As most fans can attest, everything is up for debate when it comes to Star Wars.
Along with irksome questions like the definitive order to watch the film series or which Star Wars TV show is the best, a long-developed question that continues to divide viewers is whether Star Wars falls under the umbrella term of sci-fi or fantasy.
The question instantly invites all sorts of arguments, debates, and detractions from Star Wars fans — some of whom claim the series belongs to the sci-fi genre, while others contend it’s firmly a fantasy film.
Like any debate in Star Wars, there are many different angles to approach this question, with all sorts of considerations to carefully take into account. First and foremost, it’s important to identify the key features associated with each respective genre, identifying whether these characteristics can be spotted in Star Wars. Additionally, the exact influences George Lucas relied on in crafting his cinematic universe may provide helpful evidence in determining the series’ conclusive genre.
With that in mind, let’s try to figure out once and for all whether Star Wars is sci-fi or fantasy.
The Case for Star Wars as Fantasy
The genius behind Star Wars itself is that, unlike other strictly sci-fi properties, George Lucas weaved in numerous elements from distinctly non-sci-fi genres. These elements include everything from Japanese samurai films (especially those by Akira Kurosawa) to 1950s and ‘60s Westerns (Han Solo being the proverbial space cowboy, his arch-rival, Boba Fett, inviting comparisons to Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name).
As part of the outside influences Lucas introduced to his cinematic creation, Lucas also maintained dozens of allusions to the fantasy genre. In particular, Lucas drew on stories found throughout ancient mythology for the basic outline of his series, especially those found in The Hero with a Thousand Faces, perhaps the biggest inspiration on Star Wars’ direction.
While Lucas may have been more directly influenced by Joseph Campbell’s monomyth structure, it’s hard to ignore the glaring similarities between Star Wars and several tales from Ancient Egypt, Greece, or Rome. As an example, the story of Luke Skywalker is extraordinarily similar to the overall structure of The Odyssey. Both characters come from an extraordinary setting, are called to a unique adventure that they initially refuse to participate in, face overwhelming odds and challenges along the way, and ultimately return humbled and changed.
Given the relatively limited story progressions of ancient myths, Campbell’s monomyth structure can be applied to virtually every legend from Prometheus to Osiris. That being said, similarities can be inherently found between Star Wars and these numerous age-old stories that formed the basis for the fantasy genre.
Jumping forward from the mythology of ancient civilizations, one might also spot some overarching similarities between Star Wars and other fictional properties firmly embedded in fantasy — the most notable being JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. As happens to be the case for Star Wars, Tolkien’s series incorporates numerous characteristics commonly found in mythology, employing the monomyth years before Campbell ever invented the term.
Like Luke, you have a hapless character (Frodo) reluctantly departing on an adventure, recruiting several colorful allies, facing imminent perils, and ultimately triumphing over the physical embodiment of evil in their respective settings. Taken one step further, you can also see how certain characters from Tolkien’s books went on to shape the general archetypes filled by characters in Star Wars (Luke and Frodo, Han and Aragorn, Obi-Wan and Gandalf, Sauron and Emperor Palpatine).
While the structure of the storylines between Star Wars and LOTR is clear, detractors might rightfully claim that just because the story layouts and characters are similar, the comparisons between Lucas and Tolkien’s respective creations start and end there.
However, Lucas was also careful to incorporate more fantastical elements in Star Wars as well, best personified by the Force at the heart of his franchise. Clashing dramatically with the sci-fi futurism of its setting, the Force immediately calls to mind the magic wielded by Gandalf or Saruman in Lord of the Rings, or Merlin in Arthurian legend.
As most science fiction fans are sure to point out, magic is about as common in science fiction as bubblegum in historical epics or iPhones in Westerns. Lucas was among the first to pioneer the concept of magic being used in a science fiction setting, giving Star Wars a decidedly mythological presentation that perhaps most largely accounts for arguments in favor of its status as a fantasy film.
The Case for Star Wars as Sci-Fi
On the other side of the argument are the prevalent examples supporting the series’ claim as a work of science fiction. After all, virtually every aspect of Star Wars’ universe can be categorized as succinctly sci-fi (from the laser-emitting blasters and lightsabers to the spaceships and extraterrestrial travel between planets).
When held up to other classic sci-fi works (Star Trek, Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon), Star Wars adheres to many of the same characteristics that make up these fictional universes. The setting — while taking place “in a galaxy far, far away” — incorporates endless elements of science fiction.
As mentioned above, the weaponry and vehicles are virtually straight out of a Star Trek episode; but there are also more telling themes present in seminal examples of sci-fi, including cloning, totalitarian regimes, alien species, interstellar war, and AI (droids). Wherever you look within the context of Star Wars, these elements can be found almost everywhere.
As with influences Lucas took from mythology and fantasy, he also liberally borrowed from sci-fi films, TV shows, novels, and comic books he’d personally enjoyed growing up. These influences include Flash Gordon, Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, and Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Martian books.
Possibly the biggest influence on the narrative and world of Star Wars came in the form of Frank Herbert’s Dune, the sci-fi equivalent of The Lord of the Rings. On the surface, Herbert’s Dune serves as almost the direct spiritual predecessor to Star Wars, with Lucas adopting the idea of a hostile desert planet, intergalactic power struggles, and a method of space travel that could be used to bridge vast distances in a matter of moments.
Even more than that, there are also several more fantastical elements present in Dune that Lucas took inspiration from. Most notably, you can see a striking resemblance between the Jedi Order and more mystical factions within Dune, such as the Bene Gesserit. As seen in Herbert’s novels, this group possesses physical and mental gifts — believed to be magical in nature by outsiders — that make them valued assets in the political landscape of Dune. That description alone is dramatically similar to the Jedi Order and their roles as protectors of the Republic in the Prequels.
To go one step further, the Bene Gesserit even prophesied the coming of the Kwisatz Haderach, a female savior with heightened clairvoyance powerful enough to usher in a new era of peace for humanity. This special “chosen one” almost describes the exact role of Anakin Skywalker in Star Wars.
Further comparisons can also be made between Lucas’s Force and the elusive magical properties found throughout the Dune universe, including the symptoms that come from ingesting a fictional drug known as “spice.” When taken, this drug increases awareness, focus, and energy — essentially the same traits as a Jedi when they embrace the Force. (For anyone who doubts this claim, just look at the climactic moment when Luke opts to use the Force to destroy the Death Star in lieu of his fighter’s missile guidance system.)
You can go on and on continuing to compare and contrast the two, but the question remains the same: If Herbert’s Dune is classified as a sci-fi novel, why doesn’t Star Wars fall under the same classification?
So, is Star Wars Sci-Fi or Fantasy?
With the above points being made, the final word on the matter is that Star Wars is most assuredly a science fiction film. Yes, it does contain plenty of fantasy elements, but the expansive universe that George Lucas created contains too many sci-fi elements to be anything but sci-fi, through and through.
If the technology, vehicles, and alien species were absent, then yes, Star Wars technically might count as fantasy — but imagining Star Wars without TIE Fighters, AT-ATs, blasters, and lightsabers is almost inconceivable; it’s like trying to imagine pizza without any dough.
More accurately, it’s fair to say that Star Wars is sci-fi with fantasy mixed in — much like Dune or Avatar. There are definite magical themes, topics, and objects that permeate throughout Star Wars (the Force, the Dark Side, the Light Side, the Jedi, the Sith), but they are tightly wrapped around the outer exterior of a sci-fi series.
Yet it’s for this very reason that Star Wars remains so enjoyable to watch, and so unique a franchise in the first place. Unlike Star Trek, it’s not 100% ingrained in the sci-fi genre, nor does it solely belong to the fantasy field in the same manner as The Lord of the Rings, Narnia, or Harry Potter. It’s a deft blend between both genres, creating a satisfying cocktail that has a sci-fi base, with additional parts fantasy, war film, aviation movie, Western, samurai epic, and so many other genres thrown in for good measure.
This post was produced and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.
Richard Chachowski is a freelance writer based in New Jersey. He loves reading, his dog Tootsie, and pretty much every movie to ever exist (especially Star Wars).