Star Wars has been one of the biggest cultural forces in Hollywood for the last four decades. Coming from an unassuming little serial that George Lucas directed in 1977, we’re now right at the “end” of the saga with the series’ ninth official installment: The Rise of Skywalker. Because of how wildly imaginative and unique the original trilogy was in its day, people have grown up expecting every film to be just as magical.
I don’t have to tell you how that’s gone. We still hear people raging on about how the prequels suck, Disney is ruining the franchise, and that Star Wars should be given to the fans. It’s an endless parade of the same nonsense that happens with each new entry of the films. It just happened to be amplified the last few years since Disney had to release one on a yearly basis.
Still, we’re not here to bitch and moan about how fans hate the very thing they claim to love. We’re here to rank the films once and for all. No ifs, ands, or buts about it. This is the definitive ranking of all the major theatrical Star Wars films released by Lucasfilms and Disney. Whether you agree with it or not doesn’t matter: this is the objective truth!
Spoiler Alert: The Last Jedi is better than half of the series. Let’s get into it!
10: Attack of the Clones
Without a doubt, Episode 2: Attack of the Clones is the worst film in the series. Featuring terrible dialogue, shoddy action scenes, a waste of the wonderful Christopher Lee, and some badly aged CGI effects, this film doesn’t have much of anything going for it. I suppose Ewan McGregor’s turn as Obi-wan Kenobi is pretty good (so good that he was featured in the recent game and will be getting his own mini-series) and you can’t knock Samuel L. Jackson as Mace Windu: those two things don’t turn the film around.
The biggest problem with the first two prequel films is that they feel completely disconnected from the greater Star Wars narrative. We’re supposed to be learning about how Anakin fell to the Dark Side of the Force, but both Episode 1 and 2 don’t explain that well. It’s mostly generic summer action with a dash of inept acting and dialogue to pad out the length.
I’d normally say Phantom Menace is lower, but that at least gave us a few good moments. Speaking of which…
9: The Phantom Menace
At the time of its release, The Phantom Menace featured impressive special effects and brought the Star Wars series out of a 16-year hibernation. While the “Special Edition” re-releases preceded this, those were more a celebration of what made the franchise good. This was a continuation of it that explained the backstory of everyone’s favorite villain…just after all of the talk about trade negotiations…and the introduction of a miserable sidekick character…and a lot of filler.
The main issue with Episode 1 is that George Lucas decided to wind the clock back too far. It wouldn’t make sense for Anakin to join the Jedi Order as a teenager, I agree, but taking place 10 years before Attack of the Clones leaves too much of a gap for this film to do anything significant. We see Anakin get off of Tatooine, fly a ship, and hit on a girl that’s like six years older than him?
This isn’t even addressing how Lucas couldn’t simply let the force be a supernatural power, but had to give it a scientific explanation. The plot holes introduced by this film make you question what the hell was going on in the original trilogy, but not in a good way. It’s more of a “why did Lucas have to fuck with this?” kind of thing and that’s never good.
At least the Pod Race and the Darth Maul lightsaber battle are really good (the best action scenes in the series up to that point).
There really isn’t a whole lot to say about Solo. It’s just an average as hell film. Parts of it are pretty good (the first 40 minutes are really solid), but when the film attempts to pay lip service to the original movies, it falls completely flat. Basically every little thing Han Solo said in A New Hope gets referenced in some fashion. We see the Parsec run, the card game where Han won his ship, how he met Chewbacca, how he got his last name, which is ridiculously stupid too.
The attempt at a romance with Emilia Clarke’s Qi’Ra also rings completely hollow since she’s never referenced again. I understand that’s a major fault with prequel movies (of which Star Wars’ own prequels suffer), but it really doesn’t stick the landing in Solo. I guess Han cared so much about her, he just never mentioned her to anyone.
There’s also the retconning of Han’s piloting abilities as the Millennium Falcon having a super droids AI in it, which robs the character of one of his special traits. Or how Han acts completely unlike his original trilogy self, almost as if he were an independent character that quickly had the Han name thrust on him in a rewrite.
It’s a very sloppy movie that gives us moments of genuine fun when it stops trying to be a Star Wars prequel. It’s a real shame too because Ron Howard did a decent job with the crappy material he was given.
7: Rogue One
Speaking about paying too much lip service to the originals…Why is it that The Last Jedi was the experimental entry in the series when the spin-offs adhered too much on the original trilogy template? Rogue One may offer different perspectives on the Star Wars universe, but this is a movie that takes place at the very beginning of A New Hope. We even get a surprise appearance from C3P0 and R2-D2 for no reason other than to appease fans.
The main thing holding Rogue One back isn’t even its predetermined ending of everyone dying. No, it’s mainly that all of the characters are given basically zero development throughout the film. Main lady Jyn Erso goes from being a maverick to a leader, but she remains reserved throughout. Cassian Andor is only memorable because he’s now getting a mini-series, not for anything he did in the film. Even the droid, K-2S0, doesn’t contribute much to the film. This is a very slapdash project that exists to retcon that one bit of info from A New Hope that seemed kind of dumb (why did they leave a hole in the Death Star?).
It’s not a bad time, but it honestly never reaches the heights it could have. This could have been a dour, depressing film about facing inevitably and giving your life for the cause. Instead, it’s just another popcorn action flick that adds nothing to the mythos or world of Star Wars.
6: Return of the Jedi
OH MY GOD! An original trilogy film in the bottom five?! Whether you agree with it or not, Return of the Jedi is the weakest of the original films. It’s also not that impressive of an ending to the main trilogy, changing details in the 11th hour that result in conflicts with its predecessors. You can’t blame George Lucas for not having a concrete ending in mind when making Star Wars. What he did was completely unprecedented in the 70s and 80s, so why would he even plan out three films?
What you can blame is Lucas rejecting story directions from co-writer Lawrence Kasdan and co-star Harrison Ford. The two of them painted a much darker final chapter that paid homage to the spaghetti westerns that Star Wars took most of its inspiration from. Lucas became fixated on toy sales and wanted to end everything on a happy note so he could sell merchandise.
He obviously won and the franchise blew up into the cultural force it is today. Still, watching this as an adult, Return of the Jedi is just honestly not that good. Its first act feels separated from the rest of the film, its middle is bloated and full of filler, and the transformation of Luke from an unsure Jedi into a complete badass happens way too quickly. There’s no real thrust behind anything.
That said, I do enjoy seeing Vader come back to the light. That is a nice touch.
5: Revenge of the Sith
WHAT?! A prequel film in the top five?! Surprising, isn’t it? Lucas may have botched the execution of Episode 1 and 2, but 3 manages to craft a film that feels suitably like Star Wars. It’s got a ton of forward momentum, solid action, intimate personal moments between Anakin and Padme, and it even expands the mythos of the series a bit. This is a pretty solid film.
It’s not perfect, though. There’s still some hokey acting and Yoda’s shtick wears really thin –that backward speech thing is taken to the extreme in the prequels–, but the majority of this film is good entertainment. Characters get killed off, the stakes are raised accordingly, and we get some proper motivation for Anakin to turn Dark. It’s like an honest to god well thought out script.
It’s awesome in concept, but there are just some sour moments that stop it from being truly great. That kind of leads into the next film…
4: The Last Jedi
This might actually be the most controversial film on the list. The general discourse on the internet is that people either love or hate Rian Johnson’s middle entry in the sequel trilogy. This is one of the greatest films of our generation or a complete travesty to the work Lucas started. I happen to fall somewhere in the middle of it.
I like a lot of aspects of The Last Jedi. It’s got excellent performances, stunningly framed cinematography, really good lightsaber battles (especially the Throne Room scene), and a deep look at the pratfalls of hero worship. It’s also got a middle act that adds nothing to the overall plot and wastes two characters completely.
For all the questioning of tradition and moving of goalposts for the future, The Last Jedi fumbles a lot of the execution. It’s got the most heart out of any Star Wars film, but it still succumbs to rushed development and unfocused plotting. It is a good film, but it’s not likely to go down as an absolutely essential piece of cinema like the original trilogy did…even if Return of the Jedi isn’t nearly as good.
3: The Force Awakens
Maybe it’s clichéd to put this film here, but The Force Awakens is an incredibly good opener to a new trilogy of Star Wars films. It follows the ridiculous J.J. Abrams mystery box formula to a tee, but it creates a compelling cast of new characters, expands the breadth of the universe, and features some downright brutal lightsaber battles. It’s a visual treat, even if the plot is a rehash of A New Hope.
The general coherency of the movie falls apart as you watch it more, but it’s hard not to feel like Disney truly understood what it was doing after watching this film. The momentum is bananas with barely a dull moment throughout. The revelation of Kylo Ren being Han Solo’s son is also a huge bombshell that creates actual tension for the two characters. Han even dies, which is something Harrison Ford wanted for decades!
It’s not perfect by any means, but Force Awakens is the closest the series has gotten to recapturing the imagination of the original trilogy since Empire Strikes Back hit the scene in 1980. Man, I’m getting good at segues.
2: The Empire Strikes Back
I might have spoken too soon about which film would be the most controversial on here. Many believe that Empire is the greatest film in the Star Wars saga. They are wrong. The film created an incredible schism in its universe, but those revelations require past knowledge from A New Hope to have any impact. Without watching the original, Empire doesn’t really work.
That being said, the darker tone, expert pacing, and occasionally improvised dialogue make this a great film. Empire really is as good as everyone says, it just falters in being the middle chapter of saga. Since it has to follow up A New Hope and can’t contain too definitive of an ending, it exists in this weird middle space where its general plot doesn’t feel too substantial.
The twist of Darth Vader being Luke’s father was massive in 1980, but it has since become public knowledge. Even if you’ve never seen Star Wars, you likely know about Luke’s lineage. If you start with the prequels, then you’ve screwed yourself out of that twist. If you start with the sequels, you’ve also lost the impact of the scene. It doesn’t help that every big film in the wake of Empire copied that moment in an effort to nab some of its blockbuster success.
So, yeah. Empire is not the best Star Wars film. It is close, but it just cannot match the purity of…
1: A New Hope
The film that started the entire reason you’re here reading a list about where each Star Wars film ranks. Without A New Hope –which didn’t even originally have the subtitle–, none of the others would exist. There would be no Vader, no Luke, no Han, no Leia, no stars to war over. We owe a great deal of thanks to Lucas’ original vision for creating this wacky space opera that has captured our imaginations.
Putting aside how groundbreaking and revolutionary the film was in 1977, the main reason A New Hope is the reigning king is that you don’t need any prior knowledge to enjoy it. You can jump right in and learn everything you need to know from the plot and characters. There’s even a self-contained, fully complete plotline here. Don’t you just love when directors and writers make stuff out of passion for their art instead of corporate greed?
The acting can be a little dull at times and the constant muddling of the film with its re-releases and Special Edition/DVD/Blu-Ray/Disney+ versions is annoying as hell, but A New Hope is overall the most complete and polished movie out of the entire saga. You can watch it from start to finish, catch some thrilling action, see friendships blossom, and suffer a crushing loss that concludes with the defeat of Vader and peace being restored to the galaxy…right up until Lucas decided he loved money a lot.
And that is the definitive ranking of every Star Wars film. I hope my ramblings made it evidently clear that this isn’t an actual “definitive” ranking. The inspiration behind that title was simply because I grew tired of hearing fans bad mouth the franchise they claimed to love. People were angry at the prequels when they originally released and have now grown to love them.
I’ll never understand those people, but they’re free to watch whatever stupid movies they want. Even if I dislike those with a passion, the main thing is that Star Wars is all about getting sucked into another universe and escaping our current problems for two to three hours. The films aren’t meant to be hills worth dying over. They’re just fictional stories with parallels to our real world that let us live out our fantasies in space.
The main thing to remember is that Star Wars was never a sacred franchise. The very existence of the film came from Lucas’ idea to market toys. He historically took a measly salary on A New Hope in exchange for rights to all sequels and merchandise sales. Obviously Fox was happy to accept that because who sold toys in the 70s? They didn’t even think Star Wars was going to be successful, let alone generate a saga’s worth of sequels. If only they could have known.
All this talk about Disney driving the franchise into the ground or Lucas becoming corrupt with greed is just a bunch of bull. Star Wars was always a cash cow and it always will be.
Thanks for reading!