With the recent selling of Star Wars to Disney, we Star Wars fans know what we’re all about to get: Star Wars up the ass. A few weeks ago, the first movie is a series of canonical spinoffs, Rogue One, appeared. Last year we received The Force Awakens, the first in a line of direct sequels, and still before that, an animated series called Star Wars Rebels began a run on The Disney Channel.
Naturally, that gets one wondering what the best and worst Star Wars movies are, especially if they’re one of the few who have somehow managed to avoid exposure to Star Wars. Well, being a major league Star Wars nerd myself, I started asking myself that very question as well. If every Star Wars movie was to be ranked, what would be the best one? What would be the worst? How would everything look in between? So I sat down and thought, and this was the list that eventually popped up. Before getting to the list, here are a couple of things to remember: First, these are movies only. To qualify, they have to have made a run in theaters. That means anything shown only on television doesn’t count – not the original Clone Wars movie or the Holiday Special. Second, the pilot episode of The Clone Wars TV show DID visit the theaters, so it counts.
9: The Phantom Menace (Episode I)
Yeah. You already knew what this one was going to be, didn’t you? Even in a media universe as expansive as Star Wars which has so many differing opinions about what is and isn’t worth your time, hatred of The Phantom Menace is something that’s as universal as returning to The Force.
If you were a newcomer to the Star Wars universe watching this and then asking hardcore fans their opinions, a lot of them would be pretty Star Warian: The whole Midichlorian issue, the apparent virgin birth of Anakin Skywalker, the fact that Anakin was now the creator of C-3PO, and a few other things tend to rub fans the wrong way. But you would also notice that there are a few hallmarks of filmmaking which is just bad: Jar-Jar Binks might be the face of everything wrong with The Phantom Menace, but he’s not the only problem. A lot of character development is just off. We got nothing about Darth Maul – although he proves to be one of the most badass characters of the EU, he’s just a figurine-pusher in the movie that introduced him. Anakin himself – the boy who would become Darth Vader – isn’t evil enough to hit back a cheater in the pod race. The space shootout at the end seems composed of bridge shots, and it’s pretty disgusting that Anakin destroys the space station by accident.
I’m one of the few people who doesn’t completely decry The Phantom Menace. It does have a few redeeming values. I always thought Qui-Gon Jinn was one of Star Wars’s most underrated characters, the final action sequence is great, and even Episode I’s loudest detractors think highly of the pod race and lightsaber duel. But the movie does keep getting bogged down in things that it’s not. Ultimately, there are a number of problems that glare brighter than Darth Maul’s lightsaber. The first is that despite the Clone Wars and the friendship between Obi-Wan and Anakin being noodle incidents, George Lucas focuses more on bringing the Star Wars universe full circle when he really should have been concentrating on telling the story of a friendship blossoming and going bad. The second is that with The Phantom Menace, Star Wars forgets its identity and tries to be a kids’ version of Star Trek. Jar-Jar is another figurine-pusher, no one wants to see a kid Anakin when they dreamed of being Han Solo while growing up, and The Phantom Menace gets bogged down in politics. Politics doesn’t work for Star Wars, which has always been a classic good against evil tale.
8: The Clone Wars
The Clone Wars were first mentioned in the very first Star Wars movie, A New Hope. They were a noodle incident: They were mentioned and implied to be something huge, but otherwise left to the imagination. We knew two things about the Clone Wars from there: First, there were clones. Second, they were wars. No need to be descriptive. Then the Prequel Trilogy came along, and for a set of movies that delves into the Star Wars backstory, we didn’t actually get to see a whole lot of them.
Since Star Wars has always been a classic tale about the battle between good and evil, it usually shows us its best when the two sides are duking it out in the traditional fashion. That’s what The Clone Wars is, and holy hell, what a spectacle. The Clone Wars is bare-boned, straight-laced action rushing at you in a form video game designers from the 16-bit Golden Era would have appreciated. A fan of a well-done action movie will love every waking moment of it, and there are plenty of blasters, lightsabers, duels, and all that other great jazz we know from action movies. Taken as that, The Clone Wars is pretty fucking awesome. It lets us view the spectacle of the legendary conflict right up front, starts giving out details of why Anakin Skywalker was the great pilot and warrior Obi-Wan first described in the original, and introduces us to Ahsoka Tano, one of the greatest characters in the Star Wars universe for my money.
The reason it ranks so low is because it barely feels like a Star Wars movie. Aside from the lightsabers, there are almost no hallmarks of Star Wars anywhere to be found, and so a movie nut who has never seen anything Star Wars (a stretch, I know, but bear with me) would never figure out just from watching The Clone Wars why it is that Star Wars stands out. Lest that be written off as the ranting of an outsider, there are a few things in The Clone Wars to piss off Star Wars fans too: The Jedi are working for the Hutts? How many Sith are there anyway, and where do they keep coming from? Padme was almost certainly shoehorned in, the twists are clearly in the movie to extend the running time, and I’m not sure many fans are all that interested in more of Jabba’s relatives. But this movie was the pilot to an animated TV series – yes, even though it was a feature film – and what it blossomed into was incredible. The TV series showed us the full potential of what The Prequel Trilogy should have been drawing out, the conflict and the friendship between Obi-Wan and Anakin.
7: Return of the Jedi (Episode VI)
Few fandoms are weirder about their fandom than Star Wars. For everything Star Wars envelopes, there are still legions of fans who proclaim that true Star Wars consists solely of A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back and The Clone Wars TV series. Vaunted though The Original Trilogy may be, there’s a surprising mass of fans who hate – and some who even refuse to accept – Return of the Jedi. Yeah, it can be tough to take Star Wars fans seriously when they refuse to defend the entire trilogy that started everything.
It’s confusing, but Jedi was written to be the grand finale of what was back then expected to be the only Star Wars media that ever existed. George Lucas and director Richard Marquand wanted Jedi to be a testament to finality, and holy shit did they deliver. Episode VI is littered with some of the biggest and grandest sequences the whole series has to offer: The revelation about Luke and Leia’s relationship, the speeder bike chase on Endor, the death of Yoda, the Sarlacc Pit, Luke fighting the Rancor Monster, Darth Vader’s return to the light, Wedge and Lando navigating the tight innards of the Death Star in a race to its core, and a Rebel Alliance pilot guiding his terminally damaged starfighter in a kamikaze attack against the Executor. There’s plenty here that screams out for attention, but despite so many scenes that carry heft, there seem to be only two things scenes that people remember: Anakin coming to the rescue of Electroshock Luke and Leia’s official and permanent embossing as a teenage fantasy.
There’s good reason for that, too: Jedi’s structure was a clear rush job. The movie’s entirety goes like this: Jabba the Hutt’s palace, Dagobah, Rebel meeting, Battle of Endor. The Dagobah and Rebel meeting parts run a collective total of about 20 minutes. So what we’re left with is Tatooine and Endor sequences bookending 20 minutes of blah. It was like George Lucas was in a hurry to finish up Jedi so he could get to his other landscape-altering projects like Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and, ah… Willow and, er… Howard the Duck… It’s a blatant example of trying to put style over substance, at least in terms of the story. As if that wasn’t offensive enough, Return of the Jedi also marks the spot where Lucas came to fully realize the marketing potential of his onetime sci-fi serial pet project. Gold Bikini Leia? That was done to appease the crowd adolescents. The Ewoks were there to sell to the kids. To really drive the kid angle in, an animated TV show was later created about the Ewoks. When Jar Jar jumped to the small screen, he did so as an important but bit player on The Clone Wars, not as some Alf clone wannabe.
6: Attack of the Clones (Episode II)
After The Phantom Menace hit audiences with a loud thud, George Lucas started making a push to bring Star Wars back in The Original Trilogy’s direction. Attack of the Clones doesn’t miss what his goal was, but it doesn’t quite hit it, either. It may be the best movie in the series as far as pure action movies go – at least the live-action movies and exempting The Clone Wars, anyway – and it brings the series back in the proper Star Warian direction it had to return to after The Phantom Menace’s bad reception.
Attack of the Clones is good at holding your attention. Unfathomable action scenes are sprinkled everywhere, Christopher Lee gets to play the villain, Yoda finally goes into combat himself and shows us why he’s the ultimate Jedi Master, and Jango Fett gets to be the badass everyone thinks of Boba Fett as. At the same time, it starts to plant the seeds of the Star Wars universe of The Original Trilogy, right down to the Death Star. As with Return of the Jedi, Lucas seems to be taking the big-scene-of-impact approach. The difference is that the statement scenes don’t seem to contain as much heft. It’s also in Attack of the Clones that we start to see the dark side of Anakin Skywalker. He comes out in an arrogant and angry fury, especially in a scene where he slaughters a group of Tusken Raiders.
And then there’s that damn love story. Because of course there is. The story between Anakin and Padme is pretty trite and cliched – it ranks in the wretched annals of love stories right along with Romeo and Juliet. It slows the movie down, makes no fucking sense, and has water/oil chemistry. And the delivery of Hayden Christensen, who plays Anakin, doesn’t help matters. Now, this is just the delivery I’m talking about. In every other respect, Christensen actually does a great job portraying Anakin. He has a sense of regret, sadness, and anger which drives Anakin into doing a lot of things a proper Jedi wouldn’t do, and it’s through his array of gestures, unsure postures, and facial expressions that Christensen gives a performance which is actually very effective. Acting is about much more than line delivery. Unfortunately, line delivery is often the most noticeable part of a performance, and Christensen is so bad at that part that it overwhelms a lot of the other aspects of his performance. It’s almost as if Christensen himself can’t believe the load of shit he’s being told to recite. But he doesn’t deserve all the blame for it. Do you honestly believe that even Marlon Brando could have ever rescued the atrocity that was Anakin’s sand monologue?
5: A New Hope (Episode IV) (AKA Star Wars)
And lo, we have it – the phenomenon that started it all. The original Star Wars movie that came out in 1977, Hope was expected to be nothing more than a quick cash-in B-movie. It was supposed to run a familiar trajectory: Plop it into all the theaters, let it make a few million bucks for the local studio, then put it on this new thing called a VCR while it dissipated in the backwoods, forgotten by all but the biggest bad movie nuts. No one was expecting Oscar nominations, let alone Oscars. No one was expecting Star Wars to break every box office gross intake record known to man. No one was expecting a massive multimedia empire with stories in a fictional universe that dated thousands of years. And no one was expecting Star Wars to be influencing movies and filmmakers 40 years after the fact; even the great hit movie of 2014, Guardians of the Galaxy, was a clear nod to Star Wars.
Being the first of a long running series, you know what that means: Early-installment weirdness! Except in the case of Hope, there’s not as much of that as you would probably think. A lot of the regular Star Wars Easter eggs are in there. Lightsabers, The Force, the Millennium Falcon, hyperspace jumps, Star Destroyers, the grandiose score of John Williams, X-Wing and TIE Fighters, Stormtrooper aim, and all those other things. The installment weirdness is less in retcon than in simple tone – the dramatic heft of most of the other movies is notably absent in Episode IV. Luke’s aspirations of Jedi-dom are a quick vocal McGuffin; he’s more interested in getting off Tatooine. The original lightsaber duel happens between Obi-Wan and Darth Vader; it’s clearly shoehorned in so a couple of earlier scenes featuring the lightsaber have some sort of significance.
There’s not a whole lot to hate on here. Hope is two hours of condensed fun and awesomeness which is as joyful as an adult as it was as a kid. The problem comes when you go back and watch it, and it sinks in just how many of the lines in it no longer make any sense. George Lucas himself clearly had no idea of what Star Wars would become, and his attempts to retcon it in the ensuing two movies were just clunky. (See, he was doing it back then too.) Darth Vader wasn’t originally Luke’s Father – in Star Wars, he’s described as a former student of Obi-Wan’s who murdered Luke’s father. Although Lucas finally got around to explaining it in Jedi, it was given a single-line throwaway so hasty that it pretty much pegged Obi-Wan as a puppet master. Luke and Leia’s relationship comes out of nowhere, and Obi-Wan and Darth Vader seem rather benign toward each other after what they went through. (Well, okay, there was 20 years since their last meeting, but still…) Did I say early-installment weirdness? Yes, I did, a couple of times. And this can’t be said enough: HAN SHOT FIRST!
4: Revenge of the Sith (Episode III)
Here’s the end of The Prequel Trilogy, where Darth Vader makes his transformation into Darth Vader. It doesn’t happen the way The Original Trilogy would have had us believe, where the cool suit is part of the identity and went with everything, and I think that may be something that a lot of fans are upset with. But I think one of the big parts of the issue fans often take with Revenge is that, once again, they were expecting something that was quite different from what was actually shown.
George Lucas did a lot of things right with Revenge that Menace and Attack got wrong, and one of those things was placing the full circle of The Original Trilogy on the backburner while focusing on telling the story. This is where Anakin’s fall into the Dark Side finally happens – and it’s pretty anticlimactic. Remember Obi-Wan in A New Hope telling Luke that Vader was seduced and tempted by the Dark Side? Well, Revenge of the Sith shows us that it’s more like he was tricked into joining it out of his love for Padme, whose health he was fearing for. More to the point is that it’s presented in such a way that we don’t really blame him for doing it, either; Palpatine offered Anakin a real way to cure her while the Jedi sat on their worthless asses and told him to not do anything. (In the EU, we learn that the story Palpatine tells Anakin about the Sith Lord who found a way to live forever was true.) From there, we have to wonder if there was any sense of nuance from Anakin – he goes from wanting to save his wife to greasing a group of little kids in nothing flat.
Revenge is Palpatine’s great show more than anything. The slimy, two-sided power monger is the standout star, and Ian McDiarmid has the time of his life playing him. The movie gives a full display of exactly how powerful Palpatine is and why the people in the Star Wars universe fear him. The way he gradually slides himself into greater evil and power is something McDiarmid portrays with such mastery that it’s worth it just to watch Revenge for him alone. This is a character so powerful that when four Jedi Masters are sent to arrest him, he quickly slaughters three of them in no time, and the fourth is Mace Windu, the greatest lightsaber master in the galaxy. He manipulates the entire senate into consolidating its power and giving him absolute control and no one thinks twice. He lies to his personal pet project – Darth Vader – about how Padme dies so Vader completely loses it. He fights Yoda so hard that Yoda gives up. (And yes, Yoda just plain fucking gives up in that lightsaber duel.) In the meantime, Obi-Wan and Anakin give us one of the greatest scenes in all of Star Wars. The only thing that drives me crazy about Revenge – besides Vader’s big “NOOO!!!!!” – is Padme’s death: She “gives up” while her damned kids are being born? Wouldn’t having her kids turn her into a stronger, more resolved Mama Bear? What the fuck, George? That’s even worse than the virgin birth of Anakin!
3: The Force Awakens (Episode VII)
Remember all the lines in A New Hope – and, hell, the entire Original Trilogy in general – that don’t make any sense in hindsight? The Force Awakens is that ridiculously expansive – and expensive – Youtube video that goes back and corrects all of them. At the same time, it also serves as Hope’s gritty reboot and the remake millennials pissed off with The Prequel Trilogy didn’t realize they wanted until it came out. Director JJ Abrams doesn’t do anything to hide it, either. Even Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, and Mark Hamill were tapped to show up and say, “Hey, look! Star Wars is gonna be good again real soon!”
Despite the blatant tributes, though, there was also more than enough inside The Force Awakens to bring back the old Star Wars magic that captured imaginations in the 70’s and 80’s. It was pretty cool that one of the main characters, Finn, was a reformed Stormtrooper. Rey is a great character too, and the way she spends the movie slowing learning and growing in the ways of The Force is a good way to show the kind of person she is and the kind of character she can grow to be. Of course, those are also callbacks to Episode IV – Rey, like Luke, spent the movie trying to learn and use The Force, and the way she comes out using it is more overt than what we saw at the end of Hope. The reformed Stormtrooper angle of Finn is a way of redoing Han Solo, the reformed smuggler. And I know I’m not the only one wondering about the issue of Luke’s old lightsaber. The plot revolves around the old blue-bladed lightsaber Obi-Wan gave Luke in Hope and which Luke himself finally wielded in The Empire Strikes Back; you know, the very same lightsaber last seen taking a swan dive to the bottom of Cloud City’s repulsorlift shaft with Luke’s severed hand still attached. It would explain Luke’s look at the end of the movie. He’s thinking, Who in the name of The Force went to pick THAT up?!
All in all, though, The Force Awakens cured the collective cynicism and doubts of Star Wars fans left disenchanted by The Prequel Trilogy. After three movies which were drowning in computer effects that are starting to look dated, Episode VII brought us a return to a Star Wars defined by characters we don’t have a whole lot of trouble thinking up general descriptions for. It gave us back the special effects and classic action of The Original Trilogy, brought back a lot of our favorite old characters to show us that our opinions were heard, and basically showed us that Star Wars can still have plenty of life left in movie form after all. I’m sure there were several Star Wars fans who walked out of every movie in The Prequel Trilogy wondering if the problem was on them, and that Star Wars had lost its magic because they were now grown up and critical. The Force Awakens showed us that that wasn’t the case after all. The problem with The Prequel Trilogy really was the movies themselves. And Disney and JJ Abrams took Star Wars and said, “We know you love Star Wars, and you don’t have to worry about it anymore. We got this.”
2: The Empire Strikes Back (Episode V)
The second movie from The Original Trilogy, Empire was the movie that raised the bar on the series. It still stands tall today as the movie that every other Star Wars movie is judged against. More to the point, Empire is the movie in which Star Wars truly became STAR WARS. The universe hinted at in Hope was fully realized, and a lot of the series’s mythos that we know and often take for granted was first introduced in The Empire Strikes Back.
Remember how we all assumed Darth Vader was the supreme universal bad guy after seeing Hope? Empire was the movie that showed us that he himself had to answer to Emperor Palpatine. Remember how Obi-Wan told Luke all about his Father, the best fighter pilot in the galaxy, a cunning warrior, and a good friend? Empire brought on the plot twist that Luke’s Pop wasn’t dead at all, that he was the one who fell to the Dark Side and became Darth Vader, and that turned into a million terrible plot twists in a million bad movies afterward. It developed the love story between Han and Leia and introduced Yoda and the Force Ghost of Obi-Wan. Lando was seen for the first time, and we got the true scope of how dangerous the Galactic Empire really was and how The Force could really be used in the hands of a capable user. Most importantly, it was Empire that went out of its way to bring the characters to the front and center in an effort for us to better KNOW them and understand them. What we saw in every piece of Star Wars-related media from here on out was based on character traits from Episode V.
While Empire revolves around Luke’s quest to become a Jedi while Han and Leia search for safety from the pursuant Empire, this movie is Darth Vader’s show. Think about it: What did Darth Vader DO in Hope that was so bad besides kill Obi-Wan? You could build a good argument that Grand Moff Tarkin was the true villain – Vader answered to him, and he was the one who ordered the demolition of Alderaan. But in Empire, it’s Vader who takes out Echo Base, invades Cloud City, chokes two of his Admirals to death, carbon-freezes Han Solo, and nearly kills Luke. And don’t forget, he’s still taking orders from Palpatine. It’s because of Vader’s coming out that Empire takes a more operatic tone than Hope. It plays out like a tragedy, and by the time it ends, the only good thing about what the Rebels just went through is that they’re still alive after it all. It’s an incredible testament to Empire’s staying power that it still holds up among the fans as the highest-regarded Star Wars movie, but once more, I have a wild disagreement with the general consensus…
1: Rogue One
The fact that Rogue One is the newest Star Wars movie doesn’t detract from its quality. I take nothing away from the other movies in the series, but there’s a new champion. Yes, Rogue One is an unusual feat among Star Wars movies. Whereas the other movies in the series essentially centered around the bad mojo of the damned Skywalker family, Rogue One is the movie that gets us to wonder about the scale of a full-fledged rebellion and what the sentient cost of it would really be. We’re looking at a war movie set in space, among characters who are somewhat aware of their roles as cannon fodder.
You remember the opening crawl from A New Hope? About Rebels striking from a hidden base stealing plans to the Death Star? Rogue One is about that battle. The buildup to that battle, though, provides some nuance to the Rebel Alliance and Galactic Empire that much of the Star Wars series has been lacking. The Rebels in Rogue One are frequently prone to use techniques which would be condemned if the Empire tried them. There’s an entire scene late in the movie where the Rebels argue about whether or not trying to keep going with their fight would be worth it if the Empire to build something as powerful as the Death Star. Many of the battles are sudden and random and make it difficult to tell who’s on what side, alliances among characters are formed at random and very shaky until loyalties are proven, and the bad guy isn’t a face of traditional Star Warian evil. The main villain is Grand Moff Tarkin, our old pal that got himself blew up with the Death Star in Episode IV and was never seen again. Tarkin has always been a representative of more bureaucratic evil than the more light and dark forms of it, and it makes him a downright chilling villain. So no, this isn’t a typical Star Wars movie.
What Rogue One does do is successfully give us the trench viewpoint. Few standards from the other movies are mentioned at all. Darth Vader makes only a short cameo. But where Rogue One succeeds is placing us on the ground with the Rebels who fight even knowing their time is going to come. The AT-AT walkers from The Empire Strikes Back return in this movie, and the look like the giant monstrosities they were supposed to be. Darth Vader’s cameo is short, but he takes on his original role as a menacing terror who cuts through a swath of Rebel Alliance soldiers with ruthless efficiency and immunity; Vader is finally faceless again. The Rebel Alliance, as Rogue One points out, is built on nothing but hope. Throw that mix in with an in-your-face final space battle which sets up the famous opening scene in Episode IV (and includes a spectacular scene of two Star Destroyers smashing into each other), an explanation for why the Death Star had that silly weakness at all, a very funny reformed battle droid played by Firefly’s Alan Tudyk, and an array of well-developed characters, and Disney has delivered on its ultimate promise: Star Wars is back. Surely anyone who remembers falling in love with The Original Trilogy at an early age remembers how overcome they were with the incredible scope of it all. Then we got older, started tacking adult meanings to everything, and were pissed off at various points with subsequent Star Wars media, and that original magic was lost even among the best Star Wars stories. But I never forgot four-year-old me and the way he felt watching Episode IV. And I’ll never forget how, seeing Rogue One for the first time, the surrounding world dropped out of sight and, for two and a half hours, I was that four-year-old watching Star Wars for the first time once again.