In a Nutshell:
Under no circumstances should anyone be subjected to the prequel trilogy before seeing the majesty of A New Hope. That said, the truly proper order to experiencing the fabled galaxy far, far away may surprise you.
Growing up, my father never gave me the gift of Star Wars. As a child of the 50’s he grew up on the original run of Star Trek, the other sprawling space epoch that has also helped to define science fiction in the second half of the 20th Century. That never stopped me from gobbling up all things Star Wars from a very early age. So early, in fact that I only half-remember sitting in on the end of Return of the Jedi as a young child in my cousin’s basement. It was my first introduction to the franchise that would come to define my preadolescent years. I quickly gobbled up the original trilogy, which was still the only game in town in the mid-to-late 90’s, and moved on to the broader expanded universe which has been rendered non-canonical in the wake of the House of Mouse takeover of Lucasfilm (RIP Rogue Squadron series, you are gone but never forgotten). But my point is, this was a self-guided tour of discovery in a time before Google searches or Wikipedia articles. I was well and truly on my own.
Now, as many of my friends have begun settling down and starting families, and with the pending release Episode VII looming large on the horizon, I’ve had a number of conversations about what exactly is the proper order to introduce Star Wars to your children. It’s an important question about an issue you shouldn’t fuck up. After all, you only get one chance to give your child the gift of pure astonishment they’ll take to their grave. But given the train wreck of Episode I, the pain of which still haunts me nearly 20 years later even though it contained the best lightsaber duel of the first six installments, clearly you can’t start at the canonical beginning. One has to be willing to tolerate Jar Jar, a mental fortitude that requires more training than Luke had on Dagobah.
In my extensive research on the topic, I have come to agree with the growing consensus that the so-called Machete Order is the only logical way to present the Saga of the Skywalkers. The order is as follows: Episode IV, V, I, II, III, VI.
Let’s examine exactly how this provides the narrative arc necessary to preserve what is best in Star Wars while also not totally ruining the series for first timers.
Start at the beginning
I feel it goes without saying that the opening moments of the original Star Wars, now relegated to Episode VI: A New Hope status, are among the strongest opening moments of any film. Beginning with a whisper, the now immortal “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…” immediately jump-cuts to a floating crawl of text accompanied by the overwhelming bombast of John Williams’ unbelievable score. There’s a reason films today rarely employ text-based exposition before the action starts, but don’t forget that Star Wars is a product of the 70’s where this practice was far more common. And so amazing is the execution that now it simply wouldn’t be Star Wars without the crawl (take note Abrams). Just as you feel like we’re settling in on the quiet tranquility of space, we’re presented with the immenseness of the Rebel Blockade Runner (the Tantive VI) and the even more imposing endless reveal of Vader’s Star Destroyer. That first shot still holds up to special effects of the modern era and I cannot even comprehend how awe inspiring it must have been in the summer of 1977. If your parents didn’t ensure this was your first introduction to Star Wars, they have officially failed as parents (looking at you Dad).
Follow up with the best one
I’m sure everyone has their own opinion of what’s the best installment to date. I'm also sure there’s someone out there who thinks it's Episode I. Those people, especially the Episode I folks, are all wrong. The Empire Strikes Back is hands-down the best installment of the existing six. The story is better and darker, relying on themes that run deeper than the fabled Hero’s Journey story arc of the first film. It builds upon the world building accomplished in the first one without contradicting itself or retconning anything from the original, adding layers of political depth and exploring the mysteries of the force without the horrendous misstep of magic space bacteria. And best of all, Empire is able to create a sense of true menace in the forces of the Empire. Whereas before Imperial Stormtroopers were laughable cannon fodder in white death masks, they now demonstrated their ability to overrun the Rebels, upping the stakes immensely. And let us not forget the relentless tenacity of Vader as he pursued Luke, Han and Leia literally to the ends of the earth and beyond. Damn the asteroids, full steam ahead!
And the climax of the film cannot be topped. Providing us with an epic lightsaber duel where the powers of Jedi and Sith are on full display, Lucas dials it up to eleven when he drops Vader’s bombshell. It has become a line so ingrained in our popular culture that one needn't even bother to spoiler alert it. Vader’s parental revelation is a true game changer. Can Luke’s mentors be trusted when they kept this information from him? What does this mean for Luke’s destiny? Is he doomed to follow in his father’s leather clad mechanical footsteps? It begs the question, how can you spoil this for your child by making them watch Episodes I-III before this moment?
An extended flashback
Now, after having seen the best the series has to offer, we can allow ourselves to dip into the world that was before. By taking this extended trip into the past, we are able to understand how Vader became the Dark Lord of the Sith and scourge of the galaxy. Anakin’s story becomes all the more tragic when viewed in the context of a flashback. We know how this story ends, even though he doesn’t. It becomes a study in the cliché that the road to hell is lined with good intentions. When cast in this light, we can view the Star Wars saga as Vader’s descent into hell, bookended by his lowest point (Episodes VI & V) and his eventual redemption. Rather than having the whimpering, petulant brat of Anakin effectively neuter one of cinema’s greatest villains, we see it as a tragic, inevitable path to the dark side, humanizing one who is “more machine now than man.”
A triumphant conclusion
Having concluded the flashback and coming to a full understanding of how Palpatine overthrew The Old Republic and installed the Empire, replete with the Stormtrooper Army, the Star Destroyer Armada, and the Dark Lord of the Sith unstoppable frontline commander, we are ready for the epic conclusion. Thematically, this helps link the rise and fall of the Empire into two back to back films, connecting the narrative thread that would otherwise be interrupted by two excellent, yet thematically different films (Episodes VI & V). While Jedi is not the strongest of the films, and the introduction of the Ewoks was wholly unnecessary, the space battle is fantastic, and the lightsaber duel, though not as compelling as Empire, nor as well choreographed as Phantom Menace or Revenge, one cannot help but feel the fate of the galaxy hinged on that climactic moment. There can be no other conclusion to the six existing Star Wars films than the redemption of Vader and the downfall of the Emperor.