A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…
…a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed director had the spark of an idea for a space opera that would pay homage to the serials he loved watching and listening to as a child. He imagined a galaxy that harkened back to heroes like Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers, adventures that would be accessible to kids and contrast the gritty sci-fi films of the time. Little did he know back in 1971 that his seed of an idea would grow into one of the most recognizable, universally beloved, and exceedingly successful franchises of all time.* That director was George Lucas and that franchise is of course Star Wars.
*According to Wikipedia, Star Wars is the 3rd highest grossing film franchise of all time. It sits behind only The Marvel Cinematic Universe and J.K. Rowling’s Wizarding World. While Star Wars does trail The Harry Potter franchise by a little over $1 billion (a deficit that The Last Jedi will undeniably erase), keep in mind that the original 3 films came out in the ‘70s and ‘80s. If you adjusted for inflation, Star Wars would easily occupy the 2nd spot on the list.
Disney has already announced a slate of new Star Wars films through at least 2020, which doesn’t even take into account a brand new trilogy that will be spearheaded by Rian Johnson, the director of the upcoming The Last Jedi. Fans had to wait 16 long years between Return of the Jedi (1983) and The Phantom Menace (1999), but with Disney’s financial backing it seems likely that a we can expect a new Star Wars flick in theaters every year.
On Friday, the heavily anticipated next chapter of the Star Wars saga, The Last Jedi, will open in theaters worldwide. As with any entry into the Star Wars universe, the appetite for this movie is extreme (some outlets estimate it could make nearly $440 million worldwide in its opening weekend). In anticipation, I thought it would be fun to countdown my personal rankings of all the Star Wars films**, from the bottom of the barrel to the crème de la crème. While I am technically not authorized to do this, I am going to go ahead and categorize the following countdown as the unofficially official ranking of all Star Wars movies. If you don’t like it, feel free to challenge me to a lightsaber duel. Here we go!
**To clarify, when I say “all the Star Wars films” I’m referring to the 9 that had theatrical releases. (Sorry Star Wars Holiday Special. I know you technically introduced us to Boba Fett, but you don’t make the cut here). Also – light spoiler warning as I will be touching briefly on the plots of the films.
9. Star Wars: The Clone Wars (2008)
Star Wars: The Clone Wars is likely to be the most forgotten film on this list. Either that, or you might not have even known it existed. It is the precursor to the popular animated television show on Cartoon Network (of the same name), which depicts the period in time between Episode II and Episode III. While the mid to late seasons of the television show would evolve into a complex and enjoyable story arc, unfortunately the film is almost completely devoid of any positive qualities. All Star Wars fans should see this movie once, cross it off their checklist, and then forget it ever happened.
8. Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones (2002)
Attack of the Clones feels like a perfect microcosm of the entire prequel trilogy, in that it has some redeeming qualities, but ultimately gets bogged down in a convoluted story line and questionable character choices. While it does give us a handful of fun set pieces, introduces us to a new villain played by the always delightful Christopher Lee, and answers the age-old question: “what would happen if Yoda ever picked up a lightsaber,” these qualities are not enough to overcome the messy narrative. The bright spot of the movie (and the entire prequel trilogy) is Ewan McGregor shining as Obi-Wan Kenobi. McGregor’s performance, particularly in this film, makes you believe that this character will grow into the old wizard we are introduced to in A New Hope.
Attack of the Clones’ most unforgivable sin, by far, was the handling of the romantic relationship between Anakin and Padmé. At times it is downright painful to watch the complete lack of chemistry between Hayden Christensen and Natalie Portman as they attempt to play out a space version of Romeo and Juliet. The actors should not shoulder all of the blame however, as the script did them no favors. Episode II is littered with silly dialogue that takes you right out of the movie and makes you wonder how the storyteller who brought Han and Leia together could be the same person to write: “I don’t like sand. It’s coarse and rough and irritating and it gets everywhere” during what is supposed to be a romantic exchange. The movie truly suffers from this train wreck of a relationship, as the plot requires the audience to be invested in it in order to understand why these characters are making the choices that they are.
7. Star Wars: Episode I– The Phantom Menace (1999)
I was only 10 when Phantom Menace came out, but I remember all of the buzz and excitement surrounding it (my parents actually picked me up early from school so we could see it as a family – one of my favorite childhood memories). Finally after 16 years, George Lucas was going to continue the Skywalker saga. I think most people, myself included, really wanted to love this movie. Unfortunately what we got on screen did not feel like the Star Wars films that came before it.
Phantom Menace, and really all of the prequels, traded in the practical effects and puppet work of the original films for a heavy dose of CGI that made the universe seem less lived in and ultimately less realistic (I only bring it up in this section because this was the first film in which it was used). When you combine that with some pretty flat performances all around, you have to wonder if Lucas had chosen to release the movies in chronological order if we ever would have gotten an Episode II and beyond.
So why is Phantom not ranked lower than Attack of the Clones? While that really is more of an indictment on Episode II than it is praise for Episode I, we did get introduced to a truly badass character in Darth Maul (who would go on to become a fan favorite not only from this film, but from his other appearances in Star Wars canon). Ironically one of the worst movies in the franchise gave us arguably the best lightsaber duel in the climax between Qui-Gon, Obi-Wan, and Darth Maul. The pace of the fight was captivating, trading in the slow and deliberate movement we got in the Original Trilogy for quick choreography; it felt more like a ballet than a sword fight in all the right ways. Phantom also introduced us to podracing, and while it’s not everyone’s cup of tea, I personally enjoyed that set piece.
6. Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith (2003)
Easily the strongest of the 3 prequel films, Revenge of the Sith, sets the stage for the space drama that will play out in Episodes IV, V, & VI. It is here that we see the rapid transformation that Anakin undergoes, from potential young Jedi into Darth Vader, one of the most fearsome villains in movie history.
The beginning half of the movie does drag a bit into Episode II territory with some Anakin and Padmé scenes that continue to fail, but the final hour of the movie easily makes up for it. That Lucas was able to, in roughly an hour and a half, make Anakin’s turn to the Dark Side of the Force feel believable is quite a feat, and the climactic confrontation with Obi-Wan on Mustafar is sensational. In some of the most emotional scenes in the entire series, Ewan McGregor and Hayden Christensen (it only took him until the third act of the third movie to finally bring some believable emotion to Anakin) work wonderfully together, and when the dust finally settles your heart is as broken as the relationship between mentor and pupil. The film stumbles a bit at the end as it tries to wrap things up (particularly in its handling of Padmé) but all in all it is a worthwhile entry into the canon that ties up the prequel trilogy in a believable way and ushers us into the age of the Galactic Empire.
5. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)
The second Star Wars movie to come out under the Disney banner and the first in a line of anthology films (aka not part of the Skywalker Saga), Rogue One takes place in the time between Episodes III and IV, attempting to answer one of cinema’s most puzzling questions. People had been wondering since 1977, “how is it possible that The Empire would have overlooked such a glaring weakness in the Death Star as the thermal exhaust port, which ultimately led to its destruction?” Turns out, it was not an oversight, but instead a vulnerability in the space station left behind after a change of heart by Galen Erso, the J. Robert Oppenheimer of the Death Star.
Even if you have not seen Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, you are probably familiar with the film’s plot. An unlikely group of individuals must put aside their differences and work together to complete a suicide mission. Think The Magnificent Seven, but in space. While Rogue One could have easily felt like a rehash of a tired film trope, it manages to distinguish itself because of its unique characters and the sandbox in which they get to play in. Without giving away too much, Rogue One allows each character of the ensemble cast their moments to shine and even though the squad only sticks around for this one film, their actions prove vital to the story that follows. The final sequence in Rogue One is a standout and easily one of my favorite scenes in all of Star Wars. The camera work, pacing, and action are all balanced perfectly as we finally get to see Darth Vader’s power unleashed how it was originally envisioned. It’s a heart-pounding moment that still gives me goose bumps, and defines the stakes of what the Rebel Alliance is up against in Episode IV.
4. Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi (1983)
I’d argue that one of the hardest things to do as a story teller is create an ending that fully satisfies the audience. Now imagine that the story has become one of the most iconic series in movie history; it must be a near impossible task. But that is exactly what Return of the Jedi had to do in 1983.
I think Lucas largely succeeds in giving his fans a worthwhile closing chapter to his beloved saga. Yes, the Ewoks are a bit silly. And sure, it is hard to imagine that a trained battalion of Stormtroopers could be duped by oversized teddy bears. But remember, we are talking about a space opera with space wizards and laser swords so I am willing to suspend disbelief a little bit. Jedi also gives us the Jabba’s Palace sequence, which is one of the most whimsical and fun sequences the series has to offer. It is here that we first get to see Luke as a fully realized Jedi and the hero he was destined to become.
The final confrontation between Darth Vader and Luke while the Emperor watches, is hands down one of the best scenes of the series. Everything we have seen through three movies has been leading us to this confrontation between the literal embodiments of good and evil. Hamill does his best acting work of the trilogy here and it is impossible not to get emotional as we see Luke willing to sacrifice himself to prove there is still good in his father. Return of the Jedi manages to wrap things up in a satisfying way while continuing to grow all of our favorite characters, and as an audience that is all we can ask for from a final chapter.
3. Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens (2015)
The Force Awakens had to do more than simply succeed at the box office. It had to win back the trust of a demoralized fan base that was left with a bad taste in its mouth after what many perceived to be the failure of the prequels. It had to introduce us to new characters and make us care about them in the same way that we cared about Luke, Han, and Leia the first time we saw them on screen in ’77. And it had to prove that there was still an appetite for Star Wars after being out of the public eye for 10 years. Simply put, it had to make us believe that Star Wars could be Star Wars again.
Boy, did it succeed. The Force Awakens first and foremost feels like a Star Wars movie, which was of paramount importance after the bloated, glossy, CGI environment we grew accustomed to in the prequels. Director J.J. Abrams (a huge fan of the series since he was a child) took great care to lovingly create settings that felt lived in and real to where we as the audience could believe we were seeing the world post Return of the Jedi.
But The Force Awakens does more than just surpass the settings of the prequels. It introduced us to brand new characters that somehow felt familiar but in all the right ways. Indeed, Rey, Finn, and Poe share characteristics with Luke, Leia, and Han but instead of being exact clones, these new characters all share characteristics with each of the original characters. Poe, for example, has the rugged and rogue-like bravado of Han coupled with the sense of purpose and selfless devotion to help the greater good that made us fall in love with Leia. That these new characters can make us care about them while sharing the screen with a legend like Han Solo speaks to how well developed and expertly acted they are. Mind you, I have not even mentioned the new villain, Kylo Ren, who in just one movie catapults himself into the conversation of one of the most complex villains in the Star Wars universe.
I would be remiss if I did not mention a common criticism of The Force Awakens, namely that the film shares too many of the same story beats as A New Hope. While I do understand why people say that, I think The Force Awakens does enough to differentiate itself and set the stage for what should be a thrilling middle chapter to the trilogy in Episode VIII. I forget exactly where I heard it, but someone once told me that The Force Awakens was the “familiar home cooking” Star Wars fans needed after the prequels. It was filled with the perfect amount of fan service, strong characters, and new concepts to accomplish exactly what it needed to do: make us fall in love with Star Wars all over again.
2. Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (1977)
It’s almost difficult to overstate the importance of Star Wars in some people’s lives. I’m sure that sounds silly to people who have not fallen in love with the series, but it’s absolutely true. I’ve seen Star Wars-themed first dances at weddings, Star Wars tattoos, and even people naming their children Luke or Leia. All of this love and passion tracks back to the very first film in the series: Star Wars – A New Hope.
A New Hope takes a simple good vs. evil story and reimagines it in a rich universe with a loving attention to detail that helped it blossom into the mega franchise it is today. What makes A New Hope such a beloved film is how relatable it is. As we watch in the audience, we are Luke. Who in their life hasn’t, at one point or another, felt stuck and unable to move forward, while aspiring to do bigger and better things? Who has not dreamed of playing the hero? There are many themes that Lucas presents us with in A New Hope, but the fundamental one (and what elevates the film to the iconic status it enjoys) is that we should dare to dream and strive to be better. It’s an important message, and one that speaks to how influential the series has become in the collective cultural consciousness.
1. Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
It’s very seldom that a sequel is as good as the original. Finding a sequel that actually surpasses the original is near impossible, but somehow that is exactly what happened with The Empire Strikes Back.
Empire brings us back into the world of Star Wars that we fell in love with, but instead of a hopeful story about good triumphing over evil, Lucas reminds us that this is not always how life works out. Indeed, this is a much darker story that leaves us in a somber place but prepares us for the final chapter of the trilogy.
From beginning to end, Empire is filled with fantastic moments that are iconic and vital to the Star Wars lore. From the Battle at Hoth (my favorite big battle of the series), to meeting Yoda on Dagobah, to the introduction of Lando at Cloud City, when you look at the totality of the series it is amazing how many of the important locations and characters pop up for the first time in Episode V.
Although it is common knowledge at this point, the reveal that Darth Vader is Luke’s father is truly a groundbreaking moment and I think one of the best twists in movie history. Try to imagine yourself in the theater back in 1980, before everyone knew the truth about Luke’s lineage, and imagine the emotional impact of those words “No, I am your father” (not the often misquoted “Luke, I am your father”). It still gives me chills.
Yes, A New Hope was a spectacle, but it was the quality and raw emotion of The Empire Strikes Back that truly catapulted the series into the stratosphere and made Star Wars the world wide phenomenon it is today.