It’s been a long time since I’ve actually sat down to watch The Holy Trilogy. I don’t mean that it’s been a year or two. I mean that it’s been years. I’ve watched an episode here or there when I was trying to get my son interested, but he always had more interest in Star Wars as a video game (LEGO Star Wars, for example, or The Force Unleashed). He watched them because I was watching them, and he enjoyed them because I enjoy them (remember, the power of being a father is no different than the power to use the Force: it has a light and a dark side and you must maintain balance). But he never got excited about them the way I did as a child. Part of that stems from the fact that cinema has changed a great deal since I was a child. Every movie that kids see these days is chock full of action and humor throughout. There are no slowly-paced scenes with Muppets in a swamp or old dudes in a desert filling in important exposition to a story that has so much more history than is ever revealed in its first trilogy outing. But, since he’s turning 10 soon, I felt it was time to give the movies another go. And, as an experiment, I thought I’d give this Machete Viewing Order a try (more on that later).
Star Wars has a rather labored history for fans, stemming primarily from the fact that George Lucas just can’t leave well-enough alone. As a child, Star Wars was a single entity: a set of three films that each built on the previous but left so much unexplained and filled the entire galaxy with mystery. I remember devouring facts and details en masse as Lucas leaked it in various source and trivia books, as well as entire novels written in the universe (perhaps less with Lucas’s blessing than his bank account’s, as he was pretty determined to damage established continuity when he released the prequels). When I was a young lad entering my senior year of high school, however, Star Wars changed. Lucas released the “Special Edition” (because “Give Me All Your Money Edition” was too on-the-nose). My friends and I went to go see it in theaters, because how could we not? We had grown up with this movie. It was absolutely necessary that we experience it in its shiny new glory. We had not anticipated, however, that so much of the story would be changed due to Lucas’s meddling. Sure, we got some good laughs and a few new scenes to fill in a blank here and there, but the tone of the film was dramatically different as a result. The tragedy continued through Empire and Jedi and my friends and I became less excited about each revision. Han will always shoot first in my house. Luke will never scream while falling into the abyss. “Lapti Nek” will always play in Jabba’s palace.
The true horrors began, however, when I first saw The Phantom Menace in theaters. I remember such conflicting emotions during the movie. So much of it felt wrong somehow, but that didn’t stop me from getting excited about podracing (a scene I still enjoy, despite the majority of my peers hating it with every fiber of their being) and one of the most amazing lightsaber sequences I had ever seen. I tried to convince myself that this is what Star Wars was like to adults that watched it when it first came out, but I couldn’t overcome the sinking sensation that it simply wasn’t on par with the original trilogy. I searched my feelings and knew it to be true. I continued to visit theaters with each release, and while they got better, and Lucas recognized a few of his mistakes, it never seemed to be in time to correct them.
I remember taking my (then-two-year-old) son to see Revenge of the Sith in theaters with me. He loved movies at the time. We watched Spider-Man like it was going out of style, so I knew he’d sit through most of the movie with me, despite it being almost two-and-a-half hours long. I left the theater feeling somewhat satisfied, though still a little frustrated by the entire ordeal. I didn’t watch a single prequel from start to finish from that day on until this past week.
Several months ago, a friend of mine decided to throw a “Losing My Star Wars Virginity Party”. While I didn’t get to stay for the whole thing, it got me excited to watch Episodes IV, V, and VI again. Around the same time, I was introduced to something called The Machete Order. The proper viewing order for the entire Star Wars saga is a bit of a hot-button issue. Lucas himself declares the films should be watched in episode order (which is a great way to make people hate Star Wars). The big flaw here is the loss of some pretty awesome surprises in the original trilogy. Traditionalists believe that they should be viewed in release order, which unfortunately, leads to the prequels leaving a bit of a bad taste in your mouth as you finish the meal. Purists say “damn the prequels” and ignore them entirely. Unfortunately, for a younger generation of Star Wars fans, they are going to be bombarded by friends to see them. Plus, some of the information in the movies is key to appreciating the expanded universe content that exists out there, such as cartoons and video games. An alternative viewing order was suggested in which viewers watch A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back first. Then, after the big reveal in Empire, watching the prequels, and finally finishing the saga with Return of the Jedi. The Machete Order takes this a step further and removes Episode I entirely. Being the weakest of the saga, and the film that most fans of the series take umbrage with the most, it makes sense that removing it makes the series stronger as a whole. I recommend reading the linked site for the best details on why to do this, but that sums it up.
I archived this information for some indeterminate future date when I might have time to introduce someone to Star Wars in this fashion. A couple weeks ago, a new single from Hot Problems (of which, one half of the duo is the lead singer of Ludo) hit the web and got me not only interested in watching Star Wars again, but in watching the prequels to see if they’ve “improved” as I’ve aged.
So, at the beginning of this past week, I made the decision that Avery and I would watch the films in this fashion to determine if a) it improves the story for long-time fans, and b) it is a satisfying introduction to a child that has a knowledge of the saga, but no real recollection of seeing the films. Last night, we finished with Jedi which is an excellent way to spend Father’s Day. I’m sure there are many other, “better” films that represent a father-son relationship to warm the heart-cockles, but Jedi does it for me. The climax is proof that a father’s love is stronger than any Dark Side that exists in all of us.
Unfortunately, while The Machete Order is a fairly decent way to watch the saga, it is not (in my opinion) solid enough for long-time fans. New viewers that want to consume as much Star Wars as possible in as short a time period as they can should definitely consider it. But, the two trilogies exist in such different worlds, that it’s jarring to jump between them. For starters, in the original trilogy, the galaxy is a wreck. Everything except the Empire is a broken-down mess just trying to survive. Every location the characters visit is gritty and dangerous (except for Endor, which I’ll cover in a moment). In the prequels, however, the galaxy seems so much cleaner. Not only that, the atmosphere of the films has changed. The universe of the originals is one of harsh extremes. The prequels feel rather calm and cozy by comparison. Even the Tatooine of Episode I seems like a jolly place, despite the fact that our “hero” and his mother are slaves on a planet where water must be harvested in order to survive. Episode II and III are much darker, but still never quite give that haunting sensation that Empire did when Luke faces Vader on Cloud City.
I feel that the stories should remain separate. I like to think of the prequels as a supplemental story to the all-important original trilogy. If you feel like ignoring Episode I to avoid Jar Jar and the accidental hero effect, then go for it. I’m going to even give Episode I another shot and treat it as what it is: a children’s movie. Because that’s the key issue with Star Wars for me. A New Hope was a movie for everyone. Empire was for adults. Jedi was for everyone, but with a clear tilt toward children (for the merchandising). The Phantom Menace, however, was for kids. Lucas realized his mistake and tried to fix it with Attack of the Clones, but still suffered from some terrible writing and poor action sequences (every scene where a Jedi fights a CGI battle droid is just plain awful). By Revenge of the Sith Lucas realized that the prequels needed more than just flashy lights and recycled dialogue from the original trilogy. Although his writing and directing could have still used some outside help, there were a number of pieces of information revealed that tied up the majority of flaws made present by Episode I (such as Anakin being conceived immaculately and the inability of Jedi to become one with the Force).
I also learned something important about what I thought was absolutely atrocious acting by the actors playing Anakin throughout the series. In Episode II, it’s not that Hayden Christensen is a terrible actor that made Anakin a whiny, self-important jerk. Anakin is a whiny, self-important jerk. He has been told he’s The Chosen One and will fulfill a prophecy and that he’s more powerful than anyone expected any Jedi to be since he was a child. Obviously he’s going to have issues. The parallels to Luke are a lot more obvious when you realize they’re there. Anakin must become the badass that he’s hinted at being in the original trilogy. Could the performance have been better? More subtle? Of course it could. But Lucas is not a character director. Hayden was left to his own devices and this was the best he could do. He was young and fairly inexperienced. Episode I’s Anakin is even worse, though mostly because it’s a children’s movie (we’ll get to that later).
After all this, I’m probably going to watch Episode I again with Avery. He told me that his favorite of the series was Episode II, which doesn’t surprise me considering it has lots of action and more Jedi than you can shake a stick at. Plus, the kid just absolutely loves Yoda. He even thinks Jar Jar is funny, though I’m not sure how long it has been since he’s seen Episode I (I’m assuming he’s seen it outside of our home, though it’s also possible he simply thinks he’s funny because of LEGO Star Wars). His love of Episode II has taught me something as a parent and as a Star Wars fan: when something is a part of your childhood, you cut it a lot of slack, you defend it when it’s attacked, and you enjoy it without quite being able to explain it. Who am I to judge or control what my son loves? Why would I ever want to take away something from him that he enjoys when I can instead learn to enjoy it with him? We’ll watch Episode I together, and we’ll laugh, and I’ll cringe, and we’ll both get excited about an absolutely stunning lightsaber duel. And when it’s over, I’ll look longingly at the original trilogy and wait patiently for the day when I can dust them off and we can watch them again.