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How to watch the Star Wars movies in order … the perfect order, that is

Stuck at home with time on your hands? It’s the perfect time to dig back into the wonders of watching the Star Wars franchise again.

The sci-fi saga is beloved by multiple generations, but despite that shared fondness for Star Wars stories — which are honored with an entire day of Star Wars events each year on May 4 (as in “May the Fourth be with you!”) — there’s one thing fans can never reach a consensus on: The right order in which to watch the films.

For those who aren’t aware, there are several fan-sanctioned ways to watch the Star Wars saga. (Warning: Multiple Star Wars spoilers ahead!)

Production Order

Naturally, there’s a strong argument to be made for watching the movies in the order they were released in theaters — the “Production Order,” as it’s called. This means watching the original trilogy, beginning with Episode IV – A New Hope and on through The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, before moving on to the prequel trilogy of Episode I – The Phantom Menace, Episode II – Attack of the Clones, and Episode III – Revenge of the Sith. Then, of course, it’s on to 2015’s Episode VII – The Force Awakens, 2016’s stand-alone prequel, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, 2017’s polarizing Episode VIII – The Last Jedi, 2018’s Solo: A Star Wars Story, and finally, Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker.

There are several fan-sanctioned ways to watch the Star Wars films.

The primary benefit to this order is that you see the films as veteran fans experienced them, kicking things off on a high note with George Lucas’ adventure that started it all, before descending into the doldrums of his prequel series, only to rise up again with the modern Disney adventures.

Watching the films in this order also requires you to jump around the timeline quite a bit, making it feel less like a linear narrative and more like a batch of self-contained stories in a shared universe.

Episode Order

Of course, if you want that linear feel, there’s always the “Episode Order” for viewing the franchise. As the title implies, this order would have you watch each of the episodic chapters in order, starting with Episode I: The Phantom Menace, Episode II, and Episode III, then squeezing in Solo and Rogue One’s breakaway adventures before Episode IV. After that, you proceed in numerical order, concluding with Episode XI – The Rise of Skywalker.

The benefits of this viewing order are pretty clear, in that you see the story of Star Wars unfold along the timeline crafted by Lucas and his successors at Lucasfilm. On the negative side, though, you’ll be kicking off your Star Wars experience with the worst three films in the franchise (yes, we still believe that). Transitioning from the sterile, CGI-infused environment of the prequel trilogy to the late-1970s and ’80s visuals of the original trilogy, then returning to the modern trilogy and stand-alone films can be frustratingly jarring.

This order also leaves what many consider the best movies in the series — Episode IV – A New Hope and Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back — stuck in the middle of the order when they should feel more climactic, and also reveals one of the biggest plot points in the series (the identity of Luke’s father) well before it happens in Empire.

So what’s a superfan to do if neither viewing order feels right?

The Machete Order

Rod Hilton, a Colorado blogger and programmer, tackled this very question in a now-famous 2011 post that spawned a new viewing order that’s widely regarded as the most immersive, entertaining way to experience the Star Wars saga. It’s called “The Machete Order” — named after the title of his blog, Absolutely No Machete Juggling — and we think it makes for the coolest Star Wars experience.

The order he suggests, which predates the release of the modern trilogy and the stand-alone films, is this: Begin with Episode IV – A New Hope and Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back. Then, fall back to Episode II – Attack of the Clones and Episode III – Revenge of the Sith, which set up all the drama of Anakin turning into Darth Vader, before moving on to his redemption in Episode VIReturn of the Jedi. (Hilton leaves out Episode I for a very particular reason that we’ll describe in a moment.)

Image used with permission by copyright holder

Hilton takes a deep dive into his reasons for the viewing order in a lengthy post, but it boils down to this: If the Star Wars saga is understood to be Luke Skywalker’s story, and the climax of the series centers on Luke’s belief that his father — one of the most powerful villains in the galaxy — can be redeemed (and in so doing, instill hope for the rest of the galaxy), then the viewing order should serve that theme in an intuitive way.

“Effectively, this order keeps the story Luke’s tale,” writes Hilton. “Just when our main man Luke is left with the burning question ‘did my father really become Darth Vader?’ we take an extended flashback to explain that it’s true. Once we understand how his father turned to the Dark Side, we go back to the main storyline and see how Luke is able to rescue him from it and salvage the good in him, which is the only way to destroy the Empire.”

It’s a convincing argument for a viewing order that pairs the less warmly received chapters of the saga with some of its best and organically weaves together the original trilogy and prequel films in the culmination of Luke and his father’s stories in Return of the Jedi.

Removing Episode I eliminates the weirdness introduced by the age difference between Anakin and his future bride, Padme.

As for why he recommends leaving out Episode I – The Phantom Menace, he argues it contributes little of substance to the franchise. The Phantom Menace is generally regarded as a conspicuous outlier in the series due to its use of Anakin and everyone’s favorite franchise punching bag, Jar-Jar Binks, as comedic elements, among other issues. One of the only widely agreed-upon positives in the film tends to be the debut of Sith Lord Darth Maul, who is dispatched before the credits roll.

Removing Episode I also eliminates the weirdness introduced by the age difference between Anakin and his future bride, Padme. (Actors Jake Lloyd and Natalie Portman were ages 7 and 16, respectively, when the movie was filmed.) Finally, dropping the film lets Anakin and Luke enter the saga at similar points in their lives (essentially as whiny teens), each unaware of how their future will shape the galaxy. It’s a nice way to create a parallel that further blends the two characters’ arcs.

However, none of this addresses what to do with Episode VII – The Force AwakensRogue One: A Star Wars Story, Episode VIII – The Last Jedi, Solo: A Star Wars Story, or Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker, which were all released after the creation of Hilton’s “Machete Order.”

Luckily, we’ve solved this conundrum.

The New Order

Narratively and tonally, it makes sense to add Episode VII – The Force Awakens, Episode VIII- The Last Jedi, and Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker after Return of the Jedi. Not only does Return of the Jedi merge Luke and Anakin’s stories, but it also features the darkest portrayal of Luke in the series to that point, so his disappearance in the time between Episode VI and Episode VII makes sense. Luke was still reeling from the events that led to his father’s death, and then had to contend with the betrayal of Kylo Ren to the Dark Side. That’s a lot to handle — even for a Jedi.

Following up that viewing experience with The Last Jedi then serves the ultimate theme of the saga — Luke Skywalker’s evolution from farm boy to hero — by showcasing Luke’s final, noble act as the steward of the Jedi legacy. Then continuing on to The Rise of Skywalker offers the proverbial passing of the baton to Rey for the conclusion of the Skywalker saga.

At that point, the primary narrative arc of the series has reached its conclusion, so it’s really up to you if you want to squeeze in the spinoff stories of Solo and Rogue One. Although they’re both good additions to the franchise in their own ways, they don’t advance the Skywalker-themed narrative thread that drives the saga forward.

If you do want to include them, though, you have some options.

Spinoffs included

When it comes to Solo, this stand-alone chapter in the saga is a bit tricky to place in a proper viewing order.

It makes sense to squeeze it in between Revenge of the Sith and Return of the Jedi, as it offers a nice palate-cleanser between the dark denouement of the prequel trilogy and the culmination of the original trilogy. However, there’s also a strong argument to be made for watching it between Episode IV – A New Hope and Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back. In doing so, you get an introduction to Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, and Chewbacca before diving into the meat of their collective story in The Empire Strikes Back.

Including Solo at either point offers a nice reminder that there are other, non-Jedi characters to care about in the saga, and by the time The Force Awakens comes around (in which Han and Chewie are put front and center), it makes the events of that film more impactful.

A new beginning

As for Rogue One, the timeline of director Gareth Edwards’ prequel film, among other elements, reveals the answer. While we know some will see it as heresy not to start with Lucas’ first film, there are multiple reasons why the best place for Rogue One is right at the start of the viewing order.

Image used with permission by copyright holder

First of all, it’s a great film that kicks things off in exciting fashion, while establishing an exceptional mood for the series.

It also offers a brilliant introduction to the villains who will dominate the remainder of the series — Darth Vader and The Emperor — and firmly establishes them as sinister forces that seem well beyond the abilities of any young, inexperienced Force wielders from destitute planets to effectively thwart, no matter how many rogue pilots, aging Jedi, or former stormtroopers accompany them. And from an aesthetic perspective, Edwards and company worked hard to make Rogue One look strikingly like Episode IV, right down to the shimmery white model aesthetic of the Star Destroyers.

But the best argument in favor of beginning the massive Star Wars saga with Rogue One is the film’s final scene, which segues directly into the opening of Episode IV – A New Hope.

As an introduction to the Empire and the threat it poses to the galaxy, Rogue One sets the stage by (spoiler!) not only killing off its protagonists — setting high stakes right from the start — but closing with a grand introduction to the figure whose ultimate fate will shape the destiny of both the franchise’s hero and the galaxy itself, before running right into the entry point of everyone’s favorite sci-fi fantasy.

We’d say all that makes Rogue One a prime candidate to get your movie marathon rolling.

The final (and best) order

So consider this an updated version of the Machete Order, with credit to Hilton’s exceptionally well-explained foundation.

So how does the final order shake out?

  1. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
  2. Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope
  3. Solo: A Star Wars Story (Option A)
  4. Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back
  5. Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones
  6. Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith
  7. Solo: A Star Wars Story (Option B)
  8. Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi
  9. Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens
  10. Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi
  11. Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker

Of course, all of this is simply a suggestion for how to get the most out of your Star Wars experience. Fans of the Star Wars saga — or newcomers to the series — can and should watch the movies however they see fit, and in whatever order suits their interests. And with Disney+ offering the complete franchise as of May 4 with the addition of The Rise of Skywalker, that should be a very easy task.

That’s the beauty of the franchise, after all: There’s something to love about it — no matter what order you watch them in, or where you jump into the saga — for each and every one of us.

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Rick Marshall
A veteran journalist with more than two decades of experience covering local and national news, arts and entertainment, and…
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