Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 
A Long Time Ago...
The Flawed Vision of Star Wars

By David G. Young

WASHINGTON, DC, May 18, 1999 --  

Perhaps the most amazing thing about tomorrow's release of George Lucas' The Phantom Menace is how much the world has changed since the original film. When Star Wars hit the silver screen 22 years ago, the idea of a monolithic freedom-crushing Evil Galactic Empire was all too real. The real evil empire of the time has since fallen to pieces. The Russian economy that once formed the core of the Soviet Union now ranks behind that of Brazil.

The Industrial age technologies that ran the advanced societies in the film were virtually obsolete by the time the movie was released. Think about it—the Death Star was but an enormous steel structure that signified the apex of such development. Appearing in fiction five years after the completion of the giant World Trade Center, such a concept may have seemed plausible at the time. But the real world has since found relatively little use for such structures. Less than five years after the release of the movie, America's steel industry was shriveling up, as hugely centralized structures were replaced by dispersed ones.

Meanwhile, technologies that didn't exist at the time of the film— personal computers, the World Wide Web, as well as other communications media, make many of the gadgets in the original movie look downright old-fashioned.

But it is the importance of space travel that probably dates the film the most. In the late-1970s, the recent moon landings and the promise of a new, reusable Space Shuttle made regular space travel seem just around the corner. Star Wars wasn't the only movie to overestimate space. Almost every other science fiction film of the time did the same. Space 1999, a television series that debuted in the fall of 1975, foresaw a 20-mile across Moon Base Alpha existing this year, as well as regular service between Earth and the moon.

Clearly, this didn't happen. Not long after the Apollo mission's moon rocks were found worthless, scientists began waking up to the reality that there is very little in space worth making the trip. The Moon and other planets are terribly hostile environments that make uninhabited Antarctica look like paradise. The high cost of moving people between planets in space—using the late-'70s technologies available in Star Wars—far outweighs any conceived benefits.

Manned space travel has therefore floundered while smart companies have exploited proven technologies like satellites as communications platforms. All but the most entrenched NASA bureaucrats realize that manned space flights beyond Earth orbit will have to wait—not just for new technologies, but for new purposes as well.

All these reflections are not meant to criticize the story behind the original film, or the new "prequel." Star Wars was conceived at a time when the world built at the pinnacle of industrial technology was about to fall victim to more advanced information age technologies. Few people could then conceive of what the next quarter-century would bring. Alvin Toffler, in his visionary 1980 book, The Third Wave, was one of the few to see the writing on the wall. He would later recount a meeting with then White House Chief of Staff Don Regan, who reportedly dismissed workers in the emerging service sector as hamburger flippers.

Given the failure of world leaders to foresee, these changes, Lucas could not be expected to do better. That he could create such an entertaining film is impressive enough. His creation of a '70s view of the future, however captivating, is historically amusing.