Let me just put this right out there, since it shocked The Boy when I said it last night: I didn't totally hate 'The Phantom Menace.' I know I'm not supposed to say that, because if you like "Star Wars" you're supposed to hate The Phantom Menace as much as we all hate Ewoks. (And we all do hate Ewoks.)
But I didn't totally hate The Phantom Menace and I didn't even think that Jar-Jar was the worst thing about that movie. The worst thing about The Phantom Menace was that Darth Vader
as Anakin Skywalker was approximately six years old and could fly a spaceship and blow things up, and there was just no reason to have him be six years old. He could have been 16, or 20, and still a prodigy. But, no, George Lucas had to have young Darth/Anakin be a Phantom-Menacey version of an Ewok: cute but ferocious. Seriously, would it have been terrible to have Darth Vader be, say, 18 when he discovers all his powers? I know a six-year-old, my nephew. He's not, I grant you, chock full of midichlorians, but he's pretty bright. And when he rode a motorized scooter at Christmas 1 1/2 years ago, he almost crashed it into the car. So I just didn't buy Vader-the-wunderkind. But it was still a pretty good movie and had a lot more backstory and explanation than you find in a lot of science fiction.
With that, though, it was not The Best Star Wars Movie. That comes down to one of the three. The first one, or one of the two that focused on the dark side of the story: Either The Empire Strikes Back or The Revenge of the Sith-- parts 2 and 6, respectively, of what George Lucas would have you believe was all along going to be a six-part (or maybe 10 part) story.-- even though George Lucas never actually planned it that way and I can prove it.
Let me quickly say why the others don't measure up. Like I said, The Phantom Menace drops out because of KinderVader. Return of the Jedi can't be in the running because of the Ewoks, because of the fireworks at the end, and because of the totally lame resurrection-of-the-Death-Star plot. Attack of the Clones can't be The Best because it has that dumb running-through-the-fields hand-in-hand scene and it felt a little jumpy.
The two that looked at the bad guys, The Empire Strikes Back and Revenge of the Sith are the popular choices for The Best Star Wars Movie, I think because of how dark they are and because the plot just keeps rolling along. And they have a lot going for them -- great fights and good bad guys (does that make sense? "Good bad guys?") being the main things.
But they lacked something. They lacked something that the first movie had.
What they lacked that the original Star Wars had-- and I should note that I'm not going to call Star Wars "A New Hope," because it's just Star Wars. That's what it was when I was a kid and that's what it is now. Just Star Wars. My memory is spotty in a lot of details, like my kids' birthdays, but it is crystal clear on two things: there were never velociraptors when I was a kid (which is how I know they're fake), and it was not called A New Hope when I was a kid.
... I got distracted.
Star Wars had the thrill of being new and naive when it came out. Because here's the thing about these claims that Empire or Revenge is better because of the villains or the plot: they had the same villains, and the plot moved just as quickly in Star Wars as in Empire or Revenge. There were just as many good fights: for every AT-AT attack in Empire, there's a TIE fighter battle in Star Wars. The movies match up fight for fight, villain for villain.
But Star Wars gets downgraded by the Star Snobs, probably because of that newness and naivete. Star Wars, when it came out, was fresh and unheard of, science fiction that wasn't ponderous and slow and technobabble. And it was genuine: just like Luke Skywalker was the farm kid from Tatooine that had never seen the universe and seemed dumb compared to Han Solo, Star Wars was the freshly-scrubbed country bumpkin cousin to Empire and Revenge. It wasn't sophisticated and dark and flashy. It wore its heart on its sleeve and begged you to like it.
And like it I did, and so did all of you, too, if you're being honest. From the initial battle on the spaceship to the end when they got the medals, you thrilled to Star Wars in a way that none of the five sequels could bring out in you. Star Wars was fun, exciting, new. It began one of the greatest storylines in movie history. It introduced us to fresh twists on old characters. It had great lines...
Aren't you a little short for a stormtrooper?
Don't get cocky, kid,
Use the force, Luke.
And great aliens and one of the all-time great doomsday weapons.
It became fashionable later to knock Star Wars and focus on the darker movies. Pessimism always seems cooler than optimism: Han Solo was cooler than Luke. Han Solo worried and grimaced; Luke said taking out the Death Star would be like shooting a womp rat from his 'speeder.
But optimism is better. It's better to look up than look down. Star Wars got us all looking up. And that's why it's The Best Star Wars Movie.