Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens is coming out in about a month! December 18, 2015 will be a day long remembered. I can already feel the disturbance in the force, as if millions of voices suddenly cried out in excitement, and were suddenly silenced [by reverence for the opening crawl, by a John Williams smackdown, or perhaps by fainting].
But there has been another disturbance in the force. And it smells like bantha poodoo.
To be fair, this is a perennial problem: In what order does one watch the Star Wars films?
Episodes IV through VI were released between 1977 and 1983; episodes I through III (known as the prequels) were released between 1999 and 2005. By starting “in media res,” George Lucas threw the world into chaos.
The problem is familiar, but the stakes are higher. This time, the sorry souls who have somehow never seen the epic saga are coming out of the woodwork under the social pressure to see December’s long-awaited release. “Actually, I’ve never seen Star Wars,” they say. (See? Bantha poodoo if I ever saw it.) And then their friends, family, significant others—every sane person, basically—engage in what can only be described as egregious face-palmery, followed by collar-grabbery and mandatory viewing of what I believe to be one of the greatest and most epic science-fantasy epics ever to be epic-ized through the epic epicenter of the epic TV’s epic light rays landing on my epic epidermis.
You are a Star Wars fan. (If you don’t really care for Star Wars, I find your lack of faith disturbing; get out of my sight.) You have seen the movies once, hopefully multiple times before. You are versed in the implications of my opening statements, that unlike other movie series, Star Wars presents the curious conundrum of which order to place the films: in order of release, in story/chronological order, or perhaps using the so-called “machete” solution.
What follows is a brief introduction to the three schools of Star Wars criticism as I have observed and dubbed them. In parentheses beside each theory is the proposed viewing order.
Completionists acknowledge Lucas’ ultimate vision for Star Wars as encompassing a complete (get it?) story arc consisting of the rise and fall of Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader. Completionists may tend to value character development over plot details. As such, they watch all six episodes in story/chronological order: I through VI.
I’ll leave off any further discussion of this school, since I’ll be explaining a bit more later on.
Purists tend to be literarily conservative and seek consistency of production value and aesthetic. They also tend to favor plot-driven rather than contemplative or character stories. And they also hate Jar Jar. Therefore, they ideally prefer to watch the three original films—IV through VI—rather than or at least before the prequels.
More specifically, Purists tend to dislike the turn toward CGI (computer-generated imagery) in the prequels or even in the Special Edition (1997) versions of episodes IV through VI (though most have probably made their peace with it by now). Other criticisms of the prequels include bad acting on the part of those films’ younger actors (Jake Lloyd, Hayden Christensen, Natalie Portman).
In general, I have observed Purist arguments to rest upon grounds of
- Aesthetic (e.g., criticisms of aspect or plausibility, such as “That lightsaber cross guard thing doesn’t even look practical,” or “You wouldn’t be able to hear explosions in space.”)
- Craft/Production (e.g., criticisms of such production aspects as writing, acting, sequencing, directing, etc.)
- Canon (e.g., using the greater Star Wars oeuvre, including but not limited to movies, TV series, novels, documents, etc. to argue for what Star Wars “should have been” or “should be” or “really is”)
- Intuition (e.g., argument in terms of likes/dislikes, expectations/disappointments; I would also argue that the “intuition” line of reasoning contextualizes Purists’ desire to preserve the surprise of the famous “I am your father” scene in episode V; these experiential aspects of Purist theory usually relate back to both aesthetic and craft)
In short, the “purity” that Purism seeks could be described in terms of the compositional concepts of consistency, design, and promise keeping (expectation/fulfillment).
This school of thought, initiated by Rod Hilton, a software blogger (not surprising), takes Purism to new heights of creativity and (dare I say it—I do) insult. This theory cuts (or should I say hacks) episode I entirely and inserts II and III in between V and VI. Hilton’s original blog post is long, but here’s an excerpt quoted by TIME back in April:
“As I mentioned, this [machete method] creates a lot of tension after the cliffhanger ending of Episode V. It also uses the original trilogy as a framing device for the prequel trilogy. Vader drops this huge bomb that he’s Luke’s father, then we spend two movies proving he’s telling the truth, then we see how it gets resolved.”
(TIME also cites the most notable benefits of the machete order as “a whole lot less Jar Jar Binks and super-whiny Boy Anakin.”)
I’ve dubbed this theory “Machete-ism” after Hilton’s coinage, or “Sciomeliorism” (skee-oh-MEHL-yor-ism; my own coinage), from the [probably bad] Latin for “I know better.” Essentially, Sciomeliorists rearrange the pieces to avoid what they don’t like and improve the series with a sort of flashback in the middle. On one hand, laudable for its creativity; on the other, problematic for Completionists.
Yes, my defense, because if it is not clear by now, I am a self-styled Completionist through and through (though in my more generous moments I can at least enjoy a pseudo-friendly Rogerian argument with the Purists).
The Completionist approach comprises several principal arguments, but each rests upon a more general understanding of film as literary text. We can derive from this understanding a series of premises to inform our arguments:
a) Completionism accepts the text as it is and on its own terms, acknowledging reader intuitions but trying not to argue from them. (One may not “like” how Shakespeare wrote Hamlet, but one puts that dislike aside in order to engage with the text as it is; anything else is exploratory, and while interesting, is something different from what we’re doing.)
b) The needs of the audience/reader (that is, problems of craft or aesthetic) are subordinated to the fact of the text’s past, current, and changing character; that is, Completionists acknowledge, even revel in the universe’s transitory and evolving nature at the hands of multiple authors. (Purists, on the other hand, tend not to appreciate post-hoc changes to or hierarchializations of “canon” artifacts.)
c) The choices of the author are acknowledged and important and open to criticism, but can become—at a certain distance from the text—irrelevant to it. Many criticisms of Star Wars have focused on George Lucas himself, resorting to ad hominem reasoning (certainly in terms of episode I and specifically in terms of Jar Jar) which Completionism tends to reject as invalid for criticism of the text: the Star Wars films.
These premises being laid down, we can now propose the following theses that, taken together, I believe lend some substance to the Completionist case for a I-through-VI viewing order:
Roll with me, guys.
Insofar as Star Wars is a text, we can further understand it in terms of genre. Besides being categorized as a space opera, Star Wars could be characterized as generally operatic, particularly as compared with the operatic works of writer and composer Richard Wagner (1813-1883). Wagner took the German term Gesamtkunstwerk, first used by philosopher K.F.E. Trahndorff, and applied it to his work, particularly to the opera series Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung), often called The Ring Cycle.
Gesamtkunstwerk has been interpreted as “total artwork” or “synthesis of the arts,” referring, as Wikipedia claims, to the idea of using “all or many art forms” in a unified work. Wagner attempted this with The Ring Cycle. According to this theory, “Such a work of art was to be the clearest and most profound expression of a folk legend, though abstracted from its nationalist particulars to a universal humanist fable.”
Star Wars, as theorists such as Joseph Campbell have argued, certainly participates in the idiom of folk legend. And removing the story from any specific Earth-bound setting into the imaginative-yet-accessible “galaxy far, far away,” Star Wars successfully universalizes its narrative by abstraction. And as a gesamtkunstwerk, the work as a whole satisfactorily combines theater, music (for orchestra, voice, electronic instruments, etc.), two-dimensional art (traditional as well as digital matte paintings), three-dimensional art (droid and set sculptures), etc.
Of course, the “total artwork” thesis could be applied to any single episode without having to encompass all six episodes. But if we continue our case from Wagner’s Ring Cycle, then we can argue that for Wagner, the four-part gesamtkunstwerk was intended to be performed in series, even though productions over the years have occasionally presented individual performances separately.
Likewise, the text of Star Wars itself argues for a chronological viewing order. That the episodes’ titles are explicitly numbered further lends weight to the Wagnerian argument to view each part of the whole in its series.
The Purist case for a release-order viewing must rest outside the text. But the text suggests that beginning with episode IV is arbitrary. That episode is titled “A New Hope,” which implies that there was previously none, or even perhaps an “old hope.” In fact, there was, namely that of the “chosen one” prophecy whose shaky hope (and subsequent disillusion) ties together episodes I through III and enables further development of the case in readings of Anakin and Luke Skywalker in episodes IV through VI. That the throughline of Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader is maintained and developed in all six episodes is a further case that all six episodes—neither the halved Purist format nor the truncated Machete order—constitute essentially a single work. This point is elaborated in the third thesis.
The three-act structure, comprising setup/exposition, confrontation/rising action, and climax/resolution, is a standard model used in screenplay writing. While many individual stories and films use this plot model, I would argue that Star Wars episodes I through VI comprise an overarching three-part structure, unified by the character arc of Anakin Skywalker, with Luke Skywalker’s character arc serving as a nested three-act substructure that supports its antecedent toward resolution. Like many movies in this mode, the first and last acts are shorter than the first.
The first two episodes “establish the main characters [Anakin, Padme, Obi-Wan Kenobi, Yoda, Palpatine, etc.], their relationships [master/apprentice, romantic attachments, comrades, etc.] and the world they live in [Republic, Tatooine, Coruscant, etc.].” Later in this act, “a dynamic, on-screen incident occurs that confronts the main character [Anakin, whose mother dies in his arms]. Anakin’s “attempts to deal with this incident [i.e., his promise to become so powerful that he can overcome death itself, angry fighting, selfish loving] lead to a second and more dramatic situation, known as the first turning point,” which, according to this model, signals the end of the first act with a promise that “life will never be the same again for the protagonist.” We can certainly say this is so with the end of episode II: Anakin loses his arm in his first brush with death itself (his nominal foe, one could argue), and he marries Padme in secret as a sort of seal on his promise to his dead mother.
This second act “depicts the protagonist’s [Anakin’s] attempts to resolve the problem initiated by the first turning point [the pursuit of power in order to overcome death], only to find himself in ever worsening situations [conflicting loyalties, turn to the dark side, Padme’s death, Galactic civil war, unwittingly fighting with children].”
As the model suggests, Anakin’s inability to resolve his problems is because he does not yet have the skills to deal with them [in this case, love, empathy, selflessness, etc.]. Anakin must “arrive at a higher sense of awareness” of who he is—Anakin the Good or Vader the Evil—and what he is capable of (love, selflessness, fatherhood), in order to deal with his predicament. “This cannot be achieved alone and [the protagonist is] usually aided and abetted by mentors and co-protagonists,” the article explains.
Hence, this second act of the Anakinian superstructure contains the two first acts of the Lukean substructure. Luke, in this paradigm, serves as Anakin’s abetting mentor, going through his own three-act character arc in order to reach a point where he can finally reckon with his father and help him to come to the aforementioned self-awareness.
The final awareness process, as the article explains, changes who the protagonist is. Vader changes. It is Anakin, not Darth Vader, who overthrows Palpatine and answers the dramatic question posed at the end of Act I: Can Anakin become powerful enough to defeat death itself? No. Anakin, in his new awareness, accepts death and thus conquers it, in a way, for his family and arguably for himself (since he appears alongside Obi-wan and Yoda in the final shot).
Thus, the nested structure not only tracks classic operatic themes (hubris, death, and consequences), but also makes an argument through that structure about the intricacy, complexity, and power of human relationships. Mentors upon mentors, friends upon friends, ultimately work toward the redemption of a person most had assumed too far gone to repent.
And that’s why Completionists watch episodes I through VI in that order.
All snark and humor aside, this defense is not intended to disqualify the Purist Star Wars theory (though I do hold Sciomeliorism in contempt). My defense of the chronological viewing order doesn’t mean that problems of craft, aesthetic, and intuition are dumb questions or meaningless. They’re just not the questions Completionists like me usually find the most interesting.
As a friend and fellow Star Wars fan reminded me as I was writing this, episode VII has the capacity to disappoint. It could throw off my brilliant three-act argument, for all I know! I for one am excited that the saga continues with new characters, new struggles, and new explorations through the universe I’ve come to love.
What other schools of thought are there on Star Wars and how one should view the films?