elements that made Episode IV such a success. It's just as clear, however, that the movie suffers from as uneven a vibe as its forebear, with, especially, the midsection lacking in elements designed to wholeheartedly sustain one's interest. This proves to be especially true of Luke Skywalker's ongoing (and less-than-captivating) training at the hands of Frank Oz's Yoda, as such interludes suffer from a lack of momentum that bring the proceedings to a dead stop at each and every turn. There's little doubt, however, that Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back benefits substantially from a continued emphasis on absolutely enthralling images and sequences, and it's impossible to deny that the movie, past a certain point, moves like a rocket all the way to its impressively downbeat finale. (It's worth noting, too, that the climactic lightsaber battle between Luke and Vader is just about as engrossing as anything contained within this venerable series.) By the time the cliffhanger ending rolls around, Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back has lived up to its place as an erratically-paced yet consistently entertaining installment in a not-quite-great sci-fi series.
Star Wars: Episode VI - Return of the Jedi (December 16/15)
George Lucas' original trilogy comes to a close with Star Wars: Episode VI - Return of the Jedi, with the narrative revolving around the rebels' last-ditch efforts at taking down the Empire and the second Death Star. Filmmaker Richard Marquand, working from a screenplay by Lucas and Lawrence Kasdan, does a fantastic job of immediately launching into the relatively fast-paced proceedings, as the movie kicks off with an exciting opening stretch detailing the rescue of Harrison Ford's Han Solo from the clutches of Jabba the Hutt. From there, however, Star Wars: Episode VI - Return of the Jedi progresses into an episodic midsection that is, unfortunately, often as padded-out as it is engrossing - with the continuing emphasis on the protagonists' exploits on Ewok home-planet Endor certainly perpetuating the erratic vibe (ie most of this stuff isn't terribly interesting). It's just as clear, on the other hand, that the film boasts a number of typically stellar moments and sequences, with the entirety of the final act, involving a series of electrifying battles, more than making up for the somewhat lackluster nature of the movie's midsection. (There are a few similarly enthralling quieter scenes as well, including an affecting heart-to-heart conversation that transpires between siblings Luke and Leia.) The charming, feel-good conclusion, in addition to finally putting the Ewoks to good use, ensures that Star Wars: Episode VI - Return of the Jedi ends on an exceedingly positive note, which secures its place as a capper to a solid trilogy that's nevertheless not quite the flawless work its reputation would seem to indicate.
Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens (December 16/15)
The best, most thrilling Star Wars movie to date, Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens, which picks up about 30 years after the events of Return of the Jedi, follows a former stormtrooper (John Boyega's Finn) and a scrappy scavenger (Daisy Ridley's Rey) as they embark on a quest to track down a long-missing Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill). The degree to which Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens improves upon its six predecessors is nothing short of stunning, as the movie boasts all of the elements one has come to associate with the franchise without, generally speaking, falling prey to its various trappings (including kid-oriented supporting figures and superfluous subplots). This is despite a first half that's occasionally a little slower than one might've preferred, although, by that same token, it's clear that the deliberate pace proves instrumental in establishing and developing the myriad of new characters - with Boyega and Ridley's respective protagonists faring unexpectedly well and more than holding their own opposite series veterans like Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew). (This is to say nothing of Adam Driver's consistently magnetic turn as the mysterious Kylo Ren.) The laying-the-groundwork atmosphere is alleviated by a proliferation of thoroughly captivating action sequences and set pieces, including a number of aerial battles that easily rival anything contained within George Lucas' original trilogy in terms of sheer excitement. And while certain elements contained within J.J. Abrams, Michael Arndt, and Lawrence Kasdan's screenplay seem just a little too familiar (eg a planet destroying super weapon), Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens benefits substantially from an almost astonishingly propulsive final stretch that boasts one enthralling interlude after another - which, in the end, confirms the movie's place as an exceedingly promising first installment in what's sure to be an iconic new trilogy.