Much as I love them, the “Star Wars” films are rather better designed than they are plotted, written and, in some cases, acted. That might be why they have endured: no matter how clunky the dialogue, or how full of holes the storytelling, they always look just gorgeous. The first “Star Wars” was released in 1977, the same year the Sex Pistols reached No 1 in the British singles’ charts. It is difficult to convey to later generations how, back then, the look of the movie was as shockingly, unimaginably new as Johnny Rotten sneering at the Queen.
Of all the sharp designs in these films, the sharpest is the lightsaber. It’s exceptional in several ways. One is its simplicity, and therefore its reproducibility. In play, the handle can be anything – my seven-year-old son likes to build his imaginary lightsaber out of Lego. I’m seven times his age, but if I happen to pick up any handy cylinder-sized object (a deodorant spray, a pepper grinder) I have to resist the urge to swing it about while making a zzhoom-zzhoom noise, like Obi Wan Kenobi with a home-made soundtrack. I am, after all, a grown man.
Back in the fictional world, the lightsaber combines the portability of a knife with the elegance and reach of a sword. Knives are low and vulgar weapons, beloved of footpads and assassins; swords are the weapons of knights and warriors, elegant and high-class. Combining the two was a stroke of genius by Lucas’s special effects designer, John Stears. The lightsaber is, in essence, a futuristic flick-knife, except one where laser energy or plasma or rotoscopium or whatever it is enables the knife’s blade to zip a metre out of the handle.
And this is the second remarkable thing about this design: its size. Were the lightsaber real, by now Apple would have designed one with a handle the size of a AAA-battery, made of smooth white plastic, with a fingerprint-recognition switch on its base. You’d keep losing it, or crashing it, and having to drop in to the SaberStore to have experts fix it.
In the movies, though, the saber handle remains reassuringly bulky and knobby, with all sorts of irrelevant excrescences and buttons and grills on its surface. If the aim is portability this doesn’t make a great deal of sense. After all, who in the real world would prefer a 1980s portable phone to a modern smartphone? But from a design point of view, anti-minimalism is a sagacious choice. It makes the weapon seem more substantial, gives it more heft and reality. It makes it more obviously a feature of the movies.
The third thing is the blade, of course: that shimmering, candy-coloured luminescence, green-blue for goodies, cherry-red for baddies. It seems that it can cut through anything: it chops people in half with ease, slices robots and flying motorcycles like hot lava through snow. It can even – though this takes a little more effort – cut through thick metal blast-doors. The only things it can’t cut, it seems, are other lightsaber blades. Hence all those splendid swordfights (or, I suppose, “lightsaberfights”, or, conceivably, “lightfights”), between Jedi warriors and Sith assassins.
This leads to a difficulty, one which I’ve never seen explained; though, given the terabytes of online fan-discussion that have accumulated over the years, I daresay somebody somewhere has addressed it. Since the hilt of the lightsaber is made of metal or plastic, and since the blade it holds can cut anything, we’re entitled to ask: how does the blade fit into its handle? What stops it cutting through the hilt, then through the hands holding it, and so falling to the floor – and, presumably, burning its way right through, China Syndrome-style?
This would lead to a rather different set of films, of course. Luke Skywalker on Endor, sizing up the Stormtrooper zooming towards him on his speeder, cuts at his target: the blade slices through its target, but Newton’s equal-and-opposite means that it shears through the handle at exactly the same rate, and Luke loses all his fingers.
There is a serious point here, about the way good design necessarily works within constraints. Science-fiction writers have a tendency to extrapolate to extremes. Why? Because we can, and because the unbounded imagination is one of the delights of the mode. But design is about finessing the limit-case in ways to maximise elegance and utility. That is to say, the flaw with the lightsaber is that it is too good at what it does. If the technology exists to generate a blade so effective, why isn’t every Stormtrooper armed with one? With, let’s say, a crossbow that shoots lightsaber bolts, or rifles that fire lightsaber bullets?
Because the lightsaber is nothing if not adaptable. In the mythology of “Star Wars”, each Jedi builds his or her own, and so each saber is subtly different from any other. The trailers for “Episode VII” show at least one very different-looking saber, with two little lightsaber-blade crossbars at the top of its handle. They caused much online gnashing-of-teeth, those crossbars. It’s hard to see what practical purpose they serve. But perhaps that’s the whole point. The reason for the new crossbars is that they look cool. And that, rather than practicality, is the true rationale for the whole design. Of all swords, the lightsaber is the coolest. It’s got zzhoom.
Star Wars: Episode VII The Force Awakens is released in Britain on Dec 17th, America Dec 18th