May the Force be with me: thoughts on watching Star Wars for the first time

Hi. My name is Matilda, I am twenty-six years old, and until this year, I had never seen Star Wars. Not the original series, not the prequels, not the sequels, not the spinoff movies, none of the animated iterations – nothing, unless you count a hazy recollection of The Phantom Menace occasionally running in the background at my after-school care.

In fact, I had never seen many of the movies that seem to be classic cultural references for people my age and older. I never saw Star Wars, Jurassic Park, or The Lord of the Rings as a kid. I’ve only seen a handful of superhero movies, Marvel or otherwise, and all but one of those were in the past two years. I’ve still never seen a single James Bond movie. I’ve always had a fairly sensitive personality, and my parents were probably more averse than most to exposing their children to entertainment franchises that 1) contain violent or scary content and 2) exist on at least some level to sell a lot of merchandise and probably junk food to kids. I don’t mean to suggest my childhood was completely pure and sheltered from commercial influences – I loved Disney movies – but I did prefer reading, overall. I just absorbed the characters, themes, plotlines, and, above all, the cultural significance of Star Wars and other less princess-y creations through a kind of pop cultural osmosis over the years.

However, I did eventually become curious about what I was missing, and the possibility of forming my own opinion on these cultural touchstones. If a piece of pop culture is significant to people you care about, you can find yourself wanting to share it with them. And finally, I was spending a lot more time at home as the coronavirus reared its head. So, having earlier cajoled my boyfriend into spending more than a year reading the entire Harry Potter series, which profoundly shaped my childhood and adolescence, I agreed to delve into the Star Wars universe. We set up a Disney Plus subscription and established a routine where, every week or two, we would order pizza from our favourite delivery service (BIANCA Pizza, for those in Adelaide) and watch an installment in the Skywalker Saga. So, in this time of staying at home, I thought I would jot down some reflections on my first experiences of Star Wars.

Disclaimer #1: Of course, not only is the Star Wars universe huge, but the literature of cultural critique and analysis of the films is too, so this is much more a collection of random thoughts than a thesis.

Disclaimer #2: There will be a few spoilers below, so if you’re also someone who is yet to watch Star Wars and wants to stay pure, stop here!  

Image: Disney/Lucasfilm

What is the best Star Wars viewing order?

I actually watched Season One of The Mandalorian (which I loved) as my first introduction to the Star Wars universe, and then the Skywalker Saga films in episodic order (Phantom Menace to Rise of Skywalker). This is just a hunch, as I’ve only seen the films once at this point, but I suspect that watching them in release order would have been better. While it was already too late for Luke and Vader’s relationship not to be spoiled for me, I still think the prequel trilogy would be more satisfying and engaging to watch if you’re familiar with the characters and arc of the original trilogy. You have more of a reason to care about Anakin, Padmé, Obi-Wan and the Republic in general if you know where their stories are leading.

Furthermore, I just found it inescapably jarring to clearly start – aesthetically, culturally, technologically – in the 2000s and then move forward in time to the 1970s. Sincere apologies to my partner and to everyone else who insists that the practical effects of the original trilogy are “so convincing!” and “have aged so much better than the terrible CGI in the prequels!”, but I just don’t feel the same way.

If you want to get even more sophisticated in your Star Wars marathon ordering (for example, by including the spinoff movies or the animated series), here is a very detailed guide.

Image: Disney/Lucasfilm via GamesRadar+

What are the worst aliens in Star Wars?

There’s been a lot of ink spilled, rightly or wrongly, on strong opinions about Jar Jar Binks, and Bruce Gottlieb did a great job back in 1999 of expressing the same reservations I hold about the racial stereotypes that seem to have inspired the characters of Watto and the Trade Federation representatives in The Phantom Menace. What I want to talk about is the Ewoks. Pop cultural osmosis had left me with the impression that these petite, furry aliens were basically adorable space teddy bears, and anyone who professed to hate Ewoks was just too embarrassed to admit that they were taking a film aimed at children a little too seriously. In fact, Ewoks are not only incredibly creepy (those dead, glassy eyes! the little protruding teeth!), but also evoke horrible racist tales of savage ‘pygmies’ or ‘primitives’, who’d eat you as soon as look at you (unless their backwardness leads them to mistake a robot for a god). As Jeffrey A. Weinstock writes in his chapter on Freaks in Space: “Extraterrestrialism” and “Deep-Space Multiculturalism”‘ in Freakery: Cultural Spectacles of the Extraordinary Body (New York University Press, 1996), “the Ewoks play on [a] stereotypical construction of the ‘primitive’ African pygmy tribe living in the jungle, astounded by the white man’s technological ‘magic’ and too simple to be devious”. I’m really not a fan.

Image: Disney/Lucasfilm via Looper

Are the prequels really as bad as everyone says?

Honestly, I don’t think so. Are there parts that are not great? Definitely – I’ve already mentioned the cringey stereotypes, but there’s also clunky writing and acting that sometimes play havoc with the films’ emotional tone. I found Padmé’s character arc, from courageous young leader and accomplished diplomat in Episode I to someone who does little except be pregnant, look worried and die in Episode III, particularly disheartening. But frankly, to my mind the original trilogy has most of these issues in more or less equal measure. Budget increases and technological improvements between the 1980s and 2000s make for prequels more visually stunning than the originals, too. Plus, when you dig into the cultural and political context, the prequels offer an allegorical analysis that’s at least as satisfying as that of the original trilogy. I’m not saying the prequels are amazing, but are they really that much worse than the originals?

Justice for Padmé! Image: Disney/Lucasfilm via

Which director made better sequels: J. J. Abrams or Rian Johnson?

As you may have noticed, the divergent approaches of the two directors involved in the Star Wars sequels trilogy have divided both fans and commentators. Depending on whom you listen to, Abrams’ contributions (Episode VII: The Force Awakens and Episode XI: The Rise of Skywalker) are either great adventures that stay true to the character and values of the originals without getting bogged down in modern political concerns; or derivative, ‘safe’ crowd-pleasers that do little more than recreate the original trilogy beat for beat with better special effects. Similarly, Johnson’s creation (Episode VIII: The Last Jedi) is either an intelligent, visionary piece of cinema that respects the source material enough to tell a layered, morally complex story; or a disappointing couple of hours of unsatisfying plot, pandering to political correctness, and destruction of the original hero’s hard-won character development. This is complicated, of course, but I would guess that where you fall depends on whether you prefer your Star Wars with a clear delineation between the Light and the Dark, where the righteous will always eventually triumph – or with a recognition that characters may change camps, that the best intentions can cause harm, and that even the most righteous causes can sometimes fail for no morally satisfying reason. It’s a matter of personal taste, in a way, whether you prefer your entertainment to comfort you or challenge you, and I’m not going to judge anyone for being in the former group. I myself prefer to keep things light with my media consumption most of the time, because I feel there are enough depressing things in the real world.

Image: Disney/Lucasfilm

That said, while I found all three sequels very entertaining, I do prefer Johnson’s take. It’s that little bit more mature and thought-provoking. I like that he took some story-telling risks, like suggesting through Rey’s parentage that talent and leadership really can come from anywhere, or subverting the trope of the dashing hero triumphing by going against the orders of a stuffy commander to tell a story about the importance of humility; that he took some time to comment on broader ethical challenges in the Star Wars universe, such as the role of a military-industrial complex without which the Big Bads like the First Order would probably keel over; and that he gave such weight to the perils faced by the dwindling Resistance. By contrast, Johnson played it a bit too safe for me. The themes and events of his films hewed so closely to the original trilogy that they almost made the originals feel redundant at times – if Palpatine is actually still alive, doesn’t that render Luke’s sacrifices and Vader’s redemption in the original trilogy a bit pointless?

Finally, there is a certain strain of ‘fan’ who hates Episode XIII because it, uh, focused too much on women and people of colour, apparently? That’s not a view I will spend any more time dignifying with a response here, but it was pretty disappointing to see Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran) go from a lead role in Episode XIII to about two minutes of screen time in Episode IX, presumably as a capitulation to this crowd.

Some closing thoughts

There’s something about the stories you encounter as a young person that shape you – almost magically, they weave themselves into your personality, emotions, and identity in a way that’s hard to shake. I mentioned Harry Potter before – no matter how often I’m told that the writing is unsophisticated, or the plot derivative, or when I cringe at the latest misstep J. K. Rowling has made as she continues to expand the world of Potter (looking at you, History of Magic in North America), I don’t think curling up with a hot chocolate and a copy of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone will ever fail to cheer me up when I’ve had a rough day. It’s very challenging for a work first encountered as an adult to do the same thing. “I wonder if I missed the window to just appreciate the movies for what they are without the broader cultural trappings,” I told friends when discussing my belated Star Wars initiation. I know that for a lot of people in the world, Star Wars holds the same place in their hearts as Harry Potter does in mine, and I think that’s fantastic. I’m not sure I’ll ever feel the same way, but I still enjoyed the ride. May the Force be with us all.