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'Rogue One' Doesn't Solve Sci Fi's Big Problem

Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a professor of law at Yale University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. His novels include “The Emperor of Ocean Park” and “Back Channel,” and his nonfiction includes “Civility” and “Integrity.”
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When I left the theater after seeing "Rogue One: A Star Wars Story," my first thought was: What about the Bothans?

Now, don't worry. I'm not going to go all "Star Wars"-nerd on you. This column isn't aimed mainly at fans, and it has a different point. (Also, no spoilers.) I wrote earlier this year about the challenge of "speciesism" in the movies. My worry is that it is getting worse.

Let me be clear. I enjoyed the movie. Enormously. So don't take what I have to say as a reason not to see it. (Although if you are planning to see it, you've probably already seen it.) But there is still a problem.

The term "speciesism" is used many different ways, including by animal-rights activists. In sci fi, it refers to a belief in the innate superiority or central importance of humans as against creatures from elsewhere. That's been a common trope forever. Humans are the good guys, other species are invaders, monsters, liars -- in short, dangerous aliens.

Which brings us to the Bothans.

Let's go back to the 1983 "Star Wars" film now tragically known as "Star Wars: Episode VI -- Return of the Jedi." You don't have to have seen the film to know the plot. The Rebellion, aka the good guys, is trying to destroy the Empire's second version of their planet-pulverizing Death Star. Darth Vader leads the bad guys trying to stop them. Simple, clean, clear.

The good guys have stolen the secret architectural plans to the Death Star and must analyze them swiftly to find a flaw before it arrives and pulverizes their planet. And how exactly were the plans stolen? Rebel leader Mon Mothma tells us: "Many Bothans died to bring us this information."

And the audience thinks, "I don't know what a Bothan is, but they sure sound heroic." But there is no further mention of the species, in that film or any others in the franchise. And, definitely, no sight of one.

OK. Fast-forward to now. "Rogue One" is a prequel to the movie now known as "Star Wars: Episode IV -- A New Hope." It tells the story of how the good guys got the plans to destroy the first Death Star. The tale is cleverly set up and quite engaging. There's only one problem: no Bothans. Except for a single droid, everybody who matters in the heist is human.

Now, it's true that "Rogue One" is a prequel to "A New Hope," not "Return of the Jedi." (Mea culpa for my error in the first version of this column.) But if Bothans are really such master spies, why can't they come along on the mission? Or, if we don't trust the Bothans, why can't some other nonhuman species do?

Fans of what is clumsily called the "Star Wars expanded universe" know that a Bothan is a furry, mammalian being, a species that, for reasons not entirely clear, happens to excel at spying. The thought of finally seeing a Bothan on the screen, of having a "Star Wars" problem actually solved by a nonhuman being ...

But no. No Bothans died to bring the rebels the information. There are aliens we might spot here and there, but if any one of them is supposed to be a Bothan, nobody tells us. All of the heroes are human. (Plus one droid.)

Why does any of this matter? Because the other conceit of the expanded universe is that the galaxy far, far away is full of all manner of intelligent life. But the Empire practices pure speciesism. All the posts of any importance are reserved for humans.

In the expanded universe, we are meant to see this as an obvious injustice. Speciesism is a trope for racism. The Empire practices segregation. That's one of the reasons we are supposed to root against it. (The Empire would never have hired Yoda.) The Rebellion is integrated, humans and other species working together to throw off the oppression. That's why we're supposed to root for it.

But in "Rogue One," the two sides are, on this point, indistinguishable. We see nonhumans among the good guys, but we never really get to meet them. You don't have to be a sci-fi fan to see why the omission matters. There's a symbolism at work here.

Again, let me be clear. I thought "Rogue One" was great fun. I enjoyed the freshness of the story and the interspersed nods to the original saga. I'm sure I will see it again, maybe more than once. I'd recommend it to fans and non-fans both. Reviewers have given the film high marks for racial diversity, and that's a good and important strength. Still, it's only a start.

In the language of contemporary politics, we should have a rebellion that looks like the galaxy. Otherwise the whole conflict boils down to which of two groups of humans gets to rule the many other species who live there.

And not too many Bothans would be willing to die for that.

(Corrects sixth and ninth paragraphs to reflect references to which "Star Wars" films mention the Bothans and adds 10th paragraph.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Stephen L. Carter at scarter01@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Brooke Sample at bsample1@bloomberg.net