If you're among the millions of people who collectively dropped $1 billion to see "Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens," on its opening weekend, you're probably feeling pretty pleased. It didn't suck.
But what you might have been wondering while watching the film is, "What is up with the two lightsabers?"
One lightsaber in the film is a new design that seems to be completely stupid and impractical, and the other is the well-known model, almost a century old according to the movie's timeline. Why would you want a dangerous plasma-hilt on your saber? And given how fast technology evolves, would you really want to use a decades-old hand-me-down lightsaber in battle? It's like your great-grandmother gifting you with her old rotary phone.
Clearly, something weird is going on with the lightsaber innovation economy. So let's examine these lightsabers, starting with the vintage Force tech.
Spoilers start here. If you haven't seen the movie yet, read on at your own risk.
1. When did lightsabers become telepathic?
In "The Force Awakens," the lightsaber becomes, for the first time in any of the Star Wars films, a kind of talisman, capable of transmitting messages to budding Jedi warrior Rey. She hears the old-model lightsaber calling to her from a cell in a basement, and is drawn to it like Harry Potter to the underbelly of Hogwarts. A throwaway character explains to Rey that the lightsaber belonged to Luke Skywalker and to his father Anakin Skywalker before him, making it at least 60 years old.
Star Wars has always been in a kind of existential crisis about whether it is science fiction or fantas-sci. The first of the terrible prequels, "The Phantom Menace," tried to bring the Force into the realm of science fiction rather than fantasy by attributing it to microscopic midichlorian organisms that exist in the cells of everything but occur in higher concentrations in some people (or something like that).
Instead of trying to explain the science behind the Force, J.J. Abrams and crew seemed happy to make "The Force Awakens" a fantastical tale, in which an old lightsaber can communicate with its wannabe owner telepathically like a magic creature in a Mercedes Lackey novel. Rey correctly flees a hunk of metal that tries to implant horrible, traumatic memories into her brain. But when the moment of truth comes in a showdown with Kylo Ren, Rey uses her new, insanely-quickly vastly-developed Jedi powers to seize and use the lightsaber.
2. Would you really want a vintage lightsaber?
So should Rey actually be happy to use this dusty old family heirloom? On Twitter, a few people said they'd prefer a samurai sword from the 1800s to one made today. But would you really want that instead of a machine gun? You know what they say, never bring a samurai knife to a gun fight.
And in terms of equivalent technology, wouldn't a lightsaber's technological evolution be closer to that of a smartphone? (It is bizarre by the way that a civilization that has lightsabers, space ships, sun-sucking planet-destroying beams, and communication via hologram doesn't have smartphones or Google.)
But it doesn't seem like lightsaber tech evolves much. Apparently there are no Jedi Travis Kalanicks to disrupt this industry, with, like, a lightsaber machine gun or a lightsaber grenade launcher. At this point, with everyone and his mother owning a ray blaster, it's no wonder there are so few Jedis still alive.
3. What's up with the hilt?
When we meet Kylo Ren, yet another of the Skywalker brood turned bad, he has a brand spanking new lightsaber—but his only innovation is to give it a hilt. His red, glowing 'broadsaber' has two mini sabers that shoot out from the base of the sabershaft when he turns it on.
WTF. That is a terrible innovation! The point of a hilt, if you'll recall from your Renaissance metallurgy class, is to give a knight more control of his sword, as well as protect a knight's hand from getting cut by his own blade. But if your hilt was made of razor blades, that wouldn't be terribly helpful. Any time Kylo accidentally hits his hand up against his hilt, it's going to get burned to hell and the SS-like First Order's newest human-weapon is going to lose one or both of his hands… much like his forebears on the maternal side of his family. At least they could say someone else cut their hands off.
Maybe the faulty design is why this Luke Skywalker-trained badass warrior gets completely destroyed in a saber duel by a desert-scavenging orphan who is picking up a lightsaber for the very first time in her life.
4. What's up with Rey being so good with the lightsaber?
The actress who plays Rey, Daisy Ridley, could definitely have been cast as one of Princess Amidala's many handmaiden body doubles, perhaps to give a very obvious visual clue about her mysterious family history. If she is yet another Skywalker, as the movie strongly hints, I guess she's genetically-inclined to be good with a lightsaber. I guess?
But her tremendous performance underlines what a shame it is that now-Commander Leia apparently never spent a few minutes developing that powerful Skywalker Force inside her, because it seems from Rey's example that women are capable of accomplishing on their own in about an hour what it takes most Jedi dudes years and years of training to achieve.
5. Uh, what is a lightsaber exactly?
The lightsaber is a technological oddity. We are never really told what it is exactly or how it works. Popular YouTube explainer series Because Science hazarded to guess that it uses "an energy source centuries ahead of our own [to create] a plasma that flows in a tightly coiled ring harnessed by magnetic fields and maybe the Force." (Or rather an energy source from a long time ago in a galaxy far far away.)
Kyle Hill of Because Science disagrees with me about Kylo Ren lightsabersword, explaining here why it makes total sense. Let him try to convince you:
6. If lightsabers are so cool, why aren't hundreds of factories in the Star Wars Empire's version of China mass-producing them?
In the original 1970s Star Wars it was implied that only skilled Jedis could create lightsabers. But that was shot to hell by the prequels released in the 1990s in which everyone, from little kids to reptile robots, had them, sometimes multiple ones. (This was brilliantly skewered by RedLetterMedia, which did the definitive 3-hour film analysis explaining why Star Wars Episodes I-III were so terrible, including the fact that lightsabers lost their specialness because they're being broken out in almost every scene, rather than rarely as in the original Star Wars.)
What's always been clear is that the futuristic swords are meant to invoke medieval times and (Jedi) knights in shining armor—as well as samurai swords. After all, the plot for the original Star Wars tale, Episode IV: A New Hope is stolen from Hidden Fortress, a samurai film by great Japanese director Akira Kurosawa, whose influence George Lucas has been candid about. (If you're a Star Wars fan and haven't seen it, you really should. It's almost as blatant a parallel as Battle Royale to The Hunger Games.)
7. Are we going to see some lightsaber innovation in the unknown number of future Star Wars movies?
The Force Awakens on a whole succeeds and will likely bring a whole new fan base to the Star Wars films. But if Disney* wants to keep pumping out Star Wars movies for years to come, and maintain a sense of realism about the advance of technology within the Star Wars universe, it's going to need to innovate on the lightsaber and do more than just give it dangerous little saber testicles.
*Disney is an investor in Fusion.