The Muddled Politics of 'Solo: A Star Wars Story'

Solo A Star Wars Still Droid - Publicity - H 2018
Courtesy of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Phoebe Waller-Bridge's droid L3-37 calls for freedom, but the joke is that equality shouldn’t include everybody.

[This story contains spoilers for Solo: A Star Wars Story]

There are some sure bets when sitting down to view Lucasfilm's Solo: A Star Wars Story, some sure bets. Han Solo will meet Chewbacca and Lando Calrissian. He’ll get the Millennium Falcon, and he’ll certainly have some kind of feeling about something. What likely few saw coming was the question of equality for droids. Of whether the sentient machines that figure prominently into every Star Wars movie and a rather large chunk of its supplementary material (if not all of that, too) are being forced into labor against their will. Solo’s approach to the topic is what you might call “complicated.”

For the character who broaches the issue, of course, it’s not complicated at all. L3-37 (Phoebe Waller-Bridge) is introduced as Lando’s (Donald Glover) outspoken co-pilot, a rather tall droid who responds with “equal rights” to the question of whether she wants anything from the bar. When she spots two other droids fighting in a cage for the entertainment of the dimly-lit establishment, she tells them that they don’t need to do this, that they should instead demand their freedom (the man overseeing the fight tells her to mind her own business). And when tasked with creating a distraction at a mining facility on the planet Kessel, her solution is quite appropriate: release all the slaves working there and spark a revolt.

As written above in a (mostly) neutral overview, it reads like pretty standard sci-fi stuff. The question of A.I. sentience and its moral implications, especially of keeping such beings in service to humans, is frequently explored, notably in the other Harrison Ford sci-fi movie you may have heard of, Blade Runner. Even the recent video game Detroit: Become Human, which shares a release date with Solo, is constructed entirely around addressing android sentience.

But where other media takes the topic seriously, and while the description of L3’s exploits makes them sound perfectly justified, the movie regards her as a joke. After a long line of quirky droid characters, the next is L3-37, whose quirk is her concern for droid rights. It is meant to fit neatly within her goofball intro, where after she makes a scene in the bar, the characters all but roll their eyes and drag her off in the direction of the plot. Minutes later, she saunters up to a fence and flips the cutting tool out of her body and tells everyone to look away because she can’t perform if they’re watching. And her rebellion on Kessel is considered a nuisance, an unnecessary complication. “What did you do?” the others demand as she goes on ecstatically about how glad she is that she came along because she has found her calling.

The comedy at L3’s expense depends on her appearance. Described as a self-made droid, her parts are noticeably mismatched with visible wires filling in the gaps like exposed muscle. She has a squashed, rounded head, with no apparent face save for the long, thin black screen where eyes might have been. Though her performance by Waller-Bridge is the single most lively characterization of a droid to ever grace these films, it contrasts with the unmistakably mechanical image; it’s funny that she’s so alive when she is not. Solo makes this most apparent in how L3 discusses her relationship with Lando, insisting that he has an unrequited crush on her. We are meant to find humor at the absurdity of flesh-and-blood Lando having any sort of feelings for what has been presented to us as an object. To underscore the point, Emilia Clarke’s Qi’Ra asks how that relationship might work, in a physical sense.

The reason other media takes A.I. so seriously is because it’s doing what sci-fi does best: reflecting our current struggles and anxieties through speculative fiction, using advanced tech as a vehicle for commentary to reveal some larger truth about an issue. So while the oppression of robots does not have any real-world analog, it is meant more broadly to comment on the struggles of oppressed people throughout human history and the ugliest facets of human nature that go along with it. When sci-fi invokes a fight for equality, our own understanding of that concept, based as it is on the things we’re taught in school and the things we see on the news and perhaps the things we’ve experienced ourselves, comes with it.

This, in a sense, is new territory for Star Wars, even though droid sentience has never been ambiguous. From the very start of A New Hope, we understand C-3PO and R2-D2 to act of their own volition. They are given orders, but they also discuss things amongst themselves, they argue, and they make decisions about, say, whether it’s appropriate to show Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) the entirety of Princess Leia’s (Carrie Fisher) urgent holographic missive for old Ben (Alec Guiness). These are self-sustaining, complicated processes we can immediately recognize to exceed the bounds of the basic A.I. behavior that powers your Roomba. From there, the films raise few questions about how droid sentience is viewed and treated within the larger Star Wars universe; it simply is, and droids simply are. Though we see plenty of other droids engaged in labor, we are not meant to consider whether they’ve chosen to be there or if they’re being paid for their services.

The source of intended comedy in Solo is L3’s sentience — she is independent enough to devise and earnestly believe in this cause. And if we’re meant to take that sentience as a point of fact, doesn’t that raise a lot of uncomfortable questions about the film’s treatment of droid rights as a quirky joke? We are meant to believe that these are sentient creatures, and we are also meant to believe that their sentience doesn’t actually matter so that we may laugh about it — the notion of equality becomes a punchline, because of who (or is that “what”?) it’s applied to.

It's safe to say that the screenplay was not conceived with the messy implications of droids as a slave class in mind, so the question becomes: why not? The answer likely can be found in the portrayal of droids and artificial life in general in the Star Wars movies. In A New Hope, the Jawas fit droids with restraining bolts meant to inhibit them, and the Mos Eisley cantina owner grows quite irate at the prospect of serving “their kind.” These signifiers, rather obvious when laid out here, go largely ignored and fade easily into the background because beyond a handful of our chosen heroes like R2-D2 and C-3PO, the films do not emphasize droid autonomy. They take care of the sick. They assist with flying. They fix stuff. They seem to exist in relation to their pre-determined functions, portrayed more like everyday devices than sentient beings with names and memories and histories.

Then there’s appearance. With something like Blade Runner, those themes of morality and mortality come in the face of androids that are easier to empathize with because they look just like we do. Droids, however, are distinctly mechanical — they come in odd shapes and they come covered in buttons and panels, much closer to the Roomba end of the spectrum. Even the ones with humanoid proportions remain faint facsimiles, either too tall or too stiff or too smooth and featureless to be mistaken for anything but a machine. Fiction doesn’t necessarily require the equivalent of a perfect human specimen to generate empathy, but for Star Wars, the droids have for nine films been portrayed in ways that are consistent with their mechanized appearance, as comedic props or part of the scenery. Compared to the artificial beings of other media, it seems as though droids have literally not been designed for the usual questions of self-aware A.I. and the accompanying rights. Yet here those questions are anyway, treated perhaps the only way they ever could be when grafted into a franchise that never really seemed to give it much thought: as comedy.

It’s not that L3’s cause is out of step with the rest of the film. The thrust of it comes in one of Qi’Ra’s later lines, about how “everyone serves someone.” She grew up with Han in an Oliver Twist situation under the thumb of Fagin-type slug alien Lady Proxima (Linda Hunt), and she since graduated to the employ of a crime lord (Paul Bettany), who soon ensnares both Han and his semi-mentor (Woody Harrelson). The wookiees have largely been sold into slavery; we meet Chewbacca chained up belowground in an Empire camp, and on Kessel he runs off to free his people in the mines. It all fits in neatly with the typical rebellion themes of Star Wars movies, except here we consider how it might apply to droids, who are defined as a class of exceptions disallowed from embodying those themes. The joke is that equality shouldn’t include everybody.

Instead, Solo expresses those themes through the familiar, and the one who rebels against servitude is the most familiar face of all: Han Solo, a white guy. Han Solo, who manages to escape the clutches of Lady Proxima and later devises the plan to rescue Chewie from bondage. Han Solo, who eventually delivers the means to combat the crime syndicates, the tyranny of which is troublingly demonstrated through an impoverished village of people of color with their tongues cut out. L3-37 dies. The characters mourn her, and though we are meant to mourn her as well, it’s not because we were made sympathetic to her cause; it’s because we lost the comic relief. Her consciousness is fused with the Millennium Falcon’s computer to take advantage of her peerless navigational abilities, the better to help Han Solo outrun the Empire. Han Solo don’t serve nobody, kid.