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Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Getting ahead of ourselves

The other night I was perusing the shelf for a flick that we could all watch together, and I decided it was past time to introduce the Munchkin to Star Wars.

So I pulled down the box set I had picked up a few years ago and grabbed the disc. But it didn’t say Star Wars, at least not in a very prominent way. What was prominent was a big Roman numeral IV and the words “A New Hope.” This was the historically revised Star Wars that was retroactively placed in the middle of six-part series. And for a moment, my mind pondered the question: should I be showing her this one first or The Phantom Menace?

I’ve actually posed this question before, more than seven years ago, in fact. Back then, the question was theoretical. Now, it had become practical. I didn’t ponder long. I would do my best to have her experience these movies the way I did, i.e. in the order they were made. A large part of my reasoning was that A New Hope (as it’s now called) is simply a much more fun movie to show a kid. It comes down to this: if you could see only one of the Star Wars movies, which would you choose? That makes things pretty easy. Of course, you would watch the fourth installment. Even though, as with all of the Star Wars movies, it is understood or implied that pertinent events have occurred before the narrative of the film and that pertinent events will occur after the narrative of the film. But the only movie with which this doesn’t matter is Episode IV. It has a satisfying beginning, middle and end.

Sure, it begins with storm troopers invading Princess Leia’s ship and we are immediately plunged into a chaotic and exciting situation. This is because the movie has the feel of one of those old-time adventure serials that most of us don’t actually remember but we kind of think we do. Back in the olden days, they were screened before the main feature, to get the (presumably mostly young) audience worked up for the main event and, because they inevitably ended with a cliffhanger, to encourage patrons to come back the next week. They starred popular heroes like Superman, Batman and Flash Gordon. The original Star Wars movie was clearly made in that spirit. We could imagine the cliffhanger ending of the non-existent previous episode, in which Leia and her crew are surprised by the invaders. But George Lucas, despite his compulsive urge to complete things, never included that scene in his prequels. Even he realized that we didn’t actually need to see it, that you don’t need to see every single event or occurrence that is implied or referred to in the narrative of a movie.

The original Star Wars did not end with a cliffhanger. It ended with a triumphant victory by our heroes (sorry, I guess that qualifies as a spoiler), but we knew that story would go on. The rebels’ fight was not over. The evil empire was still ascendant. The fight would continue. But that fact did not make the ending frustrating or unsatisfying. Most movies about World War II do not end with the Allied victory in 1945. This sense of more adventures to come in Star Wars was consistent with its look and feel of a serial, but not to the point that audiences felt cheated by being left hanging. The movie stands alone on its own. If you never saw any of the other movies in the series, you would be narratively satisfied. This is not to say that fans of the movie wouldn’t and didn’t want there to be more adventures, more to the story. (Clearly, they did.) But they couldn’t argue that they had been cheated. As a storyteller, Lucas was exactly in the right place. He had left his audience wanting more.

And then he gave it to them. I do not begrudge George Lucas his sequels to his fabulous, breakthrough success. Indeed, I credit him for making sure that the subsequent movies matched or exceeded the quality of the original. But The Empire Strikes Back and The Return of the Jedi had a problem that the original movie didn’t have. The latter had no beginning, and the former had neither a beginning nor an ending. In other words, they were not merely aping those old adventure serials. They had actually become them. But instead of encouraging the audience to come back to the cinema the following week, it was beckoning them to come back in three years. And they did. In droves. Watching The Empire Strikes Back might be satisfying after having watched A New Hope. But watching A New Hope after watching The Empire Strikes Back might not prevent you from enjoying both movies, but I cannot imagine that it would be as satisfying as watching them in the proper order.

And that gets us to the problem with watching the entire Star Wars saga in chronological narrative order. There is a famous surprise revelation at the end of The Empire Strikes Back. It’s so famous that I’m not even going to say what it is because you already know. (Besides, I’ve already spoiled the end of A New Hope.) While it’s hard to remember now, for those of us who saw the original movies decades ago and have incorporated their stories into our own collection of enduring mythologies, that revelation came as a pretty good shock, even though in hindsight it should have been obvious nearly from the beginning. Now, I suppose a person could watch all the movies, beginning with The Phantom Menace, and still be blown away by that revelation in Episode V. But he or she would have to have not been paying much attention all the way through for it to be a much of a surprise. Yet that doesn’t mean that it couldn’t still have considerable dramatic effect. But I’m not sure that the effect would be any better for having seen Episodes I through IV beforehand, and I’m less sure that it wouldn’t have been better having seen only Episode IV beforehand.

The bottom line is that it really isn’t fair to make a child sit through Episodes I through III before seeing the original Star Wars trilogy because, frankly, that’s a lot of time to invest in movies that simply aren’t as good as the original trilogy. And, I’m convinced, the second trilogy only resonates to the extent that it evokes our memories of the original trilogy. No, much better to start with the most indispensable of the lot.

So how did the original Star Wars go over with my kid? She loved it. And she, of course, immediately wanted to know if there were any more Star Wars movies.

Now, the only question is: when she is old enough, do I show her Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather first or Disc 1 of The Godfather Saga? (Trick question! The chronologically-ordered, edited-for-TV Godfather Saga has not been released to DVD.)

-S.L., 3 September 2009

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