Star Wars has been around for over forty years and has produced no less than a dozen feature films. Let’s take a look at every Star Wars film, ranked from worst to best.
All images per imdb.com
12) Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones (2002)
Let’s get the painful part over with first. I love Star Wars, but I hate Attack of the Clones. Sorry, but it plays more like a sampler reel for new special effects than a movie. There’s no plot, no resolution to the mystery of Sifo Dyas, and a dramatically damp climax that features two armies we care nothing about. Our heroes have little to do beyond reacting to special effects.
The only attempt at character development is Anakin Skywalker and Padme Amidala falling in love, but these scenes are painfully awkward and lack credibility. I feel bad for actors Hayden Christensen and Natalie Portman for having to wade through that dross.
The only – only – good thing about Attack of the Clones is that it introduces elements that would grow into the amazing TV series The Clone Wars.
11) Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker (2019)
Supposedly the grand finale of Star Wars, The Rise of Skywalker was a mess. It needlessly introduces the idea that Emperor Palpatine hadn’t died (thereby robbing Return of the Jedi of its triumphant ending), creates an enemy so overpowered it’s absurd, imposes a ridiculously short timeline for the adventure to unfold, totally chickens out on C-3PO’s genuine sacrifice and wastes all the assets it had going in: Kylo Ren as a villain with agency; Rey as a nobody who makes a crucial difference; Finn’s character development; Rose’s character development; burgeoning Force users across the galaxy; the Knights of Ren; Luke’s sacrifice… the list goes on and on. And none of it makes any sense!
Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker is an absolute mess of half-baked ideas and lost opportunity. The only redeeming quality it has is the fun interactions between its three heroic leads. Full credit to Daisy Ridley, John Boyega and Oscar Isaac for delivering some solid laughs with their genuinely witty banter.
10) Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (2005)
Every Star Wars movie carries a responsibility to the greater story, but few more so than Revenge of the Sith. Because of the backward release dates of the first six movies, Revenge of the Sith was the conclusion of the Prequel Trilogy, the conclusion of the first six Star Wars movies as a whole, and the link between the trilogies. And we already knew, years before the movie was made, how it ended!
Few movies could pull off such a titanic feat… and this movie falls short. Like its Prequel counterparts it’s plagued with wooden dialog, poor plotlines and an over-reliance on special effects. But if you can put up with those things, it’s not bad. And it does have an epic lightsaber duel at the end – the only part of the film that delivers on what fans had been waiting to see for nearly thirty years.
9) Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999)
Derided as the Star Wars episode that just pandered to the kids, Phantom Menace is remembered for three things: Jar-Jar Binks, the pod race, and the “duel of the fates” lightsaber battle between Darth Maul and the two Jedi. Jar-Jar is one of the most universally hated parts of the entire Star Wars saga – except for all the kids who really did think he was funny. The pod race was an exciting sequence which put story over special effects (and not vice-versa), but it’s been criticized as a sideshow that adds nothing to the plot. The duel of the fates is the best part of the movie, the best entry in the iconic John Williams score, and a critical moment in the Skywalker Saga – maybe George Lucas should have just released it as a short.
Like fine wine…
Over twenty years later, though, Phantom Menace is better than you remember. Liam Neeson is excellent in the central role of Qui-Gon Jinn and the movie actually has a plot – it may sometimes force us to follow characters we care little about, but at least we can see it. For those of us who hate a certain CGI Gungan, at least we now know that he didn’t destroy the franchise and we can almost stomach him as we appreciate the rest of the film.
8) Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018)
This film takes a lot of flak, dubbed the first “Star Wars flop” because it only netted 393 million at the box office. It also came close on the heels of Star Wars: The Last Jedi and hit theaters right in the middle of the maelstrom as the fandom was tearing itself apart over Last Jedi. Maybe it was just poor timing, or maybe it was a backlash from the fans about casting anyone other than Harrison Ford as Han Solo, but Solo: A Star Wars Story has taken a beating.
When I first saw it, my opinion as the credits rolled was, meh – not bad. But having watched it a few times now, I’ve realized that it’s a decent movie. Donald Glover as young Lando Calrissian steals the show and Paul Bettany is magnificent as the villain Dryden Vos. The film’s weakest moments are when it ties itself too nostalgically to the bigger saga – its best moments are when it forgets that it’s a Star Wars film and has fun telling its own story.
7) Star Wars: The Clone Wars (2008)
This is the movie that very nearly wasn’t. George Lucas has admitted that he created this feature-length film to introduce his new animated TV series almost as an afterthought. Clone Wars the movie wasn’t terribly well-received at first, but nobody really knew what to do with animated Star Wars. Was it a kids movie? Was it really part of canon? And that new character Ahsoka Tano was kind of annoying.
Clone Wars the TV show, of course, went on to become a beloved component of the Star Wars franchise and today we can look back at the movie and appreciate it for what it is: a solid outing in the Star Wars universe. The movie has a tight plot, clear character development, great action, genuine suspense and even a few laughs. Now that we’re all used to animated Anakin, Obi-Wan and Padme, the single biggest objection to the original movie is now long-gone. Clone Wars certainly isn’t the greatest Star Wars movie, but it’s a good one.
6) Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi (2018)
Probably the most controversial movie in this list, Star Wars: The Last Jedi split the fandom more than a presidential election. To some, it’s awful, ruining everything that came before it and pandering to political correctness. To others, it’s amazing, subverting the tired tropes of the past and embracing a bold new vision for the franchise.
To me, it’s pretty good. I like the strong, female character of Admiral Haldo smacking down the hot-shot, male pilot Poe Dameron – not because I’m playing identity politics but because it’s good drama. I’m lukewarm about Rose’s character not because the actress is Asian (I mean, really?) but because her development is a bit shaky and she’s too closely tied to the Canto Bight subplot – which is the weakest part of this film.
I enjoyed the bitter, jaded Luke Skywalker, especially with the surprise ending where he redeems himself. I wish Snoke had stuck around because he was an intriguing villain – but Kylo Ren’s surprise betrayal was one of the greatest twists in Star Wars. Daisy Ridley and Adam Driver both deliver powerful performances as their characters share a complex, fascinating development.
5) Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi (1983)
In 1983, Star Wars: Return of the Jedi was everything the fans wanted it to be. All the questions from the previous movies were answered, our heroes made it back okay, evil was destroyed, good won the day and everyone lived happily ever after. Return of the Jedi was the perfect conclusion to the original Star Wars trilogy and in many ways was considered the best of the three.
But time hasn’t been kind to this film. Episode VI comes under fire these days from the next generation of fans who hate Ewoks and who consider it a lightweight when compared to the dark maturity of The Empire Strikes Back. The surprise that Luke and Leia are twins has always been controversial, and the re-run of the whole Death Star thing seems a bit repetitive. This film also suggests that a Jedi can be a liar, when Obi-Wan Kenobi says the infamous line, “The truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view.”
This movie ranks so high on my list mainly because I still remember how amazing it was in its day. It captured the spirit of Star Wars and delivered exactly what we wanted in a fun, poignant, action-packed episode that tied up all loose ends. But looking back almost forty years, with audience tastes having changed, Return of the Jedi has lost some of its charm. It was a triumphant, feel-good movie. But fans these days don’t want feel-good; they want something deeper.
4) Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens (2015)
The first movie after Disney bought Lucasfilm, and the first live-action movie since the substandard Prequel Trilogy, Star Wars: The Force Awakens was under a lot of pressure. J.J. Abrams headed the project, having already done a successful reboot of another iconic sci-fi franchise, Star Trek. With the main actors from the Original Trilogy reprising their roles, hopes were high.
The Force Awakens delivered, in that it gave us a charming, light-weight, fantasy adventure in keeping with what was expected of a Star Wars movie. With a stellar young cast supported by a fabulous performance by Harrison Ford as Han Solo, the film was fun, exciting and intriguing enough to suggest depth beneath the glossy surface.
When I first saw the film, my first reaction was relief: that movie did not suck. After the Prequels I’d tempered my expectations, and although I could see some weaknesses in Force Awakens – most notably that its plot was painfully derivative of A New Hope – I still really liked it. I liked Rey, and Finn, and even BB-8. I cared about them and wanted to follow their adventures. Kylo Ren showed potential as a complex villain. The film struck the right balance between entertaining the kids and the adults, and it had that sense of fun which was so utterly absent in the brooding Prequels. Not that Force Awakens was complete fluff – Han’s death at the hands of his son was pretty chilling, as was General Hux’s Nuremberg-style speech – but it mostly kept things light.
If ever I have an evening to kill and just want to kick back and be entertained, Force Awakens is my go-to film.
3) Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (1977)
Honestly, it’s hard to rate the original Star Wars film with the others, just because it stands as a cultural colossus that changed the way movies are made. I was four years old in 1977 and Star Wars deeply affected my worldview. I mean, how can anything compare to that?
(And when I first saw it, it was just called Star Wars. The whole “Episode IV: A New Hope” was added later.)
But stepping back and trying to be objective, A New Hope is still a really good movie. Yes, it’s campy in that 1970’s way. Yes, it’s simplistic as a morality tale and lacks nuance. But who cares? It’s profoundly entertaining, and if it seems simplistic today, remember that it’s over forty years old and was created in a different time. If it seems unoriginal today, realize that you’re comparing it to all those movies that are derivative of it. It’s hard to overstate just how much Star Wars changed movie-making, but unlike a lot of “classics” this old movie is still enjoyable to watch. That alone speaks to its timeless quality.
2) Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
After the success of the first, there was going to be a second Star Wars movie. Folks expected more of the same, but what they got was something far, far better. The Empire Strikes Back took everything that was great about A New Hope and expanded on it, giving us a broader universe with history, romance and a real sense of danger. Each of our main characters grew and got better, the world was introduced to Yoda, and who doesn’t love Boba Fett?
The film’s first act is capped with one of the greatest set-piece battles in movie history, surprising us when the heroic Rebels are completely defeated. The second act has Han, Leia and friends desperately trying to escape Imperial forces while Luke heads to a mysterious world for Jedi training. The third act brings everyone to the spectacular setting of Cloud City, where the darkest and most frightening sequences of the entire Star Wars saga unfold. And at the end, our heroes fail. Han is lost, Luke is nearly dead, and Darth Vader is confirmed as the ultimate movie villain.
The dark side of Star Wars
The Empire Strikes Back shows us the Dark Side of the Force, and it also shows us that Star Wars can be more than just a feel-good fantasy. Empire is special precisely because it has the courage to go really dark. Stunning audiences in 1980 it was controversial in its time, but it’s aged the best of the original three films and has set the bar for what a deeper, more grown-up Star Wars could be.
1) Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story was the first movie in the franchise to be freed from the shackles of the Skywalker Saga. It didn’t stray far from the main story but it took that little section and owned it. Because it’s based within hours of A New Hope it takes maximum advantage of fan nostalgia with plenty of Easter eggs but it never panders – it just accepts things like the Death Star, the Rebel Base on Yavin and Grand Moff Tarkin, and uses them to tell its own, original story.
Rogue One is a war movie far more than a space fantasy. Its heroes are complex and imperfect, while its villains are truly sinister. Full credit to actress Felicity Jones for creating the perfect anti-hero in Jyn Erso: Jyn is not a nice person, and some fans don’t like her, but she’s thoroughly believable. Having lost her parents at five (and witnessed her mother’s murder), she’s raised by criminals who in turn abandon her. By the time we meet her she’s a broken, bitter young woman who cares about nothing. And yet, somehow, she finds it in herself to make the ultimate sacrifice for a worthy cause, and saves the galaxy.
Like Luke said… balance
Rogue One has the maturity of The Empire Strikes Back, but softens it with relatable characters, good humor and epic battles worthy of Force Awakens or Return of the Jedi. And it masterfully plays its proximity to A New Hope to evoke the original movie’s optimism even though Rogue One itself is deeply pessimistic.
It starts small, in obscure corners of the galaxy, but as the wider Star Wars universe intersects the story, Rogue One grows into an adventure of epic scope. The sheer audacity of the film is startling – not the least being the fact that all of its heroes die – and even its epilog gives us something we didn’t know we needed until we saw it: Darth Vader unleashed in the full terror of a Sith Lord. Rogue One is the true Prequel to the Original Trilogy and its tone matches the original three better than any other film. But it stands in splendid isolation as the finest Star Wars movie yet.
I can only hope that future films will set Rogue One as the bar and attempt to best it.