Analysis

Seven Unanswered Questions From the Original Star Wars Films

Han Solo looking confused.
A favorite pastime of internet nerds is to put the new Star Wars films under a microscope and ask questions about anything doesn’t make sense. We ask how the First Order became so powerful after the Empire’s fall, how Maz got a hold of Luke’s lightsaber, and why Holdo was so secretive about her plan to keep everyone from dying.

These questions are fine, so long as they are asked in good faith. Star Wars is a multi-billion-dollar franchise, so it can withstand a little critiquing, and it’s important to hold storytellers to high standards if we want better stories. But sometimes it seems like we exchange our critical lens for rose-colored glasses whenever we look at the original Star Wars films. Because we’ve had those movies in our cultural lexicon for so long, it’s easy to forget that they contain plenty of plot holes and inconsistencies themselves. Here are just a few of the questions we’d probably ask if the original trilogy were released today.

1. Why Fly Down the Trench?

Two X-Wings from the trench run.

The Death Star Trench Run is one of the most iconic sequences in film history. It is masterfully shot, seamlessly melding WWII-style attack runs into a space environment. It puts the heroes in a desperate fight against the odds and magnifies their triumph when Luke makes his one-in-a-million shot. It also raises a serious question: Why fly down the trench at all?

Flying down a long, confined trench seems like the opposite of what the Rebels should be doing. Remember that one-in-a-million shot? One of the reasons it’s so hard is the pilot has to arc the shot so the torpedoes are moving directly perpendicular to the direction they were fired. The original film didn’t show this, but the special edition did, and it looks ridiculous. If the Rebels had simply flown straight down toward the exhaust port, they could have lined up a much easier firing angle.

At first, it seems like the trench is used to shield Rebel fighters from the Death Star’s turbolaser turrets. But that doesn’t make sense either. Not only is it explicitly shown that the turrets are too slow to hit the Rebel ships, but there are turrets in the trench too! So all flying in the trench accomplishes is giving the fighters less space to maneuver.

Then the Imperial fighters show up and raise even more questions. The film acts like once the Rebel ships have started their trench run, there’s nothing that can be done to help them. So the Imperials fly up behind them and blast them apart with ease. Why aren’t any of the other Rebel ships trying to help them by shooting into the trench? You know, the thing that Han Solo does to save Luke at the end? For that matter, why are the Imperials getting into the trench with the Rebels instead of shooting at them from above?

2. Why Does Luke Leave the Wampa Cave?

Luke hanging upside down in the Wampa's Cave.

The first problem our heroes must overcome in Empire Strikes Back isn’t Darth Vader or an Imperial fleet – it’s the hostile environment of their frozen world. Hoth is not only so cold that it doesn’t have enough life to “fill a space cruiser,” but it is also home to a powerful apex predator: the wampa.*

The wampa makes its dramatic entrance when it knocks Luke out cold and drags him and his tauntaun mount to its lair. Cut to the next scene, where Luke makes his dramatic escape by levitating his lightsaber and chopping off the wampa’s arm. He then flees the cave to face the frigid temperatures of a Hoth blizzard, where only the timely arrival of Han Solo saves him from freezing to death.*

Except… why did Luke leave the cave? It was almost certainly warmer than outside, both because ice is great for trapping heat and because there’s no wind chill. Plus, the remains of Luke’s tauntaun, and therefore all his equipment and supplies, were there.

The obvious answer is that there was a wampa in the cave, but the wampa was no threat to Luke. He could have dispatched it with a single swing of his lightsaber, assuming it didn’t die from shock and blood loss after losing its arm. Then he could have made wampa steaks to sustain him while he waited for the blizzard to die down.

Instead, Luke runs out into the cold and almost dies for no reason. One could argue that he panicked and wasn’t thinking clearly, but this is a guy who can face down Death Stars, Imperial walkers, and a Dark Lord of the Sith without blinking. It seems unlikely that a wampa would crack his cool. Ironically, the sequence would actually have worked much better if it had gone the way Mark Hamill thought it would. Supposedly, he was under the impression that his lightsaber swing was only to scare the wampa, not hurt it.* At that point, it would make perfect sense to flee the cave.

3. Why Doesn’t Vader Force Choke Luke?

Vader Force choking a subordinate.

Luke and Vader clash twice in the original trilogy, and both times their fight is decided by skill with a lightsaber. It’s not hard to see why. The lightsaber is a deadly blade that can cut through nearly anything, and it can block blaster bolts.* It is a powerful weapon in a Force user’s arsenal.

The only problem is that by the time father and son cross blades, it has already been well established that Vader can incapacitate his foes just by raising a hand. I am referring of course to the famous Force choke. Vader normally uses it on underperforming subordinates, but presumably it doesn’t have a friendly fire requirement, so why not use it on young Skywalker?

A Force choke has several notable advantages over a lightsaber. For one thing, it can’t be blocked or deflected. In fact, as far as we know from the films, there’s no defense against it all. Second, the choke has much greater range, meaning Vader could defeat his son without ever putting himself in danger. Finally, Vader’s goal in the Cloud City duel is to capture Luke, and a Force choke is a much better way to do that.*

Of course, it’s possible that Luke has some kind of defense against a Force choke, perhaps taught to him by Yoda. But if that’s part of the Dagobah curriculum, it’s never shown on screen. Instead, Yoda spends most of his time teaching Luke to levitate rocks.* We also see clearly that Luke has no defense against Vader using the Force to hurl heavy objects at him, which at least indicates he doesn’t have an anti-choking shield.

Even if Luke did have a way to protect his throat from Vader, a Force choke would probably still have been worth trying. As far as Vader knows, Luke has received no instruction in the Force since Obi-Wan died, so he’d have no reason to expect Luke could block such an attack.

4. How Did the Falcon Cross the Void Without a Hyperdrive?

The Millennium Falcon approaching Cloud City.

While the Millennium Falcon is a super cool ship, it’s also notoriously temperamental. Case in point: its hyperdrive malfunctions when Han, Leia, Chewie, and C-3PO try to escape from the Hoth system, leaving them stranded. They are forced to play cat and mouse with the Imperial navy at sublight speeds until they finally slip away by pretending to be a piece of space trash.*

But that still leaves the Falcon’s crew in quite the pickle. They’re stuck in the Hoth system, with no way to – wait, no, apparently that’s wrong. When Leia asks where they are, Han says, “The Anoat system.” Okay, I’m sure there’s a reasonable explanation for that. Maybe the planet Hoth is in the Anoat system? No, that can’t be right. Earlier in the film Vader and his underlings clearly say the Hoth system.

Somehow, the Falcon has crossed the gulf between star systems at sublight speeds and seems to have taken a few hours at most. Even if we’re really generous and say that each cut between scenes on the Falcon represents days, that’s still absurdly fast. If the ship can fly that fast at sublight speeds, then what is the hyperdrive even for?

Maybe there’s still a chance to explain this. Han and the Empire could be using maps with different names for the same system! Like how if you have a globe from before 1989, it insists that Yugoslavia is a place that exists. Admittedly, that’s a pretty slender thread, and even it breaks because Leia had to ask where they were in terms of star systems. If the Falcon were traveling at anything close to sublight speeds, they’d still be in the system they started in.

Just to add more confusion, secondary sources insist that Cloud City, the place Han and company go next, is in yet another system. That means the Millenium Falcon traveled across three different star systems without once breaking the speed of light. That’s almost as bizarre as Han being able to see the blast of Starkiller Base from half a galaxy away. The only explanation I can come up with is that the Star Wars galaxy is really, really small. The size of a single solar system at most.

5. Why Did They Knowingly Lead the Empire to Yavin?

The Death Star approaching the planet Yavin.

After being captured by the Death Star’s tractor beam, our heroes stage a daring escape. You probably remember it: jail breaks, trash compactors, lightsaber duels, all the good stuff. But in retrospect, it does seem a little too easy. The Death Star had thousands of Stormtroopers on board. Could they really not stop a handful of Rebels from reaching their ship? And once the Falcon was in space, did the Death Star really only have four TIE fighters to send after it?

Fortunately, Vader and Tarkin have a scene that explains everything. They let the Falcon escape with a tracker on board so it would lead them to the Rebellion’s secret base. Well, that makes sense. Good catch, writers!* But then they have to go and un-catch it when Leia reveals that she also knows the ship is being tracked. You might remember the exchange; it goes like this:

LEIA: That doesn’t sound too hard. They let us go. It’s the only explanation for the ease of our escape.

HAN: Easy… you call that easy!

LEIA: They’re tracking us!

HAN: Not this ship, sister.

Why not this ship, Han? What is it about your flying rust-bucket that makes it immune to tracking? We never find out because they move on to discussing other topics. This leave us wondering not only why Han thinks his ship can’t be tracked but also why Leia doesn’t press the point. We’re left to conclude that she leads the Death Star to Yavin on purpose.

That’s beyond nonsensical. What if the Rebel technicians hadn’t found the Death Star’s weak point? What if the Rebel pilots had missed their one-in-a-million shot? For that matter, what if the Death Star had brought along a single Star Destroyer for escort? Any of those would have led to the Rebellion’s destruction, when all the characters had to do was stop somewhere long enough to find the tracker and disable it.

The only explanation I can think of is that the Death Star would have been hard to find and attack if it hadn’t been lured to Yavin. Maybe Leia didn’t think they’d get another chance and decided to gamble everything. You’d think the other Rebel leaders would have had something to say about that.

6. When Does Luke Learn to Use a Lightsaber?

Luke and Vader clashing lightsabers.

One of the common complaints about the new Star Wars films is that it doesn’t make sense that Rei can use a lightsaber so well because she was never trained with one. It turns out that this is actually a Star Wars tradition, dating back to Luke Skywalker himself.

Before the duel in Empire Strikes back, we see exactly one scene where Luke trains with a lightsaber, on board the Falcon in New Hope. In that scene, he is specifically learning to block blaster bolts, not fight another lightsaber-armed opponent. We can be pretty sure Obi-Wan didn’t train Luke at any other time, because they had only met a day or so ago at most, and then Obi-Wan dies.

Yet somehow, Luke is really good at sword fighting by the time he journeys to Cloud City. Maybe Yoda trained him? It’s technically possible, but we spend a lot of time on the Dagobah training sequence, and lightsabers are never even mentioned. As noted, Yoda spends most of the time training Luke to levitate rocks. Indeed, the idea of Yoda training Luke with a lightsaber feels more than a little silly, considering Yoda’s general thoughts on war not making one great. Before the prequels, it didn’t seem like Yoda even had a lightsaber.

Maybe Luke trained himself? It’s always possible he downloaded* some manuals on fencing and practiced in a mirror. But trying to learn any skill on your own is difficult, and it’s doubly so for a physical skill like sword fighting. Without an experienced teacher, it’s really hard to tell what you’re doing wrong, and with a weapon as deadly as a lightsaber, even a training accident could be lethal.

There are, of course, more outlandish options. Maybe Luke bought a martial arts droid and trained with it, or maybe someone in the Rebellion just happened to be a retired fencing instructor. But that level of headcanon can explain almost anything. At least the new Star Wars films establish that Rey is already trained with a staff, which is a melee weapon even if it’s not used exactly the same way a lightsaber is.* Luke didn’t even get that much.

7. How Does the Rebel Fleet Win at Endor?

The Imperial fleet from Return of the Jedi

The Battle of Endor is a desperate fight for the Rebellion. Their fleet is trapped between the second Death Star on one side and the Imperial fleet on the other. It’s hard to say exactly how many Star Destroyers the Empire brought to this fight, but it’s enough to fill an entire screen. Fortunately, Rebel fighters are able to fly inside the Death Star and destroy it, at which point the Imperial fleet… leaves?

Hang on, what happened to that entire screen full of Star Destroyers? I don’t know, and the film doesn’t ever say. The Falcon flies out of the exploding Death Star, and the Imperial ships are just gone. It’s unclear if they were all destroyed or if they left.

Both options are unlikely. The Imperial fleet outnumbered and outgunned the Rebel fleet by a huge margin. Each Star Destroyer is at least as powerful as the biggest Rebel cruisers, and most of the Rebel fleet is made up of smaller support ships. The Rebels get lucky when they destroy the Super Star Destroyer, but the Empire still has more than enough firepower to wipe them out.

The Imperial fleet running away is slightly more likely, but it still doesn’t make sense. While history is full of examples where a superior army fled the field, that sort of route is usually caused by imperfect information. One group of soldiers breaks and runs, and then their friends break and run, not knowing that the battle as a whole is still in their favor. This behavior spreads until the entire force is in retreat.

That probably didn’t happen at Endor. As far as we can tell, Star Wars ships have nearly perfect information of what’s going on around them. That makes sense, since they’re in space and there’s very little to hide behind. Any Imperial commander worth their stripes should have looked at the remaining forces and concluded that the Rebels were doomed.

Secondary Star Wars sources have a truly bizarre explanation for this: the Emperor was using his Force powers to coordinate the Imperial fleet, and when he died, the officers were so disoriented that they could no longer fight effectively. Not only is there no indication of this in the film, but it’s hard to imagine why he would even bother. His fleet had the Rebels dead to rights, so why waste concentration on a needless exertion of power?


The original Star Wars films are triumphs of cinema. Not only are they great movies, but they also showed that science fiction could be successful with a mass market, and they influenced the way films have been made for decades. But they are not perfect. No film, no matter how beloved, is completely free of problems. That’s something we should remember when we type up our critiques of the new films, lest we let our nostalgia for what came before distort our judgment.

(Psst! If you liked my article, check out my magical mystery game.)

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Comments

  1. Martin Christopher

    Why they knowingly led the death star to the rebel base has a very banal answer. Last minute script changes after the main filming had already ended. Originally there was no tracking device and the death star never threatened the rebel base. But during editing they realized that this isn’t heroically dramatic enough. And so they quickly threw some new shots together to have the death star attack the rebel base.
    Which is the reason why during the battle both the rebel and imperial commanders are only silently staring at screens and all the dialog is off screen radio communication. That’s what they were able to get on such short notice. You also never see the huge red planet in the sky at any point during the battle, even though the establishing shot of the death star puts it right next to it.
    Having Leia say she is certain that they are being tracked addes a minor plot hole though. Still worth it, I would say.

  2. Cay Reet

    The easy answer to all of the above questions: Deus Ex Machina. The trench made for a good action sequence, Han finding Luke almost dead was more dramatic, the lightsaber duel was a great action sequence, the ship needed to get to the next step on their trip for story reasons, otherwise the big action sequence of Star Wars would never happen, Luke knowning how to use a lightsaber was necessary for the big fight, they just won.

    You could also have asked why C-3PO is recognized as a protocol unit by Own Lars (and we see others of his kind in Empire and Return), if Anakin actually built him from scratch. That is an error which George didn’t care for, either.

    • Martin Christopher

      The important thing about Star Wars is that it ultimately is all about heroics and spectacles. More than most movies, it makes a lot of sense to compare it to mythology. It’s not meant to be a whodunit that can be decrypted rationally, or a logic based exploration of technological developments. It’s not a puzzle to be figured out through reasoning, but made to be an emotional experience that evokes feelings of wonder and heroism.
      What really matters is what the characters are feeling when they make their choices and that this comes across to the audience as authentic. Strict logical consistency was never a priority, nor an intention. They are movies that try to make you feel, not to make you think.
      Which is one of the shortcomings of the new movies, since they try to set up mysteries and imply that they are puzzles that can be figured out and will make sense, which draws attention to the logic holes that didn’t matter before.

  3. SunlessNick

    Rey is already trained with a staff, which is a melee weapon even if it’s not used exactly the same way a lightsaber is.

    I’ve run into several people who have praised her initial fight with Kylo Ren for exactly that – the mistakes she starts out making being consistent with someone using a sword when they’re used to a staff.

  4. catfips

    The final question is answered in the books and comics leading up to TFA as a year after the Battle of Endor the RA had their decisive victory over the Empire at Jakku. The Empire’s forces retreated aftet Endor and regrouped only to be beaten at Jakku.

  5. M

    the best question you should be asking is why luke is so boring without vader…he is only interesting because of his father, nothing more

  6. Bane

    Most of this is answered with one real difference, Audience Expectation and Imagination. When those movies were made, people would ‘inject’ their own thoughts into the little info given..

    People didn’t need everything spelled out for them, and it led to great conversations after you watched a movie with the person who wasn’t paying attention.

    “The entrance to the trench had less lasers, vs exhaust ports are near the engines and need more coverage against attack” was one I heard as a kid, “the Wampa cave smelled bad, was underground (no tracking) and no-one would have found him before they left the planet” was my take on it back then, how many weeks and months happened between events, Luke learning to fight, Chewie fixing the hyperdrive while on a asteroid. Even conversations could have jokes in them, and having Han ignore a ‘womans point of view’, even thought she’s likely right (and was). I mean how long do you think Luke was training with Yoda? months? years? It felt like at least 9 months.

  7. MichelleZed

    All these are great questions except there’s an easy answer to why Vader didn’t force choke Luke: because he didn’t want to.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Okay, I’ll bite. Why not?

      • Cay Reet

        Perhaps he was burning for a real fight? He didn’t force-choke Obi-Wan in A New Hope, either. Not many Jedi left, he probably hasn’t had a decent sword fight in years and Luke is younger than Obi-Wan and thus more of a challenge.

      • American Charioteer

        Or he knew that Luke was his son and still hoped that they could join together to overthrow the emperor. Or he was just overconfident. It still doesn’t explain why he didn’t force chock Luke when he was losing in Return of the Jedi, there is probably some soft cannon explanation about how Jedi are resistant to direct force effects. That conflicts with Obi-Wan and Ankin’s fight in Revenge of the Sith, however. (A similar question has been brought up in regard to using the force to deactivate lightsabers or other equipment).

      • Oren Ashkenazi

        Vader wanting a good fight is reasonably plausible, but it takes a lot out of the fight scenes if we assume Vader could have ended it as any moment, and as pointed out it doesn’t really work once he starts losing.

        As for the idea of trying to turn Luke, his goal in Empire Strikes Back is to capture Luke in carbonate, so I don’t see how force choking would make that worse, especially since he was read to lop off limbs.

        Of course there is a soft canon explanation, lots of soft canon explanations, but there’s a soft canon explanation for literally everything in Star Wars. In this case, it’s basically that Jedi can cancel each other’s force powers, which is pretty contrived. This is what happens when you want your space wizards to fight with swords but also give them powers that are way more efficient than swords.

        • Cay Reet

          I also remember Jedi using the force choke against each other in the old EU and the only one who could cancel it was a guy who happened to control wind and air with his powers.

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