Star Wars. What else is there to say? Whether or not you’ve ever seen any of the films, there’s no doubt that you’re at least somewhat familiar with the franchise. It all started as a 1977 film from writer/director George Lucas and has since turned into a multi-billion dollar cash cow. Movies, television shows, games, toys, clothing, and every thing you could possibly imagine has had the Star Wars logo slapped onto it over the course of its 40 year history. In 2012, Disney acquired the rights for the franchise from Lucasfilm and they definitely intend to keep printing money using the name.
Obviously, we’re here to talk about the film series though. At this time, there have been eight total films in the franchise with the ninth, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, set for its official theatrical release tomorrow (December 15th). There’s the original trilogy (Episodes IV-VI), a prequel trilogy (Episodes I-III), a sequel trilogy (Episodes VII-IX where IX is set for release in 2019), and an anthology film that is part of the overall story but not the episodic saga. Together, the films have grossed over $7.5 billion and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see The Last Jedi tack on another billion.
In the past, we’ve talked about the franchise both here and here but we’ve never fully given our thoughts on the series as a whole. Seeing as the eighth episode of the main saga is almost here, there’s no time like the present to rank every live action film in the Star Wars series in another installment of Cinema Smack’s Best & Worst!
8. Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones (2002)
This movie is so bad. Episode I – The Phantom Menace is often considered one of the most disappointing films of all time but there’s no way that it’s worse than Attack of the Clones. The film sees Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) and Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) tasked with protecting Senator Padmé Amidala (Natalie Portman) after an assassination attempt. Ten years after their initial meeting, Anakin and Padmé fall in love and develop a secret forbidden relationship. Obi-Wan seeks out the bounty hunter responsible for the assassination attempt and uncovers a clone army being produced for the Republic. In addition, Count Dooku (Christopher Lee) threatens a separatist movement against the Republic and sparks the beginning of the Clone Wars.
Frankly, even though the film claims to have a plot, it’s crammed with a whole bunch of that dreaded “stuff” that we hate here at Cinema Smack. While watching Attack of the Clones, you’re always left wondering what’s happening, why it’s important to the story, and why you should care. Even after multiple viewings, you finish the movie and still can’t even explain what happens. It’s pathetically acted and filled to the brim with cartoony CGI that plagues the entire prequel trilogy.
The only real highlights of the film are Ewan McGregor as Obi-Wan who does his best to channel his inner Alec Guinness and the bounty hunter, Jango Fett (Temuera Morrison), who, like Boba Fett in the original series, gets far less screentime than deserved. There’s also Jedi master Yoda (voiced by Frank Oz) flipping around during a lightsaber duel with Dooku. Other than that, Attack of the Clones is, by far, the worst Star Wars film.
7. Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999)
Trade Federations. Taxation. Blockades. Embargoes. These are all words that you would never associate with a Star Wars movie before 1999. Then, The Phantom Menace was released. This movie was everywhere ahead of its May 19th release date. You couldn’t go anywhere or do anything without seeing it advertised. Characters like Obi-Wan Kenobi, Yoda, C-3PO (Anthony Daniels), and R2-D2 (Kenny Baker) were returning and the threatening villain, Darth Maul (Ray Park) looked especially awesome. Unfortunately, the fans fell victim to a fantastic merchandising campaign and years of hype.
The film sees Jedi Master, Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson), and his apprentice, Obi-Wan, as they’re sent to negotiate with the Trade Federation which results in an ambush. The Jedi escape before meeting and saving the most hated character in the entire Star Wars universe, Jar Jar Binks (Ahmed Best). They also align themselves with Queen Amidala (Portman), who’s fighting corruption within the Senate, and take in a nine year old boy, Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd), to be trained as a Jedi.
To be fair, The Phantom Menace is not as horrible as most people make it out to be. It’s just not what anyone expected out of a Star Wars title. While it’s a bit lacking in that regard, there are still some fantastic moments along with some huge blunders. Of course, everyone despises Jar Jar and Jake Lloyd is pretty terrible as young Anakin. On the other hand, though, the podracer scene is often praised and the final showdown between Qui-Gon, Obi-Wan, and Darth Maul is about as Star Wars as a Star Wars scene can get. It’s unfortunate that Darth Maul never got his just do in the live action films but he has lived on in comics, novels, and the animated Clone Wars TV series.
6. Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith (2005)
Yeah, yeah, yeah. People like this one and they’re not wrong. It’s easily the best of the prequel trilogy. Anakin and Obi-Wan head a mission to rescue Supreme Chancellor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) from the clutches of the droid Separatist commander, General Grievous. On Grievous’s ship, Anakin also executes Count Dooku at Palpatine’s request. As the plot continues, Padmé becomes pregnant as Anakin continuously dreams about her dying during childbirth. Palpatine hints that the only way Anakin can keep his visions from coming true is to embrace the ways of the Sith as opposed to the Jedi. Anakin eventually completes his turn to the dark side and does battle with his old friend, Obi-Wan, on the volcanic planet of Mustafar.
Again, Revenge of the Sith is by far the best of the prequels. That’s not saying all that much and it still suffers from many of the same issues as its predecessors. The horribly stilted dialogue returns for this film and makes all the scenes between Anakin and Padmé nigh unwatchable. Also, Anakin seems to just go with whatever Palpatine tells him even though it’s blatantly obvious that he’s the enemy. He goes from Jedi to full-on Sith in a matter of moments seemingly without a care.
That being said, the lightsaber duel between Anakin and Obi-Wan is pretty cool and actually has some emotion behind it. The return of James Earl Jones as the voice of Darth Vader is a nice touch as is the full return of the Emperor. Even the Wookiees, including Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), make an appearance albeit a tad brief. Revenge of the Sith is decent but, if you go back and rewatch it, it’s really not as good as you may remember.
5. Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi (1983)
This one may be blasphemous to hardcore Star Wars fans. In all honesty, this and #4 on our list are interchangeable as they both have some glaring issues. In Return of the Jedi, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), devises a plan to rescue Han Solo (Harrison Ford) from Jabba the Hutt’s palace. After doing so, the Rebels land on the forest moon of Endor to disable the shield generator of Darth Vader’s Death Star that will allow the rebels to destroy it once and for all. That’s it. This is so much more concise than the convoluted plot of Episodes I-III.
Before we cut into it too much, Return of the Jedi is a decent enough movie. It simply has the unfortunate task of coming after Episodes IV and V. If you ever watch the original trilogy in one sitting, there’s a monstrous drop off in quality between The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. On top of that, it’s much more kid-friendly compared to the darker tone of Empire. This mainly has to do with the bearlike inhabitants of Endor, the Ewoks. There’s no convincing anyone that the Ewoks could take on an army of Stormtroopers in a fair fight by throwing rocks and spears at them. Originally, George Lucas intended the Wookiees to be allies to the rebels (which would’ve been awesome) but we got Ewoks instead. Thank you, George.
Return of the Jedi isn’t all bad though as it still contains all of your favorite characters. There’s also the showdown between Luke, Darth Vader, and the Emperor and the rebel destruction of the Death Star. Although it’s not as emotionally as heavy as Empire, Return of the Jedi is still a fitting end to one of the most beloved film trilogies of all time. Just a word of warning: stay away from Lucas’s remastered version of this film. There are things far worse than Ewoks to worry about.
4. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is polarizing among fans of the franchise. There’s a lot of fan service in this film and many find it an unnecessary addition to the story. Rogue One is actually a prequel to the original 1977 Star Wars movie. It sees Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), daughter of Galen (Mads Mikkelsen), who escapes following the capture of her father by Imperial officer, Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn). She’s led to safety by resistance fighter, Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker), and, years later, joins the rebel alliance in an effort to steal the plans and destroy Death Star.
One of the biggest issues people had with the film is the CGI. Although countless people claim that the CGI used to recreate both Peter Cushing’s Grand Moff Tarkin and Carrie Fisher’s young Princess Leia is terrible. As much as we criticize CGI at times on this site, this isn’t one of those. Of course, Peter Cushing passed away over two decades ago and Carrie Fisher passed just weeks after the film’s release at the age of 60. It’s no secret that they didn’t actually play their characters onscreen in Rogue One. However, it was interesting to see the characters brought back and play crucial roles in the film even if they weren’t necessarily “real.”
Again, there’s a lot of debate on whether this film even needed to be made. Ultimately, it is somewhat unnecessary because we didn’t need it to understand what was happening in the 1977 film. Though, with Disney taking over the reins of the franchise, it’s interesting to see how they’re attempting to expand the universe and fill in the gaps between the episodes of the main saga. Also, there’s plenty of weight in the claims that the majority of the characters are pretty underwhelming. Understandably so since none of them make it out alive. Either way, Rogue One is a solid entry in the Star Wars series that doesn’t necessarily help or harm the main saga. It’s just more Star Wars for fans to eat up and it does a good job at that.
3. Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens (2015)
This one is also a point of argument between fans. Though, it seems that it’s pretty well liked by most people in general. Frankly, the plot of The Force Awakens isn’t all that much different than A New Hope. From the ashes of the Galactic Empire comes The First Order, commanded by Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) with Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) under him. Kylo Ren destroys a village as he searches for BB-8, a droid carrying a map that leads to the missing Luke Skywalker. A rogue Stormtrooper, Finn (John Boyega), escapes from The First Order and meets up with a scavenger, Rey (Daisy Ridley), who takes in BB-8. Together, they evade potential capture using the Millennium Falcon before eventually joining up with The Resistance, led by General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher).
We mentioned fan service in Rogue One. The Force Awakens is nothing but fan service. That’s what it needed to be though. After the atrocities known as the prequels, this film had to instill good faith into the fan base. It definitely succeeds. Sure, it’s basically the same movie as A New Hope with different characters but it still throws you a handful of twists. In addition, it brings back characters from the original trilogy like Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, Leia, Chewbacca, C-3PO, and R2-D2. It also provides some great new characters. Rey, Finn, and BB-8 are just as likable as any of the classic characters which is an achievement on its own.
The Force Awakens is also full of moments that simply give you chills. When Rey and Finn commandeer the Millennium Falcon, you can’t help but feel overjoyed and nostalgic. At the time, you’re watching something that actually feels like Star Wars. You’d be hardpressed to find a single moment in the entire prequel trilogy that feels like that (save for the lightsaber duel with Darth Maul). Seeing Han Solo and Chewie playing surprisingly big roles is awesome and the emotional final act leaves you clamoring for more. On a personal note, this is the movie that got me back into going to the theater on a weekly basis and, without The Force Awakens, Cinema Smack may not even exist. Regardless, it’s easily one of the best films of the entire series and a lot of fun in general.
2. Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope
A New Hope, or simply Star Wars to everyone prior to 1981, started it all. A civil war breaks out as the Rebel Alliance steals the plans for the Death Star. Darth Vader takes Princess Leia hostage after she hides the plans in R2-D2. R2 and C-3PO escape the clutches of the Empire and land on the desert planet of Tatooine where they’re taken in by Luke Skywalker and his uncle to work on their farm. From there, Luke, R2-D2, and C-3PO come across Ben Kenobi AKA Obi-Wan (Alec Guinness) who decides to train Luke to become a Jedi like his father before him. Of course, they assemble a crew of classic characters along the way including smuggler Han Solo, Chewie, and Leia as they join the alliance and destroy the Death Star.
If you’ve never seen Star Wars, what are you doing reading this? Go watch it. Shame on you. It’s an absolute classic. It’s not just a science fiction film, it’s an adventure. At times, it can feel a little hokey watching it nowadays but that doesn’t take away from its greatness whatsoever. Is it the best film of all time? Absolutely not. Not to mention, it has been parodied and spoofed countless times. Yet, it ignited a franchise that has made billions of dollars and changed how special effects are used in cinema. Star Wars is also considered one of the early summer blockbusters including 1975’s Jaws. The film is iconic and has forever changed movie culture. Again, it’s not on par with masterpieces like The Godfather in terms of quality but it’s still one of the most important movies ever made. Also, how can we not mention John Williams’ legendary score for the film? Just listen.
1. Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
Wait. After all that, A New Hope isn’t #1 on this list? That’s right. We have one of those rare occurrences where the first isn’t the best. When it comes down to it, The Empire Strikes Back is the cream of the crop of the Star Wars franchise. Following the events of its predecessor, Darth Vader is still hot on the trail of the rebels that destroyed the Death Star. Luke flies to the swampy Dagobah system to find Yoda, a Jedi Master, and learn the ways of the Force. Meanwhile, Han Solo, Chewie, Leia, and C-3PO go to Cloud City after the Empire captures the rebel base on Hoth. There, Han reunites with his old friend, Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams). Though, the Empire springs a trap and captures the rebels. From there, Luke must decide whether to complete his Jedi training or face Vader and save his friends.
When it comes to sequels, this is how it’s done. Empire expands on everything that made the first film great and raises the stakes. All of your favorite characters are back and even more are introduced. This film marks the first appearances of Yoda, Boba Fett (Jeremy Bulloch), and Lando Calrissian. The action is great too. The battle with the AT-AT Walkers on Hoth is a classic moment for the franchise along with the first showdown between Luke and Vader. Of course, The Empire Strikes Back is also where Luke finds out that Darth Vader is his father in one of the greatest movie surprises of all time. By this point, everyone knows that Vader is Luke’s father. When the film came out, though, it was a groundbreaking discovery for the young Jedi. Everything about The Empire Strikes Back is simply awesome and it’s the best of the bunch. That being said, though, while it is the best, there’s no way it could exist without the original.
With Star Wars fans, there’s always an endless debate over favorites so it’d be no surprise to see another list that was completely opposite of this one. One thing that we can all agree on is that there’s no doubt that Star Wars is one of the greatest film franchises of all time. It simply has to be. At the moment, only the Harry Potter series and the Marvel Cinematic Universe (which consists of 17 films!) have grossed more at the box office. With The Last Jedi merely hours away from its early Thursday screenings, it’d be no surprise to see Star Wars jump up a spot.
So, that’s it for this installment of Best & Worst! Do you agree or disagree with our list? Did we grossly underrate the prequels or show too much love for the newer films? Let us know in the comments below and then get to the theater and see Star Wars: The Last Jedi!