With the long-awaited release of Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens mere days away, the task at hand is to narrow down which of the entries in the series stands above the rest. With the prequel trilogy obviously out of contention, we are left with the original trilogy: Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi. The challenge in deciding which film deserves the designation of “best” comes not only from how incredible the three are individually and collectively, but also in just how different each individual film happens to be. So, once again, we are letting our readers decide for us. Below, we state our case for each of the original three films and have provided a poll in which you can vote to determine which should be considered the best Star Wars film, for now:
Ryan MacLean on Star Wars
What is striking about Star Wars, which I refuse to call A New Hope, upon re-watching it once more, even after all these years, is the production design. In many ways, this is a movie that invented a new visual language for all of cinema and science fiction in particular. Star Wars is the movie that ignited the idea that the future is a place that has been lived in. The various locales that the film visits are dirty, they’re rusted, they’re roughed up, but in a way that feels like more of a result of natural use. This lies in the broader set design, as well as the more subtle details. There is a tactility to this universe that futuristic sci-fi had never seen before. It is this lived in quality that countless films, everything from Alien to Blade Runner and beyond, have emulated with varying degrees of success.
But it isn’t just the visual astuteness of Star Wars that elevates it. What makes the first the best entry is the simplicity of its story and the characters. Star Wars breaks these people and their journey down to the most purely prototypical characters and emotions. We as the audience are able to feel the power behind these story beats in such a big and ultimately more affecting way. Luke, Leia, and Han’s journey is not a lengthy one in the first film. Their beats are clear and concise to the point that, while we may not actually have spent all that much time with them and they certainly have not spent much time with each other, we can feel a legitimate camaraderie form. When Han shows up to help during the assault on the Death Star, we feel the weight of that moment, we understand the triumph and the joy between these friends. These are people who care about each other; the simplicity allows their relationship to shine through. Big emotions like this are all the more affecting in Star Wars specifically because they’ve been pared down to their broadest strokes.
Of course these big emotions wouldn’t count for much if they didn’t have a competent structure to sustain them. Fortunately, Star Wars also happens to be the most well-constructed and paced entry in the series. The film works with a familiar structure, one that keeps building upon itself and ramps up the action at each turn but where the movie feels revolutionary, particularly where ’70s sci-fi is concerned, is in the unbelievably fast pacing. This, more than anything, is where the superiority of Star Wars compared to any of its successors it especially evident. The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi fall into this trap of staging huge set pieces with stretches of downtime breaking up the action beats. It’s the way most modern action movies are paced and it can be exhausting. Star Wars feels so much more breathless during its action because of the way it stages a series of smaller set pieces, strung together to form a more consistently exciting whole. For example we have the team sneaking aboard the Death Star, then a shootout in the cellblock, then the escape from the garbage compactor, the Obi-Wan vs. Darth Vader, and finally the escape from the Death Star. This is why, while Empire and Jedi may have a few more technically impressive set pieces, they can’t match the remarkable pacing and energy of Star Wars and therefore couldn’t hope to match the excitement.
But more than anything, Star Wars deserves to be considered the best because it is the only entry in the entire series that cohesively works as a stand-alone film. The most glaring problem with The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi is that you need to watch both to get any semblance of a complete and rounded story. They exist as middle and concluding pieces, neither able to sustain the weight of a single narrative. Star Wars on its own is a complete movie. You can watch just this film and walk away, satisfied by a whole story. There is no way to do that with the sequels.
As a revolutionary visual experience, as an exciting blockbuster, as a simple yet moving story, and as a medium-redefining work of art, Star Wars undeniably deserves its spot at the top.