Tech that only took 40 years to do better than ‘Star Wars’
“Star Wars is not science fiction” is one of those arguments that gets trotted out a lot, and it’s fundamentally true — but tell that to a 4-year-old kid who’s just seen the original George Lucas film in a theater in 1977.
Because that kid is marching straight home to pretend to use a lightsaber, fly a freighter in hyperspace and talk to his sister on a “comlink.” There was a lot of sweet, sweet gadgetry we’d never imagined before on that screen.
Some of it has aged well, but not all. Though Star Wars turned 40 on Thursday, much of its tech feels far older because, well, we’ve surpassed it.
No, we don’t have interstellar travel, laser cannons, hovering land-speeders or voice-command software that actually works. But oh, how far we’ve come in that 40 years.
Here are the 11 glaring examples of Star Wars tech that seemed pretty futuristic at the time, but are terribly dated now — in order of their appearance in A New Hope.
1. Droid articulation
When R2-D2 and C-3PO first shuffled/rolled across the corridor of Princess Leia’s ship, robotics in the real world were pretty crude, and certainly not ambulatory. These two required people inside them, plus a team of remote animators, just to make it across the hall. And on the rough terrain of Tatooine? Forget it.
Now we have these freakish things:
2. Data storage
In 1977, we already had the Apple II, the Radio Shack’s Tandy TRS-80 and the Commodore PET — all about the size of a big typewriter, certainly none powerful enough to carry a detailed readout of a moon-sized battle station. So it was a pretty big leap of imagination to think Princess Leia could transfer the Death Star plans to R2-D2 via a drivers’ license-sized data card.
Toward the end of the film, we see R2-D2’s data being transferred to the Rebels via a garden hose-sized cable with a plug bigger than the power source on your refrigerator.
And yet here we are, with USB sticks the size of a dime. Heck, Leia could’ve beamed that file via Google Drive.
3. All those chunky LED lights and levers on the consoles
The display technology you’re reading this on right now is so much more sophisticated than what they could imagine — or for that matter, cook up as a special effect — in 1977. Chunky buttons and manual switches everywhere looks cool and vintage on camera (and was probably very much an aesthetic choice), but nowadays your standard command center would be a sea of keyboards and touchscreens.
4. The half-assed surveillance
An escape pod jettisons and there’s no surveillance footage? Who is in charge of security on this ship? Do you have any idea how much one of those things costs to replace? That is a planetary landing module for goodnessakes! Our military would have a camera pinned on every last one of those.
5. R2D2’s language card sucks
“Bleep bleep chirp bloop” is cute and makes for great one-sided dialogue, but make no mistake: Our language tech is light years past the little blue astromech’s. Now, granted, C-3PO is better at communication than humans at this stage, so the technology is obviously there. Why they couldn’t outfit the rolling trash can with at least some basic Alexa/Siri-level voice capabilities is mystifying.
6. Leia’s hologram
Actually, this is a dead tie. Our holograms are still pretty terrible.
7. That big, long hypodermic needle
The “mind probe” that Vader tries out on Leia has a needle that would scare a blind horse. My diabetic grandfather might have had to suffer through getting poked by that thing, but our needles are manufactured so tiny nowadays that if administered just right, you can barely feel them. Unless … that needle wasn’t for just injecting serum. Huh. Never thought of it that way before. Gulp.
8. Han’s headsets
The headsets that Han uses to communicate to other parts of the Millennium Falcon weren’t fully realized until the 1990s, when telemarketing was still a viable career fallback — and were eclipsed a decade later when earbuds came along. Put one of those things on your head today and a millennial might compliment your tiara.
9. The surveillance cameras on the Death Star’s detention level
Finally! We’ve got some cameras trained on a sensitive area in this movie! Maybe the Empire is just more concerned with that kind of stuff, which checks out. But did you see those things? They’re the size of toaster ovens! As we know, modern security cameras are small enough to be invisibly embedded in your microwave.
10. The comlink
C3-PO and Luke are carrying lipstick-sized speakers that basically operate like walkie-talkies. As a kid obsessed with walkie-talkies, I was pretty stoked about these little doo-dads in 1977, but you can barely get anyone under the age of 30 to talk on a phone nowadays, let alone put up with a single-function gadget.
11. The ship’s targeting heads-up displays
This is some “Pong”-level shit right here — but then even the earliest “Pong” was barely a few years old when Star Wars was being shot, so how could they know? What’s more, these images are getting to the pilots via a clunky, mechanical screen that flops in front of their faces. Today’s augmented reality and headsup-display tech would overlay those images inside their visors, where Luke would be free to ignore them and use the Force instead.
Which is the one thing Lucas thought up that we can’t match.
As a wise man once said: “Don’t be too proud of this technological terror you’ve constructed. The ability to destroy a planet is insignificant next to the power of the Force.”