By Tom Holste
Dec. 11, 2017
Over and over again in my Facebook feed, I’ve been seeing the same question show up in groups: “I want to watch Star Wars, but where do I start?” The hype for The Last Jedi, which opens this Thursday, is at a fever pitch, and some people who have never dipped their toe into this franchise want to give it a shot. But with nine live-action theatrical films and a ton of animated TV shows and other media, the barrier for entry is getting bigger and more overwhelming.
This blog is intended to help those who want to get to know Star Wars, with different levels dependent on your level of interest.
BEGINNER LEVEL: WATCH THE FORCE AWAKENS
Let me be clear: I’m not saying that The Force Awakens is the only Star Wars movie you should ever watch. I’m saying that, with the goal of getting ready to watch The Last Jedi this weekend, The Force Awakens is probably the only one you’ll need to watch to understand the new story. The caretakers at Lucasfilm don’t want audiences to have to watch everything in order to understand what’s going on; they want as many people in the seats as possible. The Force Awakens itself was made in such a way that newcomers could easily understand what’s going on, and any references to the past are clearly explained. By all means, eventually watch other Star Wars movies, but if you’re short on time and just want to be ready for this weekend, The Force Awakens is an entertaining entry point.
INTERMEDIATE LEVEL: THE ORIGINAL TRILOGY
Let’s say you have more time on your hands this week, or you’re going to wait until the crowds die down. Then you should start with the original trilogy – Star Wars (1977), retroactively titled A New Hope to distinguish it from the others; The Empire Strikes Back (1980), and Return of the Jedi (1983). People argue about the relative quality of the other films, but pretty much everyone agrees that the first three movies are good, and they tell a complete story unto themselves. For most people, I would recommend having these under their belt before watching the new movies if they have the time.
ADVANCED LEVEL: THE PREQUELS
In homage to the old adventure serials that he grew up watching at the movie theater, George Lucas playfully added “Episode IV,” “V,” and “VI” to the first three movies that he made. After fans kept asking him what happened in the other episodes, Lucas finally fleshed out the details of the backstory that he had created for the saga in Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999), Episode II: Attack of the Clones (2002), and Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (2005).
Many people feel that these movies are not up to the craftsmanship of the original films. Still others defend them passionately. Whatever the case, the original movies made sense without this backstory so they can be watched independently. Despite being numbered “Episode I,” etc., these movies ruin some of the surprises of the Original Trilogy for new viewers, so if by some chance you’ve managed to remain unspoiled on some of the most famous plot twists in movie history, don’t destroy the pleasure of discovering these for yourself for the first time. Save these movies for after you’ve seen the others.
My personal favorite way to view the films has become the Machete Order, wherein a couple of the prequels are viewed as a flashback in the middle of the Original Trilogy to preserve the surprises yet create greater emotional impact in the final installment. However, if this method seems too confusing, just ignore it and save the prequels for the end. (Also note that the blog I linked to has some NSFW language.)
JEDI MASTER LEVEL: EVERYTHING ELSE
Lucasfilm is now also making standalone “Star Wars Story” movies, the first of which was Rogue One, which in my opinion was excellent. Next year will see a standalone movie about Han Solo, one of the most popular characters in the franchise. Despite being set in the past, the standalone nature of these movies means that they aren’t necessary to watch immediately to understand anything else.
If you’re still excited after seeing all of these, there are two different animated series under the name Clone Wars; I preferred the first, although the second is more popular. Rebels, Forces of Destiny, and LEGO Star Wars: The Freemaker Adventures are other current popular animated series. There are also TV movies featuring the furry Ewoks from Return of the Jedi; a couple of Saturday morning cartoons from the ‘80s based on the Ewoks and the Droids from the films; and an awful, unwatchable Holiday Special that only ever got a semi-official release when the Rifftrax crew released a mocking commentary on it. These latter projects are mainly for the hardcore completist.
There are also a variety of excellent comics, novels and video games, but sifting through those requires a post unto itself.
Happy viewing! As Obi-Wan Kenobi say, you’ve just taken your first step into a much larger world.