Unless you’ve been held captive by a Wampa, crash-landed a TIE Fighter on Jakku or were eaten by the Sarlacc – unless you’re Boba Fett, in which case you came back like a champ – it’s probably not news that Star Wars Day is upon us once again.
Because it’s May the 4th, nerds and civilians alike will again be hitting Disney+ and busting out their tapes, DVDs and Blu-rays to rewatch all 11 “Star Wars” films (the nine-chapter Skywalker Saga, plus a couple of spinoffs) in this galactic franchise. (Pro tip: If you’re a total newbie, watch the original 1977 “Star Wars” first.)
But which is the best of the best? These are the rankings you’re looking for.
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11. ‘Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace’ (1999)
George Lucas’ prequels get a bad rap and, well, they kind of deserve it at times. Especially this one. What basically is a two-hour trailer for the rest of Anakin Skywalker’s story is kind of a mess – he was immaculately conceived? What’s this about midichlorians and the Force? The pod-race set piece is fun the first five times yet gets old quick, Darth Maul is the coolest guy in the movie and he’s in it for all of three minutes, trade negotiations are not the way to start a sci-fi movie, and as for Jar Jar Binks … yeah. One thing it does do well is set up the political atmosphere that leads to the Empire and introduces Anakin as the chosen one who will bring balance to the Force. Just not in the way anybody expects.
10. ‘Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones’ (2002)
There are so many sleek special effects used in this thing that you miss the trash heaps and spit-and-gum filmmaking of Lucas’ original movies. Also, Hayden Christensen and Natalie Portman have ZERO chemistry as doomed lovers Anakin and Padmé – they have a picnic in the middle of the movie, battle monsters together on Geonosis and get married at the end, and yet even a modicum of actual romance isn’t to be found. That all said, “Clones” isn’t a bad film and it’s pretty good whenever Ewan McGregor’s Obi-Wan Kenobi is around: His and Anakin’s chase after Zam Wesell is a scene from the great Jedi buddy-cop comedy we never got, and the discovery of the Republic’s clone army on the rainy planet Kamino is obviously important. (Never forget, though: Stormtroopers > clone troopers.)
9. ‘Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith’ (2005)
It’s no coincidence that the prequel that’s closest to the original trilogy in tone, story and theme is the best one. Anakin finally has his full turn to the dark side, though it still seems a little whiplash-y how quickly he goes from broody, anti-authoritarian kid to child-killing, baddest man in the galaxy. And Padmé dying from a broken heart is a little much. However, Yoda takes on Senator Palpatine/Darth Sidious/Emperor in a neato lightsaber battle, when Order 66 comes down it’s a little heartbreaking, and Obi-Wan and Anakin’s violent brawl on Mustafar is arguably the most hellacious in any “Star Wars” film.
8. ‘Rogue One: A Star Wars Story’ (2016)
For its maiden standalone voyage, “Star Wars” brass blended the old – the Rebel Alliance freaking out about the construction of the Empire’s mighty Death Star – with something new: In this case, a war movie digging into the battlefields on land and in space with insurgents rising up against “the Man.” The results are a mixed bag: Ex-con Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) heads up the squad of armed misfits to steal the Death Star plans, though a snarky droid ends up being the best character in the bunch (for the record, K-2SO is way cooler than C-3PO); the Empire is full of bickering bureaucrats, which is fun to watch though bad for getting the Death Star done in a timely manner; and Darth Vader power walks into scenes that both undermine his icon status yet also cement it. While the fan service goes too far – for example, the old-school CGI character who is just as distracting as Jar Jar – “Rogue One” does introduce some neato supporting aliens like Admiral Raddus, a military mashup of Patton, Churchill and a lobster.
7. ‘Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker’ (2019)
It could also be called “Star Wars: Attack of the Callbacks” since it bends over backward – and sacrifices a lot of good storytelling and fun new characters (we totally heart little Babu Frik) – to pay homage to familiar faces and aspects from previous films. Jedi-in-training Rey (Daisy Ridley), reluctant hero Finn (John Boyega) and X-wing warrior Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) lead the ragtag Resistance against a returning Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) in a film that’s full of logic fumbles and muddies the focus of the third and final trilogy. The evolving relationship between Rey and the First Order’s hotheaded Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) goes some interesting places, and director J.J. Abrams’ “Skywalker” is one last tribute to General Leia Organa (the late Carrie Fisher) and the way certain returning characters have molded decades of this expansive story. Hardcore fans will find lots to love and it’s plenty entertaining with bombastic spectacle, but “Rise” crashes and burns as an actual finale.
6. ‘Solo: A Star Wars Story’ (2018)
A young Han Solo movie doesn’t sound like a great idea … until you actually see a young Han Solo movie. Mostly free of lightsabers, Jedi and Rebels, “Solo” is a “Star Wars” take on an Indiana Jones jam, and the first movie to tackle the underworld through its most famous anti-hero. This Han (Alden Ehrenreich) is an idealistic sort willing to go to extreme and illegal lengths to see his girlfriend (Emilia Clarke) again. Han and Chewie (Joonas Suotamo) are awesome together, Han and Lando (Donald Glover) aren’t bad either, it boasts a bunch of new creatures and crooks, and the film even ties into “Star Wars” past in surprising fashion. This, not “Rogue One,” should be the template for future spinoffs.
5. ‘Star Wars: The Last Jedi’ (2017)
For those who love spectacular space battles, the cute audacity of porgs and bad guys with British accents snarling, “Rebel scum,” there’s a lot to love in writer/director Rian Johnson’s “Episode VIII.” Fans have plenty to unpack in a lengthy runtime and “Last Jedi,” like other franchise vehicles, demands repeat viewings, but Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) is the coolest he’s been since “The Empire Strikes Back.” Plus, the next-generation heroes of the Resistance take a great leap in being a real rebellion like we saw in the original trilogy. Johnson is also winningly subversive, having Luke call out his own past and challenging the foundation that Lucas put in place 40 years ago – one character even says, “Good guys, bad guys. Made-up words.” The galaxy is no longer a hotbed of chosen ones, a place where a nobody, a lowly First Order janitor or a Resistance mechanic, can save the universe – a switch from the days of Anakin and Luke. “Last Jedi” is unsurprisingly dedicated to “our princess” Fisher, and her integral role speaks volumes to the legacy of the core characters played by her, Hamill and Harrison Ford, yet also points out the need for fresh icons to take the franchise to new heights.
4. ‘Star Wars: Return of the Jedi’ (1983)
Let’s just put this out there now: Ewoks aren’t that bad. And the alien creature quotient is at an all-time high when you toss in Jabba the Hutt’s crew, Admiral Ackbar and Nien Nunb. What makes this movie so special are all the satisfying conclusions. Luke says goodbye to Yoda in a touching moment, Leia finding out that Luke is her brother is emotional but not cloying, the Rebel Alliance vs. Empire space sequence is a highlight, Han Solo is less of a scoundrel than ever, and Luke and Vader’s climactic father-son throwdown is a thing of redemptive wonder. Check yourself for a pulse if you’re not getting the chills after Vader tosses the Emperor down a shaft or when he says, “Let me look on you with my own eyes” to Luke before dying. A perfect ending – at least until ol’ George went and got rid of the Ewoks’ celebratory “Yub nub” song and stuck young Anakin in the Dead Jedi Ghost Club.
3. ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ (2015)
Abrams introduces the best characters since fans first laid eyes on Han, Luke and Leia. Rey is wicked smart and a capable hero in a universe with the baddies of the First Order on the warpath, ex-Stormtrooper Finn and Han are brothers from another mother, pilot Poe is as cool and refreshing as a tall glass of blue milk, and Kylo does his best Vader impression as a maniacal villain with some serious emotional issues. Abrams gets dangerously close to recycling old material, but instead he uses those familiar motifs to set the stage for an exciting third trilogy and crafts arguably the best final shot ever in a “Star Wars” film.
2. ‘Star Wars’ (1977)
Whether Han shot first or not, the original remains the real deal mostly because of all the great character moments. Luke is a whiny farmboy who has big dreams when he looks out over the two-sun horizon of Tatooine and he knows his destiny lies beyond. Old “Ben” Kenobi explaining to Luke that Darth Vader “murdered” his father Anakin, a scene that has much more richness revisiting it later. Han cynically explaining that hokey religions and ancient weapons are no match for a good blaster, though it seems like he’s trying to convince himself of this a bit. C-3PO constantly complaining to R2-D2 and Artoo taking it like a champ. And Leia putting on a brave face as she faces Vader and the destruction of her planet. Even Vader feeling there’s something up when Luke makes his trench run on the Death Star. We don’t need to know much about their history or where they come from to quickly fall in love with all these players as they begin their long journey.
1. ‘Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back’ (1980)
Simply the best. It might rank highly just due to AT-ATs, the Imperial Walkers that are arguably the coolest things that have ever stomped across a movie screen. Yet there is so much greatness to “Empire” on a surface level but also digging deeper. Vader’s reveal to Luke about being the kid’s father is an all-time truth bomb, and is made better when compared to Luke’s visions of the man behind the mask when training with Yoda. Luke training with Yoda and each kinda getting ticked off at the other is priceless. But really “Empire” is like a Star Destroyer full of these scenes: Han saving Luke in the deadly cold of Hoth by warming him up in Tauntaun guts; Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams) betraying his old friend Han in order to save his city; Han and Leia’s “I love you/I know” exchange before the smuggler gets frozen in carbonite. And on and on. Once could argue that it’s one of the best sequels of all time but for this series at least, it’s the chapter that takes a cool sci-fi fairy tale with Arthurian overtones and sent it on its way to being a masterwork of storytelling.
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