Since the first appearance of a seemingly innocent post in 2011, Star Wars fandom has been slowly drawn, like a disabled Star Destroyer plunging into the surface of a partially-built Death Star II, to the alluring “Machete Order”. If you don’t know what this is, first of all you could just read the original proposal or I could tell you that it’s a way of watching the first six films of the Skywalker Saga in a way that centres Luke and his relationship with Vader/Anakin.
I have to say, when I showed the films to my daughter for the first time I did indeed follow the Machete Order. That is to say – IV, V, II, III, VI, with I as bonus material. It’s an elegant storytelling trick that preserves the mystery of Luke’s parentage to the moment of the famous twist in The Empire Strikes Back, presents the Prequels as flashbacks to tell the story of how Anakin ended up in the suit, before revealing the Emperor as the ultimate bad guy and showing his defeat at the hands of his former apprentice. The Phantom Menace, goes the argument, is irrelevant to the story. An extra. Deleted scenes.
Having spent maybe too much time thinking about this, I now believe it’s wrong. Ok, not wrong exactly, but I don’t agree with it. I don’t think it’s necessary and I do think it plays too hard to the “The Prequels are objectively bad” crowd. This is probably because I’ve reassessed the Prequels in the past decade and found them to actually be entertaining, interesting, thoughtful additions to the saga. Ropey elements to be sure, but you can’t tell me the original trilogy is free of those. The Phantom Menace, unloved sibling as it is, has been with us for over two decades now – it’s part of the Star Wars story whether you like it or not.
So here’s my argument. Instead of trying to find a fancy way to order the movies, watch them in chronological order; I, II, III, IV, V, VI. Then the sequels, but no-one is trying to persuade you to watch them out of sequence, are they? Why is that, I wonder?
That was a rhetorical question, but I’ll answer it anyway – because George Lucas’s vision for Star Wars is a complex and uncomfortable one. It doesn’t concern itself particularly with “What the fans want”, it looks at the story and answers its own questions. The Prequel trilogy reflects the original films, but not in the sense of trying to ape their structure and aesthetic. If anything, they explore the possibilities inherent in writing a story that already has an ending. How did it get there, what did the world that grew into that grow from? Whether it is successful in that or not, it tries. The Sequel trilogy is giving the fans what they want – more Star Wars, just like you remember it. The most divisive of the three, The Last Jedi, is the one that deviates most from that mission statement.
I digress. I should answer a more pertinent question – what does the numerical order give you that release order or the Machete Order doesn’t? The big issue is what it doesn’t give you – the twist in Episode V. “No. I am your father”. It’s a shocking revelation, and turns the trilogy on its head. If you watch Episodes I-III first, you already know that truth. Oh no! The trouble is, there’s almost no-one left on the planet who doesn’t know it, whether they have watched Star Wars or not. Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker’s father – this is a fact in our popular culture that we just accept. It is no longer shocking or even particularly interesting.
So let’s replace that thrill. We, the aging fanbase attempting to introduce these films to a younger generation, cannot replicate our childhood in the new world our children occupy (and we certainly cannot force it on an adult we are trying to introduce to the films). Chasing that moment is a lost cause, and contorting a sequence of films to force it through is simply pandering to GenX nostalgia. There’s much more fun to be had letting the world build.
Watching from Episode I to Episode IX (or VIII if you like, it’s called self-care) gives you a more balanced journey. We start with the first pebble, bouncing innocently into an avalanche; a somewhat byzantine trade dispute in the skies above idyllic Naboo. We are introduced to the Jedi. They are justly feared warriors who nonetheless present themselves as good-natured and noble. They are supposedly there to negotiate, but can handle themselves when things go south. Lightsabers, Force powers, flowing robes, athleticism and a strange monkish vibe all within the first ten minutes. Everything feels clean and modern, an arch sci-fi look shimmering throughout.
It’s a lie, and slowly that lie is peeled away. The Jedi are weak, outmoded and outflanked. They have become a technocratic society that’s lost contact with its spiritual origins, which is aptly demonstrated with the whole midi-chlorian fiasco. A blood test shows that Anakin has a high blood-parasite count and THIS is their metric for “He is the Chosen One”? It’s ridiculous, but in keeping with the through-line of a religious group who no longer really believe in their creed. Their vision is fading, and when their Republic is engulfed by fascism they don’t just fail to oppose it, they open the door to let it in. When Anakin falls in love and marries, we take his side against the archaic celibacy of the Jedi Order because, especially in movies, love trumps all. It’s almost enough to cast the Jedi as villains.
Almost. But the trick the Prequels pull off is to keep you from such analysis until much later. Yes, the Jedi are ushering in the Empire, yes they are weak and out of date, yes, they deserve everything they get but well gosh, the Jedi we meet are all more or less likeable. They are cast as the heroes, and everything in the film pulls you to their side. When Order 66 happens it’s a monumental gut-punch – without knowing the original trilogy first, one might assume the Jedi continue to appear through all the films. To see them mercilessly exterminated by clone troopers they had been fighting alongside just seconds before is breathtaking enough when you know it’s coming, so imagine it as a surprise. You want a big twist? Anakin, that innocent little boy from Tatooine, turns to evil and leads the slaughter of his own order. THERE ARE SECURITY HOLOGRAMS OF HIM KILLING YOUNGLINGS, FFS.
This turn to the Dark Side is built slowly, and we watch the prophecy of one who will bring balance to the Force spectacularly backfire on the Jedi. They make mistake after mistake with Anakin – allowing the callow Obi-Wan to instruct him, attempting to suppress his feelings for his own mother, keeping him off the High Council not because he isn’t a powerful Jedi, but because he is. They are scared of him, and by the end of Episode III it’s obvious why. The Prequel trilogy ends with a much maligned scene – the appearance of a monster. A confused, angry young man in a robotic exoskeleton; betrayed by his master, he is told he has killed his wife, that he has nothing left of his old life. He turned against, lost or destroyed everything he believed in and loved. When Anakin Skywalker screams in Darth Vader’s voice, it is the end of that child we met on Tatooine.
We will see that same drama play out again in the next trilogy, and how it can have a very different endpoint.
That’s the Prequel trilogy. Yes, Jar Jar Binks exists. Deal with it, these films are for kids. And you get the Clone Wars without having built it up in your head to be something it isn’t, don’t you?
The original trilogy, then, has to be looked at anew. With the time jump between the end of Revenge of the Sith and the start of A New Hope, what unfolds now is cast in a very different light. We know from the first second that this Princess Leia is Darth Vader’s daughter (and we know her mother, too, what she was capable of). We know her brother, Luke, is out there. We know who Obi-Wan is, and the droids. The in media res feel of the opening sequence is less an introduction and more bringing us up to speed with the changes since the end of III.
During A New Hope, the audience now sits in awe of what Anakin Skywalker has become. Cold, decisive, brutal. The Emperor has been pushed back into the shadows – mentioned in passing, he only reappears briefly in the next film – and Vader appears all powerful. We are willing Luke to realise the truth of his tormentor, but of course he does not.
The twist in Empire Strikes Back is now the release of the tension built up by dramatic irony. We know who Darth Vader is, but Luke doesn’t. His conception of a monolithic evil is underpinned by our knowledge that hey, that’s your Dad. When Luke catches his attention in A New Hope, a title that means something to our hypothetical fresh viewer, we have to wonder – does he know, now, that Padme gave birth? Does he see the prophecy coming back to bite him? When he asks Luke to join him, it’s a betrayal of the Emperor but also we have seen that Palpatine was manipulating Anakin all the way into that suit Surely Vader has figured it out now.
We do not lose anything from the original trilogy, bar a couple of twists in Empire. Vader as father is now the other shoe finally dropping. Yoda is more complex, but no less satisfying. He is reintroduced as a hermit; brought low from the powerful warrior we saw in the Prequels, instead of being a funny unknown goblin, he seems to have been driven mad when we meet him again. Troubled by the events of the Prequels, he cannot initially bring himself to teach Luke. He knows the Prophecy, and how it ended last time. He’s learned his lessons, and now spurns the violence, technocratic high-handedness and narrowness of the Jedi order. When he teaches Luke, he teaches him harmony, control, and to resist the lure of combat. His failure is complete, but – to skip forward to the Sequel trilogy – he now sees the truth of the matter. Failure is important, and perfection is not the path to wisdom.
The Return of the Jedi is the one film that is never considered in this narrative. It’s the happy ending, with all the truths out in the open, an uncomplicated redemption arc for Anakin, the conclusion of Luke’s journey to heroism. Can’t argue with that, can I? Of course I can! This story – told in the order one assumes Lucas intended – becomes now not Luke’s but Anakin’s. Born into slavery, rescued by a religious order who saw him as the chosen one and placed him into another kind of servitude. His family were taken from him – his mother, his wife, his unborn children – and he fell into madness and evil. His children return years later and he is, slowly, redeemed. In his final act he destroys the Sith and brings balance to the Force. When Luke opens his black suit to show a white lining, it’s more than a sartorial choice, it’s a statement. The Dark and the Light live in him, and he is made more powerful by maintaining this balance. Obi-Wan failed again to create the perfect Jedi, but in failure he has steered the Force to exactly where it needed to be.
You may consider the Prequels a failure, and nothing shows that more clearly than if you feel able to abandon the first of them on a whim, with the others simply provide backstory. But given a chance to tell their tales, given a little respect as part of a complete story, they steer the saga to exactly where it needs to be.
Thom is the curator of #microwrites – microwrites.wordpress.com – and writes his own stories for thomwillis.uk. He lives in London because, given the choice, who wouldn’t?