How do all the Star Wars movies rank out now that we’ve seen ‘The Last Jedi?’
Ranking the Star Wars films goes a lot easier than you think.
There’s a clear line that divides George Lucas’ original trilogy from his prequels, and the Kathleen Kennedy-led revival has plotted its own spots in the lineage.
Lists are a dime a dozen, but few rankings are made with as much aplomb and passion as that of the big space opera. So, without further ado, the rankings, from one humble Star Wars fan…
9. Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace
Tasked with the gargantuan honor of following the most revered film trilogy of all time, The Phantom Menace makes its contributions to the sage in parcels. The pod races on Tatooine, and the Duel of the Fates final hanger battle with Darth Maul, stand as raucous, iconic set pieces whose absences would make the sage feel incomplete (well, it’s never going to be really complete, but that’s capitalism’s fault). For every Qui-Gon Jinn and spellbinding John Williams cue, there’s a Jar Jar Binks and a Battle Droid. Detractors of The Phantom Menace typically send that poor gungan doofus to the gallows as the film’s great flaw, but the problems lie far deeper. George Lucas’ desire to de-mystify the Force as a quantifiable element that can be measured by science, and his baffling decision to devote chunks of screen time to discussions of trade federation law, stand as a far-more grievous offense than googly-moogly the Happy Meal filler (you just know Jar Jar was created by a panel of business experts, a la Poochie – he’s edgy, he’s in your face. He trips over things, and refers to himself as mee-sa. You’ve heard the expression, let’s get biz-zay? Well, this is a gungan who gets biz-zay!). The Phantom Menace ‘twas the movie that launched a thousand restaurant tie-ins, after all. More people generally like this one more than Attack of the Clones because this movie’s highs are much higher. But, when it gets low, you nearly succumb to the Dark Side yourself. Nostalgia can’t stop the Trade Federation.
8. Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones
Few have picked up on what Lucas was really trying to accomplish with these prequel films. He’s a student of old Hollywood, and you can tell that these films were his attempt to hearken back to the melodrama that defined the era – the overacting, lovelorn tragedy, the swelling music. Lucas was trying so hard to be DeMille, and no film captured that quite like this one did. It’s quite fascinating it’s his films in the 70s and 80s that use more dramatic restraint. Attack of the Clones gets knocked for its anonymous sets and Hayden Christensen’s discount James Dean take on Anakin Skywalker (but, honestly, not even Dean or Marlon Brando could have delivered that sand line coherently – the dialogue is what’s course, and gets everywhere, IMO). But, Attack is better than most remember. It’s got a narrative cohesion Phantom couldn’t dream of having. Anakin’s end-of-innocence arch is the most devastating material in the prequels, and for all that Revenge of the Sith does well, there might not be as bittersweet a moment as the doomed wedding finale that foretells the beginning of the end. It’s not flashy like Phantom or as devastating as Revenge, but if you’re willing to look past some of Lucas’ putrid dialogue, Attack’s the closest Lucas got to fulfilling his desire to make an old Hollywood epic.
7. Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith
The prequel everyone can seem to agree on, Revenge of the Sith doesn’t have to do much to be the best of its lot. It’s got the fiery darkness the first two built up to, and Ian McDiarmid gets the chance to chew his scenery with a renewed vigor after patiently waiting more than twenty years to flex his dramatic chops as Palpatine. Christiansen settles in easier to the calamity of Revenge than he did the quiet of Attack, and one can’t discuss these films without talking about how reliable Ewan McGregor is. His Obi-Wan might be the best thing to come out of these films, a delicate read on what Alec Guiness did with the character all those years ago. Lucas wisely stands to the side here and lets the bantha fodder hit the fan, and when it finally does, Revenge sets out on a warpath to its lava-duel finale. The Mustafar fight between Anakin and Obi-Wan is the clip of the prequels, and the best cataclysm of acting, writing, directing and craft Lucas managed to mount. It’s the prequel film that least gets in its own way, earning it de-facto honors as the best of the lot.
6. Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi
The original trilogy is sacred text, man. Even with the Ewoks, Return of the Jedi still packs quite a wallop for a film that had to follow The Greatest Star Wars Film Of All Time ™. The opening set piece at Jabba’s Palace feels like its own film entirely, a stretch that’s both delightfully weird and a little problematic (the slave Leah costume is still the worst thing to come out of Star Wars). But, after leaving the Hutt’s, the film does its darndest to get us to Luke and Vader’s final confrontation, and all the material with them is a doosey, and relentlessly satisfying as the main crux of drama. The Ewoks are fine (if you’ll recall, they nearly eat the main cast, so you know they aren’t playing around), though one kind of longs for a Star Wars film that didn’t feel the need to bang out its grand finale in a literal forest. Return of the Jedi is easy to nitpick, but its best qualities are simply that it’s got the aura of an original trilogy film. That in and of itself self-corrects a lot of the errors.
5. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
You could cheat and call Rogue One the best prequel, because it totally is the most cinematic and story-satisfying film to be set before A New Hope. Gareth Edwards’ booming war story about the band of Rebels that stole the Death Star plans is the only Star Wars film without a lightsaber and a future. These are the grunts, the guys whose ships blow up in the background of the big space battle while Luke flies in to save the day. It’s rather stirring to watch the bricks of the Rebellion be laid, and see, outside of the Skywalker story, why taking down the Empire meant so much to all who toiled on the front lines. The film is up-and-down with how it tries to connect to the past (Darth Vader scenes, thumbs up, CGI Tarkin, thumbs down), but it’s the ways that it charts its own course with its own characters, and its own cries for hope, that give it the gravity it needed to diversity itself from the saga legacy.
4. Star Wars: The Force Awakens
The Force Awakens is an exercise in love and comfort. J.J. Abrams’ jumpstart into the new era of Star Wars films greets with the warmest embrace, even though, in retrospect, the film could have found more ways to stretch its limits past what it probably thought was possible. Don’t get me wrong – being comfortable in a Star Wars movie beats most things, and the selfish part of you wouldn’t mind if every film was like this from here on out. And, no film in this new iteration had more weight on it to “get it right” than Force Awakens did, so there’s something endlessly admirable for what it was able to pull off. The new characters and rousing “big moments” cover up a lot of the narrative sameness, and it’s hard to imagine this film could have been more appropriately-cast with Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Adam Driver and Oscar Isaac in tow. The Force Awakens loves the original trilogy so much it’s sometimes a little afraid to leave its side, but for what it needed, and continues, to accomplish, it’s a hard movie to really poke holes in, even if they’re evidently there.
3. Star Wars: The Last Jedi
The first time you watch Star Wars: The Last Jedi won’t be the best time you watch it. It’s got jarring twists, periods of patience that build up to something bombastic, and not enough time to really get what you were expecting to get out of it by film’s end. Saga diehards will need more time with this one than general film fans, because, by in large, this is a spectacular sci-fi adventure that takes glee in plowing through what’s expected of it. Rian Johnson is the best director to work on one of these films since Irvin Kershner, and it’s an “outsider’s voice” that has helped Star Wars evolve into more than what it ever could have been by maintaining status quo. The Last Jedi will age with grace, and will get better with repeated viewings, which makes it the Empire of its trilogy. Not because it’s “the dark one,” but because it’s willing to play with conventions and take characters in directions you didn’t see coming. This one might not end up being your favorite of the new films, but it’s certainly the best.
2. Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope
The one that started it all, A New Hope (or, as it was known at the time, Star Wars), set a standard and a tone that will forever be imitated, and very rarely replicated. After nine of these films, sometimes you get lost in how exact and special it was that George Lucas found with Star Wars what he did. It’s a mysterious, immersive experience, with instantly-known characters, an astounding ability to show enough and tell enough to provide a full story and just a killer sense of self. It’s not as emotionally rich or risky as The Empire Strikes Back (or, quite frankly, The Last Jedi), but it set the stage. It’s a bona fide classic of cinema, and is the reason we’re all here, ranking these movies.
1. Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back
The Empire Strikes Back is the best Star Wars film because it took a cultural moment and redefined what it could mean. Where Star Wars was spirited, hopeful and fleet-footed, Empire was dark, moody and required patience with its unexpected and shocking narrative decisions. The last point part of what made The Last Jedi so great, but the dark and moody material is solely Empire’s to champion. It’s not a happy movie, but it’s a monumental achievement for the series in its gripping set pieces, the fact that it’s the Yoda movie, and it’s knock-your-socks off reveal that Vader is Luke’s pops. Can you imagine having that revealed to you in a theater for the first time? This is also the standard-bearer for what sequels can be, and it just a huge movie in terms of what movies are, and how they’re made. Everyone wants to make the next Empire. What a testament to what this movie is, and what is accomplishes.
So, where do these space motion pictures rank in your mind? Shout ‘em out below in the comments.