What’s the right order to watch the Star Wars films in?

Is it better to show a newcomer the original Star Wars trilogy first, or the prequels? James examines both sides of the argument…

A few months ago my family was almost torn apart by a terrible revelation – my brother’s girlfriend had never seen Star Wars. While you wrestle with the inconceivability of this notion, you should understand that she’s not a bad person, just a misguided one.

Fortunately, my brother and I were there to guide her back on the straight and narrow.

All too quickly, though, a problem arose: which trilogy should we show her first? The original or the prequels? Some of you may think this is a clear choice. You may be thinking there can only be one answer. But no, this is a problem fraught with difficulties, traps and pitfalls.

Fortunately for you, this a thorny path that I have already walked, so let me guide you through the bushes and into the sunny clearing of understanding.

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Episodic Order

Watching Star Wars in episodic order is arguably the most logical approach. After all, you wouldn’t watch Terminator 2: Judgment Day without watching its predecessor first. Nor could you pick up the last Harry Potter book and hope to have any chance of understanding what the hell was going on.

Star Wars, though, is a rare example of the second half of a story before told before the first. And because of this, the original films can stand apart from the prequels without being compromised. The original trilogy is the very story that many of us fell in love with. But can we honestly say that if episodes I, II and III had been released first that we wouldn’t have fallen in love with them? I’m not convinced that we can, and sheer, bloody-minded favouritism is no real excuse for watching IV, V and VI first.   

Of course, even speaking objectively, the original films are still widely recognised as superior to the prequels. But perhaps we are guilty of overlooking the influence of the first three films on the story arc of the originals. Without the new saga, the original films are what they always were: bold and exciting, a story about the epic triumph of good over evil, a coming of age story in a galaxy far, far away.

But, putting aside their obvious flaws for the moment, the content of the prequels shifts the entire focus of the story, subtly, but undeniably. All of a sudden, we have the fall of a good man and his eventual redemption at the hands of his son. Star Wars loses nothing from this added perspective. Added tragedy only brings added catharsis at the end.

We can also consider just how much the new films expand the Star Wars universe. The original films, despite the superhuman efforts of a special effects team that were way ahead of their time, just didn’t have the ability to produce a galaxy that was as metropolitan, dynamic and tangible as it later became, albeit with a disappointing over-dependence on CGI. As a result, the Star Wars universe feels much emptier. It is full of isolated and isolating settings.

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Thematically, this works perfectly. With the inclusion of the first three films we see a Republic that is falling apart, moving from bustling innocence (The Phantom Menace) through war torn horror (Revenge Of The Sith) to a repressed dictatorship (episode IV, V and VI). The effect of the repressed galaxy works well no matter what order you watch the films in, but it is wonderfully enhanced with the addition of episodes I, II and III.

The Problem

Having considered option one from all angles, it’s probably time to acknowledge the Bantha in the room: watching the films in order requires starting with The Phantom Menace. This means that, unless you are a child, it is unlikely you’ll quickly become hooked on the Star Wars saga.

It’s sad, but unless you have the investment in the series that the original films give, then you are unlikely to watch the curtain fall on The Phantom Menace with a burning desire for more. With A New Hope, it is an entirely different matter.

A New Hope is a self-contained story that manages to strike the perfect balance between leaving questions unanswered and creating a suitably cathartic ending – a boy becomes a hero, a rogue discovers a heart of gold, and an old man becomes more powerful than you could possibly imagine. The story could have ended there and we’d have been content, but George Lucas manages to follow this up with a couple of belters in Empire and Jedi.

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Given the choice between episodes I and IV, let’s face it, there really is only one way to go. But the superiority doesn’t stop with episodes I and IV. V is better than II, and (redemption of the prequels though it was) III continues to pale into insignificance in the light of VI. There’s really no reason this should stop anyone from watching them in numerical order, with the films steadily improving as they go on (not everyone agrees with my view that Jedi is better than Empire, mind…), and some might say this is a better approach than the inevitable disappointment that is The Phantom Menace. So perhaps it’s best to get it out of the way early on.

But let’s face it, those first three films just aren’t going to hook you the way the original trilogy does. Remember the original purpose of this article: we are meant to be introducing someone else to the Star Wars saga, and six films is a large investment of someone’s time. It’s vital, then, that you hook them in early on, otherwise the only option is a length of rope, a sturdy chair and enough toothpicks to keep their eyes open, and that sort of thing can be damaging to any friendship.

The Twists

The final point we should consider is that many of the defining moments of the final three films are plot twists that would otherwise be ruined if we watch the prequels first. “Obi Wan never told you what happened to your father” – well, maybe not, but Revenge Of The Sith has already cleared that one up.

“There is another Skywalker.” Yeah, we know mate, she was kissing her brother in the previous film – does their dad know about this?

Having said that, the phrase “I am your father” is so embedded in popular culture that surely, even to a new viewer, it’s never going to be a surprise that Darth Vader is Luke’s father, so there’s no actual spoilers involved.

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However, there’s still a lot to be said for maintaining the mystery. The prequels fill in a lot of gaps, which is great for the longtime fan, but not so amazing for everyone else. Let the newbie enjoy the Emperor as the sinister and brilliant archetype that he is in the original films, then once they’re familiar with him, allow them to enjoy the Machiavellian schemes of Senator Palpatine and his rise to power; surely the story is all the more satisfying that way?

Well there you have it my friends; I have tried to provide a fairly convincing argument for both sides. After all, this is just a bit of fun, idle speculation. And anyway, it’s all just subjective, right? Well, no actually.

Let’s face it, there is only one right answer to this problem, and that is that you should always (that’s always) go with the original films first. They are superior in nearly every respect, and while I envy the future generation’s freedom to view these films in sequential order, I’m glad I was able to enjoy the original series on its own, as well as feel the thrill of anticipation while awaiting the release of the prequels.

However, if you are a friend of mine and you haven’t watched Star Wars yet, then it may be best to keep quiet about it. Otherwise, I’ll be seeing you soon, with a length of rope and toothpicks in hand.