Star Wars has been a cultural touchstone for over 40 years now. George Lucas, with help from his pal Steven Spielberg, created the modern blockbuster and changed the way Hollywood made movies. For 90’s kids like yours truly, the Original Trilogy is all the Star Wars we ever thought we would get – and that was okay. You could watch them over and over again (as my VHS tapes can attest).
Then came the Prequel Trilogy in 1999 and the hype was unlike anything ever seen before. People paid to go see other movies just to see the trailer for Episode I: The Phantom Menace and walk out. While the Prequel Trilogy has its defenders (they’re not nearly as bad on a whole as you remember), they are uneven experiences at best and a far cry from the magic of the originals. And perhaps it was best if we just left Star Wars there, but then Disney came along and bought Lucasfilm. Now we not only have a Sequel Trilogy with our original heroes, but spin-off stories, and brand new sagas to look forward to. It’s taken four decades to reach 10 Star Wars films, and it looks like we’ll now be getting another 10 before we get to year 50 in this franchise. For those of us who never expected to have anything beyond the original three films, it seems almost unfathomable.
So where does the franchise stand as of now and how do these films stack up against each other? Let’s dive in…
10. Attack of the Clones
The middle chapter of Lucas’ prequel trilogy promised a return to more adult storytelling after Episode I felt largely made for younger kids. Unfortunately the entire weight of the story rests of the shoulders of the Anakin-Padme romance which features some of the most cringe-worthy dialogue in all of fantasy. Anakin Skywalker is written as a creepy brat with murderous inclinations – not exactly romantic hero material, even if he does eventually become Darth Vader. You can see Hayden Christensen working really hard to make it work, but he just doesn’t feel right for the role. Meanwhile Ewan McGregor is the only one providing the film with any sort of compelling story arc as he investigates the creation of a Clone Army — a storyline that is far too convoluted. Clones is also the biggest example of where the prequels relied too heavily on computer-generated imagery for its big set-pieces. The speeder chase through Coruscant and Obi-Wan hunting down Jango Fett in the asteroid belt are great fun, but the finale which pits two giant CG armies against each other feels empty when it should be the biggest sequence in franchise history. Yoda’s duel with Dooku is a show-stopper, but upon further reflection you wonder if it was such a great idea to have Yoda bouncing off the walls and swinging a lightsaber like a maniac.
9. The Phantom Menace
Episode I has its fair share of problems and they’re enough to derail the entire film. Jar Jar Binks is the most misguided choice in the entire franchise and Jake Lloyd’s performance feels better suited to a Disney Channel TV-movie. Liam Neeson feels born to play a Jedi Master, but his character isn’t given much personality while Ewan McGregor’s Obi-Wan is sidelined for much of the film. All of that being said, Menace has a lot of things going for it. Darth Maul is one of the saga’s best villains and his climactic duel with Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan is one for the ages. The Podracing sequence, which anchors the middle of the film, is a stunning and thrilling piece of filmmaking. Both sequences are some of the best in the whole franchise. The biggest issue The Phantom Menace has is that Star Wars is in its title, and with that comes certain expectations. As just a straight-up fantasy adventure, Menace works rather well and is one of the more spectacular blockbusters of the 1990’s but as a Star Wars film it plays down to its audience and comes up short.
Set 10 years before A New Hope, Solo shows us how the famed smuggler became captain of the Millennium Falcon with his trusted co-pilot, Chewbacca. Han Solo’s backstory was never really one that anybody needed filled-in. The film doesn’t add much to the greater lore of Star Wars and is more or less content just being a good time — and in that it succeeds. The Kessel Run is a thrilling set-piece, Donald Glover is perfect as Lando, and the bond between Han and Chewie carries the movie. Alden Ehrenreich gives an admirable performance as Han, while Woody Harrelson and Emilia Clarke fill out the rest of the ensemble with aplomb. It’s a breezy few hours in a galaxy far, far away giving it a decent amount of rewatch value. However, Solo aims low and aside from a few big surprise character reveals, doesn’t do enough to leave much of a lasting impression.
7. Rogue One
The first of the Disney-Lucasfilm spin-off films, Rogue One takes a number of risks with a cast of unknown characters exploring what used to be just a blurb within the Star Wars mythology – the stealing of the Death Star plans. It’s a great gateway into making what is essentially a movie about the Rebel Alliance and it has the guts to cast the Rebels as morally compromised people facing an impossible threat. The final act of the film, the battle on Scarif, is one of the most spectacular battle scenes in the franchise and arguably the best final act of any film on this list. Unfortunately the journey getting there is uneven and a bit tedious largely due to Jyn Erso being perhaps the weakest protagonist in Star Wars canon. Jyn has nothing to do for the majority of the movie other than ride along and then become a daring rebel hero when the plot needs her to be. The decision to recreate classic characters via visual effects also never feels quite right and ends up being a distraction in the end.
6. Return of the Jedi
The final chapter in the Original Trilogy is really our basis for modern Star Wars: an uneven experience that tries to cater to too many people but with enough to please most hardcore fans. Some of the best of Star Wars lies within Jedi: the rescue of Han Solo from Jabba’s palace, the Battle of Endor (mostly), and the showdown between Luke, Vader, and the Emperor. The assault on Jabba’s sail barge is perhaps my favorite sequence in the entire saga, unfortunately that storyline is a side-quest that doesn’t impact the main narrative much and takes up a lot of time even if it does work really really well. Jedi has two large issues going against it: Ewoks and Han Solo. The Ewoks are ground-zero for Star Wars catering to younger children and feels like a wild shift in tone from the films that came before. They turn the Empire, which should be imposing on every front, into a joke. Han Solo meanwhile is completely abandoned as a character. He merely exists to utter a few wise-cracks and shoot Stormtroopers. His relationship with Leia has no meat on its bones other than an unnecessary spat of jealousy over Luke. It also would have been nice to see some kind of evolution of Leia’s role within the rebellion. While there’s so much good in Jedi, turning one of your most dynamic and exciting characters into empty comic relief takes it down quite a few pegs.
5. The Force Awakens
On its own, The Force Awakens is a near-flawless movie (with the exception of getting too fast-and-loose with its humor) and it accomplishes that feat by playing things quite safe. JJ Abrams’ restart of the Star Wars saga had a lot on its plate by re-introducing the series to a new generation of fans and putting hearts at ease for those who’ve been watching these movies since they could walk. It needs to juggle both old and new, so it’s no surprise that the filmmakers elected to largely follow the playbook set by A New Hope. It really is the perfect template for this type of movie. Where it falls short is that it plays too close to what’s come before (a third Death Star?). That all being said, it’s an undeniably entertaining adventure from start to finish that introduces a whole host of new and compelling characters who are more than worthy to take up the mantel from their predecessors. Best of all is that it finally fixes what Return of the Jedi broke in Han Solo and gives us a complex take on the character, matched by one of Harrison Ford’s most dedicated performances. Rey calling Luke’s classic lightsaber to her hand right before her climactic duel with Kylo Ren is one of the all-time great Star Wars series moments.
4. Revenge of the Sith
The final installment of George Lucas’ Prequel Trilogy has the misfortune of being judged side-by-side with Episodes I and II, while carrying over a number of problematic elements from those films. Much like Return of the Jedi, it is an uneven experience. The middle section of the film is a bit of a drag and Natalie Portman’s Padme is given little to do other than be pregnant and look concerned. However, the highs in Sith are some of the highest in the series. The opening act, Anakin and Obi-Wan’s rescue of the Chancellor from the Separatist flagship, is classic Star Wars at its finest. The final hour though is where this movie really shines. From Mace Windu’s confrontation of Palpatine to Anakin’s betrayal and culminating in a pair of fateful and epic duels is the most powerful and gut-wrenching stretch of storytelling in the whole saga. Ewan McGregor’s portrayal of Obi-Wan Kenobi is easily this trilogy’s biggest success and his ultimate showdown with Anakin Skywalker is a moment fans had been waiting decades to see and it doesn’t disappoint. Sith gives us everything we ever wanted from the Prequel Trilogy: stunning Clone Wars action, Palpatine’s rise to power, the fall of the Jedi, Obi-Wan vs Anakin, and the rise of the Darth Vader. Sith finds Lucas going for the jugular in a way he never has and he (mostly) sticks the landing with gusto.
3. The Last Jedi
After catering to fans and giving them all you could think they wanted with The Force Awakens, Rian Johnson’s follow-up digs deep down to deconstruct and subvert everything we think we knew about Star Wars. No other film in the series has as much on its mind or as much story to tell as The Last Jedi does. At every turn it swings for the fences to both surprise and move its audience. After enduring his greatest failure, Luke Skywalker is not the man he once was and must learn from his mistakes to become the legend the galaxy needs him to be. For an audience that’s only known Luke as a tirelessly optimistic and enduring hero, this is a bold, powerful, and uncomfortable direction. It does though allow for Mark Hamill to give the performance of his career. All of the characters are pushed to their brink, forced to confront their greatest weaknesses. Not to mention it’s filled with stunning set-pieces and a host of iconic moments: the Throne Room duel, the Holdo maneuver, and Luke facing down his nephew. The Last Jedi wipes the slate clean and shows us that Star Wars can still surprise, shock, and move us in ways we never expected. The galaxy far, far away has never felt so big and exciting as it does when these credits rolled.
2. A New Hope
The beginning of it all, where we first fell in love with these characters and their galactic struggles. Back when it was just called Star Wars, George Lucas’ magnum opus changed the game for all-time. Inspired by Buck Rogers, Joseph Campbell, and Akira Kurosawa, A New Hope is the ultimate distillation of the Hero’s Journey and set the template for all future fantasy/adventure films to follow. The film world-builds so flawlessly and effortlessly it should be illegal, all while telling an urgent and propulsive story. It introduced the greatest villain in all of cinema matched with some of its greatest heroes. Luke Skywalker looking out to the Binary Sunset on Tatooine as John Williams’ classic score soars is a perfect movie moment. The climactic attack on the Death Star and Luke learning to trust in The Force is still the high watermark for this franchise. Everything that is great about Star Wars can be found within that moment — trusting in something bigger than yourself and taking your first steps into a larger world. A New Hope is the quintessential fantasy adventure and has never been topped.
1. The Empire Strikes Back
If A New Hope is perfect and has never been topped, how is it not #1 on this list? As a pure fantasy adventure, the first installment is perfect, but Empire is not simply an adventure story – the middle chapter of the Original Trilogy is so much more. It takes everything A New Hope was able to accomplish and elevates it to unprecedented heights. It deepens both the mythology and our heroes in unexpected ways. Luke struggles with the darkness within his own soul as he trains to become a Jedi while Han and Leia provide a movie romance for the ages within a breathless chase across the galaxy. New characters such as Yoda, Lando, and Boba Fett fit right in and are immediately iconic in their own right. Yoda feels like a miracle of movie-making, especially given the impact he alone has left on our culture. The climactic showdown between Luke and Vader is harrowing, breathtaking, and shocking in its final revelation — culminating in the greatest twist in film history. Empire leaves you shaken, broken, and stunned. It is how we judge all sequels. It took something flawless and reached for emotional heights we never knew existed.