Even though I grew up watching all the Star Wars movies every few months, I hadn’t seen any of them since the last prequel came out in 2005.
I couldn’t, because you can’t buy the Star Wars movies on iTunes or stream them through Amazon or Netflix, and I don’t have a DVD player, BlueRay player, or VHS.
Finally, a friend of mine in the office provided me with all six movies on a thumbdrive.
So starting last week, I watched all* of the movies again.
Here’s what I learned, having been away so long.
There is only one proper way to watch the series, and it’s not from Episode 1 to Episode 6. There are lots of story arcs in the Star Wars saga that matter. The one that matters most, and every movie touches on, is the rise, fall, and redemption of Anakin Skywalker, also known as Darth Vader, also known as Luke’s dad.
Because of that, the best order to watch the movies is the original Star Wars, then Empire Strikes Back, then the second prequel, then the third, and then final movie in the original trilogy, Return of The Jedi.
Watched that way, you get a story that introduces a hero and a terrible all-powerful monster, reveals that the monster is the hero’s father, goes back in time to show how the father became a monster, and ends with the monster redeeming himself.
It’s a deeply resonant narrative framework — full of allusions to eras gone by and foreshadowing of drama to come.
You’ll notice I didn’t watch the first prequel. It turns out you don’t need to. That’s good, because that movie is historically awful.
I didn’t come up with the genius idea to watch the movies in this order, by the way. Rod Hilton did. He calls it the machete order.
The first Star Wars movie is very hard to watch because it isn’t very good. The scenes go on too long. R2D2 and C3PO are in the desert forever. After the Millennium Falcon lands on the Death Star and before it escapes, the movie becomes a series of contrived situations from which our heroes must extricate themselves. The trash compactor scene is just Luke yelling “3PO!” over and over.
One problem with the movie is that it’s all about Luke. Luke is boring. Vanilla. A little whiney. He’s a lot like the kid actor who plays Anakin in the first prequel. Who wants to spend two hours with someone like that?
The best aspects of the first movie are its mysterious references to an on-going story that we’re just joining now, and the thrilling final assault on the Death Star, which ends with Han Solo shouting: “Great shot, kid! That was one in a million!”
Actually the best part of the movie is everything Han Solo, which makes sense, because…
The first movie is about Han choosing against the Dark Side. I thought the original Star Wars was about a young hero of mysterious parentage discovering hidden powers and saving the world. It’s not! It’s about a pirate smuggler who, almost despite himself, becomes a do-gooder. It’s about Han Solo. He’s the character who goes through the most change, faces the biggest choices, and fights with other characters about them. When he blasts Darth Vader’s wingman out of the sky and shouts: “you’re all clear kid now let’s blow this thing and go home!” it is the emotional climax of the film. Han Solo has chosen others over himself. He’s chosen against the Dark Side.
The second Star Wars is by far the best. The miracle of the Star Wars movies is how much better the second one is than the first. One big reason is that the production value is much higher. This makes sense. They got to spend 50% more making it. There are still some props that look like re-purposed trash cans (that one droid getting tortured in Cloud City), but hello, imperial walkers.
In many ways, Empire Strikes Back is the movie that invents the Star Wars universe. It was the film that got to decide which pieces of the first movie should be emphasised going forward. Winners: The relationship between Han and Leia. The human side of Darth Vader. Losers: Luke’s buddies from Tatooine.
The movie is full of clever inventions, too. Like Yoda. That floating reconnaissance droid on Hoth that goes wah-wah-wah-meeminnameep, meemnnameep.
It kind of sucks to be a Jedi, actually. The whole reason Anakin Skywalker goes from the good side to the dark side is that he keeps having nightmares about his wife (Padmé, aka Natalie Portman) dying, and he wants to be powerful enough to save her. Because of conflicts like that, Jedi are forbidden to marry. In fact, they are discouraged from loving any particular individual very much. They are told to “hide these feelings,” because they can be used to destroy you. Luke is told to bury his brotherly feelings toward Leia, for example.
The second two prequels aren’t as bad as you remember. The worst shame about the first prequel is how it tainted everyone’s view of the next two movies. They aren’t that bad. In them, Anakin Skywalker is a Jedi who is far more powerful than any we see in the rest of the films, including Luke in Return of The Jedi. The actor who plays him, Hayden Christensen plays Anakin as a cocky, talented, and wise-cracking kid. He’s like a mix between Han Solo and Luke Skywalker. Watching his descent into evil is at least as compelling as watching Luke learn to trust the Force while hanging out with Yoda.
The second two prequels aren’t kid movies like the first one, either. In the second movie, Anakin slaughters a village full of sand people on Tatooine. In the third, he kills almost all the Jedi, including some “younglings.” It gets dark.
Other reasons the second two prequels aren’t terrible: Natalie Portman is on the screen all the time, getting tempted by and then giving into forbidden love. Darth Vader gets a good five minutes of screen time in Episode 3. Yoda has a lightsaber battle.
Blows it, Yoda does. If you really want to know whose fault it is that the Old Republic and its democratic ways get tossed aside in favour of the Empire that Luke and Leia have to rebel against, look no further than Yoda. Supposedly the wisest of all Jedi, he couldn’t sense that the Republic’s most power-hungry senator, Palpatine, was actually a Dark Lord. Palpatine gains power by putting his apprentice, Count Dooko, in charge of a group of rebels. Then he asks the senate for an army of stormtroopers to defeat the rebels. Yoda not only goes along with it, he leads the Stormtroopers into battle.
The prequels needed more swashbuckling pirates. The biggest thing missing from the prequels is a normal, non-Jedi the rest of us can relate to. They need someone like Han Solo, who thinks the Force is a bunch of hooey and is more concerned with making a buck and a little romance than saving the galaxy.
The updated special effects in the re-released original trilogy now look as dated as claymation and models. Before coming out with the prequels, George Lucas re-released the original trilogy with improved special effects. These days, they look as dated as the original special effects once did. They look like cartoons. That’s OK, so do the dinosaurs in 1994’s Jurassic Park.
Some of the special effects are still amazing. The lightsabers still look cool. So does Darth Vader’s costume. The interiors inside Imperial ships in Empire Strikes Back and the Death Star in Return of the Jedi are gleaming and vast and forboding. The claymation creatures look better than the CGI ones. Until this viewing, I never appreciated the paintings used as exteriors in establishing shots. I think that’s because they are so good I never thought they were anything but wide shots of actual exteriors.
I figured out why Jar-Jar Binks exists. From the start, a big component of Star Wars is cute characters. R2D2 is cute with his emotive beeps. So ar the Ewoks. So George Lucas probably felt like he had to create another cute character for the prequels. Unfortunately, he came up with Roger Rabbit’s malformed twin.
*I don’t count the first prequel, Episode I
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