Not long after critics started posting their opinions to social media early last week about Star Wars: The Last Jedi, an inevitable parlor game commenced: How do you rank the Star Wars movies?
That people even thought in these terms was a testament to how well Rian Johnson’s first foray into the Star Wars universe has gone. More than any other Star Wars movie in recent memory, The Last Jedi seems like a movie that really can compete with the most beloved entries in the franchise. But is this just the recency bias in effect? Am I completely wrong to believe this? (The initial reactions from some fans suggests that I am.) The only way to figure this out is to compare The Last Jedi to every other Star Wars movie and see which film comes out ahead.
But first, for the sake of time and not making this exercise totally tedious, let’s establish the following truths:
1) The Last Jedi is great but it’s not greater The Empire Strikes Back. It’s just not. The Empire Strikes Back will always be the best Star Wars film. It has the best ending. It has the best plot twist. It introduced Yoda. It introduced Lando. It introduced Boba Fett. It has “I know.” No subsequent Star Wars will be able to touch the mythical weight of that movie. So, this is really a discussion of which is the best Star Wars movie that isn’t The Empire Strikes Back.
2) The three prequels — The Phantom Menace, Attack Of The Clones, and Revenge Of The Sith — will always be the three worst Star Wars movies. You can keep any contrarian opinions about this to yourself. Nobody wants to hear them. If you honestly think The Phantom Menace is “actually better than Return Of The Jedi, I’m serious,” that’s great, enjoy your Blu-ray disc in the privacy of your own home. But here in the real world, we don’t have time to sit through your counterintuitive defense of lil’ Anakin.
This leaves (in reverse chronological order) Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Return Of The Jedi, and Star Wars. Let’s jump into the Sarlacc pit!
The Last Jedi vs. Rogue One
I liked Rogue One, as I am a big fan of the “Ben Mendelsohn plays a huge d*ckhead” genre. But in my mind it doesn’t really count as a Star Wars movie. At this point, the primary appeal of new Star Wars is revisiting a familiar mythology that I originally discovered when I was four. Star Wars is practically like an uncle or older brother to millions upon millions of people. It’s a fixture in your life that you’ve come to count on, which is why it was canny for The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi to use many of the characters from the original trilogy to help shepherd viewers into a new trilogy. It mirrors the experience we all go through in our own families as we age, in which we welcome one generation while bidding farewell to another.
During The Last Jedi, I felt a lump in my throat suddenly appear when Luke Skywalker reunited with R2-D2, and then I definitely shed a tear when R2-D2 played the video message from Princess Leia that Luke originally saw in the first Star Wars movie. (The Last Jedi also functions as a critique of Star Wars nostalgia, with several characters voicing “kill the past”-style sentiments. Yoda even shows up to literally burn down a Jedi monument! Somehow, having it both ways doesn’t feel cheap, though I suspect this irreverence informs the distaste that a vocal corps of superfans have had with this film.) Rogue One simply doesn’t have that kind of emotional resonance. It has Riz Ahmed, whom I also love, but I’m not nostalgic for The Night Of quite yet. The Last Jedi and Rogue One take place in the same universe but Rogue One feels … different, like spending Thanksgiving dinner at a different house on the block where you grew up.
Winner: The Last Jedi
The Last Jedi vs. The Force Awakens
People seemed to love The Force Awakens in the short term and like it less in retrospect. It’s become fashionable to criticize J.J. Abrams for essentially making a “greatest hits” version of a Star Wars movie. Some even wondered wistfully what The Force Awakens would’ve been like if George Lucas had been involved, going as far to praise the prequels as the flawed but righteous work of a “real” auteur. “For the first time in a more than a decade,” Bryan Curtis wrote in The New Yorker, “people are talking about Lucas with something other than withering contempt.”
So, The Force Awakens was overrated, and now it seems a little underrated. Abrams deserves credit for introducing a genuinely compelling group of new characters — Rey, Finn, Poe, and above all Kylo Ren — and casting them pretty much perfectly with a talented, and diverse, collection of actors. I would also suggest, with all due respect to Lucas, that The Force Awakens was adored by fans because it was the first Star Wars movie in more than 30 years that was actually fun to watch.
Compared with The Last Jedi, however, it seems derivative — at the risk of restating what’s already become the defining critical cliche of Johnson’s film, The Force Awakens doesn’t move the ball forward like The Last Jedi does. It’s more like a pep rally designed to get alienated Star Wars babies back on board. Abrams gets props for setting up the pins, but Johnson knocks them down with superior style and substance.
Winner: The Last Jedi