Most Star Wars films open with the simple text “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away….” To many people this is a cute gimmick, but it actually gives the audience an important sense of what is to come because the Star Wars franchise is, and has always been, far more interested in our past than in our future.
Despite the “long time ago,” Star Wars is set in the future in terms of how we conceive of it. The human society depicted is one that features more advanced technology than we currently have, a technology that reflects our trajectory in transportation, telecommunication, military technology, artificial intelligence and robotics.
All the things they have, it seems, are better than what we have, yet these are all things that our society is clearly inching closer and closer to obtaining.
So what kind of future does Star Wars show us? Well, a familiar one, to put it mildly — one that in spite of the spaceships and laser-swords is more reflective than speculative. We are taken away to the far reaches of space, but, once there, we find the Second World War, feudal Japan, 1930s America and even the classical age of heroes from Grecco-Roman culture.
Star Wars as colonial fantasy
When George Lucas and his collaborators built their world, they sought to give it a sense of depth and politics (sometimes to the chagrin of the prequel-watchers). Star Wars draws on our past to create everything from political structures to the very ecosystems of the planets themselves.
One of the more commonly described oddities of the Star Wars universe is the notion of entire planets with one climate. We are introduced to desert planets and ice planets and swamp planets. Of course, any one planet could have a myriad of different climates and ecosystems in the real world. But this peculiar detail reveals the metaphor that Star Wars is working with: each planet in Star Wars is basically each country in our world.
This metaphor allows the Star Wars universe to essentially retell stories from the era of British imperialism. The empire then becomes quite familiar to us, especially on the surface. In Star Wars, though, the empire is the enemy and the undisciplined, free-spirited rebels become the heroes — thus aligning Star Wars with thematic elements from the American Western even amid the trappings of British imperialist narratives.
A star destroyer, or perhaps even a Death Star, reads a lot like a navy warship and space itself becomes little more than an ocean to travel across in search of new adventures.
We see this metaphor further reflected in the ranks and hierarchies of the Galactic Empire, which is often reminiscent of the British naval hierarchy.
Harkening back to imperialism is obviously problematic, yet still somewhat common for science fiction (SF). The great SF writer, Ursula Le Guin, wrote about this in her famous 1975 essay, “American SF and the Other.”
“From a social point of view most SF has been incredibly regressive and unimaginative. All those Galactic Empires, taken straight from the British Empire of 1880. All those planets — with 80 trillion miles between them! — conceived of as warring nation-states, or as colonies to be exploited, or to be nudged by the benevolent Imperium of Earth towards self-development — the White Man’s Burden all over again. The Rotary Club on Alpha Centauri, that’s the size of it.”
For Le Guin, who was writing just two years before the first Star Wars film premiered, this imperial metaphor was problematic and indicative of a tendency in SF to long for the past rather than to aspire toward the future.
A longing for the past
Consider, for example, that Star Wars draws on the aerial dogfighting genre in order to create a satisfying yet familiar depiction of our future. If you compare that depiction to our current state of aviation warfare — with unmanned drones and missiles that leave the aircraft long before the enemy fighter is even visible to the pilot — the reality just isn’t as satisfying.
Similarly, the cantina scene is a nod to the watering holes of film noir and, before that, to the den-of-thieves inns so common to fantasy literature.
The Jedi culture is, of course, feudal Japan by way of Akira Kurosawa’s films. The Star Wars empire’s aesthetic is that of the Nazi era.
Even the artificial intelligence is somewhat backwards in its conception, with advanced AI automatons who act within a familiar paradigm: the classic “odd couple” dynamic.
The plot is equally attentive to the past. As noted by many scholars, and by George Lucas himself, Star Wars is a classic example of a monomyth, the hero’s journey — a basic storytelling structure identified by Joseph Campbell in 1949. The monomyth has some room for interpretation, but also a surprising amount of specificity to it; and Star Wars sticks very closely to that structure, thus aligning the journey of Luke Skywalker with that of classical heroes such as Hercules, Theseus and Odysseus.
Star Wars is great fantasy, not science fiction
All of this leads to a simple question: If Star Wars is so compelled by our past, what does it say about us that, even in our most dynamic futurescape, we feel the need to seek out the familiar? The best answer to this might entail a sort of perceptual paradigm shift that begins with a controversial realization: Star Wars isn’t science fiction.
Beginning with Mary Shelley and Jules Verne, SF was a genre that defined itself by exploring, in fiction, the consequences of our society’s technological development. Star Wars, however, isn’t engaged with that exploration. In fact, by most any widely accepted definition of SF, Star Wars doesn’t count, and that’s OK.
Instead of comparing it to the works of H.G. Wells or Isaac Asimov or Kim Stanley Robinson, we can compare Star Wars to the works of George MacDonald and J.R.R. Tolkien and Neil Gaiman, and there we find a much more favourable lens by which to understand and appreciate what the Star Wars universe accomplishes. This isn’t SF – it’s fantasy in outer space, and, more than that, it’s really good fantasy.
What makes Star Wars great isn’t a vision of our future, but the imaginative satisfaction that Star Wars creates in drawing from our past. There’s no prophecy here, just a tacit acceptance that thinking about the future is disorienting and frightening, and a little familiarity can be a whole lot of fun.
Perhaps more than that, Star Wars can be seen to provide our society with a sort of regression therapy, by allowing us to work through our past within the safe space of a detached future. With fresh eyes, we see the evil of imperialism, the power of the righteous individual, and the range and scope of the transcendent force that binds us all as human beings.
With the release of a brand new Star Wars film, it is compelling to reflect upon just how much our love for the Star Wars universe says about who we are in this universe.
Wrapped in the visual trappings of a future society, Star Wars is a nostalgic hodgepodge of the most dynamic and captivating concepts from our past — real and fictional. The art of creating that, the delicate balance it requires (one that so many other films have tried and failed to achieve) is, like the best Star Wars films themselves, a wonder to behold.