Why ‘Star Wars’ did not ruin sci-fi

(20th Century Fox)
(20th Century Fox)

In a recent commentary for CNN, Lewis Beale laments “How ‘Star Wars’ ruined sci-fi.” Before I wade into what’s wrong with this piece, I’ll give Beale credit for what he gets right. Star Wars (1977) and Empire Strikes Back (1980) were indeed better than all of the subsequent films in the franchise. Also, lots of great science fiction novels have not been made into movies (or at least movies that are any good).

Now let’s get to Beale’s thesis, which is that “George Lucas‘ creation, basically a blown-up Flash Gordon adventure with better special effects, has left all too many people thinking science fiction is some computer graphics-laden space opera/western filled with shootouts, territorial disputes, evil patriarchs and trusty mounts (like the Millennium Falcon).”

When Beale claims Star Wars ruined science fiction, he is referring to movies, not books. He considers science fiction “one of the most creative literary genres” and cites with approval a number of works published after Luke Skywalker  burst onto the screen in 1977. If Star Wars had ruined literary sci-fi, we would not have Kindred (1979) by Octavia Butler, Neuromancer (1984) by William Gibson or Ender’s Game (1985) by Orson Scott Card, all of which get a nod from Beale.

So if sci-fi literature is doing just fine, Beale must be referring to sci-fi on the silver screen. And if Star Wars “ruined” film sci-fi, the genre must have been better before George Lucas came along and worse after. Looking at IGN’s top 25 sci-films of all time, only seven came out before Star Wars, including Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), which ranked second. The top pick, Ridley Scott’s 1982 masterpiece Blade Runner, starred Han Solo himself, Harrison Ford. For a good sense of the general quality of sci-fi before Star Wars, I recommend spending an afternoon chuckling at Mystery Science Theater 3000 (1988-99).

(Warner Bros.)

As Beale points out, “[t]he best sci-fi is filled with meditations on what’s ‘out there,’ what makes us human, how technology is used and how its changing us.” Depicting this on film is an expensive, high-tech endeavor. Star Wars was hardly the first movie to demonstrate this. The German silent film Metropolis (1927)–#16 on IGN’s list–was the Star Wars of its day. It wowed audiences with amazing special effects and was the most expensive movie ever made at the time of its release.

Beale’s faultiest premise is that Star Wars has left the public with the idea that sci-fi is synonymous with space opera. The late 1970’s and early ‘80s were full of Star Wars knock-offs of varying degrees of quality, but this trend certainly died out decades ago. Aside from the 2004-09 reboot of Battlestar Galactica (which was a clear Star Wars knock-off in its original 1978-80 run), has there been any culturally-significant space opera on television or film in the last decade? Nope. But we did have Inception (2010), District 9 (2009) and Avatar (2009), which all made IGN’s list and have certainly shaped the public’s consciousness of what sci-fi is with minimal influence from Lucas’ creation.

And this brings me to my most important point: Star Wars isn’t sci-fi. Science fiction is about science, but there is no science in Star Wars. How do hyperdrives work? How does the Death Star generate enough energy to destroy a planet? Who knows? Who cares?

Star Wars may have spaceships and blasters, but it is pure fantasy. Fantasy is all about myth and magic. When “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away” scrolls down the screen, it might as well say, “Once upon a time . . .” Lucas has long credited the work of mythologist Joseph Campbell for inspiring his work. I’m hardly breaking new ground when I say that the Death Star is the dragon’s lair, Obi-Wan Kenobi is Merlin and Luke’s lightsaber is Excalibur.

(New Line Cinema)

So if we are to see the impact of Star Wars on contemporary culture, we should look to fantasy. Thanks to Star Wars, we have excellent screen adaptations of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001-03), C.S. LewisThe Chronicles of Narnia (2005-10), J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series (2001-11) and George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones (2011- ). And those are just the ones based on the work of authors who go by their initials. Fantasy is big today and very diverse.

Even the much-maligned Star Wars prequel trilogy works in the world of timeless myth. Though The Phantom Menace (1999) and the first three-quarters of Attack of the Clones (2002) fail in execution, it is not for lack of ambition. The fall of Anakin Skywalker to the Dark Side is the stuff of Sophocles, Shakespeare and Dante. At the climax of Revenge of the Sith (2005), Anakin battles Obi-Wan on a volcanic world that literally manifests the metaphorical hell into which he has descended.

This leads me to Beale’s strongest point, which is that he thinks the nostalgic baggage attached to Star Wars will prevent director J.J. Abrams and company from coming up with a new story worth telling. (Beale would rather watch the Wachowski brothersThe Matrix, a 1999 high-budget, special effects extravaganza about a seemingly-ordinary young man guided by a mystical mentor to uncover the supernatural powers he’ll need to lead a noble rebellion to overthrow tyranny. The Matrix is a great movie—seventh on IGN’s list—but it hardly breaks new ground.) While I share his pessimism, I am not willing to pan a film (actually three films) before a single scene has been shot.

If Abrams is to be successful, he can’t make the same mistake that Beale does. Star Wars is fantasy, not sci-fi. The first trilogy is about the hero’s journey of Luke Skywalker, and the second is about the tragic downfall of Anakin Skywalker. Whatever direction the new series will go, it needs to draw upon the same universal myths that have connected with audiences over the past four decades.

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About Matt Hlinak

Matt Hlinak
Matt Hlinak is an administrator at Dominican University, just outside of Chicago. He teaches courses in English and legal studies. His short stories have appeared in 'Sudden Flash Youth' (Persea Books 2011) and several literary magazines. 'DoG' (2012) is his debut novel.