Star Wars is Bad Sci-Fi

This week I’m taking a brief digression from dishing out some of the background and inside-story on my career as a novelist to examine something a little more current: the new Star Wars movies. Specifically, I’m looking at Episodes VII and VIII, The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi. And I’m going to pick on them in this post, so buckle your seatbelts.

Let me begin by saying two things: I like movies quite a lot. I’m very uncritical of most movies, even movies that are sorta bad, because I like going to the movie theater and being entertained by big spectacles. In fact, I will often go to a movie I *know* is going to be bad (I’m looking at you, San Andreas) just because I know it’s going to present a hell of a spectacle on the big screen.

Second, I enjoyed The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi. They’re much better than the prequels, which were wrecked by a casting decision and some bad story choices. (Not even my most generous movie-loving instincts could stand up to Attack of the Clones, sorry.) I’ll pause when channel-surfing to enjoy a few minutes of TFA if it’s on, and I expect I’ll do the same with TLJ. But I need to get this off my chest: As *science* fiction, these movies are terrible, and they’re getting worse.

At its heart, the thing that makes science fiction different from other genres is that sci-fi is about making a speculation about something that doesn’t exist, and telling a story in which the implications of your initial assumption make sense and matter. Star Wars always skated close to that line, but the new movies aren’t even trying anymore. That’s a shame.

Immense Spoilers to Follow

Seriously, don’t read any further unless you’ve already seen the movies.

I’m not going to try to get into whether it was a good idea for The Force Awakens to remake Episode IV (probably yes), or whether Rey needs to be a ridiculous Mary Sue (probably no), or how much it hurts to see everything that was worth fighting for in the original trilogy destroyed so that Star Wars can remain true to its brand promise of scrappy rebels fighting stormtroopers (a lot, but maybe necessary). Those are complicated and subjective discussions; I’ll leave them for someone else. I’m going to stick to three main points of bad science:

  1. Travel is a few hours no matter how far you go (always a problem in Star Wars).
  2. Bombers in space (a minor plot point in the new movie, but it just bugs me).
  3. You can hyper through things to blow them up (a new revelation in The Last Jedi).

Travel Time: To be fair, characters in the Star Wars universe have always switched locations at the speed of plot. Way back in The Empire Strikes Back, we had to suspend disbelief that Luke could experience what seemed like multiple weeks of training on Dagobah while everybody else was on the run in the Millennium Falcon for what seemed like maybe a couple of days. In The Last Jedi, we were spared the same challenge; it’s pretty clear that Rey wasn’t on Luke’s island for all that long. But Finn and Rose were sent off from a fleet on the run to go get someone from God-knows-how-many-parsecs away and bring him back to that fleet in a matter of hours. Couldn’t the good guys have evacuated the fleet by using that same tactic?

Well, okay, I guess that’s the way the universe works. But what kills me is that no one follows the implications to their logical end: No point is safe from fleet attack because there is no strategic depth, military borders don’t exist, and sieges lasting more than a few hours make no sense because one side or the other can quickly bring in more forces to resolve the standoff. If I can send my fleet to a spot where your fleet isn’t and damage your warmaking ability, why wouldn’t I? Imagine what World War II would have looked like if the Pacific Ocean was only 500 miles across instead of 5000. That’s the Star Wars galaxy.

Bombers in Space: This scene makes no sense at all. Why do the bombs fall? Either those bombers are maneuvering in orbit, in which case ejecting the bombs just puts them in orbit alongside you, or they’re under power and not orbiting, in which case ejecting the bombs puts them just outside your ship (after which you begin to pull away from them because you’re still accelerating and they’re not). If they’re propelled or ejected so they look like they’re falling, couldn’t you turn the ship on its side and shoot the bombs at the target like shells out of a cannon? (EDIT: Russ Morrissey points out that there is clearly artificial gravity *inside* the bomber, so momentum might carry the bombs out after you open the doors. But why do the bombers themselves “fall” out of formation when destroyed?)

(It would have been ridiculously easy to have “bombers” be bomb carriers that accelerated toward the target and eject their bombs, which would keep going straight while the bombers turned away after executing their attack run. In fact, that would have been interesting, cinematic, and a little science-y.)

No, what really bugs me about this scene is what it implies: The movie-makers did something they thought would look cool, they didn’t care about the science at all, and they figured you wouldn’t care either. It’s like the way the new Star Trek movies abandoned the idea of Star Fleet officers earning important assignments through years of experience, and made being the captain into a Most Charismatic award for a special cadet. The movie-makers didn’t understand the “source material” so they didn’t see why they couldn’t just make it the way they wanted it to be, and they figured you didn’t understand it either and wouldn’t care. It’s kind of insulting, really.

Light-Speed Impacts Destroy Things: This one scene destroys the plots of eight movies or so. Admiral Holdo demonstrates that by setting her cruiser’s course right into the middle of the pursuing fleet and punching the light-speed button, she can cause an immense amount of destruction. That actually makes a bit of scientific sense: Assuming that things accelerate in some way while entering hyperspace and are thus moving somewhere close to light speed at the point of impact, then yes, the velocity would result in unimaginable destruction. You could devastate a continent, maybe crack open a world, by flying a near-light-speed object of sufficient mass into it. The problem is that if this capability exists in this universe, why haven’t we seen it before?

  • Why didn’t the Rebels take out Starkiller Base this way in the previous movie? Or a couple of Death Stars back in the day? Or, if those targets are “too big” to be destroyed that way, maybe just wrecking the laser dish that makes up the main armament? I’d settle for a mission kill in those situations.
  • Why build Death Stars at all? Unmanned Star Destroyers doing lightspeed-kamikazes into planets would probably do just as well and cost a lot less megabucks.
  • Why aren’t people shooting droid-piloted X-wing fighters as light-speed anti-ship missiles at anything the size of a Star Destroyer? With this capability, why would people risk building capital ships at all?
  • Earlier in this same movie, the Rebels had two other cruisers run out of fuel and be destroyed. If the lightspeed-kamikaze was a thing, why oh why didn’t they try it with those ships first? You’re not even keeping track of things that can happen in your own movie, let alone the greater cinematic universe!

Does It Matter?

At some point, you can say that Star Wars—or just about any popular science fiction—is so riddled with impossible things that getting worked up about bombers in space is pointless. Lightsabers and the hyper-drive and one-environment worlds have always been a part of this universe, and as far as we know they’re ridiculous bad science. We overlook that because we want to see stories about people fighting with laser swords and using starships to go visit alien planets. Why fuss now?

In one word: Consistency.

When you create a setting filled with impossible things—say, magic in the Harry Potter world, or hyper-drives in the Star Wars universe—it’s important to define what they can do and what they can’t do. You’re asking your readers (or viewers) to accept a certain set of what-ifs for the sake of the story. People are generous and they’re happy to accommodate you; they want to have fun exploring your universe and imagining what it would be like to be a part of it. But when you show your readers that you don’t care about your own rules, and that you’re too lazy to explore obvious implications for your tech or your magic (or earlier decisions you made in your own narrative!), then the questions of What do I need to know about this universe? and Why should I care about these characters and their problems? get much harder to answer.

(I’m going to go out on a limb right now and predict that there will be a very important problem in Episode IX that can be solved by flying a ship into it at light-speed, and the movie-makers won’t expect us to remember that they established in Episode VIII that that was a thing. Hell, they might not even remember themselves.)

Ultimately, the bad science gets under my skin because it shows that the movie-maker either a) doesn’t  know that what he’s doing is wrong, b) doesn’t care and sees no reason to work a little harder to get it right, or c) thinks that I’m too stupid to notice. None of those answers feels like it should be acceptable for one of the most valuable franchises in the world.

And if you’re leaving me dissatisfied, well, you’re making some serious mistakes. I’m really generous about movies and I want to like what you’re doing.

3 thoughts on “Star Wars is Bad Sci-Fi

  1. Steve Williams

    I agree completely. I saw the movie last night and it’s taken a day of reflection to process my thoughts. It’s just a bad movie. I used to rate the prequels as the worst of the bunch, but this one sits below even those. I think it shows a remarkable contempt for the audience.

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  2. You hit some big, ugly nails squarely on the head, Rich. The bomber was stupid but I could rationalize it. What bothered me more in that scene was the question of why the bad guys still build gigantic ships with well-known fatal weaknesses.

    The light-speed missile thing was unimaginably bad. As you say, every other weapon at a fleet’s disposal is now irrelevant, because a missile comprising a hyperspace engine and a guidance system is the most destructive thing in the galaxy.

    There was also the whole “they can’t track us through hyperspace” thing. Yet the rebels had on the command ship a device that allowed Rey to track them from anywhere in the galaxy, AND they were able to send and receive communications while in hyperspace. So clearly they knew that not only is it possible to track someone who makes a hyperjump, they were already using that ability themselves.

    And I can’t leave without mentioning the ridiculous salt speeders.
    “They’re moving too fast, sir, I can’t follow them!”
    “Calm down, soldier. Just aim at the leading point of that gigantic, red salt plume.”

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  3. Aaron B Wayman

    While everything you wrote feels true. I still came away enjoying myself. Of course, I went in with low expectations, after the Force Awakens. The lack of “distance and time” aspect of the newer movies are my biggest complaints of the new movies. I swear, if it weren’t for Poe’s piloting, I would give up on the franchise.

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