This blog entry was coming anyway, but given the surprising—and welcome—news that JJ Abrams will direct the next Star Wars movie, now seems like the ideal time to post it.
I had first introduced my daughter Maddie to Star Wars a few years ago. We watched the original film, and then about a year or so later, I showed her The Empire Strikes Back. But I didn’t feel any real urge to move on to Return of the Jedi and the prequels. To be honest, I was kind of burned out on Star Wars, partly because of George Lucas’s endless tinkering with the films, with the most recent round of revisions having prompted me not to buy the long awaited Blu ray box set.
Besides, Maddie and I had plenty of other things on our plate—particularly the original Star Trek series in its entirety, which I of course wrote about extensively here at Grumblings.
But recently, Maddie started asking me repeatedly when we would watch the other Star Wars movies, and I knew I couldn’t put it off much longer.
I figured we’d watch the films in original release order: Star Wars (1977), Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980), Episode VI: Return of the Jedi (1983), Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999), Episode II: Attack of the Clones (2002), and Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (2005). But then I came upon a lengthy article on the Internet that made me realize that I could watch the films in a whole new way, perhaps a better way. It’s called Machete Order, and it intrigued the hell out of me. I found myself very enthused by the prospect of trying it out. For me, it would be a revisiting of the entire series, but with a different spin. For Maddie, it would simply be the way that the full story was presented to her. I didn’t think she’d have a problem with it, as she wouldn’t be going into it with any preconceived notions or nostalgia.
So recently, we started all over again and watched all six movies—in Machete Order. What does that mean? We watched the films in the following sequence: Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, Revenge of the Sith, and Return of the Jedi.
In this order, beginning with Star Wars, you’re dropped right into the middle of the galactic civil war and you meet key figures Luke Skywalker, Obi-Wan Kenobi, Princess Leia, Darth Vader, Han Solo, Chewbacca, See Threepio, and Artoo Detoo. You get a hint of the backstory (the Clone Wars, Luke’s father, the Jedi Knights, Vader’s betrayal) and an idea of how things work in this universe. With this film, you’re hooked.
Then, in The Empire Strikes Back, the characters are further developed, you get to know them better, and you feel even more of an emotional attachment to them—especially when awful things happen to them, such as Han being tortured and then carbon-frozen, Threepio getting blown to bits, and Luke being seriously injured during his duel with Darth Vader. Major new characters—particularly Yoda and the Emperor—are introduced. But even more significantly, the film ends on a quiet, uncertain note, with Luke recovering both physically and emotionally in the wake of Vader’s stunning revelation about his true identity.
This break in the action is the perfect time to then go into an extended flashback, to show what happened before we came into the main storyline and to detail how everything fell into place.
(I should point out that the Machete Order recommends skipping over The Phantom Menace entirely, as it’s by and large a throwaway film that’s really not essential to the overall saga. But despite that film’s many shortcomings, I feel it sets up some important stuff that pays off in the later prequels, so I kept it in the sequence.)
So basically, with this order you get two episodes of Luke in the “present,” three episodes of Luke’s father Anakin set in the past, and then one final episode set in the “present” that resolves both Luke and Anakin’s stories.
So how do I feel this sequencing works? Remarkably well! Here are some of the key things I enjoy most about it:
* For anyone watching the series for the first time, it preserves the surprise and the power of Vader’s revelation to Luke in The Empire Strikes Back. If you watch the films in “episode order” (I-VI), that stunning plot twist is completely ruined.
* Along similar lines, in this sequencing you still don’t find out about Luke and Leia’s true connection to each other until after The Empire Strikes Back. (Three movies after, to be exact—in Revenge of the Sith.) Therefore, the revelation still comes as a surprise to newcomers. Sure, the audience finds out the truth one movie before Luke and Leia do in Return of the Jedi—but that’s okay. It really does work.
* In fact, this sequencing gives the Prequel Trilogy a purpose, a reason for existing, that it never had before: Shown in Machete Order, the Prequel Trilogy has the function of confirming Vader’s revelation to Luke in Empire, and it introduces the major plot twist involving Luke and Leia, all of which makes the prequels more essential to the overall viewing experience.
* The dramatic and visual parallels between Revenge of the Sith and Return of the Jedi are much more pronounced and powerful when you watch those two films back to back. It also makes Luke a more interesting character in Return of the Jedi. Think about it: we’ve just watched the complete story of how Darth Vader turned to the dark side. Then, the first time we see Luke in Return of the Jedi, he’s dressed completely in black and using the Force to choke people who cross him—something we’d only seen Vader do up to that point. Is Luke now following in Vader’s footsteps? (This really adds weight to that moment in the climax of Return of the Jedi, when Luke sees Vader’s mechanical hand and then looks at his own, suddenly realizing just how close he’s come to the edge.)
Watching the films in this order, I enjoyed them to a greater extent than I had in quite a while. What was really great was that both Maddie and I were able to watch them with a fresh perspective.
Speaking of Maddie, what did she think of the films?
She places The Empire Strikes Back and Attack of the Clones in a tie for first place. With Empire, she was intrigued by the deepening of the relationships between the characters, particularly between Han and Leia. She also really enjoyed the interactions between Han and See Threepio. With Clones, she was attracted to the love story between Anakin and Padme, and as she notes, “It’s the happiest of the three prequels, because there’s a wedding at the end—and only Artoo and Threepio are invited!”
Maddie places Revenge of the Sith and Return of the Jedi in a tie for second place. She calls Revenge of the Sith a “thrilling adventure that keeps you guessing because you don’t know how Darth Vader comes into the story. I was crying at the end when both Padme and Darth Vader are on separate tables in such pain, Padme is giving birth and Vader is being put into his armor. Seeing them in such pain made me so sad, but it was a fantastic sequence. Very powerful.” As for Return of the Jedi, “It was another happy movie and the Ewoks reminded me of my uncle’s dog Chloe! And it was great to see Mark Hamill look so mature as Luke because in Star Wars he looked like a teenager and then in Empire he looked like he was becoming a man. So in Jedi his growing up was complete.”
Maddie places Star Wars in the #3 spot, describing it as “very engaging” and “a good start to the trilogy. But there are scenes in the other movies that I like more.”
Coming in dead last: The Phantom Menace. Maddie says, “I didn’t like Jar Jar Binks, he was so annoying. The podrace went on way too long. The movie introduced the characters, but that’s really all it did. The lightsaber duel at the end was the only really thrilling part of the whole movie.”
As for me, I still rank The Empire Strikes Back as the best of the series, with Star Wars coming in a close second. (Empire is still one of my favorite movies of all time.)
I have to note here that while watching the whole series again, I was reminded of something that may earn me a quite a bit of ridicule from a lot of folks reading this blog: I never hated the prequels. I realize now that I let the unremitting hostility aimed at those films over the last few years influence my own attitude towards them. But watching them again, I found them all to be watchable, and in the case of Attack of the Clones and especially Revenge of the Sith, quite enjoyable.
In fact, I’ll go so far as to place Revenge of the Sith as my third favorite, with Attack of the Clones coming in fourth. If that makes you think less of me, so be it.
The presence of the Ewoks, a more juvenile approach to the material, an overabundance of fake-looking puppets, an unoriginal storyline, and a lazy performance from Harrison Ford forces me to rank Return of the Jedi in fifth place.
And The Phantom Menace, not a completely awful film but also certainly not a good one (it’s not even a good Star Wars film), comes in a distant sixth.
Overall, I enjoyed experiencing the Star Wars series again, and watching it in this unique order. In fact, this may be the way I always watch the series from now on! (Though next time around, maybe I will skip over The Phantom Menace.)
And of course, it was a thrill to watch Maddie experience the whole thing for the first time. She was literally talking about Revenge of the Sith for days after we watched it—that film in particular truly had a profound effect on her and weighed heavily on her mind for some time. That’s the mark of an effective movie, as far as I’m concerned.
Like most other people, I’m looking forward to seeing what screenwriter Michael Arndt, director JJ Abrams, and story provider George Lucas put together for Episode VII. As of now, I’m cautiously optimistic. And I know that Maddie will be sitting right next to me in the theater on opening night.
© All text copyright Glenn Greenberg, 2013.