[Editor’s Note: This article has been updated to include Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.]
Congratulations, everybody. We finally made it. The Star Wars franchise is back and it’s here to stay. We’ve got one official “chapter” that’s already a whole year old and now, this week, the first feature-length Star Wars spin-off in years… and the first with any real ambition behind it. Rogue One is one of the biggest experiments in the Star Wars franchise, and the time has come to see just how it ranks against the other twelve movies in the series. Yes, I just said there are twelve Star Wars movies. No, don’t correct me.
When Disney took over the franchise they announced that only the six “episodic” motion pictures counted, but why do they get to decide? Just because they paid George Lucas money? That’s not how reality works. You don’t get to strike an entire work of art off the record just because you don’t like it. Moonraker sucks but it’s still a James Bond movie, damn it. Kingdom of the Crystal Skull was terrible but it’s still an Indiana Jones. The rest of the Nightmare on Elm Street movies don’t disappear just because Platinum Dunes made a terrible remake.
So today we are ranking all twelve of those Star Wars movies, whether you like them or not. Heck, a lot of people have come to the defense of the prequels in recent years. We’re even about to argue that the time has finally come to defend at least one of the Ewoks movies too. Take a gander at all twelve of the feature-length Star Wars films, ranked from worst to best. How does Rogue One hold up against the other movies?
Star Wars Movies Ranked
The debate starts now.
12. Star Wars Holiday Special (1978)
Yes, we count them as Star Wars Movies. The so-called Star Wars Holiday Special made up its own holiday, and was in no respects special. Actually, it’s barely Star Wars at all. Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher reprise their roles but only briefly, and Fisher is so obviously hammered (or worse) that it’s legitimately sad to watch her croon the TV movie’s awful, awful theme song.
This feature length “adventure” revolves around Chewbacca’s family, who wait patiently for him to come home for “Life Day” and futz around their rooftop apartment watching TV shows about cooking and home radio repair and the Mos Eisley cantina, which is run by Bea Arthur, who sings a song to one of the rats from Food of the Gods. Oh yes, and Chewbacca’s father gets a masturbation machine for the holidays. This is all real, I promise you. I’ve seen it. Multiple times.
The Star Wars Holiday Special aired only once, and it has never been officially released on home video. George Lucas has personally threatened to destroy every remaining copy with a sledgehammer. Carrie Fisher says she puts it on at the end of long parties when she wants all her guests to leave. It is one of the most painful things ever captured on celluloid. It is hell. That’s why we recorded a free downloadable commentary track for it.
11. Caravan of Courage: An Ewok Adventure (1984)
Like most things in this universe, Caravan of Courage: An Ewok Adventure is at least marginally better than the Star Wars Holiday Special. But it’s still pretty terrible. This Made-for-TV movie is about the Towani family, who crash-land on the forest moon of Endor and run into the dead-eyed murder bears called The Ewoks. When the human parents are kidnapped by an evil beast called the Gorax, it’s up to their annoying ragamuffin kids to team up with those murder bears, trudge across the landscape, and eventually save the day.
This movie is the vapor of the Star Wars movies. Nothing about Caravan of Courage is notable, and only half-remembered notions about a little speed freak that looks like Snarf from Thundercats poke out of your memory a week after watching it. It’s not painful to sit through. It’s just a very bad movie.
10. Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones (2002)
Debate will continue to rage about whether Attack of the Clones or The Phantom Menace is the worst of the “official” Star Wars movies, but I’m putting my foot down. Attack of the Clones is the nadir, and for a wide variety of reasons. Visually, this was the film where George Lucas essentially abandoned practical sets, making it appear as though his cast is walking around a shiny video game environment most of the time. Plot-wise, it’s a convoluted junk pile. Character-wise, it’s the story of a love affair so powerful that it essentially destroyed the Republic, but the two lovers are dispassionate wooden planks.
Poor Hayden Christensen. He’s not a bad actor but in Attack of the Clones he has nothing to work with, and he reads every single line like he’s playing a serial killer on Ambien. He stalks his childhood crush and coerces her into loving him. He murders children and she thinks it ain’t no thang. Even Natalie Portman, a legitimately great actor, is toppled by the overbearing dialogue and contrived picnics and awkward stares.
The Obi-Wan storyline is actually an interesting addition to the Star Wars movies universe, full of conspiracy and intrigue, and on its own it probably could have held our attention. But the unbridled, sleep-inducing awfulness of the rest of Attack of the Clones could sink a battleship. This movie never stood a chance against boredom of that magnitude.
9. Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999)
The Phantom Menace plays slightly better today than its reputation would suggest, but then again its reputation suggests that it’s the worst movie ever made, and we’ve already established that it’s not even the worst Star Wars. There was a noble effort made here to introduce new ideas to the Star Wars storyline, and even though most of them were unnecessary (hello, midi-chlorians), they do at least capture the attention more than Attack of the Clones and its slack-jawed monologues about sand.
But there’s nothing emotional to latch onto in The Phantom Menace, and nothing recognizably human except young Anakin Skywalker’s “Yippee!” (and that part is pretty annoying). George Lucas, directing a movie for the first time in decades, is clearly more interested in the technical side of the film than the plot or the characters, neither of which make a lot of sense. But the technical achievements were groundbreaking and influential. Like it or not, the advances put forth by The Phantom Menace have laid the foundation for mainstream blockbuster cinema today.
The Phantom Menace is a tedious film, it’s a meandering film, and even the film’s few highlights – like the pod race, or the climactic lightsaber duel – are longer than they need to be and feature many elements that make no sense. (What were those laser doors that separated Qui-Gon and Darth Maul? What was the freaking point?)
Oh yes, and Jar Jar still sucks. But you knew that already.
8. Star Wars: The Clone Wars (2008)
The Star Wars animated movie was not so much a feature film event as it was several early episodes of the (eventually quite popular) CGI-animated series, strung together into a single story arc. It’s a jarring transition from the live-action films and, even when taken as a whole with the series, it’s not a very good group of episodes. And yet it was released in theaters anyway, so it counts a film, damn it.
But unlike the live-action Star Wars prequels, this so-called “interquel” (it takes place between Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith) has a little bit of personality to it. The characters banter believably and solve their problems cleverly. Voice actor Matt Lanter is a better Anakin Skywalker than Hayden Christensen ever was, if only because he bothers to inflect. Nevertheless, this movie is a rather limp adventure about rescuing a kidnapped Hutt, introducing an (in this film at least) annoying new Padawan for Anakin Skywalker, one whom he would presumably someday murder.
Frankly, that’s the real problem with this movie, and arguably the whole Clone Wars series: we know that Anakin was already an unrepentant child-murderer before the series began. We know he will go on to murder even more children by hand. We know he will bring about a fascist Empire that massacres all of the Jedi. We know he will destroy an entire planet full of people, committing an act of unthinkable genocide. So all of these bright and chipper adventures are either grossly besides the point or disturbingly perverse. Have any other Nazis, from space or otherwise, ever starred in a lively cartoon adventure about how cool they were, aimed at selling their heroism to children?
7. Ewoks: The Battle for Endor (1985)
Ewoks: The Battle for Endor is not about a battle for Endor. It’s about a battle for the forest moon of Endor. But whatever. That’s not really what’s important here. What’s important is that the second Made-for-TV Ewoks movie is a dramatic improvement on the first, with an engaging storyline and some pretty darned impressive visual effects. Giant monsters, cool transformations, nifty battles and more. It’s a neat-looking, lively film.
As for the plot, do you remember the Towani family from Caravan of Courage? All but one of them is murdered in the first couple of minutes, on-screen no less. Battle for Endor just keeps going from there. We’re introduced to a new wrinkle in the Star Wars universe – magic, or at least some other sort of sci-fi space wizardry that rivals The Force – and the opening slaughter sets the stakes very high, even when Battle for Endor turns a little cutesy. It’s not a particularly great film. It’s slight and strange and doesn’t really fit into what we know of as Star Wars. But it’s a better adventure than most of the prequels, and it deserves credit for that.
6. Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith (2005)
The third Star Wars prequel is the one with all the good stuff: the downfall of the Jedi, the seduction of Anakin Skywalker to the Dark Side, the epic light saber duels between Yoda and Palpatine and Darth Vader and Obi-Wan. There’s a dark cloud hanging over this film from the early moments, when Palpatine convinces Anakin to execute Count Dooku because it feels good. This is the prequel with portent. This is the prequel that feels like it matters.
Which is why it’s so frustrating that it doesn’t quite work. Christensen is still trapped in a lifeless performance, inconsistencies with the original trilogy still pop up like crazy and both of those otherwise kickass lightsaber duels end stupidly. Yoda gives up mid-battle because he stumbles to the ground, and decides to go into exile rather than walk right back up to Palpatine and finish the fight. Obi-Wan wins because he’s a few feet higher than Vader, and rather than Force jump anywhere else, Vader decides to Force jump straight into Obi-Wan’s light saber. And the less said about Vader’s final “NOOOOOOOOOO” the better.
Still, Revenge of the Sith feels like a Star Wars. It’s not a particularly good Star Wars but it’s of a piece with the other, better films in the franchise. It’s not bad, but not great either.
5. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)
On the surface, Rogue One certainly looks like one of the best Star Wars movies ever. Gareth Edwards adapts the old-fashioned look of the original trilogy with the cinematography of contemporary war movies, giving this “men on a mission” story – about the group of Rebels who stole the Death Star plans immediately prior to the events of A New Hope – a sense of importance that, frankly, the rest of the movie can’t quite live up to. The characters are all paper-thin, with most of them defined by a single bullet point (blind badass, smart-alecky robot, abandonment issues, etc.) and the story they push through is like a Mad Libs game, pulling the audience through stock plot points to a finale that was pretty much a foregone conclusion in the first place.
But although it’s disappointing that, unlike the very best Star Wars movies, Rogue One never transcends its pulpy, simplistic influences, “pulpy” and “simplistic” aren’t the opposite of “fun.” The action is great and the finale is gangbusters. There’s just an undeniable sense that this movie could have been so much better – those characters, the plot, and also that one embarrassingly unrealistic CGI character, and also the film’s weird version of Darth Vader who loves puns – and that keeps it from being ranked higher on the list. It’s not a great Star Wars story, but it’s a really cool Star Wars anecdote.
4. Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi (1983)
The final film in the original Star Wars trilogy has some of the best moments in the series. The opening siege on Jabba’s palace is a masterstroke of sordid atmosphere (or at least, it was until the Special Edition added a wacky musical number). The speeder chase on the forest moon of Endor is exhilarating. More importantly, the climactic confrontation between Luke, Darth Vader and the Emperor is an emotional powerhouse. Gorgeously photographed, impressively choreographed, astoundingly scored by John Williams. It’s an incredible finale.
But then there’s all the rest of Return of the Jedi, which isn’t so much “bad” as it is mostly filler. The Ewoks might not be as awful as some of the hardcore fans would have you believe, but they’re a huge distraction from the characters we genuinely care about it. The way Luke learns about his sister is almost appallingly anticlimactic. The final run on the second Death Star is mostly just more of what we saw in the original movie, but with less emotional investment because only Lando and Wedge are there and they don’t have any character arcs of their own to become invested in.
Return of the Jedi is a great movie tucked away inside a merely okay movie, but the greatness pokes out all over the place. It’s just not as consistently impressive as the next three films on the list.
3. Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens (2015)
The enthusiasm is strong with this one, and it’s not without merit: J.J. Abrams’ new Star Wars movie is ripping adventure yarn, bursting at the seams with exuberance and incident and likable characters galore. The film’s villain, Kylo Ren, is a welcome addition to the Star Wars universe. He’s a grim parallel to Darth Vader, full of rage and doubt. The action is great. The dialogue is fun. This is damn good Star Wars.
But Abrams’ film is not without flaws. The plot recycles so much from the original trilogy that it rarely makes a distinct impression all its own. The pacing is so brisk that it often glosses over the big emotional beats, giving the impression of drama without actually engaging in it (with a few notable exceptions). The climax comes so quickly that it’s hard to tell whether The Force Awakens is really heading into its final stretch or if Abrams plans to go on forever without fully explaining which action sequences are more important than the others.
These are not terrible problems, not at all, but they keep The Force Awakens from seriously entering the conversation about the “Best Star Wars Ever.” This is a rollicking good time. It feels like Star Wars ought to feel, and like Jedi it also features some truly incredible moments that fans will be thinking about for many years to come. That’s more than enough to earn The Force Awakens the #3 spot.
2. Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (1977)
If one were to judge the Star Wars movies purely on their cultural significance, or even on their impact to the entertainment industry as we know it, George Lucas’s original adventure would be #1. Star Wars was a clarion call to dreamers everywhere, and declared that sci-fi/fantasy could and should be taken seriously. It advanced visual effects and sound effects beyond what we all thought was possible. It united the world in shared enthusiasm. It is one of the “Great Movies,” and it earns those capital letters.
In fact, the only reason A New Hope is #2 is because another movie in the series is even better. Not as influential (because how could it be?), but better constructed and more dramatically daring. A New Hope introduced us to this wonderful world we all now adore. Another movie perfected it.
1. Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
The Empire Strikes Back is the best Star Wars movie, as a dramatic construct if nothing else. It took the freewheeling adventure of A New Hope and injected it with philosophy, character development, romance and pathos. It gave the heroes time to talk to each other, and expanded on the tragic nature of evil in what originally seemed like a one-sided fight against generic intergalactic oppression. It gave us one of the most stunning twists in motion picture history. It thrills.
And it did something else that few movies ever dared: it let the villains win. Some might balk at the cliffhanger ending, but Empire creates a more meaningful impression of the scope of the Star Wars universe. It establishes a give-and-take in this intergalactic conflict, and reminds us that heroes can fail. That’s why it’s so significant when they ultimately win. The Empire Strikes Back offers richer and more resonant drama than this genre had seen before, and… for now… it is still the best in the series.
Top Photo: Walt Disney/LucasFilm
William Bibbiani (everyone calls him ‘Bibbs’) is Crave’s film content editor and critic. You can hear him every week on The B-Movies Podcast and watch him on the weekly YouTube series Most Craved and What the Flick. Follow his rantings on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.