Let’s Not Use Science To Put Down Star Wars
Stop me if this has happened to you: you’re talking about the latest big blockbuster science-fiction movie with a friend, and while you loved it, they totally hated it. That’s fine! We all have different tastes, after all, and not everybody’s going to like the same things. But when you ask them why they didn’t enjoy it as much as you did, they don’t say anything about how effective they found the movie’s emotional arc, or whether or not they thought the characters were interesting—all they tell you the movie was “scientifically inaccurate.”
That particular type of criticism is fast becoming one of my all-time biggest pet peeves about the way the Internet likes to judge movies, and as we inch closer to the long-awaited premiere of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, there’s a part of me that’s dreading the inevitable online backlash against whatever impossibilities J.J. Abrams has in store for us.
Admittedly, the Star Wars franchise never really held itself up to a very high standard of scientific accuracy in the first place, as anyone who knows the true definition of a “parsec” can and will tell you. For real, pointing out that the Millennium Falcon couldn’t make the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs because parsecs are a measure of distance, not time, is the “Star Wars” version of correcting everyone who says “Frankenstein” when they mean “Frankenstein’s monster.” But even so, the world in which Luke Skywalker and his friends all reside is meant to be a pulp fantasy, not a promise for the future, and thankfully most people know better than to condemn it for not being realistic.
Most, but not all. Moments after the very first teaser for The Force Awakens arrived on the scene last Thanksgiving, for example, there were already critics online condemning the entire movie to be a failure because they didn’t find Kylo Ren’s lightsaber to be believable enough. Never mind everything we were going to learn about the character over the past year–how he wields a lightsaber out of a fanatical devotion to Darth Vader’s legacy, how it’s supposed to look a bit off because he made it from scratch to reflect an ancient Jedi prototype.
If the people who’d initially dismissed it had stayed away from The Force Awakens from the moment they saw that lightsaber, they’d have missed out on all those gloriously juicy details about how it thematically informs the character—and the movie’s not even out yet, so who knows what else we have to learn about Kylo Ren when it’s finally released?
Of course, it’s not as if there’s no merit to pointing out the true science that exists beyond a work of fiction, because there absolutely is—I do it all the time. In fact, one of the best movie-watching experiences I’ve had all year was catching a screening of Jurassic World with a paleontology PhD student and then sitting down with him to discuss which aspects of film could have been true to life and which were inventions of Hollywood.
But part of the reason why that conversation was so enthralling was that rather than use the inaccuracies of the film to criticize it, we both treated them as opportunities to learn more about the real world we live in, which is what the best kind of science fiction is supposed to inspire us to do. The first Jurassic Park film got a lot of things wrong too, after all, but it also inspired a whole generation of kids to become scientists themselves—including the PhD student I was talking to that day.
Another example: world renowned astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson often gets into a lot of trouble with movie fans on Twitter for pointing out the inaccuracies of recent movies like Interstellar and Gravity, although he maintains that he still enjoys the films and usually only reserves it for the hard-science stuff. But even he’s thrown a little bit of scientific shade at Star Wars in the past, most notably with this tweet from Comic-Con two years ago.
A @Comic_Con State of Mind: If LightSabers are made of light, they would just pass through one another. Useless for defense.
— Neil deGrasse Tyson (@neiltyson) July 19, 2013
But as he told Tech Insider earlier this month, someone challenged his assertion—namely, notably physicist Brian Cox—and they turned what might have been seen as a dismissive crack at Star Wars into theoretical instructions to build a saber IRL. But as he told Tech Insider earlier this month, someone challenged his assertion—namely, notably physicist Brian Cox—and they turned what might have been seen as a dismissive crack at Star Wars into theoretical instructions to build a saber IRL.
Which is exactly what some celebrity fans like Stephen Colbert did with regards to Kylo Ren’s lightsaber. Rather than stop at calling it a poor design, they thought it over and came up with a technically sound model instead. And these sorts of discussions aren’t just limited to the dorky imagination, either—the idea of reverse engineering the impossible things we see in science fiction movies, as Neil deGrasse Tyson suggests might be possible with lightsabers, is responsible for so much of the technology you take for granted today.
You remember flip phones? The director of Motorola based them directly off of the Star Trek communicators. Star Trek: The Next Generation also led to the invention of the Quicktime media player, as Apple programmer Steve Perlman wanted to create a program that could play music like Data’s computer. The credit card in your purse was inspired by science fiction, too, particular Edward Bellamy’s 1888 Utopian novel, “Looking Backward.”
And if we ever do start living on other planets someday, we have Robert Goddard to thank for creating the first liquid-fueled rocket, which he only did in the first place because H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds instilled in him a lifelong fascination with space.
War of the Worlds, by the way, famously features the Martians using a “space gun” to launch themselves at the Earth—a feat that’s completely impossible but which helped inspire the creation of real rockets anyway.
What I’m getting at is this: discussing science as it relates to pop culture (and vice versa) can be a worthwhile and truly awesome experience, but a movie or TV show getting something wrong shouldn’t be the sole reason to condemn it to mediocrity. If you’re shutting down the conversation at “this is bad because it’s scientifically inaccurate” every time a movie makes a “mistake” or creates something implausible, then you’re missing out on all the wonderful things that science fiction and fantasy can do to inspire us—and to make the things you’re calling “bad” an actual reality, in some select cases.
So before the latest Star Wars movie hits theatres, let’s just all decide to be cool about whatever ends up being “wrong”—and rather than criticize the movie’s inevitable “inaccuracies,” celebrate them for the opportunity we’re getting to learn about the world around us. Because let’s face it, as improbable as the galaxy of Star Wars might be, some young kid seeing Force Awakens might, years from now, make a version of Kylo Ren’s lightsaber that ends up in every household.
Hopefully not, though. That would be terrifying.