The Illusion of Star Wars Technology

By Jeremy Hsu | December 22, 2014 3:24 pm
A scene from the first teaser trailer for "Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens" Credit: Lucasfilm Ltd / Disney

A scene from the first teaser trailer for “Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens” Credit: Lucasfilm Ltd / Disney

The first teaser trailer for the upcoming film “Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens” treated viewers to the familiar sights and sounds of many science fiction ideas that moviegoers loved from the original trilogy: a hover vehicle skimming above the ground, a whimsical droid’s beeps and bloops, a shot of X-Wings flying in formation, and the hiss of a lightsaber being revealed. Such technologies have inspired young girls and boys to become scientists and engineers, and have even helped spawn several U.S. military projects. Yet the Star Wars films manage to dazzle us with their technological fantasies without having much meaningful to say about how technology actually works.

Most Star Wars technology seems to exist in its own alternate dimension that defies both physics and common-sense use of technology. X-Wings perform maneuvers in space as though they were aircraft constrained by flying in Earth’s atmosphere. Imperial TIE Fighters have giant, vision-blocking solar panels on their sides for no apparent reason. Stormtroopers consistently prefer to fire their blaster weapons from the hip rather than use their gun sights like modern soldiers. The fussy protocol droid C-3PO is doomed to shuffle along awkwardly despite the existence of high-mobility robot legs in the Star Wars prequel films. And Chewbacca’s bowcaster weapon seems so wild from a design perspective that it might as well be shooting magic missiles.

The lack of real-world grounding or logic for much Star Wars technology shouldn’t come as a shock for most people. Critics tend to describe the films as being “space opera” rather than “hard science fiction” because of the focus on drama rather than on creating a scientifically accurate universe with plausible technologies. The Star Wars stories set “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away” could just as easily be transplanted to an alternate fantasy universe.

Reverse engineering Star Wars technology

But a lack of technological realism has not stopped scientists, engineers and writers from having fun figuring out technical explanations for Star Wars technologies and their usage in the films. Popular Mechanics surveyed a number of “experts” to find out whether the Death Star could really blow up the planet Alderaan (Hint: Probably not). Wired has analyzed the Galactic Empire’s questionable military tactics in failing to use its space superiority to destroy the Rebel Alliance base on the icy planet Hoth. PBS produced a video explaining why the spaceship combat seen in Star Wars and plenty of other science fiction stories makes little sense from a physics or military standpoint.

The teaser trailer for “Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens” — the upcoming film that takes place after the original trilogy — sparked a flurry of online debate over whether a new three-bladed lightsaber that makes little sense from a design standpoint could still be justified by the “cool” factor. (Charles Choi, a science journalist who studies Japanese swordsmanship, provided a particularly sharp analysis of the value of sword cross-guards for Popular Science.)

Even U.S. military projects have reflected our strong cultural fascination with the fantastical technologies of the Star Wars universe, as the Washington Post points out. President Ronald Reagan proposed the Strategic Defense Initiative, known more popularly as the Star Wars program, during the 1980s to intercept and destroy Soviet missiles. The robotic DEKA arm developed with funding from the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency was nicknamed “Luke” in honor of Luke Skywalker’s cybernetic hand.

Occasionally, Star Wars can even stir grassroots movements among fans to recreate its fantastical technologies. One of the most striking examples was  the “AT-AT for America” project in 2011 that aimed to build a real-life version of the huge robotic walkers first seen in “Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back.” That idea generated plenty of online enthusiasm and media coverage before Lucasfilm stepped in and put a stop to the idea due to intellectual property concerns.

The Star Wars illusion

So why do Star Wars technologies prove so alluring despite the lack of underlying realism or logic in many cases? Much of the credit goes to Lucas and his filmmaking team for using the sights and sounds of Earth technologies to make moviegoers believe in the Star Wars universe. Such moviemaking tricks create a vague sense of visual familiarity and realism in Star Wars technologies despite their otherwise fantastical designs.

For instance, the space combat between dogfighting X-Wings and TIE Fighters may be nonsense from a physics standpoint, but their swoops, twists and turns deliberately evoke the aerial combat of World War II fighter planes. Star Wars creator George Lucas has described how he used gun camera footage from World War II aircraft as inspiration for the “space dogfights” in his films. A blog post on the official Starwars.com website also points out the dialogue and visual similarities between the pivotal Death Star trench run in “Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope” and the 1955 British film “The Dam Busters” about a real-life Royal Air Force bombing raid that destroyed several German dams during World War II.

The futuristic blaster rifles and pistols found in the hands of Star Wars heroes and villains used the designs and components of historical real-world guns, according to the Internet Movie Firearms Database. The familiar blaster rifles seen in the hands of stormtroopers were modified models of a British sub machine gun used by the British military from the 1950s to 1980s. Han Solo’s trusty blaster pistol was based on a German semi-automatic pistol manufactured from 1896 through the late 1930s. (See my previous post for more on Hollywood’s favorite science fiction guns based on real-life guns.)

Real-world technology’s influence can even be found in the famous spaceship design of the Millennium Falcon. Cole Horton on Starwars.com points out that “greenhouse-style window” of the Falcon’s cockpit bears a strong resemblance to the cockpit of the U.S. B-29 Superfortress. The latter was an aircraft that entered service during the later years of World War II and dropped the first atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It’s also worth noting that the German Heinkel He 111 bomber had a similar cockpit window design during the war.

The Star Wars films also lean heavily upon the sounds of real-world technologies to make the fantastical seem believable. Famed sound designer Ben Burtt created the sounds of speeder bikes in “Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi” by mixing the sounds of a P-51 Mustang and P-38 Lightning — both U.S. fighter aircraft during World War II. Burtt also slowed down the sound of the P-51 Mustang’s engine in order to help create the iconic sound of the Millennium Falcon, according to the Starwars.com article. Anyone wanting to appreciate the P-51 Mustang’s sound need only look to a classic scene from Steven Spielberg’s 1987 film “Empire of the Sun,” which features a very young Christian Bale whooping and hollering in glee as P-51 Mustangs swoop overhead.

Making moviegoers believe

Star Wars technologies may not have believable technical explanations for how they work, or even the most sensible explanations for how they’re developed or used. But the overwhelming popularity of the Star Wars franchise shows that the films don’t need technological realism in order to win over moviegoers. Instead, the best Star Wars films succeed when their technological fantasies support the storytelling from a visual and sound standpoint.

For instance, the gawky, lumbering Imperial AT-AT Walkers that attacked the Rebel Alliance’s Echo base on Hoth seem like poorly-designed robotic walkers from a practical engineering and military standpoint. But their towering, elephantine presence projects a certain menace that serves the Star Wars narrative of the gargantuan Galactic Empire trying to crush the Rebel Alliance underfoot.

By the same token, the lightsabers of Star Wars are almost pure fantasy as laser swords. But their iconic role in the Star Wars universe instantly gives moviegoers a storytelling frame of reference to understand the Jedi Order as the futuristic equivalent of future knights or samurai, bound by ancient codes equivalent to the ideals of chivalry and bushido. “An elegant weapon for a more civilized age,” as Obi-wan Kenobi puts it.

So it’s OK that Star Wars doesn’t really have much to say about technology. The films’ fantastical visions don’t have to be realistic to inspire scientists and engineers working in the real world to reach a little higher for something that might otherwise seem impossible. And I’ll happily look forward to seeing how director J.J. Abrams tackles the next big chapter in the Star Wars universe in 2015, as long as he can continue to successfully maintain the illusion of Star Wars technology. If reactions to the trailers for “The Force Awakens” are any indication, some of that “Star Wars” magic is still alive and well.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: technology, top posts, Uncategorized
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  • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/qz4.htm Uncle Al

    If violence was not the answer, then you did not use enough of it fast enough. The rest of war is paperwork. Get in, get it, get out.

  • SayWhat?

    Maybe the gun sights are in the helmet the storm troopers wear. Maybe the Tie-fighter’s “wings’ are actually sensors and navigational arrays. Perhaps you don’t need language and protocol robots with high mobility, and C-3PO has somehow just abnormally inherited its maker’s penchant for adventure. Maybe the Death Star shoots an anti-matter ray and really can blow up a planet. And maybe it is “all nonsense from a physics standpoint”, hence the genre “science fiction”. I fail to understand these types of articles that try to point out the obvious – that a sci-fi story may not be based in fact – nor physics.

    • visibleunderwater

      I’ve read the storm troopers where helped by Palpatine while he was alive, some type of Battle Meditation that greatly increased their abilities. That’s why when he was killed a bunch of teddy bears where able to defeat storm troopers lol. So maybe shooting from the hip is faster and with the Emporer’s influence just as accurate. They probably didn’t even know about this so once he was gone they just kept going on the way they where trained….especially since they where “created” to follow orders and be obedient.

      LOL I’m such a nerd haha

    • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/qz4.htm Uncle Al

      Maybe the Death Star shoots an anti-matter ray and really can blow up a planet.

      1) Half of hadron-hadron annihilation energy comes out as neutrinos. Estimate what energy you need, then double it.
      2) Gravitational binding energy for Earth, including density gradient, is -1.711×10^32 J,
      3) E = mc^2. -1.711×10^32 J is -1.904×10^15 kg or 1.904×10^12 metric tonnes of antimatter. Now, double it.
      4) Earth-sized planets cannot “blow up” that way.
      5) The Death Star beam cancels Fermi exclusion. Pauli exclusion of atoms’ electron shells ends. The Earth blows down to nuclear matter. A rather warm ball, Δ(PV) = energy, 101.325 joules/liter-atmosphere) of nuclear matter obtains, then
      6) Earth average density is 5.514 g/cm^3 with radius 6,378,137 m (WGS84). Nuclear density is about 2.3×10^14 g/cm^3. Earth’s collapsed radius is about 5.3 mm. Earth’s Schwarzschild radius is about 9 mm, and so a black hole is obtained that very slowly decays via Hawking radiation.

      http://typnet.net/Essays/EarthBind.htm

      • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/qz4.htm Uncle Al

        We’ve suffered a little math error here. Earth’s Pauli exclusion collapse radius is about 184 meters, or a ball some 1200 feet in diameter, 175% of the Louisiana Superdome’s diameter. That is still the way to go. Figure half of Mount Everest in antimatter to do it the other way. Blasting that down to the target planet over a couple of seconds at a modest fraction of lightspeed will afford mountanous recoil at the giving end.

        • SayWhat?

          Not if you have the newest de-recoilizer made by the Shutranomi – an off-shoot of the Kryptopalponostromous, who use the latest in “The Force!!!” technology to completely eliminate any recoil.

      • SayWhat?

        I guess you totally missed my point. You do know that you are using science to try and counter science fiction right? The anti matter ray gun I was referring to was made by the Kryptopalponostromous, an alien race that uses the omega particle in its anti-matter formula to hyper-excite the reaction to the power of infinity and beyond. No planet can withstand that.

      • Don’t Even Try It!

        I knew that ;-]

      • Tuvida NoesMeculpa

        You obviously don’t understand the inner workings of the death star. I could explain it to you but then I would have to kill you.

  • jamesB

    Maybe people should just let movies be movies. Next thing you’ll tell me that nasa couldn’t land a shop on an asteroid, bearing an oil rig crew, and stave off the destruction of earth

    • Daniel Hendrick

      It would help to remake TV show episodes like Deep Space Nine with the reality that artificial gravity is never going to occur. If you can’t buy it and nobody is selling it – until otherwise it can’t be done and if that is the truth. Remaking episodes so space debris kills crew not weird scifi nonsense. People would know why the scientists aren’t delivering what they want. They can’t because the fictional science is debunked by the reality of the actual hazards of space. It should be illegal to make a space epic with Hollywood short cuts like artifical – stage sets gravity.

      • SayWhat?

        Yeah lets make it illegal to be a kid too.

      • ericlipps

        Actually, it’s perfectly possible to have a form of artificial gravity, generated by centripetal force, aboard a rotating space station. Having a spacecraft rotate while traveling through space is trickier but might be possible.

        And even true artificial gravity isn’t necessarily out of the question. It’s worth remembering that as late as the 1930s scientists were skeptical that we’d ever have nuclear power or nuclear weapons, because the only known means of “splitting the atom” consumed more energy than they produced. Then uranium fission was discovered, and shortly thereafter it was realized that a fission chain reaction might be achievable . . .and the rest is history. Maybe we’ll get lucky again, though of course one can’t depend on it.

    • Overburdened_Planet

      Or that unobtainium gets stronger with pressure!

  • Keepdad

    Never thought that stuff was scientifically sound, just fun!

  • visibleunderwater

    Light saber’s are potentially inventable…http://www.smartplanet.com/blog/bulletin/scientists-make-the-star-wars-lightsaber-possible/ I think the invention of “metamaterials” is moving us closer to being able to manipulate light in very bizarre ways.

  • BarryBarry

    So I guess Jerry won’t be going to the premier.

    Where do they find these pedantic fools?

  • Captain Slog

    BLATERS, apparently, work like CO2 Pistols and Rifles, except they use a different Gas. In the STAR WARS Universe, its “Tabana’ Gas. What that very same gas is to US could be Methane, Hydrogen, or something else.
    From what I’ve read about the Specs of how a Blaster works, it is very much like a Gas Powered Air Gun. Breaking it down to its simplest components, you have a Gas Supply, ENOUGH FOR UP TO 2000 shots or more, a Power Supply, via the “Magazine” with enough Power for up to 500 Shots or more, all depending on the Model and Make. BlasTech’s DL-11 {Stirling SMG to us] has a Power Pack for up to 500 Shots, and Gas Supply for up to 2000 Shots. Maximum Devastating Range is up to 350 Metres, and NO! They DON’T have any Recoil!! That is just some “Director’s” idea that to make the Blasters appear to be really POWERFUL, the actors had to put on a powerful BOOT when they fired their BLANKS!! Next is a Powerful Capacitor or two to build up Charge for the LASER and the GALVANISING TUBE or Barrel made up of several very powerful Magnets.

    • Jason

      What’s a BLATER?

      • Captain Slog

        G’day Jase! Good spotting!
        Its a Typo! I was unable to correct it for some reason, because, I was unable to continue what I was doing almost at the end of my Comments. I tried Posting it and that worked, so I went into EDIT and fixed the Typo. You saw it before I fixed it. Obvously I was writing BLASTER.
        Thanks for the Laugh!! we could ALL do with more of those throughout the New Year. I’m sick of all this misery and upset.
        Have a Very Happy New Year, and the same to ALL Readers of this Page.

  • Captain Slog

    Different Subject!! REPULSORLIFT Technology!
    To be honest, I haven’t a bloody CLUE how it works, but, I HAVE SEEN IT!! Actually, three of us saw it in the form of a beautiful mass of Red, Orange, Yellow, Blue, Green and White Lights, which we fondly call “The Flying Xmas Tree,” parked above the hill on the eastern edge of our township. Yes, it was a Ship of some sort, but what it looked like, we just don’t know. It was cleverly HIDDEN IN PLAIN SIGHT behind all those lights, and it must’ve been quite large because it was just as high as the tallest Pine Trees on the hill, but, don’t forget, it was parked ABOVE these trees. It sat there, very still, like a permanent fixture, sparkling like a Xmas Tree, hence our name for it, and in ABSOLUTE SILENCE.
    We watched it for roughly half an Hour talking about it and wondering what it was. Then, without warning, it very slowly started to move, picking up speed, but in no real hurry to leave, and it disappeared behind our Mountain to the South. To get an idea, stand with hour hand pointing out in front of you. Now turn at the waist so you’re now pointing 90 Degrees Right. Do it as you read what I said above about the Ship’s departure, and that’s how long it took to leave.
    My mate

  • Wm Diehl

    The original appeal of Star Wars for me was that it did not waste the viewers time explaining the “technology.” To me it was the best of fantasy entertainment that did not try to justify itself. It is how the world of our imagination should work.

  • Alan

    The movies are stories played out in film. Their purpose is to wow, to invoke emotional response. You can’t do that without the sounds we are used to. It is dead silent in space. The audience has no frame of reference, no experience with future technology based on real physics. They need to see and hear things that sound and seem real to them, which are stuff from the last great war. Even today, the average person is more afraid of a knife than a gun, more afraid of a spider than walking across a busy street, even though these emotional reactions are way off in terms of real life danger. I imagine that if a real life documentary of a far future space war were shown to the average person today, they would hardly understand what was happening, let alone have any emotional reaction to it. We primitive humans need loud banging noises and flashes of light to awe us; thunder and lightning or a close approximation.

  • Yoikes

    Don’t forget, this was all a long time ago in a galaxy far away! Not the future here.

  • El Paso Nick

    read some Jack Campbell “Lost Fleet” novels for a pretty solid look at space battles

  • nicholasbarnett

    It might be noted that the Dam Busters raid enjoyed only partial and temporary success. The damage to the dams was soon repaired and both water flow and electric power restored. Albert Speer discusses the episode in his book Inside the Third Reich. A follow-up raid on the damaged dams or on the repair efforts might have resulted in major disruption, but was not implemented. In general, the Allies grossly overestimated the efficacy of anti-industrial air raids.

  • Matt Zed

    Actually, the Tie Fighter’s ‘solar panels’ are actually radiators that act as heat sinks, as the Ion Engines generate a lot of heat. The wings do not block the cockpit view at all. :) For a more fan-friendly look at Star Wars tech, check out http://www.moseisleyspaceport.org/5-awesome-pieces-of-star-wars-technology/

  • Robin Lee

    ** HUGE STAR WARS INFO** I know where he got his inspiration, I sit on a very BIG story. I am Robin Lee. Twenty years ago I filmed and documented the tragic demise of the iconic estate art studio of American pop culture artist, Maxfield Parrish. Filmmaker GEORGE LUCAS said that it was the art work of Maxfield Parrish that directly inspired the feel and look of his Star Wars films, ( The Lucas Effect, George Lucas and the New Hollywood, page 282 ). What I own is epic but the discoveries I have made are fantastic. I have been working on this project for years uncovering vital and important info not only for the art world but for the world of Star Wars. That amazing art studio wad steeped in art and Star Wars history, Parrish built that studio, Parrish painted that art work there that inspired Lucas. He lived there with his devoted model, Sue Lewin, she is connected to all of this! I need help getting this info all over the world, please get this story on social media, I am not tech savvy. I have findings and art history, my theory is that **Star Wars truly began in that art studio of Maxfield Parrish around 1904. **I believe that the “beautiful” model to Parrish” Sue Lewin, is 100% connected to the “beautiful” princess Leia My theories are correct- maxfieldparrishmovie.com and maxfieldparrishmotif.com these sites are loaded with true info, but their is much more. Please pod cast this epic story, Lucas will showcase his Parrish collection in his new museum, I am in hopes that he will see this story, please help me in any way you can- this story must be discovered! Thank u, Robin Lee, Maine The force does exist, it does

  • Robin Lee

    EPIC STORY OUT OF THE UK, NEW INFO ABOUT LUCAS AND LEIA. MUST READ IT, FANTASTIC ARTICLE, FEED THE MINDS.
    ( The Game of Nerds origins of Star Wars the case for Maxfield Parrish)
    Look this story up, release it all over the planet.||

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Lovesick Cyborg

Lovesick Cyborg examines how technology shapes our human experience of the world on both an emotional and physical level. I’ll focus on stories such as why audiences loved or hated Hollywood’s digital resurrection of fallen actors, how soldiers interact with battlefield robots and the capability of music fans to idolize virtual pop stars. Other stories might include the experience of using an advanced prosthetic limb, whether or not people trust driverless cars with their lives, and how virtual reality headsets or 3-D film technology can make some people physically ill.

About Jeremy Hsu

Jeremy Hsu is journalist who writes about science and technology for Scientific American, Popular Science, IEEE Spectrum and other publications. He received a master’s degree in journalism through the Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program at NYU and currently lives in Brooklyn. His side interests include an ongoing fascination with the history of science and technology and military history.

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