As of now (January 12, 2016), the new Star Wars film, The Force Awakens, which I reviewed here, either already has or soon will surpass Avatar as the top-grossing motion picture of all time. It’s a great deal of fun and rekindles all the magic that made the original 1977 Star Wars so compelling and popular. Chances are pretty good you’ve seen The Force Awakens by now, but even if you haven’t–there are no spoilers here–I thought the current Star Wars mania in popular culture and social media offers a good occasion to delve a little deeper into some of the implications of the films. A lot of people have been doing that lately, but I’d like to talk about an aspect I haven’t seen discussed much: the environmental one. In seven films the Star Wars saga has shown us a lot of fictional places, most of them planets, and you may not have thought a lot about the locations themselves. They actually have a lot to say about how we see our own environments in real life, how we construct them mentally and culturally, and how the makers of the films see the relationship of people to their environments. Maybe it’s an arcane subject, but, I think, an interesting one.
The thing that’s immediately noticeable about Star Wars planets is that they’re usually portrayed as having uniform climates. This is pretty common in science fiction; Dune, after all, whose novel by Frank Herbert predated Star Wars by 12 years, takes place on the “desert planet” Arrakis. Tattooine, the most-portrayed planet in the series, appears in five of the seven films, and it’s invariably shown as a parched and arid world with no oceans or even polar caps visible from space. When we get to see urban or rural communities on the planet, such as the Skywalker farm or the rough port town of Mos Eiseley, they seem to be dusty and almost lawless places whose inhabitants are barely scraping by. Indeed Tattooine appears to be a place of poverty and deprivation. The economic activities we see are very marginal: the slave master that young Anakin works for in The Phantom Menace makes a living scavenging robots and other junk, and the Skywalkers themselves are “moisture farmers” whose occupation is evidently gleaning water out of the air and selling it. No one on Tattooine seems to have any reverence for the physical environment. Luke himself, in Return of the Jedi, comments to Han Solo, “There’s nothing to see. I used to live here, you know.”
The scenes set on the desert planet of Tattooine were filmed in Tunisia for the original Star Wars. This scene showcases the location well.
This is a very Western environmental view. Most of us from a European-American tradition tend to think of deserts as dead, empty environments, filled with sand and nothing really useful. A closer look tells us this is not true–and interestingly, it’s not even true in Star Wars. The deserts of Tattooine are home to the Sand People, one of the most fascinating alien races portrayed in the franchise. In Attack of the Clones (2002) and Revenge of the Sith (2005) we briefly see the Sand People’s home turf, which consists of Native American-like nomadic villages that borrow some visual and cultural cues from Mongols, Bedouins and other real-world nomads. So clearly, like North America or Central Asia in real life, Tattooine is a place where peoples and cultures have collided. Cultural collision always has an environmental dimension, though Star Wars can only hint at it in the most subtle way.
The creators of Star Wars seem to like desert planets, because Tattooine is not the only one. Part of Attack of the Clones takes place on Geonosis, another arid world whose dominant indigenous life-form appears to be winged insect-like creatures that can fly. Notably, Geonosis is where robots (droids) are made, and an action sequence takes place amidst a robot factory complete with smashing metal stamps and churning vats of molten metal. This suggests that, unlike Tattooine, Geonosis has minerals or other economically useful resources. Geonosis is a world that has been shaped by extractive industries. The third desert planet we see a lot of is Jakoo, in The Force Awakens, but I noticed little difference between this and Tattooine; it’s also a barely habitable desert where scavenging seems to be the main means of making a living.
The opening of The Empire Strikes Back shows us the cold planet Hoth, which is among the least convincing of the imaginary environments seen in the Star Wars films.
As environments go, Hoth, the frozen world where the Rebels make their base in The Empire Strikes Back, is one of the least logical. This is another one-climate world, and the climate here is cold (it was filmed in northern Norway), and at the beginning of the film Han Solo remarks, “There’s not enough life on this ice cube to fill a space cruiser.” Yet there are land animals, “Tauntauns,” which look like rams and can evidently be domesticated, because characters ride them like horses early in the film, and of course there’s the huge ice monster that makes a mess of Luke’s face. The ice monster’s cave is filled with bones, indicating it’s a carnivore. But in a world with apparently no grasses or trees, how does a food chain with these creatures at its peak sustain itself? There’s an example of an environment like Hoth’s here on planet Earth. It’s called Antarctica, and not very much lives there, certainly not big land animals. As with Tattooine, the human characters’ opinion of Hoth is negative and dismissive. It’s a block of ice, valuable only as a strategic location, and then not so much after Darth Vader shows up to ruin the party.
Return of the Jedi (1983) gives us a contrasting vision in the planet called Endor, which is specifically referred to as “the forest moon of Endor.” The climate here is–you guessed it!–forest, and the movie was filmed in northern California with special photographic effects to exaggerate the size of the trees, making each one look the scale of a Great Sequoia. Endor at least has an environment that somebody seems to appreciate. Say what you will about their role in the story, the Ewoks, a race of tribal creatures that look like overgrown teddy bears, live in symbiosis with the forest environment, making their homes in the treetops. Presumably the Ewoks resent the intrusion of the Empire building bunkers and space bases on their nice forested planet, and there’s a “machine in the garden” sense of environmental juxtaposition as we see Imperial hardware contrasted with the natural forest. The movie is too busy giving us space battles and lightsaber duels to explore this aspect much, and that’s fine, but for the environmentalist it’s interesting.
The planet Endor in Return of the Jedi, shown here, is a forest environment with some interesting implications. These scenes were filmed in Northern California.
If it’s “machine in the garden” you want, nothing comes quite as close as the “Starkiller base” weapon in The Force Awakens, which the evil First Order has built inside a planet. Though its core is constructed, there is a “natural” surface on this world which is evidently cold–we see snow and ice several times–and also partially forested. This is at least a plausible and interesting environment in addition to making for a great visual backdrop. One wonders if there were animals or intelligent indigenous beings on this planet before the First Order started monkeying with it, and if so, it raises a whole host of questions about the environment, industrialism, militarism and other thought-provoking topics.
Science fiction is not just pure imagination. It reflects the real world and the worldviews of the people who create it. We all live in an environmental context, and the imaginary characters in Star Wars do too; but it’s worth thinking about what fantasy locations we see up there on the screen can tell us about how we view our own real-life planet, which, unlike Star Wars, does not exist in a galaxy far, far away.