A ‘Star Wars’ Retrospective: Episodes I-IX Ranked

"The Rise of Skywalker," which debuted in the U.S. Dec. 20, constituted the end of the nine-part Skywalker saga. Photo via Wikipedia

Every movie in the “Star Wars” franchise starts with an opening text crawl. It informs the viewer of the basic information they need to be able to drop into the story. This block of text will serve that function in homage to the saga.

Anticipating the release of “The Rise of Skywalker,” I rewatched every “Star Wars” movie to create a definitive ranking of all the movies culminating in a mini-review of Episode IX. I am a lifelong fan of “Star Wars”; when I was five, I wanted to be an astronaut because I thought if you stayed in space long enough, they promoted you to a Jedi.

In the interest of brevity, I’ve excluded “Rogue One” and “Solo” to focus solely on what has come to be known as “The Skywalker Saga”; this list serves as a definitive ranking of Episodes I-IX and is based solely on my opinion. I love these movies but am selective about which ones I take seriously. Spoilers are included, except for Episode IX.  

Without further ado, here’s the list:

  1. Episode II — Attack of the Clones

“Attack of the Clones” is the most overbloated entry in the “Star Wars” series. Dripping melodrama is sandwiched between stale, hollow action scenes to produce the one “Star Wars” movie I would describe as a test of endurance. The writing, particularly of the romantic scenes between Padme Amidala and Anakin Skywalker, is uniquely terrible, often saccharine and written like a Harlequin romance novel. Hayden Christensen’s delivery of these lines makes it a double whammy, although I think some blame lies in George Lucas’ directing. Where the action in other films feels seamless and vivacious, here it feels fake and inconsequential. You would be hard-pressed to find an iota of subtlety in the entire film.

This movie does have some saving graces. Ewan McGregor continues to carry this trilogy as Obi-Wan Kenobi, and his subplot pursuing Jango Fett is the only reprieve we get in the first hour of the film. Once our heroes reach Geonosis, we do at least see some spectacular visuals as the entire Jedi Order descends into a gladiator pit, also known as the greatest moment of my 4-year-old life. And when Yoda arrives with the clone armies … the film verges on being a worthwhile watch.

  1. Episode IX — The Rise of Skywalker

I refer to the previous entry on this list, “Attack of the Clones,” as the most overbloated entry in the saga. This movie gives it a run for its money.

Given its proximity to release, I’ll refrain from discussing major plot points at length. I will say, however, that this movie has one of the weakest storylines in the entirety of the franchise. From the opening text crawl, I was already wondering what the point of this movie was. J.J. Abrams shoehorns a trilogy’s worth of content into a story already precariously balanced in its previous installments, haphazardly throwing Darth Sidious back into the canon and making the entire movie about stopping him. Instead of tying up loose ends from Episodes 7 and 8, Abrams opted to get an entirely new string. This leaves the conclusion of the sequel trilogy, and the saga as a whole, feeling anticlimactic.

“The Rise of Skywalker” has its moments of triumph and even made me laugh a few times unironically. But its ballet of laser swords and lightning strikes fell flat of making me really feel something. The action is serviceable, but it is not motivated or purposeful. The actors nail the swan song performances for many of their characters. But the story feels rushed and unrefined, begging the question of how necessary another ending was to the “Star Wars” saga.

  1. Episode I — The Phantom Menace

There’s a scene in “The Phantom Menace” where Jar-Jar Binks walks into a room full of astromech droids (e.g. R2-D2) at the start of a major space battle and loudly exclaims, “Hey-o, boys!” This is the best five seconds in the entire “Star Wars” canon if you let it be. I am still incredulous that it exists.

For many fans, “The Phantom Menace” represents the beginning of the end, the opening chapter to a prequel trilogy mired in stilted dialogue and an oft-incomprehensible story involving trade routes and Midichlorians. There are several shots of Jar-Jar Binks simply reacting to events in the plot that traffic equally in superfluity and stupidity. The movie has its share of flaws.

Despite all of that, I can’t help but enjoy it.

This is a complicated movie; for all its dumb moments, there are some genuinely great ones, too. The effects and action scenes are fluid and exciting — the showdown between Darth Maul and the Jedi holds up as one of the saga’s best lightsaber duels. The dynamic between Liam Neeson’s Qui-Gon Jinn and Ewan McGregor’s Obi-Wan Kenobi is an absolute delight. The story is brisk and packs the journey with tough choices and consequences, making even the flattest character just slightly compelling.

It’s not high art nor great cinema, but if you know what to expect and don’t take it too seriously, it’s pretty entertaining.

  1. Episode VII — The Force Awakens

My first thought when I watched “The Force Awakens” was, “Wow, that was pretty good!” My second thought, which arrived quickly, was, “Does George Lucas know J.J. Abrams copied his homework?”

On its head, I’m sure that seems like a sharp criticism — because it is — but I thoroughly enjoyed this movie. The characters in this movie are refreshing, with my favorites being Daisy Ridley’s Rey and Oscar Isaac’s Poe Dameron, who each have their share of great moments through the runtime. Of course, it was also good to be reacquainted with the original characters, with Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford seeming to not lose a step in their old space shoes.

The dialogue continues to be a major sticking point for me, as it sometimes feels too loose and topical and reminds you that this was filmed in a studio in Burbank and not in a galaxy far, far away. The movie looks fantastic and has excellent visual effects. I still get chills every time I see the X-wings skimming across the water.

Back to my original point: As great as this movie is, it still disappoints me a bit. “Star Wars” is a franchise that should take you places that you’ve never been before. Exploration and adventure are the foundation for any good Star Wars story, and I don’t think this movie truly delivers that. Abrams and Kathleen Kennedy had a chance to blow the minds of a whole new generation of fans with this movie; instead, they played it safe and retold “A New Hope” on different planets. It’s still a blast, but I’ve seen this one before.

  1. Episode VIII — The Last Jedi

My honest gut reaction to this film as I walked out of the theater was, “Huh. Interesting.” Not necessarily good or bad. Just … interesting.

“The Last Jedi” somehow surpassed all the prequels to become the most beleaguered installment in the franchise. People loathed this movie, and it would be unfair to disregard some of the valid criticisms against it. It’s not a perfect film. It takes Luke Skywalker’s character in a direction of which many disapproved. I could have done without Canto Bight for the most part. The porgs were annoying. Leia’s “Mary Poppins” moment was when “Star Wars” “jumped the shark.”

To that I say, “good.”

“Star Wars” is 42 years old this year. They’re still making movies and video games and TV shows about it. Frankly, a 42-year-old franchise that has not “jumped the shark” yet is a franchise experiencing stagnation (see my thoughts on the Force Awakens for context). “The Last Jedi” was a necessary growing pain so that we did not get another reprint of the original trilogy. For better or worse, I’m glad it exists.

And on its own merits, I can say it is a solid film. The dynamic between Rey and Kylo Ren holds the entire thing together as one of the most intriguing relationships in the saga. The space action in this film is jaw-dropping, particularly one scene involving hyperspace and a fleet of ships that made the jeering crowd around me go silent. For the most part, this film is worth your time.

They say people either love or hate this movie. I suppose that makes me an outlier, because I appreciate it for what it is despite its many flaws. Time will tell how this movie will be remembered, but I’ll remember it fondly.

  1. Episode VI — Return of the Jedi

“Return of the Jedi” is the original trilogy movie that has the most to say but doesn’t quite know how to say it. The plot of the movie meanders quite a bit; the Jabba’s Palace scenes build and culminate as a sort of casino-heist thriller, the Endor scenes give us perhaps more Ewoks than we bargained for and we spend a lot of time watching Leia, Han and Chewie trying to blow up a shield generator.

All of this seems secondary to the main story, which is Luke going to confront his father. This is greater than just another lightsaber duel; it’s more cosmic than that. That story is articulated beautifully as the battle for Darth Vader’s soul, a redemption story that fulfills a prophecy that will eventually span two full trilogies.

The real story of “Return of the Jedi” only lasts for about 45 minutes. We didn’t need to blow up another Death Star, we didn’t need to see the Ewoks destroying an AT-ST with some logs and we didn’t need to see Jabba the Hutt get choked out by Princess Leia. But it was fun, and it was more “Star Wars,” so I’d never complain about it. This is a great film. It packs the lightest punch of the original trilogy, right up until Darth Vader takes his helmet off, which is when it becomes a transcendent example of what these movies can be.

  1. Episode III — Revenge of the Sith

“Revenge of the Sith” is pound-for-pound, inch-for-inch, sideline-to-sideline one of the best “Star Wars” movies ever. I can already hear the lamentations: “But it’s a prequel!” Doesn’t matter. This is the crown jewel of the prequel trilogy; nay, of “Star Wars” in the 21st Century.

This film dramatically improves on every shortcoming its predecessors had. The opening 30 minutes of this movie are engaging, as we see Anakin and Obi-Wan hacking their way through waves of battle-droid while R2-D2 is immolating Super Battle Droids in a ship hangar. The action is fresh and packs the bombastic feeling that the Clone Wars should have. The writing is much more solid and very rarely veers into the same hackery we saw in Episode II. Hats off to Hayden Christensen, to whom I would give a “most improved” superlative for his performance in this film. Jar-Jar Binks doesn’t say a word.

The film’s real strength, however, lies in its story. We are witnessing the downfall of Anakin Skywalker, the Jedi Order and the Galactic Republic in this movie. The final confrontation between Obi-Wan and Anakin is the greatest lightsaber battle in “Star Wars”: not just because it looks the best and has an epic scale, but because of the emotion and tragedy behind it. I would be remiss in not mentioning John Williams’ score, which is effervescent in this scene but was also incredible throughout the film.

This movie is grim, bleak, pleasant, hopeful … it’s everything we needed it to be. A bridge between the trilogies. A prequel worthy of the originals.

  1. Star Wars (Episode IV: A New Hope) 

At the center of “Star Wars” is a great paradox. The film benefits from its simplicity, an ability to make the story and characters feel familiar and relatable almost instantly. At the same time, however, it’s incredibly ambitious and tells a galaxy-sprawling space epic that was without precedent and still may be without peer.

That is because among the many other things this film gets right, it places you right in the action. The only information you get is the information you need. This galaxy is expansive and enigmatic, but you only need to know about six people to care about the plot.

By the time the Millennium Falcon reaches the Death Star, we know enough about the major players in the movie that we can kick back and watch the plot unfold. The writing and acting in this film are impeccable, as we immediately gravitate toward goodhearted scoundrels like Han Solo who provide a foil for good-natured farm boy Luke Skywalker. Carrie Fisher is an electric presence as Leia Organa, who immediately starts stealing scenes from our previously established crew.

The only thing this film lacks is the technical polish of the other installments, but it is also proof that all of that is secondary to a great story. What this movie lacks in shiny objects, it makes up for in heart. Much like its protagonist, it has humble beginnings leading to an adventure nobody saw coming.

  1. Episode V — The Empire Strikes Back

By now, you’ve heard me gush about most of these movies, and you’re probably thinking, “Of course he picked ‘Empire.’ Everybody always picks ‘Empire.’ What makes it so special?” Well, I’m glad you asked.

This film takes every aspect of “A New Hope” and cranks it to 11. Our favorite characters are back, and they bring a new sort of magic with them, a presence that makes them feel monumental. The characters have grown since we last saw them and continue to grow as we rejoin them. The stakes are established early on, and the pedal stays at the floor until the end. That asteroid they’re on? It’s actually a giant space worm. Han’s new friend? He’s actually a bad guy. Oh wait, he’s actually a good guy again. The green space puppet talking to Luke? He’s actually the most powerful being to ever live.

One of the main reasons I rank this movie ahead of “A New Hope” is because of Yoda. I cannot overstate what the squat green master brings to this saga, whether it be his humor, his insights on asceticism and detachment, or his wisdom. His introduction in this movie is perfect, and he never overstays his welcome.

Besides all of the things I’ve already mentioned, this movie is simply great. The lightsaber duel between Luke and Vader at the end is an all-timer, and it contains one of the most iconic endings and plot twists ever in the franchise. For all these reasons and more, “The Empire Strikes Back” is my favorite “Star Wars” movie of all time.