What's the best viewing order to watch the Star Wars movies in? Narrative direction has been a lurking question for the franchise ever since George Lucas decided to make the first entry in his space opera "Episode IV" and became a genuine rewatch concern when we actually got the preceding three. Now, with eight (soon to be nine with the release of Star Wars: The Last Jedi) live-action films, another animated theatrical release, and so much TV it's no wonder Disney are starting a streaming service, it's all a bit complicated.
It used to be easy: you'd watch the original trilogy from start to finish. The prequels then complicated things a little; you could watch the saga in release or story order. Both methods had their advantages: release order recreated the feeling of watching the films for the first time and, crucially, preserved the many big twists of the originals; story order, meanwhile, was what Lucas intended (despite prequel fan service) and tells a more traditionally epic tale. Of course, the real issue with the prequels, however, was the fact they were widely regarded as considerably weaker than the originals. You either had to start with three lesser movies or follow up a trio of surefire classics with nearly seven CGI-heavy hours.
As a result, there's countless of alternatives that try and address this. Flashback order (watching the original trilogy with the prequels slotting in after The Empire Strikes Back, thus maintaining the Vader twist while still ending on Return of the Jedi) is commonly cited, as is brutish evolution Machete order, which follows the same structure except ditching what the creators believe to be the narratively-unnecessary The Phantom Menace. Things only get more complicated with the sequel trilogy and anthology movies, leading to a raft of personally tweaked orders that make your head hurt.
And it's all, ultimately, needless, because there is one clearly superior way.
Story Order Is The Best For Rewatch
OK, let's level. If you're watching Star Wars for the first time or introducing someone to the franchise, release order makes sense. That's how the majority of the world did it and that worked out pretty well there. If you really don't know anything about the franchise, then it provides a strong introduction with Star Wars, a twist in Empire and eventually brings you neatly up-to-date for new releases.
However, if you've seen the movies before, establishing the world and preserving rug-pulls is not really a concern - you're already sold. The focus is on optimum experience, and with that in mind, the only way to watch is story order. Plainly, it tells a full, serialized narrative from beginning to (eventually when we get Episode IX) end - something no other does. It's the most rewarding method for sure; while the detailed Ring Theory is perhaps a bit off base, there are nevertheless recurring themes movie-to-movie and trilogy-to-trilogy that are designed to be highlighted this way.
Now we have sequels, the other orders don't quite gel; Star Wars isn't "The Tragedy of Darth Vader" anymore, yet all other viewing methods are constructed around that notion. For release order, going from Return of the Jedi to The Phantom Menace is an odd leap when Revenge of the Sith is going to go into The Force Awakens. The flashback ideas could hold, but the problem they always had remains: it's inorganic. While in theory, you get to see how Anakin became Vader after learning of the fact, it ignores that the films are made to be follow-on episodes, and doesn't make sense when you're then going into a traditionally ordered sequel run. And Machete should never be considered as a viable option because, plainly, it cuts a movie out; whatever your thoughts on The Phantom Menace, if you're wanting the full experience it has to be included.
Anthologies do pose a problem with all this. So far we have just Rogue One, but already that blocks the transition from prequel to original trilogy by taking us away from the Skywalker narrative. Of course, these are Story films where the point is they're away from the main saga, so could be skipped in any order and not damage the bigger picture.
At the end of the day, you can watch Star Wars however you want, but there's no avoiding that chronologically is the purest way to do it.
- Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018) release date: May 25, 2018
- Star Wars 8/Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017) release date: Dec 15, 2017
- Star Wars 9 / Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (2019) release date: Dec 20, 2019