Ranked from worst to best, the Star Wars movies, and why is Rogue One the best?
Rogue One isn’t the best — that’s still, and is likely to remain, The Empire Strikes Back — but at this point I would rank it a solid #3.
Before I get into why, here’s that ranking of the Star Wars movies (best to worst):
- The Empire Strikes Back
- Star Wars (aka A New Hope)
- Rogue One
- The Force Awakens
- The Last Jedi
- Return of the Jedi
- Revenge of the Sith
- The Rise of Skywalker
- Attack of the Clones
- The Phantom Menace
Not ranked here: The various live-action and animated Star Wars properties, because I was asked about the movies, not the series, and anyway I haven’t watched all the animated stuff. I will say if I were ranking the two live-action series (so far), The Mandalorian would slot in after The Last Jedi and The Book of Boba Fett after Sith. I’ll also say that Sith and Skywalker swap around in the ranking depending on my mood for the day; I think Skywalker is more competent overall (notwithstanding the absolute loss of nerve by Disney in its story construction), but Sith has more operatic scope. Both are flawed and it’s a matter of which flaws annoy me the most at any particular moment.
Additionally, I’ll note that while I rank Star Wars/New Hope at #2, it’s not actually all that well-scripted or directed or acted, it’s “merely” epochal and a sea change in how films were made, released, distributed and marketed, and can’t be ranked any lower than #2 thereby. As a film, Star Wars is far more important than it is good, and George Lucas is an absolutely brilliant filmmaker as long as he’s not writing words for humans to speak, or directing them in how to speak them. Yes, there is irony in the fact that his Oscar nominations are for screen writing and directing. I said what I said. I have spoken.
Coming back round to Rogue One, I wrote a review of it when it came out, and by and large I stand by what I wrote there, with the acknowledgment that my opinion regarding the Disneyfication of the Star Wars universe has changed a bit since I wrote the review. Indeed, in the further consideration of time, Rogue One stands out as the true outlier in the entire canon of Star Wars films — the one fully adult Star Wars film, which is to say, the one that engages with the idea that not everything is “light side” and “dark side,” and that even the good guys do not great things, and that sometimes your heroes do not get a happy ending. There is irony in the idea that of all Star Wars films, this is the one that best lives up to the morally ambiguous storytelling ethos of the class of 70s auteurs that George Lucas was himself spawned out of; Rogue One is closer to The Conversation or The French Connection (or, shit, THX 1138) than any Star Wars film Lucas himself ever made.
(Not that much closer, let’s not overegg the pudding. But still.)
What Rogue One has over any other Star Wars film is that is it almost certainly the best acted film in that canon, thanks to a very fine cast which has a script that gives them more than merely declamatory things to say about a story with at least moderate complexity, and direction that allows them a full(er) range of human emotions on screen. If I were ranking Star Wars films in terms of proficiency of acting, it would be Rogue, then Empire and then Force, with each offering some interesting things to discuss (with Empire, it would be how the workmanlike competence of Irwin Kershner got so much better performances out of the cast than Lucas’ disinterested auteurism; with Force, it would be how JJ Abrams’ facility with pastiche made the Star Wars franchise feel fresh again… but only once). But Rogue has consistently better acting than either of those two films.
The one disadvantage that Rogue One has over the other top-rankers (Empire, Star Wars, Force) is that it is both interstitial and dependent; it’s an aside to the main thrust of the film canon, and it’s so contingent on the viewers’ knowledge of films that came 40 years before it that really can’t be understood on its own terms. The conflict of the film falls flat if you don’t come in with an innate understanding of what’s at stake with the Death Star plans, and the moment that Darth Vader shows up to try to grab those plans from the rebels doesn’t have the same sort of visceral chill if you haven’t already gotten the scope of his evil. To be fair to Rogue, the number of people on the planet who have no clue regarding the Death Star or Darth Vader is miniscule at this point, and the number of people who went to Rogue One without that information is even smaller. But that doesn’t change the fact.
A final thing I will say in praise of Rogue One is that is the one Star Wars film that makes almost no missteps in telling its story; there is almost nothing that is put on the mantlepiece in act one that is not used in act three, there is very little unnecessary faffing about in the name of fan service, there is nothing to my memory presented in the story that becomes another director’s or screenwriter’s problem in a future film. Rogue One understood its assignment, as the kids say, and executed it nearly flawlessly. Nearly — hello, dodgy CGI and a pointless brain-scrambling slime monster in a dungeon — but in Star Wars, like in horseshoes and hand grenades, “nearly” counts.
If you like Rogue One, I would suggest enjoying it for what it is and as a true one-off, because it seems unlikely to me the film segment of the Star Wars universe will come ’round to its more adult-leaning pleasures any time soon. Solo’s box office made Disney rethink some of its film plans, and Disney+ has convinced the company that television is the way to backfill the Star Wars universe mythos; as far as I can see all the Star Wars series take place before the sequel trilogy, with nothing after it. This is what it is, but it also means that Rogue One seems likely to remain its own thing (and before you say it, yes, I know about the scheduled “Andor” series, and it proves my point: it’s on TV, and in the “past” of the Star Wars universe; it’s even in the past of Rogue One, come to think of it).
But cry not that there will (probably) be no more Star Wars films like Rogue One, smile that it happened. It’s a really good Star Wars film. Let’s hope there are more that are almost as good. It could happen, if Disney ever finds its nerve again with the films. We’ll see.
(It’s not too late to get a question in for this week’s Reader Request Week! Go here to find out how to do so.)