Fans have been ranking the Star Wars movies and arguing about whose hierarchy is right — and whose list is utterly wrong — for as long as there’s been a Star Wars franchise. There have been 11 big-screen features (and a few made-for-television movies) released so far, offering plenty of opportunities to revisit those rankings over the years. The trilogy-concluding 2019 film Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker was the most recent installment to arrive in theaters, and it received the sort of mixed reviews that ensure every list will rank it differently.
Not to be left out, we put together our own worst-to-best ranking list for all of the live-action, big-screen Star Wars movies. Of course, we realize lists like this are subjective, and since only Siths deal in absolutes, there is going to be some disagreement about where each film lands — but just remember, no matter where you place the films on the list, The Force will be with you … always.
(Editor’s note: Spoilers are obviously unavoidable, so if you haven’t seen one or more of the Star Wars films yet, proceed at your own risk. And here’s where you can stream Star Wars movies online.)
It’s an easy — and obvious — choice for the worst film in the franchise. Whether the blame falls on annoying kid Anakin (as played by Jake Lloyd), Jar Jar Binks, or even George Lucas himself and his penchant for now-dated CGI effects, The Phantom Menace is a hot mess of a movie that you’d be forgiven for excising from a Star Wars movie marathon. Contributing little to the overall narrative of the Star Wars saga and filled with laughably bad moments in story, dialogue, and acting, The Phantom Menace doesn’t deserve to have one of the franchise’s coolest villains, Darth Maul. In fact, the presence of Darth Maul is one of the movie’s few redeeming qualities, making actor Ray Park and the film’s double-lightsaber-wielding Sith Lord the real hero.
Although it remains a tremendously flawed film, Attack of the Clones does succeed in establishing much of the backstory for Obi-Wan and Anakin’s relationship, and the seeds of their inevitable — and brutal — parting of ways in Revenge of the Sith. The film also adds to the canonical history of one of the franchise’s most popular side characters, Boba Fett, and even features one of the coolest moments for Yoda as a younger, more spry Jedi Master than we ever saw in the original trilogy. Unfortunately, those memorable moments are peppered into a film that’s mostly forgettable, and a love story that’s almost inconceivable between Hayden Christensen’s petulant Anakin and the tragically bad writing for Natalie Portman’s Padme.
The best installment of the prequel trilogy (which doesn’t say much), Revenge of the Sith featured the three-film arc’s most memorable moments — from the Jedi battles with Count Dooku, Darth Sidious, and General Grievous, to the shock of Order 66, to the climactic battle between Anakin and Obi-Wan on the lava planet Mustafar. Of all three films, it does the most to set the stage for the events of the original trilogy, and wisely distances itself from some of the mistakes made by Episode I and Episode II. The prequel trilogy gets a lot of well-deserved criticism, and Anakin is still all but unwatchable, but Revenge of the Sith is the closest it gets to giving fans the story they were hoping to see.
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There’s a big divide between the prequel films and the rest of this list, so don’t put too much stock in this film’s proximity to Revenge of the Sith. Solo could easily be placed even higher in the hierarchy. It’s an uncomplicated film that’s content to offer a thrilling adventure with familiar characters instead of trying to deconstruct the franchise mythology or take the Star Wars universe to a darker place. Solo is a safe, inoffensive installment of the saga that is covered with the rustic dust of the film that started the franchise, while also offering a valuable asset that sometimes gets lost in the fray of rebuilding a franchise: Fun. Solo reminds us all how fun Star Wars stories can really be, and why so many fans fell in love with the franchise in the first place.
Critics have been, shall we say, vocal about their distaste for everything from the straightforward plot points and madcap pace to even the visual effects of this arc-concluding film. But frankly, we’re not sure which movie they saw, because we really enjoyed it. It’s certainly not perfect, from the deus ex machina use of Force healing to the Emperor’s creation of an entire fleet of planet-killing Star Destroyers (somehow) in secret. Still, J.J. Abrams’ final bow for the Skywalker franchise carried a lot of weight on its shoulders while also juggling the death of a lead actor and a shortened production schedule. A focus on the friendships of his lead characters (winningly sold by his impressive cast) gave this film the right emotional beats, while also carrying you along on a compelling, fast-paced final adventure. In the end, Abrams and crew created a thrilling finale to the Skywalker saga, balancing a blend of his signature nostalgia and innovation (and even a zombie Palpatine) with impressive grace.
No one quite knew what to expect from the first film to come out of Disney’s acquisition of Lucasfilm, and the first Star Wars movie in more than a decade. What we got was a film that deftly balanced the necessary levels of nostalgia and fresh material to put the franchise back in audiences’ good graces again after the much-maligned prequel trilogy. Director J.J. Abrams has a knack for making moments feel precious, teasing out audiences’ anticipation, and delivering jaw-dropping spectacle, and all of those skills came in handy with The Force Awakens. However, Abrams’ desire to hew close to the franchise’s roots gave audiences a film that felt a little too similar to Episode IV – A New Hope at times, from the arc of Daisy Ridley’s character to the threat posed by the First Order’s “Don’t call it a Death Star” Starkiller Base. Even so, The Force Awakens introduces a fresh cast of characters for a new generation of Star Wars fans while also giving credit where it’s due to the veteran cast members and characters that made the franchise what it is today. Few lines of dialogue in history are layered with as much redemption and satisfaction as Harrison Ford’s iconic quip as an aging Han Solo: “Chewie, we’re home.”
What can be said about The Last Jedi that hasn’t already been said in countless editorials, reviews, think pieces, and angry rants (including our own moment on the soapbox) for or against its importance in the Star Wars franchise? Arguably the most controversial film in the saga, The Last Jedi challenged everything fans expected from it and took the sort of risks no Star Wars movie has been inclined to take with its cherished mythology. In the process, we got some of the best acting performances in the entire franchise, including a deep dive into Luke’s psyche from Mark Hamill (love or hate the results). Director Rian Johnson and the Star Wars team at Lucasfilm were surprisingly ambitious with The Last Jedi, and when those huge gambles paid off, they paid off in a big way with spectacular set pieces like Vice Admiral Holdo’s sacrificial moment, Kylo and Rey’s lightsaber melee in the throne room, and the battle on Crait that culminates with Luke’s challenge to Kylo Ren. On the flip side, the moments that missed the mark did so nearly as spectacularly, ensuring that The Last Jedi becomes one of the most hotly debated entries in the entire canon.
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For many children of the ’80s, Return of the Jedi was their introduction to the Star Wars universe and the movie that turned them into fans for life. While the film has a fair share of detractors — mostly of the Ewok-hating variety — there’s no denying that Return of the Jedi offers the perfect concluding chapter to the original trilogy. It has a little bit of everything, including a fully formed Luke Skywalker, who’s now comfortable in his status as one of the last remaining Jedi and his ability to use The Force, giving audiences the heroic figure the previous two films were building toward. Return of the Jedi also features some of the series’s coolest set pieces, namely Jabba’s palace and sail barge, and the forests of Endor. The film concludes the trilogy in the best way possible, with good triumphing over evil as Darth Vader redeems himself for the sake of his long-lost son.
Director Gareth Edwards’ film Rogue One is a controversial pick here, but it deserves to be ranked among the greatest films in the franchise for a few reasons. First, the way it manages to deftly bridge the divide between modern sci-fi cinema and the old-school aesthetic of the original trilogy is as impressive from a filmmaking perspective as it is from the audience’s point of view. The film also gives the audience a deeper sense of emotional connection to its ragtag team of rebel fighters than other installments do, including the prequel trilogy and, we would argue, the modern episodic films. Rogue One stands on its own as a beautifully shot, expertly paced war movie. But it’s able to do that within the Star Wars universe, making the feat that much more impressive. As the icing on the cake, it features one of the most exciting final scenes of any film in the entire franchise.
Some might debate this film’s place in second, given that Empire is widely considered one of the best sci-fi movies ever made. The Empire Strikes Back took the franchise to a dark, angsty place long before Kylo Ren threw his first tantrum and added depth to the Star Wars universe and its lore far beyond what A New Hope hinted at. It also brought a very real, and very grim, sense of consequence to the events that unfolded in the first film and offered a reminder that movie sequels don’t need to be more of the same to be congruent. The Star Wars universe became even more fascinating and infinitely more threatening after the events of Empire, and the franchise was better for it. But there’s one more film to go, and it’s more influential than any of them.
It’s easy to argue that The Empire Strikes Back is a superior film, but Empire can’t exist without A New Hope. It’s the film that launched one of the greatest sci-fi sagas of all time and holds up surprisingly well for a 40+-year-old movie filmed on a shoestring budget. It’s filled with beautiful cinematography, innovative special effects techniques, memorable characters, and a sense of wonder that holds strong decades after it became a surprise juggernaut. A New Hope is the spark that ignited one of the world’s most famous movie franchises and is still inspiring generations of filmmakers and storytellers.
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