The Skywalker Saga has ended, for better or worse. No one knows when the next Star Wars film will be or what it will entail, so we are left with what we have — such is the life of a Star Wars fan. For now, the galaxy will live on in series form — which may be for the best for a while. No film series has generated as much passionate debate and divide as George Lucas’ galaxy far, far away and now with Episode IX firmly in the rear-view mirror, let’s assess this series one more time. Shall we?
11. Attack of the Clones
While the middle chapter of the prequel trilogy has some impressive set-pieces and a more adult-oriented tone, the entire film is built upon a central romance that doesn’t work any way you slice it. The dialogue is laughably bad and there’s very little chemistry between Natalie Portman and Hayden Christensen. Christensen’s portrayal of Anakin also comes off as petulant for most of the movie — not exactly how you want a romantic hero to be. While Obi-Wan’s pursuit of Jango Fett is a highlight, it doesn’t do enough to raise a film that feels over-complicated, sluggish, and overwhelmed by excessive CGI.
10. The Rise of Skywalker
Fans were optimistic about the prospect of J.J. Abrams returning to finish the story he began with 2015’s The Force Awakens, unfortunately the directive for this final installment seemed to be answer criticisms and press nostalgia buttons. After the divisive reactions to The Last Jedi, Abrams and co. backtracked on the previous film’s narrative choices, and while Star Wars has always played loose with continuity, this is the first time a film has directly contradicted the one preceding it. Thus the entire sequel trilogy feels like a wobbly tower of Jenga. What’s most disappointing is not the choices it makes (though resurrecting Palpatine in the opening crawl is gobsmacking), but how middling it all is. The action sequences feel generic and uninspired, and the narrative has little originality — it’s essentially Raiders of the Lost Ark meets Return of the Jedi. The film is well-made and features good performances, especially from Daisy Ridley, but its lack of creativity and vision make it a frustrating disappointment.
Solo is not a bad movie, by any means. In fact, it’s a well-made and entertaining space adventure with fun performances, impressive visuals, and a few standout action sequences. Where Solo falters is in concept alone. It’s a movie that nobody asked for which answers questions nobody was posing. In that way, it limits itself. Alden Ehrenreich is quite good in the movie, but asking anyone to step into Harrison Ford’s iconic shoes is criminally unfair. Within the context of the greater Star Wars saga, Solo feels like a movie that didn’t need to be made and is ultimately rather forgettable — which can feel like a greater sin than just being bad. Had this been a Disney+ original series set within an underworld of scum and villainy, we may have felt differently.
8. The Phantom Menace
While Episode I has its fair share of missteps — Jar Jar Binks, Anakin’s characterization — it also feels the most purely Star Wars out of any of the other prequels. Darth Maul is one of the saga’s most iconic villains, the Pod Race was one of the most thrilling pieces of filmmaking for its time, and the climactic lightsaber duel is still the gold standard for the rest of the series. Phantom Menace arrived in theaters with an unprecedented amount of hype, something no film could ever meet, but its disappointment lies largely in tone and how it hit an audience that grew up with the original trilogy. They weren’t expecting a movie made for kids, let alone forgetting that’s how they fell in love with Star Wars in the first place. If Star Wars was removed from the title, we would have regarded this as one of the premiere adventure movies of the 1990’s. Its highs still outnumber its lows.
7. Rogue One
The first standalone, non-Saga film, of the franchise: Rogue One feels both unique unto itself yet also fits seamlessly in with the rest of the series. It’s an impressive balancing act. Visually it might be the most beautifully shot film of the series and its final act is a sure-fire contender for franchise-best. Rogue One does hit some bumps along the way though. The middle section drags, Felicity Jones’ Jyn Erso is a rather weak protagonist, and the CG-revival of Peter Cushing is distracting and misguided. It does feature a fun array of characters and the dark tone is a refreshing change of pace for a franchise that’s always been geared more towards kids than most of us like to admit. Unlike Solo though, this standalone adventure does feel essential to the larger galactic story with an ending that is both moving and unforgettable.
6. Revenge of the Sith
When it comes to the prequel trilogy, this was the story fans had been waiting for. Hayden Christensen gives an improved performance (though his Anakin still leaves one wanting) and gone are most of the political machinations that made the previous two films a drag. The opening rescue of the Chancellor is a quintessential Star Wars adventure, but then the movie does get sluggish until its final hour — but what a final hour it is. Ewan McGregor and Ian McDiarmid shine as Obi-Wan Kenobi and Emperor Palpatine. The showdowns between Anakin and Obi-Wan cross-cut with Yoda and Palpatine is spectacular filmmaking and the fall of the Jedi and Republic is heartbreaking and powerful. Its biggest weaknesses are how much Natalie Portman is sidelined and that Anakin’s turn to the dark side feels clumsy at times. For some, these issues are fatal, but I think Sith mostly makes good on the promise of the prequel trilogy.
5. The Force Awakens
The Force Awakens has very few flaws. It’s a solid story, well-told, and features breakthrough performances from its impressive young cast. One of the reasons it doesn’t have many flaws is because it’s using a flawless blueprint: A New Hope. For some, this is a very big flaw and thus the chief reason it’s not higher on this list. It’s too content playing the hits than charting a new course. Setting that aside though, it’s hard to deny just how much fun the film is. Harrison Ford looks more lively than he has in years, returning to the role of Han Solo. Adam Driver is the anti-hero/villain we all wished Hayden Christensen could have been. And Daisy Ridley’s Rey immediately became one of the most beloved characters in the whole franchise. Rey calling the lightsaber prior to her climactic duel with Kylo Ren will forever be one of the most iconic moments in the whole saga. After all Star Wars had been through post-prequels, it just felt good to have it all back, just the way we remembered it.
4. Return of the Jedi
While the opening 40 minutes, the rescue of Han Solo from Jabba the Hutt, has little effect on the rest of the movie, it still represents one of the best stretches of storytelling in the whole series. The rescue plan doesn’t make much sense, but it’s a whole lot of fun to watch our heroes all work together to thwart Jabba. Luke catching his new, green lightsaber over the Sarlaac Pit is a perfect Star Wars moment. The middle section is a letdown (notwithstanding the speeder bike chase) as we get involved with the Ewoks and we decide to turn the Han/Leia relationship into a trite love triangle. The movie shines again though in the scenes between Luke, Vader, and the Emperor. Technically this is Ian McDiarmid’s first appearance in the series (his hologram in Empire was originally played by a different actor) and he nearly runs away with the whole show. Han’s lack of characterization, another Death Star, and Ewoks are all justifiably frustrating, but Luke and Vader bring the story home and end the trilogy on a powerful note.
3. The Last Jedi
The Force Awakens wanted to remind fans of what Star Wars was — The Last Jedi wanted to show fans what Star Wars could be. Rather than offering comfort food, Rian Johnson deconstructs the Star Wars mythos in order to humanize these characters more than they ever had before. Much ire has been directed at Johnson’s characterization of Luke Skywalker, but when the previous movie isolated him from the rest of the galaxy as millions died (plus Han), what did you expect? Johnson turns this eighth entry into a complicated and powerful character study. What is it like to be the galaxy’s savior, especially once you’ve failed? Johnson’s film is deeply rooted in both characters and ideas. Everything that happens is in the interest of pushing its characters to make bold choices and the results are some of the best moments in the entire saga: Luke’s conversation with Yoda, Rey and Ben Solo teaming up in the throne room, Holdo going to lightspeed through a star destroyer, and Luke reuniting with Leia before facing down the whole First Order. The Last Jedi is both spectacular filmmaking and powerful storytelling — the likes of which we won’t soon find again.
2. A New Hope
In 1977, George Lucas combined his love for Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers, and Akira Kurosawa movies to give audiences something they had never seen before: a grand space opera with a mythology so deeply realized, it felt like it’d always been here. A New Hope is also Hollywood’s greatest example of world-building in how it gives you so much detail without ever getting in the way of its own narrative, which is fairly lean and straightforward. On May 25th 1977, Star Wars changed pop culture and changed Hollywood. Every studio would be chasing its success from that day forward and are still chasing it today. It’s also the only self-contained movie of the nine episode Skywalker saga. If there had never been any sequels, if it had all ended off of Chewbacca’s howl at the medal ceremony, it would have been both bittersweet though perfectly sublime: a never-ending battle far away among the stars — filling our imaginations with heroes, villains, adventure, romance, and legends.
1. The Empire Strikes Back
Empire still reigns supreme, though as of this writing I think A New Hope may actually be my personal favorite. Rather than just trying to do A New Hope all over again (but bigger), Empire takes the opportunity to deepen its characters and push them to their limits. The result is what has long been considered the ultimate sequel, and surpasses the original in many respects. Empire gives us the best version of Darth Vader, the best romance of any blockbuster, Yoda, the best lightsaber duel in the series, the most iconic movie twist of all-time, some of the most iconic dialogue of all-time, and the best of John Williams’ original music across the series. Empire does all that A New Hope does but somehow finds ways of doing it better — which is saying a lot since A New Hope is about as perfect as a movie gets. It’s not as joyful or fun as its predecessor, but it’s soulful and powerful. Reminds me a lot of a certain Rian Johnson movie that I know.