Star Wars has a long history with cute little creatures, and the latest entry into the franchise is no different. Where Episode 6 played host to a forest moon full of miniature bear-like Ewoks, now in Episode 8 we see Ahch-To occupied by the off the richter scale bonny little Porgs. While most critical and academic attention given to Star Wars’ cuter characters/creatures has been to focus on their cynical narrative instalment for merchandising potential, they also provide a unique staging post for thinking about how humans relate to the more-than-human, in this case animal, world. *spoilers abound ahead*
Whereas The Return of the Jedi’s Ewoks worked as a sub-textual analogy of native inhabitants rising up against their colonial oppressors, the puffin-like Porgs of The Last Jedi serve a rather different function. Moreover, Porgs are not the only fantastical creatures to get screen time and accumulate narrative weight in this film. There’s Luke Skywalker’s utterly bizarre sea-cattle, which he milks for their bracingly flavoured greenish-blue milk, Crait’s dazzling crystal foxes (known as Vulptices) and Canto Bight’s space-horse Fathiers. Never has a Star Wars film felt so teeming with new creatures. Now, while there is quite clearly a huge amount of merchandising around these animals (well, the sea-cattle perhaps not so much), I am more interested in what their appearance in this franchise tells us about how Hollywood is imagining human(oid)/animal encounters.
In a particularly illuminating scene from The Last Jedi Chewbacca finds himself about to tuck into a delicious meal of spit-roasted Porg. He’s sat around the fire and each time he goes in for a nibble a Porg pops up to look mournfully and whimper up at him. Paralyzed by guilt he is unable to take a bite. The joke is repeated about 3 times, and it’s funny every time. He omits a characteristically mournful howl and abandons his supper, much to his chagrin. This begs the question, is Chewbacca a vegetarian now? Perhaps even a vegan? On the one hand this scene is installed to give the Porgs a little bit of extra screen time for a couple of cute-creature related gags, which can’t hurt merchandise sales. However, on the other hand it layers the ethics of animal consumption underneath the surface of the text. Chewbacca’s troubled relationship with the Porgs doesn’t end here; they proceed to migrate onto the Millenium Falcon – nesting in its alcoves and munching on its wires in the cockpit. What are the ethics involved with taking a native sea-bird creature away from its home planet and local habitat? At best, they are rather troubling. The film is certainly more interested in giving the squawking little guys more screen time than continuing the animal ethics of Chewbacca’s abandoned roast dinner. Luckily they are great enough for their continued presence in the film to be nothing short of a pleasure.
While The Last Jedi seemingly abandons the initial ethics of this Chewie-Porg encounter, the film’s treatment of Canto Bight’s subjugated species of Fathiers is more coherent in its ethical leanings. Interestingly, the sequence on Canto Bight has been one of the most bemoaned by fans due to its somewhat tangental and non-consequential nature. While I agree that an excerpt focused on the cruelty endemic to horse racing is somewhat at odds with the film’s narrative focus and trajectory, it is fascinating to see such a staunch ethical stance taken with the franchise’s fantastical creatures. We see the Fathiers whipped by their jockeys, electrocuted by their trainer and penned up in small paddocks far too diminutive for their stature. They are penned up with young children who are enslaved to look after them; the film here linking the subjugation of animals to enslavement of humans. Finn and his new ally Rose escape from the island by liberating the herd of captive Fathiers, which Finn later comments made the whole disastrous excursion “worth it”. We see their mounted Fathier scamper off into the forest towards the rest of the herd after Rose unshackles it from its saddle; the liberatory tone of this encounter couldn’t be more over stated if it tried. In a slightly earlier scene, the inhabitants and gamblers of Canto Bight’s casino and Fathier track are unveiled to be capitalist arms dealers selling weapons to the First Order (as well as, interestingly, the Resistance). Thus, the film establishes a rather opaque critique of capitalism’s disregard for the wellbeing of the animal world, as well as less wealthy fellow humanoids.
This critique sits rather at odds with the animal ethics at the end of the film, wherein the last surviving members of the increasingly desperate Resistance abandon their freighter for sanctuary on an abandoned Rebel base on the salt-plains of Crait. The vast salt desert in front of their bunker is occupied by a herd of crystal-fox like Vulptices, which jangle and clink charmingly with every movement. The Resistance attract the attention of the First Order who descend upon them and their defensive position. This forces the Vulptices into hiding, who scurry away from impending doom into the Resistance’s cave. The herd manages to escape through a small opening in the cave, but only just. The Resistance’s utter disregard for these native creatures other than as an inadvertent tool to aid their own escape is indicative. The Resistance seemingly care as little about local wildlife as the arms dealers of Canto Bight.
Towards the end of The Last Jedi, Rose says to Finn that the war will be won “not by killing what we hate, but by saving what we love”. The Last Jedi sets up a contradictory dialogue on the subject of animal ethics in relation to the animals it loves, and variously does and does not save. Chewbacca’s Porgs aborad the Millenium Falcon will almost certainly die away from their local sea-cliff habitat, and the Vulptices were lucky to escape with their lives. While The Last Jedi is unique in not only its volume of new and wonderful creatures, it is also singular in its emphatic evocation of animal ethics, as seen most fastidiously with the Fathiers and Chewbacca’s new diet. The fact that it is unable to sustain a coherent message from an ethical perspective is insightful for the way in which Hollywood cinema grapples with human-animal encounters. The Last Jedi sees animals subjugated and liberated, cooked and thrown away, ensnared and skedaddled; a precarious tight rope of oppression and liberation established in its various human(oid)-animal encounters. Perhaps, then, ultimately these creatures truly are placed into these films purely for merchandising potential. At least The Last Jedi stretches for a more ethical stance in terms how we could, and should, approach encounters with the more-than-human world.