Ranking the Star Wars films
Star Wars films hold the top two spots for the biggest opening weekends at the box office, and are two of only four films to have crossed $200 million in their debuts. While it doesn’t hold the record for the largest worldwide gross, Star Wars: The Force Awakens easily stands with the largest domestic gross, nearing $1 billion, where Avatar is nearly $200 million less and only three other films have ever hit $600 million. And Star Wars: The Last Jedi will very easily join this group, perhaps even beating Avatar’s domestic gross, in due time.
The financial success of Star Wars today is a testament to the power it’s built since 1977. Star Wars films define an entire generation, and have worked their way into not only everyday popular culture, but culture in general in ways that few other pieces of art, in general, ever have. The original trilogy pushed so many of those ‘70s children to become the next great filmmakers, or storytellers of any kind, even defining much of the non-Star Wars art we see today.
To say that Star Wars is special is an incredible understatement. George Lucas’ little $11 million film channeled something in people across the world for decades and certainly many decades to come, something that we may not ever fully understand.
What’s intriguing, though, is that, in our opinion, out of the nine films of the Star Wars universe, only three are truly great films. Then, there are four varying types of good, and two we don’t like to talk about. There’s no doubting these films’ significance in culture — yes, even the bad ones — but taking an analytical deep dive into how they work as movies and how they compare to one another is absolutely fascinating, and will likely be entirely controversial. But here we are, ranking the Star Wars films from worst to best:
9. Star Wars: Attack of the Clones
Well… what can we say about the worst Star Wars film and, honestly, one of the worst written (at least from a dialogue standpoint) big budget films? This is an actual line of dialogue in the film, played with utmost seriousness by Hayden Christensen’s Anakin to Natalie Portman’s Padme: “I don’t like sand. It’s coarse and rough and irritating and it gets everywhere.”
While Christensen gets a bad rapt for his performances in the last two prequel films, he’s not the main problem with Attack of the Clones. The issues really come from Lucas’ insistence to stay committed to (not great) CGI — instead of the practical effects that made the originals so memorable — and from his poor dialogue (not even the standout Ewan McGregor can make the dialogue sound believable) and overall plotting. While the film features some (necessary to stay awake) thrilling action sequences, Attack of the Clones is the closest thing to a total misfire within the Star Wars series.
— Levi Hill
8. Star Wars: The Phantom Menace
The prequels, as concepts, are brilliant, but Lucas’ elaboration on the concepts and his particular direction of the them are terrible. And Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, while not as terrible of a film as Attack of the Clones, represents the stink perhaps more potently.
The strange, boring political machinations embarrassingly bog down the plot. The performances of nearly every member are laughable, and even Liam Neeson and Ewan McGregor, who, based on acting alone, do a decent job, cannot make up for the horrific dialogue. Much of the Star Wars mythology is damaged by concepts such as midichlorians as well as the over-indulgence in the idea of fate, something that was handled so well in the original trilogy. The style of the worlds and the action is so over-the-top and negatively diverting to a point where features such as lightsaber battles feel like some kind of sick joke. The CGI, while revolutionary at the time for what it could accomplish, is overwhelming and poorly used. And the film is genuinely racist in the many characters who are clear and offensive stereotypes.
As said before, the basic story concept of the prequels is fantastic. But the execution is so botched, so damaging to the universe, so terrible on a technical level that it’s no use to even make the case for the concept.
— Kyle Kizu
7. Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith
Say what you will about the prequels, but Revenge of the Sith is genuinely a good (not great) movie that gives some needed gravitas and weight to the prior two (near disastrous) additions to the Star Wars saga. Christensen is, thankfully, given his first chance to actually show off some depth as one of the most fascinating characters in Star Wars — Anakin Skywalker, aka Darth Vader and the father of Luke.
And dare I say, Ewan McGregor actually gives an awards worthy performance as the willing-to-do-good Obi-Wan Kenobi, who is also conflicted about is young padawan’s brewing dark side. The ending of Revenge of the Sith may be predictable — I mean, the first three films (or IV through VI) are where we’re headed — but that doesn’t mean the film is any less powerful when we see the final transformation of young Anakin Skywalker into Lord Vader.
— Levi Hill
6. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, the first standalone film, perhaps had to take the same approach as Star Wars: The Force Awakens, grounding us in the familiar — the mission of the Rebels that kicks of the events of A New Hope — before taking us where we’ve never been.
And the film kicks off with a fascinating question of morality and cost that this type of story requires, as we’re introduced to Cassian (Diego Luna) murdering a fellow Rebel for the sake of the mission. In fact, all of the characters add dimensions to who the people of this universe can be. Jyn (Felicity Jones) is our first reluctant hero, hiding due to the pain of her childhood. Chirrut (Donnie Yen) takes the Force-as-religion concept to a whole new level. Bodhi (Riz Ahmed) offers another take on the defector narrative. And K-2SO (Alan Tudyk) continues to expand on why droids are the most hilarious characters in Star Wars.
Director Gareth Edwards does an admirable job in setting up these morally ambiguous characters; it truly does feel like fresh ground. And Edwards also directs the hell out of action sequences, imbuing them with a wartime grit due, in part, to Greig Fraser’s stunning cinematography
But the film ultimately only goes so far, and that’s not enough. Jyn’s character arc is handled very sloppily as the film flips between careful development of a reluctant hero and sudden moments of heroism. While plenty of the battle on Scarif is outstanding, much of the specific retrieval of the Death Star plans, in the interior tower, feels lazily conceived and lazily executed. Finally, the film is too often hampered by fan service. Fan service doesn’t necessarily mean bad, but it ends up being so when it takes away from the efficiency and effectiveness of the film, such as much of the Darth Vader work and plenty of references.
— Kyle Kizu
5. Return of the Jedi
There’s a darker, more thematically committed version of Return of the Jedi beneath the one we ended up getting. The confrontation between Luke, Darth Vader and Emperor Palpatine is fittingly epic and a gripping payoff to the buildup that the first two installments set forth. The clash of these characters in one room, battling it out both physically and mentally, indulging deeply in the classically simple light vs. dark conflict, is pulled off with grace (in the original version, not the special edition re-release) and gravitas.
The characters of Han and Leia are also given new ground to explore, some of the action sequences are the epitome of Star Wars entertainment and Endor is rendered a visually dynamic new world.
But Endor is also where Return of the Jedi falls. It’s been said a thousand times, but Ewoks had no place in this film, or at least how they’re depicted serves little purpose. Essentially, director Richard Marquand offers the most kid-friendly version of Star Wars, and the most silly version. It’s a happy, joyous ending to our characters’ journeys, which is a nice note in retrospect. But there’s no reason that that note could not have been reached by taking the opportunity to conclude this story a bit more seriously.
— Kyle Kizu
4. Star Wars: The Force Awakens
That Star Wars: The Force Awakens successfully revived such a monumental franchise buried in such monumental crap is an achievement in its own right, and genuinely a framework by which to judge the film. While the tone and story beats may feel familiar, they fluidly situate us into a galaxy decades removed with new types of characters. On closer inspection, JJ Abrams and co-writers Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt take an assured storytelling approach that, in its specifics, is rather different than the original Star Wars.
And those characters are exactly where The Force Awakens shines so brightly. Luke had stories of his parents that turned out to be lies. Rey has nothing, but Daisy Ridley gives her a lively vigor that so many can identify with and adore. Her performance is explorative and searching, and while her pain may be under the surface, we can detect it in her yearning for journey and purpose.
The defector origins of Finn (John Boyega) are an immensely fascinating starting point that immediately allow us to latch onto him, and Poe (Oscar Isaac) is truly the closest a Star Wars character has ever gotten to being as badass as Han Solo. Then there’s Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), who is, essentially, a successful version of the young, manipulable, emotional, light-dark conflicted character that failed so spectacularly with Anakin Skywalker. And the context of his parentage and mentor renders him one of the better villains in recent blockbusters.
Throw in an actually committed Harrison Ford, a quieter, more subtle, but equally as brilliant score by John Williams and some traditional, refined filmmaking, and Star Wars: The Force Awakens, despite its familiarities, is a welcome and entertaining entry that does work outside of itself that most of the other films didn’t have to.
— Kyle Kizu
3. Star Wars
There would be no Star Wars without the original, which is, arguably, the most purely entertaining film and the most memorable from start to finish. From Alec Guinness’ Oscar-nominated turn as the wise and monologue-heavy Obi-Wan Kenobi, to the star-making turn from Harrison Ford, to the sheer imagination on display (seriously, holy shit), Star Wars (now called A New Hope) is a landmark moment in cinema. Not only did it help create the blockbuster era we are still experiencing (remaining the largest and most successful film franchise in the world), but it proved to be a real turning moment in film, where the rules felt like they could once again be broken down and built up again. George Lucas created a storytelling (and marketing) titan, and we are all indebted to the first film in the series. In fact, it wasn’t until The Last Jedi that a film was as willing to match this original’s unbridled ambition.
— Levi Hill
2. The Empire Strikes Back
“No, I am your father!” declares Darth Vader in one of the most iconic of all cinematic moments, setting Empire Strikes Back as the standard bearer for the largest franchise in the world, but even more so as the de facto comparison that any sequel has to live up to. And not many do.
Both expanding on the Star Wars mythology and increasing the amount of spectacle, The Empire Strikes Back finds its true power in its intense focus on further developing the characters. We see Luke Skywalker struggle to find his place and temper his ambition. We see Han Solo become more than just a wisecracking sidekick and smuggler; we see him become a person who’s trying to do well for those he cares about. Then, Leia is given the required depth through her passion for the rebellion, her will to do well, even if challenging norms, all the while balancing her (odd, in hindsight) love triangle between Luke and Han.
While critically mixed during its day, The Empire Strikes Back stands rightfully at the top of most Star Wars rankings.
— Levi Hill
1. Star Wars: The Last Jedi
Yes, it may be a tad premature to rank The Last Jedi, which just opened this past weekend, as the best Star Wars film yet. And, according to some fans, we may be crazy for even suggesting that this film is canonical. But here we are, with Star Wars: The Last Jedi easily topping our list.
What makes Episode VIII our pick as the best, though, is actually due to many of the reasons that other fans have written it off: that it breaks the rules, rewrites what “a Star Wars film” entails, puts an emphasis on humor and heartbreak and, ultimately, paints a political portrait that fits next to the anti-Vietnam/Nixon-era politics that George Lucas has said influenced the first film.
Because the film is still fresh in people’s minds and not-yet-seen for others, we’re going to keep plot details to a minimum. But essentially, much of the buildup from The Force Awakens veers into drastically different territory than what many expected. Yet, all decisions are in favor of the populist, “we the people” message Rian Johnson so thrillingly achieves with The Last Jedi. Even outside of just the message, though, The Last Jedi features some of the most engaging action sequences on the big screen, the most dynamic use of lightsabers and, for what it’s worth, the most badass final 45 minutes in a Star Wars film. For further elaboration on the film’s specific brilliance, read our full review.
Call us crazy, but yes, The Last Jedi is already the best Star Wars film.
— Levi Hill
Featured image via Lucasfilm.