Star Wars is generational. The stories are generational, and now we have a second, and even third generation being brought up as fans. This leads to this unending question of "how do I introduce my children to Star Wars?" Which has lead to all sorts of theories and concepts.
Now, to preface, I am, in no way, trying to tell anyone how the saga is "supposed to be watched." I think that every fan is free to experience the films as they wish. However, I am fascinated by this fixation on how to introduce a new viewer to the Star Wars universe, and what each theory seems intent upon achieving.
I'm going to focus on just one today, although there have been several put forward. The so-called "Machete Order." Which basically suggests you watch the saga in this order.
Episode IV: A New Hope
Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back
Episode II: The Attack of the Clones
Episode II: The Revenge of the Sith
Episode VI: The Return of the Jedi
Episode I: The Phantom Menace is completely eliminated, and the other two prequels are treated as a "flashback" of sorts. The reasoning is something along the lines of this (sourced here):
As I mentioned, this creates a lot of tension after the cliffhanger
ending of Episode V. It also uses the original trilogy as a framing
device for the prequel trilogy. Vader drops this huge bomb that he’s
Luke’s father, then we spend two movies proving he’s telling the truth,
then we see how it gets resolved. The Star Wars watching experience gets
to start with the film that does the best job of establishing the Star
Wars universe, Episode IV, and it ends with the most satisfying ending,
Basically, as far as I can reason, this whole thing is in service to three things:
1 - Keeping the saga focused on Luke
2 - Maintaining the "I am your father" reveal.
3 - Eliminating the unimportant Episode I
Essentially, "this is what I, as a first-generation Star Wars fan, think is important, based on the experience I had with these films."
Here's my bottom-line problem, especially in terms of "how to introduce Star Wars to my kids?"with "Machete Order." You've basically rigged the game to make sure that your kids will have the exact same experience you did. Children should have their own experience with Star Wars.
Take the desire to keep things focused on Luke, which is point 1. It's a generational saga, with each chapter having it's own characters for kids to bond with. In ten, fifteen years, there will likely be a generation who think that Star Wars is REALLY about Rey and Finn and Poe, and that Luke, Han and Leia were just there to set up the "real story."
The saga works the way it does because each generation should have their own heroes, and the expansion of the lead roles beyond white dudes with The Force Awakens is a testament to that. Don't pigeonhole the enterprise to the characters you identified with first, because each kid, each viewer, should have their opportunity to grab hold of their own heroes.
I've shown the saga to people, who've never seen it before, in chronological order. I'm going to tell you what I observed. There was an investment in Anakin as both a hero, and as a soul who needed redemption. There was an investment in Luke as the heir of a power and birthright that he never really understands....
Until Vader reveals their relationship. Which addresses point 2. It's a powerful, powerful moment no mater what information you have before hand. It's either one scene of surprise, or almost a full two movies of suspense. The audience knows, but Luke doesn't...and that can be just as powerful as learning something with a character.
I'll let Alfred Hitchcock explain (source):
"Let's suppose that there is a bomb underneath this table between us. Nothing happens, and then all of a sudden, "Boom!" There is an explosion. The public is surprised, but prior to this surprise, it has seen an absolutely ordinary scene, of no special consequence. Now, let us take a suspense situation. The bomb is underneath the table and the public knows it, probably because they have seen the anarchist place it there. The public is aware the bomb is going to explode at one o'clock and there is a clock in the decor. The public can see that it is a quarter to one. In these conditions, the same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: "You shouldn't be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!"
The newbie I showed chronological order to also read this scene as Anakin wanting to bond with his son. Asking Luke to join him wasn't just about power. Granted, it's in that same stunted, emotionally immature manner in which he woos Padme, but he's legitimately telling Luke that the Dark Side is better and more freeing. Vader has been alone, essentially, since Mustafar. Locked inside that armor, cut off from everyone he loved. Now he's reaching out to what he thinks is his only remaining blood relative. He wants his son by his side.
That may not be the gut-punch reveal that we got in 1980 (and even then, I, personally, wrote it off as a lie), but it's not undramatic. There's still a myriad of emotions on call...no mater which character you bonded with. Bottom line, it plays either way, based on what the audience knows.
Now, I get it. I get it that people hate this movie, I get that they feel betrayed by it, I get that they hate Jar-Jar Binks. I admit, I don't feel that strongly negative about it, and I could also make the argument that the three-way cutting of the final battle(s) is the strongest editing work in the entire saga. I acknowledge that all the films in the first trilogy have problems, but they are not valueless.
However, I think the argument that the film "adds nothing" to the overall story arc is not really correct. First off, I think seeing Anakin before he enters the Jedi order, a life beholden to Watto, is important. I think seeing the council turn him away, and then grudgingly allow his training, is important. Not to mention admitting that he is the chosen one, which is, IMHO, the psychological trigger for almost all Anakin's problems and eventual fall. I think seeing that Obi-Wan is not the best person to train him (tell me that Obi-Wan doesn't give in to anger to defeat Darth Maul) is important. Seeing how Anakin leaves his mother is important in framing what happens in Episode II.
Not to mention, that it's within The Phantom Menace that we see the dysfunction of both the Jedi Order/Council and the Republic Senate most clearly. The seeds of Palpatine's rise are not in some Machiavellian plot, though he is manipulating events, but in the exploitation of the corruption and bureaucracy that was already well underway. It's a demonstration that the "golden age" that is spoken about in Episodes IV, V and VI is yet another example of Obi-Wan's discussion of "point of view."
All of that isn't covered in the scroll of Episode II, except in the most cursory and incredibly brief way. On top of that, as any writer will tell you, it's better to show than to tell. So, I think there is much information here that informs what comes after.
Now, I offer this not as evidence that chronological order is "better," only that it can provide it's own rewards, rewards that maybe your child, or any audience, should be allowed to discover for themselves. Many already have, and their love for Star Wars is as strong as yours or mine. Likewise, there are other viewing orders that can illuminate structural and storytelling intricacies.
I've considered watching the films in a I-IV-II-V-III-VI progression, in order to see the way the trilogies reference each other. I'll also speak out for watching the films as silent movies, which Lucas always claimed they were most like. That is an illuminating experience, though I've not watched the whole saga that way (I wish there was an isolated score track on the Blu-Rays for that purpose). The possibilities are myriad.
My only agenda with this piece is to encourage that, we, as the "original" fans of the franchise, resist imposing our experience on those who come after. Even the term "prequel" suggests subservience. The Star Wars universe, now under the aegis of Disney, is going to continue far beyond the lives of it's first-generation fans. Now is the time to accept that our experience will never be the universal one. Now is the time to let the succeeding generations have their own experiences.