Star Wars The Force Awakens is a Phantom Menace reboot. Time to break out that Jedi Holocron. [SPOILERS]
The success of Star Wars – Episode VII: The Force Awakens began long before Walt Disney’s acquisition of George Lucas’ revered production company. When Lucas sat down in his office on November 1st, 1994, Lucasfilm inadvertently made the first steps towards creating Rey, Kylo and Finn while setting up the Prequels.
Fast-foward to 1999 when an 8-year old slave named Anakin enters the treacherous stage of pop-culture. “He can see things before they happen”, Anakin’s mother Shmi Skywalker (Lars) attests, but the opposite seems to be the case: Everyone around Anakin acts as if they had already seen the OT on VHS or Laser Disc: “He is the Chosen One!” the frustrated Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn implores as if to assure audiences they are watching a Star Wars film while it is trade disputes that deserve the Jedi’s attention. Regardless of the pressing main narrative, even the Jedi Council acknowledges the boy’s powers yet declares that Anakin is not to be trained.
The Jedi Council’s refusal to train Anakin’s unseen powers is arguably a spirited twist. The potential for dramatic turns such as Qui-Gon’s departure from the Jedi Order and Anakin’s subsequent training outside of the Order is still never realised as Lucas reserved the Chose One’s Force-enhanced entrance or any significant complications for future Prequel episodes. The consequently if intentionally passive Anakin is a de-facto proxy of the Prequel audience, disbelieving and inactive, but an avid player of Episode I Racer on the N64. Lucasfilm got around to realising Episode I’s potent and more daring narrative detours in 2015.
The Force Awakens, the sequel to 1983’s Return of the Jedi, jettisons the expected turn of events in the wake of the Empire’s demise. Against the grim background of a brutal military order threatening a galaxy devoid of Jedi, a 19-year old scavenger named Rey is drawn into the struggling resistance against the merciless First Order. The commander of these intergalactic fascists is Kylo Ren, who murdered all Jedi under Luke Skywalker’s tutelage. The former farm boy and now Jedi Master has since disappeared.
Conflict is everywhere in The Force Awakens. The focal point are character relations, which can be acted out on screen rather than referenced in expository remarks. Importantly, every single element connects to the other, thus prompting constant dramatic rearrangements as the cogs of characters begin to crank into action.
The Force Awaken’s Rey finds herself in a similar situation to Anakin’s. Subservient to a local scrap dealer on a barren desert planet, Rey is practically enslaved and destined to eek out an existence in dire circumstances. Also like Anakin, Rey is shown to have resolve and a good heart. The sequel screenplay still allows her to be as active as she is not only because of her older age, but because the film’s intentions allow every character to move freely inside the narrative to which they can consequently contribute organically. Under these promising narrative auspices, Rey’s journey astoundingly mirrors Anakin’s, albeit being differently predicated. The Force Awakens works like a prism that refracts the shining light of the Prequel era into seven familiar if refined storytelling beams.
First, instead of a pod race strangely disembodied from the Star Wars Saga, Rey and her friend Finn are running for their lives and pick a legendary space freighter to make their escape. The ensuing pursuit is akin to Anakin’s racing, yet triggered by the main events of the film and therefore crucially relevant to all the characters – the pod race would have taken place with or without the involvement of any of Episode I’s leads.
Secondly, as if to underline Anakin’s entirely ordinary nature, there is also small talk while en route to Coruscant between the boy and ace pilot Ric Olié about how to steer the Naboo ship. Olié, a character greatly elaborated on in pre-release materials, serves to justify Anakin’s spacebound shenenigans: Anakin is given instructions on screen to explain why he will become a the “greatest starfighter pilot in the galaxy”. In The Force Awakens, the unbelievable piloting skills of Rey are clearly the way of the Force – hence a magical movie moment is born, eventually played off of Han Solo’s affirmative smirk to great effect.
Thirdly, pure luck plays quite a major role in the Phantom Menace, Qui-Gon’s on-screen assertions to the contrary notwithstanding. When Anakin has finally been drawn into the main narrative, he is surrounded by deadly robots aboard the Trade Federation’s droid control ship. In appropriately childlike manner, the Chosen One launches torpedos into the enemy ship’s main reactors seemingly by accident. More than 16 years later, the Force does come to the fore far more assertively through Rey in The Force Awakens, who, take note, has also not been trained at this point in her own sequel trilogy: when Rey has been kidnapped yet manages to free herself through her emerging Force Powers, she is revealed to have already grasped how to wilfully explore her abilities further, something Luke Skywalker also did to save his life in the Wampa cave in Episode V.
The aforementioned Ric Olié raises a fourth issue. Lucasfilm went out of their way to feature the pilot from Naboo prior to the film’s release. The Phantom Menace even starts out indicating that the character – who is never addressed by name throughout Episode I – will have a more significant role to play in subsequent prequels. Towards the end though, it is of course the Force-less Anakin who must emerge the heroic pilot by the powers of Star Wars lore. Ric Olié is abandoned forever, leaving a void that could have been filled with moving character moments. The Force Awakens introduces a similar character, Poe Dameron, the “best pilot” of General Leia Organa’s “Resistance”. The fighter ace also gets attached to another main character in the Star Wars sequel, renegade Stormtrooper Finn. In contrast to The Phantom Menace however, Dameron, while a supporting character, figures prominently in the main narrative and helps establish Finn’s tortured soul as much as his amicable nature through their instant chemistry. The circumstances they find themselves in allow for most envigorating banter, so that when Poe Dameron does pass on instructions on how to operate starfighter controls, such expository bits are overpowered by the endearing interplay between the two: when Poe Dameron and Finn introduce themselves to one another by name, they immediately trigger a crucial character development for Dameron gives Finn his very first proper name in his entire life, which is an overwhelmingly touching moment. The Force Awaken’s ace pilot is a multi-purpose character, narratively speaking, primed for even greater tasks in future Star Wars episodes.
A fifth issue concerns the villains of the Prequels. The titular “phantom menace” relates to the politician Palpatine, his apprentice Darth Maul and indeed Anakin Skywalker. Although Obi-Wan Kenobi senses something “elsewhere, elusive” the moment Palpatine as his alter ego Darth Sidious grows vitriolic many lightyears away, the script has Qui-Gon reprimand Obi-Wan for letting his thoughts wander off at the beginning of their diplomatic mission. Yet this could have been a brilliant opportunity to have Kenobi probe further and uncover the Sith threat, thus setting in motion an exciting investigation that could have introduced audiences effortlessly to the minutae of Jedi/Sith mythology. George Lucas obviously structured the Prequels to remain suspenseful to audiences watching the films in their narrative sequence and thus pointed the focus as far away from the Sith as possible. In The Force Awakens, the storytelling approach is bolder: the central villain Kylo Ren is well-known around the galaxy, so is his master Snoke, the Supreme Leader of the First Order. All the Sequel characters may therefore act consciously in relation to these opponents from the first film onwards. Furthermore, it should be noted that while Qui-Gon’s renegade nature was not allowed to make him leave the Jedi Order, Kylo Ren did and let himself be trained by an outsider, leader Snoke. Kylo’s treason causes suffering and considerable friction among the ranks of heroes within the narrative frame and intriguingly roughens up the Sequel story arc for audiences.
A sixth point relates to the hero’s/heroine’s commencement of Jedi training: Anakin, strangely unrelated to the Force, seems to accept the gig in the Jedi Temple at the end of Episode I because he will get to see planets and stuff as a Jedi – seemingly according to an off-screen brochure. Rey, on the other hand, enters Luke’s tutelage at the end of The Force Awakens when she has already matured into a capable Force user within the running time of a single motion picture by virtue of the Force itself calling out to her to do so: priceless movie magic once again!
Luke Skywalker’s dramatic entry in The Force Awakens fittingly introduces the seventh and final major similarity between Episodes I and VII. One of the very best moments in the entire Prequel Trilogy is the chilling, lingering medium shot of Palpatine at Qui-Gon’s funeral. Lucas very cleverly affords audiences a haunting moment when the soundtrack is almost completely silenced for the few seconds Palpatine’s thoughts create a vacuum of fearful hopelessness. As a consequence of making the character of Darth Sidious a quasi-mystery throughout the Prequels, Lucas then can only juxtapose this flicker of cinematic brilliance with the lavish victory celebration on Naboo. The Force Awakens presents a similar shot of Jedi Master Luke Skywalker as the film’s coda but can afford to end with this moment of thought-provoking indifference. Since the entire Sequel trilogy has been set up so openly, the characters, screenwriters and the audience have a luxury of touch points with which to dramatically evolve and experience the storyline. Episode VII closes with this hopeful yet tense scene between Rey, who the Force has chosen from all the billions of beings in the galaxy, and Luke Skywalker, who has abandoned the Force to avoid even greater tragedies. This brief character moment is truly the highlight of J. J. Abrams’ foray into the Star Wars Saga.
How unintentionally the well-intentioned establishing moments and expository elements in The Phantom Menace proved ultimately somewhat inhibiting is nowhere more obvious than in the extensive dinner scene at the Skywalkers’ home where the main narrative comes to a a complete stop. The scene relies entirely on dialogue to apply to Anakin all the backstory he needs to make subsequent actions plausible. The Force Awakens constrastively dares to treat audiences to an almost elegiac visual poem of almost complete silence to establish Rey and her circumstances. Audiences are allowed to learn about her through observation, a striking foreshadowing of Luke’s appearance later on.
Anakin’s indifference towards the Force and his need to be trained to be able to attach himself to this mystical energy field in Episode I remains an interesting twist, which does pave the way for Rey’s alternate, self-taught Jedi path that may eventually have considerable bearing on the outcome of the Sequel trilogy. For the time being, the seven similarities outlined here suggest that The Force Awakens is the reboot of Episode I that could even have been the first Prequel’s final rewrite back in the mid-1990ies.