It's less than a month to go until "The Force Awakens" in movie theatres, which means now is the perfect time to rediscover the original Star Wars films. Many people hold that watching them in a new order is the right way to do it -- and I've found myself that it can make you appreciate the classic adventures in a whole new light.
First, you need to get hold of the movies, whether in physical or digital form; click here to find out how you can watch all six previous Star Wars films. And now you have a big decision to make: which order to watch in. If you watch them in the order they were made, you get the original and better trilogy out of the way too early. But if you watch the prequel trilogy first, you blow the big twist.
That's where a Star Wars-loving genius named Rod Hilton comes in. A few years ago, this devoted fan came up with a way of preserving the twist and saving the best bits, by simply watching the films in a different order. He named his method 'the Machete Order' after his blog.
Hilton argues that the Star Wars saga is the story of Luke Skywalker, and the story presented in the prequels is only relevant where it provides background to Luke's journey. So he suggests watching the films in the following order:
- "Episode IV: A New Hope"
- "Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back"
- "Episode II: Attack of the Clones"
- "Episode III: Revenge of the Sith"
- "Episode VI: Return of the Jedi"
Got that? We start at the beginning of Luke's journey; then at the midpoint cliffhanger we flash back to the prequels to learn the background of the big twist. Then, finally, we return to Luke's story for the big climax. That leads perfectly into "The Force Awakens", which picks up some 30-odd years after the end of "Jedi".
You may have spotted that the Machete Order ignores "The Phantom Menace" completely. This is because "Phantom Menace" doesn't add to the overarching story, and it actually makes some things more complicated or confusing. Plus, it's pretty terrible.
But does the Machete Order work? It was CNET editor Donald Bell's top choice out of five possible watching orders; there are subtle indications in CNET colleague Jeff Sparkman's Guide to May the 4th that he prefers it as well. But I needed to see for myself. I cleared my schedule, set my WhatsApp status to busy and dedicated myself to watching all five movies in the order specified above, because that's just the kind of courageous investigative journalist I am.
This is what I learned...
The fanfare is gone
Composed in 1933, the epically swelling orchestral movement, complete with thundering drums, that accompanies the famous 20th Century Fox logo has always been part of the fabric of Star Wars. George Lucas insisted on using the fanfare even though it had largely been phased out, and John Williams deliberately wrote the Star Wars main theme in the same key. But in the new digital editions it's only heard at the start of "A New Hope"; the rest have a new fanfare over the Lucasfilm logo. Which is rubbish.
The galaxy was pretty horrible even before the Empire
Even before the evil Empire is established, things can be pretty bleak in that there galaxy far, far away. Between the venal Hutts and the grasping Trade Federation, greed is one of the most powerful forces in the galaxy. There's even slavery, which the Jedi are surprisingly chill about.
Losing Jar Jar is worth losing Darth Maul
One of the many criticisms of "The Phantom Menace" is the huge amount of screen time for painfully unfunny CGI sidekick Jar Jar Binks. He's barely in the other two prequels, so if you cut out the relatively self-contained "Menace" you mostly cut out Jar Jar, as well as the stultifying political subplots and the cringingly mishandled portrayal of Anakin Skywalker as a floppy-haired moppet. Sadly you also cut the searingly cool Darth Maul, but watch this video and you've seen everything you need to see:
In the interest of journalistic rigour I watched "Phantom Menace" separately when I was done with the Machete Order, and the fact I fell asleep halfway through proves you aren't missing anything.
The prequels are a missed opportunity
If we started picking holes in the prequels we'd be here all day, so I'll skip straight to my biggest problem: they spend a lot of time and effort explaining things we already know from the original movies, and yet gloss over many things we don't know. Like, who are the villainous Sith? When Darth Maul says, "At last we will have revenge," revenge for what? Why is Palpatine so evil?
These and many other questions are no doubt answered in the countless books, comics and other no-longer-canonical Expanded Universe stories that surround the films, but for me, the biggest failing of the prequels is that they don't take the opportunity to add new information that would enhance our viewing of the classic trilogy.
But they are, like, totally relevant
It's hard to get excited about the prequel's political subplot in a taxation dispute, but once you ditch "Phantom Menace" then the evil scheme is actually surprisingly relevant to our world. The prequels give us a politician manipulating an external threat in order to usher society to war, reducing freedom while claiming to be ensuring those very freedoms, and promising that the new totalitarian regime ensures "security" and "peace". Makes you, like, think, y'know?
The Empire didn't design the Death Star
Capable of destroying a whole planet in one obscene technological stroke, the Death Star is the embodiment of the Empire's hate-filled, unnatural creed. But a scene in "Attack of the Clones" suggests that it was actually thought up by random CGI aliens the Geonosians, suggesting that one of Palpatine's motives for the whole scheme was to get his hands on the plans.
Star Wars is gloriously daft
What is the Jawas' business model? Are there really that many droids lost in the desert? What do the asteroid monster and the Sarlacc eat? Do the Ewoks run a logging operation? Because they sure have a lot of timber to hand. Why does Princess Leia have a weird British accent in one scene and one scene only? And why does the running gag where an alien says something unintelligible and the human actor replies in English still make me laugh every time?
Puppets are great
Strangely, the original movies from the 1970s and 1980s have -- to my eyes at least -- dated better than the prequels from the 1990s and 2000s. Both sets of films have a distinctive look to their effects, with the physical puppetry and model work of the originals, and the computer-generated imagery of the prequels. Sure, the originals aren't perfect -- the speeder chase in "Return of the Jedi" is particularly shonky when viewed today -- but the distinctive jerkiness of the classic effects comes with a physicality that makes them feel very real.
By comparison, the CGI sheen of the prequels is horribly unconvincing. The extensive use of CGI to create even simple sets means at times the prequels can't even convince you the people you're seeing are standing in a real room.
You can see the difference in the character of Yoda. In the originals, he may move a bit stiffly, but that becomes part of his personality. In the prequels, he's a cartoon character. Look at the Stormtroopers, too. In the originals they're an army of scarily faceless soldiers. In the prequels, they bob about in the background like nonplayable characters in a video game.
One of the most jarring moments comes near the end of "Revenge of the Sith", when Obi-Wan boards the starship seen in the opening moments of "A New Hope". After two films' worth of CGI sets, we're suddenly on a proper physical set and the difference is palpable.
C-3PO is great
I never really noticed C-3PO as a kid, but as an adult I found him hilarious. "Don't call me a mindless philosopher, you overweight glob of grease!" Speaking of which...
R2-D2 is everything
Seriously. Saving the day on countless occasions, the plucky R2-D2 is a bin on legs and yet is still one of the most relatable characters in cinema history.
The Millennium Falcon might be alive
While we're on the subject of droids with personalities, in "Empire Strikes Back", C-3PO is dispatched to talk to the Millennium Falcon, a spaceship, to work out what's wrong with it. C-3PO says, "I don't know where your ship learned to communicate, but it has the most peculiar dialect." Maybe droids and spaceships are part of the Force too? Perhaps in a galaxy that contains the Force there isn't the same distinction between inanimate technology and natural life as in our world. That might explain why so many droids are cowards and General Grievous has a cough.
That's my dumb theory, anyway. Because rewatching the films allows you to evaluate fan theories, like the suggestion that everyone in the Star Wars universe is illiterate or that Jar Jar Binks is the real evil mastermind behind everything that goes on.
You probably don't need to watch the prequels at all, probably
"Revenge of the Sith" is easily the best of the prequels, simply because it's so bleak. It's really intense and violent and bloodthirsty, and it's enormously satisfying to see Anakin embrace the dark side as he lightsabers his way through basically everyone in the cast. I would advise you to press Stop the moment you first hear that distinctive hiss, however, because the last few minutes are a bit silly.
Seeing as we've already chucked out "The Phantom Menace", why not chuck out "Attack of the Clones" as well and just keep "Revenge"? Well, "Clones" does a lot of heavy lifting in terms of the story, but if you're prepared to gloss over the origins of the Stormtrooper clone army you could easily ditch it too. Although frankly, you don't really need "Revenge of the Sith" either...
The special editions aren't very special
The digital versions of the films are based on 1997's Special Edition releases, which inserted deleted scenes and updated some effects. Several of the new CGI effects stick out like a sore thumb, most egregiously the musical sequence crowbarred into the beginning of "Return of the Jedi". However, watching in the Machete Order, the inserted intergalactic celebrations at the end of "Jedi" do tie the final film together with the prequels.
Characters are everything
Spectacular special effects are cool, but you can't beat good characters. So while it's pretty fun to see the Jedi wade en masse into an army of robots with lightsabers flashing in "Attack of the Clones", that lengthy battle sequence is nowhere near as compelling as the less visually impressive but still heart-stopping duels between Darth Vader, Obi-Wan Kenobi and Luke Skywalker -- because we care who wins.
The casting is amazing
Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill just are Han Solo, Princess Leia and Luke Skywalker -- no wonder everyone is so excited for their return in "The Force Awakens". Anthony Daniels, Frank Oz and James Earl Jones all do fantastic voice work, while Peter Cushing, Alec Guinness and Ian McDiarmid bring gravitas to the proceedings.
The prequels looked to be pretty perfectly cast too. Ewan McGregor as a younger version of Alec Guinness? Samuel L Jackson as a Jedi? Christopher Lee as the baddie? Yes please. And that's not including "Phantom Menace" stars Brian Blessed, Liam Neeson and Terence Stamp.
Sadly, they're all wasted. Ewan MacGregor has publicly lamented the difficulty of acting on a green screen, but he was also let down by the odd decision to make Obi-Wan a comic character. Samuel L Jackson doesn't get to do very much either and Christopher Lee is barely in it.
Jonny Briggs' dad is in it
The great casting doesn't stop at the main players. US viewers will no doubt recognise Cliff from "Cheers" as one of the rebel pilots. But British viewers can enjoy spotting a host of actors from popular UK telly of the '80s and '90s, often wearing an Imperial uniform and sporting impressive sideburns. Those 'I know that guy!' faces include Julian Glover and Michael Sheard, who both appeared in "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade", as well as Leslie Schofield, the TV perennial who was a villain in sci-fi classic "Blake's 7" and played the dad in mid-'80s children's show "Jonny Briggs".
My favourite has to be Barrie Holland, however. Not because he's a well-known face -- every role he has ever played is listed on IMDB as "uncredited" -- but because in "Return of the Jedi" he delivers the immortal line "You rebel scum!" with truly applause-worthy relish.
The extras and bit players all have fascinating stories of their own, some of which are told in the delightful documentary "Elstree 1976".
They were making it up as they went along
George Lucas might claim he always had a grand plan, but it's pretty obvious he was winging a lot of it. Luke and Leia's kiss, Leia remembering her mother, Obi-Wan not recognising C-3PO and R2-D2, the Empire rising up in like 20 years during which time Obi-Wan turns into an old man, Han's skepticism to the Force when he was clearly alive when the Jedi were still around, Luke and Leia are hidden in the most obvious places ever... the list goes on. And it's totally fine! Because...
Star Wars is brilliant
It really is. Like many fans, I'd built up a huge amount of emotional and mental baggage around Star Wars, even though I hadn't actually watched the films for many years. Making a conscious effort to sit down and watch them with a clean slate, especially in the recontextualised Machete Order, allowed me to enjoy them in a way I never had before, and remember all the things I and so many people love.
Rediscovering Star Wars has been an absolute joy. For this fan, the Force is well and truly reawakened.