With the recent release of the (utterly badass) trailers for Star Wars Episode VII: the Force Awakens and the annual celebration of “May the Fourth“, the air and the internet have been filled with the buzz of a thousand X-Wings. Star Wars is back! And this time, if the teasers are any indication, nerd superstar JJ Abrams is going to do the series justice.
A lot of people, myself include, grew up watching the original Star Wars movies so often that they just inherently knew every detail about the story. They knew Darth Vader was really Luke’s father, they knew Leia and Luke were twins, they knew the good guys won in the end, and they knew that seeing a dead Ewok was just about the most heartbreaking movie sight this side of roadkill Mufasa.
And then, *Imperial March playing in background* the Prequels came (Episodes I, II, and III). Where once we had Darth Vader, a first-ballot Hall of Fame movie villain with a mysterious past, we were given Anakin “Ani” Skywalker, a whiny child who undermined everything that made Vader great. Where once we had wise Old Ben, we had Ewan McGregor with a rat-tail haircut. The Emperor, the stuff of nightmares, was reduced to some kind of conniving politician. The Death Star, destroyer of planets, was replaced by… trade negotiations? (As a kid, I had no clue what “trade” had to do with any of this stuff. And I still don’t). And where once we had R2-D2 and C-3PO to provide comic relief, we were stuck with the CGI’d atrocity Jar Jar Binks.
As a kid, the Star Wars universe was hardwired into my brain. The Prequels tainted that just a bit. Sure, they had some quality scenes and interesting story lines from that aren’t completely useless. But it’s hard to imagine all six movies living together in the same galaxy far, far away, because they just seem so… disconnected.
But what if I told you we had a chance to fix this.
Let’s say you came across a person who by some strange series of events, has NEVER seen a single Star Wars movie. Suspend your disbelief a bit further and imagine that this person also knows nothing about the Star Wars universe.
In what order should they watch the films?
This is a question that had vexed for me for many years – until I stumbled upon a brilliant blog post by Rod Hilton at Absolutely No Machete Juggling. Now as far as I can tell, this blog is geared towards programmers and other computer engineer types, but when I first read Rod’s post about Star Wars, The Star Wars Saga: Introducing Machete Order, my reaction was much like Luke’s when he shot the fireball-laser blast into the Death Star’s air vent.
I sincerely encourage anyone with a passion for Star Wars to read Rod’s full post – it’s amazing and has some fascinating insights. His theory has become one of my favorite cocktail party conversations – or, I should say, cantina conversations.
I cannot hope to recreate Rod’s post, but I do want to summarize a few of his main points, because I think it is really enjoyable to think about how you would present such an epic story to someone diving in with a totally blank slate.
Time to get this trench run started.
When considering the best order for Star Wars, there are two obvious choices: release date order (Episode IV, V, VI, I, II, III) and Episodic order (I, II, III, IV, V, VI), neither of which is perfect.
Watching in order of release gives you the more “natural” experience of Star Wars, as it simulates how most people originally experienced the movies. You start off with IV: A New Hope, (my personal favorite of all six movies and the best movie-series-starter of all time), you enjoy V and VI… but then the tension is gone because the ultimate end of the story has been revealed only halfway through the series! You proceed to I, II, and III and are stuck watching a bunch of characters whose fates you already know. You finish the series on a flimsy note in Episode III, when you see the introduction of Darth Vader but without any subsequent payoff. Your parting Star Wars memories are the lava-planet duel between Obi Wan and Anakin, and Padme’s vague and largely unexplained death.
Now, let’s say you watch in Episodic order, which is presumably the way Star Wars is “meant” to be watched. The series begins with Episode I, establishing Ani as the viewer’s reference point throughout as the story focuses on his arc from child prodigy to villain to redeemed anti-hero. Luke becomes more of secondary character who only populates the second half of the story. There’s no element of surprise when Vader reveals his identity to Luke because, duh, you knew this the whole time. The later Episodes’ incredible storytelling is undermined by the Prequels, which have already set the stage for the series as a whole.
Clearly, both options have their flaws. The answer? Rod’s Machete Order – Episode IV, V, II, III, VI. Like the chronological order, the Machete Order begins with A New Hope to set the foundation for the story, establishing Luke as the main character. You are introduced to the terror of Darth Vader, the battle of the plucky rebels vs. the Evil Empire. Next, you watch Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back. Luke battles Vader in the flesh and learns the terrible truth: VADER IS HIS FATHER. The ultimate cinematic reveal is followed by a wonderful cliffhanger: Luke is short five fingers, Han Solo is frozen in carbonite in Jabba the Hutt’s trophy room, and the Evil Empire appears stronger than ever.
At this point, you jump back to the Prequels to learn the backstory before moving on to the final act. That’s right: we’re mixing time periods here! And not only are we shifting to the Prequels, we are making one very important edit: Episode I: The Phantom Menace is eliminated entirely. We go straight to Episode II: The Clone Wars.
Wait, so we’re just cutting out Episode I? Yes. As Rod explains, nothing crucial to the overall Star Wars plot happens in that movie. We don’t need to know what midi-clorians are (in fact, Qui-Gon Jinn’s quasi-scientific explanation of the Force detracts a bit from its mysticism). Darth Maul is cool, but he’s dead by the end of the movie and has no further impact on the series. We get the meat of Anakin’s training in Episode II and III, so we don’t miss much on that front by skipping Episode I. Qui-Gon’s relationship with Obi Wan is interesting but not necessary to understanding Obi-Wan’s training of Anakin in later Episodes. We learn about Anakin’s mother in Episode II, so while Episode I does give you more backstory on their relationship and their past as slaves, it’s nothing that you can’t glean from the later films. The war on Naboo and the politics within the Trade Federation in The Phantom Menace only complicate the rise of the Empire, so eliminating that story line streamlines the overall narrative. Finally, the viewer does not have to experience the bizarre early days of Padme’s relationship with Anakin – in The Phantom Menace, Padme seems to be at least a teenager, and maybe even in her 20s, while Anakin is still a young boy, an unnecessary and awkward wrinkle that is best done away with.
So to recap, we move from Episodes IV and V to Episode II, and follow it up with Episode III: Revenge of the Sith. This allows the Star Wars arc to take a flashback detour in the middle of the primary narrative, leaving the viewer with a massive cliffhanger and while filling in the backstory with the Prequel Episodes. The first-time viewer will begin to understand Anakin’s descent from prodigy to angsty apprentice to Sith Lord. Anakin’s thirst for power, his need for approval, and his forbidden love for Padme all coalesce into a toxic stew that turns him away from the Jedi order and lures him towards the Dark Side. We see the corresponding rise of the Empire, the near-demise of the Jedis, and Obi Wan’s decision to secret away baby Luke and baby Leia. In short, we understand the key elements that led to the events of Episodes IV and V. And then, the finale.
The Machete Order’s most important consequence may be its treatment of Episode VI: Return of the Jedi. The narrative is staged in such away that adds drama to Luke’s final confrontation with Darth Vader while introducing a new layer of tension to the final chapter. With Vader’s story laid out, the seductive power of the Dark Side only holds more sway for young Luke Skywalker. We know that his father followed a similar path, beginning his Jedi training despite being “too old,” refusing to give up his emotions or his love for family and friends, and ultimately succumbing to anger and fear. The potential for Luke to descend into darkness is more real and his relationship with Darth Vader carries greater weight because of it.
Luke’s growth from daydreaming farmhand to savior of the Jedi order (and the galaxy, no biggy) is the most important character arc of the series and the tentpole that holds up Star Wars. His relationship with Darth Vader is critical to that arc, and the Machete Order helps ensure that that story line isn’t lost amid the chaos of sequels and prequels. For that reason, it has my vote as the best way to watch Star Wars, whether you are a young padawan or a veteran bounty hunter.
Thank you to everyone who bore with me through this long post. Please feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments. If you have another suggestion for viewing order, I would love to hear it. In the words of one of cinema’s greatest characters, don’t get cocky!