Ranking the ‘Star Wars’ Movies

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Going into this week of Last Jedi coverage, I realize that I somehow had never written my ranking of the saga for The Filtered Lens. Well, no longer. Even before Disney continued the never-ending expansion of Star Wars, comparing your order of the films had become something of a right of passage into the fandom (I personally have made dear friends through heated battles about which prequels were superior). But your Star Wars order can change on a whim, or depending on how the saga develops further. As is the case, I’ll adjust this article as needed upon every theatrical release from the series. For now, however, this is how I rank the Star Wars films.


9. Star Wars: The Clone Wars (2008)

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Mistakenly given a theatrical release just when cinemagoers thought they were done with Star Wars forever, this animated feature acts as an extended pilot to the eventually fantastic Cartoon Network series of the same name. But the show wasn’t very good in the beginning, and even had this aired on television, it would have been a misfire. In theaters, however, it played like a shameless cash grab with poor writing and even poorer animation. It introduces us to some classic characters from the series, such as Ahsoka, Rex, and Asajj Ventress, but here they feel like a rough draft of the fully fledged characters they would eventually become on the small screen.


8. The Phantom Menace (1999)

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Though not quite the unabashed tragedy some critics and fans have made it out to be, Episode I certainly isn’t good either. It’s bad qualities, which have been extensively written about for almost 20 years, have perhaps aged even worse. Characters sporting uncomfortable racial stereotypes, most notably Jar Jar Binks and Nute Gunray, take Star Wars to a place it should never have had to back down from. But even compared to the other two prequels, Phantom Menace makes a couple key players feel utterly inconsequential. What does Obi Wan really do throughout the film anyway? Why even bother creating such an incredible design for Darth Maul for him to get less than 10 minutes of screentime and maybe two lines? Then there’s the acting and dialogue, with Padme and young Anakin suffering most from both. And yet, there are a few bright spots. Liam Neeson is compelling as Qui Gon Jin, a Jedi in his prime not afraid to go a little rogue, and the section on Tatooine, especially the visually arresting podracing sequence, is quite good. Plus, of course, the epic lightsaber duel during the climax, despite not carrying much narrative or emotional weight, is pure Star Wars bliss.


7. Attack of the Clones (2002)

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The second entry in the prequel trilogy is a film at war with itself. Roughly half of it is outwardly terrible, even worse than Phantom Menace, but the other half is a showcase for exactly how great the prequels could have been. Save for a fun scene in a Coruscant bar, giving us a glimpse of the grit and grime of the galaxy’s biggest city, the first act is a bore, clumsily reintroducing the characters ten years after the Battle of Naboo and beating us over the head with their fresh dynamics. Lucas’ script has Anakin act like a petulant child, disapproving of Obi Wan’s every act with such gusto that you wonder how they ever get anything done, and that’s before a speeder chase that goes on five minutes too long and shoehorns in forced one-liners to establish their troubled relationship. As the second act splits the cast up on different missions, we’re forced to watch Hayden Christensen and Natalie Portman “act” their way through dialogue and scenes devoid of even a drop of romance or chemistry. Meanwhile, however, Obi Wan is on a mission that shows what a noir story might look like in Lucas’ world. The visuals of Kamino are neat, and both the landing platform and asteroid field duels between Obi Wan and Jango Fett are thrilling set pieces. Then there’s the excellent, breathless third act, which effortlessly evolves from coliseum action complete with great new creatures, to an all-out Jedi battle with as many lightsabers as the cinematographer can handle, to the dynamic first battle of the Clone War, and finally to Yoda igniting his lightsaber to engage with Count Dooku. So while Attack of the Clones is worse than Phantom Menace in some ways you might expect, it’s better in a lot of ways that count.


6. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)

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Even on a second viewing, Rogue One already showed signs of not aging very well. On a third viewing, it’s downright boring, something not even true of the first two prequels above. Gareth Edwards’ film chronicling the stealing of the Death Star plans just prior to A New Hope just completely lacks character. The script fails to flesh out about half of the titular team, with Jyn Erso’s conflict never really defined, having her instead go through the motions. K-2SO provides some enjoyable comic relief, but it’s immediately clear that that’s his only real purpose. Rebel spy Cassian Andor and Force-worshipper Chirrut are the film’s standout characters, the first leading into the film’s best narrative quality, the inner workings of the Rebellion just before it enters all-out war, and the latter giving some much needed emotionality to the climax. Rogue One does get better as it goes, defining the difficult position the Rebellion is in just before A New Hope to bridge the prequel trilogy to the originals with more clarity. And the Battle of Scarif is a thrilling prelude to Episode IV, going where too few blockbusters dare to in killing, um, everyone, and giving us the showstopping end moment of Darth Vader slaughtering rebel soldiers just before Princess Leia narrowly escapes with the Death Star plans.


5. The Force Awakens (2015)

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It should be noted that, at this point on the list, we jump into the films I really like from this franchise, flaws and all. Because boy does The Force Awakens have some problems, but it’s also ridiculously charming. Just take Rey, the new lead hero for the trilogy. J.J. Abrams introduces us to her at her most lonesome, and yet all the details that we see from her everyday life, as well as Daisy Ridley’s pathos, make her more immediately likable than even Luke was in A New Hope. Then there’s Kylo Ren, the most immediately captivating villain the films have introduced since Darth Vader himself. Episode VII leans hard on these two to make it work, but that hardly ends up being a problem. Those come in with some odd narrative choices that, even in this galaxy far, far away, make you question the logic of it all. Just how does Poe Dameron survive the crash on Jakku and get back to the Resistance base? And can anyone really come up with a reason for R2-D2’s self-imposed exile and then sudden awakening? The film also ends up feeling like an extended prologue for what comes next. But still, Abrams did a wonderful job recapturing the classic Star Wars feel. Just as with the original trilogy, the film crackles whenever Han Solo is doing, well, anything (two-fold when finally reunites with Leia). What’s most remarkable though is how the new players just fit in seamlessly with the tone, from Rey and Kylo Ren to even Finn and Maz Kanata. BB-8 too, of course.


4. Revenge of the Sith (2005)

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While the final prequel most certainly suffers from some of its predecessors’ most infuriating qualities (Hayden Christensen gets too close to emotionally derailing the otherwise terrific climax, while Natalie Portman just does so little to save Padme from Lucas’ boring intentions), Revenge of the Sith comes with an infectious sense of dread and doom, even during the fun-for-the-sake-of-it opening space battle over Coruscant. General Grievous is just the kind of weird, wacky villain the prequels needed, even if he’s quickly dealt with before it comes time to connect the two trilogies. When it comes down to it though, Episode III boasts two crucial saviors: Ewan McGregor and Ian McDiarmid. The former, as young Obi Wan, perfects the joyful, jokey tone of the original trilogy here, while imbedding his character with the warm, wise essence of Alec Guinness’ version. When the devastating drama starts to hit, McGregor pretty much single-handedly carries the film to its emotional close (though he does appropriately get some help from Frank Oz as a weathered, beaten Yoda). The latter, as Darth Sidious and the future Emperor, is the epitome of evil and drives the films tension as a Republic is overthrown into an Empire. It helps that McDiarmid is having an absolute ball as the villain. As Episode III briskly moves along, you can feel the world of the prequels being washed away, giving way to Star Wars as it was introduced to us. That the film handles that transition with the emotional weight that it does after Episodes I and II is something of a miracle.


3. Return of the Jedi (1983)

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The final chapter of the original trilogy gets so much right, but what it gets wrong seems to have been expounded upon by the fandom since the release of the prequels. No, Ewoks are not nearly as bad as Gungans, even if they stop this movie dead an hour in. But also no, the handling of the Luke and Leia twist isn’t nearly as smooth as the Darth Vader and Luke twist. And yes, unfortunately Carrie Fisher does just seem utterly bored as Leia here, though she does get some great moments in the big set pieces. With that all out of the way, let’s talk about how great Return of the Jedi truly is. Jabba’s Palace is a feast for the eyes, and one that gives every one of our main heroes a moment to shine. Especially Luke, who comes at this movie like a tour de force of awesome we couldn’t have ever imagined when we first met him. Yoda’s death scene, especially with the added context of the prequels, is as sorrowful as it is rewarding. In over 30 years, the speeder bike chase on Endor hasn’t lost an ounce of its wow factor. The space battle occupying a third of the climax is still sets the bar as the best of the series. The Emperor proves more than capable of taking over for Darth Vader as the series’ big bad. And the story of Luke, having now achieved Jedi Knight status, pulling his father from the Dark Side fulfills every promise Lucas laid out in the first two films. There’s no more emotional moment in the saga than when Anakin asks Luke to help him take his mask off, allowing a father to truly look at his son for the first time. For all of that, some Ewok nonsense is more than worth it.


2. A New Hope (1977)

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Has any film in history stood the test of time in the same way as the original Star Wars? It’s release was a cultural moment from which there was no going back, solidifying what Steven Spielberg started with Jaws two years prior and ringing in a new age of blockbusters. But what makes A New Hope so timeless isn’t just all its achievements in the cinema history books. Here was a galaxy far, far away, bursting with life as Lucas and his crew could design them straight from their minds, and yet one where characters who feel the way we feel could be found. Whether a man in debt ready to do anything to make a buck, a woman not to keen to have the men lead the charge, or a boy on a farm, staring at the stars and ruminating on his place in the world, Star Wars remains the most human blockbuster of all time. It does so with a pure yarn of heroism and a battle between good and evil that audiences of all ages were inspired by. To this day, the Battle of Yavin remains a thrilling set piece rooted in the characters participating in it. There are villains and forces unimaginable opposing the heroes all throughout, with Darth Vader obviously making the most iconic of entrances, but A New Hope remains so watchable today because of its infectious energy, its universe full of things to look at in every frame, and a recognizable humanity that informed blockbusters for ages to come.


1. The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

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A New Hope is a pretty self-contained story. The good guys come together to destroy a big death machine. If there wasn’t another Star Wars movie ever again, or if the sequels didn’t work, it would still live on, though definitely not with the status it has today. The reason this list is even possible is because The Empire Strikes Back didn’t suck. On the contrary, it’s a masterpiece of a sequel that set a nearly impossible standard for every franchise with mass appeal to come. Lucas hired Irvin Kershner, a veteran of independent film, to direct the sequel, which led to a bigger, tighter, more confident, beautifully shot entry to the series that sticks the landing on every emotional beat the script has to offer. From the tense yet-to-be-topped Battle of Hoth, to Han and Leia’s chemistry rich romance, to Yoda’s mystical instructions on the Force, to the dark climax with the Skywalker family twist that changed the galaxy forever, Empire crackles with a fire Star Wars hasn’t quite been able to achieve since. But again, as with its predecessor, it all comes down to character, and Lucas and Kershner clearly have a shared affection for the likes of Luke, Leia, and Han, finding new ways to challenge them and having them respond in ways that matter in their overall growth. Most remarkably, the same can be said for Vader, as the film at once makes him far more fearsome and far more human, thus expanding the mythos to give us a saga we may never have enough of.


Do you agree with my ranking of the Star Wars films? What’s yours? Sound off in the comments below!


By Matt Dougherty


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