Reel Talk: Every Live-Action Star Wars Film, Ranked Worst to Best

star wars logo

“Part of the journey is the end” — wait, wrong Disney franchise…

“It’s time for Star Wars…to end” — wait, that’s not the line…

With the release of Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker, the Star Wars saga will end…for a third time. In anticipation of the final conclusion of the “Skywalker Saga,” I rewatched all 10 live-action Star Wars films to come up with my definitive ranking.

Every film ranked, from worst to best:

 


 

10. Episode II – Attack of the Clones (Dir. George Lucas; 2002)

STAR WARS: EPISODE II-ATTACK OF THE CLONES, Hayden Christensen, 2002. TM and ©copyright Twentieth Ce
Courtesy of Slate

Attack of the Clones always lands at the bottom of my ranking whenever I revisit these films. This time around, I attempted to view it with an open mind to re-evaluate it for what George Lucas’ intentions were in the crafting of this story. For as expansive as the universe may be, AotC features two fairly distinct storylines: a mystery for Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) to solve, and a love story that unfolds between fledgling Jedi Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) and Senator Padme Amidala (Natalie Portman) -— no matter how dubious their courtship may be. 

As with many of Lucas’ ideas in the prequels, these threads do hold potential; Obi-Wan’s quest takes him to new planets and subsequently offers a fairly compelling introduction to Jango Fett and his son (who would go on to become Bobba Fett) as well as the clone army. Even Anakin’s relationship with Padme hints at his emotional, passionate tendencies — traits acutely associated with the Dark Side of the Force. However, the film is ultimately betrayed by cringe-worthy dialogue (“I don’t like sand”) and an over-reliance on dated CGI — the latter of which devolves the film’s third act battle into utter nonsense. The bright-spot in this largely lackluster sequel is McGregor, to whom Lucas gives a little more wiggle room in showcasing young Obi-Wan’s snarky personality than he did with The Phantom Menace.

9. Solo: A Star Wars Story (Dir. Ron Howard, 2018)

Solo
Courtesy of SyFy Wire

Solo will likely be remembered for what it isn’t compared to what it is, given the film’s notorious issues with production which led Lucasfilm to fire original directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller.

The film recounts the origin story of a young Han Solo (Alden Ehrenrich) and how he becomes our roguish smuggler with a heart of gold. I never wanted this film to exist; Han’s intrigue comes from his ambiguous moral allegiance, and demystifying that notion runs counter to Han’s characterization. For the origin of such an iconic character, Solo is ultimately a bland outing — from its sluggish start to its endless “remember this??” references and colorless cinematography. 

That being said, if I divorce myself from the notion that this is a Star Wars film, Solo passes as a decent standalone neo-western adventure. Though Ehrenrich could never live up to Harrison Ford’s performance, he possesses enough charm to carry the film, and few could imagine a better casting for young Lando Calrissian than Donald Glover. I still don’t think Solo should exist, but I accept that it does.

8. Episode I – The Phantom Menace (Dir. George Lucas; 1999)

the phantom menace
Courtesy of Entertainment Weekly

The Phantom Menace revitalized Star Wars for a more modern audience, placing it back into the mainstream zeitgeist after a 16-year hiatus. Examining it now, it’s easy to become bogged down by painfully stoic performances (though Liam Neeson is a welcome addition as Qui-Gon Jinn) and the whole Jar Jar Binks (Ahmed Best) affair. Jar Jar is unequivocally the weakest link in this film, but if it’s possible to see past these cartoonish elements, there is actually a fair amount to appreciate.

Unlike AotC, TPM still utilizes some practical effects amid Lucas’ continued experimentation with CGI, which gives the film a more grounded aesthetic. It also features intriguing new additions to Star Wars lore (Midi-chlorian? Is that related to the Mandalorian?), from double-bladed lightsabers to a deeper dive into the conflict between the Jedi and Sith, all of which culminates to one of the most expertly choreographed lightsaber battles in the series. John Williams’ energetic, swelling piece “Duel of the Fates” heightens the scene as Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan fight with the menacing — if underutilized — Darth Maul (Ray Park). TPM is very much a signal for what was to come with this prequel trilogy, for better or worse.

7. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (Dir. Gareth Edwards; 2016)

rogue one 2
Courtesy of The Daily Dot

Rogue One marks the second outing for the Disney era of Star Wars films. Lucasfilm execs opted to stay within the chronology of the first six episodic films by expanding upon a passing remark made in A New Hope -— that a team of rebels stole plans for the Death Star, a weapon capable of destroying whole planets.

RO possesses a unique visual language that draws on aesthetics seen in the original trilogy while incorporating a level of grittiness not seen before; the white stormtroopers are dirty, towns feel decrepit. It’s what you would expect from a film with the name “war” in the title. The film also attempts to muddy the waters between “hero” and “villain” in following a group of anti-heros, led by Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), whose father designed the Death Star. These ideas sound promising on paper, but outside of Jyn, rebel fighter Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and perhaps snarky droid K2S-O (Alan Tudyk), virtually all of the characters we follow throughout RO feel unnecessary. 

The first two acts are laborious filler until we get to the finale, where the gravity of this team’s situation is finally felt. The final 30 minutes are admittedly stunning, from the rag-tag team’s desperate attempts to transmit the Death Star plans to a thrilling glimpse of what Darth Vader’s (James Earl Jones) abilities looked like at the height of his powers. It’s just a shame that the rest of the film couldn’t match this same level of quality.

6. Episode III – Revenge of the Sith (Dir. George Lucas; 2005)

revenge of the sith
Courtesy of Reviews

The core problem with the prequels is that George Lucas’ ambitious scope eclipses his narrative. Revenge of the Sith is plagued by the same issues as the previous two episodes, but for the first time in this trilogy, Lucas offers a more clear sense of where he intended these films to go. 

RotS is ultimately a story about the tragic downfall of Anakin Skywalker and the rise of Darth Vader. Clunky dialogue aside, Hayden Christensen actually does a decent job of portraying Anakin’s inner conflict and sells his character’s eventual turn to the dark side with believable intensity. It’s a dark, emotional tale ultimately driven by Anakin’s love for Padme (again, no matter how questionably their relationship develops), exemplified by a haunting, wordless shot/reverse-shot between the pair as they stare across the planet Coruscant. Ewan McGregor takes further command over his role as Obi-Wan, solidifying himself as the best part of the prequel trilogy.

As with AotC, the film’s CGI ages negatively, and the climactic battle sequences become quickly fatiguing. Whereas Natalie Portman’s Padme maintained agency in the previous films, she is reduced to a non-character, the object of Anakin’s ill-fated affections. Outside of these obvious issues, RotS is a genuinely engaging watch and best showcases Lucas’ vision for this trilogy.

5. Episode VII – The Force Awakens (Dir. JJ Abrams; 2015)

The Force Awakens
Courtesy of Entertainment Weekly

I remember first hearing about Disney’s acquisition of LucasFilm on the radio back in 2012, with the promise that three new episodic Star Wars films would once again premiere in theaters. This may be sacrilegious to admit, but for a while after its release, The Force Awakens was my favorite Star Wars film. Even so, it remains as one of the best theatrical experiences I’ve ever had. 

I reviewed TFA after its release, but revisiting it in 2019 with fresh eyes have pulled into focus the film’s objective strengths and weaknesses. TFA continues to receive criticism for its similarities to A New Hope, but for the first hour of its runtime, TFA bolsters an exciting, original plot with new dynamic characters whom I believed could carry this franchise moving forward. In particular, I identified immediately with Jakku scavenger Rey (Daisy Ridley); from her dreary, precarious living situation to her heartbreaking daily routine of tallying the days since her family left her, Rey embodies the role of unlikely protagonist with a world of potential in a way I had never seen in a Star Wars film. She is naive but strong, lonely but self-sufficient, and represents the best of this new trilogy. 

The film is at its weakest when it plays too closely into familiar beats seen in the original trilogy – primarily throughout the second act. In spite of that, this was the film that catalyzed my interest in Star Wars and made me excited for the franchise’s future.

4. Episode VI – Return of the Jedi (Dir. Richard Marquand; 1983)

return of the jedi
Courtesy of drunkmonkeys.us

The Star Wars saga ended for the first time with Return of the Jedi. Our hero Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) has come into his own as a powerful Jedi, ready to face Darth Vader once and for all. This darker turn for Luke, complete with his black tunic and fun new green lightsaber, marks a satisfying character arc for this trilogy of films. The final confrontation and battle between Luke and Darth Vader holds weight due to the inner conflict raging within both characters – made that much more visceral as Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid), a wonderfully villainous edition to the series, stokes the fires from the sidelines. In the backdrop of this duel is one of the most dynamic space battles of the series. 

These moments are unfortunately undercut by a less focused plot and unfulfilling character arcs for the supporting characters. The Ewoks are fine, but they ultimately don’t have a place in this film and distract from the heightened stakes the film presents. While Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) are always engaging, they accomplish very little for the story in comparison to Luke — which is a shame, given the emotional depth that The Empire Strikes Back granted them.

Though I am grateful the universe decided to give us more Star Wars films, I imagine I would have been satisfied with the ending had it closed out here.

3. Episode VIII – The Last Jedi (Dir. Rian Johnson; 2017)

the last jedi
Courtesy of Netflix

It’s the film that prompted a frenzy of think-pieces and backlash from a vocal part of the fanbase. The Last Jedi continues Disney’s sequel saga with a story that actively challenges and deconstructs the mythos, and the result is the most innovative Star Wars film since The Empire Strikes Back. 

Director Rian Johnson zeroes in on the sequel trilogy’s two most interesting characters – Rey and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). He forces them to confront their relationship with the past, the Jedi, the Sith, and each other, vicariously allowing the audience to question these well-known elements as well. Johnson also pulls back the veil on our legendary hero Luke Skywalker; even the best of us are fallible, and there is always more learning and growing to do. However, Luke, like Rey and all those who will come after him, still represents hope in its purest form. That is the beauty of his story, and the beauty of TLJ — not to mention its visual beauty, with the best cinematography in the series. 

TLJ is also one of the few films in this saga to give each of its characters a meaningful, thematically resonant character arc. One could argue that intrigue wavers between each of these storylines; Canto Bight advances the idea that these “wars” impact the galaxy on a socioeconomic level, but is nonetheless not as interesting as Rey and Kylo’s journey with the force. That said, our heroes and villains are in an entirely different place by the end of this story emotionally.

Like TESB, TLJ is the weirder, more challenging sequel in the trilogy. Because of that, I’m willing to bet it will be the most talked about for years to come.

2. Episode IV – A New Hope (Dir. George Lucas; 1977)

a new hope
Courtesy of StarWars.com

For a long time, I thought A New Hope was just okay. The characters are iconic and the story is fun, but the film has a very distinct three-act structure that I found to be rigid and uninteresting compared to other episodes. It wasn’t until this most recent viewing where I finally understood: this is the point

ANH is the purest form of Cambellian storytelling that exists…maybe ever? A hero (Luke Skywalker) with the help of a wise mentor (Obi-Wan Kenobi, played by the exquisite Alec Guinness) and his friends (Han, Leia) works to stop an evil villain (Darth Vader). There is something incredibly gratifying about seeing an adventure story like this unfold in such an uncomplicated, energetic fashion. The deepening of these characters comes later in the trilogy, but as a standalone installment, ANH is as “Star Wars” as it gets. There’s a reason it spawned an entire universe and garnered a galaxy of fans.

1. Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back (Dir. Irvin Kershner; 1980)

empire strikes back
Courtesy of Wookiepedia

Few other films have accomplished such a perfect blend of world-building, character development, and thought provocation. The Empire Strikes Back wastes no time throwing us into the action, from Luke’s battle with a Wampa to Han and Leia’s lovers’ quarrel. The film actively challenges its characters with dire obstacles and high stakes, from Luke confronting both sides of the force during his training on Dagobah, to Han and Leia desperately fleeing the Empire. Darth Vader’s motivations also crystallize as he becomes obsessed with Luke, a relationship best encapsulated by one of the greatest revelations in film history (“No, I am your father”).

All of these paths link up again at the most stunning location in Star Wars: Cloud City on Bespin. Not only does the atmosphere of this third act firmly transport the viewer into these events, but the visual composition of the fight sequence between Luke and Vader is second to none. The film ends on a very somber note in comparison to the celebratory conclusion of ANH, hinting at what’s to come for this trilogy and this franchise. 

TESB is the rare sequel that surpasses its predecessor by offering a darker, deeper, and richer understanding of the mythology. It is, put simply, Star Wars at its very best.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s