How to Watch Star Wars
There has been an awakening.
Anticipation is building for the long-awaited Episode VII in the Star Wars saga. As we draw closer to the release of The Force Awakens, die hard fans and Star Wars virgins alike will presumably be revisiting episodes I–VI to prepare for one of the biggest motion picture events in recent memory. One of the most debated topics within Star Wars fandom has been what order to watch the movies in. After all, there’s more than one way of going about it. Some prefer the old school style of watching them in the order they were released (IV, V, VI, I, II, III), while others would vouch to stay true to the chronological timeline (I, II, III, IV, V, VI). If you consider yourself part of the more adventurous crowd, the alternating method (I, IV, II, V, III, VI) spices things up a bit. (After all, Lucas famously said Star Wars was like poetry, in that “it rhymes.”)
You can weigh the pros and cons for all of these to varying degrees, but none of them can match the calibre of the “flashback” order. The sequence of viewing best represents the story and characters of Star Wars without spoiling any of the major reveals the franchise has become famous for. Maybe you’re introducing Star Wars to your kids for the first time, or you’re planning a massive, all-day movie marathon with friends. Either way, whether you’re a han-shot-first purist or a newcomer to the galaxy far, far away, utilizing the flashback sequence will enrich your viewing experience of Star Wars.
1. Episode IV: A New Hope
Kicking off our list as well as the entire franchise itself is A New Hope. Although we find it in the middle of the saga chronologically, it was the first movie to actually be released. Back in 1977, George Lucas was a relatively unknown up-and-comer in the industry. He had penned his plans for a massive film franchise spanning decades of ongoing interplanetary conflict in an epic space opera called “Star Wars.” It would begin with the tragedy of a rogue Jedi knight, and continue with his two children who would lead a rebellion against their father’s empire. Lucas envisioned that as many as twelve movies could comprise the saga, following the lineage of the fallen Jedi throughout years of space wars. With only a minimal budget to work with and no guarantee of sequels to be green-lit, Lucas settled on the middle chapter of his conceptual series, citing it as the most interesting part of the story, and the most self-contained. According to the director’s commentary, the studio was adamant that the “Episode IV” banner be removed from the film’s title as not to confuse viewers.
A New Hope tells the story of a young farm boy who dreams of leaving his desert homeworld to join the rebel academy and fight against the oppressive Galactic Empire. After discovering his dead father’s history as a Jedi warrior slain by the villainous Darth Vader, Luke Skywalker joins forces with a Jedi-turned-hermit, a cocky smuggler, his wookie partner in crime, and a pair of droids in an effort to save a princess from the evil Empire’s clutches.
The movie serves as a great introduction to the universe of Star Wars. Even though terms like “lightsaber” and the “Force” are so deeply embedded in our culture nowadays, there was once a time when audiences had no idea who Darth Vader was. Because it was the original Star Wars, Episode IV sufficiently explains everything from what the Force is (a mystical presence that binds all living things in the universe) to who the Jedi are (galactic peacekeepers who harness the power of the Force for good and wield laser swords). If you decided to start with Episode I, then you’ll end up being a little lost, because despite it taking place at the beginning of the six chronicles, the movie already assumes you’re familiar with the setting and concepts that are unique to Star Wars. By using A New Hope as the starting point for your journey through the saga, you are given a proper introduction to how things work in this universe, and the quintessential Star Wars experience.
2. Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back
The next movie on the list is The Empire Strikes Back. Suddenly, George Lucas was a household name and Star Wars was the highest grossing movie of all time. He made Empire as a continuation of Luke’s story in the aftermath of A New Hope. This time around, Lucas was allowed to include the “Episode V” subtitle to the opening crawl, which was followed by the re-release of the first Star Wars in 1981 with the title restored to Episode IV: A New Hope. In this chapter of the saga, Luke begins to have mysterious visions which lead him to the desolate planet of Dagobah, where he trains in the ways of the Force under Jedi master Yoda. Meanwhile, Han and Leia, pilot and princess from the first film, draw closer together as they evade a bounty on their heads and go into hiding.
Episode V introduces a few new faces to the franchise, including 800-year-old monk Yoda, Cloud City administrator Lando Calrissian, bounty hunter Boba Fett (excluding the bonus scene from the special edition of A New Hope), and the feared leader of the Empire, Darth Sidious. These characters (save for Lando) will become prominent figures in Episodes I-III, so it’s best to establish them now rather than watching Episode I first and missing the references to their debut film.
Without getting into spoiler territory, Empire culminates to a shocking cliff-hanger, with Luke, Han, and Leia’s fates left up in the air for the next episode (taking inspiration from the episodic 1940’s sci-fi serials Flash Gordon, which Lucas grew up watching). “Anakin Skywalker” gets name-dropped, and Darth Vader’s past relationship with Yoda and Ben Kenobi is teased further. It only makes sense now to build the suspense and dive deeper into the rich history of the now extinct Jedi Order.
3. Episode I: The Phantom Menace
We’re jumping back in time with this one (the beginning of an extended “flashback” sequence, if you will). While Episode IV lays the groundwork for story elements in “Star Wars,” Episode I is the official beginning to the story itself. It reveals the background to characters from episodes IV and V including Obi-Wan and Darth Sidious, as well as the humble origins of a child slave called Anakin Skywalker. It also provides details on the ways of the Jedi, the return of the Sith (otherwise known as the antithesis of Jedi), and the pre-Empire (approximately 30 years Before the Battle of Yavin, or ~30 B.B.Y.) state of government, a diplomatic Galactic Republic.
The film follows Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn and his apprentice, Obi-Wan, as they aid the Republic in a conflict with the Trade Federation. Along the way, they come across a boy named Anakin, who Qui-Gon believes may be the Chosen One of an ancient Jedi prophecy, said to one day bring balance to the Force. Meanwhile, a Sith Lord arises in the wake of the political turmoil.
The obvious reason to avoid starting your “Star Wars” journey with The Phantom Menace is because it’s the weakest of the instalments. Too often Star Wars amateurs start with The Phantom Menace, are put off by the mediocrity of the movie, and call it a quits without even making it to A New Hope. It also ruins part of the visual awe of the original if you watch it before A New Hope, since the CGI effects in this movie vastly outshine 1977’s technical standings.
4. Episode II: Attack of the Clones
Like The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones has a lot of subtle callbacks to events that happen in Episode IV and V. Set ten years after the events of the preceding film, the story here is that now-Jedi apprentice Anakin is tasked with protecting the Queen of Naboo following an assassination attempt on her life. As a forbidden love affair ensues between the two, Skywalker’s master, Obi-Wan, begins to investigate a conspiracy surrounding the brewing war with a separatist movement.
Episode II sets the “Clone Wars” era into motion, which is what Ben Kenobi reminisces about when he tells Luke about his father in Episode IV. Seeing these events unfold for Ani and Obi in their prime adds more weight to the film having watched A New Hope prior (especially since Ewan McGregor perfectly harnesses the spirit of Alec Guiness in his performance, physically and behaviourally). Both The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones are mostly independent plots in the grand scheme of Star Wars, so nothing crucial in their stories is ruined by being fitted into the middle of your viewing experience.
There’s really no way around putting Clones on your watch list anywhere else outside of being between Episode I and Episode III. It uses Menace as the basis for world-building (as far as how the senate works, what the government looks like, etc.) as to not spend too much time giving exposition again. It’s also not very far behind Sith on the fictional timeline, so it makes the most sense to keep it placed after I and before III on the watch order.
Bonus: The Clone Wars
Here’s where we reach the half-way point in our journey (or the intermission, if it’s a movie marathon day). If it’s your first time watching, don’t feel obligated to indulge in the extra Episode instalments. You won’t miss out on anything important by skipping over the cartoons. But for the mega Star Wars enthusiasts, taking advantage of the canon to add to your reliving of Star Wars is something well worth trying.
The animated film, Star Wars: The Clone Wars, was a theatrically released launch to the long-running Cartoon Network series of the same name. Although serving as the show’s pilot episode, the movie (continuing the tradition of muddling the order) isn’t technically the first part of the Clone Wars timeline (“Cat and Mouse” from season 2 and “Hidden Enemy” from season 1 actually pre-date it chronologically). That being said, I’d still recommend checking out the feature film before jumping into the series. It establishes the kind of feel you’ll be getting from the animated show and concentrates on characters you already know before shifting the focus to clone troopers and Ashoka Tano, Anakin’s apprentice, whom he begins training from the movie onwards.
The six seasons follow the adventures of the Jedi Knights during the three-year Clone War crisis between the Republic and the Confederacy of Independent Systems. Most of the storylines were conceived by George Lucas, who served as an executive producer. Because the series comes in at over 120 episodes, it’s not exactly something you can binge watch in a day, especially in between six other movies. For the marathoners, stick to just the theatrical feature, and maybe a few of your favourite episodes (IGN put together a great top 10 list here), but for everyone else whose planning a re-watch that’s more spread out, The Clone Wars series compliments the saga with its riveting action, story arcs, and foreshadowing. (Also, cartoon Anakin is a better actor than Hayden Christiansen.)
5. Episode III: Revenge of the Sith
The Clone Wars sets up Episode III with its last season leading in to the opening events of Revenge of the Sith. We enter into the movie at the climax of the Clone Wars, with seasoned Jedi Anakin Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi leading a campaign to rescue the Supreme Chancellor from separatist captivity. In the background of the battle, the Galactic Republic falls to its demise and the Empire rises in its place.
Episode III is the darkest chapter of the Star Wars saga, contrasting the exuberant atmosphere of A New Hope significantly. If you were to watch Episode IV after Episode III, you’d be taken back by the dramatic shift in tone (going from IV to V and then into prequel territory is a much more gradual progression). Also, IV being the oldest and III being the newest means for an awkward transition from the state-of-art CG masterwork of the mid 2000’s to the slim-budgeted special effects of the late 70’s. The final lightsaber duel between Obi-Wan and Darth Vader in A New Hope looks especially rough and stilted if you’ve already seen their fast-paced and intensely-choreographed initial confrontation at the end of Revenge of the Sith.
It can also be a problematic piece in your viewing order if you take the ‘release date’ route. It’s a depressing note to end on, especially if you’re watching these to get pumped up for The Force Awakens. Besides, Revenge of the Sith takes place nearly fifty years before Episode VII, so it’s not exactly the best segway.
Bonus: Star Wars Rebels
Here’s another detour in the journey that’s only necessary for the most devoted of fans. Star Wars Rebels was the first project developed after Lucasfilm was bought out by Disney a few years back. Set during the early days of the rebellion before things take full swing in A New Hope, the show is about teenaged Ezra, a street smart orphan who goes from petty thief to joining the crew of the starship Ghost – a band of motley rebels led by a Hera, the strong-willed pilot, and Kanan, one of the last remaining Jedi. Hunted by the Inquisitor, Darth Vader’s personal agent tasked with eliminating any survivors of the Great Jedi Purge (as seen in Episode III), the gang of misfits embarks on a series of adventures throughout the stars in hopes of sparking a rebellion.
As it was with The Clone Wars, the show is best appreciated once you’re familiar with the other movies, so don’t just follow the chronology and watch it before A New Hope. The show quickly became popular for its cameos, including Darth Vader (read by James Earl Jones, the famous voice of Vader in the films), Obi-Wan (voiced by James Arnold Taylor from The Clone Wars), Yoda (Frank Oz from the films), Lando (Billy Dee Williams from the films), and C3P0 (Anthony Daniels, who appears in every film including The Clone Wars), among other familiar faces. The only exception to moving it to the front of the list would be for younger viewers; if you have small kids, Rebels would be a great starting point for them before introducing the other movies.
Although it’s obviously family-friendly, don’t be fooled into thinking that this is just a kiddie show. It’s not as graphic as The Clone Wars, but it takes itself just as seriously as the other movies and gets surprisingly dark in latter episodes of the season. It also gives a clearer look at what was going on during the twenty year time gap between Episode III and Episode IV.
6. Episode VI: Return of the Jedi
We’re back! Everything comes full circle in Return of the Jedi. We pick up where we left off in Empire, only now we know the history behind Darth Vader, Obi-Wan, and the Emperor. Episodes I through III compliment the story of Episode VI considerably more than in IV and V. For instance, the scene where Luke talks about his mom with Leia is touching on its own, but becomes all the more poignant with actress Natalie Portman in mind as the mother figure, all dolled-up in her regal attire.
The final chapter of the saga shows Luke Skywalker embarking on a mission to save his friends and confront Darth Vader for the last time. Everything has been leading up to this. Excluding Timothy Zahn’s popular Thrawn trilogy of Expanded Universe books set after the events of Jedi (which are now non-canonical anyway), Episode VI has always served as the conclusion to the entire saga for thirty plus years. Luke’s ‘hero’s journey’ (based off of Joseph Campbell’s 12-step progression of the hero archetype) is completed at the end of the film, as are the other story and character arcs (some stretching across all six movies). It only makes sense to keep Jedi at the finale of your viewing order, because it is the definitive denouement of the franchise.
Had you watched the films in chronological order, though, the plot twist in Jedi would have been ruined early on (in Revenge of the Sith), but this way it is still preserved until the last ten minutes of the foregoing film. One of the other drawbacks to watching the episodes in order is that the look and feel of the films don’t flow from episode to episode; we go from dense, digital aesthetics to the practical effects of 1977 in a matter of one movie. The flashback order still sticks one of the older movies after the shinier prequels, but its special effects and pace hold up significantly better than Hope and Empire. The Luke/Vader lightsaber duel is a grand action sequence that can actually compete with the lightning-quick sword dances of episodes I–III. In fact, the movie’s practical sets and effects are a lot easier on the eyes than the CGI-heavy worlds of the prequels.
7. Episode VII: The Force Awakens
George Lucas entrusted his legacy in the hands of J.J. Abrams (though the Star Wars mastermind still serves as creative consultant), responsible for secretive projects like Lost and Super 8. As expected, The Force Awakens is still shrouded in mystery. What we do know is that it takes place thirty-some years after the events of Jedi, with classic characters Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, Han Solo, Chewbacca, R2D2, and C3PO returning.
Mark Hamill, who plays Luke Skywalker, was the same age filming The Force Awakens as Alec Guinness was (Obi Wan) making A New Hope. Luke is expected to take on the role of the old and wise mentor for the new characters as old Ben was in the original. Is it a coincidence that Lucas’ early drafts for that 12 picture saga contained Luke reappearing in the third trilogy as the new Obi-Wan-esque character?
Episodes VIII and IX are already in the early stages of development, and with ‘Anthology’ standalone titles coming including Rogue One and a Boba Fett origins film, the viewing order of this growing franchise is only going to get more complicated. But for now, as we eagerly await the newest chapter in the space opera saga, let’s revisit the galaxy far, far away by taking use of the “flashback” sequence and relive Star Wars all over again.
What do you think? Leave a comment.