Star Wars continues to draw big crowds everywhere. It is a universal culture phenomenon. It has become that by neatly combining elements of fascination and fun that can be appreciated by all people: Endearing alien creatures, exotic locales, super-advanced technologies, special mental powers, cosmic mysticism, timeless battles between good and evil, and most importantly ... The Force!
Star Wars is not great a science fiction. Fans of the genre (me included) do not rate it as even good. The best science fiction movies and novels will pose challenging ‘What If’ questions and offer tantalising answers, or at least possibilities. Anyone who watches 2001: A Space Odyssey, which is almost 50 years old, or Blade Runner, which came out 25 years ago, will understand why they are widely considered among the best movies ever made.
Star Wars happily violates various laws of the universe. Sorry, but instantaneous communication, whether by radio or by minds, is totally impossible, even “in a galaxy far, far away”! I could mention a number of essential items in Star Wars that are not possible, including the incredible ‘lightsabers’ (light does not hit light like metal), the huge and expanding explosions in space (there is no oxygen to sustain the explosions), and others. But that is not my point.
I am not complaining that this movie series has many scientific accuracies. I have watched and enjoyed numerous movies that were not scientifically correct. In fact, science fiction is divided into two subgenres: ‘Hard sci-fi,’ which closely abides by known or possible science, and ‘soft sci-fi’, which plays freely with it.
Actually, Star Wars does have some nice, correct, and useful elements of futuristic science. In its first instalment, 40 years ago, it showed Tatooine, a planet with two suns, which then was unheard of. Thirty-five years later, Kepler-16b was discovered orbiting two red stars about 200 light years from here. Star Wars also showed us smart and cute droids, robots that more or less mimic human motion, vision, and sometimes speech. That was certainly not the first cinematic depiction of robotic intelligence, but perhaps the cutest. Star Wars has also had numerous and diverse aliens, which then implies that life, intelligence, and technology are ubiquitous in the universe. But all those original and bold ideas have become nothing more than decor.
So what is the real attractiveness of Star Wars that makes every release a blockbuster hit? I believe it is The Force that fascinates and attracts viewers by the millions. The Force is something that surely exists (“it’s what binds everything together in the universe”; “it is the attraction and the repulsion, the good and the bad” ...), something that consists of extraordinary elements that we have not yet mastered: telepathy (knowing from afar and communicating at a distance), telekinesis (making things move with our minds), special physical and mental powers, the ability to harness old, collective wisdom and strength, and more.
Many science-inclined fans have tried to find scientific justification for The Force, sometimes invoking ‘quantum entanglement’, ‘the unification of forces in physics’, or other such ideas. Again, I hate to ruin it for everyone, but none of those ideas remotes explain The Force as depicted in Star Wars, so you’re better off keeping it a fantasy and enjoying the thing as some wild imagination.
It is quite disappointing that instead of proposing interesting new and fascinating ideas like the two-sun planet or creatures that have a different metabolism, Star Wars has now adopted a populist formula of cute creatures (the latest ones being the ‘porgs’), cute robots (BB-8), lots of space battles and explosions, lightsaber fights, and mental powers (moving rocks out of the way, moving yourself, etc.).
Science fiction can certainly be entertaining while also challenging us and raising questions. A number of movies recently did just that, e.g. Blade Runner 2049, Planet of the Apes, Passengers, Gravity, and Interstellar. Other sci-fi movies were less entertaining but largely made up for that by the fascinating questions they raised, e.g. Arrival and Ex Machina.
There are two big topics of science today that easily relate to Star Wars and that we would love to have screenwriters and filmmakers address in interesting ways: exoplanets and artificial intelligence. Indeed, Star Wars had combined both topics in its initial and very original episode. But it has unfortunately stopped innovating.
We are at the threshold of discovering whether some exoplanets out there show any signs of life, even of the most basic and primitive type. And we’re about to release robots that can be human companions and take care of most of our basic daily needs. More than at any time in the past, we are now contending with the potential implications of life in space (primitive or advanced) and of artificial intelligence here on Earth. Star Wars (and other movies) could seize those themes and address our anxieties and hopes in fascinating and highly satisfying ways.
I hope we’ll see more mesmerising and intriguing instalments of Star Wars and other such films in coming years.
Nidhal Guessoum is a professor of Physics and Astronomy at the American University of Sharjah, UAE. Twitter: @NidhalGuessoum.