Across four decades, three trilogies, 12 theatrical films, seven animated series, countless theme park rides, a holiday special, all kinds of continuation novels, and enough merchandising deals to fill the belly of a Sarlacc, Star Wars has pervaded pop culture like no film franchise before or since.
Like Luke Skywalker looking to the stars and wondering what it would be like to sit in the cockpit of an X-wing, it all began as the dream of one man who thought it would be neat to mash up Akira Kurosawa with Flash Gordon. And he was right: it was neat.
Over the years, the fandom of Star Wars has taken on a life of its own, spurring impassioned debates on every last detail from whether Han shot first to whether Jar Jar Binks might actually have been a powerful and cunning Sith Lord all along. Fans exploring and exploding the mythology beyond what’s on-screen has been one of the greatest contributions to the franchise’s longevity, and the films of Star Wars have provided no shortage of content to parse.
With 12 theatrical films (and counting), the saga has experienced its share of triumphant trench runs and spectacular podracer crashes. Some will die on the hill of the prequels while others consider Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi a misunderstood masterpiece on par with The Empire Strikes Back.
The only thing true about ranking Star Wars movies is that there are no absolutes. (Unless the list has been made by a Wookiee ... in which case, for my own safety, I’m prepared to completely agree with said Wookiee’s preferences.)
Without further Artoo, you had better hang on to your astromech droids because we’re about to lightspeed it into the ultimate ranking of every theatrical Star Wars film.
12. The Last Jedi (2017)
The most fascinating thing about The Last Jedi might in fact be the series of interviews leading up to the film’s release where Mark Hamill hems and haws his way around promoting the movie and eventually grows brazen enough to the point he’s plainly admitting he told writer-director Rian Johnson, “I fundamentally disagree with virtually everything you’ve decided about my character.” He was not wrong about the film’s representation of Luke.
The Last Jedi was the second film of the Disney trilogy (or to use the Friends naming system: “The One Where They Made It All Up As They Went Along”). The Force Awakens ended on a tremendous cliffhanger with force-sensitive Rey seeking out Luke to hand him his old lightsaber and begin her Jedi training. A sequel should have seen Luke emerge from obscurity to uphold the Jedi code and stand for all the things that had once mattered to him. Instead, he throws his lightsaber over his shoulder and announces, “The Jedi must end,” and in that perfectly baffling gesture the film’s overarching response to the history of Star Wars can be neatly summarized.
Just about every creative decision here spurns both classic Star Wars lore and the promising storylines and character arcs that had been set up by The Force Awakens. Reformed stormtrooper Finn gets funneled into a tangential subplot involving a bunch of hyena-horses. General Hux is promptly (and quite literally) reduced to a joke. Captain Phasma is bumped off without ceremony. Snoke, who might otherwise have served as the primary antagonist of the next film, is indiscriminately bisected for little apparent reason. By the time Leia gets blown up in a ship and simply Mary Poppins-es her way through space to safety, you begin to wonder if the film is just having a lark.
To be fair, there is real artistry to be found in the way The Last Jedi is shot, especially when it comes to the blood-red throne room where Rey and Kylo battle Snoke’s entourage and the devastating splendor of what’s become known as the Holdo maneuver. But the fundamental problems of character and story that plague this second entry of Disney’s first trilogy still distinguish The Last Jedi as the single most misguided Star Wars film of all time.
11. The Rise of Skywalker (2019)
The Rise of Skywalker basically ignores everything The Last Jedi did and instead throws all the nostalgia it can onto the screen in an effort to repeat the success of The Force Awakens. If there’s anything this most recent era of remakes and reboots has taught Hollywood, it’s that if you can’t go for greatness, go for the feels.
While it would have been nice for this newest trilogy to have added up to something in the end, Skywalker can still mostly be random fun so long as you’ve already given up on the latest trilogy by this point. It actually works better if you don’t try to follow the plot and just pretend you’re being jostled around on Star Tours for two and a half hours.
Domhnall Gleeson’s randomly no longer a bad guy? Sure, why not. Flying stormtroopers? Hey, better than watching Luke milk space-cows. The good guys riding their horses into battle on the outside of a star destroyer? Um...what now?
For those paying attention to the plot, however, you’ll have to deal with the astounding temerity of Abrams resurrecting Emperor Palpatine out of the blue so he can have the good guys fight a nostalgia-powered baddie who conveniently needs no build-up and no introduction in a move that kind of makes you wonder what the first two films of the trilogy were needed for at all.
If “Somehow Palpatine returned” has not yet become shorthand for any occasion when a filmmaker has a clearly dead and defeated character simply walk back into the story with zero explanation and suddenly become the most important part of a trilogy that absolutely was not at any point in time building up to his return, then it needs to.
Suffice it to say, films cannot stand on nostalgia alone.
But as long as you are just blasting nostalgia at the screen from T-shirt cannons, returning to the ruins of the Death Star was actually a pretty cool idea, as was resurrecting Luke’s original X-wing from the first two films. There is enjoyment to be found here. It’s just difficult to look back on the promise put forth by The Force Awakens and realize this is where it all ends.
10. The Clone Wars (2008)
The sole animated Star Wars film to receive a theatrical release is not a bad film per se ... but it sure isn’t everything you ever hoped for from an animated Star Wars film either. Things get off to an unsteady start with some hokey voiceover narration rather than the customary crawl, followed by a lot of battle in search of a story. Somewhere in there, Anakin Skywalker is assigned a young Padawan to train—yes, in the midst of a battle—and half an hour later, the battle’s a thing of the past and Anakin and his young Padawan learner, Ahsoka, are off on a quest to save Jabba the Hutt’s son, who has been kidnapped in a ploy to frame the Jedi, courtesy of Count Dooku.
If that all sounds like some cumbersome plotting, well, it is.
It’s also a little difficult to place The Clone Wars within the overall arc of the prequels. Seeing Anakin as a hotshot Jedi whose heart is gradually softened by the feisty youngling he’s assigned feels kind of at odds with the character’s trajectory between Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith, which is where this film falls in the timeline. Anakin is almost too personable of a character here (though I guess you have to keep in mind he’s being portrayed by a computer’s simulation of a human being rather than Hayden Christensen, *ba dum tsss*).
Which for fans of the show might not feel so alien, but for those of us sitting in the seats of a movie theater with a giant tub of popcorn? Awkward.
There are some cool action sequences, including a gun battle up the side of a cliff, and the story does draw you in as it moves along. It’s also interesting to see the Hutts play a more significant role in a Star Wars film, even if there is way too much fretting over the sick baby Hutt in the latter half. Ultimately, while it may not be anywhere near as bad as the two ranked below it, Clone Wars is still pretty inessential.
9. The Phantom Menace (1999)
You gotta feel just a little bad for George Lucas who thought he was creating a silly, comic relief character that could become just as beloved as C3PO or R2-D2 when the reality was he had Frankensteined to life the single most hated character in cinema history. Two decades later, it’s still difficult to see why anyone would have thought the sheer volume of doo doo-stepping, mouth-zapping, explosives-fumbling screen time Jar Jar Binks was given would ever have been a good thing for the most anticipated Star Wars film of all time.
There’s a reason Jar Jar has all of about two lines in the second prequel and no lines in the third (though Lucas would somehow retroactively manage to get a line of his into Return of the Jedi).
That said, you need only mention the word “midi-chlorians” to realize Jar Jar might not actually be the most confounding part of The Phantom Menace.
Yes, missteps were made—and the obvious faults of The Phantom Menace are all the more frustrating for the very reason that there’s some legitimately good material here. Despite being saddled with an abundance of juvenile humor, the podrace around Ben’s Mesa remains to this day a thrilling bit of action choreography. Add to that the tour de force score by John Williams, the palace shootout on Naboo, and the duel with Darth Maul, and it becomes a little easier to roll with the scenes where Jar Jar literally trips over himself.
The Phantom Menace might also be the most lighthearted film of the saga. It zips along like an overjoyed kid in the cockpit of a Naboo fighter, even while things are blowing up left and right. Which is definitely a good thing. Although Jake Lloyd—commendable as his performance is—is so full of “gee-whiz” it’s difficult to see him one day force-choking the midi-chlorians out of a cheeky subordinate. Perhaps if Vader had delivered a well-timed “Yippee!” at some point the characters would have felt a little more connected. Maybe when hunting down Rebel scum in his TIE fighter at the end of A New Hope.
Missed opportunity during those ’97 special editions, George. But hey, there’s always time to go back to them.…
8. Solo (2018)
While undoubtedly one of the coolest characters to grace science fiction, Han Solo was really never much more than a glorified supporting character. That’s where half his cool came from: he’s a scruffy-looking nerf herder who emerged outta nowhere, got reluctantly swept up in the adventure of a lifetime, and managed to save the day and win the hand of a princess while he was at it. There was never a need for the films to go much deeper with Han than that.
Even so, Disney couldn’t resist the chance to prequelize one of Star Wars’ most popular characters, and Solo turned out to be a perfectly enjoyable time at the cinema. It hits all the right beats without ever fully justifying its existence as one of only two Star Wars films outside the Skywalker Saga.
Despite a pretty clunky explanation for where the name “Solo” came from, this is a film that thrives on its callbacks—and parts are a real blast, like when some tentacled elder god straight out of Lovecraft tries to devour the Millennium Falcon as Han makes the Kessel Run. Add to that Donald Glover gliding into Lando’s cape as smoothly as if he had originated the role and the fact Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s droid-liberating L3-37 is actually pretty hysterical, and there’s plenty to recommend.
The film’s greatest shortcoming might just be its failure to show Han as anything but the “good guy,” despite his protests to the contrary. For a scoundrel, Han is as squeaky clean as they come. He may as well be rubbing shoulders with Richie Cunningham. Which makes Han’s growth and change throughout Episodes IV-VI feel slightly less rewarding, knowing he was already fighting for causes greater than himself in his younger days.
In the end, Solo just leaves you a little confused as to how Han became the scoundrel we all know and love in A New Hope. Because he clearly didn’t start out as one!