Now that the Skywalker storyline has reached its (possible) conclusion, it’s time to assess where every installment ranks as a part of the whole. For this list, I’ll look at the main movies first, and then judge the standalone movies…well, on their own. I know few cinematic debates bring out the torches and pitchforks like Star Wars, so let’s fire up the villagers, shall we?
(All images are the property of Lucasfilm, LTD.)
9. Attack of the Clones
With Clones, George Lucas tried the Titanic dynamic, with forbidden love set against sweeping CGI and lush orchestral music. The movie sinks instead. As a mopey, creepy Anakin Skywalker, Hayden Christensen is flatter than last year’s root beer. Of course, it’s difficult to imagine even Sir John Gielgud doing anything with the drivel that Lucas serves on a spatula. (“I’m haunted by the kiss you never should’ve given me.”)
We do get a badass Jango Fett, only to see him whacked real good before the movie’s even over. (This franchise has never been kind to the Fett family.) Also, Yoda finally busts out his next-level Force powers, Christopher Lee puts a little Transylvania in his Sith Lord, and Ewan McGregor gives the movie a smidge of humanity as Obi-Wan.
Unfortunately, Clones drones for over 140 minutes, and showcases the prequel flaws at their peak. Lucas fills his screen with CGI creatures, ships, and explosions. Lots of stuff to not care about. Fortunately, it’s all uphill from here.
8. The Phantom Menace
Famed director Howard Hawks observed that a classic movie should have three great scenes and zero bad scenes. With The Phantom Menace, we get three great scenes, but also multiple bad scenes. And bad characters. And dialogue that’ll make you wince like shooting cheap tequila. It’s the best of Star Wars and the worst of Star Wars, bundled into one hot mess of a movie.
First, the best: That pod racing sequence is a killer, kinda like a breakneck sci-fi riff on Ben-Hur. Darth Maul makes for a ferocious new villain, and his duel with our heroes stands as a franchise highlight. Plus, Natalie Portman’s Padme gets to a lead a palace assault that furthers the Star Wars tradition of strong female characters.
Now, the blah: The bad and the ugly of this movie are things you probably already know. An unwieldy combination of obnoxiously offensive and offensively obnoxious, Jar Jar earns his place as the most tone-deaf character in the entire franchise. (And that, my friends, is saying something.) The decision to make Anakin a grubby, pint-sized Wesley Crusher feels more like a business decision to sell Happy Meals than actual service to the story. For the climactic land battle, we get lots of droids being crunched and Gungans speaking gibberish. The Phantom Menace somehow feels so close to greatness, and yet far, far, away.
7. The Rise of Skywalker
After The Last Jedi messed with our heads, Skywalker arrives like the MiB and their flashy pens, ready to zap us into a hard reset. All those ballsy detours? Fuhgetaboutit. Skywalker attempts to placate fan complaints, and trait that supplies more weakness than strength. So many of this movie’s plot points ring hollow. So many character arcs arrive at abrupt conclusions. Like his landmark Lost series, J.J. Abrams proves that he can launch a franchise like nobody’s business. Landing the sum’bitch is a different story.
To be fair, Abrams and his collaborators were dealt a tragic blow when Carrie Fisher passed away. No doubt that Princess Leia had a bigger part to play than her posthumous cameo here, and I’m sure that rewrites and narrative restructuring left the script in an inevitably awkward situation.
Still, there’s no excuse for cramming two movies worth of stuff into one. In trying to please everybody everywhere, Abrams will likely leave quite a few people feeling disappointed.
6. Revenge of the Sith
The Force finally found the prequels in this third go. For the first time in a long time, some dramatic heft comes to Star Wars, as squirrelly young Anakin Skywalker succumbs to the Dark Side. Don’t get me wrong. Some things don’t change: Christensen still ain’t a good fit for the role, and some of George Lucas’s dialogue still smells stinky. (“Hold me. Like you did by the lake on Naboo, when there was nothing but our love.” Yeezus.)
But damned if Sith doesn’t up the prequel game: Emperor Palpatine attempts to rub out the Jedi, Corleone-style. He manipulates Anakin like a warlock version of Iago, turning and twisting good intentions into pure evil. Ian McDiarmid’s performance is one of the best things about this franchise, and he’s in top form with this film. Also, Frank Oz does terrific work as the voice of Yoda, and McGregor’s acerbic turn as Obi-Wan bodes well for an upcoming standalone film.
5. The Last Jedi
Writer-director Rian Johnson steps in to shake up the Star Wars snow globe, and the results are predictably polarizing. Luke Skywalker goes Gran Torino, Kylo Ren turns emo, and the plot quickly becomes a low-speed chase. Whether you love or loathe his movie, Johnson certainly doesn’t lack for balls.
If the prequels suffer from many of the same flaws, then the sequels get plagued with one consistent one: For their money, resources, and prep time, these three films can’t patch together a coherent story arc. Johnson’s beautifully weird panting hangs awkwardly next to the more conventional work of Abrams. Or, this feels like a relay where each runner can take any path. I would have loved to see the trilogy that Johnson could craft with carte blanche.
4. Return of the Jedi
I can’t oversell how much I adored this movie as a kid: Jabba’s slave palace, the forrest battle on Endor, the climactic Skywalker v. Skywalker showdown. I had the action figures, the ships, and trading cards. No doubt about it: Jedi marks the point where my nerdery hit full bloom.
That’s why it gives me a twinge of pain to say that of the original trilogy, this is the installment that holds up the least. Those Ewoks are too cute for their own good, and the little boogers chew up way too much screen time. And, they go from being plush teddy bears to intergalactic Empire-killers within the span of a few scenes? I know we’re suspending disbelief and all, but…c’mon. Also, Empire gives us Boba Fett–maybe the baddest dude in galaxy–and sends him out like a chump in this installment. Throw in some lackluster performances, and you’ve got the worst of the best when it comes to Star Wars.
Side note: The score from John Williams is absolutely phenomenal. His work during the final Vader-Luke battle might be the best stuff he’s ever done.
3. The Force Awakens
Yeah, I’ve heard it all before: This one
borrows rips off A New Hope. And, for all its built in cachet, Awakens takes few chances. But after three rounds of watching George Lucas monkey-fumble his way through the prequels, a little Star Wars comfort food is just what the doctor ordered.
J.J. Abrams gets most of the band back together: Leia’s a general. Han and Chewie are smuggling again. Luke’s out there somewhere, like a Jedi-powered MacGuffin. New blood also arrives in the form of Force acolyte Rey (Daisy Ridley), AWOL Stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega), and swashbuckling ace Poe (Oscar Isaac). Only key misstep lies in villainous Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), who feels like a wimpy, teenage retread of Vader.
2. A New Hope
Like Elvis wiggling his hips on Ed Sullivan or the Beatles disembarking at JFK, you could use the premiere of the first Star Wars film as a pop culture milestone. And like those other icons, this movie didn’t so much deliver something new as it poured long-familiar elements into an irresistible concoction. With Star Wars, George Lucas blended the wonder of the Space Race, the suave of heroics of Buck Rodgers, and the cliffhanging structure of B-movie serials in a way that blasted movie audiences with the ferocity of Force lightning.
So many things about this movie are now embedded into lore, it’s difficult to find a place to start: Leia’s cinnamon bun hairdo, Vader’s CPAP breathing, Obi-Wan’s zen guidance, or a petulant Luke Skywalker gazing at the twin suns of Tatooine. Let’s add a soul-shaking score by John Williams. And amazing sound effects by Ben Burtt. It’s no mistake that I watched A New Hope and immediately fell in love with the movies.
1. The Empire Strikes Back
This is the white whale every movie sequel has been chasing for almost forty years. Empire takes the monumental achievements of A New Hope and builds on them. It refines them. With this film, we scale a Mt. Everest, a summit the Star Wars franchise is unlikely to see again.
As with any second act, Empire finds our heroes on the downhill slide. Luke blew up the Death Star, but he also poked a grizzly bear with a pointy stick. The Empire has driven our heroes across the galaxy, and forced them to find new ways to win: Luke seeks Jedi tutelage from a mystical creature named Yoda, whilst Han, Leia, and the gang cast their lot with Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams), a cocky rogue who may have more than an ace up his sleeve.
In scene after scene, Empire will find new ways to blow your mind: Imperial Walkers that stomp across a snowscape like Hannibal’s elephants, a chase through an asteroid field, a monster that eats spaceships, and a sprawling city in the clouds are just a few things to love about this movie. And that’s before touching on Vader’s revelation to Luke about his true parentage, which remains one of the most stunning twists in all of cinema history.
But wait, there’s more…
Let’s take a look at the standalone movies:
As Patton Oswalt noted about the prequels: “I don’t give a sh*t where the stuff I love comes from!!! I just love the stuff I love!!!!” Han Solo arrived in A New Hope as a richly drawn character, I’ve honestly never cared what happened to him before that. As a travelogue of things I don’t care about, Solo ends up being not half bad. Alden Ehrenreich has some decent chemistry with Emilia Clarke, and few people play chaotic neutral better than Woody Harrelson. It’s inessential, non-nutritional–Solo is Star Wars junk food.
I had low expectations for this film, and it blew me away by being actually, you know, pretty good. Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) and her squad have to get the Death Star plans to the Alliance, so our heroes can exploit the station’s main weakness. And, therein lies the rub with prequels: We already know what happens. Fortunately, getting there turns out to be a decent amount of fun. As a cherry on the sundae, the last few minutes feature a badass character, doing all manner of badass things.