As the Star Wars fan community continues to get shaken up by exciting Star Wars: Episode VII casting announcement after exciting Star Wars: Episode VII casting announcement (okay, there were only four, but they were pretty exciting, okay? Come on, one guy’s name is Pip! How is that not exciting?), it’s time to start asking a question that will soon be asked by many: which of these actors are playing the aliens?
Now, before this turns into aimless speculation (Andy Serkis, Bothan spy of the New Republic?!), let’s get to the point: aliens, particularly cool-looking and quirky aliens, are fundamental to a good Star Wars movie. Why? Maybe we just like the way they look, from the original trilogy’s Muppet-influenced Yodas and Salacious Crumbs to the prequel trilogy’s CGI wonders like the camel-like eopies and the insectoid Geonosians. But what role have aliens historically played in the Star Wars films?
It’s undeniable that the humans are the protagonists of all of the Star Wars films. Even popular alien characters like Yoda and Chewbacca have only supporting roles; it’s Anakin, Obi-Wan, Luke, Leia, and Han, of course, who we’re really rooting for. Therefore, one of the roles these alien characters play is the cultural foil. A “foil” is a literary term used to describe a character that exists primarily to highlight specific traits of another character – in this case, to highlight qualities in main characters like your Kenobis and your Skywalkers. Foils usually have bizarre or opposite qualities to the main characters – not necessary good or bad, just drastically different.
Take Yoda, for example. His small, serene presence – both literally and figuratively – highlights the immature and obnoxious attitude Luke initially takes toward his Jedi training. Yoda, a goofy-looking elfin creature, specifically preaches the concept of spirituality over superficiality. “Luminous beings are we,” he tells Luke. Our human characters are far too concerned with the disposable, fleeting reality around them, the superficial, and not nearly as concerned with their spirituality, their inner beings. Instead of learning these lessons from the very human Obi-Wan Kenobi, who introduced Luke to the general, more easily grasped concepts behind the Jedi way, these lessons must come from a small, exotic-looking creature, for his ideas are so alien to Luke that he appears as a literal alien. Starting to see the point?
Now for a more direct example: the Lurmen. You may not remember the Lurmen, but they are a lemur-like species that appeared midway through the first season of The Clone Wars animated series. The Lurmen are a pacifist culture who are oppressed by the Separatists, and their ideals, while admirable, contrast severely with the Republic’s, and even with the peaceful ways of the Jedi. So why aren’t the Lurmen human? To demonstrate their strong cultural differences from the primarily human Republic, they need to have a strongly different visual appearance from the primarily human Republic as well. It’s hard to grasp the Jedi and the Republic’s traditional war-is-a-necessary-evil ideology unless they are compared to a deeply pacifist culture. Could we get the point if the Lurmen were a human culture? Sure, but, by giving the Lurmen that funky-monkey look, it makes the contrast between their culture and the Republic, or human, culture much more clear.
The Breadth of Culture
In addition to revealing specific traits about our primary human heroes, some Star Wars aliens exist just to show us how vast our beloved Star Wars galaxy really is. Watto, the sleazy Toydarian slave-owner, shows us just how chubby one would get if he or she could eternally hover a couple feet from the ground. Jabba, Jar Jar, and Sebulba demonstrate just how socially acceptable it is to dip a greasy claw into a frog tank and chomp into one of its poor still-squirming amphibian inhabitants (could you imagine Obi-Wan or Bail Organa biting the head off of one of those things, like it’s no big deal?).
Star Wars aliens show us the real, “lived-in” galaxy that our human protagonists call home. Even the sheltered Luke Skywalker of A New Hope thinks nothing of a human freighter pilot, Han Solo, fluently understanding the incomprehensible growls and roars of his Wookiee co-pilot, Chewbacca. And how about those creepy, rat-like Jawas? Luke and the Lars family think nothing of their mysterious yellow eyes peering out of their eternally-cloaked faces; they’re just Jawas, and they’re just a part of the eclectic Tattooine culture, not to mention colorful contributors to the incredible melting pot of the overall Star Wars galaxy.
Just as a New Yorker doesn’t think twice of seeing black, white, latino, and Asian pedestrians all walking by on the same Brooklyn city block, Star Wars humans have long since accepted the diverse and wonderful cultures that belong to the Star Wars galaxy, from the Republic to the Rebellion to the Outer Rim, and they do nothing but enrich our human characters’ worldview (or – I don’t want to do this – their “galaxyview”).
But how about that all-white, all-male, all-human Galactic Empire? Many Star Wars Legends, from Dark Empire to Dark Forces, have claimed the Empire to be prejudiced toward aliens and other minorities, particularly women (which would account for the criminally lacking presence of women in the original trilogy).But, now, we know none of that material is canon. It would still be easy to assume that the Empire was indeed prejudiced against aliens due to the lacking presence of any aliens on board the Death Star or Star Destroyers. Even recent Star Wars: Rebels previews have revealed the Wookiees to have been enslaved by the Empire.
Rebels, an episodic animated series about the formation of the Rebellion,will likely (and hopefully) cover the specifics of the Empire’s prejudices, but, unfortunately, we must now step outside of the Star Wars galaxy, and ask ourselves the following question of Star Wars as a literary work (and here’s where things get really interesting): could prejudice be built into the very design of some of our favorite Star Wars aliens?
Stay glued to the Coffee with Kenobi Blog for “The Role of the Alien in Star Wars, Part Two of Three” next month!
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