The Top 9 Acting Performances in the Star Wars Nonology

by Kevin
Dec. 29, 2019

With the final Star Wars trilogy now complete (big spoiler alert!), it is time to reflect upon the massive influence that the fictional universe has had on the real world. Buoyed in part by some exceptional acting performances, the series deserves this definitive list of the nine best among its ranks.

9. Harrison Ford (Han Solo)

With a personality as iconic as the hero his character tries not to be, Harrison Ford performs the most interesting arc of the original trilogy. He’s our only real window into the rest of the galaxy, the 99 (?) percent that lacks any faith in magic. He encapsulates this beautifully—and his return in The Force Awakens as a grizzled man falling back on the smuggling life he can trust after the Force lets him down is perfectly in line.

(Side note: contrary to many opinions, I thought Alden Ehrenreich did a terrific job in Solo of giving us the compelling backstory to Han’s distrust of the Force, and of people in general.)

8. Oscar Isaac (Poe Dameron)

Only time will tell how the sequels trilogy truly stacks up against the other movies, but for now, there are quite a few holes. Oscar Isaac is one of the few really solid points in the sequels. Poe Dameron is in many ways Han’s analog in the sequels, the cocky non-Force-wielding pilot of the group, but he’s all-in for the Resistance from the start. Though he’s never really given a chance to shine, he plays his part convincingly and his development in The Last Jedi from “trigger-happy flyboy” to reasoned veteran leader is probably the movie’s biggest saving grace.

7. Adam Driver (Ben Solo)

Adam Driver has put in three smart and well-regarded performances across the sequels, but ultimately was hindered by his character. He’s introduced as a man full of unquenchable anger, and remains this way until a rushed redemption in Rise of Skywalker. To his credit, Driver does a very good angry, but that anger dominates everything else in his character save the few glimpses we get before Rise of Skywalker (unlike Vader, who could be inscrutable and calculating, Kylo Ren just always seems mad). If anything, Driver plays a character too angry for no apparent reason. Unlike Anakin, who gets an entire trilogy canonizing his loss of Shmi and his desperation to save Padme, Ben Solo gets almost no backstory in the movies—except old Luke’s brief memory of a frightened kid, magically corrupted by Snoke. Yet despite his omnipotent anger, Solo is redeemed suddenly and—despite Leia’s sacrifice—pretty easily, by movie standards. It would be nearly impossible to create a credible character under these constraints, and Adam Driver falls just short of the nearly impossible.

6. Alec Guinness (Ben Kenobi)

Alec Guinness achieves this rank despite only appearing in one of the nine movies—Force ghosts excluded—but he deserves it for being the fulcrum of A New Hope, the one who really gets things going in terms of worldbuilding, backstory, and depth. Obi-Wan almost single-handedly bridges the first two trilogies together. Guinness carries the full weight of an old Obi-Wan despite no notion of the movies that would come later, and it was his serious, haunted, and committed performance that left room for the development of an entire prequel trilogy.

5. Carrie Fisher (Leia Organa)

A pioneering role model of an actress and character, Carrie Fisher is the woman leading both Rebellion and Resistance. She plays the unique role of one of the most Force-sensitive characters ever born, untrained and adopted into a privileged family with an indefatigable sense of duty and good, who suffers unimaginable loss throughout her life. All of this coalesces into a performance of not just a strong woman, but an inspiring presence to generations of children and adults. From announcing herself boldly in the originals to receiving wonderful tributes in the sequels as a respected and wise general, Leia’s character gets its full due through Fisher’s iconic performance.

4. Hayden Christensen (Anakin Skywalker)

Alright, hear me out on this one. We’re in healthy top-5 territory now and Anakin Skywalker in Attack of the Clones has a solid claim on most cringeworthy character of the saga. How does Hayden Christensen score better than the other storied names above?

The fact is, if you handed Anakin’s part to Adam Driver or Harrison Ford, or probably anyone else for that matter, they wouldn’t have been able to pull of what Hayden did in Episodes 2 and particularly 3. The borderline-ludicrously fast love story that blossoms in Attack of the Clones simply makes no sense, and yet Christensen’s awkward delivery (that attracts much hate) is exactly the only way that could have worked at all: an awkward boy struggling to cope with the world and restrictions he finds himself in. For comparison, Natalie Portman—a wonderful actress in her own right—struggles far more to credibly reciprocate, because she doesn’t take the awkward, passionate and cringeworthy route. And all this ignores Revenge of the Sith, where Anakin is tasked with the most emotional transformation of the entire series. If Kylo Ren is a nearly impossible character to play, Anakin is outright preposterous; yet Hayden Christensen turns him into a compelling and evocative figure that makes you weep for and hate him perfectly with each rewatch of Revenge.

3. Daisy Ridley (Rey)

Unlike Ben Solo/Kylo Ren, Rey is a credible character turned into a highly compelling one by the amazing Daisy Ridley. Her performance is pretty much flawless, depicting a journey from a kind-hearted and competent woman who didn’t ask for any grand role in the galaxy to the most powerful person in the universe. Her transformation from the first two sequel movies into The Rise of Skywalker, where we see a ruthlessly determined and loving yet frightened heroine bordering on desperate corruption, deftly mirrors Hayden Christensen’s descent in Revenge while layering so much more of her pure heart beneath it all. With Daisy’s acting, we know exactly what Rey’s potential is, what her fears are, how they haunt her, and who she really is inside; she has an impressive range of emotion and is justly given the screentime to display her talents. She has a strong case for my favorite actress/actor of the saga—and probably would be were it not for two iconic names…

2. Ian McDiarmid (The Emperor)

Ian McDiarmid is simply irreplaceable. His eternal presence across Star Wars gives the saga the ultimate villain. The emperor is probably not the most difficult role to have to play—power-hungry, calculating, and dangerous seems to check all the boxes—but McDiarmid makes the role his own: power-hungry becomes maniacal, calculating becomes expertly manipulative, and dangerous becomes untouchable. Moreover, his performance in the prequels as Chancellor Palpatine is often underappreciated for being clear and artfully devious without hitting us over the head or breaking the limits of credibility, a deceptively difficult task.

1. Ewan McGregor (Obi-Wan Kenobi)

Was there really ever anyone else? Ewan is worshipped as Jesus reincarnate among some Star Wars communities, and for good reason. The white knight of the Jedi Order brings its own host of acting challenges, but Ewan’s most impressive achievement is how he reconstructs the Obi-Wan of Alec Guinness, complete with his journey from virtuous dedicant to broken father-figure. It is once again through Obi-Wan that the ways of the Jedi are most wholly embodied and explored, and he is the foil to and creator of Darth Vader. Ewan McGregor’s acting is indeed so perfect that he turns nonsensical dialogue—think “Hello there,” “So uncivilized,” “I have the high ground,” and imagine someone else delivering them—into eternal moments that make Star Wars what it is.

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