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The Force Awakens and technology in the Star Wars universe

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The official trailer for Star Wars: The Force Unleashed dropped Monday night, and I’m not ashamed to admit I’ve watched it enough times to wear holes in the tape (assuming YouTube videos came on VHS tapes, anyway). This is our first canonical look at the Star Wars universe some 30 years after the iconic Battle of Endor, and it’s an interesting window into how the technology of the Star Wars universe has — or in this case, hasn’t — evolved since Episodes IV – VI.

Note: For the purposes of this article, I’ve stuck mostly to the “new” canon, which consists of the original movies, the prequels, the Clone Wars and Rebels cartoons, and the new comic books and tie-in novels issued in advance of Episode VII. In Star Wars, the Battle of Yavin is treated similarly to the BCE / ACE divide in modern chronology. Events before the battle are labeled as “BBY” and count down, while events after the battle are denoted as ABY and count up.

Star Wars has always portrayed technology as progressing much more slowly than other famous franchises. One of the most common features of sci-fi universes is their depiction of technological progress, even if that progress ultimately creates dystopian settings. TV shows like Star Trek: The Next Generation or Battlestar: Galactica, in contrast, depict a future in which technology continues to evolve quickly. Even by Star Wars standards, however, the vessels and technologies on display in The Force Awakens haven’t changed nearly as much as one would expect.

In Star Wars, technologies like hyperspace travel, advanced AI, and hologram projection were just as ubiquitous at the beginning of the prequels as anything shown later in the franchise. Even on a backwater planet like Tatooine, Luke carries a blaster, drives a high-speed hovercraft, and isn’t fundamentally astonished to discover that blades of energy that can cut through anything actually exist. What sets The Force Awakens apart from the prequels is that Lucas depicted a very different array of starships, fighters, and combat technology in the prequels as compared to the films that came later.

The new T70 starfighter (the original X-Wing was the T-65)

The new T70 starfighter (the original X-Wing was the T-65)

In Episode VII, virtually every example of technology shown in the various trailers appears either directly derived from or identical to hardware we’ve seen in previous films. Stormtroopers still wear nearly-identical armor. Starfighter technology is clearly derivative — the TIE fighters and X-Wing match-up that occurs towards the end of the trailer both feature starfighters that are closely related to the versions seen in the original trilogy. This is rather interesting, given that Lucas’ prequels used a variety of fighter designs that were visually distinct from the fighters in Episodes IV-VI, even if they often featured similar visual themes.

AnakinsEta2

Ships like the Eta-2 Actis-class were deliberately designed to look like the TIE fighters featured in the original trilogy

We haven’t seen many capital ships at all so far, but it appears that the First Order is using modified Imperial Star Destroyers. These iconic wedge-shaped vessels are instantly identifiable as “Star Wars ships,” but again, Lucas chose a different path. The early Star Destroyers that the Galactic Republic deployed in Attack of the Clones and continued using through the Clone Wars cartoons and Revenge of the Sith are clearly of a different class than the ISD that stretched across the cineplex when Episode IV debuted in 1977.

New Star Destroyer

These new SDs are much closer to classic designs than the Venator Star Destroyers seen in the prequels

Episode VII does debut a new type of Star Destroyer, but it still closely resembles the familiar wedge-shaped vessel. The Venator-class that featured in the Clone Wars cartoon was significantly different. This suggests that the base ISD design has been in service from its introduction in 22 BBY through to 34 ABY, or approximately 56 years.

MilleniumFalcon

According to canonical sources, the Millennium Falcon is 94 years old — and still the fastest hunk of junk in the galaxy. You don’t see that kind of longevity in the real world.

Modern real-world vessels have occasionally been in service for that long — the USS Enterprise was on active duty from 1961 to 2012, for a period of some 51 years. By the time of its decommissioning, its weapon and defense systems had been surpassed by those of other aircraft carriers. The First Order, in contrast, appears to be relying on Imperial-era technology (we’ve seen no Resistance capital ships at all). The Millennium Falcon appears largely unchanged, apart from a new, square sensor dish, which replaces the one Calrissian knocked off during the Death Star II attack run.

Lightsabers and Droids

Lightsabers — the elegant weapons of a more civilized age — are probably the greatest example of static technology in the canonical Star Wars universe. The Clone Wars cartoon established that the Mandalorian clans had, at one point, seized an ancient Jedi lightsaber, nicknamed the Darksaber, more than a thousand years before the present day.

Kenobi_vs_Vizsla

The Darksaber (From the Clone Wars cartoon)

The 1000-year old blade Pre Vista uses is not shown to have any weaknesses compared to a traditional lightsaber. In A New Hope, Han dismisses lightsabers and Jedi as “Hokey religions and ancient weapons,” but it’s made clear throughout the series that a trained Jedi can use a lightsaber to absolutely devastating effect. Only a few materials in the Star Wars universe, including cortosis weave and Mandalorian iron, are shown to resist it.

KyloRen

Kylo Ren and his unusual lightsaber.

The lightsaber Kylo Ren builds may feature a cross guard, but the weapon sounds and looks more primitive than a standard saber, with a rasping, buzzing edge that’s distinctly different from the clean, smooth arc of a functioning lightsaber. It may have special capabilities, but it doesn’t sound like an improvement — more like a mutated killing machine.

It’s not clear how long droids have existed in Star Wars — non-canon sources like the Knights of the Old Republic games showed large number of droids in games that took place nearly 4,000 years before the Battle of Yavin, though those games also made it clear that the models of the day weren’t as sophisticated or capable as R2-D2 or C3PO. Given that both R2-D2 and C3PO qualify for social security (we meet them both in 33 BBY and R2, at least, is still functional as of 34 ABY), it’s clear that droids — even droids operating in less-than ideal circumstances for years at a time — can live for decades, if not centuries. Artoo (shown below) doesn’t exactly look like he’s in the best condition, even if he’s still fully functional.

LukeHand2

When Luke (at least, it’s thought to be Luke) reaches out to touch R2 in the image above, we get a shot of his mechanical hand. In Empire and ROTJ, he wore a prosthesis that looked just like a normal human hand, at least until it’s damaged by a blaster bolt. Here, he’s using something much more mechanical — much more like the hand that Anakin Skywalker wore. If the Rebel Alliance could scrape together a way to make Luke a human-looking hand 30 years earlier, what’s happened between Empire and TFA to change things so drastically?

All of this is a far cry from the sleek, technocratic vision of the Galactic Republic that Lucas presented in the prequels.

How it impacts the story

It’s tempting to conclude that the reason we see no clear signs of progress between the Battle of Endor and the Force Awakens is marketing-fueled nostalgia and little else. I suspect, however, that this is not the case. There are many ways to echo and recall previous iterations of a shared universe — ship designs can recall iconic versions without duplicating them, and the sheer impact of the Star Wars score guarantees instant recall for virtually everyone.

In the original Star Wars films, the polish and precision of the Imperial war machine are pitted against the decidedly less-polished Rebel craft. As the Millennium Falcon accelerates towards hyperspace headed for the second Death Star, it leads a motley procession of X-Wings, B-Wings, A-Wings, and a handful of additional craft of every shape and size. Arriving at Endor, they come face to face with the Imperial fleet — a monolithic structure of Imperial Star Destroyers, one Super Star Destroyer, and hundreds of TIE fighters. The Empire fights with symmetry and repetition, the Rebel Alliance relies on individuality and unique capabilities. It’s too early to tell if that’s still the case in this new film — there are hints that the First Order may not have had such a great time of things, either.

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The First Order

While we see some establishing shots that imply the First Order still has functional academies and training bases, we also see designs much closer to the Imperial period. The Jedi and Sith appear to have faded from the galaxy, to the point that Han Solo and Kylo Ren feel compelled to state that the events of Endor and the Jedi / Sith conflict were something more than myth. The First Order may have the resources to field its own version of a Death Star (the Starkiller base), but they don’t seem to have matched the power or prestige of the Empire under Senator Palpatine.

Han-Ragged

The last 30 years haven’t been kind

I don’t know offhand how much Abrams relied on practical effects vs. CGI, but this new Star Wars universe looks more lived-in then the prequels ever did. Han Solo doesn’t just look old — he looks grizzled, as though he spent the past thirty years fighting a running battle, not living a comfortable life on Coruscant. While we obviously can’t speak to the full film, the trailer uses a mixture of iconic set pieces and patched-together technology (exemplified by the Millennium Falcon itself) to suggest that the last few decades have been anything but great.

Here’s hoping the film lives up to its trailer. The Phantom Menace is considered to have had one of the best trailers of all time, and we all remember how that turned out. One other fun note: The maps in Star Wars: Battlefront are so well-done, I recognized the Sullust mission area from the game just by watching the trailer. If the film doesn’t actually feature a battle over Sullust, I’ll eat my hat.


ExtremeTech » Video Game News & Rumors On Upcoming Releases | ExtremeTech

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