Pairing: The Phantom Menace & The Force Awakens
The latest installment of the Star Wars franchise, The Force Awakens, picks up the story thirty years after Return of the Jedi left our heroes triumphant against the evil forces of the Empire and the Dark Side. It's more of a soft remake of A New Hope, than a true sequel, echoing a lot of the original Star Wars movie's character designs, settings, and story beats. Despite these similarities with A New Hope, a better pairing for The Force Awakens is actually The Phantom Menace, a movie that fans of the series are right to hate.
Like The Force Awakens, The Phantom Menace attempted to revive a long-dormant franchise. It was the first movie in the series in close to twenty years. But something went wrong. The Phantom Menace was so unlike the fun, emotionally resonant movies that had defined a generation, most fans were not sure what to make of it. Was it just setting the table for the next two movies? Would it all make sense later on? Admirably, some have tried to repair these problems.
Its most memorable character is Jar Jar Binks, a racist pantomime in CGI. Jar Jar was not alone. The Phantom Menace seemed structured around the idea that the alien is the Other. The Neimoidians and Watto were aliens portrayed with other toxic stereotypes from here on Earth: Orientalist courtiers and Anti-Semitic merchants. More disturbing still was the addition of the idea of midiclorians: a cellular presence that could determine "Jedi blood" purity.
As a pairing, The Force Awakens works as a palate cleanser after watching The Phantom Menace. Its casting choices undo a lot of the racist characterizations of The Phantom Menace and the rest of the Prequels. It positions its story arc to reach much further back into the past than The Phantom Menace, referencing a first Jedi temple, effectively out prequeling the Prequels. As Lor San Tekka says in the opening scene of the movie: "This will begin to make things right." That statement only makes sense side-by-side with where things went wrong.
But pairing The Force Awakens with The Phantom Menace is more than corrective. At the heart of both movies are sad kids. They're kids who end up going bad; being raised in poverty or born into royalty doesn't make a diffence. Together these movies tell us that love is never easy. You may be left all alone on a desert planet, you may get a fairy tale ending that falls apart. They tell us that regular parents can fail just as badly as immaculate virigins. Both of them promise that things are going to change. Sometimes it's better and sometimes it's worse.