First up, you can read our past STAR WARS blogs here.
All this week, we’ll be posting STAR WARS blogs leading up to the release of STAR WARS EPISODE VII: THE FORCE AWAKENS. We’ll be posting new musings, as well as re-posting past blogs about the venerable space opera that shaped many of our childhoods. This leads to an epic BLOCKBUSTER SHOWDOWN blog at the end of the week, where a bunch of Offenders go into congress together and riff on how THE FORCE AWAKENS holds up. Is it the STAR WARS film we’ve been waiting for after the blandness of the Prequel Trilogy? Or is it a postmodern piece of fan service dreck that should whither away in some fan fiction message board? We’ll find out soon!
The upcoming release of STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS appears to have rekindled the near obsessive excitement of a somewhat pessimistic fan base, given the prior creative direction of the franchise. While anxiously awaiting the arrival of the latest film, it’s a virtual certainty that the fan base is wont to recapture the intoxicating exuberance provided by the customary marathon viewing of the previous films. Thus follows the ubiquitous discussion of what is the appropriate viewing order of the films, narrative order (Episodes I-VI in sequence) or production order (Episodes IV-VI, then I-III).
My personal view is that either can be problematic. In regards to the narrative order, clearly the prequel trilogy (PT) is structured as to presume that the viewer is already familiar with the narrative and themes of the original trilogy (OT), despite the assertions of George Lucas. Conversely, watching the OT followed by the PT will subject the viewer to the unsatisfactory experience of watching what is generally regarded as an inferior group of films, subsequent to a group of films that are universally adored to an extent almost uncomfortable.
Now, every well-versed Star Wars fan knows about the proposed machete order in viewing the films, in that it emphasizes the Luke Skywalker saga first (Episodes IV and V), then mid-way, delves into the back story of Anakin (I and II) and then resumes with Episode VI. It also suggests to skip Episode I completely.
But, I suggest yet another way to view the six films prior to viewing THE FORCE AWAKENS this week! Hence, the purpose of this column is to propose an alternative viewing order of the six films (even though THE PHANTOM MENACE is much maligned, it’s still STAR WARS canon and I would argue that it should be included, as a completist), with the objective being to maximize the merits of the PT while mitigating its shortcomings as much as possible. For the reader’s consideration, I would suggest viewing the films in the following order:
- STAR WARS
- THE PHANTOM MENACE
- THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK
- ATTACK OF THE CLONES
- REVENGE OF THE SITH
- RETURN OF THE JEDI
Before we get into the discussion, I’d like to note that while it’s highly likely that the vast majority of readers will be at least somewhat familiar with the STAR WARS movies, I will refrain from discussing specific plot points as much as possible, in the event that someone who reads this hasn’t seen the films. If you know the films, you’ll likely recognize what I’m referring to anyway. I’d really be interested to see if a first time viewer actually follows this viewing order, and what they’re reactions would be.
It is practically a foregone conclusion that STAR WARS: A NEW HOPE must be watched prior to any other film in the series. It provides an excellent introduction to that cinematic universe, as the film’s rather simple narrative structure provides for the viewer to be immersed in the setting and backstory. The film provides simple yet clear explanations of key concepts such as the Force, the Jedi, and the Empire. In addition, it is the only film is the series that is a complete, standalone story.
Given that THE PHANTOM MENACE is arguably the weakest entry in the series, it should be viewed as early as possible. Personally, I never eat the chicken fried steak before the cauliflower. The most offensive transgressions of the film were the introduction of the Midichlorians, followed by the “Chosen One” prophecy. Face it dear readers, this is the truth. Poor acting, cheesy dialogue, borderline ethnic stereotype characters, while all objectionable, don’t rise to the same vomit inducing status as these ideas that emasculate the ideological foundations of the OT. Like I stated earlier, mitigate the shortcomings. It’s easier to tolerate these creatively stillborn ideas if they are presented early on, then quickly disregarded. Furthermore, THE PHANTOM MENACE does not contain many plot elements that would spoil events of later movies. Aside from the original STAR WARS, it’s the most self-contained story and features many narrative parallels with that film.
Given the voluminous praised heaped upon THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, I’ll just say that it’s good to follow the worst entry with the best. It will probably make it better if that’s even possible. It’s like making love to a beautiful partner after an extended period of abstinence… while also taking performance enhancers… at double the recommended dosage. In this viewing order, we can consider Empire as the ending of the first half of the saga, with one of the greatest cliffhangers ever. The second half can begin with ATTACK OF THE CLONES followed by REVENGE OF THE SITH and culminating with RETURN OF THE JEDI. These two prequel films can essentially resolve the cliffhanger by providing the backstory.
This viewing order attempts to capitalize off what I consider to be the biggest strength of the PT: that these movies serve to make RETURN OF THE JEDI a much better film. My biggest criticism of Jedi is not the Ewoks, but rather its penchant for introducing major plot and character elements without sufficient development. However many of those elements had their foundations established in the PT, and ultimately reach their payoff in RETURN OF THE JEDI. The best example is Palpatine, the PT’s most intriguing and successfully developed character. Relying solely on what is presented in Jedi, the character effectively serves as the primary villain of both that film and the OT. However, by watching the PT films first, the viewer is witness to the true extent of Palpatine’s evil nature, and his triumph in the PT greatly enhances his presence in Jedi as a much more formidable threat.
Usually, a prequel is most effective when it delves into plot elements or characters that were minimally or not at all explored in the original narrative. The best example of this is THE GODFATHER PART II. After watching the THE GODFATHER, the viewer knows hardly anything about Don Vito Corleone’s past, so that’s something that is ripe for exploration in a prequel. We are presented with a fresh, original work, despite having knowledge of the character’s ultimate fate, which keeps the viewer invested. In the case of the PT, most of the major narrative elements were already explained in the OT, to the extent that there isn’t much that feels truly revelatory. When elements are added from the PT, such as the Midichlorians, the Jedi code, etc., it generally falls flat and fails to truly enhance the mythology.
Therefore, in summary, I would suggest that, rather than consider the PT and the OT as two standalone works, the PT is most effective when considered a supplementary backstory, placed in between the gaps of the chapters of the OT. One final note, I tend to appreciate when narrative is presented in a non-linear chronology, so that’s another reason for the viewing order. An example of this would be the excellent John Sayles film LONE STAR. Come to think of it, that film also had an interesting take on sibling relationships as well…
Ian Hirokawa is a lifelong STAR WARS fan. Aside from working for the State of Hawaii, he vacations exclusively at Disneyland with his wife. He’s already taken three trips to “the happiest place on Earth” this year.