Here’s part 3 of 3 in the trio of somewhat geeky film trilogies in my countdown. As with the previous two entries, I’m going to spare you recaps or big-picture overviews because Brian already did it way better than I could have in his 100 Film Favorites. Instead, I’ll list ten reasons I love the trilogy and then rank the movies in the trilogy.
Ten Reasons I Love Star Wars
1. The hero’s saga
No-name farmer learns to use a mystical Force and becomes savior of the galaxy despite his stumbles. The hero’s saga — this specific version made famous in a book written by Joseph Campbell and then by George Lucas, who cited Campbell as a main inspiration — provides a great framework for a story.
But even if you zoom out a little bit from Campbell and Lucas to so many of my other favorite stories, there’s just something compelling about a story that focuses on someone who struggles a huge struggle, but uses some untapped reservoir of power to emerge victorious and figure out their place in the world. Doesn’t matter if the hero’s name is Luke Skywalker or Aang or Harry Potter or Theodore Evelyn Mosby.
2. The characters
Yet, as great as the plot is, the main thing that makes Star Wars so unforgettable is how fantastic the characters are.
You have Obi-Wan Kenobi, his wise and stoic mentor Jedi who is one of the last of his kind.
You have his companion droids, R2D2 and C3PO, bumbling lovable droids who are the catalyst of this whole journey and who tag along.
You have Princess Leia, beautiful and regal, devastated when her people are massacred in a heartless demonstration of power.
You have Darth Vader, one of the most ominous villains in film history, but whose past is complicated. He’s the flip side to Luke, an example of power going wrong instead of right.
Am I missing any important characters? Oh yeah…
Truly one of my favorite movie characters. The renegade smuggler doesn’t believe in anything but his pistol, his Falcon, and Chewie. He’s such a contrast to the series’ other central protagonists, who tend towards the noble. Of course, he usually ends up doing the selfless thing, but his reluctance makes it all the more rewarding.
You already know I love Indiana Jones, but to me Han will always be the definitive Harrison Ford role, and the element of the Star Wars trilogy that gives it so much humanity and badassery.
4. The sense of adventure
I used this word to describe Back to the Future, and — as Brian rightly called me out on — adventure is such a vague term. What’s an “adventure” movie? Is it a specific genre, or just a general descriptor?
My take on “adventure” is that it’s something that I know when I feel it. How to Train Your Dragon has it. Back to the Future has it. And Star Wars most definitely has it. The excitement of watching the Millennium Falcon navigate an asteroid belt, the satisfaction of seeing the crew barely escape the Sarlacc pit, the soaring high of hearing John Wiliams’ landmark score… that’s my unquantifiable definition of what makes a movie an “adventure” movie.
5. The scope and mythology
“A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…”
Star Wars — which I first watched when I was a few years old — was one of the first sweeping stories I encountered that took place entirely in a fictional universe. There’s a fictional “magic,” a whole galaxy of fake planets and space ships, the craziest kinds of aliens… and LIGHTSABERS.
It all added up to a galaxy that I sometimes wanted to hop into the screen and become a part of. Of course, I’d probably end up a farmer on Tatooine or something.
I love how much the world of Star Wars feels “lived in” and grimy. Nothing is shiny. It just feels like universe that could actually exist, you know, in a galaxy far, far away… where humans happen to live… and magic exists…
But the point I’m getting at is that the Star Wars universe always struck me as “authentic” and unpredictable in a way that many fantasy universes don’t (*cough* LotR).
Okay, so this series isn’t as funny as BttF. Still, you’re not telling me you didn’t laugh frequently during the trilogy? A few scenes that bring laughs every time I re-watch them:
(Luke’s look after Leia kisses him is another favorite, but I can’t find a clip of it without weird stuff edited into it… That scene seems to bother and provoke a lot of people. I’m not sure why.)
8. The effects
Star Wars had the greatest special effects of all time up until that point. Even to my relatively-trained eye, most of the stuff in the trilogy still looks fantastic 30+ years later. That’s pretty incredible when you think about all of the technological advances .
Every summer there is much discussion about why Hollywood makes so many cinematic blockbusters, what happened to the “auteur” era of the early ‘70s (Coppola, Scorsese, etc.), and people always point to Star Wars as the turning point. But it’s hard to blame people for packing the theaters to see this. It’s mind-blowing stuff.
I mean, how many first scenes get your heart racing as much as Star Wars’? There aren’t many.
9. The sounds and music
The two “X-factors” of Star Wars enduring appeal are Ben Burtt and John Williams. Burtt’s creativity and innovations in the audio nearly match Lucas’s innovations in visuals — Brian breaks it down a bit in his review of A New Hope. It’s hard to imagine Star Wars without the lightsaber swooshes or this wonderful sonic bliss.
And what can be said about John Williams’ landmark score for the movie that hasn’t been said 100 times elsewhere? AFI voted it the greatest film score of all time and it has more hummable tunes than pretty much any other soundtrack.
I already honored the trilogy’s great plot in the first point. But one thing I have to add: Star Wars did so many plot twists right. Let’s walk through a few of the big ones.
I would say something about Spoilers here, but if you haven’t seen the Star Wars trilogy, and it hasn’t been spoiled for you yet: Congratulations, you’re one of the few.
Ben Kenobi is Obi-Wan Kenobi
Probably a 2 out of 10 on the unpredictability scale… and that’s being generous.
Luke must use the force to destroy the Death Star
Cheesy for sure, but definitely still a gripping moment. The idea that Luke must use his inner power to defeat “Death” is definitely a charged bit of symbolism.
The little green shit is actually Jedi-master Yoda
Definitely a great one that has lost all impact because we all know who Yoda is now. But he’s one of my favorite characters, in part because of his early, peevish moments.
Lando is a traitor
I’ve always thought that this one would have had more impact if we had known Lando a little bit better before he turned them over to Vader. His arc in Empire should have been more of a highlight than it actually is.
”No. I am your father.”
Greatest. Twist. Ever. (And most misquoted movie line ever.) I’m not sure how I would have felt at the end of Empire if I’d seen it not knowing Vader’s identity going in — also assuming I didn’t speak German. The biggest problem with the twist? It ruined all potential parentage twists in future media. “Star Wars knockoff.” It also gave us unrealistic expectations for how exciting Anakin Skywalker’s backstory should be, which, suffice it to say, were not met. (And that is the closest I will come to acknowledging the prequels in this article, as I view them as entirely different and worse stories.)
Luke and Leia are siblings
This one has never been a favorite of mine. More than anything, it just feels improbable and thrown in. I’ve never really felt like it adds to the gravity or conflict the way that other revelations do (see: your father, I am) other than giving some reason for Darth Vader promising to convert Leia to the dark side — and guiltlessly giving Han instead of Luke the girl. Anyone want to convince me this is a great twist?
Ranking the trilogy:
3. Return of the Jedi (1983)
Brian makes some good cases for why this is the most fun Star Wars movie. But, even though I love it (and don’t mind the Ewoks), I have to say it falls a little bit behind Episodes 4 and 5 for me. I admire the film for giving us about as good an ending as we could have hoped for. But the fact that it repeats the Death Star threat feels unoriginal. I LOVE the last redemption of Darth, though.
2. Star Wars (A New Hope) (1977)
It gets some points for being the original, but also loses a few points because there are parts of the buildup I impatiently tap my toes to while waiting for the incredible second half. Parts of it have dated a little weird — the lightsaber choreography is particularly laughable — but it’s such a great story with so many great characters and scenes. This is rightfully a classic.
1. The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
Another movie that might fall in my top ten if I ever ranked my favorite individual movies. To me, this is the archetypal middle act — dark, twisty, complicated, fleshing out the characters and relationships. My favorite scenes, favorite character beats, favorite subplots are almost all in this movie. Its inconclusive “WTF” ending is bittersweet icing on the cake.