So this one’s got a pretty convoluted origin. I started writing it a year and a half ago, after witnessing an insane on-line fan-rage argument over The Last Jedi, months after it came out. I got pretty far into my rankings, but abandoned it for… reasons I don’t remember. It’s been sitting on my hard drive ever since, though, waiting for me to come back to it. Which I did this week, after seeing Knives Out, the new murder mystery flick from Rian Johnson, director of Last Jedi (and other, even better films). In discussing that movie with friends, the subject of Johnson’s Star Wars work inevitably came up, which in turn got me thinking about Star Wars again. And so… Here we are! With a new Star Wars movie coming later this month, I thought it might be an appropriate time to publicly rank my favorite Star Wars movies (it DOES say “dork” right there on the masthead, after all).
So here you go: The Official Dork Forty Ranking of the Star Wars Movies! Enjoy if you can, disagree all you want, and debate to your heart’s content.
As always, it’s just one dork’s opinion, after all…
1. Star Wars
The first is still the best. Though I didn’t always think so.
For years, The Empire Strikes Back held that spot for me. Star Wars didn’t edge it out until I watched all the films again a couple of years ago. But on that most recent viewing, I came to appreciate the original film for its idiosyncrasies. Since it hadn’t invented the sci-fi blockbuster yet, it’s still a movie very much in the spirit of 1970s independent filmmaking. Sure, there’s all the special effects adventure dogfights and what have you, but it’s also a seriously weird, low-fi sort of film that’s not afraid to get its hands dirty. Han Solo (in spite of George Lucas’ protestations to the contrary) REALLY IS the kind of guy who’d shoot first. Ben Kenobi slices off a dude’s arm in a bar fight! Princess Leia is tortured with hypodermic needles! The Sand People are FREAKING TERRIFYING! No other film in the series reaches this level of pulpiness, and I love it for that.
I also love it for its healthy cynicism. While this is certainly a film that holds up the heroic ideal, its heroes do not suffer from false nobility. They’re realists and skeptics for the most part; even Jedi Knight Ben Kenobi knows how to deal with people in the “wretched hive of scum and villainy” that is Mos Eisley spaceport, and Han Solo is an outright cynic. That attitude is refreshing, and goes a long was toward easing the audience into the film’s wider world of epic good vs evil struggles.
It’s filled with big personalities, too, living breathing characters who come off as real even if they don’t get much in the way of proper character development. Princess Leia is brassy, a brave rebel leader shoved uncomfortably into the role of damsel in distress. It swiftly becomes apparent that she’s more competent than her rescuers, and she doesn’t let them forget it. The bickering that results not only provides comic relief, it also brings the cast to life. We know these people, and we like them, and that’s a large part of the film’s lasting appeal. Without that, it’s a bunch of cool-looking masks and weird spaceships, something you can get from any number of otherwise-forgettable sci-fi adventures. Star War does it better, and that’s why it endures.
2. Rogue One
It’s hard to believe that it took 40 years for them to make a Star Wars war movie (I mean, it’s in the freaking title!). But they finally got around to it, and the result is pretty great. Second-on-the-list great. Funny, grim, and packed with memorable characters, Rogue One feels, more than any of the other sequels, like the natural heir to the original film. It has a weird, dangerous edge of a type that too often gets filed off these movies in the name of mass audience popularity or, worse, rose-colored nostalgia.
But not this one. It takes place in a desperate, morally-compromised world. A Dark Side world. A world where even good men shoot first, and those who would fight against tyranny are forced into terrible decisions. It deals with the difference between terrorists and freedom-fighters. It demands noble sacrifice in the name of good. And it gives us a cast of characters so engaging that it really hurts when they make that sacrifice.
Truth be told, though, I had a very difficult time deciding whether or not to rank this film above The Empire Strikes Back. It’s a more flawed film. The final act is just kind of broken. The core mission becomes pointlessly convoluted, taking far too long and distracting our attention from the great war drama that’s playing out all around it. Empire doesn’t have problems like that. But after a lot of soul-searching (again… DORK!) I really do think I like Rogue One more. It just has more punch, more of those rough edges that make me love Star Wars so much. And that puts it over the top.
3. The Empire Strikes Back
As I said above, this was my favorite Star Wars film for years, and I’ll admit that it is technically superior to the original. But that professionalism makes it look kind of tame to me now, in comparison. The weirdness of Star Wars, that unsettling tone, isn’t here. This feels more like a movie made by people who know how movies are supposed to work, and who follow those rules to make a polished adventure film. Which is fine. It’s great, even. But if the Star Wars series is a gradual slide toward George Lucas selling out, this is where that process begins for me.
It’s still one hell of a movie, though. If it lacks some of the cynicism and effortless cool of the original, that’s okay. Our Heroes have moved beyond that now, and they’re still large enough personalities to carry us forward with them, their bickering and joking feeling like a visit with old friends. We also learn more about the mysterious world of the Force, get a great new supporting villain in the near-silent bounty hunter Boba Fett, and meet the charming rogue Lando Calrissian. All that’s just set-up, though, backdrop for the shocking revelation that arch-villain Darth Vader is actually (SPOILER!) Luke Skywalker’s father. That one piece of information suddenly throws everything we know about the Jedi into confusion, and alongside it, we get a great cliffhanger ending that leaves Our Heroes in a pretty dark place. It’s great stuff, rousing entertainment that leaves you dying (DYING!) to see the next installment.
So of course, that’s not where I’m going next with the list…
4. The Last Jedi
A controversial placement for this film, to be sure. The nerd rage incited by The Last Jedi boggles my mind. I mean… As a comics fan, I’m more than familiar with pissy fanboys getting upset over nothing. But, my god! Discuss Last Jedi in the wrong corner of the internet, and people lose their damn minds! And they’re still doing it, nearly two years after it hit theaters! And I just don’t get it.
I mean, sure. It’s not perfect. The casino sequence goes on too long, and that stuff with the space horses is pretty corny. But overall, from my perspective, Last Jedi is a refreshing, creative approach to the Star Wars series. It upsets our expectations, puncturing the overly-reverent tone of the previous film by focusing on Our Heroes’ flaws, and letting them learn hard lessons from their mistakes.
This is the thing that makes so many people so very angry, I think, but Johnson’s choices make a lot of sense to me. I find the idea of Luke Skywalker losing his faith, for instance, absolutely fascinating. And that scene of him tossing Anakin’s lightsaber over his shoulder like it means nothing to him? Brilliant. Because why the hell would he want that thing? Anakin killed a room full of toddlers with it, for god’s sake!
No, seriously… I really like that moment because of how deftly it serves two purposes. First, it punctures the weird reverence built up around that lightsaber in the previous movie, setting up the film’s theme that you should let the past die. And it also tells us everything we need to know about Luke’s state of mind in a single moment. Luke wants nothing to do with the Jedi and all their trappings. So when some woman shows up on his hermit-hole planet and thrusts a lightsaber at him, he tosses the thing away and stalks past her, hoping she’ll leave him alone. I’m not even sure he recognized it.
But beyond me being on board for Luke Skywalker’s Crisis of Faith, I just like the way this movie works. It doesn’t spoon-feed every plot point and motivation to us. It hinges on characters we’re conditioned to love being very wrong, and characters it looks like we should resent being very right. It gives us the fascinating situation of having a Dark Side Force user being tempted by the Light, and a Light Side Force user who is disturbingly comfortable in the Dark. My fingers are still crossed for a double-turn in the final film. And Our Heroes are left in such an incredibly dire situation in the end that I can’t imagine how they’re ever going to win.
I CAN’T FREAKING WAIT to see Rise of Skywalker, and that’s something I haven’t felt for a Star Wars movie since the end of The Empire Strikes Back. Which is a pretty good pedigree, as far as I’m concerned.
5. Revenge of the Sith
Having any of the prequels this high on the list is probably enough to make some people stop reading in disgust, right here. But screw those guys. This is a good Star Wars movie.
I’ll grant you, I don’t love it unreservedly. Its flaws are many, and have been outlined in excruciating detail elsewhere. But there’s also a lot to love here. On the visceral thrill level, there’s the opening sequence, a fine adventure romp with a sudden pitch-black twist at the end. The final duel between Obi Wan and Anakin is thrilling, as well, a high-flying sword fight above and around a river of lava! If the drama between the two is over-heated, the action makes up for it. Yoda vs Palpatine in the Senate Chambers is also fun to watch, two evenly-matched foes going at it full-bore, Palpatine reveling in a rare opportunity to wield his power freely.
But pretty much any scene with Ian McDiarmid as Palpatine is pure gold. He’s been pulling the strings of galactic conflict for a decade or two by this point, slowly worming his way into power while he distracts his potential enemies with meaningless ideological strife. His plans are coming to fruition, and he’s clearly enjoying himself. His best scene (among many) is at the opera, where he tempts Anakin to the Dark Side with the story of Darth Plagueous, the poor sap never realizing that he’s hearing the story of his own conception.
But I love Anakin’s turn in general. It’s the culmination of everything that’s happened to him in all three movies, and it really is a grand tragedy. Or rather, it should be. The execution of the first two prequel films is poor enough that it blunts the edge of what should be a very effective story. We follow Anakin from his childhood as a slave, through a damaging and ineffective upbringing in the Jedi Order, to falling in love with an older woman he barely knows, but who looks like a younger, prettier version of the mother he lost and ultimately fails to save from a horrible death. And finally, in this film, we see his growing and not-entirely-unjustified impatience with the Jedi Council blossom into something terrible under the sway of a subtle fascist who appeals to his carefully-cultivated messiah complex, turning him not into the galactic savior he was prophesied to be, but instead into something little better than an attack dog.
If the first two films had been executed as well as this third one (itself still heavily flawed), I think the prequel trilogy would be far more highly regarded, and Revenge of the Sith seen as the diamond in the rough it is. Of course, as things turned out, I’m left defending it on a nerd blog, to the vast indifference of the larger audience.
6. Return of the Jedi
There’s a lot to love in this film. I’ve always been lukewarm on the Jabba’s Palace sequence, but the speeder bike chase is great, as is the stuff with Luke, Vader, and the Emperor. There’s even a few great moments in the Battle of Endor. But, Ewoks. Guh. And then there’s Han Solo, written as an incompetent dumbass who gets kicked off the bridge of his own ship in the second Death Star battle. So on second thought, fuck this movie. Fuck it in the ear.
7. Attack of the Clones
A slowly-paced Jedi mystery story, with one of the most inept romantic sub-plots in movie history. I kinda love the former, with its glacial pacing and weird presentation. The Jedi’s blindness to the possibility that one of them could have gone bad is so myopic that it doesn’t even make sense, at first. But as the reality of their fatal overconfidence sinks in, you start to realize that Palpatine may be doing the galaxy a favor by bringing them down.
I also like the way the film allows the audience to be confused for a while when Obi-Wan gets to the cloning facility, letting the reality of the situation reveal itself without belaboring the explanation. I hesitate to make this comparison (because Attack of the Clones isn’t nearly good enough to truly warrant it), but that sequence has always felt a little like Chinatown to me, at least in that queasy sense that you don’t know exactly what’s going on, but you know it ain’t good.
Christopher Lee also scores points for his big scene here. His temptation of Obi Wan and Anakin, hinting that Qui-Gon Jin saw things his way, is tantalizing, and the kind of thing I wish the prequels had spent more time on.
The rest of the film, unfortunately, is… less well-done. I don’t hate the droid factory sequence as much as some people, but it’s definitely too busy. Likewise, the arena fight at the end is pulpy fun, but not exactly great. And then there’s Anakin and Amidala.
Is this the worst screen romance in Hollywood history? I don’t know, but it’s gotta be in the running. Terrible dialogue, unconvincing attraction, near-zero chemistry between the actors… My god, it’s rotten. But it does give us Anakin’s vicious attack on the Sand People, and that makes up for a lot. His confession that he killed them all, “even the women and children,” is chilling, and it foreshadows that toddler-slaughtering moment from Revenge of the Sith in a way I didn’t see coming.
George Lucas made an awful lot of mistakes in the prequels, but underneath all the suck, he really was trying to construct something interesting. And this film gets extra points because it did a lot of the heavy lifting on that Phantom Story.
8. The Force Awakens
This movie gets a lot of things right. It captures the feel of the original trilogy well, with action and humor and heroes in over their heads. It’s a really good Han Solo movie, too, going a long way toward making up for how poorly he was written in Return of the Jedi. It’s also got good acting, characters with interesting backstories, and satisfyingly grounded practical effects. It’s fun to watch, and I like it.
But I don’t love it. It’s missing something, and I think that something is a soul. While the new characters have those interesting stories, and the actors in those roles do their jobs well, they ultimately lack personality. I get who they are and what they’re about, but I don’t care because nobody does anything to make me care. They’re bland, and that limits my engagement.
The one exception, in hindsight, is Kylo Ren. I know a lot of people gave him crap for being “EmoVader,” but that’s what makes him interesting to me. He’s filled with this impotent rage that we don’t understand until Last Jedi, but what’s really fascinating about him in this film is that he very much wants to be bad, but finds goodness a nearly irresistible temptation. That’s an approach to villainy you don’t often see: someone who treats virtue as sin. And that makes Kylo Ren a lot more than EmoVader.
But beyond that, I’m not really enthralled with The Force Awakens. It’s just a little too slick for my taste. Too safe, too professional, and not idiosyncratic enough. NOTHING in this movie is terrifying, and Han’s still the only guy who’d shoot first. So while it’s perfectly competent filmmaking, it leaves me with very little to love.
9. The Phantom Menace
I actually like a lot of individual things in this movie. Qui-Gon Jin’s a great character, and his lightsaber duel with Maul is good stuff. The pod race is too long, but fun to watch. And it sets up a lot of things that become more interesting in the two later films. All that talk about politics and trade that people found so stultifying, for instance, is actually the plot. It’s how Darth Sidious is driving wedges between the various factions of the Republic that he can later use to shatter it. But because Phantom Menace feels largely like a children’s movie, it’s an odd fit.
It also feels weird and wrong that the Republic allows slavery to flourish in the outer territories, apparently because it doesn’t have the manpower to police the whole galaxy. So the Hutts run Tatooine as a kleptocracy, and even the Jedi can’t really do anything about it. So it’s just this ugly truth that nobody talks about or even, on the surface, seems all that upset over. That’s some pretty heavy stuff to be dealing with in a movie that’s otherwise filled with sight gags, fart jokes, and silly characters with funny voices.
But the silly stuff, let’s face it, is the bulk of the movie. And it’s so annoying that I know five-year-olds who think it’s too much. So, much as I like the stuff in this flick that I like, I find it really hard to sit through to get those things. And that places it near the bottom of the Star Wars heap. But not the very bottom…
You may be wondering how I can seriously rank Solo lower than Phantom Menace. So I’ll tell you: Phantom Menace may be bad, but at least it’s weird and idiosyncratic. It has interesting ideas buried under all the crap. It’s a film that (for better or worse) could only come from George Lucas. Solo, on the other hand, is a naked cash grab. It’s competent, but bland. Merely a product, utterly lacking in any real wit, charm, or creativity. It could be about any character, and it could have been made by anyone. It is everything wrong with modern franchise movie-making.
So, yeah. That’s why it’s at the bottom of the list.
Donald Glover’s really good in it, though…
And that’s all. Honestly, I probably should have waited until Rise of Skywalker came out to do this, just so I could place it in the rankings wherever it ends up. But like I said… It was mostly already written, and I’ve been feeling a bit under the weather the last couple of days. So here it is now. I expect (and indeed hope for) arguments and disagreements. Feel free to post your own rankings if you want. I love that stuff. Even when the opinions don’t match up with mine…