Despite all the making-of books and documentaries, and the myth-making surrounding the creator of Star Wars, there’s no way George Lucas could have predicted the long-lasting effects his 1977 space adventure would have on pop culture. Sure, maybe he did write outlines for additional prequels and sequels while crafting the story of the original film, but he also had a lower-budget “Star Wars II” backup plan had A New Hope bombed at the box office in the summer of ’77.
As we all know now, quite the opposite happened. The adventures of a young farm boy named Luke Skywalker caused a chain reaction that would explode into a full-blown franchise of movies, TV series, books, comics, and video games. Oh, and all those wonderful toys, lunch boxes, trading cards, bed sets, and all that other nerdy merch. It’s no exaggeration to say that with a galaxy far, far away, Lucas took over the world.
Since May is the month in which we celebrate all the great stories and memories this franchise has given us, Den of Geek has polled both our writers and readers to decide once and for all our official Star Wars movie ranking, specifically the 11 live-action theatrical releases that make up the backbone of this saga.
And we begin with…
11. The Rise of Skywalker
We’re not going to call The Rise of Skywalker the worst Star Wars movie ever made. There’s really no such thing. It’s all a matter of what you want from the galaxy far, far away, and J.J. Abrams’ final love letter to George Lucas’ Original Trilogy of space fantasy films is exactly what some fans wanted after Rian Johnson tried to set the franchise on a new course with The Last Jedi.
But for the rest of us, the final chapter of the Skywalker Saga feels creatively bankrupt. This easter-egg-filled Return of the Jedi redux leans so heavily on nostalgia and recreating 1983 that it never manages to say anything original of its own. Somehow, Palpatine returned (in a Fortnite event); Rey is now the Emperor’s granddaughter; there’s no new Death Star but there are planet-destroying Imperial Star Destroyers (and the ruins of the old Death Star); and basically everyone says or does a thing at some point in the movie that amount to little but shallow fan service. This is a film without an identity or really any purpose except to reclaim a past that had already been reclaimed in four other Disney movies before it.
All that said, the film deserves some kudos for its visuals — this may be the best looking Star Wars movie ever made — as well as the fight choreography. Rey’s duel with Kylo Ren is one of the most exciting clashes in the saga. – John Saavedra
10. Attack of the Clones
We come not to bury Dexter Jettster, but to praise him. For some, the four-armed Besalisk represents a gross miscalculation, claiming that the diner he operates belongs in 1950s LA, not on Coruscant. But that type of thinking forgets how many beloved elements of Star Wars come from Lucas’ childhood obsessions, including the X-wing battles modeled on dogfights from films such as The Dam Busters and the familiar tropes about a small-town kid with big dreams. Dex and his diner bring flavoring to the sometimes-esoteric Prequels, giving us something familiar but made lovably strange.
More importantly, Dex advances the espionage plot that makes for the most interesting moments of Attack of the Clones. Where Jedi have often been reduced to swordsmen who speak in wise riddles and can do magic tricks, Episode II immerses Obi-Wan Kenobi in a conspiracy plot, forcing him to use his wits instead of the force. This storyline leads to revelations that continue to have reverberations throughout the Star Wars universe.
From the investigation of the clone plant on Kamino comes the Clone Wars, the jumping point for the beloved animated series of the same name. The participation of Jango Fett in the clone saga connects bounty hunter Boba Fett and the Mandalorians to the rest of the Star Wars universe, integral parts of the Disney+ series The Mandalorian and The Book of Boba Fett. Add in the innovative use of digital effects, especially with Yoda, and it becomes clear that Attack of the Clones plays a pivotal role in the past and future of the franchise. – Joe George
9. The Phantom Menace
In many ways, The Phantom Menace has aged poorly, from its accents to its CG-heavy visuals. The cornerstone of the Prequel Trilogy isn’t the best of them. Its remarkable ambition sets the film apart, though, by truly building on what came before, showing a gilded Old Republic and introducing new and alien settings like the underwater cities or the Jedi Temple on Coruscant. The Phantom Menace’s lightsaber fight choreography is also vastly more dramatic and acrobatic than the more technically limited fights in the Original Trilogy, and the visual design of characters like Darth Maul were strong enough to carry them into today’s The Clone Wars adventures.
Overall, The Phantom Menace is still the bedrock of the Prequels. It establishes the initial relationship between Anakin and Obi-Wan, the tragedy and manipulation that shaped Anakin’s fall to the dark side, and the way the man who would become Emperor Palpatine played the long game to take over the galaxy. The Anakin and Obi-Wan connection powers the Prequels and The Clone Wars alike, making The Phantom Menace an endless resource for rewatches as you see more and gain new perspectives on how those characters grow and change. – Megan Crouse
Does Solo: A Star Wars Story provide the dumbest possible answer to a question nobody ever cared to ask? Yes. But no one should let a conversation about Han Solo’s last name distract from all of the fun stuff Ron Howard’s movie has to offer. The lore drops and fan winks are just sprinkling on top of what is fundamentally a rollicking caper, anchored by a thrilling train heist at its center. In those moments, Solo does what Star Wars does best, reinterpreting tried-and-true cinematic exploits through a sci-fi lens.
Even better, Howard has a fine cast to help him tell the tale, working from a script by longtime Lucasfilm writer Lawrence Kasdan and his son Jonathan. Once one accepts that he’s not the actual young Harrison Ford, Alden Ehrenreich brings heaps of charm to his baby-faced rogue-in-training. And in the wrong hands, Donald Glover’s take on Lando Calrissian would be a broad parody, mocking Billy Dee Williams. But Glover’s performance plays up the effortless cool that made Williams such an icon. Throw in Woody Harrelson in his sweet spot as an untrustworthy leader, Phoebe Waller-Bridge as a droid unlike any we’ve ever seen, and Paul Bettany as a terrifying crime boss, and Solo offers a great time to anyone willing to forego the lore and enjoy the adventure. – JG
7. Revenge of the Sith
To say that the Star Wars Prequels are a mixed bag is to put it rather lightly. Though the films are technically impressive and their depiction of a slowly eroding republic has aged quite nicely, The Phantom Menace and Attack of Clones really did amount to a lot of time-killing before getting to the main event that Star Wars fans had waited decades to see: Kenobi vs. Skywalker. That main event finally arrives at the conclusion of the third prequel installment, Revenge of the Sith, and man is it worth the wait.
Revenge of the Sith’s final climactic lightsaber battle between Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) and The Man Who Will Soon Be Darth Vader (Hayden Christensen) just absolutely owns. Clocking in at nearly a full 10 minutes of acrobatic somersaults, lightsaber slashes, and pure unbridled fury, the duel is one of the few moments in the Prequels that rises to the occasion of John Williams’ awe-inspiring score. The rest of Revenge of the Sith is very much the same mixed bag as its predecessors, but from the moment Darth Sidious mutters “execute order 66” on, the film presents some of the most exciting action in the entire Star Wars saga. – Alec Bojalad
6. The Force Awakens
I’ve written before that The Force Awakens is the best place for someone to start with Star Wars today. Rey, Finn, and Poe have all the charisma and strong characterization that any Star Wars trio needs. Their mix of interpersonal and galactic stakes may have flown off the rails by the time the Sequel Trilogy ended, but The Force Awakens proves that when it comes to this franchise, sometimes just having fun, relatable characters is enough.
While it sometimes relies too much on copying from what came before, especially in the final third, The Force Awakens’ new characters and fight choreography still make it an enjoyable popcorn blockbuster whether you’re a hardcore fan or not. It also features one of the best saga villains. Taken in terms of his appearance in The Force Awakens alone, Kylo Ren is erratic and frightening, his physical presence, creative Force abilities, and surprising family connections all creating a potent mix of ideas. Making Han and Leia’s child the antagonist was a clever reversal of the Original Trilogy’s big twist, and helped elevate The Force Awakens into one of the most talked-about movies of its time. – MC
5. Rogue One
Disney and Lucasfilm’s brief flirtation with standalone Star Wars movies ended in failure when they attempted to recast iconic characters, which is too bad. Because their first “A Star Wars Story” effort is one of the very best in the canon.
While certainly linked to the Original Trilogy—in this case by providing the backstory of the “rebel spies” who stole the Death Star plans—Rogue One goes its own way to craft a genuine war movie in the vein of many of the 1940s and ‘50s melodramas that inspired Lucas as a child. With nary a concern about Jedi, Skywalkers, and the Force, this is the one-and-done tale of Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), a thief who is reluctantly recruited by the fledgling Rebel Alliance into an espionage job that increasingly looks like a suicide mission.
With a great ensemble cast of characters, Rogue One has an adult edge most Star Wars movies lack, and a stark visceral scale in which the power of the Empire never seemed more looming. While the movie bears the marks of post-production tinkering, where director Gareth Edwards took a backseat to Tony Gilroy, who stepped in for extensive rewrites and reshoots, the emotional charge of the movie comes through like a ringing bell, especially during the harrowing Battle of Scarif finale. It’s a genuine war movie about sacrifice and embracing an ideal, and unlike most other Disney Star Wars movies, the fan service (here involving a particular Dark Lord of the Sith) is literally killer. – David Crow
4. The Last Jedi
Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi has its issues, to be sure. This middle chapter of the Star Wars Sequel Trilogy feels oddly disconnected from the others to the point where it almost resembles a Rogue One or Solo-style “Star Wars Story” adventure. The Canto Bight portion of the film could be viewed as an unnecessary side quest. And then there’s the controversial moment of General Leia Organa Mary Poppins-ing her way through outer space. But quibbles and complaints aside, The Last Jedi might also be the boldest and creative Star Wars outing since The Empire Strikes Back in 1980.
The Last Jedi is positively filled with compelling and potentially iconic moments. From Rey and Kylo Ren’s highly choreographed, beautiful lightsaber ballet against the crimson Praetorian Guard to Vice-Admiral Holdo’s gutsy lightspeed maneuver to a Force projected Luke Skywalker snarling to his former acolyte that he’s not the last Jedi – this movie understands how to establish an epic scene fitting of an epic movie-spanning saga. Its very Ratatouille-esque assertion that a great Jedi can come from just about anywhere is also a breath of fresh air. Of course, The Rise of Skywalker would quash that notion and many other ideas presented in The Last Jedi. That makes the already-distinct middle chapter feel even more separated from its peers. Still, the movie stands on its own as a worthy entry into the Star Wars canon. – AB
3. Return of the Jedi
The first time a Star Wars arc really ended on the big screen, it ended with a bang. The conclusion of Luke Skywalker’s story took us from the sands of Tatooine (“I used to live here, you know.” “You’re going to die here, you know. Convenient.”) to the half-completed second Death Star, masterfully tracing a young man’s journey to adulthood at the same time. The movie is both a technical marvel and a snapshot of what now seem to be the idiosyncrasies of the time, including the still-astonishing space battle above Endor and Lucas’ love for puppetry and practical effects. Certainly, there are fair criticisms of the original finale, from Leia’s role to the goofiness of the Ewoks and the Jabba’s Palace musical number.
However, the heart and strength of Luke’s story still shine bright in Return of the Jedi. It’s a movie that seems to say something different at any age at which you watch it, depending on where you are in your own life journey compared to Luke’s burdened self-discovery. Where as a teenager I thought his black-clad heroism was as cool as the movies got, as an adult I gain new appreciation for the way in which the Skywalker family dramatizes the much smaller clashes most people have with their equally fallible, human parents. It’s hard to find a better example of Star Wars’ operatic scale than Luke’s solemn conflict with his father and the Emperor. – MC
2. A New Hope
This is where it all began, and 45 years later, it’s still tough to beat Lucas’ original vision of a sci-fi fantasy universe full of space wizards, advanced civilizations on distant planets, cool-looking aliens, gritty gunslingers, and epic space battles. Inspired by the Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers serials he adored as a boy, as well as the samurai films of Akira Kurosawa, Lucas in turn created arguably the most influential blockbuster of all time, a spectacle whose presence is still felt today, whether its in the MCU or Jurassic World‘s nostalgic dinosaur-filled extravaganzas. Nerd culture just wouldn’t be the same without the story of a young Luke Skywalker learning the ways of the Force and taking on the evil Empire with all of his friends.
Not only does this tale of underdogs fighting oppression feel universal and poignant to this day, but A New Hope is also visually stunning, an absolute trailblazer in terms of what could be done with practical effects in the late ’70s. In fact, watching this movie in 2022 still feels like a timeless experience. The film hardly looks dated so many decades later, a testament to the innovative effects work from ILM. That third act battle above the Death Star, with X-wings and TIE fighters zooming through space and past endless barrages of laser fire, still gives modern CGI fests a run for their money. – JS
1. The Empire Strikes Back (READER’S CHOICE)
Some audiences didn’t know what to make of The Empire Strikes Back when it opened in 1980. The New York Times complained it lacked the wittiness of the original Star Wars, and The Wall Street Journal pondered whether Lucas’ fantasy had “lost its innocence?” In retrospect, these criticisms are due to what a departure from the glistening first movie Empire turned out to be. Rather than a pure swashbuckling romp, Lucas and screenwriters Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan crafted a movie that, while still a lively pop culture pastiche, suggested there was a truly brooding dark side to this mythology.
It challenged audience expectations, and to this day is one of the few Star Wars movies to do so. Hence why it towers so high above the others. By adding dimensionality to its boy hero, who now in the middle chapter of a larger saga is forced to reconsider his vainglorious ideals, and depth to his conflict with a villain who no longer seems so simple in one of the greatest movie twists of all-time, Empire Strikes Back creates an interiority for its archetypes, as well as stakes that are a little more primal and tangible than “save the galaxy.”
But it’s also what director Irvin Kershner brings to this universe that makes Empire stand tall. Once George Lucas’ professor at USC, Kershner always credited the movie with being Lucas’ vision. But unlike so many of the Star Wars movies that Lucas directed (or Disney subsequently made), Kershner added to the visual aesthetic instead of repeating it. There is a grimy, lived-in quality to this world of rebels and empires, and a play of shadow and light that’s never been more foreboding. Also unlike his student, Kershner has a strong handle on working with actors. The result is a movie that lets its greatest flights of fancy soar—a Jedi master the size of Kermit the Frog, a city in the clouds—but also which gives Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher the floor space to come up with a call and response like “I love you,” and “I know.”
Forty years later, we still love Empire, and you know it to be true. – DC