Starting as a space adventure with influences of Flash Gordon, Westerns, and Akira Kurosawa, ‘Star Wars’ grew from being an wild fantasy film to spawning one of the largest film franchises of all time. And it’s still going. The Skywalker Saga may be over as of 2019, but shows are releasing on Disney+ and a new movie is already scheduled for 2022. But how has the quality of the franchise been so far? Let’s take a look at all of the live action films and how I rank them against each other, including the newly-released ‘Star Wars: Episode IX — The Rise of Skywalker.’
11. ‘Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace’ (1999)
George Lucas’ return to the ‘Star Wars’ saga was highly anticipated in the 1990s. When ‘Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace’ was finally released, it was a box office smash but was also the first time in the franchise’s history that an entry was met with mostly mixed to negative reviews. It’s not surprising as to why. The dialogue and cinematography are bland, some of the performances are too stiff, Jar Jar Binks (Ahmed Best) is a terrible comic relief character, and the introduction of midichlorians is disappointing. That said, I don’t think the film is the total trainwreck some make it out to be. It still has a lot of movie magic and an adventurous attitude working for it. The sound design for the pod race and action scenes is especially impressive. Liam Neeson helps hold everything together as the wise Qui-Gon Jinn, while Ray Park also impresses as the menacing Darth Maul.
High Point: The final lightsaber battle with Obi-Wan Kenobi, Qui-Gon Jinn, and Darth Maul set to the awesome “Duel of the Fates” track.
Low points: Everything with Jar Jar Binks. The boring Trade Federation meeting scenes.
10. ‘Star Wars: Episode II — Attack of the Clones’ (2002)
The second chapter of the George Lucas’ prequel trilogy, ‘Star Wars: Episode II — Attack of the Clones,’ is about on par with the first chapter. It does feature better action and much less Jar Jar Binks though, so there’s that. The Jedi-on-droid action at the coliseum on Geonis is especially exciting. Ewan McGregor also really comes into his own as Obi-Wan Kenobi this time around, while Sir Christopher Lee adds gravitas with his role as Count Dooku in the second half. The big issue with Lucas’ film is the building love story between Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) and Padme Amidala (Natlie Portman); the two actors have little chemistry and much of the “romantic dialogue” shared between them comes across as unnatural and laughable.
High Points: The third act coliseum battle onward is where the film shines. Also, the first act “death sticks” scene is Obi-Wan Kenobi gold.
Low Points: Anakin’s weird hatred of sand and his bratty attitude throughout.
9. ‘Solo: A Star Wars Story’ (2018)
There’s a big jump in quality between ‘Episode II’ and this film. Despite all of the behind-the-scenes production issues (like director Ron Howard replacing Phil Lord and Christopher Miller late in the game), ‘Solo: A Star Wars Story’ still turned out very solid in my eyes. The plot is refreshingly small in scale and not focused on The Force and Jedi, the smuggling-based action sequences are exciting, and the cast is energetic — with Donald Glover and Woody Harrelson standing out as Lando Calrissian and Tobias Beckett, respectively. There are perhaps a few too many fan service moments and the final act gets a bit clunky as everyone starts double-crossing each other, but for the most part ‘Solo’ is a breezy sci-fi adventure with charming outlaw characters.
High Point: The coaxium heist on the mountain on Vandor-1.
Low Point: The forced love angle between L3-37 (Phoebe Waller-Bridge) and Lando. Just… why?
8. ‘Star Wars: Episode IX — The Rise of Skywalker’ (2019)
The (supposedly) final film in the Skywalker Saga, ‘Star Wars: Episode IX — The Rise of Skywalker,’ is a lot of movie in one movie. Some of it comes across as rushed and questionable when it comes to plot and character decisions. I also feel like the film unwisely leaves the idea of Anakin Skywalker being the chosen one in the dust for the most part as it wraps up the sequel trilogy, which lessens the power of the prequel trilogy and the original trilogy. Despite not hitting all of its marks, though, J.J. Abrams’ film still concludes the saga with a lot of rousing and emotional moments. Adam Driver especially shines as the conflicted Kylo Ren this time around as well while Billy Dee Williams (as Lando Calrissian) and others make welcome returns.
High Point: Spoiler
Low Point: Spoiler
7. ‘Star Wars: Episode VIII — The Last Jedi’ (2017)
Arguably the most divisive entry in the ‘Star Wars’ universe is Rian Johnson’s ‘Star Wars: Episode VIII — The Last Jedi.’ Everything with Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) and Rey (Daisy Ridley) is compelling, diving deep into the Jedis’ current place in the galaxy; Hamill is undoubtedly excellent here, though not all of Luke’s decisions have sat well with fans. The film has some of the best cinematography in the whole series too. Where Johnson drops the ball is with some of the overlong subplots (Canto Bight and Holdo (Laura Dern), ugggh) and moments that are meant to be subversive but just feel unearned.
High Points: Kylo Ren and Rey taking on the throne room guards. Luke and Kylo’s showdown on Crait.
Low Points: Luke tossing his lightsaber in the beginning just feels wrong. The entire conflict between Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) and Holdo is yawn-worthy.
6. ‘Rogue One: A Star Wars Story’ (2016)
The first standalone ‘Star Wars’ film, Gareth Edwards’ ‘Rogue One: A Star Wars Story’ is an intense adventure with great turns by Felicity Jones (as Jyn Erso) and Mads Mikkelsen (as Galen Erso). The character work throughout is pretty thin, but the race-to-get-the-Death-Star-plans plot is involving and the third act action is the closest thing to gritty war the series has ever seen. Some of the callbacks in ‘Rogue One’ feel forced, but it’s also hard to deny the awesomeness of Darth Vader going to town in that hallway scene. This one has only gotten better the more times I’ve seen it.
High Point: The final battle on the tropical Scarif is one of the best climaxes of the series.
Low Point: While Donnie Yen shines as Chirrut Îmwe, most of the other Rogue One members never really shine in any scenes.
5. ‘Star Wars: Episode III — Revenge of the Sith’ (2005)
The last film of George Lucas’ prequels, ‘Star Wars: Episode III — Revenge of the Sith’ is a vast improvement over its immediate predecessors. Some of the terrible dialogue and odd Anakin decisions are still present, but ‘Revenge of the Sith’ is also a thrilling and even poignant chapter in the series in showing the downfall of the Jedi and rise of the Empire. Ian McDiarmid steals every scene he is in as the evil Palpatine while Hayden Christensen improves somewhat with his dark take on Anakin. Ewan McGregor also shines, with his Obi-Wan Kenobi getting some layers with his relationship with Anakin. The film is long, but it earns its length with its meticulous attention to detail in transitioning the story from the prequel trilogy to the original trilogy.
High Points: The Order 66 scene packs a wallop. The final battle between Anakin and Obi-Wan might just be the best lightsaber-to-lightsaber fight of the series.
Low Point: Padme dying of a broken heart (?) and Darth Vader yelling “Nooooo!” in a hammy way when learning of the death.
4. ‘Star Wars: Episode VII — The Force Awakens’ (2015)
The sequel trilogy may have become more divisive and problematic with its second and third entries, but the first entry — J.J. Abrams’ ‘Star Wars: Episode VII — The Force Awakens’ — kicked everything off in a fun, energetic, and return-to-original-form way. The new characters are welcome (especially the conflicted Kylo Ren (Adam Driver)), but Harrison Ford really steals the show with his brilliant return as Han Solo. The film is also the funniest of the series without turning everything into a joke; Ford and John Boyega’s interactions are especially memorable. A lot of the plot beats with the villains feel familiar, but there is enough that is fresh here to make such things forgivable.
High Points: The meeting of Han Solo and Kylo Ren is masterfully tense and delivers the emotions. The lightsaber battle in the snow is visually rich.
Low Point: The Starkiller Base is an inexcusably lazy idea, feeling way too similar to the Death Stars in the original trilogy.
3. ‘Star Wars: Episode VI — Return of the Jedi’ (1983)
Richard Marquand’s ‘Star Wars: Episode VI — Return of the Jedi’ ends the original trilogy in an adventurous, epic, and emotional fashion. While the film isn’t as strong as Episodes IV and V, being more episodic and cutesy than those films, it is still a terrific piece of fantasy entertainment. Seeing Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) become a badass Jedi in this entry is also very rewarding as he transforms out of the whiny boy he once was and turns into a hero. I’d also argue that the third act space battle is the best space battle in cinema history. This is probably the most re-watchable film in the series because of its nonstop moments of danger and heroism for the characters.
High Points: The colorful opening act on Tatooine as the heroes take on Jabba the Hutt. Luke facing Darth Vader in front of the Emperor as the space battle rages outside the ship.
Low Point: The Ewoks take down the Stormtroopers way too easily.
2. ‘Star Wars: Episode IV — A New Hope’ (1977)
The one that started it all. The characters. The story. The visuals. The music. Everything comes together in ‘Star Wars: Episode IV — A New Hope,’ with George Lucas’ picture being a piece of space fantasy entertainment for the ages. Episode IV still rates as one of the best in the series due to its freshness with its creativity, its brisk pace, and its entertainingly old-fashioned heroes-versus-villains plot. The story still had interesting places to go with its characters in later entries, but this film established them and their conflicts perfectly.
High Points: Luke learning the ways of The Force from Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness). The climactic attack on the Death Star.
Low Point: The lightsaber fight between Obi-Wan Kenobi and Darth Vader (James Earl Jones) is a bit tame.
1. ‘Star Wars: Episode V — The Empire Strikes Back’ (1980)
The perfect sequel. ‘Star Wars: Episode V — The Empire Strikes Back,’ directed by Irvin Kershner, took the ‘Star Wars’ mythology to deeper and darker directions, developed the romance between Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher), set up the main conflict between Luke Skywalker (Mark Hammill) and Darth Vader (James Earl Jones), and introduced the characters of Yoda, Lando Calrissian, The Emperor, and Boba Fett. Fantasy entertainment doesn’t get better than this.
High Points: The big reveal from Darth Vader. The training from Yoda. The “I know” from Han. The everything in this movie.
Low Point: I can’t think of one.