The Last Jedi Introduced Animal Welfare to Star Wars

Screenshot of a porg from the movie The Last Jedi – Fair Use

The Sequel Trilogy is controversial in the Star Wars fandom, perhaps even more so than the prequels. I don’t understand this. The themes George Lucas explored in his return to the franchise, about a republic descending into fascism, were interesting. But the actual storytelling was atrocious. The sequels, while flawed, were very watchable.

Maybe we’ve just had more time to digest the Prequel Trilogy, or maybe the people who grew up with them are now old enough to look back on the films with nostalgia. I was young when The Phantom Menace arrived, but not young enough to absorb the movie and the two that followed uncritically. I was aware of the drubbing they received from reviewers and mostly agreed with it.

My criticism of the Sequel Trilogy isn’t unique. In retrospect, it’s clear there was no plan. If neither J.J. Abrams or Rian Johnson wanted to direct three films, I wish one of them would have been put in charge of creating an overall narrative the other would follow. As things turned out, the trilogy feels like a car being driven by two people fighting for control of the wheel.

Personally, I prefer the Abrams movies, even if  The Force Awakens is derivative and The Rise of Skywalker is incoherent. They just feel more like Star Wars to me. Plus, the relationship between Han Solo and Kylo Ren is one of my favorite parts of the trilogy and that mostly plays out in the first and last installments. Their dream reconciliation could be the most moving scene in the whole franchise.

Count me among those who doesn’t appreciate Luke Skywalker’s portrayal in The Last Jedi, or the various ways Johnson undercuts what Abrams establishes in the first film. One thing I do like about the middle entry, however, is that it introduces animal welfarism as a concern in the Star Wars series. I wanted to revisit the movie with this in mind.

I should say that I don’t think cultural analysis is particularly important as a means for activists to change minds. I enjoy it, and it’s a nice break from other, more effective forms of activism. In that sense, it is important. Being an activist, especially in a period of backlash like we’re in now, can be a thankless pursuit. Anything that helps you keep going should be prioritized.

There are two plot lines in The Last Jedi that establish animal welfarism as a concern within the Star Wars franchise. The first involves Chewbacca and the porgs. Chewie travels to the ocean planet Ahch-To with Rey, who is trying to recruit Luke Skywalker to join the Resistance. Off-screen, the wookiee presumably hunts and kills some small bird-like creatures.

We see Chewbacca roasting the porgs’ carcasses over a fire, when he is surrounded by other members of this adorable species, looking at him with horrified disbelief. The scene is played for laughs, but ultimately the wookiee adopts the porgs, allowing them to take up residence in The Millennium Falcon. To borrow a phrase, he comes to see them as friends, not food.

The second relevant storyline involves Rose, Finn, and the fathiers, a species of horse-like creatures used on the Canto Bight racetracks. Explaining her distaste for the city, Rose tells Finn to take a closer look at the treatment of the fathiers, who we see are whipped and abused. Their treatment is used to symbolize the broader moral rot of Canto Bight.

When the opportunity presents itself, Rose and Finn free the fathiers from their stables. The portrayal isn’t ideal from an animal-rights perspective, as the pair ride on the back of one of the creatures as part of their escape. But it’s a step in the right direction. I’m glad The Last Jedi includes both these scenes and the ones with Chewbacca and the porgs.

I can only hope that future Star Wars films — and I do hope we get more films soon, not just television shows — explore the question of animal ethics in greater detail. While I understand the series is really closer to fantasy than science-fiction, I wonder if the universe might have its own version of cultivated meat.

Perhaps certain Jedi branches could be vegan. This would make sense to me, given the overall Jedi ethos, but it probably couldn’t be a universal requirement, given what we know of Obi-Wan Kenobi’s occupation on Tatooine or Luke’s diet on Ahch-To. Then again, both are in exile and disillusioned with the Jedi at these points, so maybe it could be waived away.

 

Jon Hochschartner is the author of a number of books about animal-rights history, including The Animals’ Freedom Fighter, Ingrid Newkirk, and Puppy Killer, Leave Town.