Star Wars: The Force Awakens brings back everything that made us fall in love with Star Wars: our childhood heroes, who look and walk like our parents do now; the amazing optical effects; the soaring score; and the levity.
It also brings back the same familiar gadgets and technologies. At the beginning of the movie, pilot Poe Dameron uses long-range electronic binoculars like the ones used by Luke in A New Hope. The Millennium Falcon, the Resistance's X-wings and the Empire's TIE fighters get in dogfights at the same breakneck pace. Except for one cosmetic flourish, the lightsabers are still there, as iconic as ever.
The real mammoth change is Starkiller Base, an even larger, even more powerful version of the Death Star, built by an even more Nazi-esque Empire. Every fan who saw the movie could not help but notice the story parallelism between the planet-sized doomsday machine and its first trilogy’s predecessors. Yet, there is something else going on underneath the narrative homage.
George Lucas’ Star Wars was notoriously disenchanted, even critical, of technology’s ability to improve the world. I find it remarkable that J.J. Abrams fully embraced that disenchantment. Almost 40 years later, and despite countless beneficial technological advances in the real world, Star Wars message remains the same: It is Darth Vader’s warning in A New Hope that the Death Star is “insignificant” compared to the power of the Force.
The Dark Side has better military tech than the Jedis or the Resistance, and it constantly upgrades it. In the real world, the Dark Side would win. The fact that it loses is a big part of the movies’ enduring fun (and box office success).
Look at the entire Star Wars canon. From trilogy to trilogy, lightsabers stand alone as the constant, unchanging objects. There is something sacred and eminent about lightsabers. They seem impervious to time, existing in a sort of technological stasis. We may see a lot of them in the prequels, but in fact they are extremely rare. Jedis build their own. Making one’s lightsaber from scratch is a rite of passage for the Padawan apprentice.
Their technology is a closely-held secret, passed on by Jedi masters to their students. Unlike atom bombs in our world, you cannot find detailed blueprints on the faraway galaxy's equivalent of Wikipedia. No enterprising tinkerers are busy trying to reverse-engineer lightsabers in their garages to make them cheaper and available to the wider galactic public. There is no market demand for lightsabers, and thus no lightsaber factories.
Lightsabers anchor Star Wars in the fantasy genre rather than science fiction. Technological change is the heart of scifi—how societies and people adapt to new things (and often, new weapons). Star Wars takes a different approach: its iconic technology only evolves marginally (if at all) and social reactions and adaptations to its powers are almost non-existent. It is the Force, through the Jedis, that maintains balance, peace and society’s integrity.
In contrast, real progress and innovation happen on the other side, the Dark Side. The Death Star is a really scary piece of equipment. It is meant to be. It truly is an ultimate weapon. Its construction changes the rules of the game. The Rebels, and later the Resistance, must destroy it at any cost lest it would secure forever the Dark Side’s grip on the Galaxy.
The Death Star in A New Hope stood in for our own Atom bomb. It was a product of the Empire’s Manhattan Project, a decade-long secret military program to enforce total galactic domination through fear. The demonstration of its genocidal might on planet Alderaan, much like the American use of A-bombs in Japan, was supposed to put an end to wars and rebellions out of absolute terror.
After its destruction by Luke in A New Hope, the Dark Side rebuilds the Death Star not once but twice, each time on an ever grander scale. In The Force Awakens, Starkiller Base is carved out of an entire planet. That is progress and improvement, just as the Russia’s late 1961 Tsar Bomba, the most powerful hydrogen bomb ever tested in the atmosphere, far outclassed World War II’s puny Fat Man and Little Boy.
Only the bad guys, who control the resources of an entire Galaxy, can fund and complete such vast projects. Big stuff like that is truly the province of big government. It requires planning, massive R&D spending, enormous logistics and manpower. In short, the kind of organizational and economic power that only a government can muster.
If you think about it for a minute, there is madness in committing the capital and the workforce to put together a Death Star three times in a row. And not only that, the Dark Side ratchets up after each defeat, going bigger and meaner. The Emperor first, and then Supreme Leader Snoke, believe that ever larger weapons are the key to victory.
Besides its enormous size, Starkiller Base’s most significant improvement appears to be its energy source. It draws its power from nearby stars, in effect running on renewable energy. It is a Death Star for our solar-powered times. Also, you will have noticed that very little Force, if any at all, is involved in its eventual annihilation. Only guile and moxie.
That detail is crucial. It drives home the point that the Dark Side is fundamentally incompetent and cannot handle its own creations. For all its technological and industrial prowess, the Dark Side fails to learn from its past mistakes. It is still at the mercy of its enemies’ ingenuity and determination. Incredible advances in weaponry are squandered by Evil’s unchecked hubris.
In sum, technology lets down both sides of the Force. On the light side, technology is frozen, shrouded in sorcery, a Jedi monopoly. The mystical incantation (“May the Force be with you”) does not hide the Light Side’s sclerotic use of weapons. On the Dark Side, technological progress turns out empty and useless, because the bad guys are blinded by power and self-confidence, and thus repeat the same strategic error over and over.
That is to say that in Star Wars, technology never works as it is supposed to. Unlike its real-world counterpart, it does not have an active, almost catalytic role in shaping society’s transformations. It does not change nor alter anything the way the A-bomb and nuclear power did (for instance).
The Force Awakens repeats Star Wars’ underlying message even more pointedly. Technological progress is an illusion, as even the forces of Evil cannot use it for their own nefarious ends. The Force, that shorthand for humanity’s uniqueness and transcendence, still rules (but barely).
This is a rather provocative position to maintain, especially in 2015, in the age of Google and the Internet. The continuing success of Star Wars invites us to question our reverence for technology. Maybe it is a sign of our yearning for those “more civilized times” when human relations were not determined by machines and computers. But those times, if they ever existed, were by all accounts brutish. And besides, technology is what made us human, when our distant African ancestors started to shape rocks into cutting tools. We have always been cyborgs.
In that sense, Star Wars fulfills our deep need for romance and legend. It allows us to dream collectively of our species’ childhood rather than of its actual history, our terrible mistakes as well as our triumphs.
Manu Saadia, the author of Trekonomics, hails from Paris, France. He lives in Los Angeles where he helps tech startups get off the ground. His first and only passion is the future.