Design in Star Wars

I want to believe but I fear I might need to step out over a bottomless shaft to find the control that lets me…

Reading Time: 8 minutes

If your childhood dates back to seeing Star Wars IV, you know, the first one, on the big screen, you will easily remember the sense of complete awe as the universe Lucas ‘crafted’ washed over you. Sleek, modern, amazing; it was visually and audibly almost too much to take in. Sure, films like 2001 came before it, but I for one was far too young to have seen it and even now, comparing the two is a pointless task – Star Wars was all shizzle and spice, 2001, well, I can see myself going down to the airport now and hopping on that Pan Am flight… if Pan Am were still around.

But as time went on and we watched re-runs of Star Wars, some (many?) of the ideas and designs presented started to seem a little… daft. But in a way, we gave it the room it deserved and happily glossed over the silliness, as we got on enjoying the nostalgia of it all.

Star Wars Rogue One: Design in Star Wars by Playforest.com

Gritty and real… to start

Thirty years on, we are once again being treated to a whole new Star Wars, on what looks to be a yearly programme. While VII stunned everyone, more because it was the first new Star Wars film in near 30 years, Rogue One promised to deliver something a little left of the whole franchise – a side story. At many levels it did not disappoint, Rogue One delivered the most ‘realistic’ feeling film to come out of the whole Star Wars outfit to date. Gritty, ships had that feeling of military utility, rather than flights of design fancy, and everything had been seemingly hit with the ‘make it real’ design stick.

At least that was the first impression.

Science Fiction can be one of two ilk. The first is the Star Wars road of pure fantasy. No room for speculation, only 0.005% of it makes any sense from a scientific or technical point of view. The other, pioneered by the likes of Kubricks 2001 (some may say first done by Star Trek), has an element or two of what we could call scientific, or technical grounding. The ideas and concepts have a background to them, which in turn makes them seem plausible. Films like The Martian and even more so Interstellar are two recent films that come to mind. They feel real because they have oodles of grounding in actual science and the questions you find yourself asking are not about the ‘what the?’ aspects, but more the ‘what if’s’.

Design in Star Wars by Playforest.com - Interstallar

I find it hard to get enough of Interstallar – it haunts you at a subconscious level

But the common theme all science fiction films share, like any film, is that they are made to entertain. So to grab at your attention, the lure is either in the believability of the whole thing or the bedazzling. For the Star Wars universe, the pure fantasy of it all bedazzles you into asking not too many questions and nothing, it seems, needs explaining – you just accept it. It is this point though, where it’s started to come unstuck for me. These days, where I am spellbound by a film like Interstellar, which is both ‘real’ and bedazzling, the entertainment value rests in its ability to pull me into it, hook line and sinker. That means Star Wars needs to deliver a level of fantasy far above everything else, leaving me little room, or reason, to stop and ask “ummm, why…?”.

And it’s here that the Star Wars universe is falling flat.

So to Rogue One. Why? By not being shackled to the need for continuation, there was room to make Rogue One a lot more ‘real’, to reach out, pull the audience into the universe and leave them feeling stranded on some far off planet. Being a Star Wars film, yet within its own bubble, it was afforded a certain amount a leeway to break loose.

Credit where credit is due, it does start off well. Children have little hand-made toys of troopers. Storm Troopers are tired and grumpy (hence ‘real’) in the back of transport trucks. Everything’s dirty, gritty and there are people that do… things, real things, that explain the universe that exists around it… like design and engineer the Death Star. For the most part, Rogue One retains this trajectory for a good part of the film, which in turn keeps one ‘in the moment’. But slowly the creep begins. That silly tank on Jedha, only a moron would design a tank as inexplicably incapable as that – and didn’t Luke Skywalker’s Speeder… hover? So why tracks?. Then there’s Cassian’s attempted sniper shot on Eadu. Maybe if this was a WWII flick I’d believe the whole setup, but how is it people who can travel in hyperspace are still resorting to handheld sniper rifles with scopes… where rain gets in one’s eyes and the whole thing… wobbles? Even today, military sniper get ups are more sophisticated… By the way, why were there no jump seats in the Imperial transports? What, everyone stands for the whole trip through hyderspace?

Then in the final act, as if to pay respects to Lucas, the whole thing descends into the Star Wars dopey ‘oh c’mon’ fest that ultimately undoes the whole film. The main communication relay switch on a console, inexplicably in the open when there’s a perfectly good, fortified building not 20 metres away? A data storage facility that’s storing ‘discs’ like we do files and boxes today and of course, ONLY able to be accessed via an arcane control system of strange hand held controls (what, would you not just key in the file number and the machine does the rest?); and naturally it’s all located in the Star Wars patented ‘bottomless’ shaft. Let’s not even talk about the size of the data disc.

Design in Star Wars by Playforest.com - That silly tower

Right up the top of that tower, outside on a gantry, is where you control that dish

Then there’s ‘that’ communications dish. OK, they had to access it from the outside for whatever reason; if you remember, Aliens had the same premise but you completely bought into that because there was reason behind it. But the controls, not only completely exposed to the elements atop the very large tower, but split in two so you have to go out onto a strange gantry suspended over open space, for no conceivable reason (it surely could not be so you visually lineup the dish?!), to pull a lever only to then go back to the main console to push yet another button. Really?

It seems petty but it’s these ‘design decisions’ and ‘details’, or more to the point, lack of, that slowly unravel the feeling of being in the moment. Good science fiction captures the imagination of the audience and holds it until the very end. It’s a difficult job and any sloppy ‘what the?’ glitches instantly undoes what’s trying to be achieved and you loose your audience. The crew behind Star Wars seem to be cursed with the ability to do this, every, single, time.

Right now we can control stuff in our houses via phones that fit in our pocket. So why, oh why, in the Star Wars universe do they need these INSANE control systems with buttons and levers that are near impossible to get to? What’s with all the bottomless shafts and gantries suspended over them? And could we please have a few handrails? This sort of ‘design’ thought, or lack there of, completely undoes the Star Wars universe and keeps it more or less the science fiction version of spaghetti westerns. For the record it was not just me being old and grumpy… the 11 year old asked the same questions! It’s a problem for a franchise that’s trying very hard to shake the silly legacy of the Lucas years.

I love Star Wars but as a society we’ve moved on from 1978. Technology’s moved on from 1978. Cars (almost) drive themselves, my phone has more computing power than what put man on the moon… hell, my watch does. In order for Disney to really pull us into the universe it’s spending hundreds of millions on, is it too much to ask that we’re presented with technology and design that’s befitting of such a technically advanced civilisation? It does not have to be much, like Mies said, ‘less IS more’, but as they say God’s in the details and so far it seems God has packed his bags and left the sound stage.

I want to believe but I fear I might need to step out over a bottomless shaft to find the control that lets me…