In the history of cinema, few franchises are as iconic or successful as the Star Wars saga. Star Wars: The Force Awakens was the first film in a decade for the fan-favorite franchise (2008 animated adventure Star Wars: The Clone Wars notwithstanding). The film also marked the end of an era, as it was the first film to be released following Disney’s 2012 acquisition of Lucasfilm and the first with zero involvement from series creator George Lucas. With both The Force Awakens and Rogue One now having released, let’s see where they rank within the greater saga.
8. Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999)
Largely considered the weakest film in the series, The Phantom Menace suffers partly from the 16-year gap between the previous Star Wars and its own release. Nevertheless, the film itself has tons of problems, from wooden acting to an overly convoluted plot centering on trade disputes. Jake Lloyd’s young Anakin and new character Jar Jar Binks, however, are the easiest targets, though its cartoony effects certainly don’t help matters. Serving as more of a prologue to the prequels’ main focus on the fall of the Old Republic, the film does have some highlights, such as one of the most exhilarating lightsaber battles of the saga and the return of original trilogy performers Ian McDiarmid and Frank Oz as Palpatine and Yoda, respectively.
7. Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones (2002)
Although Attack of the Clones does share some of its predecessor’s issues, it inches ahead in a number of ways. Ewan McGregor finally comes into his own as Obi-Wan Kenobi, and the story sheds some light on how the Empire assumes control of the galaxy with the epic introduction of the Clone Wars, an event which fans had long wondered about. The film also features far more action, thanks to the introduction of Jango Fett and a CGI Yoda, as well as some genuine drama. However, its biggest downfall is the insipid romance between Anakin (Hayden Christensen) and Padmé, featuring dialogue so bad that not even Oscar winner Natalie Portman can salvage it.
6. Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi (1983)
Following the shocking cliffhanger of the previous film, Return of the Jedi had the odds stacked against it from the start. Although it resolves the Luke and Vader confrontation in stellar fashion (mostly due to McDiarmid’s standout role), the film is far too bogged down in exposition and unneeded distractions (like the divisive Ewoks) to match either of its predecessors on a story level. Moreover, the central objective is essentially a redo of the story from the original film, leading the Rebel Alliance into an epic assault on the Empire’s fearsome (second) Death Star. That aside, the film does answer lingering questions and features riveting effects. It just fails to top the impact of the rest of the original trilogy along the way.
5. Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith (2005)
It’s hard to believe that Revenge of the Sith features the same writer and director as the first two prequels. Sure, some of the acting is a bit stilted, and the film features way too much CGI. However, this pivotal chapter makes so many bold choices that it became the first Star Wars film to earn a PG-13 rating. Anakin’s seduction to the dark side actually makes sense as it develops over the film’s first half, given the manipulative actions of Palpatine, and the Order 66 sequence — along with nearly all of the film’s second half — is an absolute standout, lending gravitas to the destruction of the Jedi Order and the rise of the Galactic Empire. More importantly, this is the first of the prequels to capture the scope and spirit of the original films, bridging the gap between the saga’s two trilogies in dramatic and moving fashion.
4. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)
As the first standalone Anthology movie in the Star Wars saga, there was a lot riding on the success of Rogue One once it hit theaters. Thankfully, the Gareth Edwards-directed project was a rousing success, acting as the first real war movie the franchise has ever seen. A grim tone and a grey sense of morality help push the series into some brand new territory, while featuring some of the most striking imagery of any Star Wars film. Factor in a terrifying Darth Vader cameo, and it’s safe to say that Lucasfilm proved once and for all that the Anthology series can work.
3. Star Wars: Episode VII — The Force Awakens (2015)
There was a good deal of skepticism surrounding the release of The Force Awakens, mostly questioning whether or not a new trilogy would measure up to the original films. That question was answered quickly, by a movie that infused the unadulterated joy and adventure missing from the prequels back into the Star Wars universe. More than that, it launched a new generation of stories, led by a stellar cast and an exhilaratingly fresh story. It seems safe to say now that selling Lucasfilm to Disney was the best possible move for Hollywood’s most popular sci-fi saga.
2. Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (1977)
The film that started it all, A New Hope — or simply Star Wars, as it was initially known — is brimming with fun and imagination. Inspired by the old Flash Gordon serials, this space opera introduced moviegoers to iconic figures like Han Solo and Darth Vader and changed the industry forever. Although its original version has been tinkered with over the years, the film has continued to delight generations with its larger-than-life adventure and winning performances from stars like Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, and Harrison Ford. In fact, George Lucas’s film was nominated for 10 Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director. Its legacy, however, has gone far beyond its initial success, allowing moviegoers the chance to take their first step into a larger world.
1. Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
Whereas the original Star Wars film served as a throwback to old-fashioned mythic adventure stories, The Empire Strikes Back builds upon this foundation in nearly every conceivable way. With refined direction and deeper themes, the film represents Luke Skywalker’s entrance into a more morally, emotionally, and spiritually complex world. The introduction of Yoda offers the best insight into the nature of the Force, and the Han and Leia romance proves that a love story can work in the context of the Star Wars universe as long as it is interspersed with flights through asteroid fields and detours to a city in the clouds. Also, let’s not forget that game-changing finale that still stands as one of the most memorable plot twists of all time. Even 35 years later, The Empire Strikes Back remains a stone-cold classic and the pinnacle of the Star Wars franchise to date.
Follow Robert Yaniz Jr. on Twitter @CrookedTable
Additional reporting by Nick Cannata-Bowman
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