For Star Wars fans watching The Phantom Menace for the first time back in 1999, one thing was immediately clear: there were a lot of similarities to A New Hope. In fact, some critics called out what they saw as a simple rehash of the original storyline. And on the surface, the criticism certainly appears justified. After all, both films center around a young boy on the desert planet of Tatooine who leaves home to embark on an epic journey involving a beautiful, royal young woman in distress and a Jedi Knight who becomes his mentor.
A closer look, however, reveals something far more complex and interesting.
Now, according to George Lucas, the similarities were deliberate. And during the making of the prequels, he actually spoke fairly often about this use of repetition in Star Wars. “I create themes,” he told Entertainment Weekly back in 2002, “and I repeat those themes, in different chords and different arrangements.” Just like a piece of music. On The Phantom Menace’s audio commentary, Lucas stated, “It’s very, very clear in the two trilogies that I’m putting the characters in pretty much the same situations, sometimes even using the same dialogue so that the father and son go through pretty much the same experience.” In a documentary on the making of the film titled In the Beginning, he likened the repetitions to poetry. “Instead of destroying the Death Star [like Luke], [Anakin] destroys the ship that controls the robots. It’s like poetry. Every stanza kind of rhymes with the last one.”
And this is where things start to get interesting.
Now, as many of you probably know, contemporary English poetry is often characterized by rhyming sounds. But ancient poetry, like the kind found in the Old Testament, is characterized instead by rhyming ideas. This poetic form is called parallelism. Bill Arnold, professor of Old Testament Interpretation at Asbury Theological Seminary, helps explain. “The single most important characteristic of Old Testament poetry is a symmetry of thought, which we call parallelism. The poetry you are most familiar with balances sounds in a symmetrical way — usually rhyme, rhythm, or meter, or a combination of these. Old Testament poetry may occasionally do this, but only rarely. The type of poetry we encounter in the Old Testament balances ideas in a kind of conceptual rhyming.”
Scholars have defined parallelism as “words, phrases, or sentences that correspond, compare, contrast, or repeat.” To better understand the concept, here’s a very simple example from Proverbs 10:1:
A. A wise son
B. brings joy
C. to his father,
A’ but a foolish son
B’ brings grief
C’ to his mother.
As you can see, A is closely related to A’, B to B’, and C to C’. This ABC A’B’C’ pattern is sometimes called “step parallelism” and is one of the many forms of parallelism found in ancient texts. Not only does this poetic pattern help structure how one thought or idea is related to another, it also helps emphasize messages (often moral), expands them, and makes them easier to remember.
Of course, as you’ve probably realized by now, the first six Star Wars films certainly follow this pattern. That is, The Phantom Menace (A) corresponds with A New Hope (A’), Attack of the Clones (B) corresponds with The Empire Strikes Back (B’), and Revenge of the Sith (C) corresponds with Return of the Jedi (C’).
Interestingly enough, the six films almost certainly follow a second form of parallelism at the same time. It’s a much more complex form called “inverted parallelism.” But you may have heard it referred to by a different name: ring composition. It’s what formed the basis of my Star Wars Ring Theory essay.
So, just as George Lucas borrowed from a multitude of ancient sources in crafting the story of his modern myth, the use of multiple types of parallelism suggests that he also borrowed from ancient sources in creating the structure (or form) of his myth. But now that we know a little bit about the concept of parallelism, let’s take at look at some of the extremely subtle ways Lucas designed The Phantom Menace to correspond with A New Hope right from its opening frames.
At the start of A New Hope, a Rebel blockade runner has apparently broken through an Imperial blockade (hence the name of the ship) with secret Death Star plans. The Phantom Menace cleverly inverts the original film by opening with a Republic ship flying into a blockade. Both ships then enter even larger ships.
In A New Hope, the story is told mainly from the point of view of C-3PO and R2-D2, a device similarily used by Akira Kurosawa in The Hidden Fortress with two bickering peasants. Here’s what Lucas had to say on The Phantom Menace’s commentary track: “[In A New Hope] we follow the two most insignificant characters, which are the droids. This was an idea I was enamored with…where you take the least important characters and you follow their story amongst this gigantic, intergalactic drama that’s going on around them that they don’t understand…[I told] the story from their point of view and the film was sort of shot from their point of view.”
In The Phantom Menace, Lucas shifts the point of view from two insignificant robots to two significant Jedi, Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi. “As in say A New Hope where the story is told through the eyes of the droids,” says Lucas, “in [The Phantom Menace] it’s told through the eyes of the Jedi.”
Both films feature an attack aboard a spaceship in the early moments. In A New Hope, Rebel troopers aim their weapons towards a door when stormtroopers blast it open and emerge through the smoke. In The Phantom Menace, nervous battle droids aim their weapons towards a door as two lightsaber-wielding Jedi emerge from a deadly fog of poisonous gas.
And finally, particularly alert viewers may have noticed that a door is cut at the beginning of both films (with a twist, of course). “I kind of reverse the classic monster coming through the door motif,” says Lucas. “So now it’s the aliens, the droids, and all the villains who are faced with these two sort of invincible creatures. I kind of enjoyed the idea of making the good guys invincible and the bad guys cower in fear.”
So, right from the get-go, Lucas was carefully arranging the films in parallel by taking similar ideas and expressing them in a different way. And, in my view, like the poetic form of parallelism, Lucas was setting up the prequel trilogy to be read together with the original trilogy as a complementary unit (in order to fully understand what either half means, as well as to fully understand the whole).
All of this adds up to quite a unique cinematic storytelling experience, to say the least.
In the coming weeks, I’ll explore these ideas further and look at more parallels between the films that may have been missed at first glance. In the meantime, what’s your favorite parallel between the films? Tell us in the comments below!