What are midichlorians in Star Wars?


If, as Han says in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, it’s all real, all of it, we have to ask: even midichlorians? What the heck are midichlorians anyway?

The first time I heard about midichlorians, it wasn’t in the Star Wars prequels. A good decade and a half before The Phantom Menace came along and made them both a household word, and shorthand for everything wrong with George Lucas’ return to the trilogy, I was reading about midichlorians and mitochondria in the Madeline L’Engle book A Wind in the Door, which is the second book in her series that begins with the famous A Wrinkle In Time. So I actually had an idea of what midichlorians were. There were the cells within Charles Wallace’s body that the Echthroi attacked, causing him to sicken, and sends Meg Murray on her second adventure to save her baby brother. It is speaking to these intelligent cells within his body that helps save his life.

So when they turned up in a piece of bizarre dialogue with another young boy in a fantasy series, who was told that it was the intelligent midichlorians in his body that made him able to use The Force, it actually wasn’t the worst part of the movie for me. Midichlorians! So much like Charles Wallace, Anakin Skywalker got his powers from cells in his body. Yeah, it was kind of a weird hard right turn, especially after The Force had been such a spiritual  thing in the original trilogy, but hey. Perhaps Lucas had been reading his L’Engle.

But, as was pointed out by Charlie Jane Anders in her excellent article, The Real Problem With Midichlorians, the issue wasn’t really that Lucas had gone and mixed this trope from another fantasy series into his own. It was that it directly contradicted his original description of them. Obi-Wan, in “A New Hope says that The Force is “an energy field created by all living beings.” But midichlorians aren’t an energy field. They are cells inside living beings. That made sense in the L’Engle books, where time travel and supernatural powers were couched ina  world where characters were biologists and scientists. Here, they just confused the issue.

All of a sudden, instead of there being an energy field that “binds the galaxy together,” there are little microscopic life forms inside of the Jedi, allowing them to… do what? What do the microscopic entities have to do with the galaxy-wide life force? Are they like symbiotes that allow you to connect to the energy field? If the Force is in every living thing, then why do only some people have midichlorians? Does the Dark Side of the Force have different-flavored midichlorians than the light side? What was a fairly clear-cut explanation suddenly becomes incredibly muddled.

So what are the midichlorians? They are something that, if J.J. Abrams knows anything, he’ll avoid like a cell borne plague that could sicken his little boy of a movie and kill it.

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