Today is a very special day in geek culture, unless you're a Trekkie. May 4th is universally known as Star Wars day by the series's many, may fans. A day when we can all come together and celebrate a media franchise that started off as a love letter to old-school sci-fi serials, and quickly became a way of manipulating children into buying far too many toys.
Thanks to the, erm, 'unique' nature of Star Wars' release, part four came out 22 years before part one. The originals were supposed to be their own thing, with George Lucas originally deciding to begin work a set of sequels. Then he changed his mind and opted for a prequel trilogy, which now means there are a number of different ways fans can enjoy the adventures of the Skywalker clan.
So let's take a quick run though four of the most obvious ones.
The Release Order
IV, V, VI, I, II, III, (CW), VII, R1
One of the easiest ways to go about it is to watch the films as they were originally released. Anybody who watched the original trilogy before 1999 (the year The Phantom Menace was released) will have watched the films this way, and if it's good enough for them it's good enough for you.
For a semi-purist who doesn't mind watching the prequels or Disney films, this is probably the best way to go. Just sit down, chill out, and watch Star Wars the way Uncle George first delivered it. Although you will have to deal with the fact that he doesn't want you seeing them as they originally appeared, instead filling his films with extra stuff nobody asked for and not fixing the actual production mistakes.
The Clone Wars is in brackets here because it doesn't quite fit as a film. It is a full-length film that had its own cinema release, but it's basically just three episodes of the TV series spliced together. Feel free to watch it if you want to, but on its own it doesn't fit in very well with Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith, and you'll probably feel obligated to watch all 121 episodes to see where things end up. The series is worth a watch if you like Star Wars, though, especially since it's much better at telling Anakin's story than the films.
The Chronological Order
I, II, (CW), III, R1, IV, V, VI, VII
This one is obvious, and it's the way George Lucas would prefer you watch his films. Release schedule be damned, he decided this is the way it should be and that's that. It kind of makes sense, you're watching one big story from beginning to end so it makes sense that you'd start off at the very beginning rather than cherrypicking.
The downside with this method, however, is that the big twists are spoiled for anyone who hasn't seen the films before. Damn near everyone knows that Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker's father at this point, but the reveal isn't quite as intense if you're specifically told that Darth Vader is/was Anakin Skywalker from the get go. You also know that Leia is Luke's Twin sister three films in advance, which detracts from the reveal in Return of the Jedi and makes the kiss on Hoth extra specially awkward.
You get the whole Palpatine-is-a-Sith-Lord reveal to compensate, but it's hardly the same as discovering the main villain was secretly the hero's father all along.
Again, like the release order, The Clone Wars is in brackets because it doesn't really fit into the main film series. It's a TV show that ended up debuting on the big screen, and is probably best treated as such.
The "George Lucas and Disney Can Go to Hell" Order
Theatrical Cuts of IV, V, VI
This one is pretty simple. If you consider yourself a 'true' Star Wars fan, you need not bother with any films released after the '80s. You're going to watch the films that are truly good, plus Return of the Jedi. None of these fancy updated graphics, aliens that are obvious racial stereotypes, or whiny emos that turn into Darth Vader. You need the original trilogy as it appeared in the cinema.
George Lucas may want you to think his latest versions are the superior Star Wars, but as the name of this order states, he can go to hell. So can Disney. How dare it purchase a lucrative brand and make more films in an attempt to boost its own profits?! It's outrageous. Utter sacrilege.
Thankfully you don't need to go shifting through charity shops and car boot sales in the hopes of finding a worn VHS boxset or the gargantuan discs they used to put films on before DVDs came along (for the kids in the audience, these are better known as 'laser discs'). You can opt for that if you must, but George Lucas did grace miniaturised digital platforms with his original work. The Unaltered Cuts came to DVD in 2006, bundled with the respective 2004 Special Edition cut. They are dubbed 'Limited Edition' but they aren't hard to find. Brand new unsealed copies are going to cost quite a bit, but you can still get opened copies in good condition. I got all three for £13, and they were basically new.
You can also hit the net looking for the 'Despecialised Editions'. These are fan-made remasters that upgrade the quality of the picture and effects as best as can be managed. It's not perfect in places, but it's the closest we're probably going to get to a proper HD version of the un-meddled Star Wars trilogy anytime soon.
The Machete Order
IV, V, II, III, VI (I)
Release order and chronological order are pretty simple to grasp. But some of you may be wondering what the Machete Order even is. It's been floating around the web for the past five or so years, and is an attempt to screen the official versions of the Star Wars films in such a way that the viewer will get the most enjoyment out of them. What might be a dealbreaker for some is that you have to avoid the theatrical versions of the original trilogy, and watch the post-2003 special editions.
The Machete Order posits that, as mentioned earlier, watching Star Wars in episode order completely ruins the twist that Vader is Luke's father as well as the fact Luke and Leia are twins. The fact that Hayden Christensen magically appears out of nowhere at the end of Return of the Jedi could also be confusing the uninitiated. So there's a compromise of sorts, while keeping the series focused on Luke's story rather than Anakin's.
So you watch A New Hope and Empire, being introduced to the world of Star Wars as so many people have been over the past 40 years. Then, following the shocking revelation that Vader is Anakin, you jump back in time as an extended flashback. This lets you see Anakin as a Jedi (sort of), his descent into the dark side, and the rise of the Empire. Then you jump back to complete the story in Return of the Jedi and deal with the cliffhangers left over at the end of Episode V.
This order also preserves the twist that Palpatine is secretly a Sith Lord, since we haven't met him at the end of Jedi yet. It also makes the twist of Luke and Leia being twins slightly more effective. There's a bit more of a shock moment to it as Padme is dying, whereas Obi Wan's ghost revealing the information in the middle of a swamp was pretty anti-climactic.
As for The Phantom Menace, you ask? It's left out of the list because it's basically irrelevant. While the film sets some things in motion, like Palpatine's rise to power and Anakin joining the Jedi Order, does knowing all that detract from the next two films? Only the scenes on Tattooine, but you can probably pick up most of the necessary information from context alone. That's why it's totally optional. If you want to watch it, fine, but do it at the very end. It's probably worth it just for Duel of the Fates with Darth Maul.
Of course a lot of Star Wars stuff has happened between November 2011 and now, but according to the originator of the Machete Order, that doesn't really change anything. The Machete Order is designed to focus on Luke's story, so unless something major changes it will remain unchanged. Any new films that get released after the fact fit in around the original Machete Order. Naturally you follow Jedi with the numbered 'saga' stories, beginning with The Force Awakens. Once you're done there you can watch the rest of Star Wars in any order you feel like. That includes Rogue One, Clone Wars, Rebels, and everything else that's headed our way in the future.
So there you are. Four ways to celebrate May the Fourth, all involving one of the most successful science fiction franchises in cinema history. Now you know all that you can go and enjoy the films in whichever way you damn well please. May the fourth be with you!