30 May The definitive Star Wars ranking countdown
A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, a young boy discovered a film trilogy that changed his life. I was born after Return of the Jedi was released. I missed the entire Star Wars era. It wasn’t until sometime in the early 1990s that I learnt of the existence of these films. There was a buzz around school because the three films were to be shown on television across three consecutive Saturday nights. Ashamedly, I had no real idea what these movies were. I’d maybe heard about them in passing. Maybe I’d seen some merchandise, here and there. Or seen someone wearing a Han Solo t-shirt somewhere. But, as a six-year-old, I was far more into Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles than Star Wars. Regardless, I tuned in anyhow to see what all the fuss was about. It was a life-changing moment.
Star Wars was a film that instantly grabbed my focus and didn’t let it go. I was hooked from the opening frame. It was unlike any film I had ever seen. I was genuinely enthralled and couldn’t wait to see the subsequent films. And I’m still just as hooked almost three decades later. I have devoured up every Star Wars film that’s been released since. I have bought endless arrays of Star Wars merchandise including every VHS, DVD and Blu-ray version of the film there is. I’m now the one proudly wearing a Han Solo t-shirt. I love this franchise deeply.
With the release of Solo: A Star Wars Story, it’s a good time to look back at the franchise and attempt a ranking of the ten films that make up the universe. This is just my personal take. Every fan is different. You may agree with my choices. You may think I’m insane. That’s the beauty of cinema. Our response to a film is always going to be subjective. By looking back, this ranking is simply a matter of which films left more of an impact than others.
So without further ado, here is The Jam Report’s definitive countdown of the films of the Star Wars universe.
Something has to come in last and here it is. While many may place a different film here (and I almost did too), in my opinion, there is genuinely no worse Star Wars film than the second film in George Lucas’ disappointing prequel trilogy. It really is rather awful. Lucas’ screenplay is a disaster of utterly awful dialogue (“I don’t like sand. It’s coarse and rough and irritating and it gets everywhere.”) and a woefully crafted romance that makes his work with Han and Leia look like a total fluke. The love story of Anakin Skywalker and Padmé Amidala was meant to set up Anakin’s destructive path to the dark side. We’ve been led to believe theirs was a great romance that ultimately crafted a menacing and tortured villain. But there’s no genuine love felt between the two characters and the entire saga leaves zero impact on the audience.
The fatal casting mistake of Hayden Christiansen as the now-older Skywalker is the film’s ultimate doom. The man cannot act. Wooden is an understatement. It doesn’t help he’s being fed the aforementioned woeful dialogue, but I have a sneaking suspicion a well-written screenplay wouldn’t have made much of a difference to his performance. Natalie Portman already felt like she wanted out of this franchise immediately, phoning in an equally stilted performance. She deserved better than this, and she knew it. At least Ewan McGregor is there to give another sublime performance as Obi-Wan Kenobi. And while Christopher Lee’s Count Dooku didn’t have the glorious visual aesthetic of Darth Maul, you could always count on Lee to give a deliciously villainous performance.
As with the entire prequel trilogy, Lucas is far too concerned with crafting dazzling visuals, cramming every single shot with wave after wave of elaborate creatures, vehicles, and costumes. It’s a rather nauseating experience that seemingly exists only to show the full might of the special effects wizards at Industrial Light & Magic. Visually impressive, perhaps, but the film itself is so downright dull, it leaves you feeling entirely hollow. Bonus points for the superb finale sequence featuring Yoda finally showing off his stellar lightsaber skills. That’s really the only highlight in this turgid mess.
9. The Phantom Menace (1999)
Ah, the one that relaunched the franchise and ended up disappointing millions of fans in the process. Look, The Phantom Menace isn’t quite as bad as the rap it gets. Sure, it’s not even in the same league as the original films, but the expectation and hype this film received were unlike anything any piece of cinema had ever received. Maybe that’s why it’s so harshly judged. The bar was simply set too damn high. And, ultimately, the final product was not the film anyone really wanted. Don’t get me wrong. It’s not a great film by any means and deserves to find itself lowly ranked on this list. But it’s probably nowhere near as terrible as you remember.
The singular mistake Lucas made here was targeting this film squarely at children. He wanted to bring in a new era of Star Wars for a younger audience who weren’t around for the original trilogy’s heyday. That’s fine, but the franchise’s core fans were now 35+ and did not desire to see a movie designed for kids. Or, more accurately, designed to sell those kids a whole host of new The Phantom Menace toys and video games. Watch the entire podrace sequence again and tell me it’s sole purpose isn’t to drive kids to their local toy store to grab Anakin’s podracer action figure. Likewise with the introduction of the much-maligned Jar Jar Binks, whose slapstick humour and freakish appearance was meant to capture giggles from children. But even kids wanted to see the backend of this god-awful and mind-numbingly frustrating character.
The absurdity of The Phantom Menace is in its overly-complicated plot which is horrendously out-of-place in a movie intended for youngsters. What child wants to watch a film about intergalactic trade blockades, taxation disputes, political negotiations, and constant rounds of endless talking about those very blockades, disputes, and negotiations? It’s terribly dialogue heavy which makes for a flat experience until the action kicks in. Thankfully, the action is wonderfully enjoyable, particularly the climactic lightsaber battle between Qui-Gon Jinn, Obi-Wan Kenobi and Darth Maul. And Maul is easily the best Star Wars villain behind Darth Vader, even if he is so disappointingly underused. Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor and Natalie Portman all do their utmost to pull this film from the doldrums and somehow craft characters we’re genuinely interested in. There’s plenty of redeeming qualities to The Phantom Menace, but plenty of crushing failures too.
8. Solo (2018)
Having seen Solo twice now and let it fully permeate in, it still stands out as a bit of a letdown. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the film. It’s entirely enjoyable and entertaining, even if its very existence is still open for debate. A prequel should strive to do more than just clarify the origins of certain character elements. When you break it down, that’s really all Solo delivers. We learn how Han Solo and Chewbacca first met, how Han got his infamous blaster pistol, how he came into ownership of the Millennium Falcon, and why his surname is Solo (which is probably a question no one was wondering). Did we really need these details explicitly explained to us? Does it enhance his presence in the original trilogy? Not exactly.
Of course, it’s undoubtedly fun to see where our lovable rogue came from. Han has always been one of the more mysterious characters in the franchise, so there’s a nice sense of discovery in learning more about his past. Its purpose is fan service and, in that regard, it delivers in spades, with franchise references dotted throughout and a wonderful surprise ending few could have seen coming. But that sense of nostalgic filmmaking seems a little lazy and far too safe here. Director Ron Howard takes the easy path and crafts something entirely expected. For many, that’s entirely fine. They got what they came for and maybe that’s enough.
Alden Ehrenreich tries his best to steer his performance away from being merely a caricature of Harrison Ford. At times, he makes the character entirely his own. Other times, he nails the tone and mannerisms Ford instilled in the character. But it never quite comes together to make something truly cohesive. Donald Glover steals the whole damn film as Lando Calrissian, as we always knew he would. And there are some thrilling set pieces that showcase the action the Star Wars franchise does best. But it’s all rather forgettable by the conclusion and leaves little impression overall. Say what you will about the other prequels, but at least they were far more memorable.
7. Return of the Jedi (1983)
It pains me to place one of the original films low on the list. Without these three films, we wouldn’t even have the gargantuan franchise we do today. But, I think we can all agree the closing chapter to the original trilogy was rather underwhelming. It was always destined to be. After two of the greatest sci-fi films of all time, it was nighon impossible to strike gold for the third time. It didn’t help that Lucas decided to craft the screenplay on his own again, leading to some rather lamentable dialogue and silly plot twists. Wrapping up this trilogy was always going to be incredibly difficult. Lucas clearly didn’t foresee any further films and felt the need to incessantly tie everything up neatly. This leads to an end result which feels rather forced and rushed.
Most people feel this film is let down by the introduction of the Ewoks who were clearly an attempt to engage children and lead to endless merchandising opportunities. That criticism is fair. Personally, I’ve always found them to be utterly adorable and far more wily than people give them credit for. For all intents and purposes, they helped bring down the might of the Empire. Jar Jar Binks, they ain’t. Lucas was actually using them as an analogy for the Vietnam War to highlight how a primitive but resourceful race could defeat a technologically-advanced infantry. Maybe if they didn’t look like adorable teddy bears, this parallel would have landed a little better.
At the end of the day, Return of the Jedi is still an enormously satisfying conclusion to one of the greatest trilogies in film history. Darth Vader’s choice in the film’s climax changes the entire fundamental base of his character, turning Anakin Skywalker into something so much more than just a boorish villain. The battle to destroy the second Death Star still stands as one of the most thrilling sequences in the entire franchise. And the ending is really everything we could have hoped for. Is it as good as its two predecessors? No, but that’s hardly a crime when those two films cast such a long shadow.
6. Revenge of the Sith (2005)
Yes, that’s right. One of the prequel trilogy chapters lands higher on this countdown than one of the original films. Search your feelings. You know it to be true. As garishly awful as Episodes I & II were, Episode III finally got it right. With its decidedly darker tone setting the stage for the conclusion of Anakin Skywalker’s inevitable transformation into Darth Vader, Revenge of the Sith is deliciously enjoyable. Okay, it still has some problems. There’s still plenty of abysmal dialogue (that “Nooooo!” still makes me shudder) and Lucas is once again far too concerned with the visuals. But, good lord, are there some mighty wonderful visual treats in this film.
Anakin’s epic lightsaber battle with Obi-Wan on the volcanic planet of Mustafar is a phenomenal setpiece, made all the more stunning by John Williams’ “Battle of the Heroes” accompanying score track. It’s the highlight of this entire trilogy and still stands as one of the defining moments of the franchise. And we see the rise of Emperor Palpatine and his nefarious First Galactic Empire, made all the more brilliant by Padmé’s astute (and rather prophetic of life in 2018) observation, “So this is how liberty dies…with thunderous applause.” Something tells me Lucas wasn’t responsible for this ingenious line, given Academy and Tony Award-winning writer Tom Stoppard lent a hand as an uncredited script doctor.
Poor Hayden Christiansen seems to have taken an acting class or two, given his work here is miles ahead of his disastrous turn in the previous film. It’s still not exactly a great performance, but when Anakin finally succumbs to the dark side, Christiansen scowls like a truly menacing force. And that’s the film’s true crowning glory. We finally witness the birth of one of the greatest villains in cinematic history and, along with it, the destruction of the Jedi that leads seamlessly into the original Star Wars film. It’s rather bleak going, but yet somehow entirely enthralling and perfectly accomplished. The trilogy that began with a whimper goes out with the bang it deserves to.
5. The Force Awakens (2015)
Faced with the unenviable task of rebooting a franchise that was no longer “cool,” J.J. Abrams did the only thing he could – he essentially remade the original Star Wars film. It’s far from a crime the filmmaker fell back on what made the franchise so beloved. The Force Awakens was precisely what was necessary to regain people’s interest and hopefully ensnare an entire new generation of fans. It worked wonders. That has to be applauded. Was it a little lazy to just rehash a similar storyline and place Han Solo, Chewbacca, and Princess (well, General, technically) Leia on a search for their long-lost pal Luke Skywalker? Of course. Its lack of originality stops the film from being higher on this list. But Abrams deftly mixed in a glorious roster of new characters to still make the film seem entirely fresh and lively.
With Rey, Finn, and Poe, we get our new Luke, Leia, and Han. Lovable droid BB-8 is our new R2-D2. And our new villain, Kylo Ren follows in the footsteps of Darth Vader. Yet, despite these comparisons, each is still their own unique and original character who we can’t wait to follow across three films. The scenarios in which they are placed follow many of the same tropes as the original, but with lively new worlds to inhabit and a whole swarm of delightful new supporting characters, you quickly forget you’ve somewhat seen this all before. The new cast blends perfectly with the old stalemates of the franchise, crafting something that feels like the glorious homecoming we’ve been desperately longing for.
Abrams is clearly a huge fan of the franchise, so placing such a figurehead at the helm is the key to this film’s success. He just gets it. He understood how to craft this film so that it felt like one big love letter to the original films we all fell in love with. He delivered a stunning cinematic experience overflowing with thrills, laughs, tears, surprises, shocks, and ultimately just damn fine entertainment. It’s everything we wanted, and then some. Nothing can ever match the magic of the original, but, by god, does The Force Awakens come achingly close.
4. The Last Jedi (2017)
One of the most divisive pieces of cinema in the Star Wars canon. While critics were fairly unanimous in their overwhelming praise, fan reaction to The Last Jedi was markedly split. Some emphatically adored it but plenty aggressively despised it. With its unique mix of honouring the past while still moving in bold new directions, there was bound to be plenty of contention from the deeply devoted fan base. The film certainly still looked and felt like the Star Wars of old, yet was loaded with refreshing twists and turns few saw coming. Whether you loved it or hated it, you had to admire writer/director Rian Johnson for taking plenty of risks many filmmakers wouldn’t dare attempt. I’m looking at you, Ron Howard.
Personally, I loved The Last Jedi. Yes, it’s flawed and far from perfect. The film drags terribly towards the middle, particularly Finn and Rose’s ultimately unnecessary trip to casino city Canto Bight, where we’re served a hefty dose of blunt social commentary no one asked for. And the new character additions are all rather disappointing, especially Benicio Del Toro’s utterly useless DJ. Putting those issues aside, it’s a spectacular film which pays homage to the franchise but also wisely steers it towards the future. The Force Awakens showed how fun nostalgic filmmaking can be. And there’s still plenty of it here, especially the storylines of our beloved siblings Luke and Leia. However, that can’t be all that sustains this franchise over two more films. The trilogy needed something different and that’s entirely what The Last Jedi represents.
We still have the thrilling action set pieces and epic battles this franchise is so well known for, typified by the film’s genuinely gripping and tense climax on the planet Crait, with its surface covered in crusted salt over crimson-red soil providing the most stunning of visuals. The real highlight is Kylo Ren and Rey’s lightsaber battle with Supreme Leader Snoke’s Praetorian Guards in his also crimson-red throne room. It’s an epic sequence that Johnson films with expert precision. But what truly sets The Last Jedi apart is its character exploration, taking Kylo and Rey into deeper (and sometimes darker) territory as they both struggle with battles of morality and ethics. The film shatters well-worn tropes and takes the franchise into a new age, which is precisely where it needed to go.
3. Rogue One (2016)
It may surprise some to see Rogue One so high on this list, but hear me out. Disney’s first stand-alone Star Wars film is truly one of the very best films in the entire franchise. It was the prequel we’d always hoped for. Yes, it’s main cinematic function and reason for existence is to plug a few holes in the storyline of the original films, namely why the Death Star had such a seemingly ridiculous fatal flaw hiding inside its belly and how the hell the Rebellion knew about it. But, thankfully, there was still so much more to be found within its narrative than just answers to long-pondered questions.
While naturally loaded with nostalgic references and a few familiar faces, the bulk of the film centres around the introduction of a new roster of Rebellion characters not seen or referenced in the original trilogy. And what a brilliant cast it ends up being. Led by our new heroes Jyn Erso and Cassian Andor, supported by K-2SO aka one of the greatest droid sidekicks in the franchise, and boosted by an array of new friends, the line-up is a dream. It’s a terrific ensemble piece where the actors all have genuine and authentic chemistry. What they all achieve in one single film is more impressive than the entire body of work seen in the prequel trilogy.
Rogue One felt like the first Star Wars film made exclusively for adults. Its darker narrative and bleak nature are not really intended to play well to young eyes. That’s insanely refreshing after years of lighter fare. Our villain, Orson Krennic is just a straight-up villain. He has no redeeming qualities or moral awakening. A bad guy who exists only to antagonise our protagonists sounds so simple, yet is so wonderfully enjoyable. The sacrificial nature of the rebel soldiers’ mission is not only deeply moving, it’s also enormously inspiring. And that finale sequence with Darth Vader is one of the most uproarious moments in the history of the franchise. Rogue One seamlessly connects to the original Star Wars film and gifts us a genuinely magic cinematic experience.
2. Star Wars (1977)
The one that started it all. The one which should always be referred to as Star Wars and not that rebranded A New Hope nonsense that popped up in the 1980s. Without this film, there would be no franchise. No multi-billion dollar merchandise empire. No sequels and prequels and side-quels. No Disneyland rides. No deeply devoted fandom. We owe the original film everything. It launched one of the greatest and most commercially successful sagas in the history of cinema that still lives on 40 years later. Should that mean Stars Wars inherently deserves to take the #1 spot on this countdown? Perhaps. It is an almost-perfect film. But it just doesn’t have the finesse of the sequel which followed it.
Even George Lucas himself could not have foreseen the phenomenon he was creating. It’s lightning in a bottle cinema that hit at just the right moment and captured the cultural zeitgeist like nothing before it. Star Wars is good old-fashioned storytelling. It’s a classic good vs. evil tale that just happens to be set in space. By mixing classic cinema ideals with the latest technology (and some old-school techniques too), Lucas crafted something so groundbreaking, it was unlike any film the world had seen. Filled with instantly iconic characters, quotable dialogue, and one of the greatest film scores of all time, it left an impression you couldn’t shake.
Star Wars is a wild ride from start to finish. The incredible opening sequence perfectly sets the scene for the magic to come. And then we meet our cast of characters who all went down in cinema infamy as some of the best there’s ever been. Luke and Leia. Han and Chewie. C3-PO and R2-D2. And, of course, the biggest baddie of them all, Darth Vader. What is there else to say about the film which launched a global sensation that still sits unrivalled four decades later? It’s a masterpiece that never gets old.
1. The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
And then there was one. The greatest film in the Star Wars universe should come as no surprise. Yes, we all rank it at #1 but there’s a very simple reason for that. The Empire Strikes Back is a perfect film, in every single way. It’s one of the greatest pieces of cinema of all time. Not just sci-fi films. All films. It’s the masterpiece all other Star Wars films are unfortunately compared to. It set the bar so high, it’s unlikely anything will ever match it. It’s a timeless film that will live for generations to come. The rare example of a sequel being better than the original. It’s a miracle of filmmaking.
Further exploring the characters we fell in love with, The Empire Strikes Back takes everything that made the first film so great and extends that greatness to new levels. Darth Vader is somehow even more menacing and terrifying than he was the first time around. His character arc is far more than most villains are ever given, and it set the benchmark for how to deliver a truly engaging bad guy. The love story of Han and Leia continues to blossom, typified by Han’s now-iconic “I know” line. And Luke’s journey of self-discovery is bolstered by that downright shocking “I am your father” revelation which blew audiences minds. As a character piece, there are few better.
As the middle film of the trilogy, The Empire Strikes Back needed to exist to entertain audiences but still leave them longing for more. Ending the film on a rather sombre note is a stroke of genius which perfectly sets the tone for the concluding chapter to come. But, as is the ethos of the entire franchise, there is always hope, and we know somehow this is all heading for a happy ending. If this film weren’t the glorious success it was, who knows what may have happened. The third film could have been scrapped. The franchise may have ended here. Perhaps we owe more to The Empire Strikes Back for setting up the saga than we do the original film.
But it did succeed. Maybe more so than any sequel ever has. The Empire Strikes Back delivered a gift that keeps on giving. It’s a wealth of riches that one can never tire of. It captures the joy of love and the agony of loss. The radiance of hope and the agony of despair. It’s a deeply special film that still has the power to grab your attention like few others. And it still stands as the best film in the Star Wars franchise.