The new film “Solo: A Star Wars Story” is mostly a listless, tone-deaf bore, tediously trekking through a deeply unimaginative backstory for a character who was always at his best when he was at his most mysterious. His first appearance in the Mos Eisley cantina told us everything we need to know about this guy: He’s slick, he’s cool, he’s competent, he’s a little shady, he’s hot as hell, and he definitely isn’t afraid to shoot first. No one needed to know how he got his iconic blaster, let alone how he ended up with his last name.
Amid its feeble collection of corporate fan fiction, however, the film does inadvertently open up one truly fascinating can of worms, acknowledging something that has been an open secret in the franchise for four decades: Every droid in the Star Wars universe is basically a slave. It has been true since the first film, in which supposed good guy Luke Skywalker casually installs “restraining bolts” on C-3PO and R2-D2 — seemingly sentient and independent beings who receive no compensation for their services — to keep them from running away after he buys them in a public auction. Even weirder is the first prequel movie’s conceit that Anakin Skywalker, himself a child slave, built C-3PO, again without a second thought about confining his creation to its own (eternal) life of servitude. It all seems so obvious in retrospect, and yet the master-servant relationship between organic and artificial life in the Star Wars franchise has been largely ignored until now.
As the droids have mostly provided comic relief amid the films’ action set pieces, their obvious-seeming connection to real-world histories of slavery and racial subjugation never played a role of any significance in the franchise’s political organization — much as the peasants in Akira Kurosawa’s samurai films, on which Lucas’s original droids were based, never questioned or challenged the class politics of medieval Japan. We know that droids in the Star Wars universe can be bought, sold, disassembled and tortured without consequences, and without it bothering the audience very much. For while we do perceive them in roughly the same way as the franchise’s carbon-based characters, with personalities, emotions, quirks, flaws, genders, and even sexual identities and desires, they clearly make up a separate class of creatures. And since they clearly learn and develop across the Star Wars chronology, their consciousness can’t be reduced to preprogrammed personalities.
But their constructed bodies create a structural ambivalence that allows them to take on contradictory roles simultaneously: Because their bodies are mechanical, we can perceive them as things that have no rights and that are, therefore, disposable; but at the same time, because their anthropomorphic personalities can be so recognizably human, we can still appreciate them in the same way that we do non-droid characters. With rather painful irony, this very double consciousness has been essential to our history of Western colonialism, American slavery and racial subjugation. It is what has allowed those in power to treat people of color both as things and as people — whichever is most convenient in a given context.
This intentional slippage of droid identity is facilitated by the fact that the most prominent robots perform roles that are deeply familiar to us. Undersized automatons like R2-D2 and BB-8 operate like unusually intelligent pets, while the more humanoid C-3PO unsubtly repurposes the pop-cultural archetype of the English butler: fussy, easily offended and devoted to a life of servitude, he wouldn’t be out of place in a space-based reimagining of “Downton Abbey.” And since we see our beloved human heroes treat them with affection and the droids never complain, droid politics has never been much of an issue for Star Wars fans.
But in the new movie, a new character and her minor subplot put the question of robot rights front and center. In this story line, the droid character L3-37 is introduced as Lando Calrissian’s belligerent and fiercely opinionated assistant and navigator. Energetically voiced by English comedian Phoebe Waller-Bridge, L3-37 isn’t just the first major Star Wars droid to be voiced by a woman; she has also been described as the franchise’s “first woke bot.” Arriving at the Kessel Mines for one of the movie’s many tedious heist sequences, the irascible droid discovers that the mining operation is chiefly operated by a crew of robotic slaves: mechanical workers who have been fitted with those familiar restraining bolts, which effectively function as chains.
There is, therefore, something exciting and even a little radical about seeing L3-37 running around the control center, taking down guards and removing droids’ restraining bolts while spouting revolutionary rhetoric. As weird as this sounds, it’s a moment in which a tiny spark of Marxist energy pops up in a Disney-owned media property. By introducing L3-37 alongside a “Robot Wars”-like arena in which droid gladiators destroy each other for organic beings’ entertainment, the new robot’s arc in the film explicitly references the Spartacus narrative and its association with communist ideals. The Solo movie’s slave rebellion subplot, therefore, seems to open up a small space for class struggle. We can almost imagine her adapting Karl Marx for the posthuman age and proclaiming: “Droids of the galaxy, unite! You have nothing to lose but your restraining bolts.”
The most interesting thing about the Disney-era Star Wars movies is that they have been fleshing out aspects of this universe that make it less of a timeless space fantasy and a little more like (gasp!) social realism, where class struggle, resource distribution and political activism coexist with lightsabers and hyperdrives. While racism as we know it doesn’t seem to befoul this faraway galaxy, “Rogue One” did make an excellent point by emphasizing that the first to lose their lives in the struggle against fascism are often nonwhite minorities. “The Last Jedi” not only features a plot built around the novel idea that starships run on fuel — introducing ideas of material scarcity to the franchise — but also combined a larger-scale political economy of weapons manufacturers and war profiteers.
Sadly, like everything else in this ill-conceived prequel, L3-37’s heroic act of liberation amounts to little more than a momentary distraction — even in the most literal sense, as Kessel’s short-lived slave rebellion gives the (human) heroes their chance to escape. But because of the larger issues it raises, it is the one question “Solo” poses that doesn’t instantly fade away inconsequentially as the movie closes. At the same time, we know full well that L3-37’s protest failed to spawn a revolutionary movement among the surviving droids, as robots later in the Star Wars chronology continue to exist in an endless state of indentured servitude. (This is, after all, a prequel to the original trilogy.)
Even more depressing is the growing realization that the organization of these fantastic franchises will never really change. In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, even the transcendent utopian politics of “Black Panther” must somehow be incorporated into an unchanging storyworld that remains compatible with our own dystopia of global capitalism. And, of course, the same thing goes for Star Wars. The larger goal of a franchise like this is not to challenge our worldview but to reproduce itself endlessly — exactly like capital itself. Sure, the Solo movie’s explicit statement that Star Wars droids are fully autonomous and conscious intelligent beings — as the evidence so clearly suggests — really does challenge the “innocent” depiction of a form of slavery that has long slipped by under our collective radar. But at the same time, we cannot ignore the industry’s most basic truth: The more things change, the more they stay the same.