We all lose when Star Wars is forced to be too futuristic.
Although it takes place “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away,” Star Wars has always been – at least marginally – a franchise about the future. It’s been described as “more space-fantasy than science fiction,” but it trades in futuristic technologies like spaceships and portable instant communicators at least as much as wizards and knights-errant.
Wait a second though, because while spaceships of the Star Wars variety are absolutely science fiction, portable communicators are definitely not a futuristic technology.
Google “star wars comlink” and this is the first image that pops up:
That’s the device C-3PO uses in A New Hope (or to some of you, simply Star Wars) to talk to Luke when they’re trying to escape the Death Star. And among other things, it reveals just how much has changed in the real world during the nearly 40 year existence of the Star Wars universe.
The Star Wars galaxy is a little bit of a weird place. It’s undoubtedly of the future, what with its faster-than-light travel, advanced medicine, and more-or-less sentient robots. But it’s not a place that’s concerned with the future. There are small advances, sure. The spaceships in Return of the Jedi are better than the ones in A New Hope. And we’ve already seen the new model X-Wing in The Force Awakens.
But perhaps because it’s a place that’s so technologically advanced, it’s also a place that’s unlikely to see evolutionary technological leaps.
Think about it this way: Imagine you could measure technological advancement on a bell curve, where time is on the x-axis and innovation is on the y-axis. Meaning that the middle of the curve is where advancement happens hot and heavy. At one extreme, you have the adoption of basic tools, like orangutans using sticks to fish out and eat ants. In the middle, where the curve is large, you have the printing press, industrialization, combustion engines, flight, spaceflight, wireless internet, personal electronics. And then somewhere near the other extreme, you have Star Wars. Most things that need inventing have been invented, and it’s all down to refinement.
But that doesn’t tell the whole story. There’s a conspicuous absence, in the Star Wars films, of technologies that we seem on to be on the cusp of even today. Nanobots, for instance. Genetic engineering. Spaceships that are remotely operable. (Thus saving the pilot’s life should he be shot down. Just think how screwed the Rebels would be if TIE pilots didn’t die.)
Now to be fair, there are some analogues that have crept into Star Wars over the years. Star Wars had datapads long before iPads were a thing. The Holonet exists, and that’s ok.
But Star Wars is, at its very core, infused with the ethos of its time. And by that, I mean the 1970s and ‘80s, when the original films, the foundations of this entire universe, were conceived and created.
Most people in the modern day see the internet, smartphones, social media, and VR headsets, and they imagine a future that revolves around the ways that our lives will be more synthetic, mediated, and virtual than our current existence.
In the 1970s, the future was far more about mechanical possibilities. We’d just made it to the moon and back. ICBMs were on ready alert. Computers were still in their relative infancy, still as much about hardware as software (arguably a corner we’ve turned today).
There’s a mechanical ethos in Star Wars, one that interacts compellingly with the spiritualism and mythic nature of its more fantastic elements. A Jedi crafts a lightsaber as an intensely personal weapon. R2-D2 accesses computers and breaks codes by physically turning an input. Han Solo can be that mechanic that nurses a few extra horsepower out of an ancient hyperdrive, and he doesn’t need degrees in quantum mechanics to do it.
The things that stand as the technological pillars of the Star Wars universe aren’t really a look into future. They’re a look into some version of the future as concepted in the 1970s.
But even more than that, technology in Star Wars is a rough analogue to the 1970s and ’80s that just gets to play with a few extra goodies like lightspeed travel and holograms. Star Wars exists at the far end of the technological bell curve, but only as that curve might have been imagined thirty or forty years ago.
What’s interesting and exciting about Star Wars is the flesh and blood, metal and wiring, dirt and oil parts of the galaxy. It’s all the more true today, in an era where sci-fi is almost required to be about programming, medical research, quantum theory, or something else that requires a complex understanding of nanotechnology or virtual worlds. It’s probably part of why Mad Max: Fury Road was so well-loved. On top of a great story and tremendous action, the technology was tangible. Star Wars already has a leg up, and feels all the more authentic for its 1970s roots. This odd vision of the future is a blessing, not a curse.
I’m thrilled with all the talk that’s come out of The Force Awakens about the focus on practical effects. I’m excited because I think practical effects tend to make better movies, but a hundred times more because practical effects and physical, mechanical interactions are key to what the Star Wars universe is. The Force Awakens seems to get that. Rogue One almost has to by definition (being set right before A New Hope).
Play to your strengths. That’s what any teacher/mentor/coach will tell you. The strength of Star Wars is in its unique mechanical reality. If they cling to that identity, these new films have a great shot at recapturing for a new generation of fans all the magic of the classic Star Wars saga.