Tag Archives: Star Wars

Science Fiction Tropes: Humanoid Aliens and Faster than Light Travel

By D.G. McCabe

I may or may not have mentioned on this blog that, concurrently to this project, I’ve also been working on a science fiction novel for quite some time.  Recently, I was browsing the internet, looking for a few ideas and I came across two concept that, apparently, are on the outs within the science fiction writing community.  The first is “humanoid aliens,” the second is “faster than light travel.”  I’m going address both these concepts one at a time to explain why I don’t think there is a good justification for eliminating either concept as a science fiction concept.

Humanoid Aliens

We all know the reason why Star Trek aliens look like humans – and no, not the canonical explanation put forth in Star Trek: The Next Generation – I mean the real reason.   The budget for a 1960’s TV show wasn’t exactly robust, so Gene Roddenberry and friends had to make do with what they had, which wasn’t much.  For the sake of the continuity of the series, the aliens were mostly kept humanoid.  Star Wars and other films/television series have mostly humanoid aliens, although there is far more diversity than in Star Trek.

I have read a few articles, and the comments to those articles, which find humanoid aliens to be implausible – the elements of soft science fiction and fantasy.  The justification goes that just because life evolved a certain way on Earth, doesn’t mean that life would evolve that way on other planets.  In fact, judging by what we know about our own Solar System and problems posed by the Fermi Paradox (odds are we should have encountered some aliens by now, why haven’t we?) it appears unlikely that aliens would look like us.

I take exception to stating that humanoid, sentient aliens are implausible.  First, look at the sheer number of “humanoid” animals on Earth (if we count anything that walks upright as “humanoid”).  There are all other primates, bears, kangaroos, penguins, meerkats, and prairie dogs to name a few.  “Humanoid” seems like a pretty low bar to hit when describing another animal.

Secondly, and more importantly, if we use the same standard in which we judge other science fiction concepts (hard and grounded in real science versus soft and grounded in fantasy), it follows that humanoid aliens are more plausible than not.  First, we have to assume that Earth is not that unusual or unique.  If life developed on Earth, it would likely develop on planets similar to Earth.

If life develops on Earth-like planets, it follows that it would develop in a similar fashion as on Earth.  To assume otherwise would be to say that the laws of chemistry and physics are consistent throughout the universe, but biology is “crazy” and anything can happen.  The potential for mutation is limited to what actually works in an environment.  If a planet is similar to Earth, it follows that the environment wouldn’t be so radically different that these mutations wouldn’t follow a similar path.

We then have to think about why humans are sentient and have civilization and other species, say, dolphins, do not.  The answer is basic and well known – we have hands and dolphins do not.  Other factors include our relatively long life spans compared to most animals and our adaptability to different environments.  In short, if an alien species evolved to a level of sentience on an Earth-like planet, the most logical result would be that they would generally look humanoid, if by humanoid we mean a creature with its hand free and a head on its shoulders.

Faster than Light Travel

This one is trickier from a scientific point of view.  According to Einstein’s theory of general relativity, matter cannot exceed the speed of light.  The piece of matter would need infinite energy in order to do so. There are a few theories out there using wormholes and warp bubbles that would work around this, but these methods would require an amount of energy that may be impossible to generate.  In other words, it looks like we’re kind of stuck.

First of all, let’s explore why we need faster than light travel in science fiction.  Without it, you are stuck with telling stories that are: 1) mostly about humans; 2) mostly about the effects of time dilation (time moves at different speeds at different accelerations and locations); or, 3) stories about humans experiencing the effects of time dilation. Speculative scenarios involving humanity’s place in a larger universe are effectively off limits, since there is no larger universe that is practically accessible.  You need faster than light travel to enlarge the scope of the story you are trying to tell.

Granted you can tell a lot of good stories about humans, time dilation, and the effects of time dilation on humans, but why limit yourself?  Yes you would need an explanation as to why this thing exists that shouldn’t – a thing whose existence would challenge our very understanding about either general relativity and/or the production of energy. But who says there won’t be such a discovery?  In all of human history there is only one Albert Einstein and one Issac Newton after all, why not someone to come up with something that solves the problem of practical interstellar travel?  My point is that, just because we don’t know something now, or it would challenge our understanding about how the universe works, doesn’t mean that someone won’t think of it.  In conclusion, I don’t think “well that’s not how the universe works based on our current understanding of science” is a good reason to categorize all speculative fiction with solution to the faster than light travel problem as “fantasy,” as long as the solution has some grounding in reality.  After all, what’s the difference between that, and assuming that a sentient alien species can evolve on an Earth-like planet that looks absolutely nothing like what evolved that way on our planet?

(c) 2014 D.G. McCabe

The Empire Strikes Back and the Science Fiction Genre

Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back

1980, Irvin Kershner, USA

“The force is with you young Skywalker.  But you are not a Jedi yet.”

Most people that are familiar with the Star Wars series consider the Empire Strikes Back (“Empire”) to be the best film of the six.  Once in a while you’ll run into someone who finds the original Star Wars (1977) or Return of the Jedi (1983) to be their favorite, but I find it hard to argue against Empire.

And why not?  Empire succeeds in everything that it tries to do.  It moves the story along from the first Star Wars film, sets up a convincing love story, trains Luke (Mark Hamill) as a Jedi, builds tension, and ends on the perfect note to set up the next film.  There are none of the plot inconsistencies, or unsuccessful attempts at humor that you find in some of the other films in the series and far fewer issues with the dialogue.

So if Empire is an extremely successful and well made film – where does it stack up against the classics of the science fiction genre?  I would first argue that science fiction is such a versatile genre that it is really like comparing apples and oranges, but let’s give it a try anyway.

Besides Empire, three other great science fiction films include 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968),  Solaris (1972),  and Ghost in the Shell (1995). First, 2001 is a story about mankind’s place in the universe, contains groundbreaking visuals, and gives the audience a chance to soak in the concepts of the film with its long shots and minimal use of dialogue.  It’s nowhere near as entertaining as Empire (I personally find it boring), but it isn’t intended to be – it’s intended to make you think about reality whereas Empire exists in a self-contained, fantasy universe.

Solaris is about human isolation, nostalgia, and loneliness.  It is the story of a cosmonaut who is tempted by a living planet to exist in his past rather than his present.  It isn’t so much a science fiction film as a fever dream.  Empire isn’t interested in peering deep into your soul the way Solaris is, and with good reason.  Could you imagine Han Solo (Harrison Ford) getting nostalgic about, well, anything?

Ghost in the Shell, of course, is not about a fantastic galaxy far, far away, but about our present relationship with technology.  It is a commentary on the line between man and machine, and, at base, what makes us human.  Granted it has a lot more action than Solaris or 2001, but its psychological themes are in some ways encompassing of both films.  Like 2001, Ghost in the Shell asks to what extent can we become dependent on machines/computers and still be human? Like Solaris, it explores isolation by asking if we can have constant access to the “net” yet still feel isolated?

Is Empire a “great” film?  Like 2001 or Solaris or Ghost in the Shell, it is well made and executes its goals without obvious flaws.  The issue, I believe, is that Empire’s success occurs in the mythological universe of Star Wars.  Rather than provide commentary on the present human condition, it instead builds upon a mythological story filled with basic and accessible themes about good and evil, fathers and sons, and friendships helping us overcome adversity.  It doesn’t reach for the philosophical as much as these other films, but that’s not a flaw in my opinion.

Too often we are compelled to assign “greatness” to the most philosophical works and dismiss films with simpler themes as mere entertainment.  I would argue that a film’s “greatest” exists in how well it achieves its objectives – not by what those objectives are.  If you use that as a measure, indeed Empire is a great work of science fiction and one of the greatest science fiction films ever made.

(c) 2012 D.G. McCabe

Star Wars (Episode IV): The Phenomenon

Star Wars

(a.k.a. Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope)

(1977, George Lucas, USA)

Star Wars may be the most popular movie of all time.  When adjusted for inflation, only Gone with the Wind (1939) has made more money at the box office – and it can be safely said that Star Wars is a more popular film than that particularly troubled work.

As an impartial movie observer, I would agree that there are better films than Star Wars.  It’s true that George Lucas’  greatest cinematic influences comes from the man whom this writer believes is the greatest filmmaker who ever lived – Akira Kurosawa.  Most notably, there are elements of Seven Samurai (1954) and the Hidden Fortress (1958) visible in Star Wars.  Both of these are considerably better movies than Star Wars, but, while popular, they are mostly popular among film buffs, film historians, and filmmakers.

So Star Wars is more popular than its cinematic influences, and it is more popular than the only movie that has made more money than it has (granted that film had a 38 year head start on Star Wars and periodic re-releases in that timeframe).  So why?  The first clue can be found in Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero with a Thousand Faces,” a favorite of George Lucas and a seminal work in modern mythological theory.  In it, Campbell sets forth the concept of the “mono-myth” or the singular myth that weaves a thread through the myths of all societies.  To boil it down into two sentences, the mono myth involves a reluctant hero answering a call to adventure from an older, father figure.  The hero must either defeat or avenge the father figure in order to complete his quest and return from it with a benefit to society as a whole.

While Lucas used Campbell’s work as a blueprint for Star Wars, elements of the mono-myth by its very nature can be found in numerous other better, less popular movies.  Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), the aforementioned Seven Samurai, and other classics films follow the Campbell mono-myth quite closely.  What sets Star Wars apart are three elements: its characters, its music, and its technology.

First, the acting in Star Wars is not technically of a high quality.  But who cares?  The actors’ performances create interesting and memorable characters.  It is no small feat that characters that appear on screen for only a few minutes at a time are among fans’ all time favorites.  The main characters are among the most memorable in cinema history (no matter who shot first, which, by the way, was obviously Han).

Second, the musical score, heavily influenced by Gustav Holst’s The Planets Suite (one of the most important pieces of music from the 20th Century), is among John Williams’ best. Remember, this was in the era of drum machines and synthesizers, and I’m sure some film producer told Lucas to use a more “futuristic” sounding score.  But just as Stanley Kubrick used a classical score for 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Williams’ orchestral score magnifies the epic feel of the film.

Finally, the technology’s impact cannot be understated.  No one had figured out how to make realistic space combat on screen before Star Wars.  If you watch the classic television series Mystery Science Theater 3000, for instance, you will see dozens of crappy attempts at this.  The fact of the matter is that Star Wars made these effects look real, and this was a huge deal at the time that cannot be understated.

Beyond these three elements, the popularity of Star Wars sustained itself in a time before the internet or easy access to home video.  The experience of seeing that film for the first time stayed with fans for decades, and comes back to them a little bit every time they see it.  That even goes for those of us who first saw the movie on home video or on cable television.  While you can nitpick flaws in Star Wars’ script, acting, or the changes and updates Lucas has made to it over the years, it is its ability to impact the first time viewer and stay with them that makes Star Wars perhaps the most popular film of all time.

(c) 2012

Star Wars: Episode III and its Classic Villains

Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith

(2005, George Lucas, USA)

Revenge of the Sith (“RoS”) is by far the best film of the prequel trilogy.  The film of course focuses on Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) becoming Darth Vader and the Republic becoming the Empire (and thus the Chancellor becoming the Emperor (Ian McDiarmid).  I often wondered why Lucas chose to accomplish both of these tasks in a single film instead of spreading them out, but it definitely works out well in the end, as the film successfully sets up not one, but two classic movie villains.

The Emperor of course has been playing a double agent since Episode I, simultaneously controlling the Republic through the Senate and the Separatists through his apprentice, Count Dooku (Christopher Lee).  Clearly his apprentices don’t last very long (Darth Maul (Ray Park) lasts at least an entire film whereas Count Dooku is only really in the second half of Episode II), but there is method to his madness in that he’s aiming for the apprentice he truly wants the entire time.

The Emperor fits a villain archetype of the grand schemer.  Other examples include Blofeld from the James Bond series, Lex Luthor, and Michael Corleone.  These are men with tremendous power and effect their will not through brute force but by shadowy manipulation.  When compared to aforementioned villains, the Emperor is certainly a head above Blofeld (who’s over complicated schemes end up causing his undoing).  As for Luthor, it depends what interpretation you’re going off of; with the modern interpretation certainly more on par with the Emperor than the Silver Age, mad scientist Luthor.  Corleone is a good comparison. Even though he eventually repents in the Godfather Part III, his ruthlessness and meticulous scheming are certainly on par with the Emperor’s.

Darth Vader on the other hand is a villain as fallen hero.  Certainly he can be compared to Hercules or Lancelot, but those comparisons really don’t fit.  After all, Hercules was allowed to rectify his crimes through his twelve labors, so his fall to the proverbial “dark side” was only temporary (and caused by Hera for that matter).

The example of Lancelot is a bit closer to Vader, but still doesn’t work.  After all, Lancelot did not intend to bring about the fall of Camelot, it was instead a consequence of his forbidden love affair with Guinevere.  Still, it is never shown that Lancelot is a particularly bad or evil person, but rather a man who placed his own feelings above the needs of the kingdom at large.  While this is certainly Sith-like, the lack of any ruthless malice on his part causes the example of his fall to be a bit short of Vader.

I think that the uniqueness in Vader is that he was first introduced as a villain and it was later revealed that he was once a hero. While the greatest plot twist in the history of cinema has been undone by the universal popularity of Star Wars, and later by the Prequel Trilogy, there is still value in approaching the Vader/Anakin dichotomy as Vader first.  After all, it underscores the danger that Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) faces in the Original Trilogy since it shows how extreme “falling to the dark side” really is.  There is rarely a chance for redemption, and any good intentions that the individual once had are now completely nullified by the lengths they will go to pursue whatever it is that they want.

Vader is of course a far more interesting villain than the Emperor in this manner.  The intricate web the Emperor weaves to come to power is far more interesting than the Emperor as a character, while Vader’s character and actions are both interesting to dissect.  Still, both are classic villains and Revenge of the Sith succeeds at showcasing their rise as villains, or as in Anakin/Vader’s case, his fall as a hero.

(c) 2012 D.G. McCabe

Star Wars: Episode II – A Study in Pacing (or What Not to Do)

Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones

(2002, George Lucas, USA)

When Attack of the Clones (“AOTC”)  came out, I remember there being a collective sigh of relief among movie goers.  Every place where Episode I went wrong seemed to have been righted.  There was less of a cartoonish feel, no child actors, and (almost) no Jar Jar.  But once it had beat initial, and admittedly lowered, expectations, an examination of the movie reveals a structural problem responsible for its failure to meet its potential – the movie’s pacing.

When you break AOTC up in pieces, you’ll find some of the best action sequences in all of the Star Wars movies: the chase through the skies of Coruscant; the fight between Obi Wan Kenobi and Jango Fett (Temuera Morrison) in the rain on Kamino; and the Battle of Geonosis at the end.  However, the movie never feels as exciting as any of the Original Trilogy or it’s successor, Revenge of the Sith (2005).

The movie begins promisingly enough with an assassination attempt on Padme Amidala (Natalie Portman), whom the audience was introduced to in Episode I.  The movie then slows to a crawl as her Jedi protectors are assigned (Obi Wan Kenobi (Ewen McGregor) and Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen)).  After that there is a tremendous chase scene.

Let’s compare this chase sequence from AOTC to one of the most exciting sequences from the original Star Wars (1977) to demonstrate.  The chase scene on Coruscant is preceded by heavy exposition and slow pacing.  Now, it is okay to shock the audience with a chase scene, raising the stakes and speeding up the film.  However the movie returns to its pre-chase scene pace immediately afterwards.  The movie follows this pattern for its remainder.

Now, take a look at the escape from Mos Eisley in Star Wars.  The Stormtroopers are closing in on Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) and Obi Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness), and when they are found out the movie escalates immediately.  However, unlike AOTC, the movie never returns to its pre-Mos Eisley pace, and every action sequence continues to build on the sequence that preceded it.  Likewise, every post-action slow down never returns to the pace of the slow-down that preceded it.  You can’t say this about AOTC.

If it were up to me, AOTC would be shown in every film editing class as the best example of what not to do when setting up the pace of a movie.  It isn’t a horrible movie by any means, but it never quite lives up to the potential of its bits and pieces because of the disjointed way that they are put together.

(c) 2012 D.G. McCabe

Star Wars: In Defense of Episode I

Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace

(1999, George Lucas, USA)

After having my flight canceled, spending an unexpected evening in Charlotte, NC, and basically heading straight from the airport to work yesterday, I’m back from Star Wars Celebration VI in Orlando, FL.  In celebration of the Celebration, I’m writing a six part series on the Star Wars movies, in episodic order.  This means starting with the much maligned Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (“TPM”).

The recent release of TPM in 3D gave movie critics an opportunity to practice their favorite bloodsport – dumping on a blockbuster.  Not just any blockbuster mind you, one of the most heavily criticized films ever made.  The criticism is so prevalent in our culture that we tend to forget there’s a movie under there at all.

Does anyone like TPM? I, for one, would argue that no movie makes the kind of king’s ransom at the box office that TPM did ($1B worldwide, $474M) without someone liking it.  If no one liked it, would people get dressed up as characters from it at a four day convention?  I mean c’mon people, I even saw someone in a Jar Jar costume!

Now don’t get me wrong – I don’t think that TPM is a good movie and I probably never will.   I’ll never forget when I first saw it how cartoonish it seemed compared to the Original Trilogy.  But I don’t remember hating it, and I don’t remember joining the chorus of critics of it until much later.

TPM doesn’t stand alone as an individual movie – but it never was intended to.  It’s a piece of a massive mythology that contains five other movies, dozens of books, video games, comic books, and a fantastic animated television series (The Clone Wars).  TPM was charged with setting the groundwork for that entire endeavor, while still being an entertaining film.  We all know to what extent it failed to do so, but here are some places where it succeeded:

1. The Jedi are friggin’ awesome.

The first thing that TPM establishes is that the Jedi are the supreme warriors of the galaxy.  Not in the way that the original Star Wars does (as legend), but by actually showing off their skills to the audience.

2. The Jedi are really, really patient.

I know, I know, Jar Jar (Ahmed Best) is really annoying.  The thing is though that the Jedi seem to agree.  Obi-Wan (Ewen McGregor) is shooting him dirty looks the entire movie, for example.  Qui-Gon (Liam Neeson), however, is patient with this creature, and treats him with respect despite his annoyance and obliviousness to his own stupidity.

3. Some things that seemed stupid when they were introduced in TPM are okay when explained later.

Anakin’s immaculate conception.  The boring senate scenes.  Midichorlians.  When we first saw TPM these things drove us crazy.  But, it turns out that all of these items lay the groundwork for the intricate web that the Emperor (Ian McDiarmid) is weaving in his ruthless rise to power.  The Emperor knew of Anakin because his master had been experimenting with the Dark Side of the Force to create life (and maybe others like Anakin, who knows).   At the same time, it is made clear that the Midichorlians aren’t the Force itself, but mircrobes that are particularly sensitive to the Force.  Even the boring Senate scenes are more interesting when we know exactly what is going on (the Emperor’s rise to power).

4. Qui-Gon Jin, Obi-Wan Kenobi, Padme Amidala (Natalie Portman) and Darth Maul (Ray Park) are great characters

Despite the focus on the disappointing or stereotypical characters, TPM actually does introduce some great characters to the Star Wars mythology.  The returning characters (The Emperor, C3PO (Anthony Daniels), R2-D2 (Kenny Baker)) don’t miss a step either.


TPM does not stand on its own merits, but that doesn’t make it a worthless film.  True, TPM is only enjoyable if you know what’s going on around it and you can immediately watch two more movies that will clear up inconsistencies and provide context.  The problem is that none of this other information was available when TPM came out – thus the thrashing that it received from critics and fans.  While I would start with the original Star Wars (I can’t get into calling it A New Hope, sorry) when introducing the story to someone who is unfamiliar with it, I also think that age and context have redeemed TPM to a certain extent.

(c) 2012 D. G. McCabe

Return of the Jedi (1983)

Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi

1983, United States, Director: Richard Marquand

Return of the Jedi may be one of the most hotly debated Star Wars films.  While it is far, far better than any of the prequels, many critics find it to be the weakest of the original trilogy.  Many fans, on the other hand, consider it the best of the original trilogy. So why the hate from critics? One word: Ewoks.

Before the numerous creative and storytelling errors of the Star Wars prequel trilogy came into being, the scene from the original trilogy that most angered Star Wars fans was the scene from Return of the Jedi where the Ewoks appear to defeat “an entire legion” of the Empire’s “best troops.”  At first glance, the scene is far fetched even for a science fiction/fantasy movie.  Little creatures that look like teddy bears defeat armored soldiers wielding energy weapons?  Seriously?  However if one were to take a moment to think about the sequence of events leading up to the Ewok attack and the events of the attack itself, it begins to become more plausible.  Here’s why:

1.  It’s not an “entire legion of my best troops.”

When the rebels first come to the Imperial Base, Han nervously points out that he and Chewie got into more heavily guarded places.  In the series, Han only gets nervous when he knows he’s wrong.  Also, in an earlier scene we see an AT-AT outside of the base.  The Base therefore is clearly heavily guarded.  However, the Ewoks shows the Rebels a back door that they didn’t previously know about and probably weren’t supposed to know about.  The Empire therefore has to scramble to a certain extent to defend that position, having expected a more direct assault.  The stronger troops probably did not have time, therefore, to swing around to the back door of the Base, which is clearly far away from the main structure.  Which leads me to:

2. The Ewoks have the element of surprise

When Han and the Rebels are caught red-handed, we see four AT-ST walkers (far weaker than AT-AT’s) and maybe two dozen troops.  This is by no means an overwhelming force.  Furthermore, the troops guarding the main base probably sat on their hands upon word that the Rebels had been captured.  In other words, the Empire was caught by surprise with a small force with its reinforcements in a state of unreadiness pretty far away.

3.  The Ewoks have the element of confusion

There are easily three or four times as many Ewoks as stormtroopers.  This is evidenced by both their numbers on the screen and how quickly they bring in various heavy weapons to the battle. Added to this, they are well camouflaged and have knowledge of the area.   This creates confusion among the Imperials as to how many Ewoks there are and where they are.

4. The confusion and surprise allows Chewie the opportunity to commandeer an AT-ST

After a few minutes, the Ewoks are clearly losing.  But the surprise and confusion allows Chewie to steal an AT-ST, swinging the battle back to the Rebels.  Some of the Ewoks are also shown having commandeered stormtrooper weapons, which probably help quite a bit as well.

5. The Ewoks are clearly stronger than they look

The Ewoks look cute and cuddly.  However, they are about the size and build of the North American Black Bear.  It is feasible, therefore, that the Ewoks are significantly stronger than the stormtroopers, and as indicated before, there are swarms of them.

In conclusion, the Ewoks have knowledge of the area, superior numbers, physical strength, and an enemy caught by surprise and out of position.  By the time the small force is defeated, the destruction of the back door of the base has caused a chain reaction destroying the entire base and shield generator (the “entire legion” of the Empire’s “best troops” along with it).  Fortunately for the Rebels, the Empire has a habit of leaving tactically critical, supposedly unreachable, areas relatively undefended (see Death Star, First).  While it clearly isn’t the most likely of scenarios, the fact of the matter is that the Ewoks use numerous tactical advantages to make up for their lack of firepower making the scene more plausible than it appears at first glance.

(c) 2012 D.G. McCabe