Neil deGrasse Tyson’s criticisms of The Force Awakens’ science miss the point.

Why Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Criticisms of The Force Awakens’ Science Miss the Point

Why Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Criticisms of The Force Awakens’ Science Miss the Point

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Slate's Culture Blog
Dec. 23 2015 7:32 AM

Why Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Criticisms of The Force Awakens’ Science Miss the Point

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Neil deGrasse Tyson wags his finger at the whimsy of the Star Wars universe.

Photo by STAN HONDA/AFP/Getty Images

As it cuts through box office records like a lightsaber through a snow bank, The Force Awakens has met with near universal praise. Still, you can’t please everyone, least of all notoriously finicky astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. In a series of Monday afternoon tweets, the science educator attacked the acclaimed film for its supposed scientific inaccuracies. Writing that it is “Unashamed of its inanity,” he went after everything from the sound TIE fighters make in the vacuum of space to the destructive power of astral bodies. Summing up his criticisms, NBC News writes that Tyson “debunks” the film’s science, a phrase that also crops up in the New York Daily News, Gothamist, and elsewhere.

Of course, for a story to be debunked, it has to claim that it’s anything other than bunk in the first place, which Star Wars has, with one notable exception, never done. That, at any rate, is what Tyson himself once believed. In a 2014 interview with the Dissolve, he explained his longstanding practice of criticizing film science (he recently poked holes in The Good Dinosaur), suggesting that he’s more interested in interrogating movies that “try to make [their science] right” than those that don’t care that they’re getting it wrong.

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At the time, Tyson laughed off the possibility that he might challenge Star Wars. “I don’t put out a list of critiques on Star Wars because you can hear the ships in space, or that Han Solo explains how fast he can make a run on the Millennium Falcon in parsecs, which is a unit of distance. It’s fine, it can be what it wants,” he told The Dissolve. This week, however, he’s apparently gone back on his word, dwelling on the parsec problem in particular. So, tell us, Dr. Tyson. What changed?

As many have noted, Star Wars is really a work of self-conscious fantasy, despite its science fictional trappings. Fantasy, of course, obeys its own conditions of realism, but it signals that realism through different mechanics. The Force Awakens assembles a host of small details that texture its world—the dents in Kylo Ren’s helmet, or the sweat-stained, towel-like fabric of Rey’s arm cuffs, for example. It’s these elements that literally matter, giving the far away galaxy its feeling of weight, and underwriting its operatic registers of feeling. Meanwhile, when its script alludes to “parsecs,” it does so precisely because it’s “unashamed of its inanity,” in Tyson’s phrase. Indeed, the parsec reference all but winks at pedantic critiques of the original trilogy, suggesting that they’re irrelevant to what makes the films magical.

For what it’s worth, the Star Wars franchise once made the same shift Tyson now has, and the results were disastrous. Apparently unsatisfied with the suggestion that the Force was just that, a mysterious energy that held the fictional universe of his films together, George Lucas invented an explanation in his prequel trilogy. Jedi knights, he told us, drew their powers from “midi-chlorians,” which Wookiepedia defines as “microscopic, intelligent lifeforms that live within the cells of all living beings.” These creatures—which pointedly go unmentioned in The Force Awakens—were an attempt to provide scientific clarity where none was needed (or wanted for that matter). By and large, even his most dedicated fans were contemptuous of this new conceit, not least of all because it sought to replace the magical with a patently silly pseudoscience. The new film is terrific in part because it doesn’t bother with such things, comfortable instead with its simultaneously anchored and whimsical fantastical world building.

To his credit, Tyson isn’t without his own sense of anchored whimsy. In one tweet, he jokes (presumably) that he “felt isolated and inadequate for not understanding Wookiee-speak.” Meanwhile in another, he celebrates The Force Awakens’ inclusion of “Romanescu Broccoli, nature’s only fractal food.” Tyson doesn’t hate films—he just loves science a little more, and that’s fine. But he’d still do well to remember what he once acknowledged, that films—like all art forms—are best evaluated in their own terms.