Star Wars was spilling off the silver screen before it even got there: Alan Dean Foster’s novelization of the original movie, published under the name of George Lucas, hit bookstores months before the first film opened in theaters. (Building anticipation for a totally new universe was more important than defending against spoilers.)
Still, Star Wars is fundamentally a cinematic franchise. After Disney bought Lucasfilm, it nearly doubled the series’s four-decade feature count (1977-2014) in a frantic four years (2015-2019) before pulling back due to concerns about quality control. A TV series can misfire, a comic book can fall flat, a video game can underperform, but Star Wars built its brand on best-in-class movie experiences.
The Star Wars movie machine is now rumbling back to life, with various projects in the pipeline, but it’s still going to be a while before we see another officially licensed lightsaber in theatrical release. That makes this a good time to look back and assess the big-screen offerings to date.
As of this writing there have been a dozen Star Wars movies released in theaters; if that’s more than you realized, you’re about to find out why. Here they are in convenient list form, ranked in order of overall quality and cultural impact. If you want to follow along at home, they’re all currently streaming on Disney+.
Here’s that one you forgot about — or, very possibly, never even knew about. The Clone Wars animated TV series, created by Lucas himself, has become a major locus of fan fixation in recent years, with 133 episodes of canon adventures situated in time between Skywalker Saga Episodes II and III. The Clone Wars got off to an awkward start, though, with this feature film sending Anakin and his new apprentice Ahsoka Tano in search of Jabba the Hutt’s kidnapped son. While the movie justified its release by making its $8.5 million budget back several times over, it really should have stayed on the small screen as originally intended.
Four words: “I don’t like sand.” Harrison Ford could talk about dirt and make it sound sexy, but not so much Hayden Christensen under the direction of George Lucas, who built this feature on the promise of forbidden Jedi lust and delivered a romantic arc that was just as awkward, and less tense, than a junior high slow dance. This movie also featured the prequel trilogy’s most cartoonish CGI and foregrounded the franchise’s least imposing villain. Lucas found a way to launch Yoda into lightsaber combat without making it utterly ridiculous, but the Jedi Master’s opponent was a stiff, elderly man named…Count Dooku.
Say this for the much-maligned first prequel: it did at least have a cool villain, with Darth Maul and his double-bladed saber plausibly taking on two powerful Jedi at once as composer John Williams shook the rafters with “Duel of the Fates.” So this movie has that going for it. It also, however, has multiple species evoking problematic racial or ethnic stereotypes. It has “little Ani” mooning over a girl who’s essentially his babysitter, and a deflating explanation of Force sensitivity in the form of tiny beings living in the bloodstream — beings that somehow conceived a child in the womb of a slave who’s left in captivity when the Jedi sweep her son away indefinitely. Poodoo!
Only two directors have ever returned for more after helming one Star Wars movie, and the results have not been, comparatively, good. After exhilarating fans with The Force Awakens, J.J. Abrams returned to close out the Skywalker Saga in tepid form: if Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi divided fans, The Rise of Skywalker reunited them in disappointment. The movie turns on the saga’s most egregious retcon (Rey’s parentage), which is really saying something for a franchise that spent its first two installments building sexual tension between two people who then suddenly discovered they’re siblings. Still, this film managed an elegant farewell for Carrie Fisher, and the return of Ian McDiarmid as the Emperor was a relief after two movies of Andy Serkis playing a store-brand alternative.
This movie was a come-to-Jesus moment for Lucasfilm, which had been preparing to sustain a torrent of feature films at the pace of its corporate sibling Marvel. Telling Han Solo’s backstory proved dicey, with original directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller ousted in favor of Ron Howard and a result that became the only Star Wars feature to lose money at the box office. Still, fans have rallied around this entry, which hits a lot of satisfying notes and gave us Donald Glover as young Lando — as well as ending on a tantalizing promise of more underworld action. If the #MakeSolo2Happen movement hasn’t been quite as successful as #WeezerCoverAfrica, well, you know what Han Solo says about the odds.
This film has soared in regard recently, and many would make a case for ranking it higher. As The Clone Wars and other canon media have added weight to Anakin’s arc, some viewers who initially lumped this in with the other, disappointing, prequels have found themselves repeatedly coming back to this pivotal tragedy. In particular, a climactic duel that Lucas had long envisioned unfolds here in suitably epic fashion: Obi-Wan’s “I have the high ground” has now become such a meme, it was even referenced on Bachelor In Paradise. Once again, though, Lucas does Padmé dirty: the onetime queen, whose dedication made Elizabeth II look like a dilettante, literally dies of heartbreak after delivering her blessed burdens to the grasping Jedi.
Both fascinating and frustrating, this first official Star Wars sequel in 32 years successfully set the tone for the Disney-era franchise. Director J.J. Abrams and his co-writers shamelessly cribbed essentially the entire plot from the original New Hope, repackaging iconic designs with a flourish and inviting all three of that movie’s principals to reprise their roles. The casting of the younger characters was fresh and exciting, with combustible chemistry between Daisy Ridley’s unknown upstart and Adam Driver’s Vader wannabe. The moment when Rey catches Luke’s lightsaber, scored with a cue from the original movie, still evokes chills.
After Force Awakens invited fans to a hot tub of nostalgia, Rian Johnson’s Last Jedi was a bracing splash of ice water. Episode VIII took real risks — particularly with the central character of Luke Skywalker, whose iconoclastic curmudgeon seemed a universe away from the breathless youth we met in 1977. Johnson justified that choice, though, and opened a fascinating new chapter in the relationship between Rey and Ren. While the Canto Bight casino scene is a miss, and the promise of Finn’s character is squandered, this visually rich and emotionally resonant film is far and away the most substantive of the sequel trilogy.
The Ewok haters will protest this final film in the original trilogy being ranked so high, but as Episodes III and IX later confirmed, satisfactorily ending a Star Wars trilogy is an impossible task, and to this day nobody’s done it better. The opening rescue sequence at Jabba’s palace is a sensational piece of scene setting, storytelling, and bravura action. The film builds to a powerful finale that intercuts space battle, forest siege, and lightsaber confrontation with real suspense and a gloriously creepy new villain cackling with delight at just how unchill everyone’s getting. The fact that this is the original trilogy’s weak link speaks to the magnitude of Lucas’s achievement.
This tight prequel bumped up immediately against Episode IV chronologically, but told a very different story. Director Gareth Edwards sustains extraordinary tension throughout this movie about a rebellion within a rebellion, led by scrappy characters who seem to know theirs won’t be the faces on the marquee when the Death Star finally goes down. It features incredible setpieces that culminate in the film franchise’s first tropical battle, and effectively blends new faces with old. The “period” detail is perfect, and no Star Wars movie has higher emotional stakes.
Originally known as simply Star Wars, this movie that started it all remains miraculous for its blend of action and wit. Against all odds, Lucas succeeded in delivering a movie that engrossed audiences in new worlds while introducing genuinely memorable characters. The production blew a large chunk of its budget on developing an entirely new way of simulating space combat, and the investment paid off in a climactic battle that astonished viewers with its seeming verisimilitude. Star Wars knock-offs immediately proliferated, and yet it would take Lucas himself to top this influential blockbuster.
Lucas doubled down with his Star Wars sequel, risking his own financial windfall to maintain creative control, and didn’t disappoint. This shockingly dark follow-up turned what was previously a single movie into a full-fledged franchise, using a classic three-act structure to continue its heroes’ journey through the snow, into the swamp, and above the clouds. While director Irvin Kershner tested the patience of producer Lucas, he delivered an absolutely gorgeous movie that exerted real gravity while upping the action ante. The original film remains more important in cinema history, but it is Empire that made a galaxy far, far away into a place fans would want to call home forever.