FROM THE ARCHIVES OF FUTUREDUDE (ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED 2012)
I’ve seen a lot of press lately celebrating the 35th anniversary of Star Wars: A New Hope. Like many people, I was deeply moved by the first film. However, for me, it was for a pretty different reason than most. I wasn’t that into the story and characters. I loved the production – sets, locations, costumes, and visual effects. These aspects motivated me to become a writer, designer, and film enthusiast. But, to be honest, my interest stopped there. Actually Star Wars frustrates the hell out of me. Not because of the plot or the execution. It’s really due to the impact the franchise has had on our society. I think Star Wars has altered our thirst for real space exploration and adventure by satiating it with decades of well–realized space fantasy. Star Wars has nothing to do with our world or our own future. It also has nothing to do with the real science of outer space. It’s a fantasy set against a backdrop of fanciful space travel and planetary locations. That’s fine except that, in the broad populace, Star Wars is the first thing people think about when it comes to space.
Luke Skywalker watches a double sunset on his home planet of Tattooine.
Most folks, especially those young at the time, were deeply inspired by Star Wars when it was released. I was thrilled in the theater, but left pretty disappointed when it was over. Why? Because for me Star Wars wasn’t us, our human race. Over time I came to realize that Star Wars was instrumental in killing the future as I understood it. It’s a major factor in helping to derail interest in the most important adventure humankind can ever attempt — a journey beyond the Moon. You’re probably asking how this is possible. What does Star Wars have to do with going to Mars? I think the franchise tapped into our primal urge to explore and satiated it with an epic fantasy that ultimately teaches us nothing about mastering and conquering our own interplanetary reality.I’m not saying that George Lucas and company did this on purpose. Quite the contrary! George was trying to do something fresh for sci-fi and he achieved that. But I’m postulating that there was an unfortunate and far-reaching by-product; one that continues to plague us today. Only the recent private space launches by SpaceX and Virgin Galactic (and the long-term objectives of Planetary Resources) serve as mild remedies to our cultural ennui. Yet, these positive steps into the cosmic ocean are only blips when compared to the space–reality sapping juggernaut of Star Wars. I know I’ve committed geek blasphemy by saying the above. However, before you drag me through the streets, allow me to explain more.
Like most kids, I went nuts for the Star Wars TV commercials that featured cool spaceships and amazing futuristic locales. I’d never witnessed anything like it. I HAD to see it!I remember seeing TIE fighters shooting over the Millennium Falcon’s radio dish (without yet knowing it was a spaceship) and wondering if it was on a planet or a space station. Regardless, it looked interesting and even a little scientific. Maybe this was the movie I had always wanted to see: an even more futuristic 2001: A Space Odyssey with way more action and without the weird, super-confusing ending.
In the TV ad, the location of this radio dish was unclear.
As a fan of TV science fiction of the time, like the original Star Trek and Space: 1999, I was always looking for media that explored the future. Based upon how it looked, Star Wars had to be the future, right?Of course, all of my 5th Grade friends raved about it. I asked them about the story, ships, and planets. Was Earth anywhere in there? They all said “no”. I didn’t get it. But, while there were a lot of weird masked guys, most of the action figures looked like people. So, they had to be from Earth.As a nine-year-old — nearly half a life shy of a driver’s license and certainly without the cash — I was at the whim of my parents to get to the theater. This drove me nuts with anticipation. Unfortunately, they were in no hurry for me to see the film. I finally conned my Aunt Cecelia into taking me and my sister to see it about two months after it opened. By that time, I felt like the only person on Earth who hadn’t seen Star Wars!I remember the butterflies in the pit of my stomach as the 20th Century Fox logo lit up the screen. But then, my heart sank when I saw the opening words.
The introductory titles to the film Star Wars in 1977.
What? I just didn’t get it. I was a little bummed. Shoot! This film wasn’t going be about humans in the future after all. Questions quickly filled my head. They are telling me from the start that it took place long ago. When was that? It also couldn’t be about our species of humanoids as it happened in a galaxy far, far away. Where the heck was that?As a kid who knew a little about evolution (Yes, I know it’s crazy; but I actually did read books about it at that age.), I found it hard to believe that there would be aliens out there that evolved to look and act exactly like us. But I figured it was a big universe. Anything was possible.Could Star Wars be about humans who would eventually travel to Earth from that galaxy far, far away? That really didn’t seem possible. Galaxies are millions of light years apart. How would they get here? Plus, from the fossil record, I just couldn’t believe that humans didn’t evolve here.But, whatever. Stop over-thinking it, kid! I decided to just let all of those questions go and enjoy the movie. And part of me really did. I was swept away by the stark desert landscapes of Tatooine, I loved the rogue bravado of Han Solo. The Millenium Falcon rocked. And the immensity and ominous nature of the Death Star (both inside and out) was mind–blowing. But, all of that stuff only worked for part of me. The young space science enthusiast was depressed as I watched Star Wars. I could get past the artificial gravity on the ships. I forgave it on Star Trek. Plus, how could they possibly fake zero-G for a film of that scale in 1977? But the place where Star Wars really lost me was in the Cantina.
Bug-eyed alien musicians play pseudo-ragtime in the cantina scene.
How could you possibly have so many aliens of different shapes, sizes and evolutionary paths in the same planetary environment? How could they all breathe the same air and withstand the same gravitational pull? Plus, why would they all want to hang out in the same bar? Why would they hang out in bars at all? I’ve had arguments over the years with people about this aspect. Many call the Cantina scene ‘creative’. Personally, I call it intellectually lazy. It just makes no sense. Beings from numerous planets who all want get drunk and get into bar fights with other species? These were just human characteristics under latex masks. Try to imagine a world were truly alien beings decided to intermix. It could have been the most weird and exotic vision ever. Instead we get something straight out of a Western with funny foreheads thrown in for good measure.
The Millenium Falcon makes the jump to hyperspace.
Another problem is the ease with which people travel between the stars and land on planets. Buzz Aldrin has gotten a lot of guff on this issue over the years for complaining about this. His theory is that – by showing intelligent aliens as common place, and space travel as simple and routine – everyday people are being given an extremely false view of the actual realities and difficulties of space exploration and technology. I have to agree 100%. Star Trek and numerous other space operas – including the upcoming Prometheus – are to blame for this as well. Traveling in space is a stupendous and incredibly dangerous task. You don’t need to fight laser battles and face alien foes; it’s hard enough to leave our planet and safely return. The reality is that space itself is far more dangerous than Greedo, Darth, Palpatine, Boba, Jabba, and Maul combined. We’re talking hard solar radiation, micro-meteors, cosmic rays, and the searing heat of atmospheric entry. None of these aspects are ever a factor in mainstream sci-fi. This is a problem. It’s also not cool that nearly every planet the characters encounter in Star Wars (and other sci-fi) has standard earth gravity and a nitrogen atmosphere. Just look at the planets in our own Solar System. How many could we land on easily and just breathe? Not a one aside from Earth. The key issue is that these aspects, when combined with the lack of reality surrounding the central premise and locations of Star Wars, have lead to a sense of apathy.