It's Star Wars Day, the Star Wars Day in the middle of the longest gap in releases from that galaxy far, far away since Disney brought the franchise back in 2015 no less, so let's look back at all the Star Wars films, from worst to best.
What Star Wars is has always been changing. At first one movie in a hypothetical serial, then a clearly defined trilogy charting the hero's journey of Luke Skywalker, then made The Tragedy of Darth Vader by the prequels, and now something considerably more elaborate that transcends a single person or, depending on where J.J. Abrams goes with Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, bloodline. That evolution changes not just the big picture Skywalker Saga, but deepens the meaning what each entry does: Rogue One takes on a new light coming after The Force Awakens, and Return of the Jedi will never be the same following The Last Jedi.
But for all the grand talk of rhyming narratives and long-teased plot threads, it's worth remembering what Star Wars is at its core: a movie series. And so, as the Skywalker Saga nears its end (but the story of the galaxy is only just beginning), we're going to look back on - and rank - all 11 theatrically released Star Wars films.
11. Star Wars: The Clone Wars (2008)
This one's a little unfair as it wasn't made with a theatrical release in mind. Star Wars: The Clone Wars only went from TV show to cinematic event when George Lucas was so impressed with what Dave Filloni's team was producing that he wanted to give it a bigger audience. However, while The Clone Wars series (and pseudo-sequel Rebels) would become cornerstones of new Star Wars canon, its early seasons were certainly a case of a show finding its feet - and that's truly evident in the feature-length premiere.
Plainly put, even with the considerations of this being an evolving show forced into a feature confines, The Clone Wars is not a good movie. Its story hangs together a lot better than the extended TV pilot premise should, but that story is a mixture of pandering and fan bait; the plot is that Count Dooku kidnaps Jabba the Hutt's son to pinch the Republic, leading Anakin and precocious new padawan Ahsoka to recover the tiny slimeball, Obi-Wan on a classic diversion side-quest, and Padmé to investigate the effeminate Ziro the Hutt.
The animation and voice acting have promise, but it's rough going, with even aspects that would end up beloved unreined; Ahsoka was divisive when first introduced and, from the movie alone, that's understandable.
10. Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones (2002)
Long known as "the better one", Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones' position as the worst live-action Star Wars film is pretty widely accepted at this point. It's where George Lucas' filmmaking limitations show; his storytelling is distracted, the dialogue lacking required emotion, and an overreliance on CGI proves debilitating.
Within all those issues, there are aspects that really work. Ewan McGregor enters his stride as young Alec Guinness in his own detective story (involving on a not-obtuse Jango Fett), Anakin's darker moments are well handled, and the final battle is the biggest of the series and made all the more fantastic by its hollow victory. And even on the VFX point, while there's a lot of scenes where characters walk down green-screened hallways, it's worth remembering the clones were all CGI creations, seven years before Avatar and nine before the "controversy" around Ryan Reynolds' all-digital Green Lantern costume. In that area at least, you can argue Lucas was just ahead of the curve.
What actually undo that and make Episode II such a peculiar movie, one that feels desperate to be regarded as "the better one". Some of the experimentation in The Phantom Menace makes way for tighter connections - Boba Fett's origin - and still-contended "cool" moments - Yoda showing that he actually is a great warrior after all.
9. Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999)
Simultaneously the most-anticipated, most-disappointing and most-despised movie of all-time, the fan reaction to Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace is pretty much Yoda's "fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering" adage writ large. It's been 20 years and only now is Star Wars emerging from that shadow (and still harrowing stories of the toxic fallout emerge). Ultimately, though, it's fine: Episode I is not great, it has serious problems, but it's pretty audacious and marked out the prequel trilogy as something different almost immediately.
Lucas always planned to have Episode I rooted in political intrigue, with Palpatine's manipulation of the Senate one of the first origin elements to his universe he noted down. In delivery, it's all a bit muddled, with complex and somewhat illogical rules twisted without the audience quite knowing. That lack of engagement with what's driving the plot runs through Naboo's royalty, Qui-Gon's interest in Anakin and the Jedi dichotomy; so much of what The Phantom Menace wants to do is obfuscated by design, yet that makes it too dry.
But story aside, it's visually and viscerally fascinating: the Trade Federation is a striking new foe and their invasion of Naboo the old-new of Star Wars personified; the podrace is uniquely delirious; and the simmering intensity of Duel of the Fates hasn't been topped. As for Jar Jar? He's not great but really not worth getting your ear flaps in a twist about.
8. Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018)
Where to begin with Solo: A Star Wars Story? Directors fired mid-production, a replacement who reshot pretty much the entire thing, and the first box office bomb for the franchise: even by the turbulent productions of Disney Star Wars, that's next level. So it's somewhat impressive that the movie itself doesn't really betray that; it's a serviceable origin story that explores Han, making him more understandable without undoing that cocksure roguishness that made Harrison Ford's take so compelling.
If anything, the problem with the film is a script that pulls both ways: it wants to be a gritty, down-and-removed smuggler tale under a totalitarian government, yet at every turn must tie itself into the wider mythos. Everything you never wanted to know about Han is explained, from the history of Lando's Return of the Jedi disguise to where the Solo name came from. It really unbalances what Ron Howard brings, best seen in the film's (and, in many ways, franchise's), worst moments; the undernourished and unclearly intentioned droid rights subplot, and the sudden Darth Maul cameo that pretends to tease a future for the character despite his canon story being wrapped up.
But the conflict of Kasdans aside, Solo got so much of worth that makes its failure a little disappointing. The action is new even for Star Wars, Alden Ehrenreich's performance is mature, and the 1977 Imperial Theme needle drop will never not excite.
7. Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (2005)
The Star Wars prequels (mostly) stick the landing. Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith still displays many of the creative issues that marred the previous movies - even Ewan McGregor isn't above some wooden delivery and when tying everything together there's extreme plot convenience - but in charting Anakin's fall and the Empire's rise, the film delivers on its promise in an emotive way.
Made as the last Star Wars film, Revenge of the Sith goes all out. The opening is proper serialized action, picking up on an unseen adventure with bravado, then it spins off into seduction and tragedy. The middle act is a lot of walking and talking as Anakin travels between the Jedi Temple and the Senate, but that's offset by another Obi-Wan detective mission against General Grievous, a villain who is striking mainly by how brief his role is. Once Anakin's turned (and we're past the awkward Windu vs. Palpatine fight and weird electricity aging), the film kicks into top gear as everything established in the previous films crumbles to leave the A New Hope status quo behind.
The ending is totally convenient, with everything you wanted from the prequels rushed in a 15-minute epilogue, yet that only makes this cyclical sense of finality all the more wrenching. It was a rocky road, but the twin sunset was (almost) worth it.
6. Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)
Star Wars: The Force Awakens was always going to date more readily than other entries in the saga. It wasn't just Episode VII, it was the proper return of Star Wars following the prequel, and so every effort had to be made to rehabilitate the franchise. Viewed just four years later, The Force Awakens is a solid entry in the saga. At the time, though, it was the make-or-break decider on whether the saga would continue in the eyes of many.
In the end, J.J. Abrams probably played it too safe. The core gambit was to recreate the feeling of the original Star Wars through narrative, with fresh intrigue provided by that of the mystery box. That's great from a marketing standpoint - familiar yet unknown with a clear no-prequel stance - but means the film doesn't offer much in terms of development. There's also no getting around the sheer amount of story that happens offscreen: the exposition (or obfuscation) quotient is high, to the point it feels like there should have been an interim Episode VII about Ben Solo's fall.
What The Force Awakens does nail, though, is the characters. Rey, Finn, Kylo Ren, BB-8 and, to a lesser extent, Poe, are so immediately fleshed out and thrown into an adventure that what is old feels new. The decision to spend 40 minutes introducing these new players before the potentially momentum-stopping entrance of Han Solo is one of the movie's best, and see it coast through a choppily edited second act (watch it again and no scene connects well to the next) and to a thrilling cliffhanger (literally).
5. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is essentially the ethos of the Star Wars Expanded Universe transferred into a movie. It explores a key story just adjacent to the films (in fact, the stealing of the Death Star plans had been told many times in Legends), populated with a variety of familiar faces (some fitting, some obtuse) and imagines grand imaginary battles that exploit the ideas laid down in the core movies. But unlike a regrettably large portion of the EU, it's genuinely great.
Gareth Edwards plays with scale similar to in Godzilla, taking the used-future aesthetic of A New Hope yet presenting it in a way that feels more imposing and oppressive. The characters get knocks, but each has a part to play as the story zips from planet to planet, and an arc that gives their deaths surprising weight. The final act is an all-out Star Wars assault that bests even the most fanciful "first victory" fans could imagine, has the balls to follow through on the suicide mission, gives Vader an all-time classic moment, and elegantly connects to the original movie without too much mental gymnastics.
Oh, and there were reshoots, but unless you knew the trailers inside out or rewatch the movie fervently to notice well-hid moments of odd greenscreen and chart their knock-on effects, you really can't tell.
4. Return of the Jedi (1983)
There was a time when Return of the Jedi was deemed the better sequel; Kevin Smith was going against the grain when he posited it was The Empire Strikes Back in Clerks. Today, that's quite clearly not the case, with it generally accepted that movie's highs making way for more dated aspects. Nevertheless, it is still a near-great sci-fi movie and while behind-the-scenes stories and Ewoks can be used as examples of early rot, that shouldn't be used as a takedown.
The Jabba sequence is a fitting opening that's at once delivering what you want - Luke and Leia rescue Han - and sideswipes - the previously unseen Jabba is a slug, Boba Fett dies - and serves as a nice character setter before the Empire plot kicks into gear. And what a finale it is. Everything on the Emperor side is delectable, injecting even more complications into Luke Skywalker, Darth Vader and the Force, while the space Battle above Endor set a then-high-bar. Ewoks and cheap travel costs to redwood forests may not be to everybody's taste, but even that's enjoyable (and the primitive might toppling a war machine couldn't be more fitting).
Return of the Jedi has had its true meaning twisted and turned so much since release: the EU made the Luke and Leia sibling turn core background; the prequels made it a Chosen One fulfillment; The Force Awakens undid its finality; and now The Rise of Skywalker may make it a pivot more than an ending.
3. Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017)
If George Lucas made Star Wars a deconstruction of mythic storytelling, Rian Johnson made The Last Jedi a deconstruction of Star Wars as the modern myth. The story is three generations deep (four counting Palpatine) and now galactic politics so incestuous the core idea - that Luke Skywalker was an everyman hero - was lost. Episode VIII attempts to explore those ramifications and step beyond that, showing the flaws in the destined hero and the joy in the collective; the legacy-obsessed antagonist proclaims "let the past die" yet can't follow through, while the protagonist with no past to speak of discovers that she can grow from the mistakes of her mentor.
It's often praised and criticized for simply subverting expectations, and while a lot of excitement watching Star Wars: The Last Jedi comes from the unexpected - Snoke's death and Luke's depression in particular - all of that is in service of that greater theme, returning Star Wars to what it was while moving it irrevocably forward. That proved divisive - perhaps due to delivery, perhaps to the ideas - but that's a real shame as it distracts from how great The Last Jedi is.
Johnson's themes are matched by a further evolution of Star Wars' visual style and unflinching expansion of the mythos when it comes to core ideas of the Force and logic of the world. Hopefully, when removed from the status of "latest Star Wars movie released", what it did will be more appreciated.
2. The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
If only more movies were like The Empire Strikes Back. So many modern sequels proclaim themselves as "The Empire Strikes Back of the franchise", yet that normally amounts to an increase of brooding and a desire to set up a third entry. While Episode V certainly is darker and does end on a cliffhanger down-note, those aspects aren't singularly what makes Irvin Kershner's - a teacher of Lucas - film great.
It's a galactic tragedy but it's also a jolt of a movie: expansive landscapes - snow, space and clouds - are juxtaposed with cramped sets - Echo base, the Millennium Falcon, Cloud City's darkening bowls, Dagobah (which really was just Mark Hamill alone); levity and romance suddenly descend into terror and heartbreak. Some aspects are even lesser trodden; the insinuation that the Jedi are wrong was hammered home in the prequels, yet the roots are here.
Empire essentially takes the core ideas of Star Wars - Rebels vs. Empire, everyman hero, mystical Force and knight who wield it - and extends, creating a story that is emotionally deeper and expanding the world in a way that is never superficial. It's challenging and against expectation more than even the most surprising blockbusters today, and does so while knowingly being neither a beginning nor the end. That Luke's father wasn't Darth Vader until the second draft is perhaps the biggest stamp on storytelling approach there is.
1. Star Wars (1977)
It's just Star Wars. Not Episode IV, not A New Hope: Star Wars. It's the end of New Hollywood, a throwback to the 1930s serials, a love-letter to Kurosawa, a western riff, an exploration of the hero's journey and a technical playground. And it's all glorious.
As with any movie in the original trilogy, it's so easy to downplay Star Wars because of just how accepted it all is. The world has been massively expanded (twice) and as much as the Battle of Yavin remains the date-making point of the franchise, that the core ideas came out in one film that did not expect Knights of the Old Republic or Teräs Käsi is astounding. But take a step back, take in the world-building, the used-future, the big, human characters (even ones covered in metal or fur), the known yet alien landscapes, the symphonic score, the throwback actions (World War II dogfights and longsword fights) and it's a movie full of wonder.
The Empire Strikes Back is the commonly accepted better film, and it's arguably the more mature of the pair, but what Star Wars has is an eye-opening discovery. From Luke staring out at the twin sunset to his giggle at the medal ceremony, the small moments are the best.
- Star Wars 9 / Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (2019) release date: Dec 20, 2019