Every Star Wars Movie—Ranked
Putting some science fact in the science fiction.
Choosing your favorite Star Wars movie can be like choosing your favorite kid. As any parent can tell you, that's not as difficult as it sounds. Some kids are inherently lovable and easy to take pride in, while other kids, well…. Star Wars movies have similar personalities. They can be full of delightful surprises and brimming with potential, or they can be maddeningly obtuse. But even the ugly ones—the ones that don't seem to even want to try, who go out of their way to break our hearts—we love them too. They're still part of our family, for better or worse.
You know a true Star Wars fan if he or she is still upset about Jar Jar Binks. The rest of the world has moved on and found other things to be annoyed by, but the true believers simply can't. Because as much as we despise Jar Jar, as much as he makes our skin crawl, he's still part of the canon. We can't divorce ourselves from him, because whatever our personal feelings, he's part of the Star Wars mythology.
That said, here is the definitive ranking of all the (current) Star Wars movies, from the the incontestable worst to the irrefutable best. This ranking isn't opinion, by the way; it's hard science. And you can't debate science.
The Phantom Menace (1999)
There are so many reasons Episode I should be one of the best Star Wars films. But it fails in a myriad of spectacular ways. After such a long absence for the series—something many of us took to mean the long-promised episodes one through three would remain forever ingrained in our imaginations—a new Star Wars movie was the greatest gift we never thought we'd live to see. We would have been grateful for anything. The film could’ve been Boba Fett playing Dejarik with Chewbacca for two hours and we would’ve hailed it a masterpiece.
Instead, we got an astonishingly obnoxious alien named Jar Jar Binks, who said profoundly unfunny things like, “Ex-squeeze me,” and a needlessly complicated plot about intergalactic taxation on trade routes (or something…honestly, we stopped paying attention after a while). Sure, it gets bonus points for athletic gymnastics among the Jedi and a promising bad guy in Darth Maul. But then lost all that goodwill when they killed him off (as far as we knew at the time) after one lousy lightsaber battle…and then let Jar-Jar live.
Attack of the Clones (2002)
This prequel committed an unforgivable sin (at least among those of us who cherish the Star Wars movies like gospel): It made Boba Fett uncool. Did anyone of any age watch the original trilogy and think, “I wish Boba Fett's narrative arc had been more like The Courtship of Eddie's Father?” (Also, Yoda doing judo kicks in the air like a level-nine black belt was disconcerting, not awesome. It's like suddenly discovering Grandpa has been taking jujitsu lessons for decades. Or learning that Chewbacca is inexplicably speaking with a British accent. Stop messing with the natural order, Lucas!)
Overall, this addition to the series is (surprise, surprise) too heavy on the CGI and too light on the character development. And then there's the tiresome romance between Anakin (Hayden Christensen) and Padmé (Natalie “How'd I Get Into This Mess?” Portman), seemingly written by someone who had never been in a relationship with another human being. A sample line: “You are in my very soul, tormenting me.” Come ooooon. If the writers needed a primer on how to do a Star Wars romance, they should've just revisited Han and Leia's tryst in Empire Strikes Back. “I love you.” “I know.” Boom, two sentences, done!
Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018)
It's a perfectly fine science fiction movie, with a fast-paced plot, stellar action, stunning visual effects, and captivating side characters. (Donald Glover's Lando Calrissian is a particular standout.) But the character at the center of it all, that's not Han Solo. Harrison Ford is Han Solo. If he's not playing Han Solo, then it’s not a Han Solo movie. Alden Ehrenreich is a fine actor, but he's not Han Solo. There's really nothing else to say.
Maybe if they changed the title and gave the main character a name that wasn't Han Solo, we'd be all in. Otherwise, it’s just confusing. You wouldn't take a movie like Die Hard and say, “The main character is Han Solo now.” No, it's not. Since when is Bruce Willis Han Solo? Since never. Just saying something doesn't make it true. That's not how life works! Adjusted for inflation, Solo: A Star Wars Story performed worse at the box office than any other Star Wars movie.
Revenge of the Sith (2005)
It gets our respect just for the title, which finally delivers the menace we were denied with Return of the Jedi, a film that was originally supposed to be titled Revenge of the Jedi before Lucas decided, “Nah, too cool.” Revenge of the Sith mostly lives up to the title—though, as with all Lucas prequels, it could've lost 80 percent of the CGI and been a fundamentally better film.
There's an anti-fascist theme at the heart of the story, but really the only reason we're watching is to see Anakin lose his marbles, melt his face, and become Darth Vader. In that, it satisfies… kinda. Hayden Christensen doesn't really have the acting chops to pull off the job, which is both a good thing and a bad thing. It's bad when he's trying to make a convincing case for Darth’s descent into madness. It's good when his lack of nuance results in moments like the anguished Darth raising his fists to the sky and screaming, “Nooooo!”
All in all, we're not sure whether to laugh or accept the melodrama on face value, which is what makes Star Wars movies in general such a fun-filled ride. For every goosebumps-inducing thrill, at any moment you could be abruptly taken out of reality with a line reading that makes you wonder if Ed Wood is directing. That's not a criticism, it's a compliment. Years from now, when this movie is watched only by Star Wars completists, Darth Vader screaming “Nooooo!” will be the only thing everybody remembers from Revenge of the Sith.
The Force Awakens (2015)
Finally, we get to see (spoilers ahead!) the tragic and brutal death that Han Solo had been denied in Return of the Jedi! (More on that later.) And at the hands of his own son no less. Those of us who feared Han lived to a ripe old age in some godforsaken Ewok retirement village finally had closure. What's more, the Star Wars universe now got a new cast of heroes, not quite as white or male as their predecessors. It took J.J. Abrams to give us the Star Wars sequel we didn't realize how much we wanted. That George Lucas was kept out of the process—forbidden from making suggestions like “What if you added a few more weird aliens in this scene?”—just made it work all the better.
Really, the only thing that kneecaps this film is how much it wears its fandom on its sleeve. The Force Awakens is maybe a little too in love with its own nostalgia. And not just because old trilogy memorabilia sells for top resale prices in this universe. Some of the film’s “original” set pieces—like the Starkiller Base, a mobile ice planet with a giant laser capable of destroying solar systems, but that also happened to be built with one exploitable flaw—just felt a little, um… familiar.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)
Haters gonna hate, but this really is one of the best sequels that isn't technically a sequel in the Star Wars canon. What makes this work so well is that it doesn't feel superfluous. It answers questions that actually needed answering, at least for the hardcore fanatics. (Why was the Death Star built with a fatal flaw that the Rebels could use to destroy it with a single shot? Seems like a pretty massive design error.)
On top of that—don't worry, no spoilers, here—it's the first film to upend the good-guys-versus-bad-guys M.O. that dominates Star Wars mythology. (The light side versus the dark side? Could you be more on-the-nose?!) In Rogue One, these are morally gray characters operating in a morally gray conflict. It's a fresh perspective, and as close to real as Star Wars can get.
But Rogue One's greatest accomplishment is that it delivers one of the rarest creatures that's ever inhabited the Star Wars universe: A legitimately funny robot. Robots in Star Wars movies tend to be like standup comics on cruise ships: Humorous to grandparents, but that's about it. K-2SO (performed brilliantly by Alan Tudyk), however, is honest-to-goodness hilarious, with more deadpan pathos than any human actor in every Star Wars film that came before it was ever able to pull off, with the possible exception of Harrison Ford.
Return of the Jedi (1983)
Should this be higher? Of course it should! Any movie in the original trilogy should be included in the top three of any Star Wars ranking, no questions asked. And if we were solely judging on the opening scenes on Tatooine, where Han gets saved and Princess Leia is in a metal bikini and Boba Fett falls into the Sarlacc pit to be digested for 1,000 years, then sure, this is one of the best movies ever made, ever. But then the rest of the movie happens, and there are Ewoks, and it all gets unbearable—and it only gets worse if you know anything about Star Wars history and what “could have been.”
Long before there were Ewoks, plots were afoot for a planet of Wookies, or, even better, creepy lizards who were anything but cuddly. Oh, and Han was originally supposed to die, blasted down in a blaze of glory as he tried to save his friends. You know, the way a guy like Han was supposed to go, not high-fiving friends at a teddy bear hootenanny. Harrison Ford pushed for Han's death, but Lucas wasn't into it. As Ford explained, “George didn’t think there was any future in dead Han toys.” It's difficult to watch this film without wondering what might have been.
The Last Jedi (2017)
This movie is one of the greatest in the Star Wars dynasty for the very reason the trolls hated it. They complained about the clunky dialogue and the plot filled with inconsistencies and nonsensical leaps of logic. Well, duh. It's a Star Wars film. That's what they do! Complaining about Star Wars plot holes is like complaining that a Game of Thrones episode is too hostile.
But the real reason the trolls hated this movie with a white-hot intensity was because of the women. The Last Jedi has women in leadership roles, women saving the day, women not waiting for men to show up and blast their way out of trouble. At the film’s center is Rey (Daisy Ridley), the scrappy scavenger who's tougher than any of the boys and isn't all that interested in their tutelage, who the Atlantic called “Star Wars’ first feminist protagonist.”
That did not go over well with a certain subset of fans who still have their Kenner Star Wars action figures in the original packaging, and who prefer their female heroines to wait patiently in Death Star cells to be saved. Their reactions were not unlike baddie Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) smashing his helmet in a fit of over-privileged rage after being told he's no Darth Vader. Oh, it hurts so good.
Star Wars (1977)
I know we're supposed to call this one Episode VI: A New Hope, but I refuse to on general principle. Star Wars didn't become a cultural phenomenon, the greatest science fiction soap opera to ever change the world for millions of kids, as “Part Four.” It was and always will be Star Wars, first of its name, the holy scripture on which all other sequels are judged. This ranking only applies to the original 1977 theatrical release, not the 1997 “Special Edition” where Lucas added a bunch of CGI that, quite frankly, made it a lesser movie. We didn't need the extra scene with Jabba, or the more lively beasts and almost-human aliens.
And for the love of all that's holy and decent, regardless of how Lucas tried to rewrite history, Han shot first. I'm sorry if that's hard to hear, but he just did.
The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
That this is the greatest Star Wars movie is not open to discussion. There will never be another movie quite like it, certainly not involving the universe created by George Lucas. Trying to explain why is almost like trying to explain why witnessing an aurora borealis can be awe-inspiring and life-changing. You had to be there to understand. To be a kid in 1980, having just seen Empire, in a world decades away from the Internet, was a wondrous time to be alive.
The film left us with more questions than answers. Was Han Solo still alive? Was Darth telling the truth about being Luke's dad? Who was Yoda alluding to when he assured Ben Kenobi’s ghost, “There is another”? The Empire Strikes Back recognized a fundamental truth about movie magic: Your audience doesn't need to know everything. It doesn't even necessarily want to know everything.
It could even be argued that if Return of the Jedi was never made, and every subsequent sequel and prequel never made it to the screen, we would've been fine—better than fine. The legacy of Star Wars would be stronger than ever. We would still be arguing about what we'd seen in Empire, and what might have happened next, and those wonderful mysteries and unanswered questions would've kept our imaginations alive for generations to come. And to see what's on the horizon for the greatest science fiction series every, Here's Everything We Know About Star Wars: Episode IX.
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