It sure is a great time to be a “Star Wars” fan, and it sure is a lousy time to be George Lucas, at least according to George Lucas. The disgruntled filmmaker’s recent interview with Charlie Rose confirmed his extreme bitterness toward the success of J.J. Abrams’s movie (which just surpassed “Avatar” at the domestic box office), and his refusal to accept the failure of his own prequel trilogy. The Force is no longer strong with the man who created it, though strangely enough, the spirit of Lucas lives on in “Episode VII,” a triumphant revival of the original trilogy’s playful humor and visceral power. My recent viewing of all six previous films (prior to the seventh, which I have already seen three times) only solidified just how much Abrams got right, and how much Lucas got wrong in “Episodes I” through “III.” Here is, in my opinion, the ideal order in which to view the “Star Wars” saga…
Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (1977)—The only chapter that functions as a standalone adventure, and its climactic battle sequence still has yet to be topped.
Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980)—A masterpiece that stands as the heart of the saga and the reason why it became a franchise.
Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (2005)—Lucas’s only worthwhile prequel fits snugly as a diverting flashback in between “Episodes V” and “VI.”
Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi (1983)—A crowd-pleasing, emotionally satisfying finale that is great fun all around.
Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens (2015)—32 years later, this film kicked off a new trilogy with copious wit, warmth and Jedi-worthy panache.
I have deliberately left out the other two films because they add nothing to the story and will not be missed.
Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999)—So, so, so much worse than I remembered, a slapstick-laden farce that lands with a flatulent thud.
Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones (2002)—A dull, horrendously acted slog with some of the most laughable dialogue in film history (sand, anyone?).
Though many elements of a “Star Wars” film are routinely praised—the cutting-edge effects, the meticulous creature designs, the indispensable John Williams score—the acting is often rendered an afterthought. Watching the overwhelmingly static performances in the prequels made me all the more appreciative of the excellent work seen elsewhere in the series. Here are the ten best performances delivered thus far in a “Star Wars” movie (and yes, those who have not seen “Episode VII” yet are advised to do so before proceeding)…
10. Adam Driver, “Episode VII”
My biggest concern with the new villain, Kylo Ren, was that his costume seemed nowhere near as menacing as the iconic one worn by his hero, Darth Vader. So when he took off his mask, revealing the hardened yet vulnerable face beneath, I was delighted. Driver (best known as Lena Dunham’s eccentric boyfriend on “Girls”) is one of the most excitingly unpredictable actors of his generation, and the volatility of his energy makes him a perfect fit for this character. His penchant for violent outbursts emerges as a darkly amusing running gag—until it turns deadly in heartbreaking fashion.
9. Carrie Fisher, “Episode V”
Of all the lead actors in the original trilogy, Fisher is the easiest to overlook. Though she is by far the most entertaining cast member off camera, the role of Leia primarily requires her to exude strength, concern and a general air of irritation. Watching “Empire” again, I was struck by how effective she is in her stillness, enhancing the tension of a scene simply in how she stares at a potential threat on the horizon. The reluctant blossoming of her feelings for Han is also beautifully portrayed in a few lingering glances, and the scene where she looks at him for what may be the last time still packs a melodramatic wallop.
8. Anthony Daniels, “Episode IV”
Long before we meet Luke, we observe the world of “Star Wars” through the perspective of a neurotic droid as he trudges through the desert, spitting out self-pitying quips in a British accent. The “Laurel and Hardy”-esque chemistry he develops with his beep-bopping counterpart is largely due to the brilliant work of Daniels, a tireless physical comedian with expert comic timing. Though his work as C-3PO is consistently splendid in all seven films (he earns the only legitimate laughs in “Episode II”), it is his performance in “Episode IV” that provides the hook for everything that follows. He undoubtedly suffered for his art (that desert was no green screen effect), and boy was it worth it.
7. Ian McDiarmid, “Episode VI”
Sometimes a performance is so indelible that it earns a permanent place in one’s vocabulary. Every time I see a loathsome person spewing hateful words in public, I routinely replace their last name with Palpatine, in honor of the evil Emperor played to cackling perfection by McDiarmid. He indulges in the Dark Side with a relish that is flat-out primal in its intensity, taking immense pleasure from the hate conspicuously “swelling” within Luke. McDiarmid was also solid in the prequels (especially “Episode III”), but those appearances were all an elaborate setup for this marvelous payoff, which he filmed when he was only 38. Next to Vader, he’s the most potent “Star Wars” villain to date.
6. Mark Hamill, “Episode V”
Though many fans have pointed out that Luke was often as whiny as his father, Anakin, the key to his appeal was Hamill. In every scene, Luke is undergoing an evolution that will gradually transform him from a callow youth to a confident adult. It’s a coming-of-age story, and Hamill’s charm makes us root for him (in contrast, Hayden Christiansen’s journey from pouty to poutier was a dead end from the get-go). Hamill’s most riveting work occurs in “Empire,” since the film finds Luke at his most conflicted, grappling with whether to complete his training or save his friends. His scenes with Yoda are especially strong, since they up the actor’s game just as they strengthen Luke’s understanding of himself.
5. Daisy Ridley, “Episode VII”
The most astonishing surprise in “The Force Awakens” is unquestionably Ridley, a 23-year-old actress with only a handful of TV and short film credits under her belt, who is tasked with carrying this massive blockbuster—her feature debut, mind you—on her slender shoulders. And she is just captivating. The range of emotion that registers on her face is so rich and varied that she earns the audience’s empathy from frame one (something the prequel cast was doomed to never acquire). Rarely has a “Star Wars” character ever felt as vividly alive as Rey, the orphaned scavenger who refuses to let a man drag her by the arm, fires a blaster with ferocious zeal, trades plucky banter with humans and droids alike, weeps tears of rage and in a smashing showdown, proves she is, indeed, our new hope.
4. Alec Guinness, “Episode IV”
It’s no surprise that Guinness remains the only actor to have received an Oscar nomination for his performance in a “Star Wars” film. He had won an Oscar twenty years prior for “The Bridge on the River Kwai,” and was deemed a movie legend well before production commenced on “Episode IV” (the same is true of his co-star, Peter Cushing). What makes him so magnetic as the wise sage, Obi-Wan Kenobi, is how he never overplays a single note. The smile that flickers on his face during his final moments or his shudder of grief as he feels the sudden terror of Alderaan’s annihilation are the sort of small gestures that speak volumes. It was unnecessary for Guinness to be shown in ghostly form in “Episodes V” and “VI,” since his presence is felt throughout the original trilogy, a timeless embodiment of spiritual resilience.
3. James Earl Jones & David Prowse, “Episode V”
Evil is much more difficult to dismiss when it materializes all too close to home, and that is precisely what happens in “Empire,” when Luke realizes that the mysterious foe he’s been battling is his own father. This revelation occurs after a duel that is shocking in its brutality, with Prowse pulling out all the stops in revealing the monstrous side of Darth Vader. Yet it is the spine-tingling voice of Jones that gives this character an operatic gravity, as he reaches out toward his son while slicing off the boy’s hand in the process. Suddenly his voice sounds both fearsome and paternal, evoking the cadence of a zealot determined to reclaim his prodigal son at all costs. If Oscars were given to vocal performances (memo to the Academy: inaugurate this category stat), then Jones would surely have several of them on his mantel.
2. Harrison Ford, “Episode IV” & “Episode VII”
Nearly four decades ago, this charismatic actor became a star by tackling his role as suave swindler Han Solo with deadpan grace. He sported disarming affection for his dog-like sidekick, made hilarious small talk with a bewildered baddie via a Death Star intercom (“We’re fine—we’re all fine here now…how are you?”) and shot Greedo (first) without the merest flinch. In “The Force Awakens,” Ford could’ve easily gone on autopilot while collecting his pay check for reprising the role—which he reportedly resented for much of his career. Yet what he delivers here is his best performance in years. He somehow manages to recapture Solo’s cocky swagger and uproarious quirks (the heightened voice he uses when arguing with Chewie is spot-on), while infusing the character with a fresh sense of urgency and nagging regret. It’s a gloriously bittersweet send-off for this beloved character, as well as a testament to Ford’s enduring star power, which shines brighter than ever as Solo’s story fades to black.
1. Frank Oz, “Episode V”
If you’d like further proof that Lucas’s decision to sell the “Star Wars” rights to Disney was his best possible move for the franchise’s future, consider this: had the director continued to alter the original trilogy, he may have animated over the marvelous animatronic puppet performed by Oz (the veteran Muppeteer-turned-filmmaker) in “Empire” and “Jedi.” If Lucas had made this rumored “tweak,” he would’ve vandalized the single greatest performance in the entire saga. What Oz achieves is tantamount to magic, crafting a full-blooded being out of synthetic elements, whose existence is as credible as that of his human co-stars and is much more convincing than his digital cartoon form in the prequels.
There’s an Einsteinian glint of mischief in his eyes as he lures in Luke with his kooky façade, only to warn him with profound seriousness of the terrors to come (the eeriness of Oz’s voice as he promises, “You will be [scared]…” still causes the hair on the back of my neck to stand up). And when Yoda rescues Luke’s ship from its watery grave, lifting it into the air with a wave of his hand, the moment is genuinely awe-inspiring. We are moved by Yoda because we believe in him, and no matter how advanced a computer system may be, it cannot replicate the genius of Oz’s artistry. There is, quite simply, no better defense for the use of practical effects than Yoda in “Empire.” Wars not make one great, and neither does CGI.
Last but not least, 5 Honorable Mentions…
John Boyega, “Episode VII”
A stormtrooper with a refreshing epiphany of conscience, Boyega’s Finn is Rey’s equal in every way, scoring big laughs while grappling with his own evolving sense of identity.
Peter Mayhew, “Episode VII”
Despite undergoing double knee replacement surgery, Mayhew is back as Chewbacca and his yelps are more nuanced than ever, bringing down the house with their sardonic tone.
Ewan McGregor, “Episode III”
Channeling the essence of Guinness, McGregor came the closest of anyone in the prequels in getting us to care about anything unfolding onscreen. The actor emerged a victor even as the films collapsed.
Ray Park, “Episode I”
Despite his scant screen time, Park’s demonic Darth Maul left a more lasting impression than 100 Dookus and asthmatic Grievouses combined.
Billy Dee Williams, “Episode V”
One of the most complex characters in the saga, Lando Calrissian shifts from friend to fiend to friend again over the course of a single film. Here’s hoping he remerges in future episodes.