Lucasfilm Ltd.
By Lily Rothman
December 16, 2015

It’s pretty safe to say that this weekend’s box office numbers for The Force Awakens, the latest Star Wars installment, will have little to do with the reviews the movie gets. By now, the franchise is a bona fide cultural event, and legions of fans will check it out no matter what.

But the series didn’t get to that point by not being good. As a look back through TIME’s archives reveals, the early Star Wars films were not just a success with moviegoers, but also with critics. They were such major events that in most cases they didn’t get the typical short reviews in TIME, but rather longer features devoted to their creation. Those do contain critical assessments, however, ranging from “best movie of the year” to “disappointment.”

Here’s what those stories had to say about each of them:

A New Hope, 1977

“A universe of plenty—as audiences can discover beginning this week in Star Wars, a grand and glorious film that may well be the smash hit of 1977, and certainly is the best movie of the year so far. Star Wars is a combination of Flash Gordon, The Wizard of Oz, the Errol Flynn swashbucklers of the ’30s and ’40s and almost every western ever screened—not to mention the Hardy Boys, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and The Faerie Queene. The result is a remarkable confection: a subliminal history of the movies, wrapped in a riveting tale of suspense and adventure, ornamented with some of the most ingenious special effects ever contrived for film. It has no message, no sex and only the merest dollop of blood shed here and there. It’s aimed at kids—the kid in everybody.”

Read the full story, here in the TIME Vault: The Year’s Best Movie

The Empire Strikes Back, 1980

“Sequels of giant hits, like children who follow Daddy’s favorite, always have an unfair burden. They are not examined on their own merits but in relationship to the picture everyone loved. In many ways Lucas and Kershner have overcome that handicap. The Empire Strikes Back is a more polished and, in some ways, a richer film. But to imitate Yoda’s way of speaking, and to answer the obvious question, as much fun it is not.” — Gerald Clarke

Read the full story, here in the TIME Vault: The Empire Strikes Back! And So Does George Lucas…

Return of the Jedi, 1983

“Taken on its own terms—’Let’s face it,’ says [Mark] Hamill, ‘we made a film for children’—Return of the Jedi is a brilliant, imaginative piece of moviemaking. But it does not diminish the accomplishment of Lucas and his youthful team to say that there are flaws nonetheless. The most obvious, ironically, is an overemphasis on effects and a too proud display of odd-looking creatures. Some otherwise breathtaking scenes, such as the visit to Jabba’s lair, the hair-raising chases through the redwoods and the climactic space battle, are extended to the point of satiety. The other flaw is the ending: in all three films, Lucas has almost entirely avoided the rank sentimentality to which his story is vulnerable. In the final minutes of Jedi he succumbs, however, and ends his trilogy with one of the corniest conclusions in recent years.” — Gerald Clarke

Read the full story, here in the TIME Vault: Great Galloping Galaxies!

The Phantom Menace, 1999

“Somewhere beyond the critics’ dispassion and the cultists’ disappointment lies the likely response of the multiplex masses when the film opens May 19. As one woman said upon leaving the screening, ‘What do you want for $9?’ What you get in The Phantom Menace is a panoramic entertainment with several terrific set pieces of action, stalwart acting from the Brits (and some very raw work by the kids), a precise, luscious visual design, a multilevel climactic battle and a funeral pyre that echo Return of the Jedi, and a triumphal coda from the first Star Wars film (1977). All that, and a lot of talk.” — Richard Corliss

Read the full story, here in the TIME archives: The Phantom Movie

Attack of the Clones, 2002

“After seeing a rough cut of the film and reading the script, we can say that Clones seems poised to get the series back on track–and provide an exhilarating two hours of serious fun. It should easily ace the last movie in chills (when two icky centipedal creatures called “kouhuns” crawl into the sleeping Padme’s bed) and thrills (when Anakin and Obi-Wan drag-race the changeling Zam Wessel across Coruscant’s wonderfully varied urban nightscape).” — Richard Corliss and Jess Cagle

Read the full story, here in the TIME Vault: Dark Victory

Revenge of the Sith, 2005

“After two episodes—The Phantom Menace (1999) and Attack of the Clones (2002)—that often dawdled in political filibustering and starchy line readings, after the fan base’s outrage at the unfortunate Jar Jar Binks incident, Revenge of the Sith shows Lucas storming back as a prime confector of popular art. Again one feels the sure narrative footing of the first Star Wars, the sepulchral allure of Empire, the confident resolution of a dozen plotlines that made Jedi a satisfying capper to the original enterprise. True, Lucas can pack little surprise into a backstory that’s obliged to complete the saga’s circle in the middle. But there’s an origami elegance to his folding of the old (new) story into the new (old) one. Sith will surely start a stampede to resee the 1977 film as a reminder of how the 13-hr. tale proceeds. Lucas is nothing if not an expert extender of his franchise.” — Richard Corliss

Read the full story, here in the TIME Vault: Dark Side Rising

The Force Awakens, 2015

“When you’ve been charged with reviving one of the most obsessively beloved franchises in modern movies, is it better to defy expectations or to meet them? With Star Wars: The Force Awakens, J.J. Abrams splits the difference, and the movie suffers—in the end, it’s perfectly adequate, hitting every beat. But why settle for adequacy? For the first 40 minutes or so, The Force Awakens feels like something special and fresh: For one thing, Abrams and his team of designers and technicians introduce a new star, a droid named BB-8. A roly-poly cueball with a surprisingly expressive half-dome for a head—and a vocabulary of squeaks and squiggles that are more eloquent than mere words—BB-8 is both modernist and old-fashioned at once, a marvelous creation that could have sprung from the imagination of Jules Verne.” — Stephanie Zacharek

Read the full review, here on TIME.com: The Force Awakens Is Everything You Could Hope for in a Star Wars Movie—And Less

Read TIME’s latest Star Wars cover story, here on TIME.com: How J.J. Abrams Brought Back Star Wars

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