Rogue One, Andor, and the Storytelling Power of Real Physics

One thing that distanced Star Wars from other science fiction of its era was the aesthetic choice to make its universe feel truly lived-in, where many elements that would otherwise be fascinating and futuristic were shown full of dirt and dents, and treated as ordinary and utilitarian. We’re supposed to get the sense that the characters experience these things every day, and are not dazzled by ray guns, vehicles that defy gravity, or space travel. Most of the time, those are just set dressing, parts of the landscape, and not the focus of the story. And for that reason, painstaking attention was paid to the details of every set, prop, and matte painting to make sure everything looked believable, approaching the process more like a recreation of a historical period than a display of fantastical elements. This has had a surprising consequence: as I’ve observed several times, when you account for the technologies that exist in-universe, Star Wars tends to have better physics in its visual effects than other franchises with more science-abiding reputations.

When depicting an armed revolution against a tyrannical regime in this setting, making sure the non-fantastical elements still follow the laws of physics makes everything much more grounded, and the stakes more realistically felt. And in order to tell a story of hope in the face of insurmountable odds, where the enemy’s goal is to convince an entire galaxy that any attempt at resistance will only bring doom and overwhelming loss, being able to convey the full magnitude of the threat becomes essential. Directed by Gareth Edwards, known for his ability to imbue his films with a clear sense of scale, Rogue One was a magnificent achievement in this regard. Every time I have advocated for taking the physical implications and consequences of some plot device or visual element into account, and explained how it can actually enhance the storytelling, this is exactly what I’ve meant. Rogue One exceeded all my expectations, and they were already high.

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Clearing the Air: Why the Battle of Coruscant May Not Have Gone the Way You Think

It is commonly believed that the Revenge of the Sith novelization is a better telling of that story than the very movie it was meant to adapt. It has richer dialogue, the motivations of every character are beautifully displayed, and the overall plan to seduce Anakin to the dark side and take over democracy and the galaxy itself is made extremely clear. All of it told in the masterful writing of Matthew Stover, which makes it not only one of the best Star Wars novels produced, but also a great novel in its own right. And given that I start this post with so much praise for this book, it may come as no surprise that it also treats physics in a better and more consistent way than the film.

The spectacular opening of the movie puts us in the middle of an unprecedented engagement, with hundreds of capital ships in combat and many more starfighters threading the space between them. The visual look is also unlike in any previous Star Wars installment, with the light of the sun coming very low and filtered through the planet’s atmosphere, making it feel like the battle is fought at dusk or dawn, and with fire and smoke surrounding many of the cruisers. Such a distinct style was achieved by setting the scene in a unique environment, as John Knoll explains in the DVD audio commentary:

“One of the things that makes this space battle different than the other Star Wars pictures is that…we’re saying this is not in space exactly. We’re in the upper atmosphere of Coruscant, which gives us excuses to do things like drag. You’ll see there’s smoky trails behind burning ships. There’s bits of atmosphere hanging smoke.”

So this “space battle” is really an aerial battle, and contains many elements that would go against physics in a deep space setting.[1]Not long after, The Clone Wars seemed to point at this and say “That’s the Star Wars visual look for explosions in space from now on, deal with it”, but that’s a whole other … Continue reading But given the visual spectacle it was meant to be, and the many factors in play that a novel is not beholden to, it is likely for such a movie to present some internal contradictions. Since physics is my field of expertise, in this piece I will discuss one such inconsistency that is hard to explain away as compared to the novel, which has far fewer limitations in depicting how those events might have actually taken place. While fans tend to see the live-action version of a story as taking absolute precedence over any other interpretation, I would postulate that this is not always the case.

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1 Not long after, The Clone Wars seemed to point at this and say “That’s the Star Wars visual look for explosions in space from now on, deal with it”, but that’s a whole other story.

On Space, Time, the Force, and The Rise of Skywalker

The final season of Star Wars Rebels painted a picture of the Force that was much stranger, grander, and more unexpected than many things that had come before in Star Wars storytelling. Its characters even jokingly mentioned how weird things were, but accepted them nonetheless. However, one of the main plot points for the show’s resolution was perhaps a step too far for some fans: the revelation of the World Between Worlds, a realm in the Force that could allow one to travel to and manipulate events across the entirety of space and time. Access to this power would of course have far-reaching consequences for the entire saga, and Emperor Palpatine’s efforts to gain control of it in Star Wars Rebels become unsettling now that we know he’ll soon appear in some form in The Rise of Skywalker.

But does this addition of time travel change Star Wars too much from what it was before? Is the weirdness shown in Rebels too separate from what the Force was originally supposed to be? This might come as a surprise to those who know me as “the astrophysics guy” on this site, but I must confess that I didn’t really see a problem with this new game-changer. And I venture that, at least in part, it might have been my background as a scientist what made me accept it more readily as I thought about the physics of what we’d just witnessed.

We have known the Force transcended the limitations of space and time ever since we saw Obi-Wan feeling the destruction of Alderaan the moment it happened many light-years away. Instant communication of information, however, is a violation of relativity that we see routinely achieved in Star Wars via technology, with no Force required, and I’ve already explained in a previous post how accuracy to our real-world physics could still be respected in such a fictional universe. I won’t talk here about networks of wormholes or similar speculations to attempt a physical explanation of the World Between Worlds. Since on this occasion we deal with the Force, that even the most devoted in-universe scholars do not truly comprehend, I will take a different approach.

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From Lira San to the Kessel Run: Star Wars and Relativity


The Solo film is approaching fast, with our first canonical look at the Kessel Run that made the Millennium Falcon famous. We have multiple confirmations now that the Kessel Run is made hard to navigate by black holes in the vicinity, among other things, and this wouldn’t be the first time the new canon has shown this kind of environment as a navigational hazard. Indeed, the heroes of Star Wars Rebels faced such phenomena in their journey through a star cluster, in the second season episode “Legends of the Lasat”.

Black holes and their surroundings are the topic of the astrophysics research I do for a living, so I’ve wanted to talk about this since before I finished writing about Concord Dawn. Because I absolutely loved this scene. Accompanied by the marvelous music of Kevin Kiner, magnificent visuals depict a maelstrom of gas and dust that swirls around a number of bright, hotter spots where the black holes whose gravity dominates the entire region might be located, but they are left unseen. Indeed, the fun thing about these objects is how small and compact they are compared to their mass: the spherical event horizon of a black hole as heavy as our entire Sun would be a bit less than six kilometers wide. When the camera in the episode is pointed sideways, away from the accreting dust, blue streams of ionized gas can be seen coming out of the biggest hot spots. Some in-falling, disintegrating objects, probably asteroids disrupted by tidal forces, complete the picture. I liked it so much that I remarked at the time how, given its description in Legends sources, this could have been a great depiction of the Maw, the black hole cluster located near the Kessel Run.

But there was more. Despite the term “black hole” appearing in concept art, Hera says “imploded star” instead. They probably changed it to make it sound more exotic, but in doing so they actually increased its accuracy! The explanation is as follows. Natural ways to end up with a cluster of black holes involve massive stars exploding as supernovae. Stars tend to form in clusters, and the heavier they are, the faster they burn their fuel and the shorter they live, so massive stars don’t get very far from each other before dying. And if some of these had more than twenty-five times the mass of the Sun, they could leave black holes behind as their cores collapse (or implode). However, the formation of those stars will also produce many more of lower masses. The ones with more than eight times the mass of the Sun will live a few million years longer and their cores will also implode, but this time creating neutron stars. You would also expect some of these in a cluster of black holes like this, and “imploded star” includes both. Read More

The Physics of The Last Jedi


In the concluding remarks of my previous piece about the physics of Concord Dawn, I argued that one could use science to think about how something unusual in a work of fiction might happen, and its consequences and implications, rather than just calling it a flaw that was not addressed and must be pointed out. After The Last Jedi‘s release, however, many chose this second option when faced with an element from the film’s opening sequence: bombers in space.

The argument generally goes like this: it makes no sense that Resistance bombers would attack a First Order Dreadnought by flying over it and dropping their bombs, since everything happens in space where there is no gravity, and therefore the scene was just filmed that way because that’s how bombers operate on Earth and it looks cool. Mind you, that might well be the actual reason! But since we’re thinking about physics, we could go a bit deeper than this and see where it takes us. One can’t invoke the planet’s gravity to explain bombs falling onto the Dreadnought, since the ship is not oriented with its ventral side directly facing D’Qar, although its artificial gravity seems to extend a bit beyond its topside hull (as seen when debris from explosions and destroyed TIE fighters fall towards it). There’s also artificial gravity inside the bomber, as an important plot point makes us painfully aware, and that alone could have propelled the bombs away. But it turns out that gravity was never necessary—according to TLJ’s Visual Dictionary, the bombs are launched from the bomber by electromagnetic means. Read More