How to Watch Star Wars

[There are no spoilers for the Star Wars movies in this article.]

The original Star Wars and its sequels and prequels are without a doubt some of the most watched, critiqued, and examined movies in history. Fans are deeply passionate about the series. Unfortunately, there are a few major issues that tarnish that love, and of course, I'm talking about the prequels.

There has been much debate among fans on how to rewatch all six movies, especially since Episode Seven is coming in December 2015. A while ago I stumbled upon an article outlining the argument between the Episode Order (one through six) versus the Release Order (four, five, six, one, two, three). Both have some merits and some flaws. Most of the reveals are ruined by watching in Episode Order, but watching the movies in the Release Order renders the prequels mostly irrelevant (leaving some fans to simply abandon the prequels altogether).

For the sake of reference, here's a list of the movies in Release Order:

Star Wars (Episode IV: A New Hope) (1977)
Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi (1983)
Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999)
Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones (2002)
Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (2005)

I could probably go on for pages upon pages of how the prequels don't work. But what is the alternative?

One option (the Ernst Rister Order) uses the cliffhanger provided by The Empire Strikes Back as a jumping off point to view the prequels in flashback, ordering the episodes four, five, one, two, three, six. This does work well, but it isn't perfect. Why? Episode One is why. The Phantom Menace is really awful. It's out of place and doesn't fit tonally with the other movies. It's like a made-for-kids movie that went directly to DVD. Honestly, I put off my rewatch for nearly half a decade because I couldn't sit through The Phantom Menace again.

But the Machete Order, eliminating Episode One entirely, makes the whole thing work. This specific viewing order (four, five, two, three, six) alters the prequels and makes them surprisingly effective.

Again, for the sake of reference, here is The Machete Order:

Star Wars (Episode IV: A New Hope) (1977)
Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones (2002)
Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (2005)
Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi (1983)

I won't go into excruciating plot detail (if you'd like that, check out this very spoilery article by the guy who came up with the Machete Order) but the long and the short of it is simple. The Machete Order preserves the big story reveals so that the emotional weight of them isn't destroyed (namely the big one at the end of The Empire Strikes Back). The tone of all five movies is consistent, and it flows incredibly well as one big story. Watching the second and third prequel movies as an extended flashback makes the parallels that George Lucas envisioned far more apparent, and gives the prequels more significance. The stakes are higher, and even Luke's motivations and destiny are called into question. And most importantly, we never see Anakin as a child. That turned out to be far more important than I realized.

Is it perfect? No. But after trying it, I think it is the best option available with the films we have, because I've never been able to simply abandon the prequels. In fact, Revenge of the Sith is my second favorite after The Empire Strikes Back. Perhaps that's why I like this viewing order so much. It elevates Revenge of the Sith, and shows how good it actually is. And Return of the Jedi, arguably a bit fluffier than it should have been (Ewok pun intended), acquires more weight as well as more joy, and becomes the perfect ending.

Anyway, for what it's worth. If you're planning a Star Wars rewatch, you might want to give the Machete Order a shot, because I was truly surprised by how effective it was. And if you've never seen Star Wars (I'm talking about you, Sunbunny) and are even more reluctant to try the movies because of Episode One's reputation, this may really work for you, too.
J.D. Balthazar is a confirmed nerd who loves most things sci-fi or fantasy-related. He reviews Arrow, The Originals and Farscape and cool new movies that strike his fancy.

Billie Doux contributed to this article, and has geek cred because she's reviewed all six Star Wars movies.


Billie Doux said...

I contributed to J.D.'s article above because I tried the Machete Order, and it worked very well for me, too. I've of course watched them in Release Order (because I watched all of them in the theater when they were released), and when I reviewed them a few years ago, I did it in Episode Order. But watching them this way is so much better. I very much recommend it.

ChrisB said...

A recent episode of The Big Bang Theory spent the entire half hour discussing how to re-watch these movies. Of course, the boys were all doing it on May the Fourth.

The Machete Order was discussed, but abandoned as Sheldon feels that if one if going to watch the whole series, one should watch the whole series. I watched the episode thinking the writers had made the whole thing up.

Which is why I loved this article so much. I laughed out loud when I saw that it was, in fact, I who had been shortsighted in May. I plan to do a re-watch at some point before next December. Although, the OCD part of me might struggle to leave out Episode One.

Great article, J.D. and Billie.

1130am said...

I'm so glad you wrote this because it's been bothering me lately. I'm about to have a baby and I can't decide how to introduce this double trilogy and The Lord of the Rings/The Hobbit double trilogy to my child...does your theory change when it comes to children? I guess what I'm wondering is: should anyone ever see Episode 1?

The Machete order sounds great to me, though. I loved the discussion on TBBT in May and now your (and Billie's) recommendation makes me even more certain that this is probably the way to go.Thanks!

Billie Doux said...

ChrisB, I saw that BBT episode too. :)

Congratulations on your upcoming arrival, 1130am! The Machete Order guy (or maybe it was the Den of Geek guy, I just read both articles) suggests that if you don't want to leave Episode One out entirely, watch it separately afterward and treat it as a related movie in the same universe.

J.D. Balthazar said...

Chris, 11:30,

What has been suggested is to save Episode 1 as expanded material,like the clone wars cartoons and the upcoming SW Rebels cartoon.

1130am said...

I think I'll at least wait on Episode 1 until my child is old enough to be cynical ;)

Oh, and thanks Billie, it's been exhausting so far and the baby's still months away, so my commenting has fallen but I'm still here reading and checking in every day!

CrazyCris said...

I've never heard of the Machete Order (I must have missed the reference in that BBT episode!), but it seems pretty brilliant to me! I'll definitely try that next time I rewatch them. :)

Brettsky said...

I've never tried it this way, but I probably will eventually, after all, I'm a huge Star Wars fan (among everyone I know, I'm the "Star Wars Guy"). I'd urge people not to leave off The Phantom Menace if you've never watched these movies before. Each person should make their own decisions on wether or not it's a good or enjoyable movie. I personally enjoy it more than Attack of the Clones.

I even dragged my friend to the 3D showing of Ep I (by paying for his ticket), and he said it wasn't as bad as he remembered. I will admit that it isn't very Star Warsy, but it has merit.

J.D. Balthazar said...

Brettsky, I totally get where you're coming from. There is definitely merit to Episode I, and I don't hate it personally. It just doesn't fit, and for someone watching the first time through it is mostly irrelevant to the viewing.

Without going into specifics or repeating myself, everything that happens in Episode I is either reiterated in Episode II or is totally independent from the rest of the films (i.e. characters that only appear in that film and do not impact the overall story). Whereas dropping Episode I from the order actually shortens it (by almost two and a half hours) and doesn't detract from the overall 'Story' one bit.

That isn't to say that a new viewer should never see Episode I, but I honestly feel that for the main story it detracts from the experience overall.

Brettsky said...

I guess you're right. Assuming one enjoys the 5 movies, they could always go back to Ep I if they're interested. It is odd how almost none of it has any relevance.

I'd personally go for the order they were released if it was my first time, but that's just because I like to see it in the order everyone else saw it, because order does affect quite a bit on the experience, and I want to experience what others experienced, good or bad.

Oddly enough, my introduction to Star Wars was Return of the Jedi when I was a small kid, so I don't really remember watching Star Wars for the first time, it's just always been a part of my life.

Dustin said...

I'd also stumbled across the Machette order article recently and had actually posted a link to it in the comments of TBBT Star Wars Episode review. I haven't tried it, but love the concept.

My two girls (ages 9 and 7) love Episodes 1 and 6 the best - due to Ewoks and young Anakin. I mention this for the parents who don't know what to do concerning Episode 1 and their kids. Consider the possibility that the only way that they'll ever enjoy that movie might be to watch it young. Since I paid to own a copy of Ep 1, it's nice to know that I'm getting some of my money's worth through their enjoyment.

Episode 3 on the other hand, I've only shown to my oldest daughter once recently. I didn't want her to see it when she was too young.