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With Star Wars Day nearly upon us -- May the 4th be with you (get it?) -- a few folks out there may still be wondering what all the fuss is all about. For them, we've put together this starter guide to the Star Wars movies. Of course, all you fans are welcome to read along too and let me know what I got right -- and wrong.
There are two main approaches to watching the Star Wars films. You could watch them according to their in-lore chronology, or you could watch them based on their release chronology.
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The Star Wars film world (and we're not counting the ever-growing world of Star Wars TV) consists of nine main films, and three additional major theatrical releases.
Whether you make it through all this entertainment is up to you, but I recommend starting with the middle trilogy of the nine movies that make up the Skywalker Saga, and beginning where it all began for movie fans in the 1970s. That's Star Wars, the original movie. All of the following can be found on Disney+ and many can be purchased on Apple TV or Amazon.
When the original Star Wars was first released back in 1977, nobody knew it would create some of the most iconic characters in entertainment and go on to gross roughly $10 billion in overall sales, making it the second most successful film franchise in movie history. For the record, the most successful film franchise is the Marvel series -- and Disney owns both.
So, this is where it all began. If you're going to know anything about the Star Wars universe, you need to watch this movie. It's here you'll meet Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, Obi-Wan Kenobi, Chewbacca, R2D2, C-3PO, Darth Vader, Han Solo, the Millennium Falcon, and lightsabers -- but not Yoda. Many people don't realize it, but Yoda was not in the original Star Wars.
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Star Wars is part of a trilogy. In fact, the main movie franchise is a trilogy of trilogies. The original trilogy contained films released between 1977 and 1983. Next came the prequel series (taking place about 20 years before the original series), released between 1999 and 2005. Finally, the sequel series (which takes place about 20 years after the original series), was released between 2015 and 2019.
When the prequel series came out, Lucas had to place the original series in lore order. He renamed Star Wars from merely "Star Wars" to Episode IV, a New Hope. No matter what, start with a New Hope.
The only problem is that the version of Star Wars, a New Hope you watch will probably not be the Star Wars we saw back in the theaters in 1977. George Lucas believes movies are fungible, and with the advent of digital moviemaking technology available in the late 1990s, he gave the original movie a bit of a digital zhuzhing up.
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If you watch the movie now, probably on Disney+, you'll be watching a modified version. If you want to know about all the movie mods across the franchise since its release, read this Wikipedia article.
And with that, let's move on to the film most serious fans consider the best in the franchise.
The Empire Strikes Back, known to most fans simply as "Empire," is probably the darkest of the original three movies. It's here, we (and Luke) get to meet Yoda for the first time.
Most of the movie takes place along two different storylines. Luke's journey is learning how to master his Jedi powers, with Yoda as his mentor. Meanwhile, Han and Leia spend most of their time trying to hide from Darth Vader. This does not end well, and a terrible secret is revealed, but I won't spoil the plot for the two of you out there who haven't seen this masterpiece of a film.
The final film of the original trilogy is one of my personal favorites. This installment introduces the Ewoks, fierce furry little warriors that were clearly designed with the hope they would become highly licensable toys for the kids. It works. I have a small Yorkipoo (Yorkie Poodle mix) named Pixel, and when he gets all fierce (there's no petting while fierce), he has the same adorably defiant don't "eff" with me stance as the Ewoks when they get their fur up.
A lot of the plot takes place on Tatooine, Luke's home planet. It starts out with a rescue mission (again, I'm holding back on details to avoid spoilers) that goes south. This leads to some really exciting action in the desert of Tatooine aboard Jaba the Hutt's flying party barge.
Eventually, the story moves to the planet Endor, home of our fuzzy little Ewok friends. Above the planet is a Death Star, and much of the story revolves around the attempt by the Rebels to destroy it. At one point, while Luke fights the Dark Side on the Death Star, there's a battle between the super high-tech empire and the ferociously adorable Ewoks. If you've ever wondered how Star Wars fits into the Disney aesthetic, look no further.
And that brings us to the end of the first trilogy. While you could immediately transition to the sequel series, a lot of foundational lore is set up in the prequel series. So if you're ready to watch more movies, you'll probably want to take in the prequels next.
If Empire is the best film of the Skywalker Saga, Phantom Menace is clearly the worst. This is what happens when we let George Lucas stew on his budgetary and technical limitations for 20 years and then set him loose with a big budget to take his vision to the next level.
We're now about 32 years back in time from A New Hope. We get to meet a plucky little boy named Anakin. And it's here I have to give you one spoiler, because there's no way to describe this series without it. Anakin grows up to become Darth Vader. The entire prequel series is Anakin's arc from cheerful little boy to one of entertainment's greatest villains.
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There are some great set pieces in this film, especially the pod races. But we also meet Jar Jar Binks, a character intended to appeal to kids that misfires on every level. We also meet a young Obi-Wan (played by Ewan McGregor, who will also go on to star in last year's Disney+ Obi-Wan Kenobi series). Oh, and Lucas tries to explain how The Force works by retconning the concept of midi-chlorians. Shudder.
But look, even though this movie isn't the best, it's still way entertaining -- and worth a watch if you're planning to see the next two in the prequel saga. Also, a really fun droid battle scene near the end of the movie is worth the price of admission.
Ten years go by and Anakin is now Obi-Wan's Padawan (think of it as a trainee ward). Now played by Hayden Christensen, Anakin manages to exhibit epic teenage attitude and angst throughout the entire movie. It's like Lucas is trying to tell us that there's an evil Darth Vader inside every annoying teenager.
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One thing that always bothered me about the transition from Phantom Menace to Attack of the Clones was the age portrayal of Anakin and Padme. In Phantom, Anakin was played by 8-year-old Jake Lloyd, and Padme was played by 16-year-old Natalie Portman. But in Attack of the Clones, coming 10 years later in the fictional chronology, Anakin was played by 19-year-old Hayden Christensen and Padme was played by then 19-year-old Natalie Portman. So: In the first movie, there was a very visible eight-year age difference, and then in the next, they were the same age.
In any case, Anakin is training to be a Jedi and he and Obi-Wan are called on to guard Padme when she's attacked by an assassin. Jedis are not permitted to have relationships, but the still wildly annoying Anakin and the charismatic, graceful, intelligent Padme fall in love. This is forbidden. So begins Anakin's swing to the Dark Side.
Much of Attack of the Clones is kind of stupid and hard to believe, but there's an epic battle with Yoda that makes it all worthwhile.
Given that the entire prequel series is essentially the origin story for Darth Vader, it should come as no surprise that this final prequel movie is all about…wait for it… Anakin finally becoming Darth Vader. I know. Big spoiler, right?
This one gets violent and dark, and I'm guessing it might be pretty triggering to some of you. This is about as close to horror as the Star Wars series gets, and it's mostly about the horrors of what people are willing to do to get their way and how that turns them into monsters.
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There are also a few impressive space battles and an epic lightsaber battle near the end of the movie.
If you've made it this far and followed my viewing recommendations, you know all about the Empire and the Rebels, Luke and Leia, Han and Chewie, and how Darth Vader got his evil on. Next up, we're going to zoom forward about 30 years in lore time after the original series and also about 30 years in real time between the production of the original movies and the sequel series.
When the sequel trilogy begins in the form of Episode IV - The Force Awakens, everyone you knew from the original trilogy is much older. Favorite hero characters like Han and Leia are as much older as the actors playing them. To be fair, they're not as old as Indiana Jones will be when the fifth Indiana Jones movie comes this summer. (Harrison Ford was 73 when The Force Awakens was released. He'll be 80 when he reprises his action-packed role of Indiana Jones. What a career!)
But to keep the Star Wars franchise going, Disney had to introduce a new cast of characters. This time, we meet Rey, a young scavenger on a desert planet. Joining her are Poe and Finn, a hotshot X-Wing pilot and an AWOL Storm Trooper. When Rey finds a droid carrying a map to Luke Skywalker (don't overthink it), she and her buddies attempt to bring the droid to the Resistance.
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We also meet Kylo Ren, the new big bad and perhaps the whiniest villain in the Star Wars universe. There's a great escape, a tense lightsaber fight, and a huge battle between the Resistance and the First Order (the replacement for the Empire). If you don't try to think about it too much, it's rollicking good entertainment.
I'm sorry, but the title gives it away. So here's a major spoiler. Rey finds Old Luke and much of the movie revolves around her training as a Jedi and Luke's willingness (or lack thereof) to be part of that quest.
Meanwhile, General Leia is trying to keep the Resistance from getting blown up by the baddies in the New Order. Finn and a mechanic named Rose try to disable the First Order's ability to track the Resistance through hyperspace. The scenes here are among the best in the sequel trilogy.
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Adding a woo-woo magic component to the whole mix, Kylo Ren does his best Vader Lite impression and connects through the Force to Rey, adding to her angst and confusion.
If you want to see what CGI can do with modern computers, this movie has it. Of particular note are the creatures called Vulptex, which are like crystalline foxes. 'Tis amazing.
Speaking of special effects, Carrie Fisher sadly passed away before the filming of Episode IX. To include Leia's ongoing participation in the saga, the producers (with the support of the family) turned to archive footage and special effects to create a deep fake of Fisher's performance. On one hand, you could definitely feel the uncanny valley. On the other, it was one more chance to see and say goodbye to Princess Leia.
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Make no mistake about it: Rise of Skywalker is a must-see film. It's a twisty-turny experience because the writers seemed to know this was probably the last film of the main saga and did their darnedest to wrap up every loose plot thread from across the nine movies. There are a few "that ain't right" moments, a few more WTF moments, and an eventual resolution that's no weirder than anything Lucas dreamed up for the prequel trilogy.
If you want to put the nine main films in perspective, look at it this way: The original trilogy created an entertainment juggernaut and an entire catalog of cultural touchstones and icons. Prequel and sequel trilogy milked that juggernaut for all it was worth.
For the price of admission, which today is a Disney+ subscription, it's well worth watching all of them.
Beyond the nine main movies, there are three theatrically released films and three TV movies worth noting.
So, here's how this went down. Lucas was working on an animated series (to be called The Clone Wars). When he previewed some early footage from the series on a big screen, he decided to do a theatrical release that would kick off the TV series. And that's exactly what happened.
In the animated Clone Wars (film), Anakin is a Jedi Knight and pretty much a good guy. He takes on an apprentice in the same way that Obi-Wan did with Anakin and Luke, and Luke eventually did with Rey. Anakin and Ashoka set out to rescue Jabba the Hutt's son and much chaos ensues.
There's a great droid and gunship battle, a really fun space battle with very large warships, and a climactic bonkers-level battle on the planet Christophsis where Anakin, Ahsoka, and their allies must fight their way through a maze of enemy fortifications and tanks.
Next up is the first of the two "A Star Wars Story" films. To understand the plot here, you need to know that the original Star Wars movie, A New Hope, revolved around the rebel's desire to blow up the Empire's Death Star. To do this (and we've all seen this in a thousand video games), the rebel fighters had to fly through a trench on the Death Star and drop a bomb in a very small hole that somehow the Death Star designers had overlooked, and if bombed, would blow up the whole thing.
But how did the rebels know where to deliver that bomb? That's Rogue One. It's a just-before prequel where a team of rebels infiltrates an enemy base to get the plans for the Death Star. As in all Star Wars movies, some bits are a little less than believable, but I loved this movie. In fact, after A New Hope and Empire, I consider this the best Star Wars film to date. It's well worth watching.
In A New Hope, Han Solo boasted about making the Kessel Run in under 12 parsecs. At the time when Lucas wrote the movie, those were just words. But 30+ years later, when Disney produced Solo, that was the main set piece of the new movie. Just how hard was the Kessel Run? How did Han Solo accomplish it? How did he avoid imperial patrols? All these questions are answered in this movie.
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We learn how Han Solo become a smuggler and got involved in the criminal underworld, how he met Chewbacca and how they became partners, how he got the Millennium Falcon, and how he became its captain, and even how he got the name Solo.
As movies go, it isn't the best, but it certainly isn't the worst. Alden Ehrenreich, who played Han Solo, is no Harrison Ford, but I thought he gave a credible performance that makes it possible for you to mostly believe in him as the Han Solo we all know and love.
And with that, we end our look at the theatrical films of the Star Wars universe. May the Force be with you. Next up is a lightning round through Star Wars TV.
There are three made-for-TV movies (if you count the Star Wars Holiday Special). And we need to count the Star Wars Holiday Special because it's widely regarded as some of the worst TV ever made.
These are hit-and-miss. Some of them are mediocre, while others (Clone Wars) are recipients of multiple Emmy awards.
Say what you will about streaming services, but the constant need to attract and keep subscribers has provided a golden age of ongoing entertainment. These are all pretty good and exist (along with the constant stream of Marvel content) so you don't cancel your Disney+ subscription.
What? You want more? We haven't even begun to cover the video games and merchandising of this bajillion-dollar gold mine for Disney. Plus, since Disney+ needs to keep the hits coming to keep subscribers from dropping, there will probably be more Star Wars for at least another 45 years.
This is a highly subjective list, but I know you're going to want to know. So here it is. My call for worst series to best. You'll be surprised. Note that I'm completely leaving out the animated TV stuff, because animated TV is not one of my favorite genres and you shouldn't judge those properties based on my perspective. And with that, here goes, from best to worst...
What's your favorite Star Wars movie? Who's your favorite Star Wars character? What's your favorite Star Wars series? Do you prefer Star Trek or Star Wars (or, heck, Stargate)? Explain why in excruciating detail in the comments below.
You can follow my day-to-day project updates on social media. Be sure to follow me on Twitter at @DavidGewirtz, on Facebook at Facebook.com/DavidGewirtz, on Instagram at Instagram.com/DavidGewirtz, and on YouTube at YouTube.com/DavidGewirtzTV.