Microscopic beings

In addition to Jar Jar, one of the more controversial aspects of THE PHANTOM MENACE  (“controversial” here meaning a minority of vocal fanboys whining online) is Lucas’ introduction of midichlorians. According to the film, “Midichlorians are a microscopic life form that resides within all living cells. And we are symbionts with them. Without the midichlorians, life could not exist. And we would have no knowledge of the Force. They continually speak to us, telling us the will of the Force. When you learn to quiet your mind, you’ll hear them speaking to you.”

Until 1999, the Force was “an energy field that surrounds all living things. It’s surrounds us, penetrates us, it binds the galaxy together.” It was broadly defined and a bit vague, but still offered a slightly space age twist on God by defining it as an “energy field.” And for 22 years that was about all fans thought they needed to know.

Then TPM came along and “raped” some people’s childhoods.

The complaint is that the concept of midichlorians cheapens the concept of the Force by introducing a scientific element (apparently, “energy field” is sufficiently New Agey not to count as science). The Force is now just critters in the blood. The argument is also that they’re unnecessary. We don’t need to know the science behind why Jedi can use the Force and others cannot any more than we need to know why Harry Potter can use magic and a Muggle cannot. Some just have it and some don’t.

To be honest, I agree.

I’ve always thought one of great decisions Lucas made while conceiving STAR WARS was that not everything needed to be explained. We don’t need to know how hyperspace or a lightsaber or a spaceship work — they just do (until the story requires that they don’t). Lucas developed this idea in film school while watching foreign films, particularly Japanese samurai films. Outsiders watching those films don’t know the culture, the history or the symbolism that the characters take for granted and the film doesn’t pause to spell it out. That creates a sense of exotic realism at the heart of the Star Wars concept. The opening crawl takes the audience to a galaxy far, far away. After that, we’re on our own.

At the same time, the Force has never been as pure and broad and simple a concept as it first appeared. When Obi-Wan first gives Anakin’s lightsaber to Luke, the symbolic implication is that Luke’s path is a birthright. In EMPIRE, it seems clear that the path to using the Force is through training. Luke couldn’t pick up rocks and droids with his mind until Obi-Wan and Yoda taught him the trick.

At the end of EMPIRE, however, Luke makes telepathic contact with Leia through the Force to save his life. Could Luke have contacted anyone else, or was Leia the only option? Because if Luke could ONLY make contact with Leia, and Leia hasn’t had any training in the Force, then clearly sharing Luke’s biology had its privileges. Then in RETURN OF THE JEDI , Luke tells Leia, “The Force runs strong in my family. My father has it. I have it. And my sister has it.” Leia has never been trained. She’s an otherwise normal human being. Yet, by virtue of her birth, she can use the Force.

It’s in her blood.

Midichlorians only give a name to a concept that already existed. There is, and always was, a biological component to the Force. The fact that it could be detected by mechanical means and measured on a scale was something new. Apparently that was the line fanboys could not cross. The fact that the Force could be passed from father to son and daughter is okay – just don’t tell us how.

Could Lucas have told the same story without midichlorians?

Yes. Absolutely. Without a doubt.

The comparison to Harry Potter is apt. We don’t need to know why some can use magic and others can’t. And we don’t need to know why Jedi can use the Force or why their children might inherit the ability. They just do. And I suspect Lucas knows this. He’s smart enough to know what he needs to explain and what he doesn’t. The whole Star Wars saga is based in this principle.

So why did Lucas go WAY out of his way to add something that doesn’t NEED to be added?

Fanboys.

Actually, fanatics in general. Specifically, religious fanatics.

When ANH became an unexpected blockbuster in 1977, Lucas became a household name and a millionaire. He made an impact on culture and created a modern mythology. The film’s success, however, also brought out the crazies. Sci-fi fans have never been known for their social skills or subtlety, but Star Wars REALLY appeals to the unstable. One well-known story is that of the person who showed up at Lucasfilm’s L.A. office to insist HE actually wrote Star Wars. As proof, so the story goes, he claimed to have the Millennium Falcon parked in the parking lot. Other fans wrote Alec Guiness for advice about their lives and blessings from the Force.

No wonder Guiness was hesitant to even talk about Star Wars in later years.

I confess that I think about Star Wars way too much. But I also know it’s a movie and a hobby. It’s not my religion. Unfortunately, there are some who want it to be theirs.

Francis Coppola famously encouraged his friend, George, to actually make the Force a true religion. In some places around the world, some have even tried to do just that. In Australia, devotees petitioned the government to make “Jedi” an officially recognized theology. Since Lucas works in the film business, and lives in Marin County, one of the nation’s hot-spots for hippie-dippy spiritualism and New Age crapola, he is no doubt familiar with people who dabble in bizarre and alternative forms of spirituality.

Fortunately, Lucas rejected Coppola’s suggestion. He seems content to raise his family, make movies and pursue his own agenda. If he has a spiritual side, he keeps it mostly to himself. He’s thankfully not interested in setting that particular agenda for others. But he surely knows that others have been — and will continue to be — interested in turning the Force into a religion. And he only has one lifetime to nip it in the bud.

I’m convinced midichlorians now exist because George Lucas doesn’t want to become L. Ron Hubbard. He doesn’t want anyone, well-intentioned or not, turning the Force into a religion after his death. Religion is often used for good, but it can also be used to hurt. Religion often leads to rigid orthodoxy and power struggles. It becomes political. And Lucas wants no part of it.

Midichlorians are George Lucas’ way of clearly stating to the world: “STAR WARS is fiction. It’s not real. Don’t try to make it something it’s not. It’s a story.”

For that, Lucas should be congratulated, not condemned.

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4 Responses to Microscopic beings

  1. Tony Ferris says:

    Ah, Midichlorians…

    First of all, I just found your blog (followed a link from the Prequel Appreciation Society) and am pleased to see yet another, not simply defending, but celebrating the Star Wars Saga entire.

    As to the subject at hand; while I’m sure Lucas took some relish in de-mystifying and de-sanctifying his saga to the effect that it might undermine the attempts of those who might use it to launch an ill conceived religious movement, I must disagree that that was his primary intent.

    The Midichlorians exist very simply; it seems to me, as a means of quantifying Anakin Skywalker’s Force potential. That is to say that it would not be enough in this particular instance for one of our Force sensitive characters to speak in vague quasi-intuitive ways about how powerful they believed our young protagonist to be. It needed to be solid, incontrovertible fact. Like longitude and latitude. There needed to be no doubt in the audience’s mind that Anakin Skywalker didn’t just possess the potential to be very powerful, but that he possessed the potential to be the most powerful.

    Beyond that very basic story requirement, Midichlorians serve to highlight the fact that the Force is about life. The central theme of TPM is of symbiosis. The Midichlorians illustrate this as much as the relationship between the Naboo and the Gungans, the Jedi Master and his apprentice, the Queen and her handmaiden etc. etc.

    Midichlorians also have an important role to play in Anakin’s downfall later on. Besides the fact that Palpatine promises a power that would allow the manipulation of the Midis, and thus unheralded control over life and death, the existence of our little microscopic pals actually illustrate why Darth Vader is less powerful than Anakin Skywalker. Vader is more machine than man. He’s removed from the organic, from life, and thus from the Force. Without the Midis making it clear that biology is key then the idea that Vader is weaker doesn’t really translate. Remember the Dark side is supposed to be quicker and easier. Anakin should be immediately more powerful – and he is… if only briefly – than he was. If the Force was merely governed by spirit, or will there is no reason why Anakin should be less powerful simply because he has become cyborg. Biology is key.

    Could Lucas have told the same story without the Midichlorians?

    I’m not quite so without doubt as you. Possibly! But the greater clarity with regards to the primacy of organic life would, I believe, be lost.

    At any rate, I think it’s perhaps true that Lucas was partly convinced to take the Midichlorian approach because of what effect it might have on those that would deify a thematic concept from a movie that was designed to do nothing more than make us think about the connection we all share simply because we live.

    Love the blog, man. Keep it up.

  2. Dave B says:

    I like the blog, and agree with the idea, but I also agree Tony Ferris is on the money about the other (and probably more important) reasons for the existence of the midis.

    Yes, nice blog. It’s nice to find some positivity about the PT, even though it did take a while for them to grow on me.

  3. Adam D. Bram says:

    I actually always viewed the Medichlorians as glorified Babel Fish. Qui-Gon states that they tell us the will of the Force, but never says they are the source. They’re translators, and the the true nature and origin of the Force remains delightfully mysterious.

    • A New Hope says:

      Exactly. I don’t understand the “it ruins the Force” idea because Qui-Gon specifically says that midis only tell the “will of the Force.” The Force is still calling the shots. And the idea of Force ability being passed through a generic line from parent to offspring is something that has been present since ANH when it was assumes Luke could be a Jedi because his father was one too.