The Skywalker Saga, Ranked

With the new Rise of Skywalker trailer drop allegedly imminent, and the ninth and final (at least, until a new trilogy is announced) episode of the Skywalker saga closer than ever, it’s time to have a look at the good, the less good and the plain ugly movies of the series, as we anticipate where Episode IX might place. Note that this list is only ranking the episodic films in the franchise, as Rogue One and Solo are not part of the Skywalker saga and are therefore harder to compare to what are essentially different chapters in the same story.

#8: Episode I – The Phantom Menace

Lucas did his best to ensure consistencies with the aesthetic from the original trilogy while introducing new story elements and ships. No Death Star or Millennium Falcon here! However, the rehashed imagery and shot-parallelism between the trilogies can be seen as nothing but tokenism, with no real deep consideration of the aesthetics of the original trilogy’s world. This is part of the reason the two trilogies often are seen as disconnected.

Slow to get going, with no clear protagonist and under-developed characters, The Phantom Menace is easily the worst of the bunch. It’s got some great scenes, notably the podrace scene and the three-way duel between Obi Wan Kenobi, Qui Gonn Jinn and the under-used Darth Maul, but good movies aren’t made from good scenes alone. While The Phantom Menace definitely deserves some credit for its expansion of the established Star Wars universe and the innovations George Lucas brought to the film industry through its creation, all of its merits were bettered in the prequel trilogy’s future instalments.

#7: Episode II – Attack of the Clones

While the reliance on CGI is more pronounced than in The Phantom Menace, the plot is more engaging. Still, the Kamino scenes in particular have aged extremely poorly, and computer graphics should have been used more sparingly. Happily, by Revenge of the Sith CG models and battle scenes begin to look more realistic, paving the way for the neat fusion of practical and computer effects in the Sequel Trilogy.v

While Attack of the Clones has a better story than Menace and is where we see the wheels really begin to spin in terms of the Republic’s fall to the Empire, the uneven pacing and awkward dialogue still make certain scenes difficult to digest. Anakin’s gradual turn to the dark side is first showcased here, however, and everything about the creation of the Clone army is compelling to the bone. Props to Lucas for attempting to convey a full-scale ground battle, with lightsabre-wielding Jedi and all, but the battle of Geonosis descended into a CGI mess. Thematically, Dooku foreshadowed Anakin’s abandonment of the Jedi order in favour of a different ideology, but the big lightsabre fight fell flat after Maul in Menace.

#6: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi

“Yes, Luke, Leia is your sister. I know that you’ve kissed a couple of times, but movie serials are living and breathing things and her being your twin deepens the story and is no doubt more compelling than if the other Skywalker was a different character completely. Just watch the Sequels! Forgetting a couple of inconsistencies and being forgiving toward filmmakers while sitting back and relaxing makes for a more enjoyable movie experience – from a certain point of view.”

What!? An original trilogy movie being placed below a prequel and the sequels!? Hersey! If these are your immediate thoughts, go back and watch it. The Force Awaken’s adherence to A New Hope’s plot structure was annoying but understandable given that Episode VII was a reboot of the franchise, but just two movies in the recycling of the Death Star narrative was unforgiveable. And while the opening and closing half hours of the movie are interesting, with the most emotionally charged lightsabre duel to date, the film really lags at the Battle of Endor. Return of the Jedi was a noted shift of the franchise from the dark seriousness of Empire Strikes Back to the campness and merchandise-driven stories that would mark the prequels.

#5: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith

It’s no The Last Jedi, but Sith’s space battle is much more interesting than the bland dogfights of the original trilogy, and the visual effects hold up pretty well. Everything in this frame is CGI.

Without a doubt the best of the prequels, this almost went above A New Hope until we realised that angry strangers on the internet would track us down and kill us. George Lucas somehow managed to make a story we all knew the ending of still seem so compelling, and the movie had the best cinematography of the entire saga, until The Last Jedi came along, of course. Not many movies would manage to cram so many plot points into two hours and get away with it, but Dooku, Grievous, Order 66 and the final battles between Anakin and Obi Wan, and Yoda and Sidious all feel necessary parts of the same whole. Action packed and with much less cringey dialogue than its predecessors, Revenge also gets extra points for the sweetest nostalgia nods to the Original Trilogy in its final scenes which do a nice job of bridging the gap, narratively and aesthetically, between the two series.

#4: Episode IV – A New Hope

While George Lucas had a vague story treatment for future installments in what was already then planned to be a saga, A New Hope was designed to be a self-contained story in cast it flopped and no sequel could be made. Lucasfilm commissioned Alan Dean Foster to write a novel which would be used as a blueprint for a low-budget sequel if the film was moderately successful, but lo and behold Star Wars became a pop culture phenomenon and we got Empire instead. Foster’s novel, Splinter of the Mind’s Eye, explores a very different take on the Star Wars universe and is a glimpse into what might have been.

No, wait, come back, hear us out! So many arguments explaining whythe original Star Wars is the best of the bunch focuses on how it introduced the world to this great cinematic universe, but it’s safe to say that A New Hope hasn’t aged well and definitely benefits from the expansions of the lore from other instalments. After the bombastic opening, the true plot of the story is slow to start, and Luke and Han are no more than generic caricatures. Designed to be potentially a standalone movie, Tarkin, rather than Vader, was the main villain of Episode IV, and the Emperor isn’t mentioned once. Still, this is a fun little space romp, but without the other movies in the franchise it would have remained just that, another 70s sci-fi curio with little or no cultural impact.  

 #3: Episode VII – The Force Awakens

Tonnes of symbolism can be read into Vader’s melted mask, from legacy to a meta-commentary on fandom – if you’re into that. It’s half destroyed but still recognizable, unable to let the past completely die – much like the Star Wars sequels.

As has already been stated, The Force Awakens disappointed some fans by rehashing many aspects of the original trilogy, and could have been so much better (or more unique) if it introduced a new threat to the galaxy, rather than resurrecting the Empire in the form of the First Order. The resurrection of this old conflict rendered many of the sacrifices in the Original Trilogy redundant, and hopefully The Rise of Skywalker will give the sequel trilogy a reason to exist besides from Disney wanting to make loads of money. Still, this list aims to judge films on their individual basis, and The Force Awakens is without a doubt the most fun Star Wars movie. Some fans may not have appreciated the fresh, Marvel-esque direction and humour JJ Abrams injected into the franchise, but The Force Awakens is perfectly plotted that not a moment is wasted waiting for the next thing to happen, which can’t be said of any of the previous films on this list. Also, Kylo Ren is arguably the best villain in the entire saga.

#2 Episode VIII – The Last Jedi

Don’t blame Johnson for making Luke a grumpy disenchanted Jedi in exile on an island, it was Abrams who put him there! It would have been un-naturalistic and jarring if Johnson had done a 180 retcon of Luke’s motivations as seen in The Force Awakens. Also, rewatch the Original Trilogy and you’ll see young Skywalker isn’t the golden boy you remember – Luke’s exile is entirely in line with his character.

One-upping its brilliant predecessor by side-stepping fan expectations while remaining deeply rooted in the franchise’s established lore, The Last Jedi received venomous fan backlash from fans. While I’d argue that the majority of complaints about the movie have their origins in The Force Awakens (which generated hype and fuelled theories about Rey and Snoke’s origin, and decided that Luke exiled himself to a remote planet), movies should be celebrated for their strong points rather than defended. The Last Jedi opened up the Star Wars universe in a way no movie had since The Phantom Menace, focussing on more intimate narratives and taking inspiration about ideas and notions of heroism from Rogue One. Killing Snoke was a stroke of genius, and we can only hope that Abrams decides to use Rian Johnson’s ideas as a spring board to continue expanding the story, rather than back-treading and sticking it safe with a soft remake of Return of the Jedi.  To top it all off, every shot in The Last Jedi is a work of art – we could have done without the mum joke at the start, though.

#1 Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back

Here’s some homework for you: did we put Empire at the top of our list because we really think it is the best Star Wars movie, or because the general consensus has reinforced the idea that this is where the movie must always be placed? Personally, we always have a better time with Revenge of the Sith and The Force Awakens, but can we assess a movie just by enjoyment alone? Would it be pretentious to do anything else? Can rankings ever be objective, given they have audiences in mind? What would you say your favourite Star Wars is if there were no-one there to hear your answer?

What is there to say about Empire that hasn’t already been said? Much like Jedi, Episode V ran simultaneous narratives, one which focused on expanding the ideology and mysticism of the Force with another being more intimate and character driven. The perfectly balanced narrative structure has not been matched in the franchise to this day, and somehow the film looked decades ahead of its time despite being released only three years after A New Hope. That first film may have started the franchise, but The Empire Strikes Back made it, taking the Flash Gordon­ serial-esque series into a more serious and mature direction, ensuring fans of the film would keep coming back to it past childhood. Without Empire’s infamous Darth Vader reveal, there would have been no reason for the prequel trilogy, Return of the Jedi’s final fight would have lacked personal significance, and the idea of a Skywalker saga beyond the first few films would have made less sense than a franchise focussing on more compelling characters such as Han Solo. But even discounting its incomprehensibly large legacy (without Empire, we arguably we wouldn’t have the cinematic universes that dominate the film industry today), Empire Strikes Back is a remarkable piece of filmmaking, and is likely to stand the test of time.

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