What Is The Best 'Star Wars' Movie? The Runner-Up In Our Poll Might Surprise You

(Welcome to Survey Says, a feature where we conduct a movie-related survey for a random group of people and explain why they're completely right, completely wrong, or somewhere in-between.)

It's the question that keeps nerf herders up at night, nibbling their fingernails and perhaps even their toenails. "What's the best Star Wars movie?"

Calm down, you big angry Wampa, I'm not saying all Star Wars fans chew their toenails. I'm just saying I saw an elementary schooler do that once and he may or may not have been wearing a frayed Star Wars T-shirt.

The boy was feral. And most assuredly "scruffy-looking." Now, where were we? Oh, yes. What's the best Star Wars movie. The answer to that age-old question might seem like a no-brainer, but the results from our latest poll are in, and guess what? It's not as cut-and-dry as you might think.

By the Numbers

Since at least 1980, when the first Star Wars sequel hit, fans have been debating the best and worst of the franchise. We already polled 611 random Internet strangers to determine, once and for all, which is the worst Star Wars movie. The results of that survey are now forever etched in stone, like Chuck Heston's stentorian Ten Commandments. Neither you nor I can argue about them because that was the only survey that mattered and it's all over now, our childhoods, the candyfloss, the Kenner toys, all of it. Nor would I advise grabbing those metaphorical Commandments and smashing them over anyone's head.

Remember what Master Yoda said about the path to the Dark Side: "Anger leads to hate ... hate leads to suffering." Let's talk instead about what people, average Americans, think the best Star Wars movie is. This time, we had 613 U.S.-based respondents to our poll on Survey Monkey. The results are bar-graphed above and bulleted below.

One last note: you'll notice that The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones aren't included here, either because they didn't receive enough votes to rank and/or because no one in their right mind would ever say either of those is the best Star Wars movie. (Again, this only covers the nine-episode Skywalker saga, so Rogue One and Solo: A Star Wars Maclunkey aren't included, either.)

  • Empire Strikes Back 34.75%
  • Return of the Jedi 24.14%
  • A New Hope 11.75%
  • The Last Jedi 9.30%
  • Force Awakens 8.16%
  • The Rise of Skywalker 6.85%
  • Revenge of the Sith 5.06%
  • Breaking It Down

    Big surprise: The Empire Strikes Back takes the top spot by a 10% margin, with over a third of our respondents saying it's the best Star Wars movie. Irvin Kershner's film, which we recently revisited in our Daily Stream column, stands head and shoulders above the rest of the Skywalker saga. As noted in that column, Kershner was George Lucas's USC mentor, "someone he respected enough to let him inhabit the director's chair and bring more emotional truth to the space opera."

    Now, granted, I'm highly partial when it comes to The Empire Strikes Back because it just took the top spot in my own personal list of all-time favorite movies here on /Film. The movie was also on Ethan Anderton's list back in October 2015, before The Force Awakens and Disney's sequel trilogy ever hit theaters. Over and above these subjective rankings, it feels like the conventional wisdom is that The Empire Strikes Back is the best Star Wars movie, and this survey certainly seems to support that line of thinking, data-wise.

    What really surprised me about these survey results was how high Return of the Jedi ranked. Almost a full quarter of the vote went to it. Raise your hand if it was your favorite Star Wars movie as a kid — or still is your favorite.

    The week of its 35th anniversary, I argued that the franchise had never equalled the creature effects of Return of the Jedi. A lot of people, including producer Gary Kurtz (who famously parted ways with the franchise after Empire) tend to write off Richard Marquand's 1983 film and its "teddy-bear luau" of Ewoks, who were perhaps a foreshadowing of Binks to come. Yet Return of the Jedi redeems Darth Vader and it brings the original trilogy to a satisfying close. It also has a lot going for it in terms of unique space locales. From the 35th-anniversary piece:

    It's a toss-up: along with the forest moon [of Endor], Jedi sailed us back over the sand planet of Tatooine and flew us into a half-constructed Death Star II, while Empire gave us the ice planet of Hoth, the swamp planet of Dagobah, and Cloud City on Bespin.

    It's fascinating to see that Return of the Jedi took over 12% more of the vote than A New Hope. For its part, the very first Star Wars movie, together with Steven Spielberg's Jaws, created the template for the modern blockbuster. It was made back before there were episode numbers and there's arguably a purity of creative vision to it, in that Lucas wrote and directed it himself (with the input of filmmaker friends like Brian De Palma funneling through him in parts like the opening crawl). It's also, to date, the only Star Wars movie to receive an Oscar nomination for Best Picture, and here on /Film, it made Vanessa Armstrong's list of favorites.

    Of the sequel trilogy, The Last Jedi edges out The Force Awakens, both of which rank higher than The Rise of Skywalker. I'm sure we can all agree that this is the correct, infallible ranking of sequel trilogy films. Er, right? The Last Jedi is the most subtextually rich Star Wars film (anyone can be a Jedi, not just Skywalkers, "let the past die"), and The Force Awakens made Star Wars one of the great comeback stories of the 2010s ... until the new religion of 21st-century fandom did what it does and started killing its own geek gods again.

    Um, I'll just be over here ...

    Say what you will about the sequel trilogy, but it would appear that the majority of fans still don't have a lot of love for the prequel trilogy, either. Revenge of the Sith comes in dead last. Personally, I think it's better than The Rise of Skywalker, which I spoiler-reviewed in great depth back in December 2019. Then again, what do I know?

    One thing is clear from all this: people still love the original Star Wars trilogy more than any of the prequels or sequels. How about you younglings (and oldlings)? What do you think?