I have a confession to make. I watched the original Star Wars movies for the first time last Christmas. I had seen them; they were on TV all the time when I was a kid. But I never sat down and intentionally watched them from start to finish. I remembered snippets: Han cutting open the tauntaun on Hoth, Leia killing Jabba the Hut with her slave-chain, the Ewoks celebrating in their arboreal town. I remembered R2-D2 and C-3PO. But the scenes were all jumbled together and in the wrong places and the wrong order.
My partner, B, was horrified when I admitted that I hadn’t seen the films, so he went out and bought the DVDs, and we watched them on Christmas Day.
I was delighted by the movies. I grew up with Star Trek (with Picard), and I was used to clean, uniformed officers. I liked the grittiness of Star Wars compared to Star Trek. I marveled at the range of alien races and the breadth of landscapes. From dry, dusty lands to icy wastes to lush temperate rainforests. I’m glad I got a chance to watch the originals all in one go. The story was exhilarating, and I had loads of fun.
Star Wars in popular culture
But the thing is, I hadn’t bothered with watching them before because Star Wars has been such a superpower in shaping popular culture that you don’t have to see the movies to know what happens. B had a favorite elementary school teacher who would, on May the 4th, chant “May the Fourth be with you.” To which the kids would reply “And also with you.” (If you’ve ever been in an Anglican church service, you’ll get the reference.)
Before ever seeing the movies, you know about Yoda, about Luke and Leia and Han Solo. You know who fathers who, and who wins the war. It’s hard not to. I had watched Space Balls and that Family Guy episode before I watched the original Star Wars! There are so many cultural references to the franchise that it’s hard to remain ignorant of the story.
We had our staff Christmas party on Friday, and while dining beneath a T-rex, Darth Vader’s pyre was projected on a screen as our festive Yule Log (a tad morbid, but pretty nerdy). Last night, I worked as a gallery interpreter for a wedding reception at THEMUSEUM. We had some Star Wars items in preparation for our upcoming TRI-CON convention and so we decorated their card box with Star Wars paraphernalia. The bride and groom were delighted. We had a bit of a hint that they’d like that sort of thing when the couple played Star Wars music as the guests arrived.
This rag-time medley perfectly illustrates the way that Star Wars is integrated into popular culture. Even though the pianist is modifying the rhythm and timing, I’ll be your recognize every song he blends together.
The original trilogy has spawned an expanded universe that I find fascinating. But only in the way that I’m willing to let someone tell me about it. I have no inclination to go down that rabbit hole. I will probably get shot down by die-hards for not being a real fan, but I have other obsessive pursuits, and I can’t add learning Star Wars lore to that list. Though I love hearing the stories about the universe.
That universe has spawned are spin-offs in every direction. After the Christmas party dinner was over, someone played the Star Wars Holiday Special on the projector (yes, it’s a thing). There are role-playing video games, MMORPGs, Lego Star Wars video games, two Clone Wars television series (released in 2003 and 2008) and another ongoing cartoon series (Star Wars Rebels). When I taught science camp this past summer, the boys waxed exuberantly about the subtleties of the Star Wars universe, showing that after 38 years, the force is still strong.
Science and Star Wars
But there are obvious questions about this universe. And what I find particularly fascinating are discussions of the science. Back in 2003 and 2004, R2-D2 and C-3PO were inducted into the Carnegie Mellon Robot Hall of Fame which includes a mix of real and fictional robots.
As a lead-up to the films, there were tons of articles, blogs, and videos across the internet. Wired.co.uk ask the all important question: How close are we to building a ‘real’ lightsaber? The American Chemical Society has a lovely Youtube Channel named Reactions. They posed some important critiques of Star Wars science.
The characters and tropes presented in the trilogy are an excellent stomping ground for social scientists and psychologists. In Star Wars’ Social Science: Fiction as Religion, Politics, and Psychosis, Sarah Sloat describes some of the ways the tropes and characters in the Star Wars franchise provide some insights into the psychopathology and civics.
There’s even a Star Wars in the Classroom education kit that talks about the science behind some of the technologies in the film to inspire a new generation of scientists (and Star Wars fans).
This franchise has influenced real-life scientists and technological advances. National Geographic ran an article last week detailing some of the science inspired by the films as did the Wall Street Journal. You can find echos of Star Wars inspiration particularly in the field of astronomy. NASA even ran a blog post on the astronomy and exoplanets of a galaxy far, far away.
Star Wars references abound even in formal press releases for astronomical discoveries. A press release from the Hubble Telescope about an image of a newly born star describes the jets of energy using Star Wars imagery.
“Hubble’s latest contribution is a striking photo of what looks like a double-bladed lightsaber straight out of the Star Wars films.”
This sort of thing isn’t just happening in time for The Force Awakens. Astronomers have been using Star Wars references to describe exoplanet discoveries for years. A press release from January 2014 begins with:
Luke Skywalker’s home planet Tatooine would have formed far from its current location in the Star Wars universe, a new University of Bristol study into its real world counterparts, observed by the Kepler space telescope, suggests.
The article focuses on how binary star planetary systems for, but you can’t talk about those kinds of star systems without thinking about the two-sunned Tattooine. The tenth circumbinary planet was discovered this past August and the title of the news release was Tenth Transiting “Tatooine”.
The role science fiction and where does Star Wars fit into it
The Star Wars series has a huge following, but it is not without critiques. In his article, Star Wars vs. Science Fiction, Brian Clegg describes the function and role of science fiction. He argues that while the Star Wars franchise is a captivating adventure, it’s not the best of the science fiction genre.
“…it’s important to acknowledge that while Star Wars gives us a hugely entertaining story, it is extremely low grade science fiction. And that’s because it never tries to do what good science fiction does: focus on the impact of science and technology on people.”
– Brian Clegg
“Good science fiction sticks as closely as possible to what may be possible, but can’t afford to sacrifice story for accuracy.”
– Brian Clegg
Even Harrison Ford seems to feel the same way as he views the Star Wars films as fairy-tale more than science fiction.
“You had a wise old warrior in Alec Guinness (as Obi-Wan Kenobi), you had the callow youth in Mark Hamill (Luke Skywalker) and the beautiful princess, Carrie Fisher (Princess Leia), and the smart ass.”
– Harrison Ford
George Takei echoes this sentiment by pointing out some significant differences between the function of Star Wars and Star Trek. With the latter making more in-depth social commentary. Takei views Star Wars as science fantasy rather than science fiction.
George Lucas has never shied away from talking about the moral and political dimensions of his films. In a 1997 interview the filmmaker, who has long claimed that the Emperor was inspired by Richard Nixon and the rebellion was inspired by the North Vietnamese.
Star Wars, Science Fiction, and Foreign Policy by Emma Ashford provides a critique of current pundits’ attempts to apply Star Wars as a metaphor for our current global political climate. It also highlights one of the beauties of Science fiction as a genre: its ability and willingness to examine different political models and structures while addressing elements of the human condition.
Star Wars is not without its flaws (*cough* Death Star designers *cough cough*). But while I see Takei’s point, I think this difference in the ‘social critique’ function of Star Trek vs. Star Wars has less to do with an intention to critique and more to do with the medium in which the stories are told. A blockbuster action-adventure movie cannot tackle the same sorts of issues that a long-running television series can. And when social issues are addressed they can only be done cursorily without derailing the story. I would argue the same thing with Clegg. Comparing movies to books is as exercise in disappointment, and we run into a medium issue.
In the end, I think that the movies straddle that blurry line between science fiction and fantasy and fall squarely within the genre of speculative fiction. All of which has the potential to give you a wild ride and offer critical evaluations of political models and the human condition.
The Star Wars universe has influenced popular culture for nearly forty years, and I’m eager to see where this story will take us.
No, I haven’t seen the Force Awakens, yet. Although I am desperate to see it before I get inundated with spoilers. But, because I watched the original three films with B, I want to wait for him to return from work so we can see it together. (So don’t ruin it for me! :-P)
May the force be with you,