Machete Viewing?

I watched the Star Wars films again over the Thanksgiving break, in anticipation of the release of The Last Jedi. To try to give myself a novel perspective, I decided I’d play with the “machete” viewing order I’ve heard so much about. Now, I believe that normally calls for a viewing of IV, V, II, III, VI, but my goal was to watch all the films, not trim things down. What I settled on was R1/IV double-feature, V, I, II, III, VI, VII. It was in some ways illuminating and made me think about how these movies were conceived and how they are viewed.

I took notes while viewing, and they raised questions that I might probe further at a later date. For now, I just want to briefly talk about my viewing experience as a whole. It won’t be comprehensive or conclusive, but it’s a start.

What most surprised me about my viewing was how dissonant Rogue One and A New Hope actually are. Of course, Rogue One has a darker ending than any other Star Wars film except perhaps Revenge of the Sith, but I was surprised to realize that when watched back-to-back, the films don’t bridge well together even with A New Hope picking up almost exactly where Rogue One left off. One of the biggest elements of discord: Rogue One is specific, whereas A New Hope is mythic.

A New Hope lays out the visual language and storytelling tools used in all the other saga films. We deal with archetypes, not just heroic archetypes or film tropes but in broad principles and institutions. Jedi Knights (whatever they are, exactly) defended the Republic for a thousand generations before the Dark Times, before the Empire. There is a Rebellion against that Empire. There is an Emperor. There was a Senate, but no more. Vader is all menace, seemingly completely removed from the military chain of command. He is almost a force of nature. Contrast with Rogue One, which has all the lore to work with of every film that has come since then. Rogue One shows the specifics of the Rebel Alliance, with political infighting and uncertainty over how to proceed. We see special forces operatives making bad calls. We see something approaching more specific, real organizations. Even Vader is not quite so removed. It’s sort of the nature of the film; where A New Hope is intentionally mythic, Rogue One fills in the details. It’s still bizarre.

Almost as disconcerting to me is how Rogue One seems to only loosely honor the connection to A New Hope. While Vader says he knows that plans were “beamed aboard” the Tantive IV, we know that the transmissions were actually to a capital ship; Vader saw the plans physically handed off to a courier who boarded Leia’s own ship. Leia outright lies to Vader about her purpose even though her crew barely escaped from an active war zone and Vader’s physical presence moments before his arrival. And Vader becomes more and more active and powerful in every new Star Wars installment so that it is curious why he becomes a lead-from-the-rear officer and conservative fencer by the time of the classic trilogy. Nothing is outright contradicted, as far as I can tell. People make mistakes; they lie; they alter the truth. This certainly happens in Star Wars. And Vader maybe has reasons for his varying degrees of displayed power. It’s not ruinous, but it just creates nagging moments of disconnection between the two films.

And while Rogue One adds further urgency and importance to the delivery of the Death Star plans with the lives lost and faint glimmer of hope at the end of this prequel, A New Hope, by way of being a preexisting entity, cannot take advantage of that urgency. The film is a much slower-paced title. The MacGuffin of the Death Star plans only becomes vital to the viewers when we realize that the Rebel base will be destroyed–meaning Leia and 3PO too!–if Luke isn’t able to blow the bad guys up in time. Rogue One’s fast burn dissolves into a slow sizzle. After the opening battle of A New Hope, everything slows.

At the end of the day, Rogue One is a fairly safe film that fills in gaps that don’t really need to be filled in. Its changes in focus and urgency and tone don’t really connect with the feel of the original film. On this re-watch, I appreciated more than ever the questions and dangling threads and implied epic scope of A New Hope. It’s a great film. It doesn’t really need Rogue One, and while I still enjoy R1 for its beautiful planetary vistas and the chemistry in its ensemble cast, I am realizing more and more that it’s simply an unnecessary film.

Unsurprisingly, The Empire Strikes Back remains my favorite film after the viewing. I watched the special editions of the classic trilogy this time, in contrast to the “theatrical” versions that came with the DVD release, and I think that Empire benefits most from the retroactive editing. The wampa cave scene and the Hoth battle scene are improved. And Bespin is just absolutely stunning with the addition of more exterior views. The special edition makes Empire feel bigger. Regardless, this viewing order neither helps nor hurts it.

Jumping back to Episode I was interesting at this point. If you were a new viewer, and you just learned that Darth Vader was Luke’s father, finding this little boy to be Anakin Skywalker would be incredibly jarring. Maybe Vader was lying, you might assume, without the guidance of Return of the Jedi. Maybe Anakin and Vader really are separate people somehow. How could such a sweet boy become Vader? As I recall, many fans of the original films were annoyed by this little, dorky, sweet version of young Anakin. It was an over-share. We don’t need to see Anakin as a child! But I’m thinking about how it would feel to go from V to II, or to live in a world without The Phantom Menace. And frankly, if your first exposure to Anakin is in Episode II, I think you lose something. That Anakin is already tortured by his fear of losing his mother, already tempted by a girl he met years ago, and quick to do very evil things in moments of anger and grief. That Anakin, though whiny, is someone we can immediately believe to be Vader. That even a good person can become evil, that even a seemingly normal person can harbor such great demons or grow into them, is a far more interesting message, and I think I understand more what George Lucas was trying to do with Episode I. There are larger problems with that film–chiefly, the time distance means that Episode I feels more like a prequel to the later two prequel films rather than a part of the trilogy, very little of narrative significance happens in this film since most of Anakin’s personal concerns are established in Episode II again anyway, and the pod race is excessively long and fairly pointless. But Lucas had purpose even if the delivery was flawed.

Watching Episode I after V gave me something to think about. I parallels IV in that it is a happy-go-lucky sort of film with a big explosion at the end and a big celebration after victory; both films inform the later films in their trilogies, but they are somewhat apart from them. If I were coming up with my own viewing order, I would probably remove Rogue One (it’s not a main saga film anyway) and start the viewer with A New Hope followed by The Phantom Menace. A new viewer would interpret Anakin to be Luke’s father without the knowledge that Anakin is Vader. Vader’s absence from The Phantom Menace would be a gnawing tension; where is the future threat? And viewing IV and I back to back shows them as companion pieces, kindred spirits, both about the journeys of Skywalkers. Follow The Phantom Menace up with The Empire Strikes back, to progress Luke’s story further and make the connections between both trilogies explicit; this viewing order also makes a reveal out of both Palpatine’s and Anakin’s true ultimate identities. Now that this darkness in Anakin is revealed, we can jump back to finish up the prequel trilogy…

And finish up the prequel trilogy I did. Maybe for the first time in my life, I somehow found Anakin charming and liked many aspects of his romance with Padme in Attack of the Clones. I don’t know exactly how this happened. I don’t know why it did. I think the new viewing order disrupted my default opinions about the films. Maybe I was able to shift away from popular opinion a little bit. Yes, Anakin can be creepy or intense, but he’s sensitive and caring and a bit of a flirt. Yes, he can be awkward–but in the way that many young men are awkward, for better or worse. This isn’t a flaw; Lucas clearly wants you to view him as awkward, angsty, still growing up. He lingers on Anakin’s flailing moments, plays up shots of others reacting to him, pairs the images with music that drives home the discomfort. It works. I can’t and won’t defend the failures in dialogue present, but I would point out that Lucas has always written fairly artificial and awkward dialogue into the films.

The most frustrating thing about Episode II is still that Anakin murders a whole village of indigenous people and somehow is not already branded as a Dark Sider. You don’t get much more Dark Side than that, no matter how big your anger and grief. No matter how Padme felt about Anakin, it’s also a shocking lack of judgment on her part that she would (a) simply accept Anakin afterward without reprimand and (b) not report Anakin to the authorities. They weren’t even in a relationship!

I think Attack of the Clones is still my least-favorite saga film, but Obi-Wan was charming as hell, I got more out of Anakin/Padme than I usually do, and the final battle was enjoyable as always (though the Yoda/Dooku fight has become more and more ridiculous to me with time).

Revenge of the Sith remained strong as always. You either buy into the tragedy or you don’t, I think. My wife and I both buy into it. Watching Return of the Jedi afterward provides a lovely bit of symmetry and a satisfying conclusion to the entirety of the saga, as well.

Interestingly, while The Force Awakens replicates so much of the previous films and nails the tone, on this viewing I found it to be rather peripheral and irrelevant (though still great fun). Then again, the same could be said for A New Hope or The Phantom Menace in isolation. We’ll have to see how the rest of this sequel trilogy goes.

All of the above is to say that changing viewing order did get me to rethink each of the films and their place in the larger saga. I think that the most logical viewing order remains either release date or sequential order, but I don’t begrudge the experimentation.

And if I wanted to do my own bit of experimental viewing order, that hopefully creates the most dramatic interconnection I could manage just by remixing the sequence, I think I’d go: IV, I, V, II, III, VI.

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