Warning: This article contains spoilers for Star Wars: The Force Awakens
While opinions on the film vary, Star Wars: The Force Awakens seems to have generally thawed the icy, Hoth-like desolation left with purists after the Star Wars prequel trilogy. Apropos to its title, by utilizing a lively set of newcomers and evoking the proper memories and classic characters of the epochal Original Trilogy, director J.J. Abrams incited a still relevant but mostly hibernating franchise to finally awaken.
So, where does all of the current box-office-obliterating fanfare leave those prequel movies that, thus far, still serve as the live-action directorial swan song of the legendary creator George Lucas? Are they still relevant to a movie-going public currently enamored with Rey, Finn and the mercurial Kylo Ren? Will the new property stewards at Disney slowly chip away at the canonical significance of those Millennial-raising movies until they’re left as innocuous as the myriad Expanded Universe novels, comics and video games?
Well, the short answer to that question is no. While the trio of 1999-2005 films that similarly worked the public up into a Star Wars frenzy are now remembered for a dubious distinction with characters like the exasperating stumblebum Jar Jar Binks and mythology-molesting plot points like midi-chlorians, it could be argued that their standing in the continuity has actually been enhanced by the events in The Force Awakens.
While the film’s prequel connections may merely be conceptual, they could be compelling enough to view those movies through a more flattering lens. So, without any further yapping on my part, let’s identify those concepts!
An impressionable Force-sensitive youth seduced by the Dark Side
Even most detractors of the Star Wars prequels are thankful those films yielded Darth Maul, the poster boy villain for The Phantom Menace who awed audiences even back in the film’s initial teaser trailer. While his quick demise left little chance to delve into his backstory or the deeper recesses of his psyche, the film did seem to imply that the young Zabrak Sith apprentice to the elusive would-be Emperor, Darth Sidious, was mentally malleable. Indeed, the secret meeting we witness between Sidious and Maul in which the eager-to-please apprentice vows a “revenge” against the Jedi for apparently ancient offenses seem to contain all the tell-tale signs of indoctrination.
Likewise, in The Force Awakens, the seemingly desperate attempts from the young, aimless Kylo Ren to find purpose has led him into the sinister Dark Side scholarship of the mysterious Supreme Leader Snoke. However, unlike Maul, who seems to have fully consumed the red-bladed Kool-Aid, the Dark Side dalliances of Kylo Ren, née Ben Solo seem to be a desperate, aimless solution to his mysterious desire to resist the allure of the Light Side. It makes him a bit of a contradiction in terms of our previous understanding of the seductive nature of the Dark Side of the Force.
The stoic, helmeted overseer of a fearsome army
Despite the creation of the Clone Army occurring under nebulous circumstances, even the Jedi Council ultimately agreed with the wisdom of the Kamino cloners in using the cunningly skillful bounty hunter, Jango Fett, as the Republic army’s genetic template. As the armored, austere poster boy attraction of Attack of the Clones, Jango walked a complex dynamic; having provided both DNA and elaborate combat training for the Republic army, all while secretly colluding with the Separatist Alliance whose army they would meet on the battlefield.
In The Force Awakens, the chrome-clad Captain Phasma was an equally tough overseer of the First Order’s army of conscripted Stormtroopers. She’s a woman of few words, who, in an oddly-liberated manner, shunned any semblance of femininity. She is also depicted as a ruthless and astute taskmaster who will not tolerate even a modicum of insubordination and immediately identifies Stormtrooper Finn’s wavering of the cause. However, poor Phasma didn't end up with much else to do in TFA. Yet, like the dueling loyalties of Jango, it’s also possible that by casting Gwendoline Christie as Phasma, best known for playing the cause-conflicted knight, Brienne of Tarth in Game of Thrones, new layers (and loyalties) to the Captain’s character could also come to light in the later films.
A sinister figure hidden in the shadows
An often-overlooked idea regarding the prequel trilogy launch is that the elusive Darth Sidious is the title character of The Phantom Menace. While Star Wars aficionados in 1999 mostly saw through this oblique angle, Menace did not openly address the fact that the hologram-happy Sith Lord and the sneaky Senator Palpatine were one and the same. Thus, Sidious’ machinations in planting seeds for galactic civil war and sending his deadly duel-bladed apprentice Darth Maul to make a slick Sith coming out party to the Jedi conveyed an agenda that was still as cloaked as the duplicitous puppet master, himself.
The Force Awakens echoes this dynamic with Supreme Leader Snoke. While the actual reasons why the conflicted Kylo Ren came into his tutelage were not specifically revealed, it was abundantly clear, even in this initial appearance, that the crossguard-saber-swinger is being led astray for a greater malevolent purpose. Like Sidious in Menace, the grand agenda of the reclusive super-sized-hologram enthusiast, Snoke, while obviously Dark-Side-centric and concerned with the film’s eponymous “awakening” of the Force, is not yet clear. Also like Sidious, the manipulative Snoke could ultimately have a climactic, carnage-inducing emergence in the subsequent films.
A golden, prosthetic robot hand
In keeping with the parameters of George Lucas’ often-quoted, trilogy-paralleling “poetry,” Attack of the Clones saw Anakin Skywalker lose his focus AND his arm in a lightsaber duel with Count Dooku, prompting the subsequent installation of a robotic, golden, prosthetic limb. Indeed, the epiphany-inspiring moment for Luke in Return of the Jedi, revealing the freshly-chopped robot hand of Anakin was meant to symbolize Darth Vader’s gradual loss of humanity, foreshadowing the same for Luke. The symbolism of the hand’s appearance in Clones during Anakin’s secret wedding to Padmé was also quite clear in that respect.
In The Force Awakens, Rey, after finding Anakin/Luke’s iconic blue-bladed lightsaber, got hit with a monumental amount of Force-peyote, inspiring a montage of imagery; notably the sight of a cloaked figure in Resistance garb, sporting a similar golden robotic hand with R2-D2. Indeed, by the closing moments of the film, the figure’s identity was confirmed as the MacGuffinized Luke Skywaker, who is seen sporting that gilded hand, now stripped of its formerly fancy synthetic flesh. In keeping with the recurring theme of losing one’s humanity, it’s possible the current Anakin-like state of Luke’s hand says something about what he’s become.
Disenchantment with institutions
Despite having moments of strength and determination worthy of a queen, Padmé Amidala’s actions in the prequels made her come across as a wishy-washy wunderkind whose penchant for only seeing things as they should be eventually cost her life when it came to her Dark-Side-embracing hubby. However, her key line in Revenge of the Sith setting the stage for Palpatine's abrupt “reorganization" of the Senate into First Galactic Empire, "What if the democracy we thought we were serving no longer exists and the Republic has become the very evil we've been fighting to destroy?" seemed to be the comprehensive ethos of the Prequel Trilogy, also foreshadowing the formation of the Rebellion.
By the time we get to the First Order/Resistance struggle in The Force Awakens, the defiant seeds of doubt and disenchantment we saw in Padmé seemed to reside in the conscience-tortured Stormtrooper, Finn in his fateful decision to go AWOL in an epic way. Unwillingly conscripted into the First Order and made into a child soldier who might have actually believed in their cause for a time, Finn notably expressed his rebellious spark with his line stating that, “I was raised to do one thing…but I’ve got nothing to fight for.” It’s an equally profound declaration of disenchantment on his part.
The banner of Sebulba on Maz Kanata's castle
Wedged into the plot by way of a rather shaky premise, the elaborately sequenced pod race from The Phantom Menace was still an exciting injection of adrenaline. Yet, the stakes of this particular hover sprint may evoke memories of Sylvester Stallone arm-wrestling for custody of his son in his 1987 epic, Over the Top since they happened to be over the emancipation from slavery for nine year-old Anakin Skywalker! Amongst the competition, young Anakin’s primary threat was the dastardly, deceitful Dug, Sebulba, whom, despite the rogue’s cheating, he eventually defeated.
One of several fan-servicing Easter Eggs in the wide shot of Maz Kanata’s banner-covered castle in The Force Awakens, was the briefly-seen yellow symbol on red banner that represented Sebulba, preserved for posterity several decades later. While its meaning is obviously open to interpretation, this reference to a mostly inconsequential figure re-ups the canonical place of the generally-ignored Prequel films. Moreover, it could also imply that the fateful Boonta Eve Classic race in which Anakin won his freedom is still widely remembered in places well beyond that dusty, arid arena in Mos Espa on Tatooine.
An ascetic upbringing in the desert
In The Phantom Menace, little Anakin “Ani” Skywalker was a prodigious child gearhead working in a Tatooine garage, owned as a slave along with his mother by the winged stereotype, Watto. Nothing about his life from the very beginning was ever explained to him. Unlike for Luke later on, no one even had the courtesy to concoct an inspirational lie. Plus, save for Ani’s alleged divine conception, his future was not exactly auspicious. With little temptation for our would-be hero to stray in any one direction, he remained a mostly clean slate until Qui-Gon Jinn and Padmé Amidala stumbled into his life.
While his less Force-attuned twin sister, Leia Organa was raised in royal splendor, Luke Skywalker found himself stuck in the same arid, ass-end of the galaxy as Anakin. However, unlike his dad, Luke was only a slave to his chores and he was stimulated by news from the outside and influenced by friends like Biggs and Wedge. However, in The Force Awakens, Rey’s seemingly solitary existence, barely making a living as a scavenger on the desert planet of Jakku seemed, like Anakin, to have more personally profound implications. These linkages could be another angle that corroborates speculation that Rey is, indeed, the child of Luke Skywalker; a potentially powerful Force-attuned child left in ascetic isolation for her own good.
A Jedi voice from the far past suddenly interjects
Obi-Wan’s martyred mentor, Qui-Gon Jinn from The Phantom Menace learned how to become one with the Force after the death of his physical body. However, circumstances prevented Liam Neeson from returning onscreen as his Jedi Spirit. While this angle was later explored in Star Wars: The Clone Wars, astute moviegoers deciphered Qui-Gon’s continued Ppequel presence in Attack of the Clones as a distressed disembodied voice during Anakin Skywalker’s revenge-fueled slaughter of Tusken Raiders; also heard by a meditative Yoda. Unfortunately, in Revenge of the Sith, the payoff for this slow-burn storyline culminated only with a line of labored expositional dialogue from Yoda to Obi-Wan, offering to teach him these plane-crossing tricks that they would each utilize decades later in the Original Trilogy.
Things got similarly existential for Rey in The Force Awakens during revelatory visions experienced after touching the lightsaber once belonging to Anakin and Luke. Amongst some residual dialogue from Luke and Yoda, was the voice Obi-Wan Kenobi, provided by some clever editing of Alec Guinness's voice and prequel star, Ewan McGregor, saying “‘Rey...these are your first steps.” While Rey hearing relevant lines from the past is feasible, the idea of Obi-Wan, who she never met, directly addressing her with part of the line referencing entry into “a much larger world” famously dropped on Luke might be a clue directly related to her origin/legacy.
A dubious legacy inspired through helmets
For all the stoic gun-slinging badassery displayed by Jango Fett in Attack of the Clones, including taking Obi-Wan to the limit and the killing of Jedi Master Coleman Trebor, the treacherous Bounty Hunter had a genuine soft side when it came to his unaltered cloned “son,” Boba Fett. However, that all came to an end during the film’s climactic Battle of Geonosis, when Mace Windu’s purple lightsaber cleanly removed Jango’s head. After the carnage subsided, a lost, devastated young Boba is seen with his forehead pressed against his late father’s helmet, clearly contemplating vengeance and the perpetuation of a notorious bounty hunting legacy.
Likewise, legacies seem to be a constant fixation when it comes to the Dark-Side-directed Kylo Ren in The Force Awakens. Having somehow acquired the funeral-pyre-charred helmet of his late Sith Lord grand-daddy, Darth Vader, Kylo talks to the mangled memento as a source of inspiration, vowing to not only “finish what you started,” but uses it as a reminder of the perils of being seduced by the Light Side, to which Vader ultimately succumbed out of love for his son (Kylo’s uncle and former mentor), Luke Skywalker. Much like the paternally-deprived Boba Fett, Kylo Ren seems to think the answer to his ambivalence lies in emulating someone else’s sinister paradigm. Whether that means Kylo will also end up unceremoniously plummeting into a Sarlacc Pit remains to be seen.
“A prophecy that misread, could have been”
Either because of his intuition with the Force or an unproductive enthusiasm for Pod Race gambling, Qui-Gon Jinn really put himself out there, declaring young Anakin Skywalker to be the “Chosen One,” prophesized in ancient Jedi lore to be born from the Force to destroy the Sith and restore balance in times of despair. While Anakin’s deplorable actions in Revenge of the Sith temporarily invalidated that theory, he eventually did live up to his Sith-slaying billing in Return of the Jedi when, as Darth Vader, paternal love gave him strength to resist the Dark Side and toss the evil Emperor Palpatine down the core of the Second Death Star. Thus, Qui-Gon got to gloat in the afterlife ether, right?
Well, the Force certainly doesn’t appear “in balance” by the time we get to The Force Awakens. Militant fascism has become a new retro thing with the First Order, influenced by an elusive, powerful, Dark-Side-attuned puppet master in Supreme Leader Snoke. Plus, his manic apprentice, Kylo Ren, a volatile cocktail of powerful Skywalker blood, Naboo royalty and scruffy-looking nerfherders, is wreaking heartless havoc across the galaxy. Indeed, things are as tumultuous as they’ve ever been! However, Kylo’s depicted internal struggle to avoid Vader’s “failure” to resist the Light Side, culminating in a pusillanimous patricide, seems to foreshadow unpredictable actions in the future that could ultimately fulfill the prophecy in Anakin’s name.
Have an interesting take of your own when it comes to the Prequels and The Force Awakens? Head down to the comments section and express them before the Guavian Death Gang and Kanjiklub come looking!