Star Wars is a beautiful saga that's been discussed and dissected since Episode IV: A New Hope came out in 1977. While there are opinions we can all agree on, such as “Senator Palpatine looks like Senator Joe Libermann,” and “those Younglings had it coming," when it comes to which film is everyone's favorite, you're going to hear a number of different responses.
We've all read different Star Wars rankings, and many of them are based on which film is the best story. But to celebrate Star Wars Day, it seemed fitting to do a ranking that should stir the pot.
As filmmakers, we're always taught everything we see and hear on the screen should support the story: the production design, cinematography, lighting, costumes, makeup, creature prosthetics, the CGI, etc. So in honor of that, forget Star Wars chronology and “watch in this order” lists.
This is a ranking based on the production value and how it's held up over time. Let's get into it.
11. Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker (2019)
Perhaps I’m punishing a movie for not having the chance to influence anything newer yet. Still…
The party on Pasaana was a wildly misguided direction when the story was trying to establish First Order totalitarian rule in the galaxy. Colorful flags and fabrics and creature designs completely negate the dialogue of an oppressed people. Later, thousands of ships (good and evil) are rendered meaningless in number because humans are routinely bad at comprehending more than a few hundred anything. Later still, the hundred-thousand ships are less powerful than Emperor Palpatine, so the “epic” scale is completely lost.
The nostalgia factor (Death Star, Han Solo) doesn’t work when the story has nothing to say about nostalgia and just adds questions. To quote Harrison Ford regarding his possible Force Ghost appearance, “I don’t know and I don’t care.”
A theme of dangerous nostalgia may have been more appropriate here (a la Cobra Kai), but we’re also nowhere near anything new (the Wayfinder, some knife, Sith language, memory erasure) meaning anything important.
10. Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens (2015)
Perhaps J.J. Abrams' audition tape for Star Wars (see: 2009's Star Trek) required him to use up his best ideas. Just see how the planets are destroyed in each movie and tell me which is more meaningful and visually interesting.
It’s odd to me that there are so few costume changes in his movie, from a merchandising standpoint and a story standpoint. Rey wears the same tunic in a desert as a snowy forest?
In 2015, I predicted the Abrams trilogy would cause the Star Wars world to reevaluate the prequel trilogy more positively because of the reliance on pre-existing icons (Star Destroyer in the desert, Millennium Falcon, Luke’s lightsaber) rather than creating original icons. I stand by that assessment.
9. Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018)
Mud and grime. Caves and interiors. Few scenes with “stars” and grandeur. Snow and sand planets, but there isn’t a story or character connection to really any environment in this one-third of an incomplete trilogy.
I don’t even blame Ron Howard, who I think took the job in small part to make sure his daughter got to direct some of The Mandalorian.
This movie goes absolutely overkill on the origins of everything in the production design of A New Hope. Where did Han get his blaster? Who cares! What about his dice, vest, and pair of socks? Way to suck the mystery and fun out of props.
8. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)
Possibly the only other standalone film aside from A New Hope. A general theme of “bad guys doing good and good guys doing bad” is mostly supported by gritty brown and grey colors, more like a war film than a space opera.
Star Wars imagery (AT-AT walkers) on tropical beaches survived the re-shoots and provided the most memorable images.
Loses points for the uncanny valley CGI faces, and whatever I don’t remember.
7. Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith (2005)
The opening spaceship tracking shot was trying to do new things with CGI capability, but also make the audience feel more overwhelmed by an incomprehensibly big space battle. Ideally, production assists with creating emotion, and it was an extra level of difficulty often absent from spectacle movies.
Similarly, the emotion of the lava fight sequence on Mustafar (“Musta been far away”?) is supported by the environment (chaotic, fiery, perilous).
General Grievous gets points for being a thematically-symbolic character design, though entirely worthless in plot or character. Yoda’s detour on Kashyyyk to help the Wookiees is one of the oddest subplots in the prequel trilogy, existing purely for fan service, showing a standard (and stakeless) battle, and detracting away from bigger opportunities.
When Yoda does arrive to fight in the Senate Chambers, the movie is perfectly blunt and bombastic in style, symbolism, and messaging.
6. Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi (2017)
New costumes yet? Nope! We’re just picking up seconds after the previous story ended.
Themes (hero-worship, individuality, proper teaching methods) are prevalent, but not significantly assisted by the locations, props, costumes, or anything much beyond dialogue. The red soil under white salt flats provided a starkly new color scheme for the series, so yay.
Similarly, visuals like Holdo’s sacrifice or Rey’s vision quest were cool stylizations, but somewhat undercut any sincere emotion in those moments. Ultimately, though, much of the story is contained on unremarkable spaceships, with an odd detour on some Monte Carlo planet.
5. Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones (2002)
Maybe the most controversial opinion, putting this one here. It’s a crime noir mystery mixed with a Doctor Zhivago space epic, with Modern Times thrown in, too. (God, I miss when Star Wars movies were influenced by more than Star Wars movies.)
Though usually filmed flat and distant, there are moments of interesting, visual symbolism like the busts of Jedi, fire-to-water transitions, and the monsters in the arena.
The central planets (Coruscant, Kamino, Geonosis) offer stark contrasts which also help structure the movie visually and track a descent away from the civilized Republic. The love theme score is perfectly operatic and maybe John Williams’ best work in the series.
The over-reliance on CGI backgrounds in the prequels hit a crescendo here, but George Lucas and his team were making bigger swings in storytelling than usually credited.
4. Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999)
Admittedly, this film doesn’t compare well to other late-90s space-faring flicks like The Fifth Element, Galaxy Quest, Starship Troopers, Independence Day, and more. However, new Star Wars iconography is on full blast, and its influence on later work is undeniable.
Darth Maul had six minutes of screen time and became not only a fan favorite but also a perfect counterbalance to Darth Vader’s villainy in the original trilogy. John Williams’ score is carrying emotion like a workhorse. The green and lush Naboo environment is a thematic juxtaposition to Tatooine (differences needlessly articulated one movie later).
Podracing, a double-lightsaber, droid armies, a child Anakin, and more show that Lucas wasn’t aiming for a simple Star Wars rehash. And if one accepts Jar Jar as merely a mindless idiot who later destroys democracy, then we can see Lucas as Nostrodamus.
However, the most damning element of the production has to be the racist caricatures—which were all ridiculously ignorant and lazy at best.
3. Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi (1983)
This film is maybe the most hurt by subsequent CGI additions (just give us the original cut, Disney+!). With locations mostly back on Tatooine, the Death Star, and Dagobah, there isn’t as much new here as the previous entries. The Princess Leia costume was defended best by Carrie Fisher who essentially said, “A disgusting slug made Leia wear it and so she killed him.”
Endor was okay and maybe the easiest location for fan films to replicate.
The Rancor puppet gets gross, skin texture/moisture, and, more importantly, love from its de facto creators. Similarly, the Ewoks were/are trashed for being cutesy toy-grabs, but at least they died in the heat of battle.
Also during the final battle, the Super Star Destroyer crashing helped convey success, size, weight, and hopelessness.
Luke’s all-black look symbolized his brush with the dark side; a flap of white fabric comes out when he re-emerges on the light side. That’s perfect attention to production detail.
2. Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (1977)
We need to appreciate the bold choice to have audience-avatar characters played by expressionless robots. Of course, the miniatures are impeccable and a dozen documentaries have explained the making-of for the last 44 years. But even when the production is falling apart, it’s great.
Why is there a devil in the cantina? Because they needed alien costumes.
Can Alec Guinness fight? No, just edit some clumsy swinging (twice) and trust it’ll work.
Using lion roars for space maneuvers? Nailed it.
Few movies are made better by their flaws, and A New Hope is firmly in that camp. This movie is held together by duct tape on an $11 million budget in 1977. That same year, Close Encounters of the Third Kind (which took audiences to far-off places like Indiana) cost $20 million.
1. Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
This movie takes characters from the first movie and challenges them in new ways, crafting a nearly-perfect sequel to the biggest movie of all time (at the time, at least).
Environments like Hoth, Dagobah, the inside of a space worm, and Bespin expanded what was possible to imagine and build. New in-universe tech (AT-AT walkers) and character reasons for puppetry (Yoda moves awkwardly because he’s old) support the story and themes.
Even “Ice Cream maker man” (aka Willrow Hood) has become a hero and production design icon.
The Empire Strikes Back has it all, and makes my top spot.
So what did I get wrong? Let me know in the comments.