With Rogue One coming up, I thought now was a good time to write a bit about Star Wars, and specifically. This week, I'm focusing on the confusion surrounding its genre. Star Wars is widely regarded as science fiction, but some fans have rejected this classification in recent years.
Star Wars is about a farm boy getting a sword and learning mystical powers from a mysterious hermit and going on a journey to rescue a princess. It takes place "a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away," which might as well be "once upon a time." Replace "galaxy" with "kingdom" or "land," and everyone would recognize it as the beginning of a fantasy story.
Some have taken a middle ground by calling Star Wars science fantasy, drawing on elements of both genres. Narratively, it has more in common with Lord of the Rings than 2001: A Space Odyssey, but the involvement of space ships and aliens makes people think more of science fiction. However, this shows a huge misunderstanding of science fiction.
Fantasy and science fiction are often lumped together, but the two are total opposites in most respects. Science fiction explores the potential impact of scientific concepts and technology on the real world. It's not so much about other worlds, but about how our world could change. A science fiction story does not necessarily have to be possible, and many are not, but it has to make an effort to plausibly connect its fictional elements to potential scientific advancements.
Take Jurassic Park, for instance. Cloning dinosaurs is impossible because DNA has a half life of 521 years. Even if we discovered dinosaur blood in amber-preserved mosquitos today, any genetic information would have deteriorated long ago. However, the story draws upon then-recent theories about dinosaurs and comments on scientific ethics and the dangers of interfering with nature. It uses an impossible premise to explore the ramifications of technology on our world.
There's nothing wrong with combining science fiction with other genres. After all, Blade Runner is one of the best science fiction movies ever, and it's also a detective story. However, Blade Runner fulfills the goals of both genres successfully, while many stories do not. Too often, science fiction is reduced to a window dressing to spice up an action movie.
On a more positive note, science fiction movies are going through something of a renaissance right now. Interstellar and The Martian have told stories about exploration and experimentation in the name of human survival, as a species and an individual, respectively. Mad Max: Fury Road may be a 2-hour car chase, but it explored the commodification of human beings in a post-apocalyptic environment. We've also gotten twisted little gems like Looper, Snowpiercer, and Under the Skin. Most recently, Arrival gave us a fascinating depiction of contact with alien life, and the mind-bending impact it could have on our reality.
I love Star Wars as much as the next person (considerably more, if I'm being honest). There's nothing wrong about a fun adventure story with aliens and robots. However, I don't like seeing that kind of story conflated with science fiction. Science fiction and fantasy have completely different storytelling goals, and conflating the two prevents both from succeeding narratively.