We recently rewatched the Star Wars movies. We decided to individually rank the movies from favorite to least favorite, then compare notes. First, our brief thoughts on each movie individually.
Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace
Erik: Visually beautiful, but the plot drags and the dialogue is ludicrous. Like the other prequel movies, it at least has a clear narrative purpose that operates on two levels: the corruption of Anakin Skywalker and the fall of the Republic.
Eppu: Too messy all round; a travesty of writing not helped by (some of) the acting.
Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones
Eppu: Least bad of the prequels; only Ewan McGregor and Natalie Portman save the movie.
Erik: Despite its weaknesses (especially in the Anakin/Padme storyline), this film comes the closest to the series’ classic pulp sci-fi inspirations.
Star Wars: Episode III – The Revenge of the Sith
Erik: More weak plot and ridiculous dialogue, but there is an atmosphere to this film that sustains it, a palpable sense of an age of beauty and light coming to an end.
Eppu: An intelligent woman—and playing the Smurfette part to boot—is reduced to a walking womb. Yuck.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
Eppu: The learning-to-work-together aspect and found family vibes with a heaping of nostalgia offset the grimdark.
Erik: A love letter to the original trilogy, filled with great characters.
Solo: A Star Wars Story
Erik: An unnecessary, self-indulgent piece of fanfiction with neither the spirit of the original trilogy nor the narrative purpose of the prequels.
Eppu: It’s just weak all round, and Alden Ehrenreich certainly can’t pull off the role of young Han. (Well, except for propping, sets, and CGI, which at least are very professionally done if not always terribly imaginative.)
Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope
Eppu: Can’t beat a classic: well edited, scored, acted, with decent if at times very concise writing. Feels a little sparse or basic compared to today’s movie plots, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
Erik: There is beauty in how spare the writing and worldbuilding are, giving us just enough that our imaginations can fill in the rest.
Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back
Erik: Some great action sequences and character development, but it doesn’t feel like they all belong in the same movie.
Eppu: Darker and more desperate, again well constructed. Nostalgia helps here, too.
Star Wars: Episode VI – The Return of the Jedi
Eppu: Loved it as a kid, but the present me sees the ridiculousness of Ewoks fighting stormtroopers.
Erik: I love seeing Luke’s growth as a Jedi, both in skills and self-awareness, and I like Ewoks versus stormtroopers.
Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens
Erik: While the movie is overly focused on being as Star Wars-y as possible, the new characters are all clearly defined and well acted.
Eppu: Tries to hit all of the same spots as the original trilogy, but ends up trying too much.
Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi
Eppu: Despite its confusion on what the movie wants to be, General Leia and Vice Admiral Holdo kick ass. The entertaining side plot with Rose is also a plus.
Erik: So much wasted potential. This could have been the best movie in the entire series, but it is too obsessed with its concepts to actually tell a story with them.
Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker
Erik: An overstuffed mess of contrived events, plot gimmicks, and fanservice for the worst parts of the Internet.
Eppu: I like best the Rey plus Kylo Ren conflict-turns-into-understanding arc. Palpatine and his cronies are comically, hilariously dark and corny, which almost makes me snort my way through those parts.
Here’s our individual rankings.
|1||Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi||Rogue One: A Star Wars Story|
|2||Rogue One: A Star Wars Story||Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope|
|3||Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope||Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back|
|4||Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens||Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi|
|5||Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back||Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens|
|6||Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones||Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi|
|7||Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi||Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker|
|8||Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith||Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones|
|9||Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace||Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace|
|10||Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker||Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith|
|11||Solo: A Star Wars Story||Solo: A Star Wars Story|
I put Return of the Jedi first for a couple of reasons. First, I love the opening act with the rescue of Han from Jabba’s palace. It’s so well structured, gradually reintroducing us to all the heroes and showing us Luke’s growth as a Jedi. Second, I’m a sucker for any fight in which low-tech beats high-tech, and the Endor battle is one of my favorites.
I like The Force Awakens more than The Empire Strikes Back. I’ve never really been a fan of Empire, although I know it’s widely considered the best movie of the original trilogy. I won’t argue about the strengths of Empire or the weaknesses of Force, but I just enjoy watching Rey discover her Jedi powers and Finn find his footing in the Resistance more than I enjoy watching Luke run around a swamp and Han try to kickstart the Falcon.
I didn’t think there could be a Star Wars movie worse than The Phantom Menace, but then came Solo and The Rise of Skywalker. Phantom at least has beautiful sets and costumes, an action hero queen, and a fantastic lightsaber fight. Rise is a jumbled and unnecessary mess, and Solo is just answering questions that didn’t need answers.
Overall, I found the nods towards the original trilogy in Rogue One an absolute delight the very first time we watched the movie, and I’ve continued to enjoy them a lot despite the fact that many of them are basically direct copies of dialogue or shots. For me, it’s very close to a perfect combination of homage plus original material. Director Krennic is the only acting job that comes close to unbearable ham (but that may have been how Ben Mendelsohn was directed, as he’s great in other productions).
The strength of Empire for me is the exploration of Luke’s, Leia’s, and Han’s characters when they each hit a rough patch, which is why I ranked it higher than Return. Also Lando turns out to have more depth right from the bat than, say, Count Dooku.
Sadly, the sequels are almost as bad a mess storywise as the prequels, but fortunately they picked more talented core actors and did *not* write in an inept, ham-fisted Asian caricature. (Then again, I gather that the production of the sequels was exceptionally convoluted and involved lots of back-end drama.) Cinematographically, though, the sequels are light years ahead of any of the others, I think.
In hindsight, maybe I should’ve bumped Clones a step down and Phantom a step up—Anakin behaves so fecking creepily towards Padme it’s upsetting to watch. At least in Phantom he behaves more maturely, as odd as it is to say about a little kid, and, like Erik said, there’s pretties to see.
There’s a marked difference in quality between the original and prequel trilogies. I’ve often wondered why that is. (Not having really cared to look for an answer online, though, I can only speculate.) I do have a vague impression of having read somewhere that one reason for the success of the original trilogy was that the editing team—if I remember right, especially Marcia Lucas—wove the storylines into a cohesive, tight, smoothly moving arc. In the prequels, the core of the story largely gets lost among the bling. In a way, it feels like once Lucas effectively was the boss, it was to the detriment of the story.
Granted, we finally got the fight scenes worthy of the jedi; that, plus improved effects (including makeup and costuming), are what the prequels did absolutely right. In the end, however, they visuals are not enough in themselves to pull the prequels up from the bottom.
From the point of view of current viewer (i.e., setting aside any past significance from a technological point of view), action scenes and special effects have improved so much in the past few decades that the prequels cannot offer anything memorable. It’s the strength of the story, the characters, and the acting that a movie must stand on now. In that sense, the prequels have very little to offer me. Moreover, it’s actually rather impressive that we both ranked Solo as the absolutely last one, below the prequels—a mark of a true washout. I’m only sad that the tanking of Solo means my fellow Finn Joonas Suotamo likely won’t get hired for more Chewbacca roles.
There’s so much you could say about all of the movies. At times ranking really wasn’t very straightforward. (How do you properly gauge the messiness of the prequels, for instance. I’m sure if you were to ask me two years from now, I’d list some of the movies differently.)
We know other people have different opinions from ours; we’d like to hear yours!
Image by Eppu Jensen
In the Seen on Screen occasional feature, we discuss movies and television shows of interest.