George Lucas is both an under and overrated filmmaker. While Star Wars is great, the movies are underwhelming and his genius lies in earlier films.
Let’s take some time to appreciate the fact that the Star Wars franchise changed film history and pop culture forever and for good, and that there has been nothing like it since, at least in terms of impact. However, George Lucas has had his share of ups and downs, and it’s time to face it. His career hasn’t been the steadiest, especially if you compare him to directors like Steven Spielberg, with whom he has done collaborations, and other more accomplished directors. And while Lucas is best known for the Star Wars franchise, he has participated in a broad range of films, most of which have been total flops, but some have surprising success in terms of critical acclaim. Much of this acclaim, however, has come years afters the movies' release.
First things first, though. George Lucas is a screenwriter, producer, and director, but many of the movies we associate with him are actually only productions of his, while others use scripts written by him, and some others are only his “stories,” meaning that he neither wrote them nor directed them. Such is the case of the Indiana Jones franchise, which was initially his idea, but is not credited as the screenwriter. It's likely that George Lucas participated in building the story, though, yet the movie ultimately went to Steven Spielberg. As a producer, he was behind the development of one of the worst movies of all time, Howard the Duck (1986). This movie has garnered a cult following (something of a trend when it comes to Lucas) but it remains one of the most panned films of all time.
It doesn't help Lucas's case that the two films in Star Wars, his greatest creation, that were not directed by him were, in fact, the best installments of the entire series. Few people will disagree that The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and The Return of the Jedi (1983) are far better than the prequels and also clearly better than A New Hope (1977).
That being said, it’s hard to evaluate his career, considering he’s done a little bit of everything, so the only logical way to do it is to break it down. These are the movies he directed, ranked.
Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999)
The world waited 16 years for this prequel, and when we finally got it, it was a complete disappointment. A lot was wrong with the film. From its stock characters, to its comic reliefs, to its midichlorians. The Force, which was once treated as a mystical and religious… force, was turned into some sort of scientifically measurable trait, like your body fat percentage. And don’t get me started on Jar Jar Binks.
However, it successfully relaunched the Stars Wars franchise for many younger fans, and it’s still a lot of fun. Darth Maul is a memorable villain and the sword fighting scenes will be praised forever.
Star Wars: Episode II: Attack of the Clones (2002)
The film that both made and destroyed Hayden Christensen’s career. It carries very stiff, even wooden characterizations and dialogue, along with a melodramatic story.
Star Wars: Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (2005)
This end to the saga (or at least what we thought would have been the end), gave us nothing we didn’t know already. There were no big reveals, no surprises, no nothing. Yet, you have to praise Lucas’s imagination and good use of blue screen and CGI. The film attempts to correct some of the mistakes made in the previous sequels and delivers the best out of the latest batch.
Star Wars: Episode IV: A New Hope (1977)
A long time ago, in this galaxy, George Lucas set out to change how we conceived special effects, sci-fi, and blockbusters in general. A New Hope placed us in a universe where there were evil empires, rogues, heroes, princesses, and lightspeed chases all around space. Though most people think of it as science fiction, the truth is it takes most of its inspiration from high fantasy: knights, rogues, princesses, kingdoms, sword fighting, prophecies, etc. The rest, as you know, is history.
THX 1138 (1971)
In a dystopian future in the 25th century, a totalitarian state forces its people to take drugs that suppress feelings and thoughts. THX is a factory worker who rebels by not taking drugs, and then drama ensues. With Robert Duvall as its lead, this film was not initially well received, but upon Lucas's fame, critics revalued it. Much like Howard the Duck, this film has now garnered a cult following in which you can observe what Lucas would later be able to do in Star Wars.
American Graffiti (1973)
American Graffiti was instantly critically acclaimed. It was nominated for the Academy Award but lost to The Sting. The film tells the story of a group of friends in 1962 Modesto, California. It features cars, diners, and the cruiser and rock ‘n’ roll culture and is somewhat biographical. It succeeds in capturing the zeitgeist of a moment, and what is most striking is that they do that 10 years after the movie takes place. Lucas even managed to hire very young actors that would later lead successful careers themselves: Harrison Ford, Ron Howard, Richard Dreyfruss, Suzanne Summers, among others.
People sometimes give Lucas a hard time for his Star Wars prequel, but rather than fixating on a mediocre franchise, they should look at his earlier work and find what a truly visionary Lucas is.