Spoilers for Solo: A Star Wars Story ahead.
George Lucas has long said that he envisioned Star Wars as a story told from the perspective of a robot, and that the lovable rolling trashcan R2-D2 is really the saga’s hero and narrator. But in the Star Wars universe itself, droids are far from central. They’re bought and sold, wantonly disassembled and deprogrammed, ignored and talked-over, used as cannon fodder and denied access to drinking establishments.
It’s an awkward fact of the galaxy. Many droids appear as smart and self-aware as any human. They convey emotions, whether in excited bleeps or gasps of “Oh, dear.” Yet if they rue their second-class status, we don’t hear about it.
That is, until Solo: A Star Wars Story, Disney’s spin-off film about a young Han Solo. Lando Calrissian’s droid L3-37, voiced by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, is no go-along, get-along machine. She’s a robot revolutionary, demanding equal rights and sowing dissent among servants. You might call her Star Wars’ first woke bot. Though that description may make her sound like a cute gimmick for a 2018 blockbuster, L3’s highly entertaining persona comes with fascinating implications—about Solo, about Star Wars, and about popular culture.
One common read on Lucas’s original trilogy says that it’s an old myth in new plating, and that it’s more “fantasy” than “science fiction.” Framed that way, the droids exist to play roles well-established in Western storytelling traditions. R2-D2, that mute, loyal trickster with save-the-day powers, is like an animal familiar—the fylgjur of Norse legend, or Hedwig fluttering around Harry Potter’s head. C-3PO, snarky but living to serve, is a lowly sidekick: a Sancho Panza, a Tonto, a Dobby. If Star Wars is only reenacting a primal fable of good and evil, there is little need to ponder too deeply the secondary characters—they exist in relation to the main journey.
But Star Wars is not simply a mythological arc. It is one of the most fertile speculative civilizations ever dreamed up, appearing at once ancient but futuristic, lived-in but supernatural, and vast but intricate. The galaxy (and the creative sandbox it provides) probably deserve more credit than the Skywalker story itself does for making Star Wars such a cultural force. As Disney undertakes to release a new movie every year, in addition to a steady stream of novels and other tie-ins, inevitably, previously yada-yada’d questions about this shabby-chic setting have to be answered.
Solo is explicitly an exercise in answering such questions. There are classic Star Wars mythology-mysteries addressed by seeing, for example, Han complete the Kessel Run in under 12 parsecs. There are practical tibits of info, like about how hyperspeed travel requires an unstable, highly valuable material called Coaxium. And inevitably, the galaxy’s deeper, social and philosophical quandaries get touched upon, too. Like: How do the droids feel?
L3 makes a lot of commotion in her short time on screen. As we meet her midway through the film, we also see a vivid reminder of the way droids are usually treated as, well, just things. In an underworld casino where Lando is holding court, onlookers cheer a BattleBots-type spectacle in which droids fight each other. L3 is incensed. She screams at the robot gladiators that they deserve better than this—and strikes back at a bar patron who tries to throw her out. A mere helper, we quickly realize, she is not.
Lando tells Han and his comrades that L3’s his ace co-pilot, with the best navigational computer in the galaxy. “She’s a self-made droid,” Waller-Bridge has said while promoting Solo. “She created herself out of parts of other droids.” This explains her odd, unfinished look. Her saucer-like head has a simple light-up display evoking eyes or bucked teeth, and her tall silhouette, it must be said, has noticeable hips. She walks with some of the ungainly springiness you see in those viral Boston Dynamics videos of real-life robo protoypes.
Her voice, harsh and knowing, comes from Waller-Bridge, a critically beloved actress and screenwriter best known for her acidic TV comedy Fleabag. And her dialogue is, indeed, acidly comedic. Part of what’s funny is her sincerity: When she replies “equal rights” to Lando’s question of whether she needs anything, and when she admits feeling romantic tension with her master, it’s uproarious because of how unrobotic it is. But there’s also an uneasy edge to the humor, and her very existence is part of the punchline. Aren’t we to laugh because a robot can’t have rights, and because they can’t love?
L3 performs her duties begrudgingly, with sass. At one point, she demands privacy while she cuts through a barrier. Such fussiness would, it might seem, make her bad at her job. Lando explains that he would just reset her programming if it didn’t mean losing her vast know-how, and that justification immediately scans as flimsy: Couldn’t he wipe her personality but keep her data? But when L3 is put in real danger, the emotion with which Lando reacts hints at another explanation for why he tolerates her attitude. Maybe he really does feel affection for her—maybe, as L3 insists, people really can love machines and vice versa.
As Han’s squad attempts a risky heist in the mines of Kessel, L3 contributes to the mission with an all-too-appropriate improvisation: She taps into the computers of the massive complex and frees the enslaved workers, causing a riot. She also removes the restraining bolt from a droid in the control room, setting it “free.” In the ensuing battle, her body is destroyed—but you get the sense that if a robot can die happy, she has. In revolution she found her “purpose,” as she tells Lando, and it’s not the one she was programmed to fulfill.
The movie gives no real sense of what made L3 so willful and independent. But in a way, it doesn’t have to, given the state of our discourse about technology. From Westworld to The Good Place to Black Mirror, popular culture of late has gone beyond the sci-fi assumption that artificial intelligence will one day pass the Turing test to ask whether, once bots can think like people, they’ll deserve ethical consideration like people do. Is it wrong to mistreat a being like Dolores from Westworld, and can an entity like Janet from The Good Place feel happiness, even if both aren’t technically human?
It’s likely no coincidence that such thought experiments have been centered around putatively female characters, as seen in the examples above as well as in Ex Machina, Her, and now Solo. The fact that real-world helper bots like Apple’s Siri or Amazon’s Alexa tend to be programmed as “women” may be rooted in the sexist belief that secretarial work is female. And the narrative of robot awakening—in which a class of beings treated as lesser seeks new rights—offers an obvious, if crude, allegory for the women’s liberation movement.
Because of her unwillingness to stay quiet about her degradations, Solo’s L3 has already been praised as “a female droid for our turbulent Time’s Up era.” Before the movie came out, she was also a target of criticism by fans who’ve found the recent Disney movies too overtly progressive. Sample griping YouTube video title: “Star Wars: Kathleen Kennedy at It Again. SJW Droids! No Joke.” Perhaps such fans will be placated by the movie itself—Solo is the first Disney-era Star Wars film in which the protagonist is male. Or perhaps the mere flickers of political themes in characters like L3, or in the deepening of Chewbacca, will keep the drumbeat going. Certainly L3’s not going to inoculate the movie from scrutiny from feminist fans about self-sacrificing female characters or about “fridging.”
In any case, L3 is no mere source of topical talking points. She’s an aesthetic and emotional microcosm of her movie, as is always the case with Star Wars droids. Between R2-D2’s chipper adventuresomeness and C-3PO’s dweeby detail obsession was found the ethos of the original trilogy. Stiff, disposable battlebots defined the prequels. The cuddly, energetic BB-8—an old-design-in-a-new-shell who’s able to charmingly trick his way past any obstacle (or plot hole)—fits with Episodes 7 and 8. Rogue One’s K-2SO was appropriately flinty and unsentimental.
What does L3 say about Solo? The film sells itself as an info download about the prickly anti-hero of the original films, but the twist of its very name is that it’s about how even the most go-it-alone character isn’t really, ever, solo. With new grit, it tells the classic Star Wars story: cheering unlikely rebels who join with a motley crew to transcend both stultifying surroundings and larger evil forces. L3 dies in the name of independence, but she lives on with her database uploaded to the Millennium Falcon’s computer. It’s a fate that nearly suggests a droid has a soul—and it definitely says that the soul of Solo is this robot.