When a movie called Star Wars hit theaters in 1977, critical reaction to George Lucas’ bizarre amalgamation of Flash Gordon, Akira Kurosawa, and myriad other influences was hardly unanimous. While praise was widespread, particularly for the film’s innovative designs and special effects, several reviewers shook their proverbial heads at what they deemed a childish fantasy preoccupied with nostalgia and weightless amusement. “We enjoyed such stuff as children, but one would think there would come a time when we might put away childish things,” Joy Gould Boyum wrote in The Wall Street Journal.

Of course, the rest is history. Star Wars triumphed over its naysayers to become the highest-grossing film ever (at the time), and launched a now-ubiquitous franchise — though the entries in that franchise have been, shall we say, uneven. As The Rise of Skywalker (Dec. 20) approaches to close the Skywalker saga (for real this time?), we thought we’d look back at the critical reaction to every Star Wars film when it was first released, from The Movie Formerly Known as Simply Star Wars to the latest Disney-produced entries. Read on for a roundup of each installment’s reviews.

A New Hope (1977)

Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope
Credit: Lucasfilm

Rotten Tomatoes score: 93%

Roger Ebert, The Chicago Sun-Times: “The hardware is from Flash Gordon out of 2001: A Space Odyssey, the chivalry is from Robin Hood, the heroes are from Westerns and the villains are a cross between Nazis and sorcerers. Star Wars taps the pulp fantasies buried in our memories, and because it’s done so brilliantly, it reactivates old thrills, fears, and exhilarations we thought we’d abandoned when we read our last copy of Amazing Stories.”

Pauline Kael, The New Yorker: “Star Wars is like getting a box of Cracker Jack which is all prizes. This is the writer-director George Lucas’s own film, subject to no business interference, yet it’s a film that’s totally uninterested in anything that doesn’t connect with the mass audience. There’s no breather in the picture, no lyricism; the only attempt at beauty is in the double sunset. It’s enjoyable on its own terms, but it’s exhausting, too: like taking a pack of kids to the circus…. But it’s probably the absence of wonder that accounts for the film’s special, huge success. The excitement of those who call it the film of the year goes way past nostalgia to the feeling that now is the time to return to childhood.”

Joy Gould Boyum, The Wall Street Journal: “There’s something depressing about seeing all these impressive cinematic gifts and all this extraordinary technological skill lavished on such puerile materials. Perhaps more important is what this seems to accomplish: the canonization of comic book culture which in turn becomes the triumph of the standardized, the simplistic, mass-produced commercial artifacts of our time. It’s the triumph of camp — that sentiment which takes delight in the awful simply because it’s awful. We enjoyed such stuff as children, but one would think there would come a time when we might put away childish things.”

The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

Credit: Lucasfilm

Rotten Tomatoes score: 95%

Judith Martin, The Washington Post: “To call The Empire Strikes Back a good junk movie is no insult: There is enough bad junk around…. The Empire Strikes Back has no plot structure, no character studies let alone character development, no emotional or philosophical point to make. It has no original vision of the future, which is depicted as a pastiche of other junk-culture formulae, such as the western, the costume epic and the World War II movie. Its specialty is ‘special effects’ or visual tricks, some of which are playful, imaginative and impressive, but others of which have become space-movie clichés. But the total effect is fast and attractive and occasionally amusing. Like a good hot dog, that’s something of an achievement in a field where unpalatable junk is the rule.”

Charles Champlin, The Los Angeles Times: “The Empire Strikes Back seems to me a hugely accomplished and exciting follow-on to Star Wars… Sequels have costs and gains. A certain feeling of wondrous discovery is gone forever. After all, we’ve been to the galaxy before. On the other hand, the action can thrust forward, freed of a lot of expository needs, and with time to get a bit more deeply into characters and relationships, to embroider themes, to sketch more of that grander design and to invigorate the proceedings with new creatures and characters. The Empire Strikes Back suggests strongly that the Lucas imagination has hardly begun to be tested.”

Return of the Jedi (1983)

Credit: Lucasfilm

Rotten Tomatoes score: 81%

Vincent Canby, The New York Times: “Return of the Jedi, written by Lawrence Kasdan and Lucas and directed by Richard Marquand, doesn’t really end the trilogy as much as it brings it to a dead stop. The film, which opens today at Loews Astor Plaza and other theaters, is by far the dimmest adventure of the lot. All of the members of the old Star Wars gang are back doing what they’ve done before, but this time with a certain evident boredom…. The film’s battle scenes might have been impressive but become tiresome because it’s never certain who is zapping whom with those laser beams and neutron missiles. The narrative line is virtually nonexistent, and the running time, though only slightly more than two hours, seems longer than that of Parsifal.”

Gerald Clarke, Time: “Return of the Jedi completes the trilogy. It is not as exciting as Star Wars itself, which had the advantage of novelty. But it is better and more satisfying than The Empire Strikes Back, which suffered from a hectic, muddled pace, together with the classic problems of being the second act in a three-act play…. Despite its shortcomings, which are relatively minor in context, the film succeeds, passing the one test of all enduring fantasy: it casts a spell and envelops its audience in a magic all its own.”

The Phantom Menace (1999)

Credit: Lucasfilm Ltd.

Rotten Tomatoes score: 53%

Owen Gleiberman, Entertainment Weekly: “The Phantom Menace never stops throwing things at you. The cities and space stations have an awesome, plunging vastness, a sense of intricately sinister technology stretching out above and below you. In a strange way, though, Lucas doesn’t trust the power of those images; he keeps cutting away from them. Spectacular yet remote, The Phantom Menace fails to recapture the elemental magic of Star Wars, and that, ironically, is because it represents the coarse culmination of the original film’s adrenaline aesthetic.”

Roger Ebert, The Chicago Sun-Times: “Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace, to cite its full title, is an astonishing achievement in imaginative filmmaking. If some of the characters are less than compelling, perhaps that’s inevitable: This is the first story in the chronology and has to set up characters who (we already know) will become more interesting with the passage of time…. Unlike many movies, these are made to be looked at more than listened to, and George Lucas and his collaborators have filled The Phantom Menace with wonderful visuals.”

Kenneth Turan, The Los Angeles Times: “Even without the pre-release hoopla, The Phantom Menace would be a considerable letdown, as Lucas and company either misjudged or did not care to re-create key aspects of what made Star Wars a phenomenon. While the new film is certainly serviceable, it’s noticeably lacking in warmth and humor, and though its visual strengths are real and considerable, from a dramatic point of view it’s ponderous and plodding.”

Attack of the Clones (2002)

STAR WARS: EPISODE II- ATTACK OF THE CLONES, Hayden Christensen, Natalie Portman, 2002. ©Lucasfilm L
Credit: Everett Collection

Rotten Tomatoes score: 66%

Lisa Schwarzbaum, Entertainment Weekly: “Attack of the Clones may be ‘better’ than The Phantom Menace — i.e., less jar-jarring and more securely fitted to the heroic scale of the venerable saga. Yet this installment, centered on the gathering moral darkness that will one day turn Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) into Darth Vader, proceeds with a chill, conservative grimness of purpose. The showpiece chases and futuristic aliens of this fifth production are as ornate and state-of-the-art as any tech-head could want, and we are attentive. But the sensation of being entertained is as faint as light from a galaxy far, far away.”

Scott Tobias, The A.V. Club: “In Attack Of The Clones, a turgid and uninspired entry in the diminishing Star Wars pantheon, virtually every shot has been designed to introduce jaws to the pavement, with dense cityscapes that stretch to infinity in all directions and breathtaking panoramas that put nature’s best to shame. But without the mythical power or giddy adventurousness of the first two Star Wars movies, the impact is strangely numbing, like watching a two-and-a-half-hour ILM show reel in search of moneyed investors. Though a marginal improvement over 1999’s The Phantom Menace — if only because it pushes infamous clearance-bin sidekick Jar-Jar Binks to the margins — Attack Of The Clones runs into a similar set of problems, mainly caused by characters opening their mouths to speak.”

Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian: “Where this movie comes alive is in its final act, the closing hour or so of this slightly stately two-hour-23-minute film. And it comes to life when the forces of Good and Evil unveil themselves, unambiguously, for a big showdown…. This movie is an improvement on the execrable Phantom Menace: never less than a watchable, entertaining spectacle.”

Revenge of the Sith (2005)

Credit: Everett Collection

Rotten Tomatoes score: 80%

Owen Gleiberman, Entertainment Weekly: “Anakin’s gathering storm seems hokey from the start, a function of the fact that it’s simply time for him to begin getting mad. The trouble with Revenge of the Sith is that we’re never really shown what we’re told about endlessly: Anakin succumbing to the temptations of power. He sulks a lot, with a bead of resentment in his eye, but his actions never take that crucial turn toward the destructive narcissism of Darth Vader. The audience has to work to make sense of his journey, but what we’re really doing is putting together the script that George Lucas didn’t, quite.”

A.O. Scott, The New York Times: “This is by far the best film in the more recent trilogy, and also the best of the four episodes Mr. Lucas has directed. That’s right (and my inner 11-year-old shudders as I type this): it’s better than Star Wars. Revenge of the Sith… ranks with The Empire Strikes Back as the richest and most challenging movie in the cycle. It comes closer than any of the other episodes to realizing Mr. Lucas’s frequently reiterated dream of bringing the combination of vigorous spectacle and mythic resonance he found in the films of Akira Kurosawa into American commercial cinema.”

David Edelstein, Slate: “It must be said that there’s a touch of the term paper in how his characters’ fates play out, and the actors still wear the glazed, helpless expression that comes from declaiming lines with no subtext in the direction of Creatures To Be Animated Later. But it’s worth doffing our beanies to a man who wouldn’t settle for Flash Gordon — who was driven to turn a Saturday-matinee space serial into something that needed the combined forces of Milton and Shakespeare to do it full justice. In the end, there’s a breadth, a fullness to the Star Wars saga. It’s so much more than the sum of its clunks.”

The Force Awakens (2015)

Star Wars: The Force Awakens - Episode VII (2015)Chewbacca and Harrison Ford
Credit: Lucasfilm

Rotten Tomatoes score: 93%

Chris Nashawaty, Entertainment Weekly: “J.J. Abrams’ The Force Awakens delivers exactly what you want it to: rollicking adventure wrapped in epic mythology, a perfect amount of fan service that fires your geekiest synapses, and a just-right cliffhanger ending that paves the way for future installments. In a way, Abrams has accomplished exactly what he did with 2009’s Star Trek. He took a worshiped pop-culture franchise with a rabid legion of disciples, treated it with respect, and made it matter again.”

Lindsey Bahr, Associated Press: “The action is nearly non-stop, as is the humor, which kicks into gear when Han Solo (Harrison Ford) finally shows up. Ford is in his element — delightful, energetic, funny, brash and fully Han, bantering with Chewie and everyone with the same verve he showed nearly 40 years ago. If only the same showcase was given to Carrie Fisher, who is woefully, inexcusably underused as Leia. As for the new characters, Ridley’s Rey is a dream. She is feisty, endearingly awe-filled, capable and magnetic. She is the new anchor. She is our Luke, and she’s much cooler than he ever was.”

Justin Chang, Variety: “Risking heresy, it’s worth noting that Abrams actually did smarter, more inventive work on his 2009 reboot of Star Trek, no doubt in part because he was working with a less heavily guarded enterprise. Star Wars, at once a cultural juggernaut and a sacrosanct institution, resists any attempt to reimagine its landscape too aggressively or imaginatively; that may be to the detriment of this diverting first effort, but Abrams has more than stoked our anticipation for what his successors may have up their sleeves.”

Rogue One (2016)

Credit: Giles Keyte/Lucasfilm

Rotten Tomatoes score: 84%

Chris Nashawaty, Entertainment Weekly: “Rogue One is a Star Wars film, yes. And it feels epic. But what it really is at its core (underneath all of the gee-whiz special f/x) is a heist flick. This motley band of thieves and scoundrels has to nick some blueprints. It’s Ocean’s 11 in space. And while the movie sags a bit in the middle (where it gets weighed down with exposition), the third-act heist is white-knuckle stuff. It’s when the movie really goes into hyperdrive. There’s a lot to take in in Rogue One. So many new uniforms, and planets, and incidental species crammed into the back of the frame, I’m looking forward to seeing it a second and third time.”

Peter Travers, Rolling Stone: “As always, a Star Wars movie lives or dies depending on how much we give a damn or don’t about the characters. Luckily, there are no cutesy Ewoks to soften Jyn’s journey into the heart of Imperial darkness. It’s no lie that some of the interactions get lost under the weight of front-loaded exposition. But with the smashing [Felicity] Jones giving us a female warrior to rank with the great ones and a cast that knows how to keep it real even in a sci-fi fantasy, Rogue One proves itself a Star Wars story worth telling. It’s hard not to get choked up with that blind monk when he chants, ‘I’m with the Force and the Force is with me.’ Who’d want it any other way?”

Stephanie Zacharek, Time: “There’s nothing in Rogue One that would damage or scare most little children, as long as they’re prepared for an on-screen onslaught of the Pantone colors known as Oatmeal and Soot…. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story will not change lives for the worse or for the better, and it will — or ought to — offend no one. Welcome to the Republic of the Just OK.”

The Last Jedi (2017)

Credit: Jonathan Olley/2017 Lucasfilm Ltd.

Rotten Tomatoes score: 91%

Chris Nashawaty, Entertainment Weekly: “There are a handful of truly spectacular moments in The Last Jedi — some as visually sumptuous and others as emotionally poignant and raw as anything in the intergalactic ring cycle so far: The sight of Rebel X-wing fighters emerging from light speed and skidding to a halt; a kamikaze crash rendered in giddy, gasp-inducing super slo-motion; a vertiginous, ground-scraping dogfight on a salt-mining planet that kicks up plumes of velvet-cake red dust…. That said, I’d stop short of calling director Rian Johnson’s undeniably impressive initiation into the Star Wars fold the masterpiece that some desperately want it to be. The film simply drags too much in the middle. Somewhere in the film’s 152-minute running time is an amazing 90-minute movie.”

Ira Madison III, The Daily Beast: “Not since George Lucas’ original trilogy has a Star Wars film felt like a dime store paperback, loaded with pulp and space operatics. Perhaps it’s because A New Hope had no idea it was meant to set off a trilogy, let alone decades of story and enduring fandom, but the first three films still feel scrappy and at times messy in their quest to simply entertain audiences with characters they fell in love with in 1977. The Force Awakens sought to replicate that, to diminishing returns, but The Last Jedi harkens back to what made Star Wars so important in the first place — it’s fun, it’s kind of all over the place, but it’s dripping with emotion and pathos and, most importantly, it tells a hell of a story.”

Matt Zoller Seitz, “Jedi does a better job than most sequels of giving the audience both what it wants and what it didn’t know it wanted…. The movie works equally well as an earnest adventure full of passionate heroes and villains and a meditation on sequels and franchise properties. Like The Force Awakens, only more so, this one is preoccupied with questions of legacy, legitimacy and succession, and includes multiple debates over whether one should replicate or reject the stories and symbols of the past. Among its many valuable lessons is that objects have no worth save for the feelings we invest in them, and that no individual is greater than a noble idea.”

Solo (2018)

Jonathan Olley /Lucasfilm Ltd.
Credit: Jonathan Olley /Lucasfilm Ltd.

Rotten Tomatoes score: 70%

Chris Nashawaty, Entertainment Weekly: “What you’re really left with, apart from a yearning for the young Ford at his most cavalier, is a slightly fuller and more rounded understanding of who Han Solo is – where he came from, what makes him tick, and how he’d much prefer to shower alone than with a Wookiee. In other words, it’s pure fan service. And if that’s what you’re after, then you’ll be more than satisfied. If, on the other hand, you’re looking for the sort of jaw-dropping visual grandeur and epic poetry of The Last Jedi (not to mention the original trilogy), then you’ll probably be a little nonplussed. Solo feels like a placeholder, a wafer-thin palate cleanser before the next big course. It’s the very definition of ‘solid’ and ‘competent.’ Nothing more, nothing less. Trust me.”

Kate Erbland, IndieWire: “It’s not as dark as the franchise’s other standalone film, the satisfying and sad Rogue One, and even without lightsaber battles or Jedi or anyone aligned with the formal Rebellion, it still captures a humor and pace Star Wars audiences expect. For anyone wondering what former directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller’s vision might have looked like, there are scattered moments — an exaggerated facial expression here, a slightly goofy action sequence weighed down with a dramatic score there — that hint at the more comedic film they were reportedly making. It doesn’t work in such small amounts, and juxtaposed against the more straightforward charms of Howard’s film, it becomes clear just how off-kilter such a feature would be.”

Alonso Duralde, The Wrap: “Solo is less a movie than it’s that page in Highlights Magazine that makes you feel good for finding the chair and the bicycle in the hidden picture. As an intergalactic adventure, it’s mostly adequate, with some very successful elements, but if you stripped the Star Wars names and places and put it into the world as a free-standing sci-fi-action movie, it’s doubtful that it would spawn much excitement, let alone sequels.”

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