Disney's Star Wars sequel trilogy is often credited for its original trilogy aesthetic, but it takes far more thematically from the prequels. It's no secret that, ever since Disney acquired Lucasfilm in 2012, the Star Wars fandom has been wildly divided. Whether its the nostalgia-heavy The Force Awakens or the radical new direction of The Last Jedi, this era of the "galaxy far, far away" has been marked by consistent controversy at every turn.
Part of this bifurcation among fans of George Lucas's creation is surely due to the wild over-corrections that Lucasfilm has been making to date. The past four films have veered from tapping into familiar story structure and fan-favorite characters (The Force Awakens, Solo) to exploring untapped corners and new possibilities (Rogue One, The Last Jedi).
Star Wars fandom is no stranger to debate, and one of the biggest ones right out the gate with the sequel trilogy was the perception that it was actually ignoring the prequels for the sake of original trilogy nostalgia, and while it's true that, to an extent, the sequels look more like the original trilogy, thematically they harken back to the more complicated story of the prequels.
- This Page: The Thematic Difference Between the Two Trilogies
- Page 2: How the New Films Move the Story Forward
The Original Trilogy's Politics and Morality Was Black and White
When Star Wars first arrived in theaters back in 1977, Lucas drew inspiration from the adventure serials he had enjoyed as a youth, like Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers. These stories centered on a clear-cut division between good and evil, and it was the universal battle between the two that the original trilogy aims to communicate. The heroes, by and large, wear white and/or bright colors, while the villain is a part-man, part-machine creature in a terrifying black suit. Even the lightsabers are color-coordinated.
Those first three films clearly pit the towering Galactic Empire against a group of scrappy but pure-hearted rebels, fighting for truth and justice. In the wake of the morally complex Vietnam War, it's no wonder that the Star Wars trilogy and its clear definitions of right and wrong struck a chord with audiences. The film became a "new hope" that the future ahead might be a brighter one, one in which the villains and heroes are easily distinguishable, and ultimately, good always triumphs.
The Prequels Subverted What Audiences Thought About Their Heroes
Then came the prequels. Suddenly, the badass Jedi-turned-Sith Darth Vader was a peppy little podracer prodigy, and the wisdom and power of the Jedi was ultimately revealed to be mired by arrogance. Blinded by the dark side and their own pride, the Jedi Council — epitomized by Yoda himself — consistently fails to make the right decisions, failing to see that the Dark Lord of the Sith was right under their nose the whole tie, allowing Chancellor Palpatine claim more and more power and ascend to the role of Emperor.
Even Obi-Wan Kenobi is first presented as a pompous padawan learner who doesn't develop into the hero we know until well into Revenge of the Sith. The entire foundation of righteousness that Obi-Wan and Yoda represent in the original trilogy is recontextualized by the prequels, which aim to shed new light on the characters and explore the truth that led the Republic to its doom and the Jedi to near-extinction at the hands of the Chosen One.
Page 2 of 2: How the New Films Move the Story Forward
The Disney Movies Are About Processing and Moving on From the Failures of the Prequel Trilogy
As you might imagine, that's exactly what the new films, especially The Last Jedi, are commenting on. Luke himself even points out how the "hypocrisy" and "hubris" of the Jedi played an integral role in creating the Empire, and for this reason, he is convinced that the only way for the galaxy (i.e., the Star Wars saga itself) to survive is for the Jedi to be removed from the equation entirely. Meanwhile, his nephew — the main villain of this trilogy — worships his grandfather's dark deeds, hoping to restore his greatness unto the galaxy. In a sort of meta-commentary, Kylo Ren could represent the fans who are yearning for the original trilogy, lacking the full context of how Anakin became Vader or why Luke won by throwing his lightsaber, not striking Vader down.
Yoda even reaches forth from the beyond to confess to Luke that "the greatest teacher, failure is." His entire appearance in The Last Jedi is predicated on a need to let go of the Jedi's past mistakes, drawing a smooth parallel between his failure to stop Darth Sidious from claiming control of the galaxy and Luke's failure to recreate the Jedi Order in his own image. Although it remains to be seen how Episode IX will wrap up this thematic throughline, it doesn't take much scrutiny to reveal the meta-commentary that the sequel trilogy is going for.
Reconciling the Past Trilogies So that the Saga Can Live On
While the Disney Star Wars films ultimately condemn not the prequel trilogy itself but the actions of its heroes, they certainly don't shy away from referencing and incorporating certain elements into the stories they're trying to tell. Take that Solo villain cameo, for example. In fact, every single one of the four films that Disney has released since taking ownership has included references, cameos and narrative ties to the prequels. You could even say that one of the greatest objectives of the sequel trilogy is the unification of all that has come before, equally legitimizing both trilogies while allowing fans to accept them all and move on.
In The Force Awakens, Maz Kanata discusses the never-ending fight against evil in its many forms, name-checking the Sith, the Empire, and the First Order as various incarnations of the same struggle. Then, of course, there is the philosophical debate between Kylo "Let the past die" Ren and Rey's desire to salvage what remains of the Jedi, even if all she ultimately saves is the Order's sacred texts. These two central pillars of the sequel trilogy find themselves in a philosophical quarrel over how to treat the future of the Star Wars galaxy, and no film captures that conversation as much as The Last Jedi.
In that respect, Rian Johnson's film — and the vitriolic response some fans have had to it — embodies a transitional period for the saga. By bringing back the themes of the prequels and the cast of the original trilogy, the Disney films are tying the whole saga together once and for all. After all, what comes next in the main saga, spinoffs aside, will likely not be beholden to either the original trilogy or the prequels. And it shouldn't have to. The Star Wars universe is a vast one with infinite storytelling potential. As J.J. Abrams once explained, the purpose of the sequel trilogy is to "reclaim the story," and that mission is well on its way to being accomplished.