Since the release of the first Star Wars film in the summer of 1977, the cowboy space opera from the mind of George Lucas has become embedded in popular culture. Popular lines such as “I am your father,” “May the force be with you” and “Evil Empire” are widely recognized around the world. Characters like Darth Vader, Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, Han Solo and R2-D2 have gone on to inspire countless other writers, filmmakers and storytellers to create their own versions of these personas.

The franchise has spawned superfans the world over. This is why, in 2012, Disney forked over $4.05 billion to acquire Lucasfilms and the rights to the Star Wars Universe. Disney created an entirely new entry in the Skywalker saga, releasing The Force Awakens in December of 2015, The Last Jedi in December of 2017 and now The Rise of Skywalker this coming weekend.

How should I watch the Star Wars movies?

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, ignoring The Rise of Skywalker’s existence is next to impossible. There have been trailers, billboards and ads plastered everywhere to send the saga off with a bang. But what if you’ve resisted watching any Star Wars films to this point, and now want to see what all the hype is about? With nine total films, what’s the best way to take in the story?

The original trilogy

There are two prevalent theories on how you can watch the Star Wars saga: in order of release date, or in order of episode. That’s because the first three Star Wars movies are the fourth, fifth and sixth movies chronologically. A New Hope from 1977 is technically Episode IV. Episode V is The Empire Strikes Back. Episode VI, The Return of the Jedi, completes original trilogy. 

The prequels

Lucas then took a 16-year hiatus before returning to space. Episode I, The Phantom Menace, was released in the summer of 1999. Episode II, Attack of the Clones, debuted in 2002. Episode III, The Revenge of the Sith, followed in 2005. These three films make up the prequel trilogy.

The sequels

When Lucas sold the Star Wars film rights to Disney in 2012, director J.J. Abrams was tapped to revive the franchise with Episode VII, The Force Awakens. Director Rian Johnson followed it up with Episode VIII, The Last Jedi, and returned to Abrams for the most recent release, Episode IX, The Rise of Skywalker. These three films make up the sequel trilogy.

Why you should watch it by release date

While it may seem like the intuitive way to watch is following the episode numbers, you shouldn’t join the dark side. The best way to watch is in the chronological order the films were released. 

Without playing spoiler, the problem with following episode order is that it ruins one of the most iconic twists in movie history. Although you might feel this particular reveal doesn’t matter because it’s somewhat common knowledge at this point, watching in episode order robs this scene of the weight it carries in the entire Star Wars universe. And if you’re lucky enough that this twist hasn’t been spoiled for you, starting with Episodes I, II, and III over the original trilogy is like starting any movie with the ending. 

Going with Episode Order could leave you disappointed. The prequel trilogy is just that: a prequel. It’s meant to set the stage for the Original trilogy, providing backstory on important characters and themes like the Jedi versus and the Sith, Obi Wan Kenobi, and how the Evil Empire came to be. Without first watching the Original trilogy, you would never know the true importance of Anakin Skywalker, Luke Skywalker’s father and one of the main protagonists in the prequel trilogy.

Likewise, the sequel trilogy produced by Disney is a continuation of the story that was told in the original trilogy. Although it introduces new characters, the general themes and elements are the same. Important roles from Han Solo, Chewbacca, R2-D2, Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia would be much less important if you didn’t understand the events that brought them together in the original trilogy. 

A case for machete order

Unfortunately, watching based on release date is not without its own flaw. When George Lucas wrapped up the prequel trilogy, he went back and digitally remastered his original trilogy, adding in scenes and making minor changes. One of these changes was to add in the actor who played Anakin Skywalker in the prequel trilogy. Without viewing the prequel trilogy, you would have no idea who this character is supposed to be, or why he was there. 

Enter Machete Order. Machete Order was a method for watching the Star Wars saga introduced in 2011. To ensure a viewer is able to view all twists unimpeded, the Machete Order says to watch the films in this order: Episode IV, Episode V, Episode II, Episode III, Episode VI, Episode VII, Episode VIII, and Episode IX. This order keeps the story as Luke’s character arc. Episode I is effectively cut because it is irrelevant to Luke’s journey. 

Where do the other films fit in?

The Skywalker saga isn’t the only Star Wars story available in the expanded universe. Disney has also released Rogue One, a film focused on the events that kick off the original trilogy, and Solo, a film focused on smuggler Han Solo before he met Luke and Obi Wan Kenobi. Currently, Disney is producing The Mandalorian, a show on their new Disney+ streaming platform focused on a bounty hunter after the fall of the Evil Empire.

These films are not necessary to the Skywalker series, but if you want to experience the entire galaxy far, far away all at once, these films fit in nicely with the other films. Solo and Rogue One take place prior to the events of Episode IV, A New Hope, with Rogue One ending right at the start of Episode IV. The Mandalorian takes place five years after the events of Episode XI, Return of the Jedi.

While these three Star Wars properties do allude to elements in the original trilogy, they can stand as independent films or shows on their own and have no plot points that are essential to the nine film Skywalker saga. But no matter how you choose to watch it, there’s no doubt Star Wars is beloved by a wide array of people all over the world.