From a military stand point the Star Wars universe is very much a the guy with the bigger gun makes the rules kind of place. While the expanded universe, including the now deleted legacy stuff, depicted a vast history spanning thousands of years, what we see in the films paints a picture of a militaristic society struggling to shed its industrialist ways and return to a simpler time.
Throw that narrative out the window and prepare to be amazed. I won’t go into the Imperialist sympathizer mentality some would argue. Palpatine was not a benevolent leader protecting the Empire from an evil alien invasion as some fringe corners of the interwebs might have you to believe.
As an industrialist, pro-capitalism, techie science nerd I can say the idea of a giant, indestructible fortress of metal housing a giant death ray sounds pretty cool. The imagery of the super weapon is also appealing. In a way it kind of looks like a giant menacing robot eyeball in space. As a setting for a space fantasy it’s damn near perfect. It builds tension for the heroes as the looming dread of ultimate annihilation approaches. Even in that final tactical meeting where the Rebel forces basically come to terms with the suicide mission they are embarking upon the reality sinks in. The pilots know they can either stay on the planet and get blown to atoms or face certain death in an attack that literally makes no logical sense all the way around.
The whole idea of a super weapon that has the power to frighten the imperial subjects into total submission is more than a plot point, it is the very glue that holds the entire Star Wars saga together. From a tactical perspective it doesn’t need to make sense because it works as a story element.
Star Wars has been regarded by a lot of film different people over the years as the greatest film of all time, or at least one of the greatest by most accounts. It is absolutely a cultural phenomenon at the very least. I would argue that the Death Star itself is as much a character of the film as Darth Vader and even more crucial to its success than the entire Jedi mythology.
The Death Star represents mans ultimate achievement, using science and technology to tame the natural world. Being able to control the elements even on a global scale is impressive enough. Then we see the Galactic Empire showing our imaginations a society that has also tamed the wild vastness of space itself. Even the science-grounded Star Trek shows us an untamed space that cannot be explained. The reason Star Wars continues to capture our imaginations to this day is because the first film had the balls to make the focus of the movie a Cold War era nightmare extrapolated to the extreme. Humans of the era were under constant threat of mutually assured destruction during the time the film was released. Humanity had created a series of weapons that if unleashed had the capability to render the Earth a lifeless rock. Here comes a weapon that can not only take out all life on a planet, but can actually destroy an entire planet in a single instant. Images of the mushroom cloud over Hiroshima fresh on everyone’s minds, the scene where Alderaan is blown to molecules resonated with our own fears.
Everyone from the kid in grade school to the college student writing a thesis for their professor down to the nerdy blogger on the internet, has written about Star Wars in some form or another.
While there are ways to analyze the film from a political science perspective, to seeing it as a study in mythology, to a warning of the dangers of industrialization, every angle has been explored. Even as I sit here trying to think of why the Death Star is so damn cool all I can think to say is it’s the best explanation I have for why the film works so well.
There is so much going on in Star Wars yet most of the truly iconic moments and quoteably memorable lines are taken from scenes that happened on the Death Star. The most iconic line from the movie even “May the Force be With you” was said on the battle ship and directed towards it in that briefing room scene.
The sight of a giant metallic ball of death moving into orbit is more than enough to give everyone chills. Even the sense of relief the heroes have at the films conclusions is more than a simple battle field victory over a technologically and militarily superior enemy. The symbolism of destroying the most powerful weapon of the Empire is enough to bolster the Rebels moral. The audience is left with a sense of wonder, awe and relief as the credits roll. We leave the galaxy far, far away knowing the legend of the farm boy, space pirate and princess who stop an evil giant ball of death will live on in the collective conscious of all who experience it.
While film and literary critics will argue the idea of the Death Star is over used or some contrivance of sorts they fail to recognize what it truly represents. On the surface it’s a plot device. Nothing more than the threat our heroes need to overcome. Yet it represents something larger than that. It is the idea of man developing a technology that can undo God’s creation. The idea that man can invent a technology that would elevate an creature no more significant than a flea in the grand scheme of things to the single most important life form in existence. For that reason alone the idea of the Death Star transcends the films and is single-handedly responsible for propelling the Star Wars saga from the realm of a cult b movie to arguably one of the most successful and influential films to ever exist.
I believe that the Death Star is the most important element to the film, even more significant to its pop culture status than the characters themselves. And I am eternally grateful George Lucas had the artistic genius to design his movie around a concept that sticks with you. None of the films spectacular visual effects, fantastic story telling, lovable characters or rich back story work if you remove the single most important element from the films genetic makeup. The movie works simply because the Death Star works. Without it you just have the Wizard of Oz in space. And who wants to see that?