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The brainchild of George Lucas and now one of Disney's key franchises, Star Wars has been a sci-fi staple of cinema since the 70s. A fusion of Buck Rogers, The Hidden Fortress, and good old-fashioned pulp fiction, Star Wars has managed to endure two long periods of relative inactivity and some questionable plot choices, resulting in a powerhouse that will doubtlessly churn out new stories for decades to come.
Despite its popularity, Star Wars is notorious for its ups and downs. For every The Empire Strikes Back or Rogue One, there's a film that's... not so good. It's time to decide which Star Wars movies are the best, and which are better left in a galaxy far, far away.
(And just to be clear, this list will not rank the made-for-TV films. They'd probably be buried at the bottom of the pile anyway.)
12. Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones
The Phantom Menace may have been a box office success, but it was critically drubbed. An early honeymoon period that saw people cheering the return of Star Wars soon crumbled under the weight of The Phantom Menace's issues, and George Lucas needed to find a way to right his ship. Unfortunately the path he chose was... poor... and he filmed Attack of the Clones.
Set ten years after The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones starts on Coruscant, the crown jewel of the Republic. Senator Padme Amidala (Natalie Portman) has survived an assassination attempt, and Jedi Knight Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) must puzzle out the identity of her attacker. Padme herself is defended by Jedi Padawan Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen), and the pair grow a little too close for comfort. The two stories collide on a planet full of gun-wielding bugs, and the infamous Clone Wars begin soon after.
It's tough to sum up Attack of the Clones' plot in a single paragraph, and that's part of the problem. A lot happens in this film. A lot happens in most films, to be fair, but much of the action in Attack of the Clones is quite boring, and there are long periods of talking between action scenes. McGregor does a decent job with his material, and Obi-Wan's detective sideshow is reasonably compelling. Far, far less compelling is the love story between Padme and Anakin, whose chemistry could not be worse if they tried. The dialogue is awful, and Christensen plays Anakin as way too creepy. Padme should get a restraining order, not fall for this weirdo. Things pick during the final battle, but there's an unimaginable amount of dreck before the third act begins.
(This is to say nothing of C-3PO. Good lord. He's supposed to be an improvement over Jar Jar Binks? Really? Yikes.)
Attack of the Clones is not irredeemable. Christopher Lee has some fun as the villainous Count Dooku, the war scenes are near-excellent, and Yoda gets to wield a lightsaber. Finally. Despite all that, though, Attack of the Clones is the worst movie on this list, if only because it's so unrelentingly dull. And weird. And fake. No one talks like this, Mr. Lucas.
11. Star Wars: The Clone Wars
Stealing the name Attack of the Clones should have used, The Clone Wars is an oddity on this list. It's not a good movie, but that is in large part because it never should have been a movie. It made Lucasfilm some decent cash at the box office, true, but this was not the introduction the otherwise great television show deserved.
Set between Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith, The Clone Wars depicts a plot to destroy Anakin and Obi-Wan. Jabba the Hutt's son has been kidnapped, and Anakin is tasked with retrieving the Huttling while Obi-Wan goes to Tatooine. Anakin isn't alone, however, as he's given a Padawan all of his own: the feisty Ahsoka Tano. Things get intense, and Jabba's uncle, Ziro the Hutt, is ultimately to blame for the Huttling's kidnapping. Something along those lines.
As a set of three television episodes, The Clone Wars is fine. It's nothing special. As a movie, though, this was a bad choice. The animation is nowhere near cinema levels of quality, and the stakes are not set near high enough. It also served as a poor introduction to Ahsoka, who was initially dismissed by viewers as an annoying, distracting sidekick. Ahsoka would grow into of the most popular Expanded Universe characters, enough so that she's getting her own TV show. Starring Rosario Dawson. Yes, she's that popular, and yes, The Clone Wars screwed her up that badly.
Unless you want to see how Anakin and Ahsoka got thrown together in the first place, you can skip The Clone Wars. It's one of the first movies on this list that feels optional, even if the show it kicked off - also named The Clone Wars - turned out to be pretty good.
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10. Star Wars: Episode IX - The Rise of Skywalker
The final instalment in a trilogy that began with so much promise, The Rise of Skywalker shouldered the unenviable task of reuniting the Star Wars fanbase in the wake of The Last Jedi, as well as the death of Carrie Fisher. Director J. J. Abrams needed to do the impossible to satisfy everyone, and in the attempt he managed to satisfy almost no one. Oh well.
With the Resistance rebuilding and the First Order swiftly taking control of the galaxy, things seem pretty grim for our heroes. It's made even worse when Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid), long thought dead, suddenly returns to the spotlight, teams up with Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), and threatens to take over again. Rey (Daisy Ridley), Poe (Oscar Isaac), Finn (John Boyega), Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo), and C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) head out on a planet-hopping quest to locate Palpatine's base and put an end to his evil.
Make no mistake, The Rise of Skywalker is not boring. J. J. Abrams is physically incapable of making a boring movie. What it is, is... a mess. The plot is a giant race to the credits, throwing nonsensical mystery boxes in the path of the protagonists so they have something to do while dodging laser blasts and lightsabers. There is very little satisfactory character development - except, perhaps, between Rey and Kylo, who have enjoyed the only stable character dynamic in all three films - and just about all of the setup from the previous movies feels wasted. Why isn't Kylo the big bad? Why is Palpatine back? Why does Rey wind up being... who she is? Why does Finn suddenly feel like a side character? And, honestly, does anyone really care that Poe used to be a smuggler?
Even worse is that not all of the film's problems could ever be handled. The Rise of Skywalker was meant to be a Leia-centric story, yet Carrie Fisher's death forced Abrams to shoot around her absence. She's still in the film, but her appearances and dialogue are cobbled together from leftover The Last Jedi shots. It's pretty obvious that the other actors are filling in gaps in her dialogue with their own words. The decision to include Fisher in the film was well-intentioned and admirable, but it didn't work out well at all.
There are some amazing action scenes in The Rise of Skywalker, and the lightsaber battle between Rey and Kylo is one of the best in the franchise, but... ugh. This movie is a waste of so much potential. If you're just in it for the pew-pew of laser guns then this movie will satisfy, but on most other levels The Rise of Skywalker is a massive disappointment. The cast deserved better.
9. Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace
The hype for the return of Star Wars after sixteen years was enormous. Kids and parents alike bought into the cool trailers and (for the time) amazing visual effects almost instantly, and, for a brief period, The Phantom Menace was seen as a worthy successor to the Star Wars legacy. But then the bad reviews started to trickle out, and people viewed the movie with a more critical lens, and... suffice to say that The Phantom Menace is now typically considered one of the worst Star Wars movies ever made. Oh well.
Things are not well in the galaxy. The tiny planet of Naboo is under violent blockade by the Trade Federation, and Jedi Knights Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) and Obi-Wan Kenobi are sent to sort the matter out. Things go badly, and they must flee the planet with Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman? Sometimes?) to Tatooine. There they pick up Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd) and, after a trip to Coruscant, head back to Naboo for a confrontation with the Trade Federation - as well as an awesome lightsaber duel with Sith apprentice Darth Maul (Ray Park).
Much has been said about this movie's poor pacing, overuse of green screens, wooden acting, over-explanation of the Force, and... a certain annoying character who is best left unmentioned (poor Ahmed Best, none of this was his fault), so we won't relitigate all that. What's truly bizarre about this movie is the choice to make Anakin a little boy to start. It's strongly implied that he will get together with Amidala one day and have kids, yet the dynamic set out here is more of a big sister/little brother. It's a really gross tone to start on when you watch The Phantom Menace in tandem with the other movies.
That said, The Phantom Menace is not a wash. Most of the action scenes are awesome, notably the podracing scene and the aforementioned lightsaber duel, and the story being set up for the prequel trilogy is solid. It's neat to see Senator Palpatine acting cordial and likable here, knowing what he'll become. The Phantom Menace is still one of the lesser Star Wars movies, though, and much of its runtime feels like more of a necessary evil for reaching the better films than an enjoyable experience on its own.
8. Solo: A Star Wars Story
There's a chunk of Solo, lasting between forty-five minutes to an hour long, that is really, really good. The story beats fit, the character dynamics are a lot of fun, the jokes land, the action is top-notch, and you're given a chance to forget some of the movie's previous missteps. But then that sequence ends, and... there's the rest of the movie. The rest is not bad, per se, but it's definitely not as great as those forty-five minutes.
Solo: A Star Wars Story covers the origins of, you guessed it, Han Solo (Alden Ehrenreich). After fleeing his home planet of Corellia Han joins the Imperial Army, decides to ditch the service, meets Chewbacca, and gets caught up in a heist led by Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson). The heist goes badly, and the crew of thieves must make up their failure to crime boss Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany) by pulling off another heist. Han's old girlfriend Qi'ra (Emilia Clarke) and Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover) get pulled in for the ride.
When Solo focuses on its two big heists it does great. The train sequence is fun and inventive, and the entire raid on Kessel (the aforementioned forty-five-ish minutes) is fantastic. There's a lot of quipping and bickering and ship-flying that is quintessential Star Wars, and the new characters - particularly Beckett - fit in great with the old crew. At no point will you really buy Ehrenreich or Glover as exact replacements for Han and Lando, but they're both charismatic enough (Glover in particular) that it doesn't really matter. Shoutout to Paul Bettany as Dryden Vos, who, despite some limited screen time, is a special kind of vicious. He needed to come back for another movie.
Unfortunately there is a lot of stuff packed around the heists, and it's all not so great. Han never needed an origin story, yet Solo goes out of its way to explain every facet of his character, from his gun to his golden dice to how he met Chewie to his acquisition of the Millennium Falcon to his beef with Lando. The movie even details Han's infamous Kessel Run. Amazing how formative those few days were to Han.
Yet Solo's greatest sin was its assumption that there would be sequels. This movie features multiple scenes that tie directly into follow-ups that will almost certainly never be made, and these scenes constitute a massive chunk of the runtime. The entire Enfys Nest storyline is sequel bait of the worst kind, and does not pay off at all. And that cameo at the end... that lightsaber-filled cameo... ugh. Solo is a fun film, but you're probably best off skipping all the bits that hint at Solo Part Two.
7. Star Wars: Episode VI - Return of the Jedi
One of the original trilogy movies put below a prequel?! Blasphemy! Yet in this case, it seems fitting that Return of the Jedi fit in somewhere in the middle of the Star Wars films. It's a solid enough end to Luke Skywalker's path towards becoming a Jedi, but there is so much padding and bad acting that this just isn't peak Star Wars.
Return of the Jedi picks up months after The Empire Strikes Back. The gang is back on Tatooine, and after some mild imprisonment they rescue Han (Harrison Ford) from gangster Jabba the Hutt. Everybody then heads off to the Endor system to sabotage the second Death Star while it's still under construction, and Luke (Mark Hamill) is brought before the Emperor for a final showdown with Darth Vader (James Earl Jones, David Prowse). A three-pronged action sequence follows.
When Return of the Jedi is good, it's great. The trip into Jabba's palace features some awesome creature designs, particularly Jabba himself, and the final battle - land and space alike - is amazing. Luke's confrontation with Vader and the Emperor, and Vader's redemption, is one of the best, most emotional set pieces in all of Star Wars. Unfortunately there is also a lot of... well, walking around a forest. It takes up the entire second act of the movie, and aside from a speeder bike chase most of that second act is dull. The Ewoks are just not compelling characters, y'know?
(This chunk of movie also features one of the most painfully-acted scenes in... ever. Yes, it's the 'You're my sister' scene. Lord but it is awful.)
Despite its flaws, Return of the Jedi is compulsory watching for a run through of the series. Yes, a lot of it is boring, and yes, the Slave Leia (Carrie Fisher) stuff is problematic these days, but on the whole this is still a solid film. Just, ah, maybe watch the Ewok bits at 1.5 times speed.
6. Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith
There is point very early in this movie - the beginning, to be precise - where Revenge of the Sith paints itself as just another failed prequel. All of the lame humor, green-screen action, wooden acting, and poor pacing is proudly on display. So long as you can get past the first half hour, though, Revenge of the Sith manages to pick itself up and grow into a compelling end to one of Star Wars' most divisive long-form storylines.
Following the successful rescue of Chancellor Palpatine from Separatist leader General Grievous (Matthew Wood) Jedi Knights Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker are set on different paths as the Jedi Order spearheads an offensive that will, hopefully, put an end to the Clone Wars. But Palpatine is holding onto his power a little too tightly, and Anakin is forced to choose between his oath to the Jedi and his love for his secret wife Padme. The universe needs its Darth Vader, so you can imagine what happens next.
It's a minor miracle that Revenge of the Sith is a decent movie. The dialogue is still bad, the pacing could use some work, and several scenes - anything between Anakin and Padme - are downright painful. Natalie Portman is just bad in this movie, and what George Lucas decided to do to Padme's character sucks. Yet the seduction of Anakin to the Dark Side is well-executed, and the slaughter of the Jedi that follows is a strong piece of cinematic tragedy. Revenge of the Sith also features dual lightsaber battles in its climax, and while both of them end a little limply (beware the high ground) the action is fantastic. Pitting Yoda against the Emperor should have been an obvious choice, but it was genuinely surprising at the time.
Most of Revenge of the Sith's worst sins fall in its first act. The tone is uneven and goofy, and the dynamic between Obi-Wan and Anakin isn't what it should have been. But the movie gets its act together once Anakin and Palpatine have some alone time, and if you can last that long the rest of the movie is a nice, sorrowful cruise, albeit with some bumps.
5. Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens
The trailers for The Force Awakens enjoyed a similar reception to The Phantom Menace. Everybody was hyped for more Star Wars. Even better, this one brought back Han Solo! And Chewbacca! The Millennium Falcon! A desert planet! A... superweapon that can destroy planets? A rebellion fighting an empire? Haven't we seen this movie before? Yeah, maybe.
The Force Awakens begins with a hunt for plucky droid BB-8, who apparently knows the location of the legendary - and missing - Luke Skywalker. BB-8 winds up in the care of desert-dweller Rey, and they join reformed stormtrooper Finn as he flees the First Order. They all wind up on the Millennium Falcon with Han and Chewie, and Rey is captured by Kylo Ren, the First Order's resident Force user. The film culminates in a Resistance attack on Starkiller Base, and Rey and Kylo, both wielding lightsabers, square off.
The Force Awakens checks all the boxes of a soft reboot for A New Hope. Tatooine? Jakku. Death Star? Starkiller Base. R2-D2? BB-8. Darth Vader? Kylo Ren. Tarkin? Hux. Han Solo? Uh... Han Solo again. There's just too much retread territory between the two films, to the point of distraction. Despite using many of the same plot beats, however, The Force Awakens manages to be one of the better Star Wars movies, and the cast is to thank. Almost every one of these newcomers is great, and the movie effortlessly establishes strong character dynamics between them within one, maybe two scenes max. Watching Rey and Finn bicker, or Finn and Poe kinda flirt, or Kylo and Han face off, is fantastic. It helps that the dialogue is substantially better here than in any of the George Lucas films.
Despite how 'safe' it was, The Force Awakens proved to be a strong setup for the sequel trilogy. The new cast was fantastic, and there were plenty of neat plot hooks established for future films. Unfortunately The Force Awakens is not quite so strong in retrospect, given what happens in the next two films, but taken on its own this is still a solid Star Wars movie.
4. Star Wars: Episode VIII - The Last Jedi
There are few movies as universally controversial as The Last Jedi, and most of the opinions do not seem to fall in the middle. Either you love this movie or you hate it with every fiber of your being. This list falls staunchly in the 'love' category - though with full understanding of why many people detest The Last Jedi.
Picking up in the immediate aftermath of The Force Awakens, The Last Jedi immediately puts the Resistance on the run from the First Order. The dwindling forces of the Resistance are forced into a slow, losing race against a mass of Star Destroyers, and Finn - along with mechanic Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran) - must find a way to get the First Order off their backs. Rey, meanwhile, has found Luke Skywalker, and quickly discovers that he is not interested in helping her. A strange connection between Rey and Kylo makes Luke even more reluctant to aid the young woman.
On the story front The Last Jedi fails in a lot of ways. The slow fleet chase is an odd choice, Finn and Rose's expedition to a casino planet is a waste of time, and Poe's weird little mutiny goes basically nowhere. There are many conflicts that probably could have been solved by having a civil conversation for ten minutes. Yet on a thematic level The Last Jedi works really well, subverting expectations constantly and discarding the notion of its characters being 'fated' to act a certain way. The Last Jedi creates a galaxy of free will, where even nobodies can become important, and that's a great message. (It's certainly better than every important event stemming from the actions of a single family.)
Did The Last Jedi make a mess of the sequel trilogy? Absolutely. It throws out much of The Force Awaken's setup, and much of The Last Jedi's story beats were similarly discarded by The Rise of Skywalker. Yet so much of this movie is great - the quiet conversations and big, beautiful action pieces alike - that it's tough for this writer to fault it too much. Love it or hate it, The Last Jedi has a message for its viewers, and that's something a lot of other Star Wars movies failed to achieve.
3. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
The first of the Star Wars spin-offs intended to focus on events beyond the Skywalkers, Rogue One did not sound like a necessary film. What need was there for exploring the theft of the Death Star plans? They were stolen by the rebels. That was enough. Move on to A New Hope. It turns out, however, that the choice to look at that daring heist in greater detail was a good one. A few small problems aside, Rogue One is awesome.
After a small flashback Rogue One jumps to the days just before A New Hope. Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), daughter of one of the Death Star's chief engineers, is 'rescued' from imperial captivity by a group of rebels. Her father, Galen (Mads Mikkelsen), has important information regarding the new superweapon, and Jyn is put into a small strike team led by Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) to bring him back. The action eventually leads Cassian's team to an imperial base where they must stage a bold attack as cover for stealing the plans.
It's a standard planet-hopping story that doesn't spend a whole lot of time analyzing its characters. The viewer is forced to learn about the team via mid-action banter, and this approach works nicely. Every member of Cassian's team is quite likeable, from sardonic security droid K-2SO (Alan Tudyk) to ever-faithful Force monk Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen). If there's one major problem it's that the cast is too big for a two-hour-long film, and more time with any of them would have been nice. Ben Mendelsohn as vicious, cringing bureaucrat Orson Krennic is particularly good.
Fast-paced and perhaps a little too breathless, Rogue One is great fun. The battle scene on - and above - Scarif is one of the best military battles in Star Wars history, and the Death Star has never felt like more of an immediate threat. Yet for all the good character and action moments in Rogue One nothing ever seems to stand out more than the infamous sequence where Darth Vader goes full Dark Side near the end of the film, and that's almost a shame. Jyn and her friends didn't deserve to be overshadowed.
2. Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope
Star Wars: A New Hope almost shouldn't work as a movie. It's oddly-paced, it doesn't explain its strange new galaxy all that much, it purports itself to be the fourth movie despite coming first, and it takes almost half an hour to introduce its main character. It's easy to mistake C-3PO and R2-D2 (Kenny Baker) as the actual stars of this movie. But A New Hope does work, and it's consistently fun to watch.
A New Hope begins over the planet Tatooine. The imperials are hunting Princess Leia, carrier of the plans of the Death Star, and the princess is swiftly captured by the foul Darth Vader. The plans are shuttled down to Tatooine in R2-D2's memory banks, and when the droid is purchased by Luke's uncle the teen becomes embroiled in the journey to reunite princess with plans. Jed Knight Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness) leads Luke on a path towards his destiny, and along with Han Solo and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) they infiltrate the Death Star to rescue Leia.
Unfettered by the massive amounts of lore, retcons, and odd familial connections that plague the later films, A New Hope is a simple story at its core. The leading lady is in trouble and the leading man sets out to rescue her. Throw in a bunch of awesome set pieces and a sweet space battle at the end and you've got a movie. In this case, though, the movie turned out much better than it had any right to. Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, and Harrison Ford all hit it off from the start, and despite some wooden dialogue all three of them make their scenes together work really well. This is to say nothing of James Earl Jones as the terrifying Darth Vader, and his oddly respectful relationship with Peter Cushing as Grand Moff Tarkin. The effects and setting make this movie good, but it's the chemistry of the cast that makes A New Hope great.
What earns A New Hope such a high ranking on this list, though, is how standalone it feels. Yes, the story was built to keep going after this, but the destruction of the Death Star feels climactic enough in and of itself. Throw away every other movie on this list and you still have a fantastic story in A New Hope. Good movies always stand on their own, and A New Hope has a prime pair of legs.
1. Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back
Okay, so, good movies almost always stand on their own. There are exceptions to the rule. The Empire Strikes back is one of them. The odd duck sequel that managed to outdo the original, despite the original being a classic, The Empire Strikes Back is Star Wars at its absolute best as a package deal. There is stunningly little wrong with this film, and so much right.
Despite the destruction of the Death Star the Rebellion is on the run, and the Empire manages to track our heroes to the planet of Hoth. One snow battle and a hasty retreat later Han, Leia, Chewbacca and C-3PO are sent scurrying into space while Luke heads off with R2-D2 to find a teacher to show him the ways of the Force. The gang reunites on the planet Bespin, hosted by Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams), and must escape the iron grip of Darth Vader.
The Empire Strikes Back is an amazing feat because it feels at once fast-paced and slow, yet doesn't suffer for the gear changes. Yoda's quirky explanations of the nature of the world are just as interesting as watching a snow speeder take down a massive AT-AT with a tow cable, and Han and Leia's bickering is somehow more compelling than watching the Millennium Falcon swerve through swarms of asteroids. The film even manages to pair quiet with action in its climax, giving Luke and Darth Vader a haunting maintenance area for their first lightsaber duel. This movie specializes in one-on-one confrontations, friendly or otherwise, and builds nicely on what was established in A New Hope. It does, in short, what a good sequel should: Take the stuff that worked before and make it better.
Though arguably the beginning of the infernal connectivity issues that made the movies to come a logical nightmare - they should not be brother and sister, they just shouldn't - The Empire Strikes Back is a work of art. The script is great, the acting is great, the action is great, the effects are great, the pacing is great, the lighting is... well, you get the point. Everything in this movie is great.