Fans of lists and Star Wars, we are currently in a rare moment of list making history when we have exactly 10 theatrically released, live-action Star Wars films*. Thanks to the May 25, 2018 release of Solo: A Star Wars Story we can create a perfect top 10 list. We truly live in wondrous times. Of course, this moment of perfection will come to an end on December 20, 2019 when Episode IX adds an eleventh theatrically released, live-action Star Wars film forcing fans to finally choose which prequel film to drop from the list.
I haven’t taken the time to rank the Star Wars films since 2006. At that time my top six would have probably looked like this:
- Empire Strikes Back
- Star Wars
- Return of the Jedi
- Revenge of the Sith
- The Phantom Menace
- Attack of the Clones
It wasn’t until Scott Aukerman posted the ultimate list of Star Wars films that I realized, “oh hey, we can make a perfect top 10.”
STAR WARS films:
1. A NEW HOPE (1977)
2. THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (1980)
3. RETURN OF THE JEDI (1983)
4. THE PHANTOM MENACE (1999)
5. ATTACK OF THE CLONES (2002)
6. REVENGE OF THE SITH (2005)
7. THE FORCE AWAKENS (2015)
8. ROGUE ONE (2016)
9. THE LAST JEDI (2017)
10. SOLO (2018)
— Scott Aukerman (@ScottAukerman) May 25, 2018
The comments on that thread are delicious.
After watching Solo I thought it was finally time to stare at a wall and consider my Star Wars top 10. However, before we get to that I need to tell you about the specific individual Star Wars fan that is me.
I’m going to literally date myself with this post: My first birthday was on May 25, 1977.
My mother claims that during the first week of Star Wars hitting the theaters my father took the entire family to see it.
When The Empire Strikes Back was released in theaters I was three going on four. My sister, three years older than me, claims my father took her out of school early so the whole family could go see a matinee. I don’t remember. Random fact: The first cinematic experience that made a lasting impression on me was Time Bandits. Sure there were plenty of kid movies prior to that but they didn’t leave the same sort of, uh, scar. I was five. Thanks, Dad.
The Return of the Jedi was released on my seventh birthday. Again, my sister says our father took us out of school early to see it but I don’t recall the logistics. All I remember is the feeling of being in the theater and, especially, the battle on the moon of Endor.
I loved the speeder bike chase. I loved the high stakes of Han and Leia needing to bring down the shield. And, damn it, I loved the Ewoks. I loved the Ewoks so much that my earliest embarrassing memory is throwing a temper tantrum outside of a Kmart because it was closing for the night and I wanted a Wicket W. Warwick action figure. Seriously, it was an epic temper tantrum. I’m sorry, Mom.
As I continued into my childhood my Star Wars faze and was replaced by G.I. Joe. Sure, I’d watch the films on VHS and cable every so often (usually Jedi) but if you asked me if I was a Star Wars kid I’d probably say “no, I’m a Joe” (and on certain days Masters of the Universe but more often than not, Joe).
And then something extraordinary happened. In 1991, my Dad, a voracious Sci-Fi reader, brought home Timothy Zahn’s Heir to the Empire. After he finished reading it I picked it up and within a handful of pages, the floodgates of nostalgia opened wide. I wanted to be in the Star Wars Universe and I started devouring everything.
I read the old Marvel comics, the new Dark Horse comics, all of the books as soon as they were released, started studying the films, and, as soon as I had access to the ahem World Wide Web, joined chatrooms and forums. The fanboy in me was unleashed. It was so bad that when Parker Brothers released Star Wars Trivial Pursuit in 1998 no one would play with me because I knew most of the answers (of course, let’s be honest, the questions weren’t that difficult).
My favorite novels were the ones that dealt with secondary characters and expanded the Universe, because, let’s be honest, the Star Wars Universe is a character unto itself. I wanted to know the story behind everything.
When the films were remastered and re-released in theaters I was at the midnight showings in a Jedi robe. I started buying the new action figures. I was all-in.
And then the prequels happened.
In all honesty, I don’t think the prequels were quite as bad as people made them out to be at the time. I mean, Attack of the Clones is the weakest of the new trilogy and I remember groaning multiple times, but I thoroughly enjoyed The Phantom Menace and, to an extent, Revenge of the Sith. However, they are the worst of the films and there are three major reasons why:
- An entire generation grew up wanting more Star Wars. It was imprinted on our DNA thanks to all of the merchandising. We spent hours playing out our Star Wars fantasies with action figures and as we got older had epic debates about the mythology. When we went into those new movies we had expectations based we spent two decades of nostalgia. Basically, George Lucas had to compete with the demanding child in all of us who wanted to once again experience that sense of wonder.
- Everything had been explained. Everything. Lucas saw how vast his world had become and decided that’s what we wanted. The end result was a series of bloated films with very little mystery. Go back and try to rewatch the original trilogy with a fresh mind. Forget anything exists outside of those three films. Think about how much isn’t explained, especially in A New Hope. Lucas was right to respect the audience and allow us to fill in the gaps. It gave us a personal investment in the stories because we could write our own adventures into the background.
- The Jedi. Holy crap, I never thought Jedi could be boring but when Star Wars is all Jedi all the time, snoozefest. The Original Trilogy and the New Trilogy benefit by not being only about the Jedi. In those films, our main characters are a mix of different backgrounds and it makes the storytelling dynamic. This is, I think, why Rogue One is in my top five (more on that later).
After the prequels landed most of the shine had come off of Star Wars. For a time, I kept reading the books but, eventually, I stopped paying attention and moved on.
I eventually made peace with Star Wars because of two factors. Primarily it was my nephew who grew up with the prequels. He loved those movies. He loved them with that same starry-eyed passion that I loved the original. I realized it didn’t matter how I felt about the prequels because I wasn’t seeing them through a child’s eye. I was bringing an overly critical fanaticism to what are, at their core, family movies. It depresses me to think about it.
Secondarily, I sat down to watch 2010’s The People vs. George Lucas and saw just how ridiculous it was to put energy into disliking a piece of fiction. It was sad to see how George Lucas, who had gifted the fans his sandbox, was torn down for the simple act of making more movies. If you want to understand why he sold to Disney, that’s it right there (I mean, and the money). Lucasfilm rarely filed lawsuits against fans who used his properties and he let them help build the Universe. In exchange, the fans revolted, tore him down, and demanded the films be giving to someone else, like Lawrence Kasden. That, of course, is the irony of seeing the new movement to give the films back to Lucas (which, let’s be honest, is mostly Russian bots trying to inflame the U.S. culture wars and keep us divided).
That brings me to today. Now when I go into a Star Wars film I try to live in the moment. I do my best to bury expectations (this is difficult to do). I want to sit in the theater and get taken for a ride. Most importantly, I want to hear the kids in the audience gasping with awe.
Without further delay here is The Shared Universe’s Definitive Star Wars Top 10 List.
10. Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones
9. Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith
8. Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace
If you didn’t read all of the text above, skip up to the bullet list to see my explanation of why these films are at the bottom of my list. AotC is an easy choice for number 10, but I’m torn between RofS and TPM. Both of these films have exciting very Star Wars moments that make them greater than the middle chapter. They also suffer from exposition bloat which is why they don’t rise higher on the list. It’s a toss-up, but TPM gets the higher ranking thanks to Qui Gon and Darth Maul. Here’s hoping we get more Dathomirian Zabrak in the next Solo film (if there is one).
7. Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens
The fact that a film like TFA is number seven on any list is a testament to the Star Wars franchise. This film did everything it needed to do. It had to feel like an Original Trilogy film while not completely retreading the same ground. The movie tapped all of the important nostalgia points to let fans who saw the Original Trilogy in theaters relive those moments while giving a new generation an all-new set of heroes to grow up alongside. I was sold on the film when the film took us to Takodana and into Maz Kanata’s home. That moment was Star Wars The second the doors open I wanted to know the backstories of every character in that watering hole. What would have happened to Finn if he joined the pirate crew of Sidon Ithano? Of course, the death of Han cut deep into this fan boy’s heart but I understand how it fills a need in moving Kylo’s story forward.
6. Solo: A Star Wars Story
I’m not sure my expectations could have been any lower for this entry into the Star Wars universe. It blew those expectations out of the water. There was some cognitive dissonance in the first 20 minutes as my brain tried to slot Alden Ehrenreich into the memory slot I have reserved for Han Solo, but when he clicked into place I was all in. This is the movie for the haters who only want Star Wars to expand around the known heroes. There’s really no reason to not love this film. It respectfully expands on the original mythology with an engaging heist story featuring three of the most popular characters in the Universe.
5. Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi
The New Republic kinda sucked. I mean, yes, it was probably better living under the New Republic than under the Empire, but as we learned from the very important storytelling plot point that is Canto Bight that the loving tentacles of the New Republic didn’t extend to the outer planets. Factions within the New Republic benefited from the rise of the First Order because it meant arms deals. The New Republic turned a blind eye to child slavery.
When the Resistance calls for help during the Battle of Crait no one replies. That call goes unanswered partially the First Order is fanning out across the Galaxy but mostly because hope has been lost. There’s no faith in the Resistance because, even though Leia broke off from the New Republic, it is still a symbol of the failed New Republic.
This is why Rose and Canto Bight are so very important. She understands that if they’re to defeat the First Order they need to unite the entire galaxy. This includes addressing the long ignored Outer Rim planets that were ignored by the New Republic.
And that kid at the end of the film. He was possibly the most important part of the new trilogy. He represented both the future of the galaxy and the future of this franchise.
As for the content of the film? This was exactly what I wanted. Kylo Ren evolved and became a villain we could respect. The battle in the throne room was note perfect. Snoke dying without a backstory didn’t matter because we knew as much about Snoke as we did about the Emperor at the end of RotJ. There’s now justified tension between the two Jedi of the the new trilogy. Luke was as acerbic as Yoda in Empire and it was beautiful. Much respect for Mark Hamill, but I really didn’t want to see a geriatric Luke Skywalker battling Kylo Ren. Seeing Harrison Ford trying to act 20 years younger in The Force Awakens was quite enough to convince me of that point.
4. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
Don’t Jedi bore you? I mean, they’re important, yeah, but they are only the tiniest slice of this Universe but they get the brightest spotlight. The Jedi Council failed and were wiped out by the Empire (and was the Jedi Council really all that great anyway? I mean, they didn’t seem to care about the slavery in Hutt space). Here we have a group of misfits going on a suicide mission to save the Universe. Luke wouldn’t have known about the exhaust port if these plans weren’t stolen. And, hello, we have actual WAR in Star WARS. Not only one of the greatest space battles in the entire franchise but a legit ground battle. And casualties! So many casualties. The stakes in Rogue One feel real. This is an adult Star Wars film that makes the originals feel, and especially A New Hope, like kid movies (which they are). Rogue One is a tight, succinct side story in the Star Wars franchise (fyi: it benefits from a read of James Leceno’s Catalyst). I wouldn’t be surprised if in the next decade we start seeing it regularly appearing as number three on definitive lists.
3. Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope
Isn’t it weird that the original film isn’t number one on more lists? Historically, this is one of the most important sci-fi films. Ever. I love it. I recognize how it established the formula for the films to come. The Battle of Yavin is one of the greatest space battles in the entire franchise. However, it slips down my list because there was a missed opportunity with the lightsaber slap fight between Vader and Kenobi.
2. Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back
If we’re judging Star Wars films solely on scholarly film craft there’s no argument that Empire should be at the top of every single such list. The story is solid, the cinematography is top of the class, the viewer is emotionally engaged, and it has one of the biggest plot twists in cinema history. That isn’t how we judge Star Wars films. We judge these films purely through the layered filters of nostalgia and emotion. That’s why I don’t feel any guilt letting Empire fall to number two on my list. This is not my go-to Star Wars film.
1. Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi
And here we are. I’ve thought long and hard about where the first three movies fall and there’s no question this is the right order for me. Jedi is my happy place. The film hit me at the perfect moment growing up. The characters populating the third part of the original trilogy are the ones that more often than not populate the stories I wrote when I was a child. When I wanted to watch a Star Wars film this is the one, more often than not, I’d push into the VCR. This film has everything: Jabba’s Palace, the Rancor, the Moon of Endor, the unfinished Death Star, Yoda, the spirit of Obi-Wan, Han and Leia’s kiss, the Emperor, holy crap Force lightning, Vader’s redemption, the Sarlaac, speeder bikes, Ewok God C-3PO, the background characters, so on and so forth.
As fans, we have placed a massive nostalgic burden on this franchise. We won’t all take the same thing away from each iteration because it now has a history of more than 40 years. That’s three distinct generations of kids discovering this Universe in different ways. Your Star Wars experience isn’t my Star Wars experience. Due to my personal experiences with this franchise my favorite Star Wars film is RotJ. You might not agree and that’s okay with me.