Every Episode of Star Wars, Ranked
A Thoroughly Researched Power Ranking of the Greatest Sci-Fi Series of All Time
Following the recent release of Episode VII: The Force Awakens, Star Wars junkies have been raving with excitement, and a new swarm has been ushered into the fandom. Looking forward, Star Wars fans have Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, the Han Solo standalone film, and the highly anticipated Rian Johnson-directed Episode VIII on the horizon. It’s safe to say that the era of Star Wars is back, and it’s here to stay.
Despite Star Wars’ mass popularity and utter dominance in the box office, every fan would agree that no film is created equal. From AT-AT Walkers to midi-chlorians, it is no stretch to say that even Star Wars has its ups and downs.
From The Phantom Menace to The Force Awakens, I have ranked all seven episodes of the Star Wars saga as objectively as possible. Each film will be considered under the following criteria:
- Plot Pacing and Structure
- Writing / Dialogue
- Entertainment Value
- Overall Quality of Production
With no further ado, I present: the definitive power ranking of every existing Star Wars film (so far), from worst to best.
Note: This ranking excludes holiday specials, all Ewok adventures, and the 2008 animated Clone Wars film.
7. Episode II: Attack of the Clones
Maybe the reason Attack of the Clones wasn’t nearly as ridiculed initially was because Episode I had already set the bar too low. Do not misunderstand me: this movie is still pretty bad. Deciding whether The Phantom Menace or Attack of the Clones was the worst film in the Star Wars series is a debate between fans as old as time. Alright, it’s really only as old as 2002, but its still hard to get a true consensus. While constructing my ranking, I had no such problem.
For a wide variety of reasons, Attack of the Clones can be safely argued as the worst film in the saga.
Visually, Attack of the Clones is inferior to all other six movies in the series. After ditching real locations and opting for blue and green screens, Attack of the Clones struggles to distinguish itself from a video game. Part of the genius of the original Star Wars trilogy was the sense of escapism that it offered to viewers. While it’s evident that the original three movies took place in a universe long ago in a galaxy far, far away, the events, locations, and characters felt like they could really exist. Rather than create a world that viewers can get lost and indulge in, Attack of the Clones laughs in the face of the original trilogy’s realism, and fails to offer even a single CGI-free shot in the movie (No, this isn’t hyperbole. Lucas and the production crew have confirmed that there are literally zero shots without digital effects.). Don’t get me wrong, I have no problem with using computer-generated effects to enhance a movie. Where Episode II fails, however, is that it does not use CGI to augment the film. Rather, the CGI comprises the film. While Attack of the Clones deserves some credit for being a breakthrough in the area of digital filmmaking, these visuals are in no way a substitute for a compelling plot or engaging characters.
Next, there is hardly any action until the last 30 minutes of the movie, and when there is action, it often feels ridiculous. Am I the only one who never wanted to see Yoda wield a lightsaber? Episode V introduced everyone’s favorite green Jedi (sorry, Kit Fisto) as a wise and eccentric guide who was skilled in the lesser-known nuances of the Force. He’s small and uses a cane to walk, but his ability to use the Force is unaffected by his stature. Then in Episode II, Yoda’s character takes a complete 180 degree turn, and he’s suddenly bouncing around the Geonosis hangar like Sonic the Hedgehog. Why does he need the cane, again?
Further, take the arena battle on the red rock planet of Geonosis for example. The grand strategy of the galaxy’s professional peace-keepers is to round up forty Jedi and cluster them up into a huddle back-to-back of each other, allowing themselves to be surrounded by battle droids. For the next five to seven minutes of the movie, these Jedi effortlessly and flawlessly deflect every single shot fired at them until their clone army arrives. Shortly after, Anakin confronts Trade Federation leader, Count Dooku, and comically threatens, “You’re going to pay for all the Jedi that you’ve killed today, Dooku.” Did anyone revise the script for this movie?
This brings me to my next point: the script is abysmal. From vague, cryptic, and ultimately meaningless revelations from Yoda to the utter lack of rapport between any characters, Attack of the Clones has the worst script of any of the Star Wars films. What the writing team of Episode II failed to realize was that in order to make the rise and fall of their hero truly tragic, he must actually be great to begin with. Rather than capitalizing on an opportunity to demonstratively explain why Anakin is the great chosen one, we are simply told of his valiant endeavors.
Most disturbingly of all, Episode II’s script doomed the central love story of the prequel trilogy before it even took off. No matter how hard we try, we can’t rid our minds of Anakin and Padmé’s awful romance plot. Over the course of all grueling 142 minutes of Episode II, the writers managed to sneak in every romantic dialogue cliché in the book. Actually, wait—there are some unique lines. At one point in the film’s incessant dialogue, Anakin tells Padmé while caressing her arm, “I don’t like sand. It’s coarse and rough and irritating, and it gets everywhere.” There’s a George Lucas love scene original.
This isn’t to say that Episode II is without its redeeming qualities. I did buy into the Obi-Wan space detective plot line, and his battle with Jango Fett on Kamino is actually very entertaining. Obi-Wan’s adventure throughout the galaxy was reminiscent of the film noir era, and Ewan McGregor embodied the role of the young Jedi very well. Even though they’re only in the movie for a cumulative 25 minutes or so, Christopher Lee and Samuel L. Jackson are both fantastic in their respective roles of Count Dooku and Mace Windu.
Unlike its predecessor, The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones actually has a discernible plot. Also unlike Episode I, it’s a plot that, despite its poor execution, is actually a fairly important addition to the series narrative. We get answers to questions about what Darth Vader was like as a teenager. What drove him to the dark side? How did he cope with the loss of his mother? How does he feel about the texture of sand?
All in all, Attack of the Clones was the worst entry in the Star Wars universe, and is probably the only truly bad movie of the series.
6. Episode I: The Phantom Menace
Until 1999, Star Wars was untouchable. Teeming with possibility and back under the reign of series creator, George Lucas, fans were ecstatic to watch the dramatic rise and fall of cinema’s greatest villain, Darth Vader. Yet when Episode I released in theaters, it received immeasurable amounts of backlash from fans of the original trilogy. Why? The movie is devoid of tension. At no point in the film do viewers ever feel as if there are stakes behind the hefty number of battles and skirmishes, and its ending is unsatisfying despite a handful of commendable performances on behalf of Obi-Wan, Qui-Gon, and Darth Maul.
Before I get into bashing the movie’s painfully obvious flaws, let me first give Episode I credit for what it did right (because frankly, it’s quicker to count the things that aren’t wrong with it than to count the things that are). Although he ended up not making it, Darth Maul was still one of the most entertaining opponents the Jedi Knights encountered. Wielding a double-ended lightsaber and a slew of unpredictable martial arts maneuvers, the face-painted Sith apprentice gave us one of the most acrobatic lightsaber fights of the whole series. On top of Ray Park’s depiction of Maul, Liam Neeson and Ewan McGregor gave us strong performances as Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi. Additionally, the podrace sequence was, at the very least, a refreshing break from talks of midi-chlorian counts.
And now, the bad. George Lucas had a severe lack of accountability in the creation of the prequel trilogy, and The Phantom Menace exhibits this fact as well as any movie. From Jar Jar Binks’s unlovable antics to the overt, ineffective religious symbolism thrown at viewers, Episode I is one of the more tedious installments to re-watch.
Episode I’s most commonly criticized problems are those that lie on the surface level. With The Phantom Menace, George Lucas expanded the Star Wars universe in many ways. While a handful of gorgeous new planets were introduced in the prequel trilogy’s first installment, a handful of underwhelming new (and old, but further explained) characters, villains, and technology were introduced alongside them as well.
In comparison to the stormtroopers of the original trilogy, battle droids may as well be inanimate statues with targets painted on them. This is saying a lot, too, as stormtroopers weren’t exactly known for their astounding competence. Every scene that the Jedi knights slice through the beige, rail-thin robots like cardboard cutouts feels like a glow stick show intended to distract the viewers from how utterly inept the droids are at… well anything, really. This lack of intimidating opposition from the Trade Federation drastically lowered the stakes of Episode I, making the film not nearly as resonant as it could have been.
The character of Anakin Skywalker is another one of The Phantom Menace’s most glaring flaws. I hate to place the blame on 11-year-old actor, Jake Lloyd, for the problems with Anakin Skywalker in this movie, so I won’t, but I have to at least throw some shade at his cringe-inducing delivery of the infamous “Yippee!” before I continue. Oh, where to even start? How about Anakin being written to be some ten years younger than his future wife-to-be? Maybe the ridiculously overdone “prodigal-son-leaves-home-of poverty-to-become-the-chosen-one-of-his-kind” path George Lucas chose to take? Heck, let’s even throw in a vote for the writers feeling it was absolutely imperative for C-3PO to be built by Darth Vader. I’m never quite sure where to begin, but Anakin’s character was essentially written as a walking cliché in Episode I — an issue rooted so deep that not even less-than-decent child acting can take the blame for.
Next, I won’t even devote a whole paragraph to the world’s most recognizable Gungan. Rather, I think it would suffice to simply say that he is objectively series’ worst character. The “Jar Jar Binks is awful” horse is already dead, so I won’t beat it any further than the last decade and a half already has, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t speak pejoratively about that computer-generated, duck-faced buffoon at least once.
One large, yet often overlooked, problem Episode I has is its portrayal of the Force. In the original trilogy, the Force was a mysterious, all-encompassing presence that bound the galaxy together. We saw our main character, a farmer boy, discover and learn to tame this tremendous power and eventually dismantle the Galactic Empire. In The Phantom Menace, however, the ability to use the Force is reduced to merely having a high enough count of certain life forms in your bloodstream. Are you kidding, George?
The main reason The Phantom Menace manages to edge out Attack of the Clones is because it still had a Star Wars vibe to it. George Lucas hadn’t completely abandoned real sets, the characters had adventures in stranded desert planets, and of the three prequels, it matches the tone of the original trilogy the closest. More than anything, Episode I isn’t strictly bad — it’s just irredeemably boring. Even from the opening crawl, our first glimpse into the pre-Empire world is the exhilarating drama of… the taxation of trade routes.
Is the reputation The Phantom Menace gets justified? Maybe not entirely. The level of vitriol Episode I received could have partially been a byproduct of the 16 years of waiting fans had to endure before being granted the next installment in the series. Taken alone as an action movie aside from the Star Wars universe, The Phantom Menace isn’t that bad. As part of the Star Wars saga, however, Episode I — along with its subsequent counterpart — stick out like a sore thumb in a catalog of otherwise great films.
5. Episode III : Revenge of the Sith
Revenge of the Sith is a hard film to rank. It’s head and shoulders above the other two prequels, and as entertaining as it is, still doesn’t manage to make it out of the second tier of Star Wars films.
The prequel trilogy is the story of the fall of Anakin Skywalker and his transformation into the infamous Darth Vader. Episode III is the grand culmination of this story, and for what it’s worth, is actually a fairly rewarding conclusion to an otherwise lackluster trilogy.
It has flaws, no doubt. Despite featuring an exciting concept of a four-armed droid trained in the Jedi arts, General Grievous — who often borderlines Wile E. Coyote levels of “villainy” — was ultimately a wasted character. Hayden Christensen and Natalie Portman’s wooden dialogue outweighs their performances, regardless of their talent and the effort they clearly gave in attempt to overcome it. And as impressive as the duel between master and apprentice was on Mustafar, the excessive choreography and obnoxious number of backflips each dueler performed detracted from the emotional pull the battle should have carried.
That being said, Revenge of the Sith still excels in many areas. Beginning with a thrilling and visually impressive space battle, Episode III comes out swinging as it makes its way into the dramatic collapse of the Republic. Despite some questionable pacing and uneven unfolding of the film’s various plot lines, a facet Revenge of the Sith can safely boast about is its vastly improved visual effects.
Additionally, nearly every character hits their stride in the trilogy’s third entry.
Starting with the movie’s major characters, Hayden Christensen (sort of) breaks through the whiny, angst-afflicted teen version of Anakin Skywalker that we saw in the previous film, and absolutely nails the evil, malefic facial expressions in the second half of the movie; even when he doesn’t necessarily act the part, he sure does look the part. Additionally, Christensen has far more on-screen chemistry with both Ewan McGregor and Natalie Portman than in the previous film, which adds emotional weight to the movie’s (and their relationships’) tragic ending.
While his other two performances were fantastic on their own, Ewan McGregor fully embodies the classic Obi-Wan Kenobi persona in Episode III, complete with witty, soundbite quips and Alec Guiness-esque mannerisms. For all the flaws the prequel trilogy endured, McGregor’s accurate portrayal of the iconic Jedi is a bright spot that not even the movies’ laughable dialogue can extinguish.
Finally, we receive a spectacular performance from the incomparable Ian McDiarmid as Palpatine throughout all of Episode III. The “phantom menace” finally revealed, McDiarmid delivers a performance that its source material, Episode VI, would be proud of, and the hair-raising scenes of persuasion with his soon-to-be apprentice make Anakin’s turn to the dark side all the more convincing.
Among the notable minor characters, Samuel L. Jackson shines as the cynical and unforgiving Jedi Master, Mace Windu, and Christopher Lee gives another stellar, albeit brief, performance as Count Dooku.
While action and Machiavellian puppetry are in place throughout the movie, something from Revenge of the Sith always feels missing, and it may not even entirely be its fault. It’s true that Episode III is riddled with the consequences of Lucas’s missteps in the construction of Episodes I and II, but the film still simply feels rushed — an unfortunate realization considering this movie is assigned probably the largest chunk of the overall plot of any of the Star Wars films. While George Lucas can be commended for finally finding his footing in the direction of the trilogy’s third film, it often feels as if the events in Episode III happened simply because they had to in order for Episodes IV, V, and VI to take place. Taken individually, sequences like the execution of Order 66 and Anakin’s ominous return to the Jedi temple are great, but they feel like a significant jump in pace considering how recently ago Anakin and Obi-Wan were making “loose-wire” jokes in the elevator of General Grievous’s ship.
Among the seven currently existing films, Revenge of the Sith is the most confusing, but it’s just as certainly the most undervalued.
4. Episode VI: Return of the Jedi
The final, Richard Marquand-directed installment in George Lucas’s original trilogy lands smack in the middle of the Star Wars episode power ranking. While it still outperforms all three prequel films, Return of the Jedi is the weakest episode of the original trilogy. Let’s not mince words, however. This in no way makes it a bad film.
Starting with the rescue mission of Han Solo from Jabba the Hutt’s palace on Tatooine, Episode VI provides an opening that is simultaneously suspenseful and fairly amusing at the same time. Whether it’s Princess Leia chained to a giant slug in a room full of aliens or a traumatized Rancor keeper crying over the loss of his pet, Jabba’s palace is one of those moments that is “so crazy it works”.
Later on, Luke returns to Dagobah just in time for the eye-watering death of Yoda, while the rest of the rebels set up for battle on Endor. It is at this point the major flaw of Return of the Jedi comes in: a good third of the movie is filler. This isn’t to say it’s bad, per se, but no real stakes are attached to the battle. We all are waiting to see Luke vs. Vader again, and considering some five of the main characters are all in the same boat of Ewok captivity, there’s no real question as to whether they’re going to make it out alive.
I also want to get this out of the way: no, the Ewoks are not that bad. Are the Ewoks cool? Sure. Are they as cool as they were when I was eight? Eh. Yes, it’s a little implausible that a ragtag group of teddy bears could take down a professionally trained squad of Imperial scout troopers. I get it. However, furry innocence trumps logic, and the Ewoks are still adept enough at slingshotting rocks that it’s believable.
One facet of Return of the Jedi that stings upon re-watches is that it mitigates certain personalities for the sake of tying up character arcs nicely. Princess Leia loses a good portion of her incendiary feistiness from the first two films. Han Solo is recast as a humbler, mellower shell of the no-holds-barred smuggler we were introduced to in the Cantina. Could these qualify as the legitimate completion of three movies worth of character development? Perhaps, but the transitions simply occur too quickly, or without enough attention devoted to the characters’ changes, to be convincing.
Following the good-not-great second act of Episode VI, we finally get the climactic ending to the original trilogy. Luke fights the urge to turn to the dark side despite the Emperor’s tempting persuasion (how great is Ian McDiarmid, by the way?), Luke gets one last showdown with Vader, and the man behind the mask is finally revealed as Anakin Skywalker is redeemed. From the moment where Luke looks down at Vader’s dismembered hand and then looks at his own to the triumphant declaration, “I am a Jedi, like my father before me.”, the final act of Return of the Jedi is just fantastic filmmaking.
Episode VI is a film of pure entertainment, and gives a satisfying end to the dramatic original Star Wars trilogy.
3. Episode VII : The Force Awakens
As a millennial growing up on theatrical VHS versions of the original trilogy and not old enough to ever view one of the first six canonical films in theater, The Force Awakens was my first Star Wars experience on the big screen. From minute 1 to 136, one thought raced through my mind that I hadn’t felt about new material from the franchise in years: “This is Star Wars.”
From the eye-popping chase of the Millennium Falcon through a crashed Star Destroyer on Jakku to a lightsaber duel on the beautifully constructed snowy forest set, The Force Awakens excels past all of its six predecessors on a visual level, and hits home on the classic nostalgia of the original trilogy. Hats off to J.J. Abrams.
Marking the first true female lead character in the Star Wars universe, Daisy Ridley — who was acting in her first major film role, may I add — is nothing short of spectacular in the role of Rey. Ridley maximizes the already great material given to her in the script as the intrepid scavenger turned invaluable Rebllion fighter, while also accentuating Rey’s most compelling character traits.
Working alongside Rey is renegade stormtrooper FN-2187 (or, Finn), who steals the show as the film’s most entertaining supporting character. In a mere two minutes in a TIE fighter cockpit with Rebellion fighter, Poe Dameron, the duo establishes more rapport and chemistry than Anakin and Obi-Wan managed to in two whole movies. With an energy and spirit that the prequels were so devoid of, Finn’s character gives us a refreshing change of pace from some of the lifeless Star Wars characters written over the previous fifteen years.
Rounding out the cluster of new major characters is Star Wars’s latest mask-wearing bad guy, Kylo Ren. Would it be too audacious to say Ren is the series’s most intriguing villain thus far? I certainly don’t think so. While Darth Vader has become nearly synonymous with evil, Kylo Ren defies the villain archetype by giving us insight into the prerequisite stages of villainy — frustration (or more accurately, borderline petulancy) and confusion.
One of the main criticisms Episode VII receives is that it felt like a fan service film. Frankly, I don’t care — I was the fan that it was servicing. Is The Force Awakens dependent on the plot structure of Episode IV? Sure. Does the “spherical, planet-destroying-super-weapon-getting-blown-up-from-the-inside-out-by-rebels” plot feel recycled at times? Perhaps. But do The Force Awakens’ expertly crafted new characters and rejuvenation of the franchise make up for these? Absolutely.
This was the movie J.J. Abrams was put on the earth to make. To say he exceeded expectations would be an understatement.
2. Episode IV : A New Hope
Call it Episode IV. Call it A New Hope. Call it whatever you want — ultimately, it’s Star Wars, and it’s absolutely incredible. From as early as the golden Star Wars logo triumphantly floats through space to the immaculately composed John Williams theme, viewers know that the 1977 original is something special.
As I write this, I know some fans are already throwing tomatoes at me for not slotting this as #1. I’ll concede a little: in many ways Star Wars is a better film than The Empire Strikes Back. Its cultural impact is undeniable, revolutionizing not only imaginative special effects, but the sci-fi genre as a whole. Episode IV also works better as a standalone movie, whereas Episode V is largely dependent on the world creation its predecessor set up for it. It has a more cohesive start to finish plot line, versus Empire’s side-by-side unfolding of various, tenuously linked plots. Finally, it has the most interaction between the main characters of any of the three original trilogy installments. For those of you shaking your head and saying this one trumps its sequel, I won’t argue with you.
The most brilliant and groundbreaking aspect of Star Wars is its ability to create worlds that genuinely feel real. Watch a handful of any other critically acclaimed sci-fi movies, and what do you notice? Everything is shiny, clean, sleek, and metallic (looking at you, Star Trek). Star Wars, conversely, takes place on the frontier. It’s dirty, there are smugglers, and there are bars on desert planets where people chop each others’ arms off. Essentially, it’s a space western. As much as a movie taking place on different planets can, it feels like it could really happen.
Additionally, John Williams knocks it out of the park with the soundtrack many regard as his crowning achievement. From Tatooine’s mesmerizing binary sunset to the Throne Room ceremony on Yavin, Episode IV’s soundtrack never fails to immerse viewers into the Star Wars universe.
Beginning with the merry misadventures of R2-D2 and C-3PO and ending with the climactic destruction of the terrifying Death Star, Star Wars delivers in nearly every aspect, and spearheaded one of history’s most monumental franchises.
George Lucas’ original brainchild may not be the best of the Star Wars films, but it is certainly the greatest.
1. Episode V : The Empire Strikes Back
How could #1 belong to anything else? Okay, well it could actually also belong to Star Wars, but given the criteria listed above, it can be argued safely that The Empire Strikes Back is the best entry in the series.
Narratively, Episode V is unparalleled by any other movie in the saga. Star Wars was the bringing together of many characters to achieve one goal (often without a central protagonist). In Episode IV, Luke is left with no choice but to leave his home planet with Ben Kenobi, Han got signed up for more than he bargained for, and Leia is playing “Escape from the Death Star”. For that matter, Darth Vader isn’t even the main bad guy, as we see him reporting to Grand Moff Tarkin.
On the other hand, The Empire Strikes Back is a film that is far more confident in the direction of its characters. Each character has a clear motivation that propels them over the course of the movie. Luke, who is now the clear central protagonist, is training to become a Jedi. Leia is leading the rebels to take down the Empire, and Han is sticking around for Leia. Vader transforms from the menacing, yet not invincible villain to the cinema’s most recognizable icon of evil. Additionally, the characters spend a lot of time in isolation from each other, which allows them to undergo personal arcs that previously weren’t allowed. Nearly all of the plot lines are rooted in characters’ personal struggles, which is why the impact of Episode V resonates with viewers more than any other movie.
Empire is also the first film where we see the full nature of the Force. In Star Wars, our first glimpses of the energy field that surrounds, penetrates, and binds us all together consist of Obi-Wan’s Jedi mind tricks, Luke’s ability to deflect blaster shots through a vision-inhibiting helmet, and the final shot into the exhaust port to blow up the Death Star. As impressive as those are, they never reflect the Force’s full power. In the words of Han Solo, they could appear to be “simple tricks and nonsense”.
In Episode V, however, we see Luke use the Force to retrieve a lightsaber out of frozen ice no later than 15 minutes into the movie, and we watch Darth Vader mercilessly throw pieces of machinery during his duel with Luke, simply by moving his arm slightly upward or downward. The most incredible “Force moment”, however, is in the sequence of training scenes on Dagobah. After Luke has given up all hope of lifting his ship out of the water, we see Yoda effortlessly and silently command the X-Wing to rise. Watching this scene for the first time was an out-of-body experience. A 3-foot tall, Frank Oz-voiced puppet lifting a massive space fighter from the swampy water using no more than a single hand? It was incredible. This is the moment viewers realize that this is no set of gimmicky tricks. This is the Force.
Another reason why The Empire Strikes Back succeeds as the best film in the franchise is because it is unafraid to let its characters fail. Rewatch Episode V with this perspective and you’ll realize a jarring truth: there isn’t one time in which the good guys record a victory in this movie. The rebels lose the magnificently filmed Hoth battle and end up fleeing (directly into a fleet of Star Destroyers, that is), Han is betrayed by his friend and subsequently frozen in carbonite, and Luke is dominated by Vader in their duel. The dark nature of Empire provides a new dimension to the standard good-versus-evil theme that the rest of the films assume.
Finally — and I could write an entire paper on this mere eight minutes — we have Luke vs. Darth Vader on Cloud City. This is the best lightsaber duel in the series, and I’m not accepting any other arguments. It starts with a spine-chilling taunt from Vader, “You are not a Jedi yet.”, escalates hauntingly through Vader’s exploitation of Luke’s shortcomings, and ends with the most climactic and iconic declarative sentence in cinema history (sorry, Gone with the Wind): “No, I am your father.” The cinematography, the stakes, the dialogue, the fighting itself — this duel is the greatest sequence of the entire saga.
The Empire Strikes Back is the Greek tragedy of Star Wars. It’s twisted, it’s unpredictable, and it’s romantic because it doesn’t have time to be. From start to finish, The Empire Strikes Back is a masterpiece in every conceivable way, and completes the power ranking at the #1 spot.
Agree? Disagree? Leave your input in the comment box below.