Opinion: Is The Phantom Menace More Ambitious Than The Force Awakens?

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Unless you’ve been in a vacuum in 2015, you’ll be aware about the release of ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’. The critics are on board, as are the fans, as a majority have praised director J.J. Abrams in his achievement.

Massive spoilers to follow!

But for everything that’s great about the new movie, it’s undoubtedly on safe ground. Many have noted that, while it’s not a big criticism, the structure of ‘The Force Awakens’ closely follows that of ‘A New Hope’ in several obvious ways.

What’s more, while ‘The Phantom Menace’ was universally panned for a number of glaring reasons, one could argue that George Lucas showed more ambition to tell a new ‘Star Wars’ tale than Abrams did with ‘The Force Awakens’.

Let’s look at the 1999 film to start with. Lucas admittedly got so much wrong here: the casting and indeed quality of acting, appalling dialogue and overuse of CGI really bogged this down. However, while the story was tackled with as much finesse as a Wampa in an antique shop, it’s hard to fault his passion and drive to expand upon the universe.

Significantly, the structure of the first prequel didn’t adhere to anything we’d seen before, thus feeling like more of a stab in the dark to work with little or no existing context. Instead, Lucas took elements from the universe he created and incorporated them into his new vision. Abrams, on the other hand, looked at what worked and what didn’t in the first films (and to a degree the prequels) and used its blueprint to create the latest instalment.

Does this make his attempt less ambitious that Lucas’s though?

Essentially we see the key elements of ‘A New Hope’ mirrored in ‘The Force Awakens’. Rey is the frustrated, ambitious youngster isolated on a distant planet who, after coming across a wandering BB-8 in possession of valuable information for the Rebellion, embarks on a journey to deliver said goods. So it’s fairly similar to Luke finding the distress call in R2-D2 and becoming involved in the Rebel Alliance.

It’s also a story about discovery, as Rey awakens the Force within her and learns of her destiny, the same happened to Luke way back when. Yet the way a very young Anakin discovers his destiny is rather ham-fisted.

Then we’ve got the good son turned bad in the shape of Kylo Ren and the opposition of his father Han Solo, much like Anakin’s decision to align with the dark side and have Luke try to talk him down. The good and evil elements within the families are comparable.

And there’s the ongoing Rebellion versus Empire war that sees dogfights galore and ground battles, but also the blowing up of Supreme Leader Snoke’s planetary space station, which is destroyed in a similar manner to the Death Star.

So in truth the groundwork was firmly set for Abrams to tweak and improve upon. The dialogue’s fresh and sharp, with just the right about of exposition and intrigue that invites more questions. But it’s by no means lazy. Where Lucas fails miserably with the prequels, Abrams excels to deliver minimum CGI and more practical effects, with well written dialogue and stunning set pieces weaved into a solid, engaging story - all that was lacking from the prequels.

Arguably, Lucas tries to cram so much into ‘The Phantom Menace’ that it imploded on itself: there was no one there to tell him when to stop, essentially. Sure, we see the memorable pod racing event - which does feel drawn out and a little side quest-y - but the story is all over the place and generally weak.

Is ‘The Phantom Menace’ a better film than ‘The Force Awakens’? Absolutely not, but it did, for all intents and purposes, throw a bit of a curveball in the traditional sense of the franchise’s narrative, even if it didn’t manage to pull any of it off. Lucas’s incompetence in 1999 surely distorts his strive to do something different, even it he achieved nothing he surely set out to.

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Picture credit: Lucasfilm, Disney

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