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'Star Wars' is not a space movie. Prove me wrong.

Star Wars is set in space but it's not about space the way true space movies, like Apollo 13 or The Martian are.

By James Grebey
Luke Skywalker Screaming hero

This is an opinion piece.

Star Wars is, famously, set in a galaxy far, far away. It features all sorts of spaceships and characters traveling from one planet to another. It has “star” right there in the name. And yet… Star Wars is not a “space movie.”

This is a strongly held opinion of mine, and a controversial one. My friends have yelled at me about this take. Nevertheless, I am writing about it for SYFY WIRE because I am right and the truth deserves to be shared. 

What is a “space movie?” Obviously, it’s a movie about space. Star Wars takes place in space, but it’s not about space, not really. Star Wars is a fantasy adventure that draws on both war movies and Western tropes, and then sets them in that far, far away galaxy. The actual mechanics of outer space rarely come into play. Characters casually jump into hyperdrive and cross the galaxy without any concern, and there are never any concerns about oxygen or gravity or trajectories. The only times when space has been an actual factor in Star Wars have been trips into asteroid fields and when Leia gets sucked into space in The Last Jedi (which was a very polarizing moment that many people argued did not feel especially Star Wars-y.)

Kevin Bacon, Tom Hanks, and Bill Paxton talking in ship in a scene from the film 'Apollo 13', 1995.

Space — or more accurately, a fantasy version of space where physics doesn’t really matter — is just a setting for Star Wars rather than its subject. A real space movie engages with space. The act of getting to (and surviving in) outer space is, if not the central premise, a main tenet of a space movie. Apollo 13, which is a perfect movie that’s now streaming on Peacock, is obviously a space movie. The Right Stuff is a space movie. First Man is a space movie.

Those three movies are historical dramas, but a movie doesn’t need to be based on a true story to be a space movie. The Martian, which is set in the near future, is a space movie, as are Gravity and Ad Astra. For All Mankind is a space TV show. All of these titles feature astronauts and are relatively grounded (figuratively speaking, not literally), though movies can be more fantastical and still be space movies — provided that space is a plot point and not just a setting whose intricacies and dangers can be hand waved away. 2001: A Space Odyssey has some huge themes and the finale is a trip, but a lot of the movie is documenting, in massive detail, what a trip through space entails. The Expanse is another qualifier, as while the series features wormholes and an ancient alien civilization, and takes place in a future where mankind has colonized the solar system, so much of its fairly hard sci-fi is about how dangerous space is. G-forces regularly impact characters, a loose wrench in zero gravity becomes a deadly threat, and the vast, dangerous blackness of space is a constant threat. 

Aliens, typically, are disqualifying for a space movie. Independence Day is an incredible movie and Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum do go to outer space, but space is not really the point of the movie — it’s the alien invaders who are coming from space. As with Star Wars (which itself is full of aliens), space is part of the movie, but it’s not the point of the movie. Alien movies are their own genre. There are, admittedly, areas where it gets a little fuzzy. The original Alien is a horror movie about an attacking alien, but it’s set in a futuristic spaceship and the isolation and mechanics of space are a factor. Alien could count as a space movie, though it would be better sorted as a horror flick. Event Horizon, another horror movie set in space, has an even looser claim to the space movie title. It’s a haunted house movie set in a spaceship, and while the characters do need to contend with the dangers of futuristic space, the celestial setting is secondary to the eldritch terrors. 

Star Trek: The Motion Picture - The Director's Edition

If there’s a secondary throughline in my (correct) definition of what does or does not make for a space movie, it’s that space needs to be special. If you can jump to hyperdrive at a whim, you’re not dealing with a space movie. Star Trek is closer to being a space movie/show than Star Wars is, as it’s about space exploration and Kirk and Co. do need to deal with some of the dangers of space (how many people have gotten sucked out of the Enterprise and into the void of space?) but it is all too mundane to qualify. Space is routine in Star Trek — and not in the way it’s routine in The Expanse, which never lets space travel feel safe. Furthermore, the reason why people watch Star Trek and Star Wars is not because they’re set in outer space — it’s because outer space has already been conquered, allowing the characters to explore strange new worlds or use magic powers against one another while swinging laser swords. That’s thrilling stuff, but it’s not the same 

Many will argue that my definition of a space movie is “stupid.” Of course Star Wars is a space movie! They’ll say. It’s set in space! Anything set in space is a space movie! 

To that I would say, smugly, that Earth is a planet in space, so by your definition, everything is a space movie. Check and mate. We gotta have boundaries, and just as the Kármán line is the boundary between Earth and space, this is my boundary between space movies and films which simply feature outer space in them. 

Stream Apollo 13, a great space movie, on Peacock