The Right Way to Watch Star Wars
Like every other responsible uncle on the planet, I have been faced with a dilemma: how to expose my beloved nephews to the Star Wars films.
If they'd been born before the prequels it would have been so simple, but obviously that's no longer the case. Sure, I could just ignore the existence of Episodes I through III, as so many of my friends have done, but that seems weirdly dishonest. It's taking the easy way out - and as a responsible, dedicated, upstanding role model that lives 1400km away and sees them a couple of times a year at best, that's not the lesson that I want to teach the boys.
Like you, I long believed that I had only two options: release order, or numerical order. Numerical order has the problem that it involves watching three terrible films before getting to the good stuff, offering seven-plus hours in which my nephews could decide that they wanted nothing to do with Star Wars and, by extension, their uncle.
Release order would work except that the DVD and Blu-ray versions of the films have been tinkered with so that Hayden Christensen appears as the ghost of Anakin Skywalker at the end of Return of the Jedi instead of the late Sebastian Shaw, which is utterly baffling if you've not seen the prequels (“Uncle Andrew, why is the creepy-looking man standing with Ben and Yoda? Is he going to touch them in a bad way?”). As with so many things about the “special editions” (Han shot first, alright? He ALWAYS shot first) George Lucas' improvements do nothing but ruin stuff.
It might seem an intractable problem – but there is a solution. And it is inspired. And it is The Machete Order.
The SW fan and incomparable genius Rob Hilton first put this forward on his blog Absolutely No Machete Juggling over a year ago, and despite my being a big ol' nerd it's taken this long to come to my attention – and when I mentioned it on Facebook I discovered I was not alone in having missed it. And so, as a public service to the nation's concerned and nerdy uncles and aunts, I provide it to you. You're welcome, Australia.
So, what does Hilton suggest?
The viewing order goes like this:
A New Hope (episode IV, the one people mean when you say “Star Wars”), The Empire Strikes Back (episode V), Attack of the Clones (episode II), Revenge of the Sith (episode III), Return of the Jedi (episode VI).
Basically you have the original trilogy with a big two-film flashback at the cliffhanger at the end of Empire. And no Phantom Menace at all.
Not. At. All.
The reason is twofold: one, no matter which way you cut it, The Phantom Menace is a shit film. And two, because if you take the line that the story of Star Wars is principally the journey of Luke Skywalker, there is absolutely nothing in it that is necessary.
What's more, you lose all the things that you hated about the prequels. Endless political manoeuvring between the Trade Federation and the Galactic Senate? Gone. Podracing? Gone. Jar Jar Binks? Gone. Midichlorians? The whole Gungans-vs-the-Naboo nonsense? Jake Lloyd as the adorable tow-headed “yippee!”-shrieking Anakin Skywalker? Wonderfully, magnificently gone. You do lose some stuff you liked – Darth Maul was a triumph of set design, if barely a character, but it's a small sacrifice for a world in which Jar Jar gets about 20 seconds of total screen time in the whole epic story. One well timed sneeze and he's not there at all.
There's nothing in Episode I that's vital. And it actually makes things work better, especially in terms of the development of Anakin's character.
Without Episode I, the first time you see Anakin he's in a lift with Obi-Wan going to see Padme after the attempt on her life. He's nervous. He's creepy. He loses his temper with his mentor and is clearly barely holding it together as he clumsily makes a pass at an old friend he hasn't seen in a decade, and because you don't know that Padme was a good deal older than Anakin, there's no creepy age gap stuff there: they seem like long-parted childhood friends, one of whom has been disturbingly obsessed with the other.
That this person could turn into a twisted, evil despot seems perfectly plausible: in fact, it's a wonder Amidala doesn't take out an AVO after their first meeting. (“She covered that camera,” he whines at one point, “I don't think she liked me watching her.” Seriously, something ain't right with the boy). And the fact that you don't see Padme and Anakin interacting before this means you can imagine some sort of deeper connection between the two that might explain her falling in love with him in Episode II, rather than establishing that actually no, there was no chemistry at any point.
Furthermore, you actually have a far more clear setting for the films without all the Episode I stuff. You know that a bunch of planets want to leave the Republic and that a war is brewing. You don't know that it's based on a complicated trade dispute, and that's fine because nobody could possibly care. The Senate are trying to hold the Republic together against external forces. Fine.
So, what bits are confusing?
- Well, without Episode I you don't know that Anakin made Threepio, which means that when he's greeted as “the maker” it seems odd. But there's only the one reference and in any case the idea that Anakin made Threepio was, let's be clear, pretty fucking stupid anyway. So that's fine.
- The former slave Anakin goes to see his previous owner Watto about his mother – all of which is established in their brief conversation where he explains he sold her to a farmer. No confusion there. Also fine.
- Palpatine talks about Darth Plagueus being able to manipulate midichlorians to create life when he's rolling out his trap for Anakin. The context explains all you need to know – in fact, you could even just assume he meant “mitochondria” (the little energy factories in your cells), which would make even more sense. So again, that's fine.
- You don't know the ins and outs of Qui Gon Jinn, although the only thing you need to know is that he was Obi-Wan's master. Which is made clear when Yoda says that he'd learned to communicate with “your old master, Qui Gon Jinn” at the end of Episode III, which is the one and only time knowing who he is would be necessary. So, again: fine.
- Without Jinn and Maul we lose some of the nuance about the relationships between masters and apprentices in the Jedi and Sith, but it makes no difference. We don't need to know that Darth Sidious was master to Darth Maul before Count Dooku; we also don't need to know that someone other than Obi-Wan started training Anakin.
…and that's it.
As far as kids watching the film goes, it also makes clear that Alec Guinness and Ewan McGregor are the same person: they dress the same, they both have beards, there's none of the clean-shaven tunic-n-rats tail look from Episode I to confuse matters.
And it actually works better for making the parallels between Luke and Vader resonate more deeply. Watch the original trilogy all the way through and you end Empire on a big downer – Luke's lost his hand, Han's in carbonite, the Rebels are in retreat – and then the gang's all back on Tatooine in Jedi, Luke's making some implausible sounding threats, and there's an insane plan to rescue Han in place that doesn't actually appear to make sense.
But with machete order it suddenly gets awesome. Not only is there a two-film gap before the cliffhanger starts to be resolved, but we've just seen Anakin get seduced by the dark side. So when we find that C-3PO and R2-D2 have been callously given to Jabba, we don't assume that it's all part of a cunning and unnecessarily complicated scheme. Luke's motives seem opaque – and even more so when he appears in Jabba's palace (dressed in black, as per Anakin – and with a silhouette that could be Vader), force chokes a guard and starts issuing threats. We don't even know if the group are still together: for all we know Leia, Lando and Chewie have their own agenda.
The machete order also raises the stakes for the Rebellion in that it shows just how devious and powerful the Emperor is – he's taken over the entire galaxy rather than just being Vader's direct supervisor – and Episode II and III makes clear that Yoda, for all his X-wing-raisin' superpowers, is completely fallible.
Similarly, with the prequels we see Obi-Wan more like David Brent in The Office, trying to be both a friend and a boss and failing miserably at both. He's doing a bad job of mentoring Anakin and it's making his apprentice resentful and angry – again, drawing a throughline to the creature Vader would become. We don't need to know that Obi-Wan had daddy issues with Qui-Gon; all that matters is that Anakin needs a short leash and that Obi-Wan's incapable of controlling him. We don't have to rely on Obi-Wan's “I thought that I could train him as well as Yoda. I was wrong”: we actively see him fail.
Return of the Jedi is no longer a magician leading an army against another magician with an army; it's a bunch of flawed characters making a probably hopeless last-ditch effort against an established government – one with endless resources that's lead by an evil tactical genius. Which also makes the huge celebrations around the galaxy that were added into the Special Editions make sense: it's clear that this is more than a single military victory; this is the end of a dictatorial regime.
There's also a resonance with Vader's defeat of the Emperor: it's not just a sudden change of heart because his kid's getting electrocuted; it's a realisation that the moment he turned to the Dark Side – when Palpatine was riddling Mace Windu with force lightening – was based on a lie.
You also preserve the two big character twists: Palpatine being the Emperor is still not clear, since no-one calls him “Emperor Palpatine” in Empire (and you don't get that idiotic duh-duh-DUH! close up of Palpatine in Episode I when Mace Windu ponders where the second Sith Lord could be), and – most importantly – you don't know that Vader is Luke's father. In fact, you get a bonus twist since you find out that Leia is Luke's sister well before they do, with the bonus of having two complete films between that revelation and their weird incest kiss.
The things you lose deserve to be lost and those clumsy references to the earlier films suddenly have subtlety and resonance. It not only works, it works BETTER than any other viewing order.
Machete Order. The only way to watch the Star Wars films with your nephews. Hilton, you're a genius.
Now, how to get Caravan of Courage in there…