The ultimate space fantasy film franchise is on one of its longer breaks. While the Disney+ slate of Star Wars shows keeps on growing (The Mandalorian, The Book of Boba Fett, Obi-Wan Kenobi, Ahsoka, Andor), we won’t see any more Star Wars movies until Patty Jenkins‘ Rogue Squadron hits theaters in December 2023.
Which makes this the perfect moment to stop and put all twelve movies so far into some kind of order. Wait, twelve? Yep, that’s right. The nine Skywalker saga episodes and two „anthology“ spin-off films (Rogue One, Solo) were not the only ones to get official releases in theaters. There’s one cinematic stepchild that Lucasfilm would rather forget.
In reverse order of greatness, starting with that unwanted stepchild:
This movie began life as the opening batch of episodes for the Cartoon Network series Clone Wars. Then George Lucas made a baffling last-minute decision to release this barely-hung-together content as a movie.
Lucasfilm’s key merchandising licensees weren’t notified in advance, so it’s possible Lucas himself wasn’t exactly proud of the effort. No wonder. Though Clone Wars the show would grow over the course of seven seasons into a rich narrative with animation worthy of a Star Wars movie, it was nowhere near there in 2008.
But hey, at least Lucas could now say his prequel movies were definitively not the worst.
How to watch: Star Wars: The Clone Wars is now on Disney+.
11. Attack of the Clones (2002)
As the darker middle chapter of the prequel trilogy, Attack of the Clones should have been its best. It had an excellent twist in store that changed everything you ever thought the Clone Wars were, and some meaty political machinations that mirrored the War on Terror age in which it arrived.
What went wrong? Start with Lucas‘ script, which he wrote faster than ever and gave to the crew at the last minute. Which is not a great idea if you’re trying something you’ve never done before, i.e., write a romance.
The chemistry-free pairing of Hayden Christensen and Natalie Portman didn’t help, but their dialogue („I hate sand,“ he said, contrasting it with her smooth back) was never remotely romantic to begin with.
Lucas, who was barely there as a director of actors at the best of times („faster and more intense“ were his main notes for the original movie), didn’t seem to care. He spent most of his Clones time fascinated with a new digital camera and various all-digital scenes, oblivious to the unfolding disaster.
How to watch: Star Wars: Episode II — Attack of the Clones is now on Disney+.
10. The Phantom Menace (1999)
It’s not as bad as you might remember. There’s the kinetic Darth Maul lightsaber duel, more ballet than battle, and Yoda’s iconic explanation of how the Dark Side progresses from fear.
And at least Lucas was going for something in his script, getting all that Flash Gordon fan fiction he’d intended for the original Star Wars out of his system. (Midi-chlorians, though they should have never been mentioned on screen, at least date back to his 1977 notes.)
‚The Phantom Menace‘ at 19: Reconsidering the most maligned Star Wars film
Ah, if only Lucas had stuck to his original draft — in which Jar Jar Binks was a wise sage and Anakin Skywalker a young Buddha. If only he’d listened to screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan and many others who advised him to bump up Anakin’s age so he was not hanging the whole movie on the performance of a child actor.
How to watch: Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace is now on Disney+.
9. The Rise of Skywalker (2019)
Visually speaking, The Rise of Skywalker ranks among the best Star Wars movies. It’s packed with arresting set pieces; who could forget Rey’s backflip atop Kylo Ren’s ship that kicked off the first trailer? As we pointed out in our review at the time, Skywalker is a movie best experienced with the eyes, without overthinking.
But of course, plot matters too. And what we got there was a story that introduced so many new characters in this last chapter that it barely had any time for old friends (hi, Lando!). Apparently terrified by the reaction of a loud minority to Last Jedi, director-writer J.J. Abrams tried to please everyone and ended up pleasing pretty much no one.
Especially irksome: the about-face on Rey’s lineage, the sudden resurrection of the Emperor, the brief and dubious rehabilitation of the galaxy’s most exhausting man, the sidelining of Rose Tico, and the failure to care about Finn. Instead of tying up a nine-movie series with a bow, Abrams did it so sloppily he may have tarnished the entire saga’s reputation — and certainly that of the sequel trilogy.
How to watch: Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker is now on Disney+.
8. Revenge of the Sith (2005)
The undisputed darkest and best of the prequels, Revenge of the Sith has the essence of a great story. If we were talking movie novelizations, Sith would rank #1; the Matthew Stover book is spellbindingly written with plenty of extra details.
Unfortunately, Lucas kept futzing with his own version of the story at the last minute. He changed Anakin’s motivation for turning to the Dark Side in post-production. This left the essential pivot point of the entire prequels come off as a confusing mess, and the Jedi came off looking like even greater fools than intended.
If you think this movie deserves a higher ranking, you’re probably remembering that epic Anakin-Obi-Wan lava duel finale, rather than those interminable Coruscant corridor conversations. But the latter make up way more of the movie’s runtime.
How to watch: Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith is now on Disney+.
7. Solo (2018)
Don’t be fooled by the middling ranking: Solo is a solid story, a neat little heist flick (the top heist movie of all time at the box office, in fact) and an enjoyable origin tale that earns its right to be told.
Especially if you consider it as an ensemble film. Alden Ehrenreich was a stronger Han for playing against Woody Harrelson as Han’s mentor Beckett. Donald Glover turned in a very fine performance as Young Lando, and Phoebe Waller-Bridge made us think deeply about droid rights.
Sure, we got clunky moments we didn’t need — the origin of Han Solo’s last name, too much CGI sound and fury in the Kessel Run. And the cinematography seemed too dark in many theaters. But the script by Lawrence Kasdan (writer of Empire Strikes Back) and son Jon zips smartly along with enough laughs to keep you chuckling.
The reason it isn’t ranked higher is that it’s up against some stiff competition — but as a palate cleanser between mythology-heavy epics, Solo pulled off its caper pretty much perfectly.
How to Watch: Solo: A Star Wars Story is now on Disney+.
6. The Force Awakens (2015)
The first hour of The Force Awakens is one of the best hours of Star Wars ever made. Rey was introduced with incredible economy; those silent, spare scenes of Jakku junkyard life were a revelation.
Meanwhile, the parallel story of defecting stormtrooper Finn, unprecedented in the Star Wars canon, gave the lie to lazy takes that TFA was a „beat for beat“ remake.
But then came the second hour, from the introduction of Starkiller base onwards, and the whole thing started to feel like a Star Wars greatest hits reel.
It still hangs together very well as a story, especially with the weight that Han’s death brings to the whole thing. It’s just that we would have been fine with one fewer X-wing squadron attack on a giant spherical object, thanks.
How to Watch: Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens is now on Disney+.
5. Return of the Jedi (1983)
The epic conclusion to the original trilogy suffers a little from George Lucas‘ sudden desire to ice his franchise and tie everything up with a neat bow. The decision to turn Leia into Luke’s long-lost sister was a soap opera step too far for many viewers, as well as Mark Hamill himself.
And yet it pulls off an incredibly difficult job, bringing the biggest movie trilogy in history in for a satisfying landing. Vader’s decision to save his son from the Emperor would resound throughout Star Wars lore, turning Anakin into the tragic hero of the whole first six-movie arc.
Oh, and get out of here with your Ewok complaints. The whole original point of Star Wars was to show how a mighty technological empire can be brought down by a primitive race — one that literally eats Stormtroopers for breakfast.
Judge them by their cuteness, do you?
How to Watch: Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi is now on Disney+.
4. Rogue One (2016)
The first Star Wars spin-off story fell victim to a long summer of overly-panicked re-editing. The upshot may well have improved the final battle, and also introduced the iconic Darth Vader lightsaber scene.
But we were barely introduced to the hero, Jyn Erso, who suddenly had nothing to say in her choppy opening scenes. Still, the story itself was profoundly compelling, perhaps even more so than the saga films. Here at last was the true shape of the „war“ in Star Wars, down at ground level. The decision to kill off all the movie’s heroes looks more brave with every rewatch.
The names of those spies who stole the Death Star plans may have been forgotten in the galaxy far, far away. But we’ll never forget.
How to Watch: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is now on Disney+.
3. The Last Jedi (2017)
Luke Skywalker as a reluctant hermit on a remote planet, approached by a young female disciple: This was the first idea George Lucas had when he sketched out the sequel trilogy. Director Rian Johnson took that concept, ran with it, and created what Star Wars in the 21st century desperately needed: something risky and new.
Tired old tropes (such as that Emperor clone known as Snoke) were literally torn apart by a new generation. In their place, Rey and Kylo Ren came into their own as complex characters, both filled with darkness and light. The peril was greater than ever, but so was the heroism.
Canto Bight and Crait may have caused controversy, as did the Holdo maneuver and Leia’s outer space revival. But all of these threads were building up to one unifying theme. When the dust settled, the whole galaxy understood what „hero“ meant. The people have the power; the Force is not limited to a few families or ancient orders of hypocritical monks. The ability to wield it can crop up in anyone, anywhere.
Give it a few decades — when, perhaps, we will finally have made peace with its hearbreakingly ironic ending — and we will come to regard Jedi as a stone-cold classic that helped reinvigorate the franchise for decades to come.
How to Watch: Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi is now on Disney+.
2. Star Wars (1977)
Otherwise known as the film so big, its savvy creator stole the name for an entire franchise — and retroactively, in 1981, dubbed the 1977 movie A New Hope.
The original is still very, very close to being the best. If this ranking were concerned with behind-the-scenes achievement, nothing could ever compare with the fact that Lucas kickstarted a global phenomenon on a pathetically small (even then, by Hollywood standards) $11 million budget.
But this ranking is all about what we see on screen today. And Lucasfilm’s ongoing insistence that the wince-worthy Special Edition Jabba the Hutt scene is officially a part of this movie is enough to dock it a point.
How to Watch: Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope is now on Disney+.
1. The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
You love it. We know.
It has become a cliche, but it’s true nonetheless: Empire is a damn near perfect movie in both sight and sound. The color palates of its main locations (Hoth, Dagobah, Cloud City) haunt our dreams. As does the music — specifically, the new-for-this-film Imperial March.
Darth Vader, who was on screen for all of 10 minutes in the original movie, comes into his terrifying own for the first time. Yoda’s mini-lectures on the Force came close to starting a real-life religion. And the story — for which Lucas doesn’t get enough credit — is a master class in how to take a sequel and make it better than the original.
Not to mention how to make a dark kids‘ movie where the bad guys win. Sorry, Infinity War, but Empire got there first.
Without this movie, made with defiant independence on a ballooning budget as Lucasfilm skated dangerously close to bankruptcy, we simply wouldn’t have the Star Wars franchise as we know it today. And even with the Skywalker Saga at an end, that deal keeps getting better all the time.
How to Watch: Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back is now on Disney+.
UPDATE: May. 3, 2022, 10:38 a.m. EDT This post originally published in May of 2018. This update includes notice of the emerging Star Wars TV series.