A Definitive Ranking of Every Live Action Theatrical Release of Star Wars
There are 434 days until Star Wars Episode IX blasts onto screens across the globe. To fill the space I’ve been thinking deeply about two things; First, what’s the best way to introduce new fans to the series? Second, how would I rank all of the live-action theatrical releases?
I’m pretty sure I would introduce the films in order of release date. It would be like eating a compliment sandwich. Something good, something constructive that could use work, followed by something else good.
The second question took some more thought. So, like any problem I have, I decided to write it out. Without further ado, I present the definitive ranking of all the Star Wars movies.
1. The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
Director: Irvin Kershner
DP: Peter Suschitzky
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 95%
If A New Hope was the introduction to a whole new world, then Episode Four gave us the galaxy. Not only is it still the greatest adventure any of our heroes have embarked on it introduced so many of the beloved aspects of Star Wars that fans still love today.
Let’s start with the romance. To this day, Star Wars fans in love can be heard quoting Han and Leia. “I love you,” she says dreamily. “I know,” he says with a wicked grin. Groins everywhere tingled with first love. That’s movie magic folks.
Black people are welcomed into the Empire with the introduction of the smoothest brother this side of Cloud City. Lando Calrissian floated in on a cape and a dream and suddenly two heartthrobs are occupying the screen. A lusty bouquet of devil may care gunslingers adding the final element of any good western. Desert, gunslinger, much-beloved animal, jilted lover, black-hearted baddie, and a rival to true love is a recipe for success.
In the Empire Strikes Back’s first fifteen minutes has Luke escape a wampa using the force, nearly freeze to death, be rescued by Han, stuffed into a rotting carcass, and kissed by Leia. That’s an eventful way to being the second film in a franchise. And he does all of this before meeting Yoda.
Episode Five is the definitive Star Wars film because it made us do more than look for Vader and the newest spaceship. It was inclusive. It showed Leia was more than a princess. She wasn’t afraid to shoot first and ask questions later. She wore pants and challenged Han! From Yavin IV, to Dagobah, to Cloud City we get snow, and swamp, and a city like nothing we’ve ever seen before. It’s completely magical.
2. The Last Jedi (2017)
Director: Rian Johnson
DP: Steve Yedlin
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 91%
Taking JJ Abrams’ mystery box puzzle pieces from The Force Awakens, Johnson was able to sculpt a concrete story using instantly loved characters and filling the gaps in Luke’s timeline. As much as Star Wars is a cowboy film in space, new iterations of the franchise, both in the animated series and in the comic books, have also wrapped a samurai narrative around some of the characters.
Using Luke’s final chapter to wrap up a cycle of abuse, ignorance, and pain is a brilliant play by Johnson. The Jedi have closed their hearts to romantic love, which could be argued is what led Anakin to the dark side. If the boy were allowed to openly express his love and had a proper way to grieve his mother things could have turned out much differently. If he could have spoken to his master about his desire to save people and looked for ways to use the force to heal he wouldn’t have been forced underground and into the Palpatine’s waiting arms
Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon died on the battlefield. Their deaths, though honorable could have been avoided if they thought with their heads instead of their Sabers. Luke chose not to lift his lightsaber to his apprentice. Instead, he used his student’s anger and irrational thinking against him.
By appearing as a mirage, Luke not only gave the remaining rebels a chance to escape, he also taught Kylo two final lessons. The first was that Luke didn’t have hate in his heart anymore. He forgave himself for his transgressions against Kylo and forgave Kylo for everything that came after. Plus Johnson finally allowed Mark Hamill to flex the acting muscle he’s diligently developed since the original trilogy. A perfect ending for a samurai just coming out of self-imposed exile.
Leia’s force powers are confirmed! I don’t care if it looked like Mary Poppins flying through space it was deeply moving. The scene gave Carrie Fisher the send-off she deserved. Star Wars wouldn’t be the same without Fisher as Leia and a franchise that honors its pioneers is important.
Admiral Holdo is a gentle leader who listens but absolutely refuses to allow harm to come to her crew. The lesson she leaves Poe with shook so many fanboys to their core that this movie could easily take my number one spot. Poe, quick to act cost many people their lives at the expense of completing a mission that might have been accomplished a multitude of ways had he only listened. To see that lesson pay off so soon after Holdo’s sacrifice is a thing of beauty.
No more hot shot, fly by the seat of their pants and hope for the best reactions from young strapping men. Everyone has to be an adult now. The rebellion is withered down to just a handful of people and anyone they can inspire in a hurry. The last shot of the force sensitive boy swinging a broom like a lightsaber really cuts to the heart of what Star Wars is all about. Hope.
3. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)
Director: Gareth Edwards
DP: Greig Fraser
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 85%
In a galaxy far, far away there were bound to be thousands of amazing stories worthy of the big-screen treatment. With Rogue One, Disney found a way to erase the bad taste of prequel out of our mouths, expand the universe, and not alienate fans who’ve only interaction with Star Wars is the big screen. Not an easy feat to pull off.
Shot by Greg Fraser RO is visually my favorite Star Wars film. The scenes on the beach are overwhelmingly beautiful. It introduces a new shade of blue to a franchise with a very distinct color palette. Even the visit to Otoh Gunga in the Phantom Menace can’t compare to the beauty of the seafoam blue and white sand beaches. This may seem a small point to belabor, but beauty is bereft throughout Star Wars. The Empire is rather industrial and cold in design. The rebels are dirt poor and usually covered in dust. Space is desolate. The swamp is…swampy. The sea was a welcome change.
Rogue One brings the stark contrast of bloody battle and pristine real estate to horrifying life. Death from above, in the Death Star, is no longer hypothetical. Planets don’t blow up from a distance anymore. Viewers are on the surface looking up at the ominous object blacking out a large portion of the sky. This is what RO does best. It took what I love about Star Wars and reimagined it in a way that honored the original trilogy and terrified me to my core.
Most importantly it gave Darth Vader a chance to be a monster again. I won’t rehash the trauma of Vadar’s reveal in episode three. Needless to say, it was a disappointment. The very next time Vadar is on the big screen rebels are fleeing in terror as he takes that slow Michael Myers’ walk down the hall. Vadar seems taller and more trim. Twice as intimidating as he’s ever been. It was delicious.
RO also found a way to give viewers a bit of insight into how the Jedi Order could be wiped from galactic memory in less than two decades. Through the relationship between Chirrut Îmwe and Baze Malbus, we see how quickly the Jedi who survived Order 66 lost the ability to reassemble and fight back.
These sort of plot fillers, the brief overlap of Episode Four, and an intriguing new perspective on how the Rebel Alliance began to make the movie a gold standard.
4. A New Hope (1977)
Director: George Lucas
DP: Gilbert Taylor
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 93%
The first Star Wars film set the tone. With that sweeping opening shot, viewers knew this would be an experience like no other. Taking sci-fi from B horror films to westerns in space Lucas changed the game forever in 1977.
The film doesn’t hold up as well today. A lack of locations makes the film lag heavily in the center. There’s only so many gray, black, and white hallways a person can see before the eyes begin to tire. But the trash compactor, Leia’s call for help, and the first time on the Millenium Falcon make all of it worth it.
Best of all the naval space battles establish the war in Star Wars. Stunning aerial acrobatics and never before seen ships like the X-Wing still have the ability to take my breath away.
5. Return of the Jedi (1983)
Director: Richard Marquand
DP: Alan Hume
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 80%
The final film of the original trilogy and the lowest rated on this list ends a little to neatly and hits too many bumps on the road to merit a higher ranking. Highlights include the Death Star being rebuilt, sexy slave Leia, Vader’s electronic arm, Luke and Leia are related, and eventually Vader is redeemed. The first time around the film soars. So many secrets revealed. A ton of meaningful twists and turns. But after forty years of parody, the scenes lack the pop they once held.
Fuzzy little Ewoks taking out the Imperial Forces feels like a let down after our heroes escape the Sarlacc pit and the clutches of Jabba the Hutt. Palpatine demanding Luke kill Vadar feels incredibly predictable if you’ve watched six seasons of Clone Wars and read every book on Vader. Whereas moments in The Last Jedi and The Empire Strikes Back remain fresh even after years of retelling.
Return of the Jedi is an ending in the middle of the story. Particularly as we look at the events of The Force Awakens. Strands of unsolved issues might give the film less of a squeaky clean ending and made room for more story. But who knew what the franchise would become?
6. The Force Awakens (2015)
Director: JJ Abrams
DP: Dan Mindel
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 93%
The film that divided the fandom also divides this list. The fandom was split for many reasons. Some people are prejudice and did not want to see a woman be a Jedi. Others are racist and thought including so many people of color made the film a Social Justice Warrior epic as opposed to a Star Wars classic. Still, other naysayers simply didn’t feel like Abrams’ vision fit the style of Star Wars.
For me, the problem with The Force Awakens is it is too much like every Star Wars property I have experienced. It would be A+ fan fiction. But as cannon material I expect the boundaries of the franchise to be pushed. Instead, Disney’s first attempt felt safe. Rey, Finn, Poe, and Kylo all perfectly fit the archetype of Leia, Han, Luke, and Anakin. Familiarity is nice, but seeing the same movie over and over is tiresome.
Abrams TedTalk “The Mystery Box” has become famous over the years, particularly with the finale of Lost. In it, Abrams explains he’s less interested in what’s in the box, but the mystery that surrounds it. Director Alfred Hitchcock called this a MacGuffin.
When that same technique is used in The Force Awakens, there are too many questions and not enough answers. Luke’s saber is somehow in circulation. Maz Kanata, the thousands of years old being is criminally underused. What does Snoke want? Why is the First Order really after? Why do they have beef with Jedi? Is Snoke working in secret or is he a defacto leader? Episode Eight didn’t even have time to address all of these loose ends. Hopefully, Episode Nine will hold the answers.
7. The Phantom Menace (1999)
Director: George Lucas
DP: David Tattersall
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 55%
Look, it’s not the greatest, but I also think this film gets a bad wrap. One of Lucas’ frustration with the original trilogy was it didn’t appeal to kids in the way he wanted it to. (See added fart joke scene with Jabba.) So, when he had complete control and better technology he created Jar Jar Binks, a floppy-eared goon with the most annoying voice on the planet. I was ten when this movie came out and I was not here for it. But, I understand and appreciate the sentiment.
The pod racing scenes, on the other hand, were a huge hit. Kids being able to drive represents freedom. The open road, tinkering with vehicles until they work just like you want them too, explores a power and agency most children don’t have access to. Children go where they’re told and they eat what is served to them. Watching Anakin win that race and escape enslavement gave me the same thrill as Luke leaving Tatooine.
Also, this movie houses one of the coolest lightsaber battles in canon history. Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi against a young Darth Maul is perfectly timed and exquisitely executed. When Qui-Gon sits and meditates while Maul paces back and forth while they wait for the shields to power down is peak dark vs light. Justice VS Vengeance.
Episode One is the best film of the prequels because it best represents the core values of the original trilogy. The master and apprentice relationship between Obi and Qui-Gon is filled with bro-love and a dash of doubt similar to Yoda and Luke. The joy of taking flight and escaping is central to the storyline. And, even though it’s silly R2-D2 and C3PO are active participants in the adventure. Overall, not a horrid film.
8. Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018)
Director: Ron Howard
DP: Bradford Young
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 70%
Solo is a better film than The Phantom Menace is if I’m being honest. The action is fun, the acting is fine, Darth Maul is the big bad, which is thrilling. However, I’m ranking Star Wars films and Solo is perhaps the most unnecessary Star Wars film of all time. Legends are best left a mystery. When we start unraveling how Han became Han he loses some of his magic. This is something The Last Jedi fundamentally understands.
There can only ever be one Han and his name is Harrison Ford. I didn’t need to know an Imperial Guard gave Han his last name. I didn’t need to see Val, the most badass woman in this universe since Leia, die. I honestly, don’t care about teen Han at all.
The best parts of Solo revolve around Lando. Donald Glover just lights up the screen with his capes. The complexities of Lando’s sexuality and the battle for the Millenium Falcon all make the movie watchable. The film tries to sell me a Han Qi’ra love story. But I already know his soulmate is out there waiting. Why would any fan get attached to Qi’ra?
Leia, whose youth was spent secretly rebelling against the Empire would have made a much better movie.
9. Revenge of the Sith (2005)
Director: George Lucas
DP: David Tattersall
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 79%
Yes, the time has come to address the catastrophe that was the reveal of one of the greatest villains of all time. I was sixteen when this movie came out. Already exhausted by the first two attempts, I remained an optimist that the finale would set everything right.
Then, Padme died of a fucking broken heart. Y’all, let me tell you about rage. Padme, a queen, an elected official, and a spy just gave up on life because her husband is a child killer? I’m still not over the betrayal. There are so few women in the Star Wars universe. Padme had power and dope costumes and this is the image fans were left with. Ridiculous.
Mace Windu is thrown out of a window. One of the greatest Jedi Masters to ever live. Ok. No.
In addition to this disappointment, there are no memorable moments to genuinely revisit in this movie. The scene at the space opera was visually interesting, Order 66 being enacted was fun for fans who could only read about it before, but it was filmed in the most lackluster way. Yoda clutches his chest while actors fling themselves around what is clearly a film set. The entire mess of the prequels is brought to a disappointing head. And this isn’t the worst Star Wars film.
10. Attack of the Clones (2003)
Director: George Lucas
DP: David Tattersall
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 66%
An animated series entirely owned this film from the pilot to the finale. A single second of Dave Filoni’s Clone Wars cartoon is better than the entire feature. Star Wars is not about policy it’s about action. I don’t care who voted against the interest of the people. I want to know who is on the dark side and I want the Jedi to bring them to justice. This film is so boring. The icing on the cake is the hamfisted love story between a spark-less twenty-something Padme and a too young Anakin.
Bringing humanity to the men in the stormtrooper uniform like never before, and adding to the legend of the force better than any film on this list the Clone Wars cartoon is simply better. The acting is better, the vfx are better, and the writing is phenomenal. Never watch this movie. Just watch the animated series.