Star Wars: How The Prequel Trilogy Enhances The Force Awakens
WARNING: All Spoilers Ahead! Do not read if you have not seen The Force Awakens yet.
When it was announced that a brand new Star Wars film, as well as a new series of Star Wars episodes, was going to be released in the very near future, many people speculated that these new films would try to distance themselves from the last Star Wars outings in order to return to form, and to please the fan-base as much as possible.
Star Wars Episodes I, II, and III--ubiquitously known simply as “The Prequels,” due to their notoriety for being “bad”--are loved and appreciated by some, but are seen by others as a stain on the good name that is the Star Wars franchise: a franchise that means so much and has influenced so many things for so many people over multiple generations. So, as if it were a strict requirement, the general consensus at first--due to the fan rumor mill--was that this new Star Wars film, The Force Awakens, not only would avoid the prequels, but would renounce them as canon and move forward without much regard for what occurred in their stories.
However, this is not the case at all.
This article intends to explore the factual references towards “The Prequels” made within Episode VII, The Force Awakens, and to consider their significance in terms of what these references serve within the context of the film, and how the events of those films strengthen the overall history, mythology, and storytelling weight of the Star Wars franchise.
The Legend of Anakin Skywalker
About a third of the way through the film, hung above the doorway to Maz Kanata’s pirate bar, there are a series of flags strung from wires. These flags have been confirmed to mostly consist of Podracing Flags, seen in Episode I: The Phantom Menace, when young Anakin Skywalker enters the race to win the prize money that Qui-Gon and company will use to fix their ship, and move on out towards Coruscant. In fact, Anakin’s own flag can be seen among the others, with its blue and white design of what can be described as criss-crossing keys. It is at the top left side of the flag cluster, and is actually used twice: once upright, and once on its side.
This inclusion is very subtle, but it was also directly confirmed by director, J.J. Abrams. In an article for Rolling Stone, Abrams expresses that he actually did not want as many references to the first prequel in The Force Awakens, but ended up with them in the end.
“The flags are designed to drive superfans nuts with references to the earlier movies, but Abrams tells Guyett that too many of them allude to the first of Lucas’ prequels: ‘I don’t want to be too about podracers,’ he says. ‘I’d rather come up with our stuff.'” — Brian Hiatt & J.J. Abrams 1
When Abrams’ says that he didn’t want to be “too about podracers,” that could be a further reference to a junked podracing engine which can also be seen in the background on Jakku: when Rey, Finn, and BB-8 are running away from the First Order TIE-fighters. It would seem he did get more than he intended. This element of Anakin’s flag, however, is particularly interesting--since it was allowed to stay in the film--because throughout The Force Awakens, there is never once a mention or an acknowledgement from anyone of who Darth Vader strictly was, or what he used to be before he turned to the dark side.
As is explained more clearly in The Force Awakens novelization, Kylo Ren is aware of Vader’s early life, and is told by the omnipresent Supreme Leader Snoke, about his redemption at the end of Return of the Jedi; when he was saved and made whole again thanks to the bravery and the steadfastness of Luke Skywalker, his own son. However, because Snoke and Ren both believe this to be a deeply regrettable “failure” on the part of Vader--having failed to convert Luke to the dark side and having failed to remain on the dark side himself--Kylo Ren chooses intentionally to ONLY recognize and call to the dark spirit of Vader. Darth Vader: the most evil, calculating, and intimidating officer of the former Galactic Empire. Darth Vader: the Sith Lord who struck down the Jedi Order, and was the apprentice to the former Emperor, Darth Sidious. Darth Vader: Kylo Ren’s (true) grandfather. Ren considers Vader’s spirit a hard rock, a central point of inspiration from which to train himself to forego the light side of The Force, because Vader is such a renowned figure among the Sith Lords of old. Because he renounces the lighter side of Vader, and because every other character in the film only knew Vader as his darker form (Leia, Han, C3PO after his mind wipe, Rey when she peeked into Ren’s mind), the name, “Anakin Skywalker,” is never once uttered or written anywhere.
Therefore, the only thing that alludes to or acknowledges Darth Vader’s former life as the innocent Anakin, or indeed any of his strictly better natures, is that podracing flag. This then is the first instance where the echos of “The Prequels” within this film really kick in. This inclusion adds dimension. This inclusion adds history. It shows that the deeds characters have done linger on in small but noticeable ways. Especially when many past events aren’t as well looked upon by most of the characters.
Young Obi-Wan Kenobi
At the half-way point of The Force Awakens, there is a very beautiful and haunting sequence that occurs where Rey slowly finds her way towards a creaky old box in Maz Kanata’s cellar. Inside this box is unmistakably Luke Skywalker’s old lightsaber: the one that he lost when Darth Vader cut off his hand, and it fell into the abyss of Cloud City’s inner workings, perhaps even out into the gaseous clouds of the planet Bespin below.
As Rey touches this saber, she is instantly dropped into an intense series of visions, depicting images from when Luke confronted Vader on Cloud City, with the long trapezoidal corridor, images of Kylo Ren surrounded by dead bodies and closely followed by the other Knights of Ren, a mournful Luke Skywalker kneeling next to R2-D2, and an image of Rey herself as a young girl being dropped off on Jakku, with what appears to be her parents flying away in a small space-craft. All throughout these visions are voices from the past. Voices of those individuals who are strong with The Force, and are now part of it, calling to Rey through this saber. The clearest voice we hear is Yoda, saying “It’s Energy… surrounds us, and binds us.” However, we also hear Obi-wan Kenobi: but, not just Alec Guiness, Ewan McGregor was there too.
This is perhaps the most telling of all the allusions to “The Prequels” that The Force Awakens has. The podraceing flag of Anakin is one thing, and it can easily be added in either through the props department or the CGI animation department at Lucas Film and ILM. It’s getting an previous actor back--an actor that has had his fair share of fan bashing from his past Star Wars experiences--that’s the tricky part. Yet, it seems that in the aftermath of a recent Star Wars film announcement hoax--where an Obi-Wan film was suggested to begin production after Episode IX--Ewan McGregor said on Twitter that although the plans were currently a fake, should the plans for an Obi-Wan film ever come to fruition, he’d be happy to don the cloak again.
It has also been confirmed by a recent interview with J.J. Abrams that Ewan really did make that come-back (much earlier than expected), doing a quick voice-over recording at Bad Robot studios, directly speaking to Rey as the young version of Obi-Wan. Then, with the use of clever audio editing of sound bites from the late Alec Guiness, the voice of the older Obi-Wan can also be heard speaking directly to Rey, telling her what she needs to do and needs to begin understanding. This concept of using both a young and old version of a voice is something that Abrams and the marketing team already did for the 2nd Teaser Trailer to The Force Awakens, and it is something that directly enhances the mythology of The Force and the history of the films.
For the second teaser--which presents us with a voice-over of Luke (originally assumed to be speaking about somebody in the new film)--the marketing team took audio of Luke speaking to Leia about The Force being strong in his family (taken from Return of the Jedi), rearranged a line or two to make it read as it does, and then they brought the current Mark Hamill back in to do a dub-over track where he says the exact same lines, but in his current aged voice. Then they used that new track as a soft but haunting echo underneath the original dialogue: in essence, allowing the voice-over to “transcend” the decades that had passed between Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens.
So to see this same concept of “transcendence” be utilized in the film itself--especially with an arguably much more mythical and wise character such as Obi-Wan--is a monumental inclusion, one with numerous story and world-building implications. The most important of which is that the voice, the portrayal, and the appearance of Obi-Wan--as originally performed by Ewan McGregor (and later by voice-actor James Arnold Taylor)--is still the official young Obi-Wan Kenobi. The Force Awakens didn’t get a replacement. They didn’t ask someone else to come in and play the young version. Abrams simply asked the person who had already been cast in the role by George Lucas: allowing continuity to be maintained.
“Here’s the cool part. We asked Ewan McGregor to come in and do the line. And he was awesome and we were very grateful. He was incredibly sweet and handsome, and all that stuff. Then he rode off on his motorcycle. Literally the coolest voice over actor ever.” – J.J. Abrams 2
The meaningful thing about this “transcendence” idea, is that although the use of it for the trailer with Mark Hamill could have always happened, it could not have with Obi-Wan. Without “The Prequels,” we could still have a young Obi-Wan (perhaps later on in the new trilogy), but it would only be a “fun” or “cool” inclusion. Computer graphics could have de-aged Alec Guiness, and a voice-actor could have done a youthful imitation of his voice. However, with “The Prequels,” and The Clone Wars TV series, and the performance of Ewan McGregor, the use of a young Obi-Wan has meaning.
If “The Prequels” had never been made, there would not be an established history for who or what Obi-Wan was like before the events of A New Hope. Fans would never have had an on-screen actor cast in the younger role. Movie-goers would never have seen or felt his anger, disappointment, or sorrow with regards to the loss of his padawan, Anakin. Furthermore, audiences would never have learned about Qui-Gon, his former master: who holds such an important place in his heart, and in his conscience, guiding him with his lingering wisdom. Without all of this canonical history, there would have been no way to show a link between different times in the distant and recent past within this Force vision that Rey experiences. Nor would there be an opportunity to use similar ideas of “time fluidity” within The Force later on in the new films to the same effect.
The Original Lightsaber
Near the end of The Force Awakens, Kylo Ren has just killed his father, Han Solo. As Rey and Finn are making their way back to the Millennium Falcon, Ren catches up to them in the snowy forest of the Starkiller Base and confronts them head on, despite a bleeding stomach. After Ren Force-chokes Rey and throws her into a tree, Finn pulls out Luke’s old lightsaber, which angers Kylo Ren. At which point he demands “That lightsaber… it belongs to me!” Finn then responds, “Come get it.”
Now some viewers may not have picked up on why Kylo Ren demands that Finn give him the blue lightsaber that belonged to Luke Skywalker. Originally it belonged to Anakin Skywalker, and in the former canon of the expanded universe, it eventually was used by both Mara Jade Skywalker (Luke’s wife), and Ben Skywalker (Luke’s son). This could indicate that if a form of Mara Jade still exists in this new canon, then during Kylo Ren’s former training under Luke, he may have already seen this saber. He may recognize it by sight, and may have even used it himself, which could denote a desire to have it back. Or, he might even want it because his own lightsaber is a poor facsimile of what a saber actually looks and acts like, meaning that a “proper” saber would be far more effective than his current one. However, this latter explanation does not entirely hold up.
According to fan theories and multiple experiments based on existing ancient weaponry, Kylo Ren’s saber is actually a rather good weapon for a person like him to wield. It’s still true that it was likely built incorrectly and has a rather rudimentary housing with outward facing wires (potentially meaning that it is either a very old design, or a very uneducated design). However, its shape is far more effective than a regular saber for three reasons: 3
One, the hilt does indeed protect the hands of the user, because it does not allow for another saber to slide down past the hilt and slice the hands or wrists. Two, the hilt can and is used in the film as a dirty tactic to burn the shoulder of Finn when he and Ren have locked their sabers in place. In previous lightsaber battles, this sort of underhanded move would not have been possible. Three, the ancient sword this saber is based on is the Bastard Sword, which was intended to be most effective against heavily armored enemy troops, which should make the Kylo Ren saber all the more menacing.
It has also been shown that the hilt does not pose any immediate danger to the user of the weapon, so long as the user is skilled enough to wield it properly, which Kylo is (at least enough). The video below outlines these and other details. 4
So, if it is extremely unlikely that Kylo Ren would want Luke’s old saber in order to replace his own, what else would he want it for? If Ren simply wanted the saber to replace his own, or to take it because he knew it belonged to Luke, he might have simply said “give me that saber” or “hand over that saber.” Instead, he specifically says “That lightsaber… it belongs to ME,” denoting a sense of rightful ownership. Of course, who else owned that weapon? Anakin Skywalker.
The strange thing is, it was established in the original film from 1977 that Obi-Wan said “Your father wanted you to have this when you were old enough, but your uncle wouldn’t allow it.” Which would mean that Anakin had given Obi-Wan the saber before he became Darth Vader. This would then mean that the saber isn’t directly tied with the exploits of Vader, thus why should Kylo Ren want a saber that has only been wielded by a Jedi? However, when writing “The Prequel” films, George Lucas wasn’t much of a personal researcher when it came to keeping things consistent between the original three films and his new prequel trilogy. As a result, Anakin never did tell Obi-Wan to give Luke that saber. In the now established canon, Anakin actually used that saber all throughout the events of Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, when he was Darth Vader. 5
It’s the saber that he used to cut off the head of Count Dooku. It’s the saber that he used against Mace Windu, when Chancellor Palpatine showed off the full strength of his Sith powers, and then pledged his allegiance to Palpatine (Darth Sidious). It’s the saber that Anakin used to kill all of the Jedi in the temple, as well as the padawan younglings up in the Council meeting room. It is also the very saber that he used when he dueled against his master, Obi-Wan, atop that mining platform on the planet of Mustafar, renouncing everything that was Anakin Skywalker, and becoming one of the greatest Sith Lords ever known.
These established facts--which would not have existed in the modern official canon without “The Prequels”--means that the saber we see locked away in that chest when Rey discovers it, the very same saber that Obi-wan pulled out of that box at his home and handed to Luke, the same saber that Luke used to confront his Father for the first time on Cloud City, is also the saber that Anakin Skywalker used to destroy the Jedi Order, and renounce his allegiance to the light side of The Force.
Not in the whole of the Star Wars film and TV franchise has there been a single item with more blood, more sorrow, and more history locked away inside it. This lightsaber is a troubled object. A weapon of justice that was used to commit despicable acts of violence and destruction. And yet, when wielded by the right spirit, when held by the right hands, and when swung by someone who can differentiate between the light and the dark, it is no less useful, and can be a powerful ally. All of these things may be why the saber is so important. This may be why Rey is at first scared of it, but also why she is able to take down Kylo Ren as well as she did once she tapped into The Force. Furthermore, this is likely why Kylo Ren wants the saber so badly: because it may contain some sort of lingering presence of the furry, the rage, and the heartless and ruthless nature of a Sith Lord deep inside of it: at least as far as Ren is concerned.
Curiously, this dark history of the saber could also be why when Rey climbs the steps to meet Luke at the end of the film, we don’t hear the Luke Skywalker theme (at first), but a slow and mysterious rendition of Vader’s theme. Some might not even notice this musical inclusion, or at least not notice its significance. However, it would appear, based on all that has been explored here, that rather than suggest that Luke has turned to the Dark Side, or is conflicted in someway between the dark and the light within himself (thus his chosen exile to this remote location), the use of the Vader theme might actually suggest that this is the theme of the Saber, the looming shadow, the lost and forgotten echo of the horrible deeds and atrocities committed by Anakin Skywalker as he became Darth Vader, as well as the moment where Luke lost Ben Solo to the Dark Side, thus becoming Kylo Ren (especially if Kylo had held the saber during his training).
To Luke, perhaps more-so than us, this saber might seem like a cursed object--a weapon which holds the memories, the turmoil, and the despicable acts of men torn from those that they loved, and twisted into something that they should never have become. Now this fabled blade has found its way back to its second master. The power and presence of Vader lives on, and Luke may not be sure if he’s ready to confront it once again.
“The Prequels” Live On
These references to “The Prequels” that can be found in The Force Awakens could easily be seen as just fan-service: simple Easter eggs meant to appease the fan-base on both sides of the prequel love/hate debate. Yet, it seems much more than that.
Despite all of the fake looking CGI environments, the stilted dialogue, and the cringe-worthy characters: whatever George Lucas did that was wrong, ill-conceived, or downright careless (with regards to continuity between the two trilogies), at the end of the day, one cannot deny that his efforts still yielded something special in “The Prequels.” There’s an essence… a voice… something that speaks to the enduring power of not only The Force, but of the legacy of Darth Vader, the eternal conflict between light and dark, and what this whole cosmic story of family, brotherhood, friendship, love, and all of its eventual betrayal ultimately amounts to.
The idea that a child born of The Force itself is taken from his home at a young age, trained by someone who feels more obligated than personally vested, who then slowly grows impatient, resentful, power hungry, and murderous, eventually becoming the instrument of doom for all Jedi in the galaxy; is a truly striking concept and series of images. All of which is occurring at the same time the Galactic Republic falls, and the Galactic Empire rises, with Chancellor Palpatine--the Emperor himself--at the seat of it’s power.
If one simply looks at “The Prequels” in this way, the story is exactly what it needed to be, and did everything it needed to do. It is only the fluff and the lack of certain compelling performances that made “The Prequels” a tough sit, but it is these core story elements which the new Star Wars films are likely to allude to. Story points, plot points, and character backstories which are essential to the history and the legacy of both The Force, and the Skywalker family.
It’s also hard to deny that the music created by John Williams for “The Prequels” has a lot of lasting power as well. “The Duel of the Fates.” “The Droid Invasion.” “Battle of the Heroes.” These are emotional and heart-pounding scores that stick with you, even if you can’t hum them as well as original trilogy tunes. “Duel” in particular is so thematic, that it was reused in each of the subsequent prequel films at key moments of tension, and could find its way into Episode VIII or IX, should director Rian Johnson want to make that sort of musical reference.
So, did “The Prequels” really enhance The Force Awakens? It would seem so, depending on how important one considers that enhancement to be.
The Force Awakens, at it’s center, is about history repeating itself. It’s about the Skywalker family--and hopefully other characters--discovering the legacy of The Force within the universe, what it has done, and what it is capable of doing in the hands of those who wish to discover its secrets: for good or for ill. All seven Star Wars films contribute to this lexicon of knowledge and history. They bridge a span of time between when The Force was strong in the light, when the Jedi were at their peak, and a time when The Force was strong in the dark, where the Sith and the Ren now seem perpetually in control. The audience now knows about many former Jedi Masters who used to serve and protect the Republic, the audience now knows how Yoda used to train his students, and how he used to fight in his prime, and the audience now knows how The Emperor came to power, and seduced Anakin to turn to the dark side, which led to everything that occurred afterwards.
With all of this collected information, the power and presence of the “original lightsaber” is rendered all the more important, awe-inspiring, even frightening, because now we know where it’s been, and what it’s been through. The saber has a great journey ahead of it, and we may yet see more of its backstory and importance explored in the upcoming Episode VIII and Episode IX.
- Hiatt, Brian. “‘Star Wars’ Strikes Back: Behind the Scenes of the Biggest Movie of the Year.” Rolling Stone. Rolling Stone, 02 Dec. 2015. Web. 24 Dec. 2015. <http://www.rollingstone.com/movies/features/star-wars-strikes-back-behind-the-scenes-of-the-biggest-movie-of-the-year-20151202>. ↩
- Breznican, Anthony. “Obi-Wan and Yoda Are Secretly in Star Wars: The Force Awakens – Exclusive.” J.J. Abrams Reveals Obi-Wan and Yoda Are Secretly in ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ Entertainment Weekly, 20 Dec. 2015. Web. 24 Dec. 2015. <http://www.ew.com/article/2015/12/20/jj-abrams-reveals-obi-wan-and-yoda-are-star-wars-force-awakens> ↩
- Star Wars: Episode VII Lightsaber Crossguard Tested – Is It Dangerous? Perf. Thrand, Eldgrimr and Marquez. Thrand and Eldgrimr’s Well of Remembrance, 2014. Youtube Video.<https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PLzvznM2dDo ↩
- Why Kylo Ren’s Lightsaber Works (Because Science W/ Kyle Hill). Perf. Kyle Hill. Nerdist, 2015. Youtube Video.<https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L_9YtySWlqA ↩
- “Anakin Skywalker’s Second Lightsaber.” Wookieepedia. N.p., n.d. Web. 24 Dec. 2015. <http://starwars.wikia.com/wiki/Anakin_Skywalker’s_second_lightsaber>. ↩
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