The New New Hope for Star Wars – Why the current trilogy is worthy of The New Hope trilogy but The Phantom Menace still isn’t

maureen

In 1977 Star Wars: A New Hope hit cinemas and started the successful Star Wars film franchise. Sixteen years later writer-director George Lucas, who also wrote and directed A New Hope, Empire Strikes Back (1980), and Return of the Jedi (1983) numbered IV, V, and VI had the advantage of better special effects technology, but The Phantom Menace, numbered I is by far the worst of the Star Wars films. After that one standing in line for the midnight show didn’t seem like an imperative anymore.  The shine was off the star for me and II and III did little to restore the shine. Then 2015’s The Force Awakens gave back the shine and 2017’s The Last Jedi brought back the whole vibe that made the New Hope trilogy so great. (To avoid confusion I don’t want to use “first trilogy.”)

The Force Awakens was written by  J.J. Abrams,  Lawrence Kasden, who helped write Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, and Michael Arndt.  The last time we saw them Leia, Han, and Luke were young and dancing the victory dance with the Ewoks.  Now Leia is a badass commander, Han becomes sacrificial hero, and we get a cameo of Luke the Angsty Jedi refusing his role in the story for years.

Luke’s origin story in the New Hope is classic monomyth, the narrative pattern that so influences writer and director George Lucas. That trilogy is a truly great Hero’s Journey story told well. And the audience is taken along for the journey. Abrams follows the same narrative pattern for Rey but her character and plot line are not at all a rehash of Luke’s. Abrams makes travelling with her on this journey exciting and fun.

Though an orphan like Luke, Rey is female, on her own, of unknown parentage, and develops her powers independent of a true mentor, although Leia and Maz Kanata offer a few pointers in The Force Awakens. Even in The Last Jedi Rey doesn’t get the true Jedi mentor experience from Luke that Luke gets from Obi-Wan Kenobi or Anakin gets from  Qui-Gon-Jinn. She’s much more alone and independent.

As he picks up the story Rian Johnson infuses more energy and humor and a less rigid adherence to Empire Strikes Back’s narrative structure into The Last Jedi. Overall the plot and character development, action sequences, and exposition were well balanced and logically sequential, but for me it’s the tone, pacing, and humor along with everything about character and narrative that failed about The Phantom Menace that The Last Jedi restores to the franchise.

 

It could be argued that parallels between New Hope/Empire and Force Awakens/Last Jedi are derivative but I feel like most of them are homages or a result of the natural plot progressions and character types that happen in writing an archetypical journey. Rather than offering up one new character to be Han to Rey’s Luke, Poe Dameron is the talented, rules-challenging anti-hero while Finn’s storm trooper with a conscience shifts from villain to secondary hero. Han, Dameron and Finn all look great holding blasters. Which matters in a franchise like this. And Kylo Ren is a great antagonist. The connection between Rey and and Kylo Ren is as intriguing and complicated as the one between Luke and Vader/Anakin. I’ll go out on a limb and say I think Kylo Ren is a more interesting antagonist than Anakin.

There are more parallels between IV, V, and VI and VII and VIII. Like Obi-Wan, Luke is the conflicted, reluctant mentor. Like Luke, Kylo Ren meets his father on a bridge and kills him. Both trilogies have cute little droids with important messages. Both feature bars with funny looking alien lowlifes. Like Yoda, bar owner Maz Kanata is a tiny, wise Jedi Master. Both trilogies have the basic secondary imperial commander with slightly emaciated faces who looks vaguely like a Nazi and falls victim to the resident Dark Side Jedi’s mind control.  Both feature planets inhabited by cute cuddly creatures, but the Porgs seems much more like merchandise-friendly Disney add-ons. They are no Ewoks but at least they aren’t Jar Jar Binks.

Lucas explains that he recognized that there were problems with The Phantom Menace, but it was “too late” to fix them. Money and schedules are factors in making any film, but whatever went wrong is squarely on Lucas since it’s his story, his script, and he directed. Maybe I, II, and III are why Lucas let someone else do VII, VIII, and IX. I get that Anakin’s downward spiral into the Dark Side is a harder journey to sell than Luke’s ascent to Jedi. Anakin’s sacrifice and redemption moments are so brief in Return of the Jedi  that it’s easy to forget that The Phantom Menace trilogy is just the first part of Anakin’s journey. Still, I don’t think I was supposed to find Amidala as annoying as I did through all three films in the trilogy. And no matter what Lucas says, there is no way to explain or excuse Jar Jar Binks. I think the major problem I have with I, II, and III is that they weren’t fun. Maybe that’s my problem with Amidala. She’s no fun.  It wouldn’t be sacrilege to remake a version of Anakin’s origin story worthy of the Star Wars universe.

Originally uber Star Wars fan Abrams said he only wanted to do the one movie because “if it worked it was a perfect time to step down – and if it didn’t no one would want me to do it anyway.” Why Abrams would be worried about messing anything up after I II and III, I have no idea. Now Rian Johnson has been offered the opportunity to write and direct an entirely new Star Wars trilogy in a different far far away galaxy. Meanwhile Disney parted ways with Colin Trevorrow who was originally hired to do IX, Johnson turned it down, so Abrams is back for 2019’s Episode IX. The Force Awakens was good, Johnson left the franchise in good shape. The real challenge for the writers is going to be Leia. I have great hope that Abrams can be trusted to deliver a solid, shiny resolution for the Skywalker Saga; and great hope for whatever Rian Johnson comes up with for his new trilogy set far far away, maybe on Canto Bight.

 


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