There are some book or movie series that few people have heard of — each with a tiny cult following, and each struggling to be recognized and adored by the multitudes. But then there are other sagas that have made a mark on literate or cinematic history: the kind which everyone has heard of, but which some rare people (for reasons unknown or unfathomable) refuse to explore. Perhaps they simply dislike the hype; perhaps they’re not attracted by the genre; perhaps they just haven’t found the time to bother getting involved. Nonetheless, I’ve met very few people — even non-‘nerds’ — who haven’t seen Star Wars.
It’s a difficult thing, falling into that unique category. Some of you (or your dear friends) have seen bits and pieces of the series, though not necessarily the whole thing; others of you haven’t been interested in the space-legend, but you still know the classic plot twist about Darth Vader; and still others of you are (by either excessive effort or insane luck) completely ignorant about what makes Star Wars so precious to so many people, which can make your social interactions a bit awkward at times.
Whatever your reason for missing (or avoiding) Star Wars, allow me the privilege of explaining to you, in a spoiler-free manner, why this series might be worth your time.
Hogwarts Star Wars, A History
It’s somewhat difficult trying to decide where to begin when explaining Star Wars. Don’t get me wrong — it’s easy to identify the first installment of the story, which came out in the form of a movie in 1977. However, for the impact of Star Wars to really be understood, we actually have to go a little further back in time and look at major world politics.
So bear with me for just a moment.
After World War II came to and end and the atrocities of the Holocaust were revealed to average citizens, people started to realize the horrific effects that propaganda and unquestioned idealism could have on a nation. As time went on, human trust in governing systems plummeted — especially in the sixties, when scandals and wars and crimes against humanity broke out more than ever before.
Movies from the preceding decades had been particularly colorful and optimistic, with happy endings all around. But once the seventies hit, movies like Chinatown and The Godfather started to emerge. Pessimism and a distrust of true justice were normal perspectives… but just as optimism was at an all-time low, so too was general morale. People were depressed, and a lot of them weren’t sure why.
One of the few people who did know was a man by the name of George Lucas. who remembered the magnificent power of myths. Figures like Odysseus, King Arthur, or Robin Hood went on adventures that tended to follow a special pattern, called the “Monomyth” or “Hero’s Journey,” as identified by scholar Joseph Campbell. George Lucas decided to tap into that pattern and create his own powerful legend, and reintroduce people to the wonder of classic mythology.
The result was the film saga called Star Wars, and there’s really no other way to explain what happened next: it, very simply, changed the world.
Lucas was right to trust in the power of mythical paragons, because Star Wars was a smash-hit. Audiences flocked to it like no movie ever before; they were starved for the clear sense of right and wrong that it portrayed.
And Lucas was only getting started. In 1980, Fox released Episode 5, “The Empire Strikes Back,” and spearheaded one of the most secretive and shocking cinematic reveals in history (as you probably already know if you’ve ever watched its parody in Toy Story II or that spoiler-filled discussion in Pitch Perfect). Fans who grew up with the series occasionally lose track of the initial shock that this plot twist contained... fortunately some young parents have taken it upon themselves to document the (spoiler-filled) reactions of new converts whenever they can.
Everybody who helped produce Episode 5 was given a false script — even the man who wore Darth Vader’s costume. Lucas only confided in two people about the truth: the first was Mark Hamill, who was told just before he had to act out the scene as Luke Skywalker (which makes his performance regarding the unprecedented news particularly noteworthy). The other person was James Earl Jones (the man who provided the iconic voice to Darth Vader [and Mufasa]), who was told later in the recording studio and could hardly believe the change to the script. As a result, the very premiere itself was a surprise to all but a tiny handful of people on the entire planet.
|Their genuine reactions to|
one of the series reveals.
The plot twist was an immediate sensation with audiences back in 1980 not just because it was entirely unexpected, but also because Star Wars became a myth of the modern age, taking into account that not every moral matter is as black and white as it may originally seem.
The rest is history. Episode 6, Return of the Jedi, was released in 1983. Then, after sixteen years of struggling, Episodes 1-3 were released to mediocre praise (but admirable revenues, of course). One of the central complaints from fans was the fact that Lucas used excessive amounts of computer-generated special effects after 1999, as opposed to the impressive puppets and ornate sets created for episodes 4-6. Other viewers had various beefs with poor scripts, even poorer acting, and some comically-ridiculous alien characters that were created for child audiences rather than for adults.
There have been a few scattered television spinoffs of the saga over the years, most of them animated and focused on marketing fun toys to children… though the Star Wars Holiday special in 1978 was so convoluted and negatively-received, even by George Lucas himself, that it has never been re-broadcast or even officially-released on DVD (and crude-but-accurate film critics like Doug Walker, “That Guy With the Glasses,” can explain why… though you may be too agonized to even finish watching a review of the special, let alone attempt to watch the special itself. Seriously).
After that, no one dared to create any Star-Wars-based television until 1984, when the whimsical children’s show Ewoks aired alongside two made-for-television movies about the Ewok race, Caravan of Courage and Battle for Endor. After that, a show called Droids was released in 2004 and was fairly popular, and most modern audiences may have heard of the Warner Bros. series Clone Wars or the especially-recent Rebels on Disney XD. And there have, of course, been countless parodies, whether by movies like Spaceballs or the racy adult cartoon Family Guy…
…the rib-splitting, all-ages side-story in Disney’s Phineas and Ferb (which claims not to be canon, but easily could have actually happened in the background of Episode 4)...
…and plenty of other shows.
In other words, no one has really dared to create Star Wars television unless it’s been for kids or comedy. However, countless books and graphic novels beyond measure have been published by multiple authors, detailing prequels and sequels and exploring Lucas’ world of science fiction more than ever before.
Then, in 2012, the world received a piece of news that was like a rolling snowball on the ice-planet Hoth; it started a chain reaction that kept growing and growing and has yet to stop or crash. Fans have been comically see-sawing between delight and outrage… and it all started with the announcement that Episode 7 would be released in 2015!
…because Disney bought the rights to Lucasfilm.
Not long afterwards in 2013, notable nerd deity and director J.J. Abrams (of ABC’s Lost and the two latest remakes of Star Trek) was selected to work at the helm of the new production. Abrams made sure that the original lead actors (Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, even Peter Mayhew!) would return.
And not only that — he made sure that the films would include physical puppets and minimal computer-effects.
However, there was of course a major debate concerning all of the books that had already been written in the Star Wars universe. How could the new movies possibly respect all of the different storylines that had been constructed over the decades? The truth is, well… they really couldn’t. As such, in 2014 Disney announced that all of those books would no longer be considered ‘canon’ (meaning official to the Star Wars universe). That way, the movies could stop concerning themselves with the plots of dozens of books… but it also meant that all of the fans who spent years trying to keep track of the novels had done so for nothing.
Fortunately, that wound was decently-healed once the first trailer was released to the utter delight of all…
…although there were several complaints about the redesign of a classic weapon, the laser swords known as “lightsabers”…
…which weren’t quelled until television comedian Stephen Colbert laid down the law of being a Star Wars fan.
You get the idea. Star Wars has been an absolute icon of science fiction for over forty years, and now it doesn’t look like it’s going to stop anytime soon.
There are multiple ways to explain the storyline of Star Wars, and there are multiple orders to watch the movies by (as I will detail in the “Decision” section) — but at the moment I think it may be best to begin where George Lucas did: Episode 4, A New Hope.
…a stern emperor has been ruling the galaxy with an iron fist for nearly two decades. A rebellion has been resisting his rule for some time, but the battles have been difficult and the emperor’s right-hand, Darth Vader, is a vicious opponent.
Soon the conflict sucks in a young man named Luke Skywalker, who has lived with his aunt and uncle on a desert planet all his life.
As he is plunged headlong into the war, he meets several new friends including noble (and impressive female role model) Princess Leia…
…scoundrel mercenary Han Solo and his fuzzy alien pilot Chewbacca…
…and the mysterious hermit Obi-Wan Kenobi, who once knew Luke’s father and was a Jedi warrior with him.
The Jedi, and their evil counterparts the Sith, studied ancient knowledge of the Force. In the Star Wars universe, the Force is a sort of omnipotent presence that some rare individuals can manipulate… for good or evil.
Star Wars chronicles the struggles of the Jedi as they battle the Sith time and time again: showing how the empire came to exist in the first place, and then culminating in the final face-off between Luke, Darth Vader, and the Emperor himself.
There are plenty of reasons why fans love the show — many of the older films featured larger-than-life costumes and puppets that looked more real than anything a computer could ever create.
The scripts are original and witty… but they’re still laced with the great and familiar scope that all great myths have in common. There are also some impressive stories about what went on behind the scenes of the movies: for example, Mark Hamill was in a car crash between the filming of Episodes 4 and 5, so Lucas added a scene early in the film that accounted for his fresh scars.
|Some Star Wars fans are now kicking themselves for not knowing that.|
Not to mention that the films were scored by JOHN FREAKIN' WILLIAMS, the unmatched paragon* who was behind the classic themes to Indiana Jones, Jurassic Park, E.T., Jaws, Superman, and more!
* Disclaimer: I love plenty of other soundtrack composers, some much more than Williams. However, Williams’ work has undeniably classic (if predictable) fanfare that cannot be equaled when it comes to old-fashioned Friday-night blockbusters.
Viewers don’t have to work too hard to understand what’s going on (except perhaps during some very political prequels) and they get to let their imaginations run (or fly) wild with incredible alien creatures.
Star Wars could actually almost fall under the category of PG, barring some occasionally-frightening themes or weapons. It's a good in-between for kids going from Disney cartoons to bigger films, and can definitely be handled by ages six years old and up (but remember, you know your kids better than I do. If you have any. Yet).
Violence: There are colorful battles with laser guns (blasters) and laser swords (lightsabers) in which good and bad guys are wounded, lose limbs, or are killed.
However, the blood is minimal, because the lasers cauterize the wounds almost as soon as they’re made. Buildings, vehicles, ships, and even planets are smashed or blown up, and some characters are electrocuted and un-specifically-tortured. A few bodies are also burned.
Sex: There are occasional kisses, children are born, and a couple is shown asleep in the same bed. However, everything that’s portrayed is done so in a way that adults would recognize more than children, so it’s relatively harmless. There are also a few scattered female slaves in bikinis, and one of the plot twists in Episode Six does reveal why two characters shouldn’t pursue each other romantically… but fortunately, they weren’t really doing that before they found out, anyway.
Language: You’re really only in trouble if you don’t want your children to start using the insult, “Scruffy-Looking Nerf Herder.”
As you’ve likely already guessed, Star Wars is both fantasy myth and slightly-wacky science fiction. It mixes some vague, pantheistic spiritualism with its themes of light versus darkness, right versus wrong, and warriors protecting the innocent, but that’s mostly just to give the story its scope and sense of magic.
So is it worth it?
That depends on you. It’s not hard to come across Star Wars these days, as they tend to become a part of nearly every movie fan’s collection at some point in their lives. Some of your more purist friends may want to keep you from watching Episodes 1-3…
...but others may encourage you to explore them all. I honestly don’t remember much about my own first experience because I was pretty young, but I do know that we started with Episode 4 because the prequels had yet to come out in theatres.
If you’re worried about getting caught up, then there are definitely plenty of places to start, and plenty of orders to place the movies in. I'll try my best to do each method justice.
The Traditional Order
Episodes 4-6, then 1-3
This method is perhaps the most popular, because the movies were released in this order and so the majority of Star Wars fans were introduced to the saga this way. It certainly preserves the original plot twists, but it does lead to a bit of dull disappointment when watching the CGI-laden Episodes 1-3. The one drawback of this method is, if you’re watching one of the “enhanced” versions of Episode 6 (which means almost any DVD of it), then one of the final shots of the movie may feel strange to newcomers who don’t know who Hayden Christensen is supposed to be.
I suppose if you’re some sort of OCD stickler, you could just watch the movies by Episode number. It’s actually the order that George Lucas intended for people to watch. However, there are two problems with it; for one, you simply won’t know what you’re supposed to be anticipating. Episodes 1-3 may be interesting, but they can’t hold their own without the audience knowing that they lead up to. And in addition to that, watching the films chronologically will create almost no tension because there won’t be any big plot twists or reveals for you in Episodes 4-6. I’m not trying to be a downer here: I’m just being honest.
Episodes 4-5, 1-3, 6
Now bear with me on this; it wasn’t my idea, but it was proposed by blogger Rod Hilton in this [spoiler-laden] article and he made an impressive argument for it. Beginning with Episodes 4-5 gives the audience the same sensation that original viewers felt, seeing this galaxy far, far away for the first time and finding out the major plot twist of the saga the same way everyone else did. After that shocking news, the watchers get to go back in time and see Episodes 1-3, to witness how that plot twist came to be. They can then finish with Episode 6, which leaves a less-sour taste in one’s mouth and can also provide surprising tension. As Hilton explained, watching Episode 6 directly after the prequels helps the audience to recognize ominous signs surrounding Luke’s development into a Jedi.
Granted, the method’s not perfect. The major plot twist of Episode 6 is relocated into Episode 3, but it’s still a good place for a reveal (and the prequels hardly had any shocking turnarounds, anyway). There are also a few continuity issues between the scripts (like Leia’s memories) (which many fans already have noticed, anyway) that will be even more obvious to newcomers when the films are screened back-to-back.
Episodes 4-5, 2-3,6
This pattern is similar to the one above, but with a single change. Hilton makes an argument for why Episode 1 can be removed entirely from the saga without major repercussions. I agree that, plot-wise, it could easily be absent from the series without much damage. It would even improve the background story for Hayden Christiansen’s character, in some ways (seriously, though. I feel like all of his important development happened between Episodes 1 and 2).
However, I will say this for Episode 1… it is still a perfectly colorful, swashbuckling science fiction adventure that’s worthy of the Star Wars name… or, at least, more worthy than Episode 2. Maybe I’m biased, since I was too young even to hate the infamous Jar-Jar Binks when he first stumbled onto the silver screen…
|I still laugh. Every time.|
…but Episode 1 is still my favorite of the prequels (the prequels, mind you). The plot is occasionally slow, but that’s compensated with some incredible whirlwind pod (spaceship) races…
…and what is without any doubt the finest and most elegant, heart-wrenching lightsaber battle of all time.
And if you’re still on the fence, just give it time. There are plenty of fan-made samples on Youtube that might interest you if you’re more of a visual person (like myself), including this phenomenal spoiler-free trailer for the complete saga, and a hilariously honest trailer about the quality of some of the prequels. And, of course, there are always the thrilling new trailers for Episode 7. Let's all re-live the goosebumps, shall we?
In the end, I’d recommend that you ask the fans in your life where they think you should start, and then you’ll have to judge Lucas’ creation for yourself. A lot of it depends on how innocent you are to the greatest cinematic plot twist of all time. If you already know it, Star Wars may not seem that important to you. But if you understand the original purpose of the series and its impact on our culture, you’ll be able to appreciate the saga and you’ll see the value in Lucas’ ability to take age-old motifs and put them in a new light.
It’s relatively easy to find someone who hasn’t read The Iliad, The Once and Future King, or the myths of other ancient cultures nowadays. But it’s extremely difficult to find someone unfamiliar with Star Wars, because Star Wars is our society’s modern myth.