May the 4th be with you! Ranking every ‘Star Wars’ movie ever made
11. “Solo: A Star Wars Story” (2018)
Rotten Tomatoes: 70% critics, 63% audience
A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, George Lucas brilliantly made audiences wait with bated breath and glorious anticipation between “Star Wars” chapters. The original trilogy held off three years in between (1977, 1980, 1983), as did the prequel trilogy (1999, 2002, 2005). However, since Disney bought Lucasfilm for $4 billion, we now get a new “Star Wars” movie every single year, or in this case, just five months after “The Last Jedi,” which kind of spoils the magic.
“Solo: A Star Wars Story” gives Han Solo an origin story that is serviceable at best with a cool Chewbacca introduction and killer casting of Donald Glover as Lando Calrissian, but Alden Ehrenreich doesn’t look or act enough like Harrison Ford. While “Rogue One” succeeds as a self-contained one-off between Roman Numeral episodes, “Solo” leaves an open ending in a failed attempt to launch its own “franchise within a franchise,” a frustrating move for a series already teetering on oversaturation.
10. “The Rise of Skywalker” (2019)
Rotten Tomatoes: 52% critics, 86% audience
After J.J. Abrams reignited the “Star Wars” franchise for a new generation in “The Force Awakens” (2015), Rian Johnson’s “The Last Jedi” (2017) didn’t quite deliver, as Luke Skywalker told Rey he had three lessons to teach her, but only revealed two. Trying to undo the damage, Disney brought back Abrams for a hard course correct in “The Rise of Skywalker,” but he unfortunately went to the other extreme by playing things way too safe to tidily wrap up the series.
Why did they have to trot out the tired Emperor Palpatine again as the villain? Why did Rey and Kylo Ren have to make up? Why all the cheesy kissing at the end? As a result, fans walked out giving it the franchise’s lowest CinemaScore ever for a live-action installment. Still, as a final chapter for this new crop of characters, I suppose it didn’t rock the boat as a solidly satisfying conclusion with plenty of fan service.
9. “The Phantom Menace” (1999)
Rotten Tomatoes: 53% critics, 59% audience
When George Lucas first announced plans for a “Star Wars” prequel trilogy, the anticipation was enormous for an origin story about the rise and fall of Darth Vader, the American Film Institute’s No. 3 Villain of All Time. It also marked Lucas’ first time directing in 22 years since the 1977 original, having pivoted into a Hollywood tech revolutionary with ILM visual effects and THX sound design.
Instead, “The Phantom Menace” became a symbol for fan disappointment, delivering the most-reviled “Star Wars” character of all in Jar Jar Binks. Still, we at least get a nasty baddie in Darth Maul, apprentice to Dark Sidious (a.k.a. Emperor Palpatine), as well as the beloved introduction of Ewan McGregor as young Obi-Wan Kenobi, Liam Neeson as Qui-Gon Jinn, Samuel L. Jackson as Mace Windu, Natalie Portman as Queen Padmé Amidala and Jake Lloyd as 9-year-old slave Anakin Skywalker.
Who knew Anakin built C-3PO, while Padmé employed R2-D2? Thanks to the precocious pilot’s thrilling pod race, “The Phantom Menace” remains the No. 19 top-grossing movie of all time (adjusted for inflation), though that has way more to do with audiences’ 16-year appetite for another “Star Wars” flick than anything redeemable about the film itself.
8. “Attack of the Clones” (2002)
Rotten Tomatoes: 65% critics, 56% audience
If you found the prequel trilogy disappointing, then it’s only fitting that the “middle child” is rather forgettable as a filler episode. It’s a slight improvement thanks to Jar Jar Binks taking a back seat to C-3PO’s more traditional comic relief.
This time, Anakin has grown into a young man, played by Hayden Christensen, falling in love with Natalie Portman’s Padmé during his assignment to protect her. We also see Anakin’s first sign of rage as he massacres a tribe of Tusken Raiders who abducted his mother Shmi, while Boba Fett gets a back story as the clone son of bounty hunter Jango Fett.
It all builds to a memorable lightsaber battle for the ages between Yoda and Count Dooku, played by the late great Christopher Lee, who severs Anakin’s right arm in clever foreshadowing of what Anakin would later do to Luke Skywalker (arms apparently get chopped off in second installments).
Even so, the lingering disappointment of “The Phantom Menace” turned many casual fans away from the box office, resulting in the lowest-grossing “Star Wars” film ever. Granted, for such a juggernaut franchise, “Attack of the Clones” still made a ton of money, ranking No. 100 all time (adjusted for inflation).
7. “The Last Jedi” (2017)
Rotten Tomatoes: 91% critics, 43% audience
After a groundbreaking original trilogy and a disappointing prequel series, it was with great joy that we all watched George Lucas’ saga return with a bang in “The Force Awakens” (2015) and an impressive “Rogue One” interlude. The saga continued with “Episode VIII: “The Last Jedi,” as Rey (Daisy Ridley) mentally duels with Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) while training under Jedi legend Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill).
The result is a mixed bag, as Rian Johnson directs thrilling light-speed whooshes and bittersweet moments with both Hamill and the late Carrie Fisher, but the script meanders with extra fat (the detour to the casino planet) and too many unanswered questions (What was Luke’s third lesson for Rey?).
In the end, you’ve also got to dock points for originality — after all, this was Part 9 of the series — but there’s still no denying its box-office success, ranking No. 44 all time (adjusted for inflation).
6. “Rogue One” (2016)
Rotten Tomatoes: 84% critics, 86% audience
Fans may have missed the tradition of the opening credit scroll, but “Rogue One” is still pretty damn cool in its own right. Not only is Felicity Jones the best pure actress of any leading role in the franchise, but director Gareth Edwards also delivers a well-paced film that feels more like a gritty war flick than a sci-fi space western.
But here’s the catch: If the story is chronologically situated so close to “A New Hope,” with a premise of stealing the blueprints for the just-completed Death Star, shouldn’t Darth Vader have a larger role? His brief lightsaber carnage is justifiably badass, but for the rest of the movie, it feels like the better villain is always lurking just off screen.
Thus, the film’s “one-off” status is both its biggest strength and its biggest weakness. On the one hand, it’s rather inconsequential if you pluck it out of the series. On the other, it allows for touching themes of sacrifice with a chilling climax as the martyr rebels gaze at the approaching fire on the horizon.
5. “Revenge of the Sith” (2005)
Rotten Tomatoes: 93% critics, 86% audience
Easily the best of George Lucas’ prequel trilogy, “Revenge of the Sith” has the built-in benefit of passing the baton to “A New Hope.” Thus, we see Anakin Skywalker’s further plunge to the dark side of The Force, disarming Samuel L. Jackson’s Mace Windu to allow Palpatine to kill him, pledging his allegiance to the Sith, earning his title Darth Vader, massacring innocents in the Jedi Temple and assassinating Separatist leaders.
We also see Palpatine culminate his evil political play, transforming the Republic into the Galactic Empire and beginning construction of the Death Star. It all builds to a fiery lightsaber battle between Anakin and his former mentor Obi-Wan Kenobi, who chops off Anakin’s remaining arm and legs and leaves him for dead by the lava river.
In swoops Emperor Palpatine to save the mutilated Anakin, fitting him with a black armored suit in a powerful shot of Darth Vader’s helmet first arriving on Anakin’s face. As Padmé dies in childbirth giving birth to twins, the final shot of baby Luke and Leia being held by their foster parents is undeniably emotional as they stare toward the horizon.
The image supposedly brought a tear to Steven Spielberg’s eye as he watched his buddy George Lucas come full circle to end the prequels and gloriously set up “A New Hope.”
4. “The Force Awakens” (2015)
Rotten Tomatoes: 93% critics, 86% audience
In a year that also saw successful reboots in “Creed” and “Mad Max: Fury Road,” J.J. Abrams’ “The Force Awakens” was the closest this generation came to experiencing the excitement and majesty of the 1977 original “Star Wars.”
Sure, it feels like was written in a studio board room, but Episode VII introduces iconic new characters with Daisy Ridley as Rey, John Boyega as Finn, Oscar Isaac as Poe and Adam Driver as Kylo Ren, not to mention the adorable BB-8 droid. It also nostalgically reintroduces our favorite old characters with Harrison Ford’s last turn as Han Solo (his death remains historic in the franchise), the late Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia (the last she would actually live to see) and Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker in a cliffhanger finale sparking instant fan speculation (what’s his connection to Rey?!?).
As a result, “The Force Awakens” became the top-grossing global blockbuster ever, just ahead of “Avengers: Endgame.” Adjusted for inflation, it remains the second highest grossing “Star Wars” ever at No. 11 all-time domestically, behind only the 1977 original.
3. “Return of the Jedi” (1983)
Rotten Tomatoes: 82% critics, 94% audience
The franchise’s third installment doesn’t live up to “Star Wars” or “The Empire Strikes Back,” but the drop-off isn’t significant enough to be disappointing. While it pales in comparison to other ’80s threequels (“Back to the Future 3,” “Indiana Jones 3”), there’s no denying its pop-culture staples, from Princess Leia’s gold bikini to Jabba the Hutt (inspiring Pizza the Hut in Mel Brooks’ “Spaceballs”).
Even the Ewoks, which everyone loves to hate, aren’t a deal-breaker for me (they’re kind of cute with awesome speeder-bike action). For me, the bigger issue is Darth Vader’s redemption in the end, which may make for a feel-good finale, but feels like a sellout akin to Dr. Evil befriending Austin Powers at the end of “Goldmember.”
It’s all a little too neat, though Solo’s rousing return is welcome and Vader’s fiery funeral remains one of the most touching scenes in the series. Either way, “Jedi” still ranks No. 17 all-time in box office (adjusted for inflation) as a solid wrap-up to the original trilogy, which I prefer to any of the prequels because the stakes are so much higher.
2. “Star Wars” (1977)
Rotten Tomatoes: 92% critics, 96% audience
Call me a purist, but I can’t bring myself to call the original film “A New Hope.” It would be like renaming “Rocky” (1976) to “Episode I: Going the Distance.” It dilutes the brand. Such hindsight rejiggering isn’t mere semantics — it opens the door for list-makers to underestimate the original film’s importance.
This movie is “Star Wars,” the special-effects game-changer of lightsabers and laser battles, the creative spark of John Williams’ music (from “The Main Theme” to “The Imperial March”) and the initial seed of George Lucas’ imagination in both world-building and Joseph Campbell hero mythology.
Think about it: No other movie has introduced so many memorable characters: Darth Vader, Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, Han Solo, Chewbacca, C-3PO, R2-D2 and Obi-Wan Kenobi (Oscar winner Alec Guinness), which is why you could justifiably argue it for the top slot.
Still, beyond any of these academic arguments, it also had the biggest pop-culture impact with the masses, remaining the No. 2 top-grossing movie of all time (adjusted for inflation). For all this, “Star Wars” is the only installment to make the American Film Institute’s Top 100 Movies of All Time.
1. “The Empire Strikes Back” (1980)
Rotten Tomatoes: 94% critics, 97% audience
“The Empire Strikes Back” joins “The Godfather: Part II” as two rare sequels that were actually better than their originals. From a pure filmmaking standpoint, “Empire” is a better-made movie than “Star Wars,” arguably because George Lucas stepped back and allowed his film-school mentor Irvin Kershner to direct, while hiring two master screenwriters in Leigh Brackett (“The Big Sleep”) and Lawrence Kasdan (“Raiders of the Lost Ark”).
Not only did this sequel introduce Lando Calrissian at Cloud City, it’s the first film to feature Yoda (Frank Oz), who’s easily the most imitable character in the series (hear his voice in your head now, you will). Granted, that’s only two characters compared to the nearly dozen icons introduced by the original, which is why you could argue the 1977 classic for the top slot.
Still, where “Empire” tops the original is its now-legendary finale, as Darth Vader tells Luke, “No, I am your father,” a line misquoted more often than “Play it, Sam.” Lucas protected this giant secret by not telling anyone on set, including Mark Hamill, revealing it only to James Earl Jones as he recorded Vader’s voice-over in shock.
To this day, it joins “Psycho” (1960) and “The Sixth Sense” (1999) as the greatest twist endings in movie history, establishing the Skywalker family dynasty across generations, adding stunning layers to the Luke-Han-Leia love triangle and elevating the father-son dynamic to epic, mythic, even Shakespearean dimensions.
Centuries from now, in a galaxy far, far away, if future civilizations look back on planet Earth, “The Empire Strikes Back” should be the time capsule that we cement in carbonite to explain this franchise’s appeal.
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