In what order should the Star Wars movies be watched?

  • Please don't lynch me, but I've never sat through an entire Star Wars film. I'm aware that the 3 (new) films are technically prequels, but I feel strange watching 3 new films then 3 old films?

    Do I need to watch the new ones then the old ones?

    Related question on movies.se

    The Holiday Special and the Ewoks movies are the only good ones.

    I would now, if you haven't seen any of the films, go see Rogue One in the theater and then go home and immediately pop A New Hope into the DVD.

    See also http://movies.stackexchange.com/q/65237/9391 "In what spot would the new Star Wars movie “Rogue One” go in the Machete Order?"

  • Mike Scott

    Mike Scott Correct answer

    10 years ago

    The best order I’ve seen suggested is as follows:

    Chart

    • IV: A New Hope (original trilogy)
    • V: The Empire Strikes Back (original trilogy)
    • I: The Phantom Menace (prequel trilogy)
    • II: Attack of the Clones (prequel trilogy)
    • III: Revenge of the Sith (prequel trilogy)
    • VI: The Return of the Jedi (original trilogy)
    • VII: The Force Awakens (sequel trilogy)
    • VIII: The Last Jedi (sequel trilogy)

    Basically, you have a very extended flashback between episodes V and VI.

    That puts the oldest and clunkiest SFX first, avoids spoiling the revelations from episode V, and finishes at the end of the original story before moving on to the sequel trilogy. And it means you won’t stop and give up in disgust after watching only one movie.

    Edited 2015-12-20: I have now seen The Force Awakens, and it definitely fits in to this order after Return of the Jedi, and thus after all six of the other movies (or at least those of them that you choose to watch). And you should see it; it's a worthy successor to the original trilogy.

    Edited 2017-01-04: And I suggest watching Rogue One after seeing the original Star Wars/A New Hope but it doesn't really matter if you see it before or after any of the other movies.

    I love this recommendation. And as the parent of small kids, let me add that your appreciation of the various films is clouded by your age and what you were first exposed to. My kids loved I,II and III much more than the ones I grew up watching.

    Doesn't the very end of Episode III spoil the revelation made to Luke on Dagobah in Episode VI?

    @Chris: Maybe, but the significance would be debatable. Remember if you follow this plan you start with 2 movies getting to know everyone. I don't recall the end of E3 being a detailed explanation so much as a "here's the visual history" moment for people who knew what was going on. And even then, it's only spoiled for about 30 minutes.

    Just need to add the clone wars animated series in between ep II and III for completeness.

    I think this is right, but that Phantom can be dropped. It doesn't add anything and it just a distraction. It can be watched later as a bit of extra back story if you like.

    Is there a *name* for this order? I want to be able to tell people "You should watch it in X order!"

    @Mooz this is called the Machete order. Although technically the Machete order skips the Phantom Menace.

    Is there anyone that has actually done this? I can't imagine any kid, much less adult, wanting to wait to find out what happens to Han Solo and Vader. Conversely, there isn't much passion for Hayden Christiansen any time before the stand-alone episode III. Also agreed with Preston -- this answer says that you should watch IV and V first to get them out of the way, so that you can get to the better looking films? Hmm... I don't feel old, just sad...

    Mike, have just left R1 to the side for now. Perhaps when a few more films have been released some sort of sensible order will present itself.

    And where does Solo fit in?

    @TheAsh I’m pretty sure it should be off to the side with _Rogue One_, to be watched after _Star Wars/A New Hope_, but other than that it doesn’t matter.

    @MikeScott Why is there IV twice in the diagram? Isn't there a glitch in Revenge Of The Sith?

    @TGar Obviously, box number 5 should be III as shown in the list below. Everyone knows that Revenge of the Sith is episode III...

    The diagram was kindly added by @neilfein, and I don’t have the original to edit. Hopefully he will see this comment.

    @MikeScott - I'll upload a corrected version. Also, if you want to get me an email address I'll give you access to the original Google Document for future changes.

    @neilfein Thanks, I have sent you a message via your website contact form. Don’t really want to post my email address here.

    @MikeScott Perfect, you should have an email now.

  • I just read a very good blog post arguing that Machete Order is the best way to watch them:

    Next time you want to introduce someone to Star Wars for the first time, watch the films with them in this order: IV, V, II, III, VI.

    Notice something? Yeah, Episode I is gone.

    The blog post itself goes into a lot more (persuasive) detail about why this is better, which I shall merely excerpt as:

    The Star Wars watching experience gets to start with the film that does the best job of establishing the Star Wars universe, Episode IV, and it ends with the most satisfying ending, Episode VI. It also starts the series off with the two strongest films, and allows you to never have to either start or end your viewing experience with a shitty movie. Two films of Luke’s story, two films of Anakin’s story, then a single film that intertwines and ends both stories.

    Beyond this, Episode I establishes Anakin as a cute little kid, totally innocent. But Episode II quickly establishes him as impulsive and power-hungry, which keeps his character consistent with [his eventual spoiler-containing destiny]. Obi-Wan never really seems to have any control over Anakin, struggling between treating him as a friend (their very first conversation together in Episode II) and treating him as an apprentice (their second conversation, with Padme). Anakin is never a carefree child yelling “yippee”, he’s a complex teenager nearly boiling over with rage in almost every scene. It makes much more sense for Anakin to have always been this way.

    Rod Hilton goes on to explain what works best is the tension around Luke's destiny — all the "will he, won't he?" in Episode VI:

    Having the very real threat of Luke following in his father’s path made clear by watching II and III before VI heightens the tension of [Luke confronting the Emperor], and it actually makes Return of the Jedi better. Yes, watching Revenge of the Sith makes Return of the Jedi a better, more effective film. Considering it’s the weakest of the original trilogy films, this improvement is welcome.

    The one thing that becomes noticeably less good, Hilton caveats, is that

    Anakin returning to Tatooine

    doesn't make much sense. We don’t know

    his mother is a slave, and we don’t know he built C-3P0. When he has visions of his mother dying and returns, Watto says he sold her. That’s not something you expect to hear about a Jedi’s mother

    , so it’s a bit jarring.

    I can definitely see the strength in this argument; I may have to try it out sometime soon.

    And my favourite thing about the blog post has to be that it inspired this dude to suggest what Episode I should have been: What if Star Wars: Episode I was good?

    +1 for mentioning the machete order - I think my son will see it in that sequence.

    I would say the person you quoted was kind of dumb. Did you act the same as you did when you were 9? There is a 10 year jump between Episode I and II, and a 3-4 year jump between Episode II and III. Plus there is also other factors to contribute to Anakin's change. He was a peacekeeper and a general! He must have seen some pretty awful things doing missions for the Jedi. Like Episode II has him chasing the bounty hunter in to a bar, and he is only nineteen! As a general, he must have seen many atrocities. This is purely speculative so I won't be posting an answer.

    @jacen.garriss: Surely the merits of the Machete Order aren't about whether Anakin's change is wholly explained or not; it's about whether including _Episode I_ increases or decreases one's viewing pleasure. Certainly, for people who remember watching the original trilogy as kids, there's an argument that it doesn't. If you don't have fond childhood memories of that trilogy, though, then your experience is likely to be quite different, I'd guess. I'm not saying _Ep I_ is intrinsically, just that omitting it might enhance some people's viewing experience.

    Awesome answer (except for the mention of Ep VI as the weakest film - I always disliked Ep V).

    The question asks for which order to watch the 7 (eventually 9) films, not for opinions on which films are good/bad. Suggesting missing films out is therefore inappropriate imho.

    @TheDarkLord I think it's reasonable to _make_ such a suggestion — it's not like I'm _demanding_ this order, after all :)

  • No. Don't watch the new ones. In fact, ignore them. Just watch the old ones (A New Hope, Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi).

    See if you can find ones that have been unadulterated. The originals were brilliant. The recently released DvDs have been altered to retcon in stuff they screwed up in the prequels.

    Or you can watch the old ones and watch the prequels, but just be ready to be thoroughly disappointed by how very bad the prequels are in comparison to the originals.

    Alternately, if you promise not to run screaming when you discover how much the prequels suck. You can watch them in order and instead of disappointment, you may experience a certain level of gratification as they steadily get better.

    +1: I like both Ewan McGregor and Natalie Portman, but man there was some dialog in Parts I - III that even those guys couldn't pull off.

    That said, there were some very pretty planet scapes in Part III, you could watch them with the volume muted and fast forward through the non action scenes :)

    You can do the same when Jar Jar Binks is on screen too, but you have to turn the screen off as well.

    +1: Just yes. The best order to watch them is: IV, V, VI. :-) See also this xckd (last line).

    If you do make the mistake of watching I, you'll at least have a distinct appreciation for this 1-hour video review of it, which can serve as a mouthwash: http://www.redlettermedia.com/phantom_menace.html

    Yes, the new ones are horrible. And not only were the 1997 and 2004 additions alterations of the original trilogy unnecessary. They are horrible as well, because the visual style of the movie just suddenly changes as scenes change between being filmed with miniatures, and then completely rendered CGI.

    But if he wanted them to get progressively better he should stop at V ;)

    The best order is IV, V, (read) Shadows Of The Empire, VI.

    You can find the unadulterated ones on Netflix; check the descriptions carefully. Warning: Be prepare for an extremely monophonic overture at the beginning of A New Hope. Once the movie gets going, you'll completely forget about the bad sound quality.

    You guys make it sounds like the acting in the originals was blow-your-mind phenomenal, but really think about it, if the acting was so good why were only two of the actors ever in anything else...

    @Sydenam, the acting *was* better in the originals, because in most cases they had actual sets to act in front of instead of green screens.

    @sydenam It wasn't so much that the acting was better as it was that the originals were better plotted, better written and the special effects still hold up to this day. There's CGI in Episode I that became dated with in a few years of its release, the plotting of the entire prequel trilogy is pretty miserable and the dialogue is painful. The prequel trilogy has a bunch of fantastic actors in it, but even they couldn't rescue the dialogue and plotting. It's not that the acting's bad, it's that everything around it sucked.

    The backstory established in the prequels made me like the originals less. It just polluted the universe with so much nonsense...

    I find my life better if I think of I,II,III as being fan fiction. If you really want to bring anything from I,II,III into your IV,V,VI experience, pretend that Alderan is a world of Jar-Jar's in IV.

    @Sydenam You do know that it's not literally true that only two actors were ever in anything else, right? Frank Oz, Carrie Fischer, Harrison Ford (obviously), Alec Guinness (obviously), James Earl Jones (obviously) Kenny Baker, and Warwick Davis all had notable roles outside of Star Wars, and that's just off the top of my head without even checking IMDB. I'm pretty sure the guy who played Tarkin was already semi-famous before Star Wars. Note, I'm not saying the acting was great, just that some of the actors were at least good - more than two.

    I honestly could not care less for the original trilogy. Everyone makes it seem like the originals were way better, but I cannot bear to go through a single one of them, whereas episodes I, II, III are watchable. I guess if you grew up with the originals it would seem otherwise.

    @ToddWilcox And don't forget Mark Hamill has had a huge voice acting career.

    (As above). The question asks for which order to watch the 7 (eventually 9) films, not for opinions on which films are good/bad. Suggesting missing films out is therefore inappropriate imho.

    I actually tried to give this answer two up votes (forgot about my first one) and got wrist slapped. I would recommend looking for Harmy's Despecialized Editions! They are absolutely amazing recreations of the ORIGINAL movies without the bad '90s cgi interruptions. They are also available in blue ray. Also: don't tell people to start with Phantom or they will probably stop halfway through and never watch the good ones (let them watch Mr Plinkett's Review of PM though).

    I'd suggest watching about five minutes or so of _The Phantom Menace_ ... just long enough to hear “I have a bad feeling about this, Master” from Ewan McGregor. See also, _In what order should the Matrix movies be watched?_ (spoiler: **I**).

    [I got to go to a "preview" screening of _The Phantom Menace_, and being one of the three people to laugh at that line was, let's say, it made me feel old :)]

  • There is no "official" recommended viewing order for the Star Wars series, but there are two main approaches:

    • Watch the series in numerical (in-universe chronological) order (I, II, III, IV, V, VI)
    • Watch the series in release order (IV, V, VI, I, II, III)

    My personal recommendation would be to watch the series in release order. That is, watch the original trilogy first, and then watch the prequel trilogy after that.
    A number of factors weigh in on this decision.

    • There are revelations in Episode V (Empire Strikes Back) which will be spoiled if you watch the Prequel trilogy first.
    • The Original trilogy was made with very little knowledge of the story of the prequel trilogy, but the Prequels were made knowing the full story of the Original trilogy.
    • The Prequels were made to tell the back-story of characters from the Original trilogy; rather than the Original trilogy telling the future of the characters in the Prequels.
    • The original trilogy developed a huge fan-base based around it, but the prequel trilogy has been largely criticized by fans of the original trilogy.
    • Much of the appeal of the Prequel trilogy was the suspense of knowing how the chracters would end up, and finding how they got there.

    One more point to add. The prequels often don't line up with the original saga's story. Things like who Obi Wan was trained by (Yoda, not Qui Gon), when he met Anakin (as a pilot, not a boy), the fact that all the ships were beautifully designed one second and after 10 years they're all piles of gray metallic junk. Jedi weren't trained in some giant "Jedi College" in the middle of the galaxy.

    To be fair to the prequels, I would say that we fans of the originals hate them because they were made for kids, not for those of us who were kids in the 70s and 80s. All the kids who were experiencing the franchise for the first time with the prequels loved them. They even liked Jar Jar Binks, bless them.

    @NickBedford Remember that we have to take Obi-Wan's word from a certain point of view :P Like every Jedi in like the previous half millenium Obi-Wan _did_ train under Yoda at some point or another, and Anakin _was_ a pilot when they first met: a _**human** podracer-pilot_, a feat that should be impossible for that species. Though you're right of course, the prequels are new and shiny but lack any real substance.

  • Don't watch the prequels- at least at first. Let the weight of the first trilogy settle in before going to the prequels.

    Watch Episodes 4, 5, and 6 first. I think 7 (The Force Awakens) fits in best before the prequels, so I'd watch it here if this was my first viewing. At this point, I'd consider the prequels to be kind of like the "special features" section of the Star Wars universe.
    From here, I'd suggest also watching three of the most popular original trilogy parodies- Spaceballs, Steve Oedekirk's "Thumb Wars", and the "Laugh it up, Fuzzball" Family Guy parody trilogy (Blue Harvest/Something Something Something Darkside/It's A Trap). This will allow you to get a general idea about the cultural impact of the original trilogy before moving on.

    If you are still interested in what happened before "A New Hope", watch the Clone Wars animated series. Don't expect Shakespeare from the animated series, and you may be pleasantly surprised by their content from time to time. "The Clone Wars" really helps in fleshing out the relationship between Obi-Wan and Anakin Skywalker. Keep in mind that "The Clone Wars" refers to two separate series - a two dimensional series from 2003 and a 3D CGI series from 2008. Technically, both of these series occur in the time between Episode II and Episode III, so you could watch Episode I and Episode II before each iteration of the Clone Wars series.

    If you want, you can watch the prequels, once. You may not ever want to watch the prequels again after that, and that's OK. However, the Robot Chicken Star Wars Trilogy (I, II, and III)) does parody several of the moments from the prequel trilogy, so it would be best to wait to watch them until after you've finished watching I, II, and III. Honestly, I enjoyed the Red Letter Media critiques of the prequels (I, II, III) more than I enjoyed the films themselves, because the critiques helped lend voice to the reasons that the prequels didn't have a lasting emotional impact on my life. However, if you like the prequels, great! Feel free to watch them as much as you want. If you don't like them, consider watching a "fan-edit" version that may match up better to what you're looking for.

    TL;DR - IV, V, VI, VII (TFA), Spaceballs, "Thumb Wars", "Laugh it up, Fuzzball", I, II, Clone Wars (2003), Clone Wars (2008), III, Robot Chicken Star Wars I-III, Red Letter Media Critique of Episodes I-III, (Fan-Edits?).

    EDIT: I apologize for editing the answer several times. If anything, the multiple edits of my own answer prove that there is definitely more than one way to watch Star Wars.

    EDIT: Since The Force Awakens exists now, I've included it in the list. It's good enough that I'd consider telling casual fans to watch IV-VII, and tell them that everything else exists if/when they come back asking for more.

    Any explanations for the downvotes? I'd love to hear reasons.

    Probably because of Jar-Jar. Anyone recommending that one watch anything with that character triggers knee-jerk reflexes in adults - or at least folks who were adults when they watched Phantom Menace.

    +1 for watching spaceballs to understand cultural impact

  • If you enjoy reading, there might be an even better way to enjoy it.

    • Watch Episode IV: A New Hope
    • Watch Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back
    • Read Shadows Of The Empire
    • Watch Episode VI: Return Of The Jedi
    • Watch Episode VII: The Force Awakens
    • George never made any prequels...
    • UPDATE: Now watch Rogue One and gasp in delight at the ending.

    yup, the prequels aren't really worth watching. Jar-jar Binks is funny at times, but not funny enough to warrant buying 3 DVDs :)

    Which times? ;)

    ... and if during ANH Han shoots first, you are even watching the _right_ version.

  • After posting this answer I tried it out and think that this order works rather well. Think of the symbolic similarity between the two Skywalker generations, both starting out in Tatooine:

    IV, I, II, V, III, VI

    Try it! The flashbacks and flashforwards work rather well, without spoiling the suspense until the right time.

    • (IV) Meet an innocent Luke in a backwater planet learning about his family connection to major events in recent galactic history. Learn how evil the current Empire is.
    • (I) Flash-back to meet an innocent Anakin in the same backwater planet, and see how idyllic the Republic was supposed to be. Connect the two story lines via Obi-Wan. There is that mysterious bad guy in the cloak.
    • (II) The Republic is breaking. Anakin is becoming the jedi master Obi-Wan told Luke about. The Clone Wars (which he also mentioned) begin.
    • (V) Flash-forward! The New Republic is fighting the Empire in earnest. Yoda is still around. The cloak guy is now the Emperor. Vader did not kill Anakin... He is Anakin!
    • (III) So what happened? Palpatine was supposed to be a good guy, but he is the cloak guy! Anakin dissolves into Vader (so technically Obi-Wan told Luke the truth). Now we know why Yoda had to go into hiding.
    • (VI) Return to the backwater planet to reunite Luke's crew, and get ready to strike down the Empire once and for all in a conclusion that brings two generations together.

    Wow, that's not so bad, making a diverse mix of old and new and providing the backstory of *Luke*'s father while still not spoiling his true identity. Wouldn't have thought about that.

    Yes this order didnt spoil much of the scenes in prequel

    Someone on Quora wrote an answer post based on this order with very similar rationale: https://www.quora.com/What-is-the-best-order-to-watch-the-Star-Wars-series-1/answer/Hunter-Carlisle It's an interesting read. I like this order!!

    PS: to add to my above comment, the Quora answer post also includes episode VII which comes right at the end of this order.

    Very interesting idea. I have to give you props for creativity, but it is a bit too much like mixing the rabbit poop into the cocoa puffs because they are both dark and round and you won't notice so much... you still end up eating the rabbit poop.

  • George Lucas - I, II, III, IV, V, VI

    The creator of Star Wars has stated that the correct viewing order for the original trilogy and prequel trilogy is the numbered order, not the release order.

    “Start with One. That’s the way to do it right: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6. That’s the way they’re supposed to be done. Just because it took a long time to film it doesn’t mean you don’t do it in order.”

    The Vulture: In What Order Should You Watch the Star Wars Movies? George Lucas and Others Weigh In

    and

    "What you've got to remember is that this is one movie. And it's meant to be watched one through six. So I think when you watch the actual movie in order, the story will become very clear."

    Featurette: The Chosen One

    Mark Hamill

    "Rogue One comes before four! Yeah, so you go: one, two, three, Rogue One, four, five, six, seven, eight", he decided. "I'm guessing."

    Mark Hamill finally settles the Star Wars viewing order debate


    The Vulture website has also aggregated the suggested viewing orders from a range of other people directly and indirectly involved in the original, prequel and new trilogies:

    Daisy Ridley - (I, II, III, IV, V, VI):

    "I would say 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, because for a young person it's easier to understand the chronology."

    John Boyega - (No recommendation)

    "I would say whatever you want! Watch 3, 6, 2, 1 — do whatever you want to do so long as you experience it a very unique way and enjoy it."

    Mark Ruffalo - (IV, V, VI, I, II, III)

    "From the first one made to the most recent. Straight through. They just build up nicely that way. That’s the way I saw it, and I’m a little bit of a throwback."

    Aaron Paul - (IV, V, VI, I, II, III)

    "You start with the original Star Wars movie. There is no other way. Maybe it’s nostalgia. Or maybe it’s not even that. I have no idea why I feel this way, but you should watch them in the order they were released."

    They also offered the advice of a professional movie critic

    Matt Zoller Seitz - (IV, V, I, II, III, VI)

    "The Godfather, Part II order. This is the order my wife came up with back in 2005. We were discussing the right order in which to show the movies to our kids, and we agreed that Darth Vader's reveal was such a big deal that it would be a shame to ruin it by showing the episodes in numerical order. She was a big fan of The Godfather, Part II, which flashes back and forth between Michael Corleone in 1959 and his father Vito as a young man in the late 19th and early 20th centuries."

    "In this order, you start with A New Hope and continue through Empire, which of course ends with Vader dropping that huge plot bomb on Luke. Then you "flash back" to The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, and then Revenge of the Sith to show how Anakin became Darth Vader. Then you finish with Return of the Jedi, where Luke tries to pull his father back from the Dark Side and at least partially redeem him, restoring balance to the Force in the process. We actually watched the films this way, and it really worked.

    "Not only did it magnify the impact of the throne-room scenes in Jedi, it made it much easier to see the mirroring games that George Lucas was playing in the prequels, making The Phantom Menace a rhyme of A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back with Attack of the Clones (right down to the sad cliff-hanger ending), and Jedi the answer to Sith, following right on its armored heels."

    This is a great answer. It provides the most likely possibilities plus reasons why you might choose that option.

    This is by far the best answer, and deserves to get that bounty! :)

    @Bellatrix - I'll admit that I'm a little disappointed that it sits so low down given that it's the only one that actually addresses what the creator thought about order.

    @Valorum Agreed, and hopefully it’ll receive some more attention! :) Yours has information on what the creator, as well as several others involved, think about viewing order. That makes it stand out as exceptionally great! :)

  • Finnish MTV3 Order: III, II, I, V, IV, VI

    When Finland's MTV3 channel (not related to MTV) acquired the rights in October 2008 to show all six films and The Clone Wars, they held a poll on their website to find the most popular. They received over 24,000 votes:

    • Star Wars: Episodi III - Sithin kosto (2005) (7926 votes)
    • Star Wars: Episodi II - Kloonien hyökkäys (2002) (6974 votes)
    • Star Wars: Episodi I - Pimeä uhka (1999) (6337 votes)
    • Star Wars: Episodi V - Imperiumin vastaisku (1980) (5861 votes)
    • Star Wars: Episodi VI - Jedin paluu (1983) (4956 votes)
    • Star Wars: Episodi IV - Uusi toivo (1977) (4582 votes)

    Somehow, the MTV3 schedulers decided that it must logically follow that the films should be shown the most popular first; that if the most voted for Revenge of the Sith as your favourite, then surely you also want to watch it first. And if Attack of the Clones is the next most popular, then show that second!

    You can't argue with democracy: 24,000 people can't be wrong.

    So episodes III and II were shown at Christmas 2008. Episodes I and V were shown in January 2009. They didn't show the last two until November 2009, and had finally decided (after showing III, II, I then V) it would be daft to show VI before IV and ignored the poll and sensibly switched them.

    • 25.12.2008: Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith (2005)
    • 26.12.2008: Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones (2002)
    • 17.01.2009: Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace (1999)
    • 31.01.2009: Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
    • 22.11.2009: Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope (1977)
    • 29.11.2009: Star Wars: Episode VI - Return of the Jedi (1983)

    (The following year they managed to show them weekly in numerical order.)

  • Shorter answer.

    Must watch.

    • Star Wars (1977) - The Unexpected Hit: If you don’t see any of the other films, you should watch this. Forget the ideas of backstory and such, this is the distillation of the best of George Lucas’s ideas.

    • The Empire Strikes Back (1980) - The Unexpected Sequel: Fantastic sequel but an aberration. Far darker in tone and hints at maturity but don’t ever hope for that mature tone to ever come back in any way again.

    Should watch.

    • Return of the Jedi (1983) - The Creation of a Franchise: Not a bad film, but definitely the one where George Lucas decided the franchise should never “grow up” and any maturity that existed from The Empire Strikes Back was pretty much washed away. This film was designed to define a franchise; not to further a plot.

    Optional.

    • The Prequels (1999-2005) - The Milking of the Franchise as a Special Effects Demo Reel: Nothing shown on screen here—or explained in dialogue—is worth remembering. The films mainly flesh out backstory that doesn’t need to be fleshed out and primarily acts as special effects house demo reel.

    • The Force Awakens (2015) - Reviving the Franchise to Milk it Some More: This is not a bad film, but you won’t get much of anything new. It’s whole reason to exist is to establish that the Star Wars franchise has new owners and they are here to give you exactly what you want with nary a hint of edge, maturity or growth.

    Longer answer.

    While there are many good answers here—such as Nick Bedford’s simple and succinct list—that explain differing rationale on this topic, I believe nobody is really addressing the value of simply watching them purely in production/release order with a contextual understanding of why each film was made. So here I go: My general feeling is the films should be watched in the order they were released and not “episode” order; the story is not that deep and the “revelations” are not that revealing.

    • Star Wars (1977) - The Unexpected Hit: Honestly, you can just watch this one film and never watch anything else and be happy. This film is 100% self-contained and pretty much a perfect distillation of the story George Lucas has attempted to tell without wasting time on—frankly—the tons of extraneous backstory nonsense even hardcore fans. There is a clear beginning, middle and end and the backstory elements serve their purpose; they are added depth that allows a fairly simply space fairy tale to be told.

    • The Empire Strikes Back (1980) - The Unexpected Sequel: Great sequel, but an oddball none-the-less. When this was being produced it’s working title was simply Star Wars II; not “Episode V” or some nonsense like that. As good as this film is—and it’s a very good film—it was/is still only a film that was made simply because the first film was a runaway hit. The demand for a “sequel” was mainly to rake in more of that sweet, sweet money the first film brought in.

      That said, this film is an oddball in the whole series simple because it is an unexpected sequel; utterly nobody involved in the production could conceive at the time that a sequel to Star Wars would be successful financially or creatively. So what you have here is an attempt to deepen the threadbare plot of the first film. And that was done by expanding character depth in many different ways. Where the first Star Wars played out as a children’s film that adults could enjoy, The Empire Strikes Back feels like a young adult novel with far more true coming of age and series tones taken. The biggest of which is the film ended not with anything positive, but a fairly simple, “And these are the struggles of our heroes…” footing.

      But still, you need to see this film as an aberration to the Star Wars vision; it was/is an experiment to see what a sequel to a blockbuster such as Star Wars could be but in many ways was too dark for George Lucas’s tastes.

    • Return of the Jedi (1983) - The Creation of a Franchise: If Star Wars was an unexpected hit, and The Empire Strikes Back was an unexpectedly successful sequel, this film could be seen as George Lucas now defining not what a sequel could be, but was a franchise should be. With the success of those two films, it was clear that if the films stuck to a specific formula, the series could simply be a proverbial goose that just always laid golden eggs. And that is what you see on screen here.

      Gone were even plot explanations and character rationale, and instead we have characters being played in a “winking” manner with tons of goofy side characters such as Sy Snootles and such. And after setting up Boba Fett as a truly scary “who is that guy” character in The Empire Strikes Back, what do you get in this film? They just kill him off in a fairly pathetic way that’s punctuated with the huge monster who consumed him just burping? Also, as many people deride The Force Awakens (2015) as being derivative of the 1977 film, this film is pretty derivative of that first film as well; I mean the whole plot past rescuing Han Solo was to blow up another Death Star.

      That said, this film is not entirely bad and there are some very cool action scenes—the speeder bike chase I think is fantastic—but it’s truly the moment you realize any semblance of young-adult to adult depth the series might have had was tossed out the window. To quote Phil Tippett—the stop-motion artist for the original “Star Wars” trilogy—George Lucas explicitly told Return of the Jedi director Richard Marquand, “Well, what we’re doing now is kind of like a cross between Benji and what we did on Empire Strikes Back.” This is the film when George Lucas decided pandering to the audience was better than respecting the audience’s intelligence and growing the story in a mature way.

    • The Prequels (1999-2005) - The Milking of the Franchise as a Special Effects Demo Reel: The milking of a franchise. In my humble opinion, you never have to watch any of this stuff for any reason; not for plot and not even for action sequences. The way I see this stuff is simple: All of what is presented here is just backstory to characters George Lucas created for the 1977 Star Wars film. You know what backstory is? It’s nothing special; it’s just the simple rationale and ideas a creative person would sketch out as subordinate to a greater story. Meaning there are backstories to practically every character in practically every work of creative fiction that exists out there; it’s a normal byproduct of a creative process. But honestly, by byproducts—in and of themselves—are not worth dealing with.

      If anything these prequels were produced simply to show off the special effects magic that ILM (Industrial Light and Magic) can do. So in that way, these films act as very expensive and elaborate demo reels of the high quality work ILM can create. Which—on their own—look cool but are ultimately devoid of any real plot where you actually care about any of the characters. These films are just hollow and forgettable.

    • The Force Awakens (2015) - Reviving the Franchise to Milk it Some More: If you watched all the films in the original trilogy, you might as well watch this film. But even if you have never watched any of the films in the original trilogy, this film is fine as a stand alone piece.

      It is indeed a fun ride to be on while you are watching it but the film plays it safe on many levels. It’s clear the purpose of this film is not to really advance plot—or surprise the viewer—as much it was made to establish the new ownership of well worn franchise and state, “Forget those prequels you all hated… We’re going to give you exactly what you want!” You can take that as being bad or good, but in general I felt that The Force Awakens was more a work of fan fiction with a decent budget more than anything else. This film was designed to make the franchise appeal to a new generation of consumers fans and not much else past that.

    +1 for only watching the original Star Wars movie. Everything went downhill once George Lucas realized he's famous and can do whatever he wants.

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