Every 'Star Wars' Movie, Ranked
A complete ranking of the franchise set in a galaxy far, far away, from the classic trilogy to recent sequels.
Before 1999, the act of "ranking" the best Star Wars movie was easy. Either you preferred the iconic, culture-shifting mythology of the 1977 original or the doomed, expectation-shattering maturity of 1980's The Empire Strikes Back. (Or, if you were a child, you really, really loved Return of the Jedi.) There were just fewer movies. In a sense, the Star Wars series was still in the "going into Tosche Station to pick up some power converters" phase of adolescence: that quaint, responsibility-free period before adulthood begins.
The divisive prequels, with their frenzied computer-generated mayhem and answers to long-held questions, changed everything, and the sale to Disney in 2012 launched a new era of Star Wars obsession. Now, with the existence of Disney+, there's even more stories set in the Star Wars universe with series like The Book of Boba Fett, The Mandalorian, and Obi-Wan Kenobi. Obsessing over Star Wars movies, ranking them and debating their merits has always been a display of devotion taken up by people who consume pre-production rumors and extended universe tie-in product like it's a sweet, sweet death stick. Now, the supply has increased; the need to argue has not decreased.
So, what's the best Star Wars movie? They each have special-effects-driven moments of beauty, wonder, and excitement—yes, including the prequels—but the best entries find the transcendent in the silliness of pulp. They discover sacred truths in mumbo-jumbo. They have a lot of oft-quoted lines and meme-worthy moments. They even find laughs in C-3PO. To help make sense of this ever-expanding galaxy of films, we've used the Force to discern the correct ranking of all of the live-action films in the series.
11. Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999)
"You can't play too much to the marketplace," explained George Lucas in a 1999 interview with Empire. "It's the same thing with the fans. The fans' expectations had gotten way high and they wanted a film that was going to change their lives and be the Second Coming. You know, I can't do that—it's just a movie." Clearly, for the aging Star Wars loyalists, this was always going to be more than a movie. It was an event. A destination. A colossus. And a disappointment.
The Phantom Menace, which paired a tale of galactic trade negotiations with a preteen's journey from home, remains a daring and deeply personal work from an eccentric, obsessive billionaire. Even the creative choices that get accused of audience pandering—the occasionally painful CG slapstick of Jar Jar Binks, the gee-whiz Ben Hur-for-kids toy commercial aesthetic of the pod-racing sequence, and the '90s "badass" character design of Darth Maul—have a bespoke, fussed-over quality. It's a grandiose, earnest science-fiction epic that rarely feels assembled by a committee. (The defenders are out there!) It's also a movie you'll probably never want to watch ever again.
10. Episode II: Attack of the Clones (2002)
There's a vocal contingent of fans who insist that Attack of the Clones is actually the worst Star Wars movie, and there's ample evidence to make their case: Hayden Christensen's strained line readings as the hormonal Anakin Skywalker, George Lucas' tin-eared attempts at poetic dialogue, and Obi-Wan's uncomfortable visit to a space-diner to hit up his "buddy" Dexter Jettster, a bulbous lizard-creature with a creepy mustache. Many scenes in this 142-minute movie, which charts Anakin's overwrought romance against the rise of the empire, are ridiculous. Remember: Yoda fights here.
But Clones, particularly in its madcap finale, has an ungainly pulp energy that's served well by Lucas's palpable, infectious curiosity about digital filmmaking. (The Phantom Menace was predominately shot on 35mm and Clones was the first of Lucas's fully digital experiments.) The action sequences in this movie have a sense of scale that remains unmatched in the Star Wars universe, and many of the lightsaber battles play like hallucinatory, abstract paintings brought to ghostly life. At this point, Lucas had lost the human thread of the story he was telling. This prequel was for the machines.
9. Episode XI: The Rise of Skywalker (2019)
Packed with object-seeking missions and theory-spinning intrigue, The Rise of Skywalker is the busiest Star Wars movie ever made. Rey, Finn, Poe, and the tortured bad boy Kylo Ren return for the grand finale of the Disney-era, along with some always welcome familiar faces from the original trilogy, but a dark shadow of nervous corporate anxiety and a pungent aroma of sweaty brand management hangs over every lightsaber crackle and repetitive quip. (Thankfully, the droids are still funny.) The tendency to dutifully reflect the established canon, litigating bloodlines and parental lineage, becomes a liability as the movie grinds towards its foregone conclusion. The mirror cracks.
While the frantic plot plays like a task-obsessed video game outline or a series of Wookiepedia entries pasted together, the larger problem is that the thematic elegance of the series feels removed, like an X-wing gutted for parts. J.J. Abrams, returning to the director's chair after Rian Johnson's more iconoclastic The Last Jedi, whips you into a frenzy, resurrecting the dead and genuflecting towards the past, but he can only reverse-engineered so much tension, joy, and pathos before the effect grows tiresome. In an effort to possibly please the Sith Lords in the boardroom, the film too often lightspeed-skips past its best parts.
8. Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018)
There's an argument to be made that the larger inconsequential-ness of Solo: A Star Wars Story, which provides the origin story for Harrison Ford's lovable rogue pilot, is part of its plucky charm. Shouldn't this feel like a scrappy, self-contained Western heist genre exercise? Well, yes, it should! But the script penned by Empire Strikes Back writer Lawrence Kasdan and his son Jonathan also insists on explaining away bits of mythology, like where Han, played here by Alden Ehrenreich, got his last name; why Chewie is called Chewie; or what the hell the Kessel Run is. (Plus, there's a cameo from an old friend.) The paradox of Solo is that it's hyper-connected to history and completely untethered to the present.
There's fun in the margins: The train sequence is spectacular; Phoebe Waller-Bridge's rebellious droid, L3-37, is genuinely funny; Donald Glover's Lando adds fun wrinkles to a charming character; the shadow-filled cinematography of Bradford Young gives the adventure a distinct look. The larger problem is tonal. Director Ron Howard, who was brought into replace 21 Jump Street meta-jokesters Phil Lord and Chris Miller, keeps the plot moving, but he can't figure out the proper irony level on a scene-to-scene basis. In the original trilogy, Ford's Solo pushed against the hokey space operatics with wry wit and sex appeal; Ehrenreich has less to maneuver against. Even when he's surrounded by a game supporting cast, he's left floating in space all alone.
7. Episode VII: The Force Awakens (2015)
There was a disturbance in the Force when George Lucas sold Lucasfilm to Disney for over $4 billion in 2012, effectively ending the original Star Wars saga and establishing a new era. The subsequent selection of J.J. Abrams, best known as the co-creator of popular television series like Lost and re-launcher of the Star Trek film franchise, as director revealed Disney's unsurprising intentions: They were in this for the long haul.
More than anything, The Force Awakens is a savvy, whip-smart act of narrative collage, swiping freely from the original trilogy in the same way Lucas stole from his favorite samurai films and Westerns. The introduction of Daisy Ridley's Rey, a lonely scavenger clearly modeled after Luke Skywalker, is elegantly self-referential and revolutionary in the context of the series. You're immediately invested because Rey's perilous, yet mundane, existence feels tactile, lived-in, and new. Abrams brings humanity back to the series.
The Force Awakens has such an effective opening, full of familiar images, clever jokes, and memorable characters, that it makes the film's jumbled middle section (Maz Kanata!) and repetitive finale (another Death Star!) a bit disappointing. Abrams skillfully weaves Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher into the drama—Han's arc, which finds him facing off against Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), is especially moving—but the lavish devotion to the iconography of the original trilogy grows tiring. Are we doomed to repeat the past? The Force Awakens offers few alternatives. Luckily, it delivers this cyclical vision with a veteran showman's razzle-dazzle.
6. Episode VI: Return of the Jedi (1983)
The kids who gobble up this movie like candy are on to something. While the fuzzy Ewoks might grate on viewers hoping for a double-dosage of Empire-like gloom, and the Lando-assisted second Death Star run feels like a retread, there's a tremendous amount of joy to be found in Return of the Jedi. It's one of the most re-watchable Star Wars movies, ideal for a rainy Sunday afternoon or a sick day home from school, and that's because it's not afraid to lean into happy endings. Don't let the hate flow through you. Sometimes it's healthier to jam out to the "Yub Nub" song over a fire as a group of dead warriors look on. Ewoks know best.
Despite its reputation as the most happy-go-lucky Star Wars movie, Return of the Jedi isn't lacking in heavy catharsis or psychological turmoil. Transformed from whiny teenager to budding Jedi master, Luke Skywalker sets out to rescue his friends and confront his evil father Darth Vader, attempting to free him from the ideological death-grip of Emperor Palpatine. The scenes in the Emperor's chambers demand a different caliber of performance from Mark Hamill and he delivers in each moment, selling the agony and the burden of Luke's emotional journey. The guy deserves a little levity by the end.
5. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)
Rogue One is a brutal outlier in the Star Wars series, a film consumed with dread and fixated on death as a form of political sacrifice. Directed by Godzilla filmmaker Gareth Edwards, with reportedly significant contributions from Michael Clayton and Bourne screenwriter turned blockbuster-fixer Tony Gilroy, this is a fatalistic combat film in the mold of The Dirty Dozen or Saving Private Ryan. You leave it feeling shaken and unmoored. (And, no, not simply because of the creepy technology used to digitally resurrect Peter Cushing and de-age Carrie Fisher.) Good men and women die. Evil wins, momentarily.
That likely makes Rogue One sound needlessly bleak—and, at times, it does resemble a self-consciously "dark" video game adaptation. In attempting to fill in the plot holes of how the Rebels acquired the plans for the Death Star, the story refuses to give you a zippy heist narrative. Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) is an unknowable cypher compared to many Star Wars protagonists of the past, and the members of her crew—including Diego Luna's Cassian Andor, Donnie Yen's Chirrut Îmwe, and Riz Ahmed's Bodhi Rook—don't get to wield lightsabers like Luke Skywalker or Rey. Ultimately, they are cannon fodder. It's a radical and welcome broadening of what a Star Wars movie can be.
4. Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (2005)
How did Anakin Skywalker become Darth Vader? That was the question asked by George Lucas' prequel trilogy, perfectly summed up in that striking first teaser poster for The Phantom Menace. It's easy to knock the prequels for the sense of inevitability they foster, like each chapter is merely connecting narrative dots instead of exploring new storytelling terrain, but the slow-burn approach finally pays off with Revenge of the Sith, a grand finale that reaches for Shakespearean tragedy with both of its black gloved hands stretched out towards the sky. The fact that you know how it ends makes the experience even richer.
The allegorical potency of the material also reawakens Lucas, who at the time framed the story as a knowing critique of the Iraq War. The Galactic Senate cedes control to a security-obsessed Emperor and young Anakin assists in every way he can, eventually betraying his master Obi-Wan Kenobi and even murdering the younglings. Christensen isn't up to the task of selling the transformation, but Ewan McGregor's wounded, grief-stricken Kenobi more than makes up for it. "You were the chosen one!" he cries out during the lava-drenched showdown, giving the often awkward prequel trilogy an explosion of volcanic emotion when it needed it most.
3. Episode VIII: The Last Jedi (2017)
Humor has always been a part of the Star Wars experience. Looper and Knives Out director Rian Johnson's bracingly irreverent sequel to The Force Awakens, which inspires venomous spite and reverential devotion in equal measure, understands the importance of a well-placed zinger amidst all the death and destruction. The movie opens with an extended gag where scoundrel pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) basically pranks General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) over a speaker-phone, establishing a free-wheeling and cheeky tone. From there, The Last Jedi rarely lets up, pinging from Jedi training sessions, casino hangouts, and Battlestar Galactica-like space battles.
While Abrams brought a mystery-box approach to the series, Johnson simultaneously gives the story a Game of Thrones-esque breadth while also shrinking the map of the universe considerably by the climax of the movie. Questions about Rey's parents or Supreme Leader Snoke's identity don't get answered; they get tossed over the shoulder like the old lightsaber Rey hands to the bearded, cranky Luke Skywalker. At the same time, Johnson is not disdainful of the larger existing mythology or unwilling to play with the tropes Lucas established back in 1977. The lightsaber fight he stages in Snoke's crimson throne room, which finds Rey briefly joining forces with her psychic friend Kylo Ren, is electrifying, a mix of B-movie hokeyness with artful panache. If that's not pure, uncut Star Wars, what is?
2. Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
The Empire Strikes Back is a brilliant expansion of a world and a bold act of imagination. After the tremendous success of Star Wars, which broke box office records and received 10 Academy Award nominations, George Lucas could have made any number of moves in Hollywood. He chose to sink his own money into a downbeat sequel that separated his charming leads into different plotlines, including one set on a swamp-planet where a wise puppet lives, and ended the story on a cliffhanger of despair. Plus, it had a scene where Han Solo turns a space-goat into a sleeping bag and stuffs Luke Skywalker inside of it to keep him warm. Gross!
Most of The Empire Strikes Back consists of moments where our heroes lose spectacularly, retreating from military assaults, failing to lift objects with the Force, and getting frozen in carbonite. They fuck up over and over. What makes it all work? Sitting in the director's chair for Lucas, Irvin Kershner lets the actors breathe more, allowing Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher to give career-defining performances as they trade Lawrence Kasdan and Leigh Brackett's quips.
Their relationship—and by extension the fractured family unit created on the Millennium Falcon—is the beating heart of the most emo Star Wars movie (apologies to their moody son, Kylo Ren). By turning the conquering heroes of the first film into scheming underdogs, the filmmakers cracked the code that's allowed the saga to stretch onward for generations.
1. Episode IV: A New Hope (1977)
Almost all of the elements of the Star Wars franchise that we love and now take for granted—the pleasing expositional gibberish of the yellow title crawl, the diabolically hummable music of John Williams, the vague mysticism of the Force, and the World War II-inspired laser dogfights—arrive here fully formed. Dreamed up by a 33-year-old California film buff fresh off the success of his nostalgic coming-of-age ensemble comedy American Graffiti, Star Wars didn't spring out of a cultural black hole when it arrived in theaters. The Big Bang was already underway.
The lore, laid out in Alec Guinness' regal timbre, was informed and shaped by the popular entertainment of the 20th century. What Lucas did was express it in succinct, powerful images: Luke gazing at the two moons on Tatooine, Princess Leia pulling back her hood as she slips away from the Imperial forces, and Darth Vader stalking down a hallway. Immediately, the semiotic puzzle clicks together.
Also, as a movie, the thing fucking moves like the Millennium Falcon soaring through hyperspace. After Luke's aunt and uncle are murdered, he leaves his sand home behind for an adventure with an old man, a sexy bad-boy pilot, a pair of bumbling droids, and a furry beast that speaks in grunts. The rescue mission doesn't exactly go as planned, allowing Lucas to wring tension and humor out of the crew's mishaps. (Harrison Ford's delivery of "boring conversation anyway" remains gold standard action movie banter.) The '70s cool of the young actors, especially Fisher as the cutting and quick Leia, gives the sci-fi elements an edge, and the open-ended quality of the final section—Vader gets away and our heroes get medals—leaves you wanting more. It's a perfect movie.