My YouTube recommendations list typically is populated by two of my major interests — sports and Star Wars. While there’s plenty to talk about with sports, Star Wars is more niche in comparison, a nine-film saga based on the dreams of one man, George Lucas. As a movie franchise, Star Wars isn’t based in reality and is less dynamic. Yet that galaxy’s narrative and visual richness keeps me coming back and clamoring for more content, and the interest I have had since watching A New Hope before first grade hasn’t waned.
One of the most interesting topics within the Star Wars community is the evaluation of movies. Everyone loves the originals, but fans and other viewers tend to have heated debates over the merits of the prequel and sequel installments. I’m well-versed in both sides, having grown up on the prequels and having watched each of the sequels twice in theaters, and I have plenty of opinions.
Today, I will be ranking the 11 Star Wars live action films (including spin-offs) and delving into the positives and negatives as well as handing out awards. Again, this is one Star Wars fan’s point of view, and the diversity of experiences and interpretations of various viewers with the franchise lends to the series’ unique lure and place in popular culture.
This is where the fun begins…
Tier One: The Classics — Not only great Star Wars movies, but cinematic master works
1) Empire Strikes Back
MVP: Darth Vader – it’s Darth Vader’s galaxy and everyone else is living in it
Runner-Up: Lando Calrissian – Lando’s charm is an indispensable component of the Star Wars sequels
LVP: The Tauntaun — Sorry my guy, but we can’t have a 10-minute movie
Top Quote: “I know.” – Han Solo
Top Scene: Luke v. Vader Lightsaber Battle
The Good: Empire Strikes Back is both the best overall film and best Star Wars movie in the franchise and makes a strong argument for the best sequel to ever hit the big screen. What is most incredible about Empire is how efficiently it tells its stories. In contrast to the convoluted plots of the prequels and sequels, Empire travels to just three planets, Hoth, Dagobah, and Bespin/Cloud City, yet tells such a nuanced and bold tale. The film boasts the series’ best score with enduring classics including the Imperial March and Yoda’s Theme, has its finest lightsaber battle and plot twist (I can only imagine the experience of watching this fresh), and looks the cleanest visually of all of the films. Director Irvin Kirshner adds a lurking darkness to a franchise that built its fame off the predictable hero’s journey formula, yet he doesn’t strain at all to make it grittier. Each character and relationship is explored in complexity as well as the mysterious ways of the force, which is really the purpose of a sequel. And one more thing — it’s the most rewatchable installment by far, with an ending both somber and fulfilling.
The Bad: I have a really hard time picking apart this one, yet another testament to this film’s awesomeness. But to pick one sequence that just doesn’t live up to the rest of the film, I would point to the space slug detour as the Millenium Falcon flees the Empire’s grasp. There’s a bit of a lag and the sequence doesn’t add much to the film, but even this relative lag can be justified by its character development and world building.
Bottom Line: Empire Strikes Back follows a philosophy of less is more and takes Star Wars in a bold, creative direction. The second Star Wars movie has aged gracefully and seemingly gets better every time.
2) Revenge of the Sith
MVP: Supreme Chancellor Palpatine/Darth Sidious — Ian McDiarmid’s over-the-top performance is juicy and must-watch material.
Runner-Up: Bail Organa — He loses democracy, but Bail shows decisive action, forms the Rebel Alliance, and gains an adopted daughter to continue his legacy in Princess Leia.
LVP: Mace Windu — Windu is amazing with his purple lightsaber, but his moral judgment emphasizes every frustrating flaw with the Jedi way of thinking. Plus, he could have moved his lightsaber a couple inches ahead instead of winding up with his lightsaber and the Republic would be saved.
Top Quote: “Have you ever heard the tale of Darth Plagueis the Wise?” – Chancellor Palpatine
Top Scene: Anakin’s Final Decision
The Good: In contrast, Revenge of the Sith believes more is more and succeeds in its own way. I called ROTS a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions in a final paper for a college class. The movie capitalizes on the impressive world building of the prequel trilogy and uses the exploration of Anakin Skywalker’s moral ambiguity to tell a compelling story in which the ending is known the second audiences walk into the theater. The quantity and quality of the action sequences is unparalleled, and though the dialogue is stilted at times, the fan engagement over 15 years after its release (the memes) speaks volumes about ROTS’ complexity and fun factor. The greatness of this film makes all of the mess of the prequel films worth it, and stands as one of the greatest action films in Hollywood history.
The Bad: I could go after the dialogue or the romance between Anakin and Padme, but I actually bought into them as a kid and it doesn’t bother me over my many rewatches. What irritates me more is the could-have of Revenge of the Sith, the missing piece that would have made it perfect while still keeping the epic scale. I am talking about Padme’s revolt, a storyline initially written into the script of Revenge of the Sith and one that even leaked into deleted scenes about the formation of the Rebel Alliance. The story is about Anakin, but slotting Padme in a position of complete deference after her powerful presence in the first two prequels is a disservice. George Lucas should have stuck to his decision to have Padme try to kill Anakin on Mustafar, which would have A) covered the plot hole of Padme dying of sadness B) continued Padme as a force to be reckoned with C) covered up the actual Padme-Anakin confrontation that takes the air out of ROTS’ sails before its climax and D) made Anakin’s moral degradation all the more tragic.
Bottom Line: Revenge of the Sith is the most ambitious Star Wars film and falls short in some components, but it fulfills its premise and the premise of the prequel trilogy. It’s the Star Wars film that resonates with me the most, and poses questions that still twist my mind all these years later.
3) A New Hope
MVP: Princess Leia — Leia has swagger from the first moment she appears on screen to the last, providing an inspiring counterweight to the more traditional character of Luke Skywalker. She’s fearless, witty and a worthy leader for the Rebel Alliance.
Runner-Up: Luke Skywalker — We are introduced to the wonders of the Force through Luke’s eyes, and his journey from nobody to ace pilot is the highlight of the film.
LVP: Jabba the Hutt — Edited in for the updated cut of A New Hope, Jabba 1) should not be in the movie and 2) is called “a good man.”
Top Quote: “Never tell me the odds.” – Han Solo
Top Scene: Luke Learns the Force
The Good: In reality, A New Hope is significantly below the excellence of 3 and 5, but it makes this tier based on the fact that it introduced viewers to the Star Wars universe and did it in an engaging and time-tested way. The film strikes a balance between introducing its imaginative universe and the ways of the force with building its story of a young moisture farmer who wants to make a difference. The OG Star Wars is responsible for the most enduring images of the saga, from the two-sun sunset of Tatooine to the piloting heroics of Luke Skywalker to the lightsaber battle, and has to be considered the most iconic. It started the Star Wars craze!
The Bad: The pacing of A New Hope is on the laborious side, and as a result it does not age as well as its immediate companion, Empire Strikes Back. While the overall concept is creative, the hero’s journey concept is executed to a T, in contrast to some of the more interesting plots and risks of subsequent installments.
Bottom Line: George Lucas had one shot to hit it big with his out-of-this-world concept, and in delivering A New Hope he hits the reactor shaft just like his protagonist by telling a triumphant and enduring story of an underdog overcoming an evil force. The film doesn’t reach the heights of some of the other installments, but it laid the groundwork and resonates to this day.
Tier Two: The Great Rewatches — If it’s on TV, I’m not changing the channel
4) The Force Awakens
MVP: Finn — He’s the most interesting character in the movie as a stormtrooper-turned-rebel, and he’s hugely relatable.
Runner-Up: Maz Kanata — A fun sequel answer to Yoda.
LVP: Captain Phasma — Not even the chromium armor can make up for an underwhelming showing.
Top Quote: “That’s not how the Force works!” – Han Solo
Top Scene: Rey Pilots the Falcon
The Good: The fact that The Force Awakens is basically a reboot doesn’t bother me. Really, it doesn’t. It’s a time-tested formula that was updated for modern tastes, and there’s enough mixture between old and new to keep me on the edge of my seat. The Resistance trio of scavenger Rey, pilot Poe, and former stormtrooper Finn gives the series a new cast of characters that are extremely likeable and competent, if less iconic. Disney understands how to bring the classic franchise to modern age with breathtaking but more practical special effects, plus pulls all the right strings with beloved characters Han Solo and Leia Organa. Force Awakens also has the greatest intrinsic humor (intrinsic, as in, not counting memes) of any Star Wars film.
The Bad: My biggest gripes with The Force Awakens take root in its own iteration of the Empire, this one called the First Order. This new power is an exact retread of the Empire and its Death Star, requiring the same plot to overtake it and not providing any backstory or nuance to its rise after the destruction of the Empire in Return of the Jedi (basically, the world-building is deficient). I also did not buy into Kylo Ren in this film. He’s an Anakin Skywalker devoid of swagger, with a temper that detracts from the intimidation factor. Snoke also leaves something to be desired in a villain behind the strings.
Bottom Line: Maybe the idea of a sequel trilogy was flawed from the start, but The Force Awakens carried with it such promise that it was impossible not to be optimistic about the future of Star Wars. 7’s promising leads were never fully realized, but TFA still stands as a very watchable film that stays true to the Star Wars spirit.
5) Rogue One
MVP: Darth Vader — Vader’s castle on Mustafar is a welcome addition, but he really steals the show in his chilling spree of Rebel casualties near the film’s end.
Runner-Up: K-2SO — Witty commentary from a droid. Who would have thought?
LVP: Sol Gerrera — The wispy voice and heavy breathing is a bit much, but the “Bor Gullet” really puts Forest Whittaker’s character from over-the-top to over-over-the-top.
Top Quote: “I am one with the Force and the Force is with me.” – Chirrut Imwe
Top Scene: Vader on Tantive IV
The Good: Each time I watch Rogue One, it gets better. The first Star Wars spinoff was unabashedly bold, beautiful and meaningful to the Star Wars universe. The exposition provides an excellent sense of urgency and stakes, while the finale on the beaches of Scarriff is as great an end to a Star Wars movie as you could find (outside of Empire Strikes Back). I love the fan service of Darth Vader’s appearances, as well as smaller cameos from Leia, Bail Organa, the droids, and others, and Rogue One as a whole demonstrated a genuine appreciation and understanding of the Star Wars ethos.
The Bad: I did not remember any of the new characters’ names. That doesn’t take away from my enjoyment of the action-packed film (one I called Battlefront on the big screen after I first saw the trailer), but it just signifies a missed opportunity for Rogue One to create compelling characters that hold their ground among the greats of the Star Wars galaxy.
Bottom Line: Rogue One single-handedly justifies the Disney-Star Wars merger, telling an entertaining and novel story that feels essential to the Skywalker saga. Of course, it’s hard to go wrong when you have Darth Vader.
Tier Three: The Good Rewatches — Due for another rewatch in five years
6) Rise of Skywalker
MVP: Princess Leia — Carrie Fisher’s last appearance on the big screen does her character justice.
Runner-Up: Rey — Rey is the best part about the sequel trilogy, and she *handles* every opponent.
LVP: Finn — He does little of consequence, and could have been soooo much more as a character.
Top Quote: “Empress Palpatine.” – Emperor Palpatine
Top Scene: Rey v. Kylo Ren
The Good: The Rise of Skywalker made every decision I wanted it to make, which was extremely pleasing during my first viewing. Exposing Rey as a Palpatine is an excellent choice that I will defend until the banthas come home. Yes, the “Rey’s a nobody” is an inspiring plotline, but at the same time, Star Wars is a saga about a family’s legacy, and creating this dynamic with Rey as a preordained empress is awesome. The plot doesn’t lag all that much, despite its retread of the “treasure hunt” formula that the sequels absolutely loved to follow. Kylo Ren was a likeable character as a redeemed villain, all while being a more-than-capable lightsaber duelist. The Rey-Kylo Ren duel on the Death Star remains is one of the best in the saga, as is the confrontation between Rey and Emperor Palpatine with the voices of all of the Jedi. Luke and Han made excellent appearances that wrapped up their character arcs well, and I’m always down for more Lando.
The Bad: I’ll get this out of the way first — the Kylo-Rey kiss. It should not have happened, because it cheapened a “Force dyad” relationship that went beyond a Hollywood romance. I gasped, wiggled around, and almost threw up when I first saw it in the theaters. I also was of the Rey-Finn shipper tribe, and I was disappointed to see that not work out. More broadly, while Rise of Skywalker was entertaining, it added almost nothing to Star Wars lore. It took everything from Force Awakens and made it bigger (after Force Awakens took everything from A New Hope and made it bigger), and the stakes never seemed that dire for Rey to resist the Dark Side. Also, nearly nobody dies! C-3PO dies, Rey dies, Chewbacca dies, Kylo dies — they all come back! That’s not counting the film’s villain, Emperor Palpatine, who resurrects without any explanation! The treasure hunt for the Sith holocron does not take Star Wars storytelling in new directions and is an inefficient use of Star Wars screen time.
Bottom Line: I advocate for Rise of Skywalker more than most. Last Jedi director Rian Johnson put it in a tough position from a continuity standpoint, and J.J. Abrams made a movie that was at least worth the price of admission to watch it. Not much more than a guilty pleasure movie and it certainly swung back too far in the copycat direction, but not a tough watch at all.
7) The Last Jedi
MVP: Kylo Ren — Flexes his muscles both literally and figuratively and proves worthy of his position of sequel villain.
Runner-Up: Broom Boy — The on-screen manifestation of every little boy or girl who has picked up a Hasbro lightsaber.
LVP: Admiral Holdo — Every second with Holdo is brutal.
Top Quote: “Amazing, every word you said… was wrong.” – Luke Skywalker
Top Scene: Kylo v. Luke
The Good: Rian Johnson is a great director and it shows. The Last Jedi has some of the most stunning shots of any Star Wars film, from the visuals of the ice planet Crete to the spectacular Praetorian Guard fight scene that is bathed in red. Snoke, who I didn’t really like, died early, while Kylo Ren emerged as a more promising and conflicted villain. His shirtless Force chat with Rey was comedy gold. There is a real sense of stakes and the sobering ending is a solid move for the middle movie. The world-building on Canto Byte is an underrated positive for me, and Johnson’s use of “broom boy” gave the sequels exactly what it should have featured from the beginning — a sense of impact. I’m not even all that against the Luke Skywalker-as-a-hermit development, and I loved the Luke-Kylo confrontation on Crete. The action is consistently excellent.
The Bad: Rian Johnson should NEVER have directed a Star Wars movie. By going in the exact opposite direction of Force Awakens, Johnson tanked the sequel trilogy and fractured the Star Wars fan base. This film was an ego trip, maybe a great idea for a solo project like the very fun Knives Out but terrible for a franchise that is steeped so much in legacy and a dedicated fan following. Every decision Johnson made was to be a contrarian, and while some worked (Snoke’s death), others doomed the trilogy. Johnson believed that he was making the greatest movie he could and that the ends would justify the means and make it a great Star Wars movie, but the film isn’t even entirely coherent. Johnson falls for the classic sequel trope of a treasure hunt and doesn’t go anywhere with it, but my greatest gripe is with Admiral Holdo, played by the usually excellent Laura Dern. She spends the whole movie deriding Poe as a flyboy, making each encounter miserable and taking the air out of not only Poe’s sails, but Star Wars fans in search of the gunslinging, exciting Star Wars spirit. Leia’s Force pull and the Holdo maneuver don’t mesh. Similarly, I didn’t agree with Rey’s reveal as a nobody and much preferred the Palpatine reveal in IX. While I am not as vehemently opposed to Luke’s character as many Star Wars fans have been, his character had more potential as a more optimistic force in the universe. I may be missing something.
Bottom Line: The Last Jedi is an extremely divisive movie, dividing not only the Star Wars fanbase but also my own feelings. It’s the most well-made and boldest movie, but also the worst fit for the Star Wars universe. Rey’s journey, the best part of the sequels, takes center stage, but the Poe-Finn-Holdo garbage takes away from the experience. I’ll watch this movie again in the future, but when I do, I’m sure to have those strange feelings of disgust and fulfillment that enshroud my VIII opinions now.
8) Return of the Jedi
MVP: Force Ghost Hayden Christensen — He appears in a movie that was released before he was even born.
Runner-Up: Luke Skywalker — Luke at the height of his (on-screen) powers and wisdom.
LVP: Boba Fett — An iconic character meets an ignominious and clumsy end.
Top Quote: “It’s a trap!” – Admiral Ackbar
Top Scene: Luke v. Darth Vader
The Good: Anything with Luke and Darth Vader is pure gold. Luke’s sand barge heroics are excellent, but his confrontation with Vader and Darth Sidious signal the completion of his character development and provide a fulfilling ending to the glorious original trilogy. Vader’s redemption completes Anakin’s arc, the best of the Star Wars saga. The idea of a ground and air attack on the Death Star II is a much-needed wrinkle to the blow-up-the-Death-Star formula and gives the third act a plot counterweight to the more crucial relationship between Luke and Vader.
The Bad: Everything else. I’m really harsh on this movie. Jabba the Hutt may be my least favorite Star Wars character and the film toils in his palace for an eternity, with seemingly no purpose outside of freeing Han Solo and showing Luke’s development as a lightsaber wielder. The Ewok-inhabited moon of Endor doesn’t hit it off right, either, with its goofiness failing to match the urgency of the Luke-Vader material. Return of the Jedi doesn’t stand out aesthetically or from a musical perspective, and — hot take incoming — the film is overall closer to the Holiday Special than Empire Strikes Back. I was never a fan of this movie as a kid, and I’ve never been able to latch onto the hype since.
Bottom Line: Return of the Jedi has some Empire Strikes Back-level material and finishes on a high note, but so much of this film is better suited for a TV show than a much-anticipated finale to a historic franchise.
9) Attack of the Clones
MVP: Obi-Wan Kenobi — The Sherlock Holmes of the Star Wars universe.
Runner-Up: Jango Fett — He ends AOTC with no head, but Fett is the coolest bounty hunter in the galaxy with an array of weapons and a sick color scheme, plus has millions of look-alikes.
LVP: Jar-Jar Binks — He’s worse in this movie, going from goofy companion to a sore thumb.
Top Quote: “I’m just a simple man trying to make my way in the universe.” – Jango Fett
Top Scene: Obi Wan v. Jango
The Good: Attack of the Clones is essential to the Skywalker Saga and fleshes out the Star Wars galaxy much more than its predecessor, setting the groundwork for the epic that is Revenge of the Sith. The whole half of the movie in which Obi-Wan uncovers the plot to create a Clone Army is excellent, highlighted by scenes in the Coruscant nightlife scene, the Jedi library, Kamino cloning facilities and an asteroid field. The Obi-Wan-Jango battle on rainy Kamino is the rare lightsaber vs. weapons fight and could be even better than Duel of the Fates. The locations are easy on the eyes, from the meadows of Naboo to the levels of Coruscant to the futuristic Kamino facilities, and some of the meme-worthy material from Revenge of the Sith has similar material here. I love the visuals of Anakin racing across the desert with Duel of the Fates, of the Clone Armies lining up, and of the Death Star plans being formulated. Also, sign me up for Yoda with a lightsaber.
The Bad: The Anakin-Padme romance is the key plotline of this whole movie, and due to laughable dialogue and acting, a slow pace, and just an unignorable feasibility quotient, it falls flat. While the Obi-Wan mystery is entertaining, the film loses steam and just tanks in its finale and the Geonosis sequences are bantha fodder.
Bottom Line: Attack of the Clones fails as a movie and the sum is far from greater than the parts, but those parts that are good make it worth the rewatch. AOTC also has a bit of the prequels magic that elevates Revenge of the Sith to overcome its flaws.
Tier Four: Flawed, But Still Star Wars
10) Phantom Menace
MVP: Darth Maul — Maul oozes with swagger and provides the prequels’ only real answer to Darth Vader.
Runner-Up: Padme Amidala — She has an amazing wardrobe, pulls off an incredible stowaway maneuver, and is the subject of pickup lines from a nine-year-old. How she should have been in Revenge of the Sith…
LVP: Jar-Jar Binks
Top Quote: “I don’t care what galaxy you’re from, that one’s gotta hurt.” – Fode and Beed
Top Scene: Duel of the Fates
The Good: Two characters, and both fight in the same duel — Darth Maul and Qui-Gon Jinn. Maul is the only villain to really live up to Darth Vader, backing up his menacing appearance with wicked double-bladed lightsaber skills. He oozes cool. On the flip side of the force, Qui-Gon Jinn is the character who makes Phantom Menace somewhat of an essential aspect of the Skywalker saga. His conflict with the Jedi Order, in which he is wary of their overreliance on tradition, foretells flaws in the Order. Jinn is an interesting study next to Obi-Wan Kenobi, Anakin’s future master, and his death alters the course of Anakin’s Jedi path. He’s the rare character who is more virtuous and wise than the Jedi, yet he meets an early end at the hands of Darth Maul. The finale’s pretty good. I’d also throw in some of the Anakin storyline, which explores his tension about slavery and having to leave his mother, forces that will motivate him the rest of his six movies. Sadly, it’s also Natalie Portman’s Padme at her best.
The Bad: The Phantom Menace is the Five Below version of Star Wars. The movie is goofy with kid actors and characters like Jar-Jar Binks, copies the Star Wars formula with a Trade Federation ship in place of the Death Star, and doesn’t have the feel of the other main Star Wars films. The incorporation of sports, in the form of podracing, copies the Ben-Hur race move for move and does little to advance the plot. From a world-building standpoint, The Phantom Menace doesn’t do as much as the other prequels, and the later ones don’t capitalize on anything TPM created. I have yet to discuss Jar-Jar Binks.
Bottom Line: Take out Darth Maul and Qui-Gon, and there would be almost no reason to watch The Phantom Menace. The film doesn’t add much intrinsic value itself and is a bit of a grueling rewatch, though any investment kind of pays off at the end. I love it for being a Star Wars movie, and little else.
MVP: Lando Calrissian — His gambling scenes are a pleasure to watch, and every moment is a master class in style.
Runner-Up: Dryden Vos — Everything a crime lord should be, with a chilling look and gunfight skills.
LVP: L3-37 — Unlike her spinoff counterpart in K2SO, L3-37 is a highly annoying and delusional droid.
Top Quote: “Han…Solo.” – Imperial Officer
Top Scene: Han v. Dryden Vos
The Good: Donald Glover as Lando Calrissian is an A+ casting. Solo does delve into the smuggler lifestyle more than the major films can afford to do, with a couple entertaining mission scenes and the Kessel Run. The confrontations between the gangsters are the film’s high points, culminating in the reveal of Darth Maul as a galactic crime boss.
The Bad: The movie concept is flawed. There is nothing in Solo that makes it an essential Star Wars viewing, and worst of all, I never bought into having a new actor convince me he’s Han Solo. Plus, Han’s journey into some level of morality starts at the beginning of A New Hope. The film’s visual themes are gray and lifeless. Solo’s greatest crime, though, is the absence of Skywalkers. They’re the whole reason why the Star Wars universe is compelling, and without them Solo lacks the Star Wars magic.
Bottom Line: Solo is an interesting compendium to the Star Wars universe, but far from an essential one.