Star Wars fans talk about their favorite movies as often as they watch them, and atop the list of topics of conversation is preferred viewing order. Since the prequels were released and the order of the franchise’s films was reshaped, people have had a difficult time agreeing on what the best course of action is.
So, with The Rise of Skywalker completing the Skywalker Saga’s availability on Disney+ next month, let’s look at the best viewing orders for the galaxy far, far away.
Lucas may have been able to envision the whole saga back in the 1970s when he was working on his first draft, but he convinced 20th Century Fox to give him the money to make one movie: the original Star Wars. With that in mind, many cinephiles and old-school fans, including those who saw the original in theaters, will argue in favor of release order, and their reasoning is strong.
The films were released this way, and they should be seen this way…and not just as a matter of tradition. Whether Lucas intended to make them out of sequence is beside the point. Filmmakers often choose (or are forced) to make changes to their best-laid plans. In the Original Trilogy, those improvisations included Star Wars‘ most pivotal developments, such as the relationships between Luke, Leia and Darth Vader. Decisions that were made for the OT necessarily influenced the content of the Prequel Trilogy, and so on, all the way through to The Rise of Skywalker. Release order jumps around in time, but it presents the ideas behind Star Wars in the order that creators had them.
It also makes for the most cohesive viewing experience. Movies are always a relic of the years in which they were written and filmed. This is true in terms of available technology and cultural influence. Part of what endeared the Original Trilogy to so many was its innovative use of practical effects combined with computer-aided camera operations, thanks to then-new VFX company Industrial Light and Magic. No one had ever seen anything like a Bantha or a Death Star executed so convincingly before. Starting with A New Hope allows fans to appreciate the models, puppets and emerging technologies for what they are, before fast-forwarding to the CGI-heavy Prequels and Sequels.
Release order provides historical context as well, and a kind of subconscious chronology. Not only does the design style of each trilogy reflect the era in which the films were made, but they also echo the politics du jour. It’s been theorized, based on Lucas’s own comments, that the Original Trilogy is a reaction to Vietnam and the Prequel Trilogy became a reaction to America post-9/11. Even Disney’s Sequel Trilogy contains its own sociopolitical references to child soldiers and the commerce of war. However, with all that said, release order isn’t perfect, mostly because it undermines the tension in Episodes I-III.
Younger fans who grew up with the Prequel Trilogy tend to default to episode order. Watching Star Wars according to its own chronology does make the most sense to viewers who prefer linear stories, especially when it comes to the in-world politics and the life of Anakin Skywalker. Starting with The Phantom Menace allows the audience to enter into the galaxy at the point its functioning republic is beginning to falter.
A common critique of the Prequels was that they seemed like anti-climatic backstory, made worse by the slow pace at which it plodded toward the eventual reveal (and of which fans were already well aware). Though, episode order doesn’t solve all the problems of the Prequel Trilogy. Jar Jar and Watto will always be offensive, Padme will always be underwritten, and the Trade Federation will always be a snooze. But watching in story order does improve the basic plot mechanics (Palpatine’s scheming, the Jedi’s hubris, Anakin’s character arc) while preserving the reveals about Palpatine and Anakin’s identities.
It also gets some of the weakest films out of the way early and allows the audience to judge the Prequels on their own merits. Unlike the other trilogies, Lucas co-wrote and directed all three films, and another criticism of the Prequel Trilogy was that the dialogue (and thus, the performances and chemistry between actors) suffered by comparison. If viewers begin with Padme and Anakin, they don’t have Luke, Leia and Han to compare them to, yet. The films, which have their redeemable qualities, can build to their own crescendo. Sure, the most iconic moment in all of Star Wars is diminished, but then again, that moment is so iconic, it’s unlikely to have been a surprise anyway.
Machete order tries to resolve some of the issues that arise from release and episode order, but it’s controversial because it leaves out anywhere from one to three whole films. This just-so-crazy-it-might-work theory suggests new viewers consume Episodes IV and V, followed by II, III and VI, then VII and (depending upon your affection for either installment) maybe VIII and IX. The Phantom Menace doesn’t exist in machete order, and The Last Jedi and The Rise of Skywalker don’t have to.
The benefits to this fan-generated method are that all the major reveals are left in tact, the narrative re-establishes Luke (and not Anakin) as the central figure, and the artistic wheat is separated from the chaff. That’s all true, but it’s a pretty significant trade-off. The machete order requires more time-jumping, more plot-hacking and the omission of some really good scenes. For all its sins, The Phantom Menace also gave fans podracing and the iconic Darth Maul fight. All nine entries in the Skywalker Saga are, whether fans like it or not, part of the canon. Sure, machete order might be a novel and satisfying way to revisit the saga, but it’s incomplete.
All things considered, release order is still the best, most popular and often recommended way to watch Star Wars. It allows new audiences to fall in love with the characters of the Original Trilogy, and with the galaxy itself, the way Star Wars’ first fans did. Most notably, it provides the full Star Wars experience with the most reasonable trade-off. But thankfully, people tend to watch movies more than once, so there doesn’t have to be a “right” answer.
Each viewing order of Star Wars is a give and take, but only one will make new fans fall in love the way the franchise's first fans did.