by Joshua Worden | Staff Writer
Star Wars is a franchise that needs no introduction, and yet ironically, a surprising number of people have never ventured out into a galaxy far, far away. To the uninitiated viewer, there is a single, all important question to be answered: where, oh, where to begin? There are three competing schools of thought, which I will present in ascending order of correctness.
The first is to follow the in-universe chronology, that is, to watch Episodes I-VII in numerical order, with “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” falling between Episodes III and IV. The folly of this school is apparent to anyone familiar with Episodes I-III: those three films are really, really bad. Episode I: “The Phantom Menace” features a maximally dull premise about galactic trade disputes, a premise that could still have been made interesting if George Lucas had not chosen to target the film at young children. Since kids age 5-10 have little interest in politics and the implications of macroeconomic systems on a galactic scale, we hear nothing about those things, and instead have to deal with legendarily unfunny comic relief character Jar-Jar Binks stepping in poo and numbing his tongue on currents of electricity. Almost anyone viewing Episode I with fresh eyes will have no desire to continue through to the rest of the series (and even if they did, they would then have to contend with two films-worth of Hayden Christiansen’s atrocious line delivery). Of the eight currently-released Star Wars films, Ep. I is easily the poorest representation of what Star Wars really is, and the prequel trilogy is weak as a whole. As such, Ep. I cannot be the first film a new viewer is sent to watch.
The next school of thought advocates viewing the films in chronological order of release. This argument is much stronger. The original film, 1977’s Episode IV: “A New Hope”, which upon release was simply titled “Star Wars”, is arguably the best possible representation of what Star Wars is. It’s a classic ‘hero’s journey’, it’s fun and charming, the characters are likeable. Most importantly, though, Ep. IV literally defined the Star Wars universe, setting the rules that all subsequent films would follow. Ep. IV (unlike Ep. I) also had a fantastic sequel; in fact, Episode V: “The Empire Strikes Back” is widely considered to be among the best sequel films ever made, not to mention the best Star Wars film to date. Another benefit of watching in release order is that a new viewer would have no need to watch through Ep. IV’s prequels; if they wanted to, it would be up to them, but they would arguably lose very little in opting out. Furthermore, if a viewer didn’t like Ep. IV, they could even stop there and still be said to have a proper understanding of what Star Wars is. The argument for this school of thought is good, and hard to refute, but this is still not the most correct way to begin watching the Star Wars films. If you are a newcomer to the Star Wars universe, the one you want to watch is Episode VII: “The Force Awakens”.
Purists, who typically subscribe to the second school of thought, will immediately disagree with this notion, and their skepticism is understandable; after all, they have quite a strong position. However, this approach fulfills the same purpose as the release-order system, but does it much better. The chief benefits of starting in release order are, a) Ep. IV defined Star Wars in concept, and so perfectly represents its essence, and, b) Because it perfectly represents Star Wars, you can watch only Ep. IV and still understand what Star Wars is. Ep. VII can do this better for one simple reason: it copies all of the general elements of Ep. IV’s plot. In doing so, Ep. VII becomes a naturally fantastic representation of the Star Wars universe. What little ground Ep. VII loses as a conceptual icon, it easily makes up in its presentation and modernity. Ep. IV was and is a great movie, but it was made on a budget of only 13 million dollars (which was low even in 1977), and in some ways, it shows its age to modern eyes. Compare that with the 300 million dollar budget of Ep. VII, and it should be no surprise that every part of Ep. VII’s presentation is more appealing. While this is of no consequence to purists, it often will be to the uninitiated viewer, and the most important thing is to draw that viewer into Star Wars’ world as much as possible.
While Ep. IV-VI have aged well enough (notwithstanding Lucas’ later ‘adjustments’), Ep. VII was loudly and proudly made as a modern film. The humor and the language are contemporary, as is the cast, and this matters when trying to get a modern viewer to connect with the Star Wars universe. By far the most important feature of Ep. VII’s modernity, though, is that two sequels are soon to be released. There is an undeniable magic to the experience of following a series in the present moment, to the long buildup of anticipation before a movie you’ve been waiting for is finally released. This sort of investment in a series, engendered by these long periods of expectation, cannot be emulated. That investment is also by far the best way to turn a new Star Wars viewer into a long-term fan, and that is biggest advantage that this method has over watching in release order. Ep. IV may be the better representation of Star Wars as a whole, but Ep. VII is far more effective at making a new viewer care about the series itself.