My son just finished watching the Star Wars films for the first time. He’s 6, which seemed a bit young except that I remember playing with and being saturated in Star Wars stuff when I was in Kindergarten in the early 80s. I actually didn’t see the movies until later—I fell into the generation which was too young to see them in the theater but too old to have them always there on VHS—but the books and merchandise and plot spoilers were all over. Anyway, since he’s already been spoilered on some of the key plot developments anyway* he may as well watch everything so he knows the whole story.
*Between Toy Story 2, Sesame Street, and his classmates, the “Luke, I am your father” twist is a foregone conclusion.
For my part, it’s been a while since I last watched these. While I saw the A New Hope Special Edition in the theater, because it made me swear off the rest of the special editions, my last viewings of Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi were in the mid-90s. Watching The Phantom Menace in theaters meanwhile made me swear off the prequels—though I did eventually watch Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith on DVD for completionist reasons.
I still counted myself a Star Wars fan but I had ended up in a place where I didn’t like two of the movies at all (Menace and Clones), had serious issues with a third (Hope), and was generally skeptical of the entire franchise because of the way the fans behave. Star Wars fandom has turned into this weird thing where the discourse has been more about what sucks than what’s good.* Most of the fans came to Star Wars as kids—obviously with different entry points depending on their ages—and are heavily biased toward the movies they fell for as kids. Which is fine except that in discussing what they like they revert to arguing like kids on the playground were it’s not enough to like something, they have to also tear down what the other guy likes too.
*Geek tribalism which is more about what you consume than actually enjoying something.
So I was looking forward to a rewatch not only to revisit and rethink my opinions of the movies, but also with the hope that my son’s reactions—especially given how many of the things which turned me off were defended as being “for the kids”—would counteract some of my more-cynical opinions. That said, our rewatch included the theatrical releases of the original trilogy because I’m still heavily against the special editions. Yes, I know that the changes to Empire are generally good, but I wanted to keep Jabba a mystery and preserve Han’s more Tuco-like origin…plus avoid the awful new song at Jabba’s palace.
I also wanted to try machete order (but including Phantom Menace) to confirm that it indeed makes as much sense as it does on paper.
A New Hope
One big reason is that A New Hope is probably the best entry point into the story for a kid. While it has still has problems in pacing*—besides taking forever to get to Luke and from there, into the main story, the final battle is a complete mess—those problems are only apparent to older viewers.** For a kid who isn’t comparing it to the rest of the movies, it looks great*** and the plot is super simple and easy to follow. There’s nothing complicated to explain or figure out what’s going on under the surface, everything is clearly laid out and understandable. It even has an unambiguously nice resolution at the end.
*I’m not going to talk about the acting since it’s all intentionally hammy anyway.
**Pretty much the entire plot is advanced by the Empire being less destructive than we’re told that it is. It could have destroyed Leia’s ship at the beginning, shot down the escape pod, or even just destroyed the planet of Yavin rather than waiting to orbit it to get to a moon.
***Another reason to start with A New Hope is that it looks the worst but that’s only apparent after you’ve watched the rest of the movies.
I still like it. A lot. Despite its problems. It’s fantastic at sketching out the world and main characters and letting me imagine all kinds of possibilities for them. Heck, most of the subsequent critiques of various parts of the franchise come back to people being disappointed in it not going the way they’d imagined it going after watching A New Hope. It’s also the only movie of the 6 that my son wants to rewatch—and that’s saying a lot too.
Empire Strikes Back
There’s not a lot to say about Empire. It’s deservedly known as the best of the series and represents a massive step up in terms of both quality and complexity. Even though the plot is still super-straightforward, there are more issues going on in terms of character motivation and choice—specifically following directions vs helping friends—that really resonate with a kid.
It’s also the first downer ending that my son has seen; he was incredulous when the credits started. I had to explain that the idea is to get him to want to watch the next movie—and that it had obviously worked.
This is where the machete order takes off. While my son was, correctly, concerned with Han’s fate, he was also very curious about learning about Darth Vader and how he got his scar.* So we moved on to Phantom Menace.
My memories of Menace are not good. Between the hype and the disappointment and the pile-on, it never really stood a chance. I went to see it in the theater with a bunch of friends and we snarked all about about it on the ride home. We were in college. That’s what we did. With time, I softened a bit with the snark but was still apprehensive about rewatching.
While the rewatch helped a little, it also confirmed many of my initial reactions. First, all the “it’s for the kids” defenses don’t hold up for me. It’s not that there’s too much plot for a kids’ movie but rather that the plot is possibly too subtle for many kids to really understand. I actually really like the plot, but the idea that an ambitious senator would engineer a war on his own planet so that he could garner enough sympathy in the senate to be voted its leader isn’t the stuff of kids movies. And while there’s a simpler plot where two Jedi help a queen defend her home planet against invasion, that plot renders a lot of the action and talking—especially the talking—as being irrelevant. It didn’t surprise me at all that “Too much talking,” was indeed my son’s immediate review.
But Menace also manages to trigger way too many of my pet peeves. I can’t stand it when characters are willingly stupid.* The “this feels kind of racist” accents** pull me out of the flow of the movie. I get bored easily with extended action sequences that don’t advance the plot.*** Humor that is too obvious yet is also trying too hard to be funny**** makes me want to stand up and leave. And plot points which repeatedly rely on luck and coincidence rather than skill***** get me frustrated.
*JarJar’s repeated doing exactly what people tell him not to do.
**JarJar and the Trade Federation.
***Too many examples to count but Pod Racing, especially with its “just wait for the videogame” direction, does fall into this category. Note, this problem of mine means I not only have a problem with most action movies but also most musicals.
****All the fart jokes.
*****Pretty much everything Anakin does—from lucking out that his pod doesn’t break to hitting the correct button by mistake in the droid ship—is portrayed as dumb luck. But other characters like JarJar also repeatedly get bailed out by blundering into the exact right place at the right time.
I used to think that Menace was bad Star Wars but a decent movie. My opinion has flipped. I really dig it for Star Wars now; I can’t stand it as a movie. Which is too bad since it looks wonderful and the last Duel of the Fates sequence is indeed a ton of fun.
Attack of the Clones
Clones meanwhile is a movie that I initially hated—HATED—and now really like. On all fronts. I’m as surprised as anyone here. The Obi-Wan detective stuff is great. As much as people think Star Wars is a western,* it’s really Hammett→Kurosawa→Westerns, and this plot line is comes straight through that legacy.
*Among other things in its 1950s B-movie influences of course.
The Anakin-Padmé stuff meanwhile is still cringe-worthily bad* yet I no longer hate it. What used to feel like the worst attempts at romance writing ever are now something that cracks me up. Anakin’s like 16 years old in this movie. OF COURSE he’s hilariously horrible at this. That there’s also something creepy and manipulative in the way he persists despite Padmé telling him to stop perfectly sets up the emotional abuse—let alone the violence—that comes in Revenge of the Sith. And yeah, maybe that’s not the intent behind the direction in these sections, but that ended up being my reaction to it all this time.
*Note. It appears to be vastly better in the Spanish dub—to the point where I’m considering a second rewatch already.
The plot in this one is much easier to follow for a kid. Find out who attacked the senator, uncover bigger plot that’s okay to not understand, save your ass once things get out of control. My son amusingly fell asleep during the droid factory sequence* but was super into the detective search, the Shmi storyline,** as well as the climactic battle.
*He was exhausted but this part is still a brainless videogame preview. Thankfully it was also shorter than I remembered.
**Especially the Shmi storyline. After watching Tarzan and How to Train Your Dragon 2 I thought he’d passed the parent death hangups. But this hit him hard and I had to explain not only how death is part of life but also that being unwilling to accept death as a concept is a trope that will come up again and again as a characteristic of “bad guys” who are so afraid of death that they don’t do anything good with their lives.
Revenge of the Sith
I really liked Sith when I first saw it. I liked it even more on the rewatch. In my initial viewing, the only thing that really bugged me was the speed of Anakin’s fall. Watching again, in the same way that realizing how young Anakin is in Clones made his romancing much more bearable, his youth—plus my being a decade more removed from that age than I was the first time—makes his fall to the dark side more credible. The only person who’s appeared to listen and talk with Anakin about his issues is Palpatine.
It’s also engrossing to watch how the Jedi end up basically destroying themselves through getting mired in power disputes and internal politics. As much as the prequels are supposed to be about Anakin turning into Darth Vader, they’re really about Palpatine creating the Empire and the Jedi losing their way through a combination of being ignorant of how politics works and a lack of flexibility in their conception of the force.
While this large-scale plot makes little sense to a kid, watching Anakin lose everything because of his concern for his family—especially with Shmi’s death still fresh in my son’s mind—really sucked my son in. The idea that having a good motivation can still lead you to lose track of right and wrong is a very simple yet very heavy concept. As is the idea that trying so hard to get what you want can result in you losing everything you wanted. The scene where Anakin breaks Padme’s heart had my son in tears because of both her anguish and the fact that Anakin brought it all on himself.
The downer ending also comes with a genuine twist in that my son was shocked to find out that Luke and Leia are twins. Between that and the binary sunset reprise, we were both primed and ready to start Return of the Jedi.
Return of the Jedi
Jedi is fun. It’s also a mess in that it’s really just rescuing Han and then pretty much the big final battle. But we’re back to the super simple plotlines and my son sensed that the happy ending was coming. Yes he liked the Ewoks—but then I wouldn’t trust anyone who didn’t. The Ewoks are cute but deadly and are exactly the kind of creature that the Empire wouldn’t take seriously.
He was also a lot more introspective about death in terms of realizing that force ghosts and being at peace with yourself were a much more rational approach to death than what he’d just watched in Sith. It’s not the action or suspense that disturbed him but rather all the philosophy about life and death. We had many conversations at bedtime while we were watching the movies but the resolution of Jedi also put his mind at ease.
We also talked about The Force Awakens and how since the new movies were going to be about Luke and Leia and Han’s kids, that it was entirely possible—if not expected—for some of the characters he knows to die in the upcoming movies.
If the first unexpected result of my rewatching all six movies was that I’d place Attack of the Clones in the same middle tier as A New Hope in terms of ranking the films. The second was that instead of my son revealing the joy of all the “for the kids” stuff that drives me nuts, he dragged me into a serious discussion about death and how to live a fulfilling life.
I’m looking forward to a second rewatch once my younger son is old enough. By then, maybe my elder son will engage more with the seriousness of the prequel plots and can salvage Phantom Menace for me.