Hi folks, it’s me, Rick from the Land Down Under, back again with more Star Wars heresy, and today I’m looking at just what is Star Wars? I see plenty of fans that seem to critique and comment on the films and either apply a set of expectations that don’t really apply to them, or try and bring logic into debates about movies that don’t use logic as any sort of fundamental in their creation. And what I end up wondering is do some people actually realise that Star Wars is NOT Science Fiction?
To say story genre’s have rules is possibly overkill, but they do have traditions. These traditions guide the crafting of the story, how the plot moves and provide means to create conflict, which is the heart of every story. It creates relatability between the audience and the characters, and chemistry between the characters. It’s also so why so many stories are so familiar and timeless.
There are very few movies that don’t tweak reality, or disobey the laws of science and physics, in one way or another. Some are because of writing limitations, others from the visual needs of film-making. For instance virtually every movie involving space has a starfield and sound effects. But there are no star-fields in space, stars are washed out by the sun, it’s the atmosphere that creates stars as we see them. There is no atmosphere to conduct sounds in space, everything is silent.
But movies use star-fields to simulate high speed motion as a reference frame, they include sound effects to add to the excitement. How much they defer to or ignore science is part of the frame of reference for determining genre.
Star Wars is to science fiction what James Bond is to actual spy-craft. There is a scene in Tomorrow Never Dies, where bond is chased down the street on a motorbike by a helicopter that has leaned forward about 80 degrees and is trying to chop him up with it’s blades. Firstly not only is this incredibly foolhardy by the pilot but it’s physically impossible.
It’s simply not how helicopters operate and the scene had to be shot with a helicopter mounted to a crane to maintain it’s position. But did it look cool? Hell yeah, because that’s what James Bond does, he’s not sitting in a car, peeing in a bottle eating egg and lettuce sandwiches on a 36 hour stakeout. No he’s on a cool motorbike, being chased down the street by a helicopter looking cool, and that’s no different to Star Wars, reality will not get in the way of a good shot. What’s cool will always trump what makes more sense.
Because Star Wars is in fact Space Fantasy, it has more in common with Lord of the Rings or Conan than it does with movies like Star Trek or Avatar. It’s inspiration is Flash Gordon, which is also Space Fantasy, essentially it is swords and sorcerers in space.
Ergo we cannot judge Star Wars as a science fiction movie, it’s internal logic is completely different, it uses the setting of science fiction but the traditions of fantasy movies.
So lets go through a few aspects and compare Star Wars to other Fantasy and Science Fiction films.
Nearly all Fantasy movies are locked into the “Everyman Hero’s Journey.” And there are key factors in it that you will recognise in many films. The hero is an orphan or is separated from their parents, they meet a mentor who awakens their destiny, a crisis forces them on to a journey where they meet trials and overcome them, the mentor dies allowing for the hero to exceed them, hero faces setback, Mentor is restored in some form to assist, hero overcomes setbacks to achieve his destiny and confront ultimate evil and doom, he then either overcomes it and is the hero rising, or succumbs to it and you have hero falls.
You will see this template in Lord of the Rings, Excalibur, Harry Potter, Highlander and Flash Gordon. It is as old as greek drama and is templated on tales such as Theseus and Perseus. It is because of this formula that you have nine Star Wars movies with similar plots, but just jumbled up a bit.
There is another version called the “heroine’s journey” which more closely matches Rey’s journey in the sequels, Leeloo’s in The Fifth Element and virtually every Disney Princess Movie.
Science fiction doesn’t have to allow for destiny, magic or growth. Science Fiction hero’s are fully formed, sometimes anti-hero’s, and their morality is not always black and white. If there is something like training or growth required it is usually glossed over with a montage sequence.
So the use of mythological arcs, magic, gods (the force) puts Star Wars firmly into the fantasy genre.
THE FLAMING MAGIC SWORD:
The mythology of the flaming sword is so ancient it appears in the bible. The cherubim guarding the gates of Eden were armed with them, so was the archangel Uriel. Sumerian mythology has the deity known as Asaraludu as “the wielder of the flaming sword”. In Norse mythology the fire giant Surtur wields a sword of flame with which he sets fire to Asgard (as seen in Thor Ragnarok).
Magic swords are the very foundation of fantasy, Aragorn has Anduril flame of the west, King Arthur has Excalibur, Parzival had a sword that when shattered, would reform stronger than ever when returned to a spring. Even Harry Potter has access to the lost sword of Godric Griffindor.
The swords are nearly always gifts from superior beings like gods or wizards, or are lost relics of mythical origin.
Swordplay is a commonly used trope in many films because it allows dialogue between hero and villain while simultaneously building the action to a climax. In Star Wars the swordplay is far more fundamental and builds into the establishment of good versus evil. in the hands of the superhuman Jedi a light sabre is imbued with the same sort of magic power that fantasy swords have.
World building or Universe building, is a very important part of both Science Fiction and Fantasy. Because what is presented is an alternate reality of fantastic premises, it is important to house it in a universe that suspends disbelief. For contrasting examples of world building in these genre’s you probably could not ask for two better examples than Avatar and Star Wars.
Avatar is probably the single greatest example of Science Fiction World Building. It’s level of detail is impeccable, it’s visual appeal is stunning and it uses very well thought out evolutionary processes to create an incredible array of flora and fauna. Each animal and plant seems to fulfill an evolutionary niche, and it’s interconnectedness presents a reality that’s almost faultless.
Because the atmosphere and gravity is different on Pandora, we see subtle variants in the animals like some being hexapods to support their weight or having nostrils on their main body to intake more air and separate their respiration and digestion. While a spiritual element is presented, it’s also more or less explained scientifically.
Star Wars on the other hand has the most non-scientific world building of all, uniform climate planets. It has desert worlds and jungle worlds, Ice worlds and water worlds. Something that would very rarely exist naturally. Something shared with it’s inspiration Flash Gordon, where we see ice moons and forest moons etc. Even in Lord of the Rings we see vast differences between each realm, the horse lords live on plains, the Elves in the Forest and the bad guys live in a wasteland.
There is of course a reason for this. It is an expansion of our world into galactic reference. These uniform climate worlds are really countries, space is the ocean, Star destroyers are frigates of the Royal Navy, the King of England is the evil Emperor, and Jabba the Hutt runs the East India Trading Company.
It’s another example of classic elements converted to space.
It also serves a purpose, it’s so as an audience we can quickly identify places so as to create a feeling of separation between each faction.
TECHNOLOGY AND COMBAT:
Combat in Star Wars is a science fiction nightmare, which is often picked upon mercilessly. Why have armoured troops when blasters can penetrate it easily? Wouldn’t it be better to have mobility and clearer field of vision? Of course it would, but stormtrooper armour is meant to reflect the upon the armoured armies of fantasy stories. And it looks cool.
Similarly the Space combat has never even tried to be in any way accurate, laser blasts you can see, lumbering capital ships and super fast fighters. Star destroyers and the Millennium Falcon having blind spots you could park a moon in. Even in our technological age, aerial warfare consists of a plane shooting a missile miles away from the target, dog-fighting is a forgotten art.
In the original trilogy, George Lucas transplanted World War II elements such as fighter dog-fighting and naval elements, as well as the Dam-busters for the attack on the Death Star. In the prequels the battles reflected back further and displayed the ancient maritime art of broadsiding. In the sequels we saw other throwbacks to World War II in the form of ship harrying like the chase for the Bismark, and the cost of low, lumbering bombers trying to target capital ships.
Once again the visual and the feel of the shots were more important than the logic behind the structure of the battles. Any pilot with half a brain would just park behind a Star Destroyer and shoot from it’s blind spot.
Some science fiction movies will follow a similar style because it is fairly imprinted on the audience’s psyche these days, but some use far more pragmatic and practical design. Aliens for instance, gave a pretty accurate representation of a futuristic attack ship, wedded with some excellent design in weaponry.
Star Trek in First Contact showed accurately that in space large ships are just as fast and maneuverable as small ones. In the new Battlestar Galactica the battles were shown silently, and fighters could use their momentum but still flip around to attack.
It’s another example of modern mythology dictating the story and yet another reason Star Wars fails to identify as Science Fiction.
For conflict to exist for the Hero, we need a great villain.
As far as villains go Science Fiction has far less grandiose villains or they use monsters instead with a subtle villain. It’s ostensibly far less black and white or good versus evil. If we look at Aliens and Independence Day, from our perspective the aliens are monsters. From their perspective, they are just doing what they do naturally. If we look at Avatar where humans are the monsters, we are just doing what we do naturally, killing things to take their stuff.
Even where we do have a villain in Science Fiction they are usually motivated by three things, jealousy, power or money. Carter Burke is the villain in Aliens, because he wants to take one back to Earth for a big payout. Colonel Miles Quaritch is the enforcer villain in Avatar because he isn’t going to let some primitives tell him what to do.
Space Fantasy Villains are typically Narcissists, or what we used to call Megalomaniacs. They are evil for evils sake, they seek power over others all the better to play into their ego. They are self obsessed, vain and self serving. Anakin’s character in Star Wars is actually such an exact match for Severe Narcissistic Disorder that some Psychologists were using him as an example for training.
This is again for relatability, everyone’s met a narcissist once or twice in their life, and their self aggrandizement annoys people and makes them want to hate them. A bit like the pretty boy wrestlers do in Rock and Roll Wrestling.
It’s fairly conclusive that Star Wars ticks every box for the fantasy genre and very few for the Science Fiction one. It’s use of magic, the force and it’s sacrifice of logic for entertainment and visual splendor put it squarely in the realm of fantasy. So next time you watch a Star Wars film, see how some of the things I’ve covered line up with your experience. And maybe be a little more forgiving on minor points of logic, Star Wars is there to entertain and thrill, not to get bogged down in detail.
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