Is Empire really the greatest in the franchise? Is Phantom Menace actually the worst? With all 11 Star Wars films streaming on Disney+, we sort the classics from the catastrophes...
If not the greatest movie franchise of all time, Star Wars is certainly the biggest and most influential. Nobody could have predicted the rise of Star Wars, of course, which – on paper – had all the makings of a flop and was predicted to be a disaster by pretty much everyone involved. Since the first episode arrived in 1977, elevated by that iconic John Williams score and Harrison Ford's inarguable charisma, George Lucas' epic space opera has left an indelible mark on pop culture, informing the business of cinema for close to five decades.
Now, with every Star Wars film available to stream on Disney+, we look back back at what is inarguably the best franchise ever made about people fighting with laser swords in order to rank every movie from worst to best…
11. Attack of the Clones (2002)
Movie, or video game cut scene? In retrospect, this is the ugliest of all the Star Wars movies – visually, morally, objectively. Jar Jar might have been sidelined after his ill-fated intro in The Phantom Menace, but nothing could save this film from Hayden Christensen's wooden delivery of George Lucas's clunkiest ever dialogue. Ewan McGregor nails Obi-Wan with a beard, but basically this is a green-screened nightmare.
10. The Phantom Menace (1999)
What is there to say about Phantom Menace that hasn't been said already? Jar Jar is a crime of cinema, absolutely. The movie is way too political for its own good, sure. But maybe, secretly, this is a bit of creative tour-de-force? Too far? Still, you have to hand it to George Lucas; he shot for the stars, because the set-pieces, approach as self-contained entities, are phenomenal and really creative and different. The story, less so. Yet can a movie with this John Williams score and that climatic, double-sided lightsaber battle really be that bad?
9. Return of the Jedi (1983)
Nostalgia has played a huge part in defining Return of the Jedi for a number of fans, who seem to recall the good bits but tend to forget this is a bit of a mess. It has an admittedly fantastic opening (Jabba's place remains an all-time series highlight) and a very satisfying ending. But the middle is pretty naff, all things considered. While Luke confronts his father, Han, Leia and the rest of the gang are saddled with a slow and uneventful Ewok mission. The film is far sillier, less polished, and nowhere near as inventive as its predecessors. Love that green lightsaber, though.
8. Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018)
A pretty good Star Wars movie; a pretty cruddy Han Solo movie. Solo: A Wars Story failed to learn by the mistakes of the prequels: namely that sometimes our imaginations are better. This to say that Han Solo's past was better left as a mystery – something we imagined instead. Did we need to learn how he met Chewbacca? How he got his name? Had this been a film about a completely different hotshot of a character, you sense the reception would have been better. Alden Ehrenreich isn't bad; he just isn't Harrison Ford. Then again, who is?
7. Revenge of the Sith (2005)
Perhaps because Attack of the Clones was so awful in every way, Revenge of the Sith felt like a bit of a triumph upon its release. In retrospect, it's a solid entry in the series, and certainly the best of the prequel trilogy. All the George staples remain: bad dialogue, creaky visual effects, and a tendency to over-explain aspects that were best left unexplained. Yet, against the odds, the fallout between Obi-Wan and Anakin Skywalker does attain a kind of tragic poignancy, and the film's climatic battle on the very hot planet Mustafa – backed by John William's phenomenal score – is quite something.
6. The Last Jedi (2017)
Rian Johnson's entry in the saga now stands, perhaps, as the most divisive episode in the franchise's history. His aim here, assumedly, was to break down Star Wars and reposition it for a new generation – a decision that proved unpopular with approximately half of the fanbase. The set-pieces, the visuals, and Mark Hamill are all top notch; the subversions, not so much.
5. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)
This is a proper, gritty war movie that just happens to be set in the Star Wars universe. Despite the fact that it sets out to retcon so much of what we thought we knew, it actually improves the logic of the series in explaining why the Death Star had such an obvious design flaw in the first place. Sacrifices are really made in Rogue One, and characters really die. It isn't perfect and it sags in the middle, but it offers proof that the franchise works in a more hardened mode. The final tropical showdown is one of the saga's most thrilling battle sequences. More like this, please.
4. The Rise of Skywalker (2019)
The last movie of the “Skywalker Saga” has a lot wrong with it. J.J. Abrams, desperate to undo whatever it was that Rian Johnson did in The Last Jedi, doesn't quite succeed in tying up all the loose ends in a way that feels completely natural (the revelation about Rey's past is… something). What this does have, though, is the classic Star Wars “feel” – a rollicking ride across multiple planets in search of a pointless MacGuffin. There is lots of unnecessary baggage, but it is dramatically weighty and so much fun. I sense that time will be kinder to this one than the initial reviews were.
3. The Force Awakens (2015)
J.J Abrams basically remade A New Hope with this fun and freewheeling return to the franchise. Somehow, after more than a decade of hype, it didn't disappoint. Put it down to the film's Spielbergian sensibilities, and the chemistry of the leads. Daisy Ridley shines as the Force sensitive orphan with a mysterious past, Rey, while Oscar Isaac and John Boyega provide excellent comic support across an array of top-notch set pieces. Harrison Ford brilliantly finds the right groove reprising his role as Han Solo here, too, which counts for a lot. But really the film's major revelation is Adam Driver. As angst-ridden former student of Luke Skywalker, Kylo Ren, he would go on to become the sequel trilogy's most interesting character by quite a wide margin.
2. The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
The pure essence of Star Wars and everything we love about it feels derived from this film: the “Imperial March,” the compelling twists, Yoda saying all his words in the wrong order to humorous effect. But here's also where George Lucas expanded his universe and laid down the blueprints for a saga with limitless potential. It's here that Star Wars really came to feel like something vast and endless and rife with possibilities, where the more simplistic story of the original film was enhanced and given an unexpected depth that nobody could have predicted. Boba Fett! Space worm! The Battle of Hoth! Masterpiece!
1. Star Wars (1977)
There is a tendency amongst fans to place Empire at the top of any Star Wars ranking list. But wonderful as that film is, there is something purer, I think, about this original incarnation, which arrived with zero expectation and no idea of the how it would change cinema – and the world – forever. There is a classic and mythical quality here, from the introduction of the droids and Alec Guinness' performance as Obi-Wan, to the absolutely thrilling sequence on the Death Star, the most fun to be had in any Star Wars film. Yet the best thing about this first one is that it keeps all the characters together for its middle section – an element that subsequent chapters tended to eschew. Then we have the most poignant and stirring moment in all the Star Wars saga: Luke Skywalker, staring out at that iconic binary sunset, John Williams' “Force Theme” exemplifying the spiritual side of this epic story – a deeply felt longing to escape, a destiny to be fulfilled. Goosebumps.
All the Star Wars films are now streaming on Disney+.