There’s little point watching the Star Wars films in Episode order, argues Brendon.
This argument contains spoilers for the Star Wars saga and other Star Wars movies.
The episode numbers on the Star Wars films suggest, if not actually dictate, a viewing order that runs from The Phantom Menace through to The Rise of Skywalker. It seems so straightforward to follow the instructions on the tin, and you will certainly see a some dramatic upticks in the quality of storytelling if you watch the films this way.
But if you’re looking for a viewing order that actually benefits the dramatic effect of the films, episode order is very bad choice indeed. This is especially true for a first watch, where twists, surprise and revelation are key parts of the experience.
Because no matter how the filmmakers have persistently pitched the films to us, each Star Wars movie leverages the audience’s awareness at the exact time of its making and release. As each film was written and produced, everything already revealed was taken into account as ‘prior knowledge.’ For ‘episode order’ to work best, the original would have had some beats and ideas that drew power from scenes in the prequels, and the truth is, the exact opposite is true – what power there is in the prequels is drawn from the original trilogy.
The argument might be most clearly demonstrated by the big, big reveal in The Empire Strikes Back. Darth Vader’s bombshell is widely considered to be one of the most successful surprises in cinema, but watching episodes one to three ahead of episode five will absolutely knacker it.
The film hinges on this surprise – in fact, I’d say that the entire original trilogy does, at least in the sense that everything is changed from this point on and the big climax depends entirely on this revelation. It’s a massive turning point in the story and stakes. Furthermore, The Empire Strikes Back is absolutely not built in any way that milks the big reveal and its aftermath for a different effect when the movies are viewed in episode order.
When the audience knows the story of the prequels, Vader’s big reveal is just a damp squib. All it has going for it is Luke’s personal reaction of surprise, which is something, but it pales in comparison to the audience also getting slapped with the revelation.
It would have worked much better if those scenes at the end of Empire had been about finding some dramatic stakes that spiral out of Luke’s new knowledge – the question, essentially, of what he’s going to do now that he knows this uncomfortable truth. These questions only become a driving part of the saga’s dramatic engine in Return of the Jedi – that’s where the filmmakers start to build dramatic questions out of audience knowledge of the Skywalker family tree, not in Empire – which would have been the case had episode order actually been presumed or intended.
The extended introduction of Yoda is also predicated on surprise. At least part of the point is that the audience’s prejudices about the little creature are challenged. This is not going to work on any level at all when we’ve seen CG Yoda perform his lightsaber gymnastics in the prequels. This point is compounded when you look at it backwards – seeing Yoda go berserk loses its impact when the audience’s preconceptions about his mobility and physical skills weren’t seeded by the Dagobah scenes in Empire.
It’s not just Empire. Each of the films was built, both consciously and unconsciously, to draw power from all of the other films that had been released until that point. Episodes one to three were not only designed by filmmakers who had an awareness of the narrative in the ‘original trilogy’, but who also took it for granted that their audience shared that knowledge.
Without an understanding of the original trilogy to inform the doom and fatalism in Anakin Skywalker’s downward spiral, the prequel trilogy loses most of whatever power it can muster. There’s a kind of empathic effect created by the dramatic irony, through which the audience feels dread and fear for Anakin because they know where he’s headed. Every little drop of feeling the audience can manifest for Anakin is essential – there are a lot of things working against it, so why add episode viewing order to the mix?
Consider also the introduction of Chewbacca in Revenge of the Sith, a little sequence that leans heavily on the audience being pleased to see him. This is a particularly overt demonstration of George Lucas being aware of what his audience knows, what a scene will make them feel, and then tapping it for cheers and glee.
Lucas talked at length about a masterplan and long-planned narrative shape that requires episode order to understand, but his actions speak louder still. Lucas was making all of this business up as he went along.
I’m not saying that’s a bad thing – in fact, I think being reactive to a films’ successes and failures when planning another is a good thing. On balance, if the price for being able to quickly sideline midichlorians is that daft, sharp turn into Leia being Luke’s sister, I’ll take it.
Of course, George Lucas has made many alterations to the original trilogy which diminish the overall efficacy of the saga. When Hayden Christensen appears as a force ghost in the reworked Return of the Jedi, it presumes a knowledge of who this chap actually is, which – for that moment – cuts against the power of watching in production order.
This unfortunate effect has come about because, strictly speaking, the latest iterations can’t be watched in production order. They each occupy two places in the production sequence. Most of the scenes were created prior to the prequels, but the revised force ghosts, Maclunkey, et al were created later. These newest additions ensure that the original trilogy are both older and newer the prequels.
There is an optimum solution, of course, but it’s unfortunately not very easy. That’s because the older, less-bastardised versions of the films aren’t the ones left in reach by Disney. But track them down if you can, and rest assured that, sooner or later, they’re going to be the ones back in the spotlight. It’s only a matter of time…
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