Monday, February 13, 2012

Midi-Chlorian: An unnecessary explanation

 Midi-Chlorian: (noun) 

1. intelligent microscopic life forms that lived symbiotically inside the cells of all living things. When present in sufficient numbers, they could allow their symbiont to detect the pervasive energy field known as the Force. 

2. An unnecessary explanation for something best left ambiguous.

With the re-release of The Phantom Menace, I've seen a lot of people dredging up their old issues with the film.  Jar-Jar Binks, of course, is a popular target, but I think the issue that really rankles people to this day is the fact that George Lucas took something as mystical and spiritual as the Force and reduced it to (as Robot Chicken joked) "tiny bacteria swimming in your bloodstream" aka midi-chlorians.

Even in the original trilogy, there was always assumed to be some kind of biological component to the Force.  It's intimated several times that a big reason Luke has the potential to be strong in the Force is because he's the son of a powerful Jedi.  Return of the Jedi made this even clearer by revealing the significance of Leia being Luke's sister.  In a way, that biological element has always been present.

However... it seems pretty clear to me that Lucas introduced the midi-chlorians to facilitate a particular plot point.  He wanted Qui-Gon Jinn to have conclusive proof that Anakin was not only strong with the Force but had the potential to be greater than all of the Jedi.  Thus, not only does he introduce a prophecy about "the one who will bring balance to the Force" he also makes checking for Force potential as easy and mechanical as checking one's sperm count.  It's so when the Jedi Council says, "We're not taking this boy," Qui-Gon has a case that's hard to rebut and Lucas needs to make the Jedi Council indisputably wrong.

Or to put it in screenwriting terms - Lucas tells and doesn't show.

In the first trilogy, we SAW Luke's potential as a Jedi, proven in that moment where he opens his mind and makes the impossible shot to destroy the Death Star.  The kicker about The Phantom Menace is that young Anakin is already displaying Force-potential through the mere fact he's able to compete in the pod race.  There is the "show, don't tell" of that film - the entire set-piece devoted to showing off what Anakin can do!  I think every audience member would have accepted Anakin's Force potential based on that sequence alone.

That's why the midi-chlorian thing rankles - it's unnecessary.  Lucas already has a way of accomplishing what he needs.  Why do we need proof that Anakin isn't the one?  Sure, the offspring of Jedi could be biologically predisposed to be Force-sensitive, but surely it's not impossible that one might be born into a family like that which remains unaware of their potential?  Making it so iron-clad eliminates the wonder, the hope that all one might need to be a Jedi is to find the way to embrace the Force.  That sense of magic is key to the appeal of the first trilogy.

When you explain something, you rob it of its mystique.  Isn't the Force more powerful when we don't know where it comes from?  Aren't Hannibal Lector and Michael Myers scarier when we don't know their backstories?  Why provide answers when ambiguity is more tantilizing?

Not everything needs to be explained.  Let the audience infer some things.  They need to be able to bring their own magic to the film.  This isn't a pass to leave in inexplicable elements.  The next time you're writing exposition, or crafting a scene to answer a question you think the audience will have, ask yourself...

"Is this necessary, or is this a midi-chlorian?"


  1. I don't know about all that, except when they re-edited Leah not kissing Luke (siblings) before they swing across on that jump rope - I lost all hope in The Force.

    1. Did they seriously do that? I haven't watched A NEW HOPE on Blu-Ray yet, but I *did* watch EMPIRE and their longer kiss is still intact in that scene. Seems strange they'd cut one and not the other.

  2. I always wondered about that myself, along with the fact that while the midi-chlorians may have been intelligent, they also must've been incredibly apathetic since they let people willingly abuse for the power they were granting them.

  3. I'd go to see a movie focusing exclusively on Midi-Chlorian - if those forms are intelligent, can they influence the host? What’s the sign of their intelligence? How would those creatures react to an uncontrollable cell growth aka cancer?

    I agree with BSR on a danger of over explaining – (there would be no STAR TREK if the writers tried to defend/clarify all plot lines that violate laws of physics).
    On the other hand, I wish series like Lost were more transparent and generous with info.

  4. The thing that bugged me even more than the midi chlorian thing was Anakin's mom saying there was no father. As you said, we are supposed to assume that there is a biological component to being a Jedi. In fact, that is why Qui Gon asks who the father is. He wants to know why Anakin's midi chlorian count is so high.

    So while I completely agree with your post, it's not as if the explanation doesn't make some logical sense. It's just redundant. But a fatherless conception of a child doesn't make much sense within the films. And worse yet, it's never addressed again. No, "Hmm. That's kind of weird. I'll look into that." from Obi Won. No, "Well, that proves he is our Savior." from Qui Gon. Thus I think it serves even less to the plot than the midi chlorian thing.

  5. I was just talking about this over the weekend.

    I can tell if a zombie movie is good or not if they take time out to describe what created the zombies. The less time devoted to explaining, the better the movie (generally).

  6. The same rule applies to Anakin himself - he was far cooler and scarier when we hadn't see his origin. From the annoying kid to the final battle which requires his suit, it all just ruined the mystery.