Oh, my. It’s 2006 and now you’ve decided to watch the Star Wars series but can’t understand why the 1977-1983 movies are numbered IV-VI and those that make up the current trilogy are numbered I-III.
Yes, it is a bit backwards, to be sure. But I’ll explain this as clearly as I can, okay?
When George Lucas was writing the outline for Star Wars, he ended up with enough rough material to make six movies, but the more developed part was actually the second half of the saga: the original Star Wars Trilogy. This is the Classic Trilogy that started out with Star Wars – Episode IV: A New Hope – possibly the only Star Wars film that can stand alone (despite that pesky Roman IV on the title). This film introduced the various characters and set up the conflict between the evil Empire and the heroic Rebel Alliance. The protagonist, Luke Skywalker, is a farmboy who lives on a remote planet way out in the boonies, not suspecting that he is destined to be a hero in the great struggle between good and evil. He is compelled to join the Rebellion when he joins the legendary Jedi Knight Obi-Wan Kenobi on a crucial mission. On the way he will rescue a Princess (Leia Organa) and befriend a pair of smugglers with hearts of gold (Han Solo and Chewbacca), then challenge both the evil lord Darth Vader and the Death Star, the Empire’s most powerful weapon.
Most Star Wars fans will tell you that Star Wars – Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back is the best entry in the saga. It deals with the Empire’s hardest blow against the Rebels as Imperial forces led by the evil Darth Vader drive Alliance forces out of their latest hidden base and scatters the heroes from Episode IV in different directions. Luke is sent off to train as the last of the Jedi Knights under the tutelage of Yoda; Princess Leia, Han Solo, and Chewbacca seek refuge from imperial forces and bounty hunters; and overshadowing everything, Vader’s quest to capture Luke influences all the plot strings.
The Saga concludes with Star Wars – Episode VI: Return of the Jedi . Some fans might quibble about some aspects of the movie, namely the Ewoks (cute but fierce teddy bears), but all the plot threads from the first two entries in the Classic trilogy are neatly tied up. The Emperor seeks to convert Luke Skywalker to the Dark Side and crush the Rebellion with a new Death Star. But a spark of Anakin Skywalker remains within Darth Vader and in the end, sacrifices his life to save his son’s. Thus, Luke becomes a Jedi (and discovers that Leia is his twin sister), a fallen hero is redeemed, and good conquers evil.
The prequels tell the tragic story of Luke and Leia’s father, Anakin Skywalker, and the fall of the Galactic Republic. Set 32 years before Episode IV, Star Wars – Episode I: The Phantom Menace introduces Anakin as a 9-year-old boy who, like his mother Shmi, is a slave on the desert planet Tatooine. Like his son Luke in A New Hope, Anakin’s encounter with a Jedi Knight will determine both his own and the galaxy’s fate. For Anakin has great potential in the Force…for both good and evil. In The Phantom Menace, Anakin will meet Padme Amidala and Obi-Wan Kenobi, who in this Episode is still an apprentice Jedi. The bonds Anakin forges with both will shape his destiny.
Star Wars – Episode II, Attack of the Clones is set 10 years after The Phantom Menace and takes Anakin, Padme, Obi-Wan further down the path to the Prequel Trilogy’s much anticipated dark conclusion. The Republic’s decline is now irreversible, and the dark forces (Supreme Chancellor Palpatine, Count Dooku, and a coalition of greedy industrialists) responsible for the rise of the Empire have subverted the democratic institutions from within.
The evil scheme of the Sith Lord Darth Sidious to subvert the Republic and turn Anakin Skywalker to the Dark Side of the Force comes to fruition in Star Wars – Episode III: Revenge of the Sith.
Starting with what seems to be the daring rescue of an “abducted” Supreme Chancellor Palpatine from an enemy starship, Episode III reveals the Clone Wars that have split the galaxy in two as being nothing more than a gigantic trap for the Jedi Order. Here Darth Sidious reveals himself at last, using both his dedicated apprentice Count Dooku as a sacrificial pawn and his knowledge of Anakin’s inner turmoil – his love for Padme Amidala and his ambition to be the most powerful Jedi ever – to turn him into Darth Vader. A dark and violent film, to be sure, but its final scenes form an ellipsis that leads into A New Hope.
Timeline of the Star Wars films
(A New Hope is Year 0. Therefore, all dates are either before ANH or after.)
32 years before ANH: Star Wars – Episode I: The Phantom Menace
22 years before ANH: Star Wars – Episode II: Attack of the Clones
18 years before ANH: Star Wars – Episode III: Revenge of the Sith
0 years before ANH: Star Wars – Episode IV: A New Hope
3 years after ANH: Star Wars – Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back
4 years after ANH: Star Wars – Episode VI: Return of the Jedi