The circle is now complete. Well, in truth it has been for eight years, after 2005’s Revenge of the Sith provided the final remaining chapter to the six-part Star Wars saga. Of course, Disney’s announcement last autumn of its Lucasfilm purchase and its plans for new Star Wars films means that circle is about to get a whole lot bigger (make that two circles = ∞, as the Mouse House plans to make an apparently endless number of annual films). How the Arndt-penned, Abrams-helmed Episode VII will fit in remains to be seen, but it will undoubtedly introduce Star Wars to a new generation of moviegoers. Legions of young new fans—and older hermits who’ve inexplicably not seen these ubiquitous films—will approach the original six-parter (ideally before seeing the sequels) with fresh eyes. So the question becomes: in which order should Star Wars Episodes 1-6 be watched?
By no means is this a new question. What prompted me to think about it recently was the fact that I finally watched all six films in numerical order in a one-day, practically non-stop marathon. (The experience yielded a few minor moments of ‘hey that’s a neat parallel to a scene in the other trilogy!’ but the truth is I’d seen these films too many times to get anything new out of it, and what’s more, starting at 7am meant that by the time we got to the superior trilogy our attention was on the wane—though luckily not for long.) After doing that marathon, I don’t think this episodic order is the best way to watch the six films for the first time. Nor do I believe production order (4-6, 1-3) is. I’ll get to my recommendation shortly but let’s just look at each of these more obvious choices first.
Actually, given that this article is filled with what would be massive spoilers to Star Wars newbies (if it is even possible to be one), I’ll just state my suggested order at the outset: A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, Revenge of the Sith, and finally Return of the Jedi. 😀
Episodic Order: I, II, III, IV, V, VI (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6)
Uh, duh…right? Numbers are meant to go up. Google will yield no shortage of George Lucas quotes about how this is the way he ‘always intended’ the films to be watched. There are certain virtues to it: it is the linear progression of the story of Anakin Skywalker, who in the revisionist ‘tragedy of Darth Vader’ conception of the saga has become the films’ central figure, as opposed to Luke. It has a happy ending (whereas watching the films in production order means closing on the downer that is Revenge of the Sith).
And theoretically that final chapter bears the full weight of everything that has gone before (I say theoretically because, as I wrote above, I’d seen these films too many times to register that). Perhaps then the awkwardly acted, looking-the-wrong-way greenscreened cameo by Hayden Christensen in the final scene will strike more of a chord.
Against those factors are some serious demerits. One much-discussed, obvious downside is that “No…I am your father” is no longer a surprise (at least in the way it used to be—there is arguably a different, meaningful tension in wondering whether Vader will reveal to Luke, or indeed acknowledges, his old identity). But more importantly, whereas the original trilogy gave us a heroic and noble impression of the Jedi, the prequels show them to be a lifeless, arrogant, even unpleasant bunch, with these traits best embodied by the almost offensively wooden Mace Windu.
And the lovable, wise Yoda of Dagobah gives way to a vapid green radish who spouts empty truisms at a painstakingly slow pace. Who cares anymore, frankly?
This speaks to a fundamental shortcoming—the crappiest films come first. A viewer might well tune out before getting to Episode III, let alone VI! During my recent rewatch I found that while The Phantom Menace (which has aged well) was reasonably entertaining albeit awkward and stupid, Attack of the Clones is seriously slow, directionless and dull for most of its running time. Compare that second act to The Empire Strikes Back and it becomes clear how little incentive someone has to keep watching, even with insistent assurances that ‘they get WAY better, I promise!’
Star Wars may be one of the most revered film franchises of all, but it still has to compete for people’s attention in a wildly expanding sea of entertainment. You simply cannot start with the weakest films.
So what about the order in which most of us watched them?
Production Order: IV, V, VI, I, II, III (4, 5, 6, 1, 2, 3)
For those who would rather forget the prequels, it’s likely that anyone they introduce to the saga will be persuaded to watch the ‘real films’ and then, if they can be bothered, the ugly stepsister trilogy. In this vein, the prequels become an afterthought. Rather than a saga, there are two separate stories: Luke, Han and Leia’s, and then that cartoon backstory you don’t quite remember because you never rewatched them.
The main thing this has going for it is that the indisputably better films come first. This order also preserves the historical quality of the films, in that you see how each trilogy is technically and narratively a product of its time. Anyone who would find the ‘downgrade’ in visual effects from 1-3 to 4-6 jarring instead sees the focus on quality of storytelling (which drops with TPM while improving at last in ROTS).
Sounds pretty good, right? Certainly you don’t lose anything by watching the films in this natural order. The only argument—and it’s probably not that strong—is that the saga ends on a downer, with the intense, mostly humourless ROTS. Sure, everyone knows it ends well in the end, and the closing scene of the film is a hopeful one. But I think there is a better way to watch these films for the first time.
Prequels as Interlude: IV, V, I, II, III, VI (4, 5, 1, 2, 3, 6)
I don’t hate the prequels. I don’t love them either, but as someone who became an obsessive fan of Star Wars through the 1997 special editions, and then witnessed the release of all the prequels over the ensuing few years, I view the newer trilogy as an integral, albeit highly flawed, part of the saga. (This might be because I also devoured the expanded universe novels as I just couldn’t get enough SW.) Also the prequels have, in my view, improved with age. Fine wines they ain’t, but I find myself more forgiving of their clunkiness now. So I advocate a viewing order that integrates the good in those films, and whatever emotional depth they add to the story.
Start with A New Hope. It is a vastly better film to begin with than TPM and sets the saga up as Luke/Han/Leia’s story. They are by far the best protagonists. Then watch ESB – a riveting ride, a decent introduction to Yoda, and a deepening of the story that gives us the big revelation about Vader.
Empire ends on a cliffhanger that needs resolving (though since ROTJ is set a year later, it’s not a particularly urgent one). Parking that story for a moment, it makes sense to take a little detour to explore Vader’s shocking revelation and find out how Luke’s dad became the evil masked baritone. Once you know all that backstory, then you come back and watch the resolution not only of the original trilogy but of the entire saga. ROTJ now carries the emotional weight of everything that has gone before. These are some of the things we gain by watching the films this way:
- Having seen Palpatine’s rise to power, including his massacring of the Jedi (particularly Mace Windu’s shocking downfall) and his manipulation of Anakin, we know what he is capable of when we meet him on the second Death Star in ROTJ. Yoda’s warning—“do not underestimate the powers of the Emperor” gains added weight, as we have shared in the experience that leads him to say that.
Anakin’s journey – at the close of the Battle of Endor, when the Emperor is about to kill Luke, and Vader watches, we will feel what he felt—he got into this mess because he was afraid of losing the people he loved, and now his son is also being killed because yet again he slavishly did Palpatine’s bidding and brought Luke to him. ROTJ is good enough that the conflict inside Vader’s helmet was already clear to us all (take note George, there was ‘noooooo’ need to clarify), but having seen the prequels we will have lived through everything that put Anakin into that suit.
- Luke’s journey – the duel between Anakin and Count Dooku at the start of ROTS deliberately mirrors (right down to Palpatine’s chair) the final fight that Luke and Vader will ultimately have—only Anakin makes a different choice. Seeing how Anakin’s choices lead to his descent allows us to then view Luke’s choices in contrast to them and also to know what will happen if he takes the easy path to power—even with good intentions. The stories of the father and son are plainly meant to parallel each other, and the question is whether it is more satisfying to end with the one who makes the right choice, or the one who doesn’t.
- Luke and Leia’s siblinghood – rather than this fairly low-key reveal in ROTJ feeling like the tacked-on retcon that it is (Lucas originally intended the sister to be a new character introduced in an eventual third trilogy), watching ROTS between Eps V and VI will give viewers that revelation in a far more surprising, effective way. Having watched ANH and ESB, in the final prequel we—like the characters—will think Padme is pregnant with one child, namely, Luke. When that odd midwife droid tells Obi-Wan there are twins, it’ll be a total surprise to us—Luke has a sibling?! (Very astute viewers might suspect that this is the “other” Yoda casually mentioned in ESB). And when the first baby is born, we want to know who it is. Oh, it’s Luke. Fine, ok and now who’s the second one? “Leia”. WHAT?! LEIA?! Then ROTJ gains an added layer of suspense about whether these two beloved characters will find out how they are connected.
This viewing order is by no means a new idea, nor am I the first person to suggest it (in fact I saw it mooted on the Theforce.net forums a few years ago and myself viewed it dismissively). It might strike some as an outlandish way of watching these films. But it’s not as out-there as it sounds – this kind of narrative structure is fairly common in serialised TV drama. Take two shows created by Episode VII director JJ Abrams: Fringe and LOST. WARNING – a major spoiler for Fringe’s second season, and fairly major spoilers for LOST’s fifth and sixth seasons, follow:
- Fringe: episode 2.14 “Jacksonville” ends with hero Olivia Dunham learning that her friend and colleague Peter Bishop is from an alternate universe, and she confronts his father Walter, who begs her not to tell Peter. The next episode, 2.15 “Peter”, takes place in 1985 and shows us how Walter ended up stealing the alternate version of his son in order to cure him of the disease that killed his own Peter. That sets the stage for later conflict in the present, once Peter finds out he is not who he thought he was. We know something he doesn’t – why Walter did what he did. The episode “Peter” would be a pointless (albeit interesting) curiosity if we saw it after watching the resolution of Peter and Walter’s story in the present. That said, “Peter” is vastly better written and acted than the Star Wars prequels.
- LOST: the season 5 finale “The Incident” goes back in time to introduce longtime Island-dwellers Jacob and the Man in Black, whose rivalry ultimately becomes the explanation for everything that has happened on the Island. And in “Across the Sea”, only three episodes before the end of the show, we see the origin story of these two brothers, we learn of the energy source in the island that will become so important at the end, and we also find out what the Man in Black wants. This sets the stage for the ending of the present-day story.
END OF SPOILERS
Do we lose anything by watching the films this way? I don’t think so. Nothing is spoiled (except the underwhelmingly handled Luke-Leia twins twist, and as I’ve said above, I think ROTS conveys it better). The Battle of Endor rivals the prequels for scale so it is not diminished as a climactic battle scene. Watching the films in this ‘prequels as interlude’ order allows us to retain the centrality of our more interesting heroes while also allowing Anakin’s journey in the prequels to feed into the conclusion of the entire story. It is, if I may say so, a most sagacious way to watch the saga. Pun intended.