It’s beginning to feel that Star Wars has become its own cinematic universe, rather than just a franchise. With the release of Solo: A Star Wars Story (pictured above), we’ve now seen the second of many proposed spin-offs, in addition to what will soon be nine core films. And while there are now countless rankings littered around the internet of which of these films are best or most enjoyable, we don’t talk as often about which ones gives us the most to think about. So that’s what we’ll focus on here.
1. Solo: A Star Wars Story (Ron Howard, 2018):
The public is still digesting this newest Star Wars film, but it seems that with specific regard to the franchise it will ultimately be among the most thought-provoking. That’s because this is the film, more than any other before it, that forces us to confront the somewhat sudden reality noted above: that Star Wars is now its own cinematic universe. One of the more interesting responses to Solo’s release came from The Ringer’s Sean Fennessey, and posed the question of what happens when a Star Wars story isn’t special or when, as the story also mentioned, such a story lacks a “wow factor.” The point here is not that Solo is a bad film, but that it feels more ordinary or run-of-the-mill in the context of a world in which we suddenly get a new Star Wars movie every year.
2. Star Wars: The Last Jedi (Rian Johnson, 2017):
The Last Jedi was polarizing, and by this writer’s estimation, disappointing. However, it was also particularly intriguing simply by way of introducing more new things to the universe than any other entry since The Phantom Menace (George Lucas, 1999). We saw a Jedi stronghold/training island for the first time, for instance, in something of a loose homage to Luke and Yoda’s time together in The Empire Strikes Back (Irvin Kershner, 1980). We saw a space casino, in a possible throwback to the iconic cantina scene that also felt vaguely like pandering to young audiences. A wealth of one-of-a-kind games has rapidly grown the online casino gaming business, to the point that more young people are familiar with these types of games, and might have related to the playfulness of a space casino. We saw new creatures, new types of Imperial Walkers, a new Sith lair, Imperial Guards that actually did something, etc. Basically, in everything from setting to characters, The Last Jedi just established a new look.
3. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (Gareth Edwards, 2016):
Not to harp too much on the newest of the Star Wars films, but there’s an argument to be made that Rogue One is actually the biggest outlier of them all, in terms of feeling like a one-off project. While not without flaws, it earned sweeping critical praise essentially for being a terrific war movie, with more than a few reviews comparing it to Saving Private Ryan (Steven Spielberg, 1998). That might be a little bit of a stretch, but it does speak to the idea that Rogue One, more than any other film in this rapidly expanding franchise, taught us to question what a Star Wars film could be. It was the first such film made without a Skywalker, and while it directly concerned the events of A New Hope (George Lucas, 1997), it felt very much like a successful telling of a tale that simply happened to exist in the same universe. It opened the door for potentially limitless types of films for the franchise to explore.
2. Star Wars: Revenge Of The Sith (George Lucas, 2005):
Revenge Of The Sith might be the most thought-provoking film of them all strictly from a character standpoint. Say what you might about the prequel trilogy, but despite insistent reliance on silly creatures, cheesy visuals, and questionable acting performances, this trilogy accomplished its core goal: to depict the rise and fall of Anakin Skywalker. Most who care about or even study the Star Wars saga agree that Anakin is in fact its core character, and Revenge Of The Sith is the film that really shows how he transitioned from promising Jedi to devastating Sith apprentice. It’s a film with some interesting messages about loyalty and influence somewhat cloaked in over-the-top (and actually fairly spectacular) action sequences.
5. Star Wars: A New Hope (George Lucas, 1977):
If Revenge Of The Sith had the most going for it from a character perspective, A New Hope was probably the most significant in terms of pure filmmaking. Naturally it’s the film that started this whole, improbable ride, and it changed cinematic science fiction for all of time. As one ranking of the films put it, A New Hope showcased an exhilarating mix of old movie tropes and newfangled technology. It also combined an almost Old West style of drama and action with the unusual, unique zen of the Force. It was simply an original effort, and one that we can still look back on and be fascinated by when we think of how it set the tone for so much that was to come.