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If you’ve somehow managed to avoid Star Wars up until this point in your life, congratulations on one of the hardest achievements in pop culture. Your only problem now is knowing where to start—because you absolutely need to catch up with the most iconic franchise ever made.
Depending on who you ask, you’ll get wildly different answers, thanks in large part to George Lucas retroactively going back and re-editing the original trilogy to include new effects, story elements, and plot changes. Fans’ consternation over this is understandable. If you grew up loving something, then revisited it as an adult only to discover the thing you loved was changed, you might not be cool about it either. Some people couldn’t care less because they just love Star Wars.
The problem is neither party, originalist or the evolving fan base, is wrong. Each side has valid points when it comes to the way they suggest watching the Star Wars films. Having an opinion on how to watch the series is part of being a Star Wars fan these days, which is why when you ask the question, “What is the best order to watch Star Wars,” there isn’t one answer. So instead, we’re going to give you three options.
The first is simply the best order to watch Star Wars in its current form. This method sets aside the extended universe, instead focusing on the live-action films you would find in a box set marked Star Wars. After that, we’ll give you the expanded universe version, featuring three extra films that we think enhance the overall Star Wars experience but might not be accepted as general cannon. Finally, we’ve got the despecialized order, the only way remaining to experience Star Wars in its original form.
Sound intense? Welcome to Star Wars fandom. Just be thankful we aren’t including the saga’s various animated series. Yet.
The best order to watch Star Wars: Standard method
If you want to get the most out of Star Wars, it’s important to understand that the release dates of the films are less important to the overall story than the characters. Yes, if you grew up in the ’80s watching the unadulterated original saga, we accept that this idea is blasphemy. Still, hear us out.
Star Wars is nerdy. The original film, retroactively titled A New Hope when it was re-released in 1981, is technically part 4 in the series. When Empire Strikes Back came out in 1980, the title card at the beginning of the film said Episode V. Knowing this you might think, “Hey I should start with Episode I, right?” You’d be criminally wrong.
Star Wars is ultimately the story of Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, and Darth Vader and the way their legacy impacts the universe and people around them. Han Solo and Chewy are two of the greatest characters of all time, adding humor and humanity to a series that desperately needs both. These are still not their stories, though they play important parts.
If you start at Episode I, The Phantom Menace, you lose all of the emotional resonance that comes with learning about Darth Vader in the original films. He’s a dark, mysterious figure, capable of acts of unimaginable genocide and welding mystical powers. Watching the films in chronological order tells you his origin, ruining the overall story arc of his life and how it impacts the other characters.
Accordingly here what you need to watch.
Stay the hell away from spoilers, and watch them cold. It doesn’t matter if you watch George Lucas’ re-releases or the original cuts. These two films they largely tell the same story with a few minor changes that only matter if you grew up with the films. That being said, Han shot first.
Here is where this listing gets controversial.
The ending of Empire Strikes Back is good stopping place in the original trilogy to learn about Vader, and it enhances Return of the Jedi by giving you a deeper view of an otherwise unsympathetic mass murderer.
Don’t skip Episode I, no matter what you’ve heard about the film. Yes, it is a jarring shift toward a more kid-friendly story, but it fills in a few important blanks and sets up the rest of Vader’s story (and Darth Maul makes for an excellent villain.) Now that you’ve watched five Star Wars movies take a long walk. Your butt is probably asleep.
When you return to your viewing…
With the new knowledge you possess about Vader, Jedi takes on another level of tragedy and humanity. Plus after Jar Jar Binks, you’ll never consider complaining about Ewoks.
Next up is the latest piece of the original saga.
This kicks off a brand new trilogy by introducing the next generation of Star Wars heroes to the survivors of the original series. Following the release of The Force Awakens, a standalone prequel was released.
While not part of the original series, we suggest watching Rogue One after The Force Awakens. Technically the story takes place before A New Hope, but given the number of call backs and amount fan service it contains, you’ll appreciate it most after you’ve already absorbed the entire main series.
The Last Jedi picks up immediately where The Force Awakens leaves off. You could watch it before Rogue One—the stories don’t affect one another—but The Last Jedi is such a strong launching point into the eventual Episode IV (due out in December 2019) you’ll want to save it for last and savor the anticipation.
The best order for watching Star Wars: Completist method
Now, let’s say you see that above and say, “But what about the expanded universe?” Happy you asked. In the time between the release of Return of the Jedi and Phantom Menace, Star Wars fandom was kept alive thanks to a host of books, comics, and made-for-TV movies. These works became known as the Expanded Universe and celebrated the depth inherent in Star Wars.
Each odd alien you see in the background of a scene in Star Wars has its own life, name, and backstory. While merchandising was certainly a part of why this happened, it has the effect of inspiring fans to look beyond the main story and fall in love with the universe itself. Sadly, these stories never made it onto the big screen, but there are three extra Star Wars movies to watch if you’d like to get a taste of the expanded story and of Star Wars.
When watching the completist version of Star Wars, you need to make a few little adjustments to your watching order.
5) Star Wars: The Clone Wars
Start the series as you normally would, beginning with A New Hope through Attack of the Clones. Here’s where you add your first movie, Star Wars: The Clone Wars. This 2008 animated film is a spinoff of the popular 3D animated series and takes place between Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith. It introduces a broader understanding to the Jedi, the fall of Vader, and the rise of the empire. This film and the TV series it spun out of are officially part of the Star Wars canon, one of the few pieces of the original Expanded Universe to still be part of the story. Including our next two additions.
After you watch Revenge of the Sith it’s time for two more additions: the controversial Caravan of Courage: An Ewok Adventure and Ewoks: The Battle for Endor. The Ewoks are divisive to many Star Wars fans for the same reason Jar Jar Binks is: They’re cute and mostly designed to appeal to children. However, if you want to appreciate the Ewoks, these two films are your ticket to a deeper understanding of the nuances of the Star Wars universe.
Centering around a group of Ewoks helping a family that crash-landed on their planet, these two made-for-TV movies take the time to build up the world of sci-fi’s cutest killer teddy bears. At the bare minimum, these films make the idea of the Ewoks helping during the battle of Endor less ridiculous. You learn about how they fight, how they live, and the surprising magic that lives inside some of them. These films are much more like fairy tales than the official movies, but that’s part of their charm. It’s also part of the charm of the Star Wars universe.
Star Wars is about a group of heroes trying to save the galaxy, from the civilizations we recognize as humanoid to seemingly primitive creatures who might not have mastered space travel yet. The Ewok films establish a universe where not everyone is aware a war is going on, and the battles that wage away from the eyes of the Empire and Rebellion. They also feature remarkable special effects given the era in which they were released.
There’s just one (big) problem: Both of the Ewok films are out of print. They were briefly released on DVD, but those copies fetch over $100 on secondary markets. Your best bets to find them are specialty video stories or YouTube, though if you watch on YouTube be prepared for a picture that’s slightly cut off to avoid automatic detection sensors. (They are also available on torrent sites, but we have to advise against illegal downloads.) For Star Wars completists who want every last cinematic drop of the universe, these will be small, if admittedly frustrating, compromises.
The best order to watch Star Wars: Despecialized method
Finally, we have the despecialized method (lovingly considered the grumpy curmudgeon order), watching only the original three films in their original forms.
1) Episode IV: A New Hope (original)
2) Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (original)
3) Episode IV: Return of the Jedi (original)
Legally, the only way to watch these movies is via out-of-print DVD editions from 2006 which fetch between $55 and $87 each. Yeah, you have to buy them separately. Even then these DVDs aren’t taken from the original negatives but from the Laserdisc version of Star Wars which has another batch of changes and enhancements. For most people, this is as close as you’ll ever come. There’s another way, however.
If you want to see Star Wars the way your parents did in the ’70s and ’80s, there’s only one option left: the gray market Despecialized Edition. This fan edit is the product of years of work by a team of video editors, who have recreated the original films using bits and pieces of various source materials to rebuild the film.
Fan edits are usually nothing special, but this is Star Wars, and only the best will do. It was a brutal process. Rebuilding A New Hope, for example, took elements from the 2011 Blu-ray, the 2004 Special Edition DVD, the aforementioned 2006 Original Trilogy release, and scans from 70mm and 35mm film prints. The end result is a 720p HD version of the original trilogy like they were originally shown in theaters.
Downloading the films legally means you must own the source material, which means if your ISP catches you downloading it you should have an official copy of the original trilogy to say, “Hey I own these, and am just downloading these versions, unavailable in the marketplace, for historical purposes.” Also, you should pay for content. This way you’re supporting the people who made the film and getting the version you want. (Disclaimer: This is not legal advice, and downloading gray-area content could have legal consequences.)
You can download the Despecialized Editions online, though you’ll need about an hour to work through the whole process. It isn’t as simple as just hitting download, but you won’t have to mess with downloading files off of a torrent site. We suggest downloading the MVK version of the film if you take this method. Most video game consoles can natively play it, making it the easiest version to start watching. If you’ve ever wondered why Star Wars fans never stopped shouting about the superior quality of the original films, this will answer your question.
When you’re done, we suggest watching the prequels and new movies anyway. Nothing can take away or change the memories you have a Star Wars if they live inside your heart, and each movie features awesome space battles. Try imagining telling your 11-year-old self that you aren’t going to watch five movies with crazy space battles because of your principals. Think of the look you’d get.
No matter how you watch the films, you better get started. Star Wars VIII: The Last Jedi hits theaters Dec. 17, 2017.
John-Michael Bond is a tech reporter and culture writer for Daily Dot. A longtime cord-cutter and early adopter, he's an expert on streaming services (Hulu with Live TV), devices (Roku, Amazon Fire), and anime. A former staff writer for TUAW, he's knowledgeable on all things Apple and Android. You can also also find him regularly performing standup comedy in Los Angeles.