Now that The Force Awakens and Rogue One have been released, it’s a great time to try and rank all 8 of the Star Wars movies from best to worst. And the best Star Wars movie is…
1. Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back
Empire and A New Hope really are 1a and 1b, but the former gets the nod here for a couple of reasons:
Better Action: While the opening and closing battles of ANH are great, the quality of action in Empire is more steady. Between the Battle of Hoth, the chase of the Millennium Falcon through the asteroid field, and the much-improved lightsaber duel, Empire has ANH beat. Who can forget these iconic images?
Enhanced Emotional Drama: Although the emotional weight of Empire rests on the foundation laid by ANH, not many sequels are able to build off the original as effectively as Empire does. The betrayal and partial redemption of Lando is one such example. When that door opens in Cloud City and Darth Vader is sitting at the table, we can feel the sting that Han must have felt.
On the other hand, we also sympathize with the situation Lando is in, as not cooperating with the Empire likely would have had very negative consequences for his people. The love story between Han and Leia is similarly evocative. Han’s famous response of “I Know” to Leia’s profession of love perfectly captures their relationship, and Leia’s tortured expression when Han emerges frozen in carbonite communicates the gravity of the situation.
Finally, the lightsaber duel between Luke and Darth Vader is the most emotionally rich of the entire saga, in my opinion. The tension between the two is palpable, as the last time Luke saw Vader he had struck down his mentor, Obi-Wan. Of course, there is something else that takes place during this duel that is the emotional heart of the entire Star Wars saga…
One of the Best Twists of All Time: It may be cheap, but this is the trump card in this debate. And not only because of its shock value, but also because of its emotional weight. The revelation that Darth Vader is actually Luke’s father does several things. First, it makes Luke question the integrity of Obi-Wan and Yoda. This makes the threat of Luke turning to the dark side more credible and adds to the drama in Return of the Jedi. Second, it creates a strong personal connection between the original trilogy’s main hero (Luke) and its main antagonist (Vader). Without this connection, the climatic battle in Jedi would have had much less at stake and so would have been much less intriguing. Third, it creates a terrible moral quandary for Luke. Does he join his father even though he knows he is evil, or does he try and kill his own dad for the greater good? Luke, of course, chooses a third option and attempts to redeem his father. Fourth, it creates a similar moral dilemma for Darth Vader. While Vader was more-or-less a stereotypical baddie in ANH, this revelation adds several dimensions to his character. For example, what kind of father cuts off his son’s arm during their first face-to-face encounter?? Fifth and finally, it leads to the immediate decision by Luke to sacrifice himself by falling into the chasm instead of joining his father in a quest for galaxy-wide domination. This is a great moment that reveals an essential element of Luke’s character and foreshadows his decision in Jedi.
2. Episode IV – A New Hope
The movie that introduced us all to the Star Wars universe could have easily been number one, but will fall no farther than number two. Not only did ANH set up the entire franchise and create much of what we know and love, but it is also a great movie in its own right! From the beginning, the movie captures the audience with the relatively unique opening crawl, the amazing Star Wars theme by John Williams, and the iconic shot of a Star Destroyer pursuing the Tantive IV. This is a great example of showing not telling, as the relative size of this ships tells us everything we need to know about the fight between the Empire and Rebellion.
From this starting point, ANH is non-stop fun and adventure. All points logically converge to the assault on the Death Star in the finale, which is an incredible space battle, especially given the time when it was filmed.
There are also some strong emotional payoffs in ANH, as Luke finds the meaning in his life that he has been longing for, and Han Solo overcomes his selfishness to help his friends and the Rebellion.
3. Episode VI – Return of the Jedi
By delivering a strong ending to the original trilogy, Jedi claims the third spot on my list. Though it has some flaws that make it inferior to ANH and Empire, it also has some very strong moments that make it superior to The Force Awakens, my fourth ranked Star Wars movie. Even though Jedi is often thought of as being much lower quality than ANH and Empire, I think it is a very strong movie that is underrated today.
Why Jedi Falls Short of ANH & Empire:
Ewoks: The Ewok’s mix of cuteness and ferocity is intriguing, as is the message that even the smallest of us can make a difference. However, they hurt the film in two main ways. First, the scenes where Luke, Leia, and Han are at the Ewok camp significantly slows down the pacing of the movie. Whenever I watch Jedi, I always find myself wanting to skip over some of their scenes to return to the main plot. Second and more significantly, it just is not credible that a small, primitive group of mini-bears could beat a legion of the Emperor’s “best troops.” While we all know that stormtroopers cannot shoot, this takes it to a new extreme. The Empire is supposed to be a repressive and fearsome totalitarian government, but the Ewok’s success just serves to trivialize it and lower the stakes of the galactic civil war. This mistake could have been overcome if Lucas had replaced the Ewoks with a larger, more advanced species that had previously been pounded by the Empire into submission, but decided to join the Rebellion when they learned of the stakes at play in this final battle.
“There is Another:” The revelation that Luke and Leia are siblings comes out of the blue and certainly feels a bit forced. It seems more like a retcon to explain Yoda’s line in Empire and resolve the love triangle than a well thought out plot point. Nevertheless, it does serve a useful purpose in enraging Luke during his battle with Vader. This is a critical moment for Luke since he gets a glimpse of what it would be like to turn to the dark side, but does not like what he sees.
Minimizing the Betrayal of Obi-Wan & Yoda: The revelation that Darth Vader is Luke’s father casts significant doubt on the reliability of Obi-Wan and Yoda as moral advisors. The lie that they told Luke should have created more emotional drama within Luke and between Luke and Obi-Wan/Yoda, but the film chooses to underplay this betrayal. The scene where Luke “confronts” Obi-Wan about this does not have much passion and was a missed opportunity, in my opinion.
Why Jedi is Superior to The Force Awakens:
Jedi has a Satisfying Reason for Existing, TFA Does Not (Yet): All films in a movie franchise cannot help but be placed in the context of their predecessors, and these two are no different. The big-picture purpose of Jedi is clear: to determine the outcome of the galactic civil war. While this is just the backdrop for the emotional drama that takes place within the movie, it provides a high-stakes environment for the action to take place in, which keeps the audience involved in the story. The battle between a repressive government and a rebellion is one we can all relate to. The problem with TFA (at least as of now, before its sequels have been released), is that I do not feel like it has a meaningful reason to exist. Sure, learning what happens to Luke, Leia, and Han after Jedi is appealing, as is following the stories of our new heroes and villains. However, what about the political situation? As of now, it appears the sequel trilogy is to be a replay of the original trilogy. The First Order is essentially the Empire with a few tweaks, and by the end of TFA, the New Republic appears to be in ruins. So, we now have a situation where we have a mighty Empire-like entity fighting a depleted and less powerful Resistance. It almost feels like TFA undid all of the progress that was made in the original trilogy and brings us back to square one. Although it may be realistic for progress to stall and even be reversed, it is not very satisfying and seems to degrade the worth of the original trilogy. For Harry Potter fans, it is almost as if JK Rowling decided to write sequels where Voldemort comes back to life and the gang has to fight him again. Of course, it is very possible that Episodes 8 and 9 will address this concern, in which case we would have to rethink this criticism of TFA.
Jedi Powerfully Resolves Story Arcs, TFA Leaves them Wide Open: There is no doubt that TFA is more aware that it will have sequels than any movie in the original trilogy. This is clear given the number of questions it asks and then leaves open: Who are Rey’s parents? Why is Rey so powerful without (seemingly) any training? Who is Snoke? Why did Kylo turn to the dark side? What is the First Order’s real goal? What is Luke’s mental state? And the list goes on. The mysteries TFA sets up are not necessarily a bad thing, but they do mean that TFA will heavily rely on its sequels to make these mysteries meaningful. If they are resolved powerfully, then we may have to reconsider our rank of TFA. Nonetheless, until then, TFA feels a bit incomplete. In contrast, Jedi powerfully resolves the main emotional story arc of the series between Luke and Vader. Vader’s stunning statement that “it is too late for me, son” does not deter Luke in his quest to redeem his father. His powerful sacrifice in throwing down his lightsaber and facing the Emperor’s fury emotionally connects with the audience (don’t we all sometimes want to save our parents?), as well as with his father. Vader’s decision to save his son and kill his master does not fully redeem him for all of his past atrocities, but it does demonstrate that we all have a choice and anyone, no matter how evil, can choose to do the right thing in any given moment. Vader’s last request to look at his son with his own eyes illustrates the terrible sacrifice he made to join the dark side, and it leaves us with a satisfying bitter-sweet ending of the original trilogy.
The Unbelievability of Finn’s Turn: Finn was definitely one of my favorite characters in TFA, and I am very excited to see how his role evolves in future films. However, one thing that significantly bothered me from the first time I saw TFA is how abruptly Finn decided to defect from the First Order. Given that he was trained from birth and had made it into Kylo Ren’s presumably elite stormtrooper unit, it just does not seem likely that he would betray the First Order after his first battle. More than just releasing a prisoner (Poe) and defecting himself, Finn actually kills many of his former comrades during his escape attempt! This by no means ruins the movie, but I do wish that Finn’s storyline was developed over a longer period of time and his defection was more earned.
A Third Death Star Goes Too Far: Come on! Jedi pushed it by having a second Death Star, but TFA ventured into near parody of itself by bringing back the famed super weapon for a third time. Even though Starkiller Base did not play a huge role in the movie and so this criticism is not fatal, it seems like the screenwriters were lazy and could not think of anything else.
4. Episode VII – The Force Awakens
Trying to choose between TFA and Rogue One, my fifth ranked movie, was quite difficult. They both have some significant problems and are very different movies in terms of tone. While Rogue was not as derivative as TFA, took more risks by making the morality of the Rebellion more suspect, and told a more complete story, I give the slight edge to TFA. If I had to watch one of the two over and over again for the rest of my life, I would choose TFA. The reason is that the characters in TFA are more developed and relatable. Thus, I am more invested in their story.
Strong Characters in TFA
Even though there are legitimate questions about why Rey is so powerful, there is no doubt that she is a very likable character that draws our attention and interest. Unlike the lighting-fast development of Jyn in Rogue, TFA allows the development of Rey to come along slowly as we get to know about her and her life gradually in the desert of Jakku. Rey is a complicated character who is curious, troubled, talented, naive, and enthusiastic all at once. When she runs away from Maz’s castle on Takodana after learning the hard truth that whoever left her on Jakku is not coming back, we can certainly relate to her internal struggle.
Furthermore, her chemistry with Finn really is off the charts, which adds a lot to the story. Kylo Ren is another character that I am very excited to learn more about and see his story unfold. Kylo is essentially a talented fanboy of Darth Vader and wants to live up to the image of him that he has seemingly created in his head. This is something that we can all relate to, as who has not wanted at some point in their life to try and emulate one of their “heroes?”
We also cannot ignore the powerful emotional drama that our original trilogy characters face in TFA. Several moments stand out. First is Han and Chewie’s reuniting with the Millennium Falcon. We know how many memories Han and Chewie have had on this ship, and so that moment is just like stepping back into your childhood house for the first time in 20 years.
Second is when Han and Leia embrace right before Han leaves to go try and bring his son, Ben, back home. This moment perfectly illustrates the love and affection that both still have for each other, even if their marriage is strained. Additionally, Leia’s face says a lot about the pure amount of things she has had to deal with in her life. From leading a rebellion to losing a son to the dark side, Leia has a right to be tired.
Of course, we cannot forget about the great ending scene that we get with Luke in TFA. Although he does not say anything, his strained facial expression also communicates a lot about the suffering he has gone through in his life. Luke has had to deal with growing up without his biological parents, seeing his de facto parents burned to death, finding out that his father is one of the most evil men in the galaxy, leading a rebellion, seeing his father die moments after they had their first real moment together, seeing the New Republic fall, and having his nephew and pupil murder his best friend. I suspect Luke’s mental state will be a central component of The Last Jedi.
Character Flaws in Rogue
By no means do I think that the characters in Rogue One are completely unrelatable or uninteresting. In fact, I like most of the main characters. The issue for me is that I don’t feel like we get the time or space to really know and connect with them in movie. This is likely a result of having too many characters in the movie, as well as the lightening-fast pace in its first third. The consequence is that, in my opinion, there are less emotionally impactful moments in Rogue than there are in the Force Awakens. Below, I will briefly touch on some of the main characters from Rogue:
Galen Erso: He has a very compelling storyline as a scientist forced to help the Empire construct the Death Star, but the problem is most of it is in the book Catalyst instead of in the movie! I actually think the movie would have been much better if Galen was one of the leading characters and half of the movie was about how he maneuvered inside the Empire to sabotage the Death Star, steal its plans, and get them to the Rebellion. This would have made the movie much more of an espionage thriller than an action-adventure flick.
Jyn Erso: I enjoyed her character and thought it was a very emotional moment when she saw her father’s message on Jedha. However, because we don’t get to know her very well before the main action of the movie starts, I didn’t feel as connected to her as I did to Rey.
Cassian Andor: I thought Cassian was probably the second strongest character in the movie. I loved how he embodied the struggle within the Rebellion over whether the ends justify the means. His scene in the beginning of the movie where he shoots a Rebel agent is easily the film’s best, in my opinion.
Baze & Chirrut: They had a great chemistry and Chirrut was clearly the emotional center of the movie. However, we don’t really get to know anything substantive about their past and what being a Guardian of the Whills entails. I left the movie thinking there was a lot of potential in their story that we just didn’t get to explore.
Bodhi Rook: An average cargo pilot who figures out that he is playing a small part in building a super weapon and cannot handle the moral implications of his actions is a great story and something that should have been shown explicitly on screen. Unfortunately, we don’t get to see Bodhi’s moment of realization, which is a huge missed opportunity.
Orson Krennic: He has a much better story in Catalyst where he has to trick a dear friend (Galen) into helping the Empire build the Death Star. In the actual movie, he is just another self-interested imperial bureaucrat, which is pretty boring.
Saw Gerrera: Was it just me, or did Forest Whitaker play this character really weirdly? He comes off as more of a deranged fighter than an extremist. Also, why did he have to stay behind while the planet collapsed? If he is so committed to “the cause”, then why the heck would he commit suicide instead of help Jynn destroy the super weapon that he just learned about? Nothing about this character made much sense…
K-2s0: Obviously, he was the best and most original character in the movie! So hilarious and so much sass! But maybe it’s a little bit of a bad sign when the droid’s death is more emotional than the deaths of all of the human characters?
5. Episode 3.9 – Rogue One
Revenge of the Sith (my sixth ranked movie) probably had more emotionally powerful moments and told a more interesting story than Rogue One. Nevertheless, Rogue gets the slight nod because it does not suffer from the typical prequel flaws of terrible dialogue and idiotic characters that Sith does. One of the best aspects of the original trilogy is that the characters are very relatable to real life. However, the prequels often diminish Star Wars’ relatability because the characters don’t speak like real humans do and they make decisions that make little or no sense.
Typical Prequel Flaws in Revenge of the Sith:
Bad Dialogue: Of course, there is the infamous exchange between Anakin and Padme: “You’re so beautiful. It’s because I’m so in love. No, it’s because I’m so in love with you.” More on bad romance when we discuss Attack of the Clones.
Then, there is this head-scratcher from Obi-Wan: “Only a Sith deals in absolutes.” The problem, of course, is that this statement is itself an absolute! Finally, there is Darth Vader’s “Nooooooo” at the end of the movie. While I enjoy the reference to Frankenstein, this is so over the top and cartoonish (even for a Star Wars movie) that it it trivializes this critical emotional moment. The transformation of Anakin Skywalker into Darth Vader is supposed to be the primary climax of the prequels.
Dialogue certainly isn’t the be-all-end-all of a movie, but a lot of the dialogue in the prequels takes you out of the film because it doesn’t sound like something a real human would say.
Characters that Are Not Self Aware: Another common flaw in prequels movies is that the characters in them don’t seem to be very inquisitive or analytical about their situations. In essence, they are often oblivious. This is a flaw that is certainly prevalent in Revenge of Sith. Besides the puzzling question of why the Jedi Masters don’t suspect that Palpatine is the Sith they’ve been looking for, Anakin also fails to put two and two together and ask simple questions. For example, during his discussion with Chancellor Palpatine about Darth Plagueis, why doesn’t Anakin ask why the Chancellor knows this tale of a Sith Lord?? It certainly seems a bit strange.
Additionally, when Palpatine tells Anakin that only one has achieved the power to cheat death, why doesn’t Anakin react? Palpatine had essentially promised Anakin that he could save Padme, but clearly he wasn’t telling the whole truth. Lastly, I thought the scene where Anakin tells Mace Windu that Palpatine is a Sith Lord was baffling.
Windu has hardly any reaction when hearing this explosive allegation from Anakin, and he hardly probes Anakin at all for evidence of his claim before rushing off to arrest the sitting Chancellor. When characters seem idiotic, it’s harder to relate to them.
The Merits of Rogue One:
Making the Rebellion More Morally Ambiguous: When Cassian shoots his informant in the beginning of the film in order to prevent him from falling into the Empire’s hands, I was shocked. I wasn’t expecting it and in just one scene, the morality of the Rebellion was made much more complex. Although I thoroughly enjoy the black and white morality of the original trilogy, in order to expand and deepen Star Wars, I believe it’s important to bring in shades of gray. Even though I still strongly believe the Rebellion was in the right overall, war is messy and sometimes demands unsavory behavior. Compared to some of the sillier aspects of Revenge of the Sith, like the over-the-top and cartoonish battle between Palpatine and Yoda, there is a seriousness to Rogue that is quite appealing. I also believe that the the storyline with Cassian struggling over whether to assassinate Galen per his orders was stimulating. The moment where he sees Galen protecting his engineers from the Death Troopers and changes his mind about shooting him demonstrates that the Rebellion still has a strong underlying morality.
Great Action: Between the excellent space battle at the end of the movie, the realistic ground assault on Scarif, and the amazingly scary Vader slasher scene, there was memorable action in this movie.
Humor: One important factor that many prequel films lacked was solid humor. Despite any of its other failings, I thought Rogue did a fantastic job in this area. Of course, most of the credit here goes to K-2S0. From “congratulations, you’re being rescued” to “I’ll be there for you. The Captain said I had to,” this is the droid we’re looking for. Also, it’s pretty funny when Chirrut has a bag put over his head and says, “Are you kidding me? I’m blind!”
Strong Connections to the Original Trilogy: One great thing about Rogue is that it enhances ANH in several ways. One way is simply that it shows how hard it was to steal the Death Star plans and what had to be sacrificed to do so, and therefore the stakes of ANH seems much higher if you re-watch it. A second cool thing it does is show how the Death Star is powered by kyber crystals. This makes a lot of sense, and it makes the formal introduction of lightsabers in ANH that much more intense since we know the true destructive potential behind their power. A third great connection is that we see Bail Organa leave for Alderaan in Rogue, and so when it’s blown up in ANH the emotional impact is even greater. Finally, the explanation for why there’s such a critical flaw in the Death Star’s design answers a big outstanding question from ANH. It also enhances the emotional impact of when the Death Star is destroyed by Luke, as now we know that Galen’s efforts and sacrifices were not in vein.
6. Episode III – Revenge of the Sith
In my mind, Sith is by far the best of the prequels. Instead of making a direct comparison between it, Phantom Menace, and Attack of the Clones, I will just discuss the many emotionally powerful moments in Sith that make it superior.
The Opening Space Interaction Between Anakin & Obi-Wan: I really liked how the first scene in the movie was Anakin having to save his friend, Obi-Wan, from the buzz droids. We don’t get to see much of the two of them working together in the prequels, and so building their relationship more in this scene makes their final battle that more emotionally devastating.
Anakin Decapitating Count Dooku: Forcing Anakin to choose between murdering an unarmed man and risking trying to take him back to Coruscant was a great moral dilemma for the character and foreshadowed nicely his eventual fall to the dark side.
Padme Telling Anakin She Is Pregnant: Unlike many of their other scenes together, this one felt very genuine and emotional. The fear of both characters about what to do was palpable, as was Anakin’s affection for Padme. John Williams’ beautiful music also helped! Scenes like this were needed in order to make Anakin’s desperation to save Padme more credible and emotional.
The Tragedy of Darth Plagueis: Although I have some criticisms about how Anakin reacted to learning this story from Palpatine, this was undoubtedly one of the best scenes in the entire prequel trilogy. Unlike learning about midi-chlorians, this tale really felt like it deepened the mythos of Star Wars. Not only did it help turn Anakin to the dark side, but it also hinted at Sidious’ back-story, expanded the power of the force, and left open the question about whether Plagueis and/or Sidious created Anakin.
Palpatine: There is no doubt that Ian McDiarmid went over the top in a few scenes. However, given the lack of emotional intensity many characters demonstrate in the prequels, his passion and energy was a breath of fresh air. Unlike his plan in Return of the Jedi, here Palpatine has something to offer Anakin that might actually tempt him to turn to the dark side. Also, I thought it added a lot to the character when he almost seems to derive sexual pleasure from feeling Anakin’s hatred towards him when he reveals himself as a Sith Lord.
Order 66: The carrying out of Order 66 was an incredibly powerful moment emotionally. Seeing the clone troopers turn on their Jedi comrades who they had fought beside for years was heart-breaking. It was a great way to demonstrate the devastating and complete fall of the Jedi and the Republic.
Anakin & Obi-Wan’s Battle: Although it probably went on for too long and the first two prequels didn’t do enough to build their relationship, this battle felt very emotional and satisfying. Mostly, this was due to Ewan McGregor’s performance. It is incredibly emotionally powerful when he says “you have become the very thing you swore to destroy,” “I have failed you Anakin,” “You were the chosen one! It was said you would destroy the Sith; not join them,” and “You were my brother Anakin; I loved you.”
7. Episode I – The Phantom Menace
Phantom Menace was actually the first Star Wars movie I ever saw in theaters. Even though I recognize some of its flaws today, I found it then and still find it today to be a very fun movie. What separates it from Attack of the Clones, in my opinion, is that it doesn’t have a horribly unbelievable love story. Even when I saw Attack of the Clones at age 9, I remember feeling incredibly awkward during the scenes between Anakin and Padme. In all honesty, it tainted the entire feeling I got from the movie as a whole.
Why the Love Story Between Anakin & Padme Sucks in Clones:
There’s No Reason for Padme to Like Anakin: Right from the beginning of the film, Anakin does several things that should turn Padme off. First, he awkwardly tells Padme she has “grown more beautiful, for a Senator I mean” after not having seen her for several years. Second, he contradicts and has a public fight with Obi-Wan, his master, about security procedures.
Third, when Padme brings up how she has been fighting the Military Creation Act for a year, Anakin doesn’t ask her about it, but instead whines about how his boss, Obi-Wan, is “overly critical” and “never listens.” Fourth, Anakin creepily looks at Padme to the point where she says, “Please don’t look at me like that. It makes me feel uncomfortable.” Not words you want to hear from a girl you like.
Fifth, Anakin essentially tells Padme he supports a benevolent dictatorship. Sixth, Anakin creepily tells Padme when they’re besides the fireplace on Naboo that “not a day has gone by when I don’t think of you.” He also seemingly begs Padme to be with him, as he says, “What can I do? I’ll do anything you ask.” I understand that Lucas was going for a kind of Shakespearean romance here, but it just feels unrelatable and unearned.
Seventh, Anakin admits to Padme that he has murdered women and children. Maybe not the kind of guy you want to bring home to your parents..
They Just Haven’t Known Each Other Long Enough to Fall in Love or Get Married: Between ANH and Empire, Han and Leia had gone on at least two major adventures and had known each other for several years before expressing their love to each other. Between Menace and Clones, Anakin and Padme have seemingly only spent a few days with each other before they decide to get married. It just doesn’t make sense.
8. Episode II – Attack of the Clones
Even though the love story stinks, there are some good moments in this movie. My favorite is definitely when Obi-Wan uses a Jedi mind trick on the drug dealer at the club and tells him to “go home and rethink his life.”
Agree with my ranking of Star Wars movies? I would definitely love to see everyone else’s rankings!