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'Punch it!' Every 'Star Wars' movie, ranked
We're celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Special Edition of Return of the Jedi with a look back at all the galactic adventures to hit the big screen so far.
A quarter-century ago, there was a great disturbance in the Force, as if dozens of Ewok voices suddenly cried out “Yub Nub” and were suddenly silenced — replaced by a brand-new John Williams composition. Yes, 25 years ago today, the Special Edition of Return of the Jedi hit theaters, capping off a series of retooled re-releases of the original trilogy that helped get a new generation interested in Star Wars and paved the way for the prequel trilogy, TV shows, a Disney acquisition, the sequel trilogy, standalone films, Mandalorians, and much more.
The Return of the Jedi Special Edition doesn’t have anything as controversial as A New Hope’s “Han shot second” moment, but your milage may vary on whether “Jedi Rocks” makes up for losing “Yup Nub,” or if you prefer a more bare bones Sarlacc. Rather than get caught up ranking Editions, though, let’s take a step back and rank all of the Star Wars movies. As always, this list comprises our personal opinions, so we apologize in advance if your favorites aren't ranked higher than you think they should be. We should also note that this story only touches on the Star Wars projects released into theaters, which means we won't be looking at made-for-TV movies or specials. Our deepest apologies to the Caravan of Courage die-hards.
12. Star Wars: The Clone Wars (2008)
Aside from giving us an excellent TV show, the character of Ahsoka Tano, and laying the groundwork for Dave Filoni's bright future at Lucasfilm, there are not many praises to be sung for The Clone Wars movie.
This backdoor pilot for the critically-acclaimed animated series did not need to be released in theaters. In fact, it was rather cruel to do so after fans were jonesing for more Star Wars content after the release of Episode III three years prior. The blocky and cheap-looking animation — as well as the blatant lack of original cast members (except for Samuel L. Jackson and Christopher Lee for some reason) — was not exactly the continuation audiences were hoping for. Still, the plot — which takes place between Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith — is rather memorable, involving a nefarious political plot to turn Jabba the Hutt against the Republic.
Star Wars: Episode IX - The Rise of Skywalker (2019)
J.J. Abrams' conclusion to the sequel trilogy has some fun moments on a first watch, but the bloated and uneven sequel does not hold up to scrutiny upon subsequent viewings. The worst thing about it is that it bends over backwards to recton all the interesting ideas that Rian Johnson set up in The Last Jedi. Rey is no one special? Nope, just kidding, she's a Palpatine! That Force-sensitive kid with the broom? Never heard of him. The Emperor is still alive even though we saw him thrown into the reactor of the Death Star? Quiet, you!
All the more frustrating is the supposedly leaked script for Colin Trevorrow's take on Episode IX (originally titled Duel of the Fates) before he parted ways with the project. Now, there's no telling if Trevorrow's version would have been any better, but the grass is always greener, right? Then you've got all the unused ideas Abrams and co-screenwriter Chris Terrio came up with that Lucasfilm surprisingly included in the film's making-of book. A monstrous Sith Lord and the Ahch-To caretakers "acting as assassins" were some of the really cool-sounding stuff we missed out on.
The sequel trilogy turned out to be nothing more than a tug-of-war between dueling (no pun intended) creative ideas vying for control. All of the toxic fan backlash didn't help.
10. Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace (1999)
In the face of the sequel trilogy, fans are now coming to reevaluate the much-maligned prequels (it wouldn't be the first time a Star Wars movie was misunderstood upon its initial release). However, it's hard to overstate the crushing disappointment viewers felt back in 1999 when The Phantom Menace first arrived on the big screen.
George Lucas has stated time and again that these movies were made with kids in mind, but what child in their right mind gives a hoot about the Trade Federation's blockade of Naboo?What the hell is a Trade Federation, anyway? Political themes and concepts don't exactly equate to the thrill of lightsabers battles and aerial dogfights against a space station capable of blowing up an entire planet.
For many kids, this was their first introduction to the Star Wars universe and just as he did on the OT, Lucas began pushing the boundaries of what was possible with visual effects at the time. An over-reliance on green screen and CGI virtual sets would come to define the prequels in a slightly negative way, but you have to understand that no one else in Hollywood was doing it on a similar scale. There are some truly striking visuals in The Phantom Menace — whether it's Jar Jar swimming toward the eerie glowing lights of the underwater Gungan city or the entire podracing sequence on Tatooine that gave us an N64 classic.
Of course, everyone remembers Episode I for one thing in particular: Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan's lightsaber battle against Darth Maul set to John Williams' "Duel of the Fates." And for good reason — this scene was exactly what fans had been waiting for for over a decade. For many, though, one thrilling lightsaber brawl could not make up for the rest of the movie's more frustrating elements.
One thing you cannot deny is the pitch perfect casting of Ewan McGregor as young Obi-Wan.
9. Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones (2002)
Ah yes, we've reached the movie that gave us Anakin's infamous tirade against sand.
Set ten years after The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones tracks the budding romance between Padme and Anakin, which is kind of creepy when you give it even more than a second of thought. How many fully-grown adults can say they fell in love with someone they knew as a little kid?
As per usual, John Williams does a lot of the heavy lifting, conveying the tragic love story through a truly moving score (try to tell us with a straight face that this track doesn't go hard). Hayden Christensen's acting, as we all know, isn't the best in the world, but Lucas does a nice job of putting Anakin at a crossroads, making him choose between the lonely life of a Jedi and being with the people he loves.
The real joy of Attack of the Clones — at least for us — is the Obi-Wan side of the story, which sees the character shift into hardboiled detective mode as he tracks down the clone army on Kamino (where it is learned that Temuera Morrison's Jango Fett served as the genetic blueprint for all of the clone soldiers). Everything converges in the rip-roaring climax on Geonosis, which gives us a Roman coliseum battle against horrific alien monsters, a tease of the Death Star, and Yoda being a total badass.
All of this and more makes Episode II more enjoyable than its predecessor.
8. Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith (2005)
The best of the prequels, Episode III really puts the "opera" in "space opera." Even if Anakin's staggering fall from grace (designed and executed by Chancellor Palpatine) does feel a tad rushed near the end, Lucas holds everything in context via the character's relationships with Padme and Obi-Wan.
Their shock and horror at what Anakin has become party to is enough to convince us of the dark days we know lie ahead. It's at times gut-wrenchingly tragic, especially once Obi-Wan leaves his Padawan for dead on Mustafar after a spectacular lightsaber battle between teacher and student across an ocean of lava. You may be one of those people who pokes fun at the Darth Vader yelling "NOOOOOO" scene, but it's the moment that demarcates Anakin's transformation into a Sith Lord. With that final scream of agony, he fully lets go of his humanity, becoming the unfeeling monster we know him to be.
The very last scene in which Obi-Wan hands baby Luke off to his aunt and uncle on Tatooine as the soundtrack swells to the iconic notes of "Binary Sunset" never fails to send a beautifully haunting chill down our spines.
7. Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018)
It's kind of surprising how well this origin movie turned out, despite the widely-publicized production troubles (mainly the firing of Phil Lord and Chris Miller six months into shooting). Come on, we got to see the frickin' Kessel Run and it was even more epic than the offhand references made to it over the years. Oscar-winner Ron Howard did his best to salvage the project and the end result is rather commendable, capturing the seedier parts of the galaxy far, far away.
More importantly, Alden Ehrenreich turned out to be perfectly cast with his take on our favorite scruffy-looking nerf herder falling in that sweet spot between tribute to a young Harrison Ford and doing something all his own. Donald Glover (Lando Calrissian), Paul Bettany (Dryden Vos), and Woody Harrelson (Beckett) showed a similar panache for bringing their own scoundrels to life. There's a lot to like — from a tragic love story involving Han's old flame (Emilia Clarke) to an explanation for why the Millennium Falcon's computer is so foul-mouthed.
Not everything about it is perfect (the lighting can be a little dark at times and the first encounter between Han and Chewie is on the weaker side, after years of hearing about the life debt between them), but Solo is a fun and competently made Star Wars project that deserved more than it got. The tease of seeing Jabba the Hutt and Darth Maul in future outings we'll probably never get to see (ones Ehrenreich had already signed up for) still hurts three years later.
6. Star Wars: Episode VIII - The Last Jedi (2017)
Perhaps the most contentious movie on this list, Rian Johnson's polarizing contribution to the Star Wars mythos sought to subvert everything set up in The Force Awakens. Who is Rey? She's no one! Is Supreme Leader Snoke an ancient Sith Lord? Doesn't matter, he's dead now! These narrative decisions made a lot of fans upset, but Johnson was, in a lot of ways, cutting against the grain here. He wanted to deconstruct our nostalgia and shoot down every cliche we've come to expect from the series.
Whether that worked for you or not is immaterial. You can't deny the sheer amount of chutzpah on display in The Last Jedi, which is easily one of the best-looking Star Wars projects ever made (shoutout to cinematographer Steve Yedlin). The grand battle between good vs. evil in the vast reaches of outer space is re-contextualized as a futile exercise, whose only benefit is to line the pockets of the galaxy's rich upper class. Is it a jaded attitude to have? Sure, but that's what growing is all about: taking off the rose-colored glasses of childhood and seeing the world for what it truly is. Johnson effectively grounded one of the most fantastical properties in human existence, which wasn't something a lot of audiences were ready to handle.
No character embodies this theme better than Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), who renounced his commitment to the Jedi cause and became a reclusive hermit out in the middle of nowhere. When he tosses his old lightsaber over his shoulder as though it were a piece of trash, you laugh in shock and surprise and a little bit of dismay. You start to wonder how our idyllic hero of the OT could have fallen so low. From here, begins a truly redemptive character arc in which Luke recognizes the error of his ways.
Is The Last Jedi an untouchable masterpiece? No, but Johnson's gumption to go against everything we know about Star Wars is a beautiful thing. If only Rise of Skywalker had been able to carry it all home.
5. Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens (2015)
Is The Force Awakens just a Xerox of A New Hope? Yes. Did it reintroduce the Star Wars film franchise to audiences in the most entertaining way possible? Also yes.
Director J.J. Abrams and his co-screenwriter, Lawrence Kasdan (The Empire Strikes Back), knew they couldn't veer too far off the path with something radically different. It'd been a full decade since Revenge of the Sith and audiences needed to be gently lulled back into the galaxy far, far away with something that was new, yet comforting.
And that's what Episode VII is: A steaming hot bowl of your grandmother's chicken noodle soup — warm, filling, and dependable every time. It unabashedly trades in nostalgia to a fault. How exactly did the First Order gain a foothold right under the new Republic's nose? The Mandalorian seems to be on the road to answering that question, but it would've been nice to have some context rather than just being asked to accept this knockoff Empire that has its own version of the Death Star...but bigger.
Still, The Force Awakens delivers a great deal of charm, particularly in its commitment to practical alien effects and puppetry that harken back to the original films. Moreover, the new roster of characters carries a ton of promise. The idea of a disillusioned and potentially Force-sensitive Stormtrooper (John Boyega's Finn) and Vader's insecure and infantile grandson (Adam Driver's Kylo Ren) were intriguing archetypes that the sequel movies never quite knew what to do with.
But hey, the visual of Kylo Ren literally stopping a blaster bolt in midair was such a jaw-dropping way to open the movie. Giving us that familiar iconography with an unexpected twist is an example of what legacy sequels can do when firing on all cylinders. On that front, at least, The Force Awakens, succeeds.
4. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)
Serving as prequel lead-in to the events of A New Hope, Rogue One is the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead of Star Wars movies. It's an unexpected detour into the life and times of the minor players in a much larger story. No Jedis or princesses here — just tired, blue collar spies trying to survive another day in their losing battle against the Galactic Empire. The characters are memorable and the mature exploration of the cost of war would be further explored a year later in The Last Jedi.
In addition, director Gareth Edwards' gritty, on-the-ground style is such a refreshing departure from previous installments and really finds its footing in the last act when Rogue One turns into a full-on war movie. Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) and Cassian Andor's (Diego Luna) secret mission to infiltrate the Imperial archives on Scarif to retrieve the Death Star plans is everything you want it to be: tense, explosive, clever, and above all, emotionally cathartic.
Capping the whole thing off with that Vader hallway sequence is just *chef's kiss*. If you didn't squeal with kid-like joy in the darkened movie theater as Vader absolutely decimated the Rebellion grunts in brutal fashion, then there is something truly wrong with you. Getting to hear James Earl Jones voicing the character again was also a huge plus.
Yes, there are plenty of narrative and structural problems with the movie, owing to extensive reshoots that were ordered by Disney after principal photography had already wrapped. With that said, Rogue One does so much right, that most of its flaws can be overlooked (much like the Death Star's thermal exhaust port). The movie's $1 billion box office gross and upcoming prequel spinoff on Disney+, Andor, would probably agree with us on that front.
3. Star Wars: Episode VI - Return of the Jedi (1983)
Who doesn't love a good Ewok? Not the best out of the original trilogy, but not without its charms, Return of the Jedi wrapped up the OG saga in a neat — if slightly repetitive, way — We'd seen the mission to blow up the Death Star already and having to do it all over again doesn't feel as exciting or fresh as it did two movies ago.
The real appeal here is Vader's ultimate redemption and return to the good side, though Anakin's actions in the prequels kind of make it hard to truly the character as a true pure-of-heart hero. But that's the beauty of it all: nuance. For our money, though, Return of the Jedi really peaks in the first half hour or so with the whole rescue mission at Jabba's Palace. Luckily, we'll get to revisit the fallout of Jabba's death in the upcoming Book of Boba Fett.
2. Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope (1977)
You can't really argue with the classics.
Indeed, Episode IV would probably be at the top movie on our list, had its direct sequel not done everything the first one did, but better. However, we wouldn't have Star Wars without A New Hope. George Lucas and his fledgling VFX company we now know as Industrial Light & Magic changed everything with their little space opera that now spans a multimedia and multi-billion dollar franchise. Spielberg may have invented the summer blockbuster with Jaws two years prior, but Lucas gave it a shot of adrenaline right to the heart. All at once, science fiction was in and all other genres were out.
Audiences couldn't get enough of Darth Vader, the princess with the strange buns on either side of her head, a pair of bickering droids, glowing rapiers, or the young moisture farmer from Tatooine who pined for something greater. This bubbling creative froth of Akira Kurosawa, Frank Herbert, Flash Gordon rewrote the face of pop culture forevermore.
1. Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
Woefully misunderstood upon its initial release, second Star Wars film ever produced is now considered the pinnacle of the entire franchise (no subsequent entry has really topped it yet). Dark, action-packed, and containing what might be the most quoted line in cinema history, The Empire Strike Back is the exemplar of a sequel done right on every possible level.
When you think of Darth Vader — inarguably one of the greatest movie villains ever created — you think of this movie, which gave us John Williams' iconic "Imperial March." When you hear someone say "I am your father" in a cheap imitation of James Earl Jones' deep and bassy voice, they're referencing this movie. The ravenous fan devotion for Boba Fett? Yeah, Empire marked the bounty hunter's live-action debut.
The not-so-happy ending, in which Luke has his hand sliced off and Han is frozen in carbonite, created a ripple effect for other massive blockbusters like Avengers: Infinity War. Sometimes, the bad guys win and the heroes can only sit down and lick their wounds, hoping they'll get another shot at saving the day.
The Empire Strikes Back is, without question, a cinematic and cultural masterpiece.