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We need to talk about the woke droid

Solo addressed the ugly metaphor at the center of the Star Wars universe — and not particularly well.

L3 (voiced by Phoebe Waller-Bridge), Alden Ehrenreich, and Donald Glover in Solo: A Star Wars Story Lucasfilm

Minor spoiler for Solo below.

The very first Star Wars film (A New Hope, 1977) contained a few depictions of robots that look especially jarring with the passage of time. Droids — or at least protocol droids like C3P0 — are programmed to address their owner as “Master.” They wear restraining bolts to keep them from running away in the middle of the night. C3P0 and R2D2 meet Luke Skywalker, an apprentice farmer, when he buys them at an auction. If this was all too subtle, the droids are later denied entry to a pub, where the bartender grumbles, “We don’t serve their kind here.”

The full meaning of this two-tiered caste system was never really interrogated in that film, and the subsequent films over the past four decades have largely played down the thick earlier references to slavery and racism. Were the droids supposed to represent an oppressed racial class? Were they a suggestion that sentient beings ultimately need an underclass, but it’s okay if that underclass is artificial? The franchise largely let these questions go. At least, it did until the recent installment, Solo: A Star Wars Story.

This film gives us a new droid, L3-37, enthusiastically voiced by Phoebe Waller-Bridge. L3, as she is known, works closely with a young Lando Calrissian, and indeed appears to be in an intimate relationship with him. There are issues of agency and consent at play here, which we might forgive this film for not examining in great detail. But the overall suggestion onscreen, as well as in surrounding fiction, is that this robot is autonomous, conscious, and unowned, and has even largely constructed herself.

But what particularly stands out about L3 is her political self-awareness. She recognizes that she is part of an aggrieved class of creatures in this universe. Asked what she wants, she shoots back, “Equal rights.” We see her free other droids from destructive tasks and remove their restraining bolts. What’s more, she manages to incite a local rebellion among droids within a few seconds simply by urging them to rise up.

Here’s the problem: This is done as comic relief.

I’ll admit I wasn’t crazy about the film as a whole. But this really struck me. Imagine making a big-budget American film in 2018 in which a main character’s recognition of her subjugated status, her efforts to liberate others in her predicament, and her calls for equality are played for laughs.

This is a real missed opportunity. It is one of the many ways Solo failed as a Star Wars story especially when compared with its predecessor, Rogue One (2016). The earlier film took a plot device from A New Hope — the stolen blueprints for the Death Star — and expanded on it, actually improving the original film by making the Death Star’s design flaw more relevant and plausible. Solo also mined the original film for plot ideas — the subservient status of droids is a good one! — but fell short in the execution.

A droid uprising is a great science fiction topic and could actually be the basis for the entire film. (And it doesn’t have to result in murder-bots à la Terminator or Ultron.) Instead, it’s just treated as a silly side plot, while the real action centered on an origin story we largely already knew.

Indeed, the way Solo handles the droid question is problematic for the rest of the franchise. Given how easy it was for L3 to incite an uprising, that is, how has this not occurred before? This universe is absolutely shot through with droids. Coruscant, the capital of the Old Republic, was awash in them. Why did Palpatine need to create an entire new and expensive clone army to subvert that system when there were literally billions of beings already in place who could be goaded into insurrection simply by allowing them to realize their plight? The L3 uprising is potentially as destructive to the continuity of this universe as the Holdo maneuver depicted in The Last Jedi (2017).

I suppose one might defend L3 by noting that Waller-Bridge is a feminist comedian. In that context, the droid’s portrayal is more of an inside joke tapping into work the actor voicing her has already done. But as shown onscreen, it’s a pretty unsatisfying way to address some serious issues.

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