Once upon a time in a galaxy far far away, Star Wars was a humble limited-release about space cowboys, before becoming the equivalent of the galactic empire upon its acquisition by Disney in 2012. Sprouting merchandise from every pore of its being, from T-shirts to showerheads, the 1977 film would snowball into a generational phenomenon, changing the landscape of blockbuster cinema forever.
Inspired by the camp escapades of Flash Gordon, George Lucas’ original film was an epic space-opera and sci-fi western hybrid pumped full of melodramatic adventure and chivalrous romance. With a name like ‘Star Wars’, the series’ theatrical essence is proudly shown off, a signpost toward its bombastic intentions. Though profits are a serious business, so with the calling of Disney, came a shift toward an altogether more sincere tone of voice.
Accused of ‘dumbing down cinema’ by critics worldwide at the time of the original trilogy’s release, many saw the series as a return to the simple pleasures of pre-1960s Hollywood cinema for better or for worse. Writing about both Steven Spielberg’s Jaws and Lucas’ Star Wars, American critic Tom Shone stated that the directors “didn’t betray cinema at all: they plugged it back into the grid, returning the medium to its roots as a carnival sideshow, a magic act, one big special effect”.
44 years after the release of the original film, let’s see how the franchise so far stacks up…
Ranking the Star Wars films from worst to best:
11. Rise of Skywalker (2019 – J.J. Abrams)
In the efforts to save face after the commercially successful, yet popularly hated The Last Jedi, Disney and J.J. Abrahams created over two hours of absolute nonsense, impressive even for the Star Wars series.
Damage control was plainly visible when franchise overlord Emperor Palpatine was brought back from the dead to resurrect a suffering Sequel Trilogy. The limp story follows the surviving members of the resistance in their final battle to take down the First Order, a plot that deflates with the pathetic sound of a wet balloon as plot holes surface one after another. So many business brains are behind this blockbuster Goliath and it’s plain to see.
10. Solo (Ron Howard – 2018)
There is a noble effort to Ron Howard’s Han Solo prequel film, exploring largely unseen corners of the Star Wars universe, though the elephant in the room is simply that this film needn’t exist.
A strange surprise conclusion tries to give Solo some kind of semblance, but this story is largely a star-hopping slog across the galaxy. Existing to show Han Solo’s initial introduction to co-pilot Chewbacca and good friend Lando Calrissian, the plot of the film serves simply to answer small questions from the original trilogy such as his record speed through ‘The Kessel Run’. Small pieces of world-building show glimpses of greatness, but Solo remains a strange, pointless exercise.
9. Attack of the Clones (George Lucas – 2002)
The prequel trilogy is perhaps most notorious for its peculiar schlocky dialogue with the cheap plastic jewel in its crown Anakin Skywalker’s line to Padme in Attack of the Clones, “I don’t like sand. It’s coarse, and rough, and irritating, and it gets everywhere”.
The second film of the prequel trilogy is a sugar-rush of nonsensical excitement featuring an immature portrayal of young love, and a bombastic lightsaber duel featuring a rainbow of blinding colours. When Obi-Wan Kenobi discovers a secret clone army, a plot to overthrow the government is unfurled, alongside a forbidden romance between the Queen and her bodyguard Anakin. Truly bizarre, Attack of the Clones was the fall-guy for the prequel trilogy’s lack of critical success but remains a wild ride.
8. The Force Awakens (J.J. Abrams – 2015)
The much-anticipated return to the Star Wars universe after a ten-year hiatus was a well-constructed cinematic event, but as for a standalone film, it was a mere copy of successful predecessors.
From screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan, the original writer of The Empire Strikes Back, The Force Awakens was the film to right the perceived wrongs of the prequels, harking back to the essence of the original trilogy. For the most part, this classic magic was recaptured, doing well to bring the series to a contemporary audience, introducing Daisy Ridley as a desert scavenger who must join Han Solo and Chewbacca to restore order in the galaxy. It’s a worthy reintroduction to the franchise, but one which was particularly safe in its decisions.
7. The Phantom Menace (George Lucas – 1999)
Few films could capture the flurry of excitement that arose during the release of 1999’s The Phantom Menace, aside from perhaps 2019’s Avengers: Endgame, and whilst the film is a strange amalgamation of galactical politics, it leaves a charming legacy.
A prequel to the original story from George Lucas, the film follows Darth Vader’s origins on the planet of Tatooine where, as just a young boy, he is found by two venturing Jedi’s and taken for training. The Phantom Menace is certainly culpable of many sins, none less than the introduction of the unanimously hated Jar-Jar Binks, but there are efforts to create an exciting original story, illustrated by rich, wild imagination. Darth Maul’s duel at the film’s climax remains a significant milestone of modern commercial filmmaking.
6. The Last Jedi (Rian Johnson – 2017)
Venomously divisive upon its initial release, Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi subverted audience expectations with significant changes to the predicted path of the franchise, creating both magic and disappointment in its wake.
Gorgeously shot by cinematographer Steve Yedlin, The Last Jedi might be one of the best shot films of the Star Wars franchise, specifically for the ‘throne room’ scene radiating the villainy of the empire in a rich crimson fight sequence. Picking up from The Force Awakens, the second film of the Sequel trilogy tracks Rey’s progress in Jedi training under the watchful eye of Luke Skywalker whilst The Resistance prepares for a climactic battle with the Empire. Fiddling with pre-existing lore and meddling with conventions, The Last Jedi is bold in its convictions, presenting a brave, if unwarranted move for the franchise away from its narrative constraints.
5. Rogue One (Gareth Edwards – 2016)
The most significant triumph of the sequel era, Gareth Edwards’ Rogue One places the battle between The Rebellion and Galactic Empire into the context of a war film, capturing the action with genuine excitement and tension.
Taking place only moments before the original film, Rogue One details the Rebellion’s mission to steal the plans for the Death Star, following the daughter of an imperial scientist on her dangerous assignment. With gleefully silly characters including a stick-wielding blind man who can channel the force, Rogue One is a welcome exploration of the peripheral cities and people of the Star Wars universe. Bookended with an uncharacteristically despairing final battle, as well as one of Darth Vader’s greatest ever scenes, Edwards’ film is an underrated jubilant ride.
4. Return of the Jedi (Richard Marquand – 1983)
An early sign of the franchises soon money-making merchandising, Return of the Jedi was the first film to fully utilise its market position, demonstrated by the highly marketable Ewoks, essentially walking teddy bears that lived in the woods.
The final film of the original trilogy was a filmmaking spectacle like no other at the time, putting all of its toys in the shop window, from the monstrous ‘Sarlacc Pit’ to Jabba’s eclectic palace. After rescuing Han Solo from imprisoned carbonite, Luke Skywalker and the rest of the rebels head to forest planet Endor to destroy the second Death Star and end Emperor Palpatine’s reign. Colourful and exhilarating, Return of the Jedi may not be the series’ very best, but it’s certainly one of its most enjoyable.
3. Star Wars (A New Hope) (George Lucas – 1977)
The spark that would set off a cultural supernova, George Lucas’ original Star Wars, later renamed A New Hope to suit the newly made trilogy, remains a charming space adventure that focuses on a simple story following several endearing characters.
Influencing filmmakers worldwide, Lucas’ film was an epic tale on tiny proportions, managing to recreate the scale of war with only a limited budget and the use of DIY. These special effects would go on to define the technical brilliance of sci-fi filmmaking, using models and ingenious new technologies to bring the story of the rebel alliance to life. Recruited by Obi-Wan Kenobi, Luke is a mere farmhand when he joins the Rebels, joining them on their mission to bring down the Death Star and rescue Princess Leia from the clutches of Darth Vader. Setting up much of the lore for future films, Lucas’ adventure would make a profit of $775 million and go on to define a generation of film lovers.
As Ridley Scott described: “I would describe it as seminal, for me. George’s first one, that he directed, just seminal.”
2. Revenge of the Sith (George Lucas – 2005)
Bombastically fun, the final film of George Lucas’ prequel trilogy manages to access the essence of what made the original trilogy so great, ending part one of Anakin Skywalker’s story with frenetic delight.
Chronicling the collapse of the rebellion as the Galactic Empire seizes power, Revenge of the Sith energetically hops from scene to scene in a flurry of consistent excitement, perfectly embodying what Star Wars always was and should be. A totally excessive, melodramatic space opera, Lucas’ film does exactly what American critic Tom Shone said of the original film, returning cinema “to its roots as a carnival sideshow, a magic act, one big special effect”. Revenge of the Sith whips up the lavish imagination of the previous two films and creates the perfect storm of eccentric characters, battles and situations that creates a whirlwind of pure sci-fi exuberance.
1. The Empire Strikes Back (Irvin Kershner – 1980)
Both silly and strangely sophisticated, The Empire Strikes Back balances the series’ camp roots, whilst elevating its story into something far more impressive and spectacular, fulfilling its role as a perfect sequel, one of the best ever for that matter.
Winning an Academy Award for Best Sound, no doubt with additional thanks to John Williams’ iconic score, The Empire Strikes Back is the most celebrated of the Star Wars series and for good reason too. Not only is the film a celebration of the creative freedom of sci-fi storytelling, but it is also a triumph of filmmaking, perfectly melding sound, lighting and cinematography, particularly in the final battle between Luke and Vader. As well as Luke’s training at Yoda’s home and Han Solo’s imprisonment in carbonite, the second film in the original trilogy contains some of the series’ most illustrious and elaborate moments, many of which would go down in history.
“No, I am your father.”