I’ve often said that Star Wars is not Science Fiction. And while I would generally use the term “Space Fantasy” as a substitution, that’s not exactly a layman’s term. Sci-Fi and Fantasy have sub-genres upon sub-genres, from as broad as “Hard Science Fiction” to as specific as “Young Adult Urban Fantasy Paranormal Vampire Romance”. Some sub-genres overlap between two main genres; where does Steampunk bridge the gap? Or Space Opera? What about Magical Realism– literary fiction, or authors refusing to say they write Fantasy? There are so many to choose from, but these sub-genres are distinguished by various elements of story all of which make up the whole. Some deal more with aesthetics (the main reason that High Fantasy and Urban Fantasy are different sub-genres), while others deal with content (the reason the Foglios are insistent that Girl Genius is Gaslamp Fantasy). To find these elements, there are five questions you must ask– Who? What? Where? Why? How?
Who? — characters, or, more importantly, the archetypes they conform to. There are genre specific character archetypes– there’s a reason you wouldn’t see a Scotty or Geordi in Middle Earth.
What? — Plot. This is actually very important when determining genre. Shakespeare set at least 13 of his plays in Italy, but that doesn’t make Romeo and Juliet the same kind of story as Much Ado About Nothing.
Where? — as alluded in the past question, setting. Keep in mind, setting is not just place, but time as well, which is why there’s no “When?” question.
Why? — Themes or messages. This is also incredibly important, partially because of its intertwining with the plot, but also because it can help determine sub-genre, especially within Sci-Fi.
How? — This is a part of genre that has recently come into prominence with the rise of the “dramedy”, as it partially deals with tone, but it’s asking how the story is told and that runs through all of the technical aspects of the story-making process. This is what most academics mean when they say “genre” — painting is a “genre”, poetry is a “genre”, prose is a “genre”. For the purposes of this blog, those are mediums, genres are genres.
With that in mind, let’s see how Star Wars stacks up.
You all know these characters: Luke Skywalker, Princess Lea, Han Solo, Darth Vader, etc. The Original Trilogy is a great place to start for Character Archetypes 101. It’s got everything, and what it doesn’t have, the Prequels do. And with a new movie every year (as long as Disney keeps making money off them), we’re likely to see more, but let’s go over the basics.
The Chosen One — Anakin Skywalker, Rey
Sci-Fi stories don’t typically have Chosen Ones? The closest thing I can think of is The Giver and that’s a very deconstructionist take on the concept. You might also notice the lack of a Mark Hamill from the list. Luke doesn’t fit the archetype in quite the way he should– he’s less “chosen” and more “the last choice”. Ben and Yoda are just like: “This is what we’ve got, Force. Can you work with it?” One might argue the same for Rey, but that whole vision sequence that the old lightsaber sent her on, plus the whole concept of the Force awakening swings her more into this trope. The Force seems to have chosen her, as opposed to Luke, who chooses the Force. He could have stayed on the farm, buried Buru and Owen, lead a quiet life. We’ll get to why he doesn’t in a moment. Anakin just has a straight-up prophecy, that’s hard to argue from a “Chosen One” perspective. This one goes to Fantasy.
The Mentor — Obi-Wan Kenobi (Original Trilogy), Qui-Gon Jinn, Yoda, Possibly Luke Skywalker? (Sequel Trilogy)
This one is as old as storytelling. Utanapishtim from The Epic of Gilgamesh was the first written mentor, mostly because The Epic of Gilgamesh is the first written story. Oldest surviving one, anyways. The “modern” mentor, at least in the West, is usually some variation on Myrddin Emrys/Merlin Ambrosius of Arthurian lore. Depending on how Welsh you want your mentor (Merlin was originally a Welsh character, and it’s possible that Arthur himself was a real Welsh king or nobleman) you can either get a trickster mentor who’s secretly immensely powerful (Gandalf, Yoda) or a kindly wizard who has a personal hand in the hero’s life for a good amount of time (Dumbledore, Qui-Gon). Episode IV’s Obi-Wan is a bit more Welsh than his own mentor, but he does fit the “kindly wizard” description better than not. Given the history of the archetype, this also goes to Fantasy.
The Hero — Luke Skywalker (OT), Obi-Wan Kenobi (Prequels), Finn/FN-2187
So this one’s a bit tricky. It’s not intuitive when you first start looking at it that the hero doesn’t necessarily have to be the protagonist. Aragorn fits the Hero archetype, as well as a few parts of the Chosen One archetype, but he’s not the protagonist. Hell, the Artemis Fowl series and Death Note both have villains as their protagonists, though Artemis does try to change for the better. Luke is definitely a Hero, saves the Princess, blows up the Death Star, guards the Galaxy, gets a medal. Same with Finn– he’s the audience’s surrogate for much of the movie, and causes many of the events to happen. He finds Rey and BB-8, he’s the first person in the sequels to wield Anakin’s lightsaber, he heads the ground mission on Starkiller, he does pretty well for himself. Obi-Wan is actually the focal point for Episode I, as well as the character that keeps the plot moving in Episode II, which should qualify him as a hero in its own right. But the concept of the Hero is a bit ubiquitous. 1,000 faces and counting, this one is a draw.
The Rogue — Han Solo (OT), Poe Dameron
While Poe as a plot device follows Leia more (if we’re all still talking about how Episode VII is a “carbon copy” of Episode IV), his character stems from the same stock as Han– over confident, determined, a bit of a show-off, great pilot, sarcastic in the face of mortal peril (“So, who talks first? Do you talk first?” vs. “You’re gonna die here, you know. Convenient.”) We haven’t seen enough of Poe yet to really do a good comparison but what is clear is that neither have a true parallel in the Prequels. The Prequels were definitely trying to be more Sci-Fi than the Original Trilogy, what with the constant talk of politics, the clones, a huge influx of aliens as minor characters, the Force things that shall not be named. That kind of stuff. Han is directly based off of old Western movies, which are a genre in its own right, but he is still very much a D&D-style Thief to Luke/Rey’s Mage and Leia/Finn’s Fighter types. And the first D&D game was released in 74, so I want the DM notes for Lucas and Spielberg’s table. Point goes to Fantasy.
The Big Bad — Emperor Palpatine, Supreme Leader Snoke
AKA the Final Boss. This is your Ganon, your Bowser, your Eggman, Champion, Flowey, your final… dragon? What is Dragon Age even about? I don’t play many video games, sorry. But this is the guy that’s got to go down for the story to end. A lot of Sci-Fi is not really about that kind of thing. By the end of the story, Big Brother is still watching, Snow only dies because he’s gravely ill, and GLaDOS is just sort of floating around in space. I think there’s a potato? Still not good on the video games. Sci-Fi doesn’t tend towards the happy endings as much, mostly because the genre is still being influenced by Frankenstein. And not to say it shouldn’t be, it’s a great book, but Science Fiction when it was first created was intended to showcase the arrogance of Man when he messed with things that should not be messed with. Frankenstein’s greatest enemy is not his monster, or Igor, or the angry mob, but himself. Luke’s greatest enemy is definitely the Emporer. This goes to Fantasy.
The Commander — Grand Moff Tarkin, Captain Phasma, Mace Windu
Yes, this includes the player character from XCOM (I do know some things…) This is more of a Sci-Fi thing, but the archetype here is a character who is not the head person in charge, but is definitely in charge. They all have one or two people to report to (the Emperor, Hux and Snoke, and Yoda, respectively), but they wield a large amount of power themselves. Think starship captains, or SHIELD directors. They can be good or bad, as seen here with our examples, but they tend towards the Lawful end of the alignment chart. Doesn’t mean they can’t break the laws (or regulations, or the Prime Directive…) when they think its necessary, but they also know how to justify themselves, especially when it comes to protecting their crew/subordinates. There’s a good reason Tarkin was “holding Vader’s leash”, can’t have him force choking the one guy that can fire the giant death ray, can you? This goes to Sci-Fi.
And with 5-2, the Who category goes to Fantasy.
It’s one of the worst kept secrets of Star Wars– the original trilogy was based off of Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces. Specifically, it follows the basic plot theory of the Hero’s Journey. Almost to the letter too. The reason I bring this up is because most if not all Fantasy includes elements from the Hero’s Journey, going all the way back, again, to The Epic of Gilgamesh. Campbell uses many examples when explaining his Monomyth, including the life of Jesus, the life of the Buddha, the Princess and the Frog, and Arthurian legend. It’s also not seen as much as in Sci-Fi.
I saw a TED-ed video about Campbell’s work that mentioned Katniss Everdeen as an example and I don’t think I quite agree with that. “The ease with which the adventure is here accomplished signifies that the hero is a superior man, a born king. Such ease distinguished numerous fairy tales and all legends of the deeds of incarnate gods” (Campbell, 148). This is how Campbell begins his exploration of “The Ultimate Boon”, a necessary moment in the Hero’s Journey and the step before The Return. The Hunger Games trilogy actively deconstructs this idea; Katniss is not a god, she is a pawn of the revolution, made up into the god-like figure of The Mockingjay. It is notable that her two biggest decisions– volunteering for Prim and killing President Coin– bookend her story, and in between those points her agency is constantly undermined by Effie or Snow or Coin or Plutarch or the people of Panem. The Hero’s Journey would have had her become leader of Panem by the end of the story, but Campbell never wrote anything on “Refusal of the Ultimate Boon”.
“But what about John Carter of Mars?” you might ask. “What about Flash Gordon or Buck Rodgers?” Yes, these things served as the basis for what Star Wars became, and are considered Sci-Fi classics. Except those are not Sci-Fi as we know it, or as it was initially created as. Things like John Carter and Flash Gordon and the like are widely considered Space Opera, a genre that was lost when the Raygun Gothic era of film came, characterized by films like Forbidden Planet and used in television shows like Lost in Space and the original series of Star Trek. Space Opera, like its namesake, uses simple plots and familiar character archetypes to tell a serialized story with a focus on dramatics (so people keep coming back to see what happens next) and artistic execution (so that it is distinct from others in its genre.) Star Wars has more in common with Dallas than it does District 9. #WhoShotGreedo?
Plot is what happens in a story, and is both key to identifying genre, and also informed by it. Star Wars takes elements from Space Opera, but it also takes elements from Arthurian Legend and from Lord of the Rings and from fairy tales and samurai films. To me the greatest proof that Star Wars uses a Fantasy plot is that the exact plot almost to the letter was used in the Fantasy novel Eragon— an admittedly enjoyable book that is often derided as “Star Wars set in Middle Earth with dragons” like that’s bad or something. Taking all of the influences into account, it is overwhelmingly Fantasy.
Star Wars is set in space. There’s no getting around that. In fact, this is the argument that most people give when arguing that Star Wars is Sci-Fi. It has to be Sci-Fi, it’s set in Space! There are laser guns and aliens and space ships! And okay, yeah. It’s set in space. But there’s a very important, nay, integral, part of the setting that people don’t often consider– the Force. The Force is literally part of the setting. It’s “between you, me, the tree, the rock, everywhere, yes. Even between the land and the ship.” And the Force is magic. Not an exaggeration, it literally functions as magic within that universe. It is a power beyond oneself that only some can wield, and some of the people that wield it are even called wizards. The idea that the Force wouldn’t even be a factor in that is absurd.
But yeah, space is hard to argue. This goes to Sci-Fi.
So what are the themes of Star Wars? I know that reads like something from your 10th grade English Class, but I would imagine that’s what this entire blog reads like, so if you got this far, kudos. The themes are actually fairly simple, Light vs Dark, Good vs Evil, Freedom vs Tyranny– all things lifted from Tolkien, by the way. There are also themes of family (ubiquitous), whether or not you should follow a predetermined path or make your own (modern Fantasy), and what you consider your duty to be (ubiquitous). Luke’s character arc is a coming of age story, where he deals a lot with identity, and what makes him distinct both as a Jedi and a Skywalker. Anakin’s character arc was a tragic redemption arc, where you see his descent into evil, his reign as a villain, and his atonement before his death. You can see how his love both caused his fall and his redemption. Rey’s arc seems like it will also be about family and identity, but where Luke was looking for what would make him different from his father (despite the fact that he obviously takes after his mother), Rey’s discoveries will be about how she fits in with the family that she will return to, as well as the one she will make with her new friends.
But how to classify all of that? The surface themes seem more like Fantasy/Fairy Tale tropes, where good is good and bad is bad and good always wins, but soft Sci-Fi has its own share of good an evil. The Daleks don’t have a particularly grey morality, and you can’t really argue in favor of the Borg. But Sci-Fi tends towards the villains that represent things we fear. The Klingons were Soviets, the Romulans were the Chinese. The Daleks premiered in England where many people including the reigning monarch remembered the Nazi bombings of London. The Borg, and the Cybermen they were based on, are our fears of losing our identity to technology. These were real fears that people had in those eras, and still have in some cases. One thing I can tell you is that I’m not scared of a cyborg space wizard with a laser sword telepathically choking powerful people until he takes over. [Reluctant, obligatory political joke here.] For the deeper themes, the ones more tied to character arcs, those are represented in almost every genre. Stories of identity and family can be seen everywhere from Shakespeare to Whedon to Lewis to Mallory to Lucas to Roddenberry. But this does have to go to Fantasy because ultimately the story builds its themes to support larger themes that Tolkien made integral to the Fantasy genre. When in doubt, blame Tolkien.
To get the tone stuff out of the way, it’s a Space Opera. There’s no mistaking it. Now, the making of Star Wars is almost as fascinating as the movies themselves. I did a whole post about Star Wars’ effect on the industry, especially in the technical aspects. 4 of those 7 movies would probably be classified as Sci-Fi, and Highlander could be classified as Sci-Fi retroactively, but as we all know there could be only one. And as mentioned in the other post, Star Wars had an immeasurable effect on the aesthetics and effects of Sci-Fi almost as soon as it hit theaters. Lucasfilm’s ILM and THX are the people for special effects and sound, but what was practical is also fantastic. The handcrafting on all of the ships, the attention to detail in the miniature sets, the alien designs, the concept art, THE DROIDS– crap, the droids! All of these things won Oscars, by the way, as well as John Williams, who brought back the orchestral score to cinemas. And even the prequels changed things to some extent. Without the Prequels, CGI would be in a very different place. I know everyone derides his use of CGI in the Prequels, but can’t say that he wasn’t trying something new. Yes, he failed, but without those failures we wouldn’t have Gollum, we wouldn’t have the Tale of Three Brothers, we wouldn’t have Avatar (for what that’s worth), and basically all of the CGI that we know and love today. At least, the stuff that didn’t get their ideas from PIXAR. But this does have to go to Sci-Fi, because Star Wars was made like a Sci-Fi film.
So it’s close. It’s really close. And I’m sure that many of these arguments have very valid counterarguments. I’d love to hear your thoughts on it (comment below!). But for me, and for the way that I look at stories, the Fantastic elements of the story and characters edge out over the Sci-Fi aesthetics and production. But that’s also what made Star Wars so influential towards both genres, and so popular with both audiences. I am very excited to see how these new movies take this universe, and where each falls on the Sci-Fi/Fantasy spectrum. There’s so much to learn from these movies and there’s so much more to say about them, but for now, may the Force be with you.