Tier 4…These are the “Star Wars” movies I think are flat-out bad, and have no redeeming qualities.
The Worst: “The Force Awakens”…I know most people seemed to like this movie a lot more than I did, but its commercial and especially critical success is still mystifying to me. Everything that is wrong with the newest trilogy (episodes 7, 8, and 9) can be found in this movie and J.J. Abrams’s puzzling decision to make this into a cover-band version of the original “Star Wars” trilogy. Why did he decide to basically remake the plot of “A New Hope” with painfully derivative villains (uh oh, The First Order is here to blow up planets and conquer the galaxy, totally not like The Empire; and wait until you get a load of General Snoke and Kylo Ren, they’ll make you nostalgic for Emperor Palpatine and Darth Vader) and boring heroes (Finn and is there anyone who really likes Poe Dameron?), and the decision to kill off the only character on-screen with any real charisma or soul is baffling. “Let’s take the only thing that actually works in this movie and make sure it can’t comeback for the next one”–so sayeth J.J. Abrams. I’m not surprised at all that “Rise of the Skywalker” sucks; and pretty much guaranteed that outcome the second Abrams was brought back. Grade: D
10th: “The Rise of the Skywalker” …At long last, critics decided to stop mindlessly rubber-stamping the new “Star Wars” movies, and this has become the only one to get a negative rating on Rotten Tomatoes. It’s richly deserved since the film is a huge mess. One repetitive plot (how many planets can Kylo Ren follow Rey to?) after another, and conflicts that are virtually tension free. [The ending climax between Rey–a squeaky clean kid who has never shown even the slightest shadow of a dark side, let alone the dark side–and her grandfather should’ve had us on the edge of our seats, but I caught more than a few people checking their watches.] Probably the only reason this scores a little bit higher than “Awakens” is because it’s the end of a trilogy rather than the beginning when you had anything to choose from, and Abrams chose more of the same. Grade: D+
Tier 3 …These aren’t “bad” exactly so much as underwhelming and average, although all of them have great individual sequences or aspects.
9th: “The Phantom Menace” …This is one of the most hated movies ever made, and it’s hard to imagine a time when (only 20 years ago) fans literally camped outside movie theaters to be there on opening day. And it’s true that what everyone hates about George Lucas’s maligned prequel trilogy can be found here (the horrible dialogue, the strange pacing, annoying CGI sidekicks), but Lucas is really just a victim of “early adoption” here as the CGI–this used a digital technology all huge blockbusters do now, but wasn’t totally perfected back then–isn’t really convincing and gives the movie a very different (and inferior) look than the 70’s trilogy. But there’s a great villain in Darth Maul, a cool underwater city, a genuinely exciting race, and at least a trace of the originality the newest trilogy just simply doesn’t have. Grade: C+
8th: “Attack of the Clones” …This is the only “Star Wars” movie that is primarily a love story, and Lucas is surprisingly good at getting real chemistry out of his leads (Natalie Portman, and Hayden Christensen…who isn’t a good actor outside his scenes with Portman). The main plot is some bullshit with clones and Christopher Lee that I can barely remember. Parts of this are clearly just killing time until the big climax that is “Revenge of the Sith.” Grade: C+
7th: “The Last Jedi” …This isn’t a great movie, but I do think it’s substantially better than “Force Awakens” and “Rise of Skywalker” mostly because Rian Johnson wasn’t content to just make the cover-band version of the original trilogy. It is alive in a way the other two movies in this trilogy simply aren’t, and even if the whole is a bit underwhelming, there are great individual scenes like Rey confronting a mirror version of herself and the light saber battle against a dozen red storm troopers. Grade: B-
6th: “Solo” …Has a strong beginning, but goes on for too long. Still, a fine cast (except, yes, Alden Ehrenreich is definitely miscast whereas Miles Teller would’ve been perfect) and comedy that is actually funny (take note J.J. Abrams!) make this better than you might think considering the original directors were fired during filming. It would be interesting to see the finished movie Phil Lord and Christopher Miller wanted to make before hyper-controlling producer Kathleen Kennedy (who has also fired Josh Trank, Colin Trevorrow, and the “Game of Thrones” show-runners from various “Star Wars” projects after signing them) ousted them. Probably would’ve been more exciting than whatever Ron Howard changed. Grade: B-
Tier 2 …These are “Star Wars” movies that are very good, but not quite on the level of the true classics.
5th: “Revenge of the Sith” …Up to this point, Lucas’s idea to make a prequel trilogy centered on Anakin Skywalker’s path to the dark side hasn’t really paid off. Luckily, you understand why he wanted to do it at all in this movie; Ewan McGregor’s shriek of “You were the chosen one!” is one of the most effective emotional moments in the entire “Wars” series, including the original movies. Grade: B+
4th: “The Return of the Jedi” …It feels almost quaint how much “hardcore” fans hated this movie–which they feel committed blasphemy by having cuddly Ewoks and a somewhat cheesy ending–since we’ve seen so many worse “Star Wars” movies come out between now and then. Yes, this isn’t anywhere near as good as “A New Hope” or “Empire Strikes Back,” but it’s also a satisfying ending to a monstrously successful film series that changed movies and created blockbuster culture (for better or worse…probably worse). Viewed today and in the wake of outright creative flops, this is a solidly satisfying ending. Grade: B+
Tier 1 …These are just great movies period.
3rd: “Rogue One” …It’s almost incredible how good this movie is since it exists in the (mostly) bad Disney-owned period and I’m amazed Kathleen Kennedy didn’t find a way to fire the director once he turned in an actually good movie that wasn’t derivative. The ending of this movie is excellent, second only to “Empire.” If I’m being honest with myself, I might even prefer this to “A New Hope.” This is a movie about a rebellion getting its ass kicked, and struggling to stay alive–requiring the ultimate sacrifice. All “Star Wars” are technically about fighting fascism, but this is the first one where you really feel that aspect. And there was something especially gratifying about watching it in a theater about a month after Trump’s election. “Save the rebellion! Save the dream!” Indeed. Grade: A
2nd: “A New Hope” …The film that started it all, an instant-classic that kicked off blockbuster culture, but that’s not the fault of this movie–which is still an imaginative classic that holds up well today. Skywalker gazing out at the double-sunset is probably the defining image of this series’s hope, magic, and sense of wonder. Grade: A
1st: “The Empire Strikes Back” …There’s a reason this is routinely listed among the Best 100 Movies Ever Made, and is arguably the greatest fantasy movie of all time (“Star Wars” has always straddled the line between Sci-Fi and Fantasy). There’s nothing left for me to say except that it truly is a near-perfect movie, emotionally and visually interesting (the snowscape opening battle, the swamp, the mysterious cloud city–all radically different than the landscapes we’ve seen before or since) from start to finish. Grade: A+