The Star Wars Alien Issue: Where Are the Non-Human Characters?

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The <i>Star Wars</i> Alien Issue: Where Are the Non-Human Characters?

Let me get a disclaimer out of the way immediately, because it’s necessary when you write about any franchise with a passionate, geeky, easily enraged audience: I love Star Wars. In grade school, there was a roughly four-year period where I read nothing but Star Wars expanded universe novels. I sunk countless hours into flight sims such as X-Wing vs. TIE Fighter. I reviewed Rogue One for Paste, and thoroughly enjoyed myself. So please, don’t feel the need to question my fandom credentials.

In the weeks that have followed seeing Rogue One, and with more time to reflect upon The Force Awakens, there’s an issue that has come to the forefront of my mind in how this current iteration of the Star Wars universe is being presented. Or perhaps I should clarify and say “the Star Wars GALAXY,” and its residents … most of whom aren’t human. And that’s the root of the issue: In an incredibly diverse galaxy, full of amazing, unique races, where the hell are all the significant alien characters?

Look back on Rogue One and Force Awakens, and think about it—which non-humans are truly of any importance? There’s Maz Kanata in Episode 7, certainly, and at least Lupita NYong’o makes her minimal screen time count before being written out or potentially killed off, but that’s pretty much it. Rogue One, meanwhile, is even more minimal and human-focused, without a single alien character who is anything more than a brief supporting presence.

Before we dive further into that issue, though, we should address the wookie in the room: Chewbacca. Yes, Chewie is a “main character” in both The Force Awakens and the original trilogy, but this is also a character who, although beloved, has always been narratively hampered by his basic inability to speak Galactic Basic and thus be understood directly by the audience. As a result, Chewie’s “dialog” is always simply inferred by the viewer as a result of other characters’ reactions to him, which is more often than not simply played for laughs. Or in short: He makes a Wookie sound, and Han makes an amusing wisecrack. Is it any surprise that we never see any scenes of Chewbacca on his own as a result? As much as we all love Chewie, that is simply not a fully three-dimensional character—he plays his role, and plays it well, but is never placed on the same pedestal as the humans all around him, and never receives equal characterization or recognition in the narrative. If he did, we wouldn’t still have fans pissed off that Chewie never got a medal after the destruction of the first Death Star in A New Hope, and we likewise wouldn’t have fans pissed off about Leia giving Chewie the cold shoulder in Force Awakens and instead embracing Rey after the death of Han Solo.

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No respect, I tell ya. No respect!

And thus, I have to conclude that even Chewbacca in Force Awakens can’t truly qualify as a real alien “main character” on par with any of the humans, or even the droids. And the same thing goes for Rogue One.

Why Do Alien Characters Matter to the Star Wars Galaxy?

We know from official descriptions of the Star Wars universe that human beings are the most common sentient species in the galaxy, but that does not mean they are the only ones of importance—it would be like saying that the Cyclothone (or “bristlemouth”) of Earth’s oceans are the most significant fish to humanity, just because they have the largest projected biomass. And really, have you ever even heard the term Cyclothone before this moment? Doubtful, unless you’re an ichthyologist.

And like Earth’s ocean, the Star Wars galaxy is home to hundreds (and almost certainly thousands) of sentient, spacefaring races. Some of them are “near humans,” ‘a la Star Trek who could easily pass for human except for one small physical characteristic. Many others are at least humaNOIDS, which isn’t too surprising given that many of the original alien races were designed to be represented by actors in costumes. Just think back to the first Mos Eisley cantina scene in A New Hope, which looms large in how many alien races it established in one fell swoop: Duros, Defel, Lutrillian, Bith, Advozse, Morseerian, Anzati, Lamproid, Sakiyan, Givins, Gotal, Rodian, Arcona, Saurin, Chadra-Fan, Devaronian, Yam’rii, Shistavanen, Qiraash, Sarkan, Snivvian, Vuvrian, Abyssin, Aqualish, Talz, Ithorian and more. That’s one scene, on one planet, in a single room, and it tells us everything we need to know about the diaspora of xenobiology across the galaxy—there are non-humans everywhere in the Star Wars galaxy, and there have been for a very long time. In any location where xenophobia is not rampant, these many species tend to intermix and blend. So why, then, are the last two films in that universe dominated so thoroughly by human characters, even in scenarios where aliens would make more narrative sense?

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You know that you want more Greedo action. Don’t deny it.

Take Rogue One, for instance. More than any of the main series episodes, it gives us a ground-level look into the burgeoning Rebel Alliance, which stands in contrast to the Galactic Empire. And one of the key philosophical differences between the two factions is their stance toward non-humans, who are treated as second or third-class citizens by the xenophobic, human-driven Empire. This is expounded upon greatly in the now apocryphal Expanded Universe, but it’s also clear in the films, where we never see aliens as part of the Empire in any official capacity—not even as foot soldiers. The only non-humans with Imperial connections are likely mercenaries or criminals existing on the fringe, who are looked upon as opportunists or sell-outs for their actions by their peers, and derisively utilized by the Empire itself. Look no further than the lineup of bounty hunters in Empire Strikes Back, who Admiral Piett casually dismisses as “scum.”

The Rebellion, meanwhile, builds itself upon those disenfranchised races who are exploited by the Empire, and has far more non-humans in positions of authority or prestige. So with that in mind, wouldn’t it have made sense to incorporate some non-human members into the team Jyn Erso puts together to steal the Death Star plans? It’s an obvious, simple building block of storytelling that would serve to highlight the inherent philosophical/social difference between the Rebellion and the Empire, while also allowing for the introduction of a character with a unique, alien worldview, whose motivations for opposing the Empire would be fascinating to explore.

But instead, Erso’s primary team is simply a bunch of human beings, plus the joke-cracking droid, K-2SO. Even when she expands said team for the final infiltration/assault on the Imperial installation on Scarif, I spotted a grand total of … one? … non-human among them? Of course, it would be easy to miss that one alien soldier, given that he has no lines. The closest thing to a non-human character of any importance is the Mon Calamari Admiral Raddus, but that’s obviously a strictly supporting role. In function, Rogue One is the most human-centric Star Wars movie yet, despite having perhaps the greatest opportunity/incentive to include alien characters in an interesting way. Not to disparage Riz Ahmed or Jiang Wen, but you could easily swap in a humanoid alien for either of their characters and be that much better off.

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What the hell am I? You’ll never know, because I have no lines!

So why not do it? Why do Disney executives or screenwriters choose not to write significant alien characters?

The Jar Jar Effect

The most commonly advanced answer I’ve seen provided for that question revolves around our old friend, Mr. Jar Jar Binks. The Gungan and Naboo native was rightfully derided by Star Wars fans after The Phantom Menace as an irritating, slapstick, overly cutesy character for the kindergarteners in the audience, and every one of those criticisms was perfectly valid. It’s not hard to imagine how, in the mind of a producer, the inclusion of significant alien characters might draw similar criticism from fans who are still suffering from sweat-soaked nightmares of Jar Jar’s speech patterns, because that’s exactly the way you’d expect a producer to think. But that point of view is bullshit.

None of the valid criticism of Jar Jar Binks has anything to do with the fact that he’s a non-human character—it has everything to do with the fact that he’s stupendously obnoxious, and it would be the exact same if the character was human, if not worse. If you polled 100 Star Wars fans on the street and asked them the root of the problem with Jar Jar, I can’t imagine anyone would answer that question with “Well, he’s an alien.” Rather, they’d cite the fact that he sounds like a rejected Caribbean Muppet, or spends his time performing comedy pratfalls. Any vehement hatred that still remains for Jar Jar Binks in the cultural consciousness should be a non-factor in designing a new alien character in the Star Wars universe, provided that character is treated with the same gravitas as everyone else. Or put simply: Just don’t make the sole alien into the comic relief, and you’ll be fine. Rogue One already had an effective version of that character, anyway, in the form of K-2SO. A new alien character in Star Wars could speak perfectly normal Galactic Basic, or—horror of horrors—even have subtitles to emphasize their unique nature.

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Seriously, any alien that doesn’t look like this will work just fine.

What we’re left with is a massive, wasted opportunity for perspective and a richer Star Wars universe. Particularly in a time when Disney and the screenwriters of The Force Awakens and Rogue One are broadening the inclusiveness of the franchise through tools such as female main characters and actors of color, the inclusion of major non-human characters seems like the most obvious next step, but one that is being roundly overlooked. Compare it to the setting of say, Star Trek, with its many well-defined and characterized alien races, and these new Star Wars movies are lagging far behind in providing a living, breathing galaxy with heart and soul.

EDIT: Some of the commenters have made a valid point about the Star Trek comparison in particular, so I figured I would add a little addendum here. It is indeed true that the Star Trek universe benefits from having introduced most of its important alien races via longer-running TV series, and thus had more time to introduce characters and various racial characteristics before integrating them into the story. Likewise, well-regarded Star Wars TV series such as The Clone Wars and Rebels have done a much better job of incorporating alien characters (such as Ahsoka Tano) than the feature films, perhaps thanks to the ease granted by animation rather than live-action.

However, we should also note that Star Trek has taken those non-human characters and ably incorporated them into the plots of all their feature films, which is a feat that Star Wars hasn’t yet been able to replicate. Although there are plenty of major non-human characters on The Clone Wars and Rebels, both of which are official canon, none managed to work their way into the likes of Rogue One. So it’s still probably safe to say there’s an ideological block in place.

Perhaps Episode 8 will come along and flip the script, providing some new non-human characters who become integral to the story from here on out. But after seeing nothing in The Force Awakens to suggest this is coming, I’m not exactly optimistic. Despite being seemingly everywhere, non-humans in Star Wars movies have remained truly “alien” to the audience. And that’s a shame.

Jim Vorel is Paste’s resident staff writer/Star Wars geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more film writing.