Since the sci-fi genre’s origins, one of its inseparable parts has been the theme of misuse of advanced technology in human hands, or its getting out of control. Starting already with true ancestors of the genre such as Jules Verne, sci-fi writers speculated about superweapons that could destroy the world itself, or about humanity being overtaken by their own creations, the robots. Even in modern sci-fi film, it is a theme often repeated, from Terminator through Battlestar Galactica or Matrix and many others, although each with its own twist to the tale. And in Star Wars, we hear about it from the mouth of none lesser than Jedi Master Obi-Wan Kenobi himself: “Well, if droids could think, there’d be none of us here, would there?”
“Robot apocalypse” does not feature in the Star Wars films, although there certainly are droids aplenty. For fans of the expanded universe (now Legends), there are several stories which touch that theme, especially the tale of IG-88 (one of the bounty hunter droids from Episode V) or G0T0 from Knights of the Old Republic 2. But the misuse of technology, droids included (and not to speak of clones, which fulfils the scheme of “creation turning on its creator” even better), is a topic present to enough extent that it is important for the saga, however veiled its presence is. That is why, I believe, Star Wars is not really just a fantasy tale in sci-fi clothing, as it might many times seem. The techno-dystopian theme is present enough to be inseparable.
Despite the fact that the prequel trilogy is almost entirely about the war against droid armies, it is downplayed by that the whole conflict is only a trick, an elaborate scheme from the true enemy behind the scenes, Darth Sidious. Maybe it is even a part of his plan to play on the subconscious fear of “droid apocalypse” in the minds of those Republic citizens who have given it a thought. Obi-Wan could easily be one of them. Actually, he seems to profess an unusual amount of scorn for droids and technology – up to the point that it becomes quite suggestive once one starts paying attention to it.
When we meet Obi-Wan in Episode IV, he is already serving us dismissive remarks regarding technology. We could think it to be only a quirk of an old man, a hermit who is more focused on the spiritual and also yearns for times of his youth, when lightsabers were still in use by thousands of Jedi. That impression is further strengthened because he is put into contrast with Han Solo, who has only contempt for the Force and prefers a good blaster by his side. But if we look at young Obi-Wan, we begin to understand that his contempt for technology is not something he had acquired with age. It had been a part of him from the very beginning.
One could easily understand why, at least as far as droids are concerned: from his time as Padawan on Naboo, Obi-Wan had been fighting against droids a lot. That would be enough to create some prejudices, and even though a Jedi Master’s mind should strive to free itself of such things, it might be difficult if they are merely subconscious. Obi-Wan has also had the chance to observe the droids’ flaws and ridiculous behaviour in certain situations, as well as their inability to deal with some basic problems, for him to begin looking down at them. Think of the scene from Naboo hangar, where Qui-Gon confounds the battle droid by telling it that they are going to Coruscant. And think of Anakin later having to defend R2-D2 by telling Obi-Wan that “he’s trying”, while it is obvious Obi-Wan finds something funny about the little one’s help in their mission to rescue the Chancellor.
What other aspects of technology does Obi-Wan dislike? Flying. True, it seems like a bit of simple fear of heights and fast movement, especially where Anakin is concerned. But I believe a case can be made for Obi-Wan disliking the idea of sitting in a starfighter to begin with, and rely on its technological “advancements” rather than on one’s instincts and direct connection to the universe. Obviously one can think back to the iconic moment in Episode IV, where Obi-Wan convinces Luke to switch off his targeting computer. That is the way the Jedi do it, but not all Jedi would have such a dismissive attitude towards technology to begin with. One of the rudest comments by Obi-Wan, which places equation mark between two technological innovations, is that “flying is for droids”.
The thoughts presented by Obi-Wan in some way give voice to an idea present in the whole saga – or at least in the first six films. Technology is deceptive and can be very dangerous. This is probably one of the small details which really differentiate George Lucas’s story from that of others’. The Death Star is not merely a superweapon the way Starkiller Base is. Episode VII could take place in a fantasy universe where Starkiller Base is substituted for an evil artifact, but Episode IV very well could not. And it is not only because of cool starfighter battles, it is because of what Death Star represents. Or from another perspective: surprising assault by First Order stealth ships, for instance, bombing the Senate into oblivion would have accomplished the same as the Starkiller Base, but destroying Alderaan the same way would not have worked. Even Darth Vader himself calls the Death Star “technological terror”, and that is a lot to say from a person who is half a technological terror himself.
Speaking of Darth Vader, he is another example of portraying the “dark side of technology”. Obi-Wan (once again, it is him, the technophobe) speaks with definite judgement about Vader becoming “more machine than a man: twisted and evil”. He is right, of course. This is the case of man becoming a slave to the machine, even though in a different way. Darth Vader’s armour and artificial limbs do not help him, or serve him. Not the way they do to Luke, or to Anakin in the beginning after he loses his first arm. Darth Vader’s artificial shell is a trap built by his Master, a cage for his body and spirit, a way for Darth Sidious to preserve Darth Vader for himself – forever. Vader cannot leave until the moment of his redemption, when he also decides to leave his shell and his body behind. In the novelisation of Revenge of the Sith, Matthew Stover describes the moment of Anakin’s transition, in my opinion, much more powerfully than even the film portrays it:
“It is in this blazing moment that you finally understand the trap of the dark side, the final cruelty of the Sith –
Because now your self is all you will ever have.
And you rage and scream and reach through the Force to crush the shadow who has destroyed you, but you are so far less now than what you were, you are more than half machine, you are like a painter gone blind, a composer gone deaf, you can remember where the power was but the power you can touch is only a memory…”
To sum it up, the “technological terror” seemed to be somehow important to George Lucas. Important enough to even recycle the Vader idea in the chief Separatist villain in Episode III, General Grievous. Maybe that is also the reason why Star Wars is a sci-fi in the first place, and not a classic epic fantasy, even though it very well could be.
Technology itself is not necessarily evil in Star Wars. There are nice, helpful droids and useful starships and many other things. The Force-users seem to be aware of the fact that they are just ephemeral material objects, though, where the Force is eternal and ultimately much more powerful. The problem is that with its promise of easy power – just like the Dark Side, remember? – technology can cloud a Jedi’s judgement, and make them seek truth where there is none. That is why people like Obi-Wan look down at blasters and even droids, however friendly and helpful they are.
Technology is the easiest tool for the forces of evil to twist to its own purposes. From beginning to the end, the droid armies, the clone army, Vader’s new half-cyborg self and the Death Star are the dangers to fight. And with the rise of the technocratic Empire, it seems as if Palpatine wanted to erase all the memory of the Jedi and the Force so that only he can be the true “owner” of life in the Galaxy, with everyone else slowly degrading into mere pawns in the metal machinery of the Empire.