Most of Star Wars’ core ideas are straight-up stolen from other stories. That’s not an indictment of the franchise by itself, especially considering what George Lucas was able to do with those ideas in the original and prequel trilogies. What it does suggest, however, is that Disney should have looked outside the franchise for ideas for its new trilogy rather than having relied so heavily on Star Wars nostalgia.
Take Dune, written by Frank Herbert in the 1960s as the first book in an epic science fiction series. The story is primarily set on a desert planet Arrakis (Tatooine) featuring dew collectors (moisture farms) and dangerous desert tribesmen called Fremen (Tusken Raiders) in an empire ruled by the evil Padishah Emperor (Palpatine). One of his favorite tools are his Sardaukar (Stormtroopers), Imperial troops regularly deployed to crush dissent and spread fear.
A prominent fixture of the empire is the Bene Gesserit (Jedi/Sith), an ancient monastic order of space witches whose array of powers include using The Voice (Mind Tricks) to control others. The space witches have prophesied the coming of the Kwisatz Haderach (Chosen One) who will be able to commune with a primordial force in all beings called Other Memory (the Force) that in part augments their physical, mental, and extrasensory powers. Dune's space witches not only have to have the right bloodline (midichlorians) but must undergo rigorous training called Prana-Bindu (the Ways of the Force) to mold their bodies and minds.
Our protagonist, Paul Atreides, is set into conflict with one of the Emperor's subjects, Baron Harkonnen (Darth Vader), whom he believes killed his father but it turns out that this Baron is his grandfather (Darth Vader is Luke's father). Paul's sister, Princess Alia (Princess Leia), has similar abilities to him. This goes on and on for Dune, but you get the point—a huge amount of plot points line up or are slightly altered.
George Lucas has also borrowed heavily from a variety of films. From Akira Kurosawa's 1958 samurai classic, The Hidden Fortress, he borrows the story's point of view. "The one thing that really struck me about The Hidden Fortress was the fact that the story was told from the two lowest characters," he said in a 2001 interview. "I decided that would be a nice way to tell the Star Wars story, which was to take the two lowest characters, as Kurosawa did, and tell the story from their point of view, which in the Star Wars case is the two droids."
The Hidden Fortress also takes place during a period of civil war, following a tall peasant named Tahei (C3PO) and a short one named Mataschichi (R2D2). They never shut up (*incessant droid noises*), meander through a desert after a battle, get split up, are captured and reunited. Soon they are dragged back into the civil war, helping the bearded General Tadokoro (former general Ben Kenobi, who Lucas initially wanted to be played by Tadokoro’s actor) escort Princess Yuki (Leia) to the rebel base. Tahei and Mataschichi, however, aren't helping out of the goodness of their hearts, but because they want Yuki's fortune (Han Solo and Chewbacca).
Star Wars borrows heavily from Flash Gordon not just with its serialized nature but key plot points. Flash Gordon and a prince (Luke Skywalker and Han Solo) sneak into the evil Emperor's fortress (Death Star) dressed as enemy soldiers. A space princess, a hairy biped companion, a sky city (Cloud City) run by an old friend (Lando Calrissian) that may no longer be trustworthy, physically unrealistic but entertaining space dogfights, an opening text crawl.
The prequel podrace is at one point a shot by shot remake of the chariot racing scene from Charlton Heston's Ben Hur. Jabba's concept art has him wearing the signature fez of Casablanca's Signor Ferrari, the fat crime lord that runs the eponymous city that sounds a lot like Jabba's criminal underworld. Idea after idea is borrowed and repurposed to make a new world.
All that borrowing, plagiarism, inspiration, whatever you want to call it, helped George Lucas build an incredibly rich and original universe for that first trilogy that became the bedrock for the series he envisioned. Some of Star Wars’ best moments used all this literary and cinematic plunder to make new moments, not constantly callback old ones.
Whether you hate Phantom Menace or think it was unfairly maligned, you cannot deny Roger Ebert's review of the movie as "an astonishing achievement in imaginative filmmaking." That achievement is deepened not only by continued borrowing from non-Star Wars IP, but the invocation of past installments without relying on photocopying or nostalgia. Tatooine, originally Dune’s Arrakis, gains heightened thematic significance when we learn it was where Luke’s father was raised as a slave. Not only do we meet Princess Leia’s mother, who also happens to be royalty, but Queen Amidala's plot rhymes with Princess Yuki's from Hidden Fortress: on the run from invaders, using decoys to hide herself, protected by a General (two Jedi, here). Even the conflict between Gungans and Nabooians is from another Kurosawa film, Seven Samurai, where farmers and samurai hold each other at arms distance.
Attack of the Clones is more explicit in its callbacks. Take Boba Fett’s appearance here and in The Empire Strikes Back. In Clones, Boba and his father chases Kenobi through an asteroid field but lose him when the Jedi attaches himself to an asteroid and fools their sensors. In Empire, Han Solo tries the same trick but it fails to work on the bounty hunter this time around. There's a very loud callback to John Ford's The Searchers here, when Anakin learns his mother was kidnapped by Tusken Raiders and a search party led by her husband, Cliegg Lars, fails to find her. The lyricism here shines through because while Anakin finding his dying mother sends him on a quest of revenge to murder every Tusken Raider in the camp, Luke in A New Hope finds his surrogate family dead and instead embarks on his quest to become a Jedi.
Revenge of the Sith (an objectively good film) tracks Anakin’s final descent into darkness with the sort of grandeur you’d expect to close out the second set of Lucas’ four planned trilogies. All the plagiarism thus far builds up to create new moments that both pay off on their own, but also invoke the originals without relying on nostalgia. It was tragic watching Obi-Wan and Padmé realize far too late that Anakin has fallen to the dark side—especially when we know that he will go on to kill scores more people including Kenobi, maim his own son, and then offer Luke up to the Emperor until finally coming back to the light two decades later. When we see how close Yoda comes to killing Palpatine, his depression in Empire makes more sense: he blames himself for not being strong enough and now faces a reminder of his failure, the son of the Jedi whose corruption he couldn’t stop and whose death he ordered. You watch this movie knowing deep shame, death, and tragedy awaits each of these characters and that gives the prequels a cinematic power of their own.
Search your feelings and you know all of this to be true. This is where Star Wars shines—in stealing from a plethora of sources to fashion new moments, big and small, for us to enjoy in this universe. This is what the prequels do and what we’ve all been missing from Disney’s latest trilogy, which feels content to largely find inspiration in Star Wars movies past rather than look further afield in the galaxy.