Star Wars as Commentary on Artificial Life

by Dirk Knemeyer
Note to those reading prior to December 18, 2015: The author is making predictions about major plot points in the upcoming Star Wars: The Force Awakens that may constitute spoilers. Only proceed if this will not ruin the experience for you.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens is likely to take Luke Skywalker who, along with his twin sister Princess Leia, are the most unambiguously “good” characters among the original series’ leads and transform him into the evil antagonist, likely the mysterious new character Kylo Ren. While this would have been a shocking development if not so clearly telegraphed by the film’s marketing — here is a good overview of that lack of subtelty and nuance  — our lack of surprise instead allows us to speculate on how this significant shift will impact the rest of the universe. One interesting possibility is in the development of Luke’s long-time android companion, R2-D2, who has accompanied him on his many adventures in this land so far, far away.
star wars - the force awakens
Over the course of the earlier movies, R2-D2 and his companion/friend/foil C-3PO served as both comic relief and a consistent source of good. In service of Luke and the other good guys, the little ‘droids even had key moments where they showed initiative, agency, and action, doing something to save themselves or other characters. More than just taking orders from the human characters, they projected an unthreatening, funny, and proactive vision for artificial life that exerts its own agency in the world around it.
Now, that model of good-serving-good is going to change. As shown in the trailer, R2-D2 and a conspiculously faceless Luke Skywalker remain affiliated in the newest film. Assuming the Kylo Ren theory is correct, that means R2-D2 will now be the servant of the most powerful, evil character in the galaxy. Unlike in 1977, when R2-D2 came to life in a world without robots and where the character represented a truly futuristic science fiction, robots are not only a real part of our culture but one that will continue to grow in the years ahead. While most of us do not consciously see something we would identify as a robot on a daily basis, we have seen them; at some point in the 2020’s seeing robots among us will be an everyday occurence. We are uncertainly wading into a world of futuristic technology as science fact, where questions about the role of humans and machines lurk uncomfortably just beneath the infinite horizon of our future.
As such, more than a simple movie plot point, the role of R2-D2 is one with the potential to make a more poignant and present comment on our relationship with the machines that we build to control. I mean, look: Luke Skywalker is going to be redeemed. At some point in the arc of films to come in this next trilogy, he will be brought back to the side of good. It may be in the context of his death, or it may be in the context of his life, but he will not emerge as an evil character and remain evil through the rest of his life. Any of his sister, his (theoretical) children, or his old friends are likely to play a role in that transformation. Among the candidates to impart change on our lost hero is the beeping and blooping robot R2-D2. As the only other character sure to be affiliated and involved with Luke during his evil arc, R2-D2 is positioned to be a consistent wavelength of good, which could manifest in ways like:
  • Communicating with good characters to help them avoid Luke’s evil
  • Communicating with good characters to enlist their help in turning Luke
  • Reminding Luke about good people he cares about
  • Guiding Luke to less evil actions 
  • Refusing to take Luke’s evil orders
  • Acting to prevent evil things from happening
  • Acting to remind/reinstill goodness in Luke
R2-D2 almost certainly will not be the primary actor in facilitating Luke’s redemption. But whatever form his role takes will tell us a lot about the creators’ read of our society’s perception of near-future robot technology. The more proactive, the more numerous, or the more significant R2-D2’s breaking from “powerless device controlled by evil man” is in the movie’s plot, the more progressive and ready the creators’ think our culture is for the future blurring of boundaries between organic and machine life. Or, if R2-D2 is more reactive or insignificant to the things happening in the world of evil, it will communicate a more conservative take on human readiness to accept more machines among us. Of course, the movie could also be perfectly ambiguous and have the impact and role of R2-D2 match the almost 30 years old stories from the original canon where the role is mostly humourous, somewhat reassuring, and only rarely exerting agency in important-but-not-essential ways.
Two generations ago the original Star Wars movies established an optimistic, friendly, and welcoming attitude toward the presence of artificial life as an actor in the world of people. In fact, those movies to a much lesser degree introduced and advocated for cyborg technology in the augmentations to Luke Skywalker as well as his father Darth Vader in particular. Given the impact of those films at the time, which only increased through the years in both meaning and mythology, it may have had more influence over attitudes toward the rise of the digital age and technologies that only now are emerging as viable parts of our everyday lives. Now, in 2015, the newest movie and its sequels will choose to give us guidance on technology once again. While the trailer gives no indication of real visionary and progressive suggestions of new and thought-provoking future tech that may become relevant another 30 or more years down the road, even within the old structures from the 1970’s, there is a chance to comment on the complicated future relationship between humans and machines. In R2-D2, the trusted pawn of the newly evil king, there is the best opportunity for a poignant cultural statement on who we are and what we want to be. The only thing left is to wait-and-see just what that statement is going to be.

Topics: AI