Back in the 1970s, big, epic adventure movie blockbusters were becoming a thing for the first time in years, as audiences flocked to cinemas to see a new generation of filmmakers delivering larger-than-life stories that were nothing but pure escapism. But it was a decade where the excitement of the space race had lost some of its sheen, and science fiction films weren’t a big priority for movie studios. Blockbusters were very much anchored in the real world – disaster movies in skyscrapers and on boats, deadly sharks, dancing and demonic possessions. And then in 1977, an unassuming science fiction film named Star Wars arrived in cinemas – and promptly changed the movie world forever.
Today, over a generation after that modestly-budgeted, wide-eyed space adventure became a part of popular culture, Star Wars is as big as it’s ever been – remarkable, really, considering there were long periods of time when it looked like the chance of any more entries in the saga were close to zero.
With the arrival in cinemas of The Rise of Skywalker – the ninth and final instalment in the “core” Star Wars movie storyline, it’s now possible to do something that nobody would have dreamed possible back in 1977 – to sit in the comfort of your own home, armed with your choice of snacks and a subscription to Disney Plus, and watch the story unfold in its entirety in several different ways. For Rise of Skywalker, you’ll need to wait until March 2020 for the digital and disc release, or later in the year for the movie to arrive on Disney Plus – but chances are, whether you’re a decades-long fan of the saga or someone coming to the films for the first time, you’ll want to catch the epic final instalment in the cinema anyway. And since it’s loaded to the brim with Star Wars movies and shows, Disney Plus is the perfect way to catch up on it all before you head to the multiplex!
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The Right Order to Watch Star Wars Films
One thing that many people aren’t aware of is that Star Wars was originally just a stand-alone movie, released under that exact title. While writer-director George Lucas has said he always envisaged the story as part of an epic nine-part saga, in reality the 1977 film was just known as Star Wars for years (it gained its opening title Episode IV – A New Hope years later, for its 1981 theatrical re-release). Of course, the phenomenal success of the first film made sequels inevitable, and so we got 1980’s The Empire Strikes Back (regarded by many as the best film of the entire saga) and 1983’s Return of the Jedi.
Of course, now there was a movie trilogy out there labelled as parts 4 to 6, with no parts 1 through 3 in sight. We wouldn’t see those until Lucas went back to his Star Wars universe in 1999 with three controversial “prequel” movies. These started on a sour note with The Phantom Menace, a movie so bogged down in its own lore and self-importance that fans barely recognised the spirit of the earlier films – and its attempts at comedy relief didn’t help. The following two movies (both shot entirely in Australia, by the way) were much better – but it was only with the arrival of JJ Abrams’ The Force Awakens in 2015 that we saw that real Star Wars spirit back on the screen.
What we have, then, is three groups of three movies, each arguably a self-contained trilogy but part of an overarching larger story. We’ve also got a couple of extra theatrical spin-off movies, a recent big-budget live-action TV series in The Mandalorian, and a batch of low-budget series that are largely aimed at kids. So, with The Rise of Skywalker beckoning, what do you need to watch to get caught up with the story? And, perhaps more importantly, what order should you watch it all in?
Where to Watch Online
While you can buy or rent all of the theatrical Star Wars movies on DVD, Blu-ray and via digital storefronts such as iTunes and Google Play Movies, it’s hard to go past the freshly-arrived Disney Plus streaming service for all your Star Wars needs at a low cost (it’ll cost you $8.99 a month or $89.99 a year).
Disney Plus has a distinct advantage when it comes to Star Wars. Only two of the movies – The Last Jedi and spin-off Solo – got a release on Ultra HD 4K Blu-ray discs, and none are available to buy or rent in 4K digitally. There’s an expensive 4K disc box set arriving sometime in 2020, but here’s the thing – all the movies are on Disney Plus right now in full 4K Ultra HD, with Dolby Vision HDR and immersive Dolby Atmos sound if you’ve got the gear to deliver it (we’d recommend the Apple TV 4K for that!). And not only that – Disney Plus also has the various TV shows (including new series The Mandalorian which was made for the service and can’t be seen anywhere else) along with various shorts and even the Lego themed Star Wars outings (we won’t consider most of these to be a vital part of your viewing order, though!).
So right now, the best way to watch everything Star Wars is to sign up for Disney Plus, pull up a comfy couch and get ready to binge, feeling rather pleased that at the moment, Australia is the only country where Disney Plus has all the Star Wars movies ready to watch!
Last audited 19 April 2021
The Theatrical Release Order
This might seem obvious to some, especially those who were around for the release of the earliest movies – but the numbering on the movies actively discourages watching them in the order they arrived in cinemas. And that’s perfectly fine – we’ll get to the chronological order in a moment – but consider the release order as well.
The main reason for this is simple: the first film (now episode 4) was the one which introduced the key players in this epic story to the world, including its most iconic character – Luke Skywalker. We see Luke go from being a nerdy, daydreaming farm boy to finding himself joining the rebellion against the evillest people in the galaxy. We’re introduced to the concept of The Force by the man who embodies it the most, Obi-wan Kenobi. We’re introduced to the aforementioned rebellion and its leader, Princess Leia. We meet one of cinema’s best-known villains, Darth Vader, and learn about the Empire and the lengths they’re willing to go to in order to rule with an iron fist. It’s a cheesy, wide-eyed and hugely entertaining film that sets the tone for everything (and episodes 5 and 6 are even better!)
The prequel trilogy, episodes 1 to 3, came next and if you’re familiar with the use of “flashbacks” in movies and TV, you can think of this trilogy as one great big six-hour flashback that fleshes out the history leading up to episode 4, shows you the back stories of key characters and helps you understand their motivations. In an attempt to be detailed and story-rich, George Lucas (who wrote and directed all three prequels) overburdens these movies with politics, mystic nonsense and some truly “what were they thinking” additions such as the infamous Jar-jar Binks. But you do get Natalie Portman, Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor and a bunch of familiar Aussie actors into the bargain, and these movies broke new ground in digital movie production that paved the way for the Marvel blockbusters of today.
Then, finally, you’ve got the most recent trilogy – big, crowd-pleasing films that latch themselves firmly to the spirit of the 1977 movie and its sequels. Not everyone’s in agreement about how well they succeeded, but for those who grew up with the Star Wars universe they do a great job of delivering fan service and fun, along with the epic story beats the series is best known for.
In between all of this, you can optionally watch the stand-alone spin-off movies Rogue One and Solo as well, but neither are critical to the overall story arc of the “Skywalker Saga” as it’s come to be known. And by the time the closing credits of Rise of Skywalker roll up the screen you’ll probably want to earmark those movies for watching once you’ve recovered from the big emotional moments that loom large in the last three films.
So, for reference, here’s the theatrical release order – one which does, despite the numbering, work well to let the story unfold naturally, and without spoilers you’d find in the prequels ruining the first trilogy!
The Chronological Order
Here’s where you can start getting a little bit creative with the series, by not only watching it in “the order the creators intended” (even if they intended it a few years after the fact) but also by adding the stand-alone spin-off movies and even some of the TV shows to flesh out the world and the backstory.
On the downside, this does mean that you’ll be starting your Star Wars viewing experience with what is easily the least entertaining film of them all, The Phantom Menace. With Lucas’ terrible script (full of galactic trade routes and politics and quasi-religious mumbo-jumbo) and the stodgy directing of a man who hadn’t made a movie in decades, it’s a definite slow start to what turns into a fun and engaging story. But still, look at it this way – you’ll be getting a whole heap of insight into the characters and the world that will let you sail into the original trilogy like you’ve just come out of Star Wars University.
A warning, though – watching the movies in the numbered order does mean you’ll have a major story moment from the original trilogy spoiled well in advance (not to mention you’ll find episode 4 almost “mansplaining” stuff to you that you’ve already been hearing about for six hours).
The real fun with watching the movies this way is how you can insert the spin-off movies into the appropriate parts of the timeline, something that works especially well for Rogue One – a truly superb Star Wars movie that tells the story of events leading directly up to the beginning of the original movie, Episode IV. With a great cast including Felicity Jones in the lead role of Jyn Erso, it really is a must-see if you love the Star Wars universe. The other spin-off, Solo, is the origin story of everyone’s favourite smuggler, Han Solo, who’s key to the events of the original trilogy. It’s an enjoyable romp despite having been a troubled production, and it’s got Emilia Clarke in it for the Game of Thrones fans. Solo and Rogue One belong between episodes 3 and 4 in the story timeline.
Over in TV shows, the one you’ll want to watch is The Mandalorian, a $100 million series made for Disney Plus that tells the story of a Mandalorian bounty hunter and his unexpected target (we won’t spoil it!). Set before the events of The Force Awakens, it should be watched between episodes 6 and 7.
There’s also the animated series Star Wars Rebels that was made for the Disney XD channel, which has received considerable critical acclaim. It’s set after Revenge of the Sith and it’s generally accepted to belong after the events of Solo, but before Rogue One. The animated movie and subsequent six seasons of The Clone Wars expand on the events of Attack of the Clones and fill in the gap up to Revenge of the Sith – and there’s a new seventh and final season of it on the way in early 2020, exclusive to Disney Plus. Star Wars Resistance, meanwhile, is a far more kid-directed animated series that we’d consider fairly optional, but nonetheless its story is “canon” and its first season can be watched before The Force Awakens. The second season is one of the only Star Wars things not yet on Disney Plus – it’s coming, though – and should be watched after The Last Jedi.
So you’re in for a lot of hours of Star Wars with all that, as a truly epic saga reveals itself over many different time periods and sub-stories. There are several other Star Wars shows and shorts on Disney Plus as well, but we think this list covers what’s truly worth watching without bogging you down with trivialities like the Lego Star Wars entries.
Summary: May the Force Be With You!
So there you go – you’re all set to kick back and dive into the Star Wars universe in whatever way works for you. There are other fan-preferred orders suggested (some of which even omit Episode 1) but if you’re new to the saga or are looking for a refresher before watching The Rise of Skywalker, one of the above options is going to be exactly what you need. And the best thing is that it’s all there on Disney Plus, with truly stunning picture and sound quality. Disney Plus also includes all the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies, the Pixar catalogue, and hundreds of classic Disney movies and shows. At $8.99 a month it’s a bargain. You can read our full review of Disney Plus here as well!