Another year, another Star Wars. The latest installment, The Last Jedi, delivers on what has always been one of the strengths of the franchise: presenting the audience with a remarkable cast of otherworldly creatures. What makes The Last Jedi different from its predecessors, though, is that it thematizes the ethical status of its non-human(oid) beings in a way that the previous films did not. For example, one of the major action sequences takes place during Finn and Rose’s escape from the dungeon on Canto Bight. They release a stable full of fathiers, essentially the planet’s race horses (here is a handy Last Jedi bestiary). The newly liberated fathiers charge through the casino, causing several minutes of mayhem in a playground for wealthy galactic arms dealers. Finn and Rose leave the planet, and the fathiers escape to graze in their natural habitat, at least, presumably, until the powers-that-be on the planet restore the status quo. Is The Last Jedi giving us a politics of animal liberation? The short answer is no, at least not a very convincing one. When it comes to non-humanoids, The Last Jedi asks us to sympathize with creatures such as the fathiers not because other beings are worthy of consideration in their own right, but because they are presented as a mirror in which the Homo sapiens in the audience can see their own selves.
First, we should point out that there’s an irony here: science fiction imagines universes in which all manner of beings, some of whom closely resemble familiar terrestrial species, interact on the same social plane, and yet the social plane still clearly relies on a very terrestrial, anthropocentric human(oid)/animal dualism. This dualism, to be sure, is common enough in science fiction. In Star Trek, for instance, “sentience” is a kind of philosophical razor that determines whether any moral consideration can be extended to another being. If the crew of the Enterprise determines that a species is sentient, for instance, then the non-interference doctrine of the Prime Directive applies. Starting with The Next Generation there have been numerous episodes that hinge on the sudden realization that what they had taken to lack self-awareness or to be entirely lifeless is, in fact, sentient and even capable of offering rebuke for how the manner in which the crew had treated the being (think of the rather succinct description of humans as “ugly bags of mostly water” from the episode “Home Soil”). Star Trek, in other words, projects a very terrestrial and anthropocentric dichotomy of human/animal onto the entire universe. Star Trek: Discovery, to its credit, is at least moving in a more biophilic direction.
The humanoid/animal distinction is also more than a mere incidental reality of the Star Wars universe. A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away some of the beings are engaged in a violent political struggle, while others are used for sport, or simply occupy the various environments of the film. Even the Ewoks were a “people.” The Last Jedi, on the other hand, extends to its “animals” greater moral consideration.
In one scene on Luke Skywalker’s planet of Ahch-To, for example, Chewbaca has slaughtered, cooked, and is preparing to chow down on a porg, one of the bird-like creatures that inhabit the island. He has second thoughts when he realizes the survivors are watching him in horror. He roars, and they scatter like a flock of pigeons. But one stays behind and continues to disrupt Chewbaca’s meal with a look both horrified and mournful. For Chewie, the porgs go from sustenance to a kind of companion as they occupy with him the bridge of the Millennium Falcon during the film’s climactic battle scene. The porgs seem to ask Chewie to go vegetarian, although I think that the ethical line was crossed in the killing and cooking. Chewie might as well have enjoyed his meal.
The first trilogy was especially rich in non-humanoid creatures, from the being that occupied the trash compactor on the Death Star to the enormous space worm that occupied the asteroid in The Empire Strikes Back. None of those creatures, though, were actors in the political drama of the narrative. There is one example from a previous entry in the Star Wars franchise of an animal attuned to humanoid social norms that I can recall. In the race scene in The Phantom Menace Jar-Jar Binks is standing behind one of the creatures used to haul the racers to the starting line when the animal loudly flatulates. The creature whips around to glare at Jar-Jar, who then reacts badly to the smell. This brief and rather lazy fart gag hinges on the animal’s awareness of how a humanoid will respond to its own bodily functions.
The Last Jedi is, at least, different. The fathiers and the porgs have a horse in the political race, so to speak. For that reason alone The Last Jedi presents us with a far less barren image of the universe than the anthropocentric triumphalism of, say, Arthur C. Clarke or Christopher Nolan’s right-wing space cowboy epic Interstellar.
But while the film asks us to care about its non-humanoid creatures and to sympathize with the animals in scenes like the fathier rampage or Chewbaca’s dinner of roast porg, it elicits audience sympathy within an anthropocentric framework. The porgs and the fathiers in particular are given extensive screen time responding to humanoid social cues. Their facial expressions are often more legibly humanoid than many of the humanoid characters.
The fathiers, for instance, have human-like faces and large, sad eyes. Perhaps this is the manner in which the Star Wars franchise has been the most clearly Disney-ified? With space animals depicted with the same easily-recognized human features as the woodland creatures in Bambi? “Reach out with your feelings,” Luke tells Rey. But when it comes to animals, the film puts no such demands on its audience.
Could Star Wars seriously allow us to see animals as something more than tools or set pieces without relying on Bambi-type visual tropes? I think so, and I think it could do so within the franchise’s own framework. The mythology of the Force, for instance, could be a vehicle for considering non-humanoid lives in non-humanoid terms. When Rey finally does “reach out with her feelings,” she achieves a more holistic perspective of the natural systems of Ahch-To. And whereas previous entries contented themselves with showing us the face of the character as she communed with the force, in The Last Jedi we see what Rey sees, the whole cycle of birth, life, death, and regeneration in the biosphere and lithosphere.
And what about the film itself? I liked the film better than I expected, or, admittedly, wanted to. The previous film, The Force Awakens, struck me as little more than a needless reshuffling of the deck. Such a reshuffling is a hallmark of J.J. Abrams’s reboots especially, and The Force Awakens left me thinking that Star Wars, like Star Trek, ought perhaps to have been left in the twentieth century. But while I found the plot of The Last Jedi to be disjointed in the last third of the movie, and I think the bro-type relationship between Finn and Poe is often exasperating, The Last Jedi is generally a more complicated and more thoughtful film. The questions of parentage and how to relate to the past that course throughout the movie make it in some ways an interesting reflection on the franchise reboot itself.