I've never sat through an entire Star Wars film. I'm aware that Episodes I through III are technically prequels, but I feel strange watching three new films before three older films.
Do I need to watch the new ones then the old ones?
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The best order I’ve seen suggested is as follows:
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 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?
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.
There is no "official" recommended viewing order for the Star Wars series, but there are two main approaches:
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.
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.
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.”
"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."
"Rogue One comes before four! Yeah, so you go: one, two, three, Rogue One, four, five, six, seven, eight", he decided. "I'm guessing."
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:
"I would say 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, because for a young person it's easier to understand the chronology."
"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."
"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."
"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
"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."
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.
If you enjoy reading, there might be an even better way to enjoy it.
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:
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.
(The following year they managed to show them weekly in numerical order.)
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.
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.
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.
Okay, I'm a little late here, but I would suggest the following: you start with IV, V, VI. That's the original trilogy and it will give you the guts to actually finish the whole marathon. Then go to I, II and III, so you watch them in order they were filmed and share the experience of all the people who watched them as they appeared. Now, the only downside to this approach is that you'll have the sense of unfinished story. Then you just go ahead and watch IV, V and VI once more, they are worth it and you'll complete the story in linear order.
So, IV, V, VI, I, II, III, IV, V, VI. It takes a little bit more time, but what the hell, you are going to rewatch the original trilogy anyway. Throw in Clone Wars series and movie between II and III if you like.
Community Wiki answer to catalogue all orders proposed up until this point:
NB: Answers which don't include VII and were posted before VII are listed on the same line as otherwise-identical answers including VII. Answers which don't include other films presumably did this deliberately so they are listed separately from each other. Answers indented are the same as their parent except for including/excluding other media such as books or unofficial films etc.
Here's what I was told would be the best from a storytellers' point of view; of course I had watched the original trilogy from childhood long before the prequels came out, so there were no surprises left even in the new movies, but...
Now, the original story arch of Star Wars was supposed to be a "trilogy of trilogies"; A New Hope was chosen as the original release because if Lucas didn't get backing for the rest of the films, Star Wars was the best one to stand alone. The third trilogy, which was supposed to take place after the original trilogy, will probably never be seen in movie format. Between all the fanfics and the Star Wars: Jedi Knight video game series, the basic idea is that there are still Imperialists "insurgents" making trouble, Luke is rebuilding the Jedi Knights, and nature abhors a vacuum; there can be no light without darkness.
I know this is a long time after the original question, but in lieu of the recent blog post: In what order should the Star Wars movies be watched?, I would like to propose a slightly different order:
4 - 1 - 2 - 3 - 5 - 6
See the Rebel Alliance and fall in love with the rebel ideals, and be confused and hurt by the fierce and uncaring Empire, then go back and see how the not one generation before the rebels were the ones that became the Empire, then watch Anakin grow old, get married, have his wife die, the children were hidden, now he and Luke get reacquainted, and then the finale.
Just my suggested order.
I personally despise the prequels, so on that basis, I don't think you'd be missing much if you ignored them and used this order:
Episode IV: A New Hope
Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back
Episode VI: Return of the Jedi
Episode VII: The Force Awakens
But you probably want to see all of them, and assuming that this is the case, I suggest:
Episode IV: A New Hope
Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back
Episode VI: Return of the Jedi
Episode VII: The Force Awakens
Episode I: The Phantom Menace
Episode II: Attack of the Clones
Episode III: Revenge of the Sith
There are some surprises in Episode V that would be ruined if you watched the series in numerical order, so the important thing is to watch the original trilogy first, THEN the prequel trilogy. You also need to watch the new trilogy - Episodes VII through IX - after the original trilogy, but you can watch the new trilogy before or after the prequels.
This is the movie order I recently did with my fiancee. It is chronological and worked fantastically for a newcomer:
I'd like to propose yet another order:
IV, I, II, V, VI, III, VII, VIII, IX
The problem with any order which puts episode III before VI (which covers most of the orders in the earlier answers) is that the Luke-Leia twist from episode VI would be spoiled by episode III. Some people say that episode VI "has" to be watched after episode III because VI has a happy ending, which certainly cannot be said for III. This may have been true in the past but now we have episodes VII-IX, those will always end your watching session - there's just no getting away from that.
Regarding the earlier-answered orders (as at time of writing) which do put episode VI before III, I will give my specific critique:
It may also be controversial to put episodes I and II before episode V. For more detail on that decision, see yrodro's excellent answer. In fact, his order is very similar to mine, but with episodes III and VI reversed, which I didn't want to do for the reason mentioned above. Essentially, many people seem to think that I and II spoil the "I am your father" twist, but I don't think this is true - it is only spoiled by episode III. If you really don't want to put episodes I and II before V for some reason, go with this slightly modified order: IV, V, I, II, VI, III, VII. (This is basically MikeScott's order but with III and VI reversed.)
Finally, having seen Rogue One recently, it's obvious to ask where this fits in. However I think this question is somewhat meaningless as it can basically fit anywhere after episode IV. I wouldn't recommend watching it before episode IV, as a lot of things will make no sense (such as The Force), but after that it's not essential to the overall story to watch it at any point. (NB: I love Rogue One, and am not dissing the movie, I just don't think it matters where you watch it in the watching order.)
If you have never seen Star Wars you should definitely start with Episode IV, then watch V and VI. All three of these are classic pieces of cinema history, and all three are enjoyable films. Put together they tell a complete story, with a beginning, a middle and an end.
I would then skip over the prequels entirely and watch the first new one, episode VII. This film is clearly designed to be watched without ever seeing the prequels, and it follows on nicely from episode VI, albeit with a long time gap in between. (At the time of writing, further Disney sequels have not been released, but I would guess my recommendation will be to continue watching them in order.)
I would then watch Rogue One, which is a decent film that sets up the events of episode IV. Logically, it belongs before it of course, but I don't think it works as the beginning of the overall saga, since it's designed as a standalone story. This would then be followed by the rest of the Disney films, presumably in order of release. (They are not all out yet at the time of writing.)
If by then you are hooked, you can move on to the George Lucas prequels if you want. But bear in mind that while they are full of whizz-bang computer generated effects, they don't really add anything to the story and in many ways subtract from it. Watching them first is definitely not a good idea, because they are basically a gigantic spoiler for one of the greatest "big reveals" in cinema history. If you can somehow manage to watch episodes III, IV and V without knowing it's coming you're really in for a treat.
They are officially "canon", but I suspect they will continue to be ignored for all practical purposes in future sequels and spinoffs from Disney. You will not lose much by avoiding them, or by just watching them once to satisfy your curiosity and then trying to pretend they don't exist.