This contains spoilers for Solo: A Star Wars Story.
Droids are sentient. We’ve known this since 1977, when we first met R2D2 and C3P0 and saw them make decisions as the Tantive IV was being boarded. It became clearer on Tatooine, where R5D4 faked a blown motivator to keep the two friends together, and it was quite clear when we learned about restraining bolts, devices intended to keep droids from making their own choices.
As the Star Wars saga has gone on we have seen that droids have rich emotional lives. R2D2 seems to shut down in response to Luke going missing. K2SO has a deep camaraderie with Andor. C3P0 suffers from what seems to be generalized anxiety disorder. And yet every character in the saga treats droids, at best, like pets. Most of the time, though, they’re treated like slaves. 3P0 especially is consistently dragged into situations that he does not want to be in, fighting for a cause that has no bearing on his existence.
Enter L3-37. Lando Calrissian’s droid co-pilot, L3 is a robot who is, in the parlance of the modern era, becoming woke. When we meet L3 in Solo: A Star Wars Story she is already sickened by the way droids are treated in the STAR WARS universe, and we see her trying to break up a bot battle in a seedy cantina. She appeals to the droids in the ring, and she threatens the referee. “You’re being exploited!” she cries (I’m paraphrasing here), a sentiment familiar to many marginalized groups over history. Droids are not allowed in that bar… except to fight for the death.
When Lando comes over to calm L3 down she says to him (and I am not paraphrasing here): “They don’t even serve our kind here.” That’s a fascinating sentence construction, as she’s talking to Lando, and thus including him in ‘our kind.’ So either Lando is secretly a droid or the filmmakers wanted to draw a hard and screaming line between the oppressed droids and one of the six black characters in the whole Star Wars saga. Considering that SOLO’s third act turns into a very thinly-veiled metaphor for real world resource exploitation by western colonial powers, this makes sense.
Understanding that L3 is sentient and oppressed, all of Lando’s interactions with her become ‘problematic,’ as the kids say today. He’s manipulative and condescending, and he dismisses her concerns and opinions. Lando seems to understand that she’s a sentient being with her own will and sense of self, but he plays to his friends as if he doesn’t think of her as any different from any other droid (he says that the only reason he doesn’t give her a memory wipe, which would change her personality, is that she has the biggest nav coordinate database in the galaxy. But that rings false even as he says it – he likes L3 as she is). But intriguingly when we get to The Empire Strikes Lando doesn’t have a droid serving him – he has Lobot, who bridges the gap between human and droid.
Of course the biggest example of how Lando understands L3 to be a being with her own will and sense of self is that he runs through a pitched battle on Kessel to try and rescue her. L3, turned into a duotronic Che Guevara, has freed the spice mine’s enslaved droids just as the flesh slaves have been released. For Han and Lando this is cover to steal unrefined coaxium, but for Chewbacca and L3 – two members of enslaved groups – this is a moment to strike a blow for freedom. But in the battle L3 is catastrophically damaged and Lando races across a deadly and chaotic battlefield in an attempt to save her.
But he is too late. The damage is too much. Lando drags what he can of L3 – her top half- back to the Millennium Falcon, but she’s gone. She’s dead.
I think this is a really important thing to understand. The way the movie frames this sequence, the cinematic language being used, tells us that L3 is dead. Not damaged, not inoperative, but fully dead. It’s unclear, from a real world perspective, how this works, if only because we don’t fully know understand droid construction. Are her databanks and processors all in her head, or are they located in different parts of her body? But from an in-universe perspective, as informed by the filmmaking, L3 dies from her injuries.
We can bring headcanon to this – the damage she sustained was of a sort that shorted out her processors/wiped her memory banks, perhaps – but that’s an intellectual impulse and this sequence is operating on an emotional level. There are intriguing intellectual ramifications of this and K2SO’s death in Rogue One (mainly that there are circumstances in which droids can be damaged so much or in such a way that they cannot simply be repaired, lending more support to the idea that droids are sentient beings with consciousness), but the important ramification for the movie is that she is dead. Deceased. Demised. Not resting. Expired. Shuffled off the mortal coil. Kaput.
This makes the next thing that happens with L3 very not creepy. Some folks have seen the installation of L3’s databanks into the Falcon’s wiring as the final insult to a sentient being attempting to achieve freedom for her kind; as she lays helpless her very self is forcibly combined with the space ship, making her forever a slave within a system from which she cannot escape. But if we accept that she’s dead what we’re seeing is not so much an enslavement but rather a transplant. We’re seeing L3 giving her organs – in this case the part of her databanks that holds the biggest nav database in the galaxy – to save other lives.
I think the film could have made L3’s death a little more obvious; modern audiences continuously have a hard time reading cinematic language and more and more need these things spelled out. That’s not a dig on audiences but rather a reflection of the reality of a changing way of engaging with visual storytelling. I suspect that as audiences become more used to consuming visual storytelling while distracted – whether it be live tweeting or playing a game on the phone or just refreshing Facebook again and again while watching TV – they become less and less adept at actually absorbing what is happening if it’s not being communicated fairly directly. For me it was quite clear that L3 was dying – I feel like she even tells Lando as much? – but not all audiences caught that,
Or maybe the problem isn’t distracted audiences but rather a chauvinist attitude towards synthetic lifeforms and AI. I recently had an interesting discussion with a friend about Westworld and the ways that the hosts are alive, and why it’s wrong to kill them. I think this applies to STAR WARS’ droids as well.
In Westworld the android hosts can be killed, but then technicians reclaim them and revive them, resetting them to an earlier status. For the robot there is no memory of encountering you or being killed by you; it’s as if the thing never happened. This, my friend said, is why it’s okay to kill hosts, even if they have some sentience.
But this, I think, is why it is WRONG to kill hosts. A host accumulates experiences and knowledge during the course of its narrative loop; the host you meet three days into a narrative is different from the host you would meet on day one, minute one. The hosts, which can improvise and experience emotions, will change and grow based on the experiences and conditions they face during their narrative. A host who goes through a whole narrative without encountering violence will be different from a host who goes through a narrative being abused; if both hosts live to their natural reset point at the end of the narrative they will be very different beings, even if it’s the same host.
The fact that each narrative creates a unique version of the host is the exact reason why it is wrong to kill them; yes, Delores can be restarted in the morning, but it isn’t the Delores who has had the experiences, thoughts, hopes and fears of the past few days. That unique instance of Delores is gone, deleted, demised. She has been murdered; even if you bring the form of Delores back, with a reset mind, the Delores who lived for those days is gone forever.
So it is with droids. Lando doesn’t want to wipe L3’s memory because that would, in essence, kill her. She would not be who she was. Lando understands that the physical form of L3 is not all of L3, that she is defined by the ways that her neural processes interact. In Buddhism we would call these the Five Aggregates: form, sensation, perception, mental formations, consciousness, all of which come together to create what we think of as ‘self.’
The important Aggregate (or Skandha) in the question of killing AI would be mental formations, which is described as the mental imprints and conditioning that you have that are triggered when you have an experience. In other words if you had a bad experience with a grape in the past, seeing a grape now will trigger your mental formations/conditioning around grapes. That’s specific to you; while some mental formations are conditioning created by biology or by culture, many of them are specific to our life experiences and events. Remove those from us – as in the case of people who suffer major amnesia – and the question of who we actually are arises.
So an AI that has had its conditioning wiped and is reset to its factory fresh state is no longer the same AI that had accumulated experiences and understandings over the course of its operation. That AI is dead.
Anyway, all of that is a longwinded way of saying that even if L3’s body is there, and even if parts of her memory are salvageable, we can infer from the cinematic language in the scene that some ineffable part of L3 was being lost as she shut down.
At least that’s how it’s understood by the characters in the scene. I don’t believe Lando thinks he’s damning L3 to be a nav computer, I think he believes he’s transplanting her heart to someone else. What’s interesting is that we maintain a superstitious attachment to the idea of a heart as the center of some aspect of our being – our soul, our emotions, something – and so even in the modern era getting a heart transplant has a heavy context. We like reading stories about loved ones of the deceased meeting up with the recipients of hearts. You don’t get a lot of stories like that about cornea transplants, or kidneys.
What if that superstitious belief has some weight in the Star Wars universe? In The Empire Strikes Back 3PO talks to the Falcon’s systems, and notes that she has a most peculiar dialect. I’m intrigued by the idea that perhaps some element of L3’s consciousness did survive, and was transferred – without Lando’s understanding – to the ship. At this point it seems unlikely that SOLO will get sequels, but the film ends very much on a note setting up a continuing story featuring Qi’ra, Darth Maul and the Crimson Dawn. Could the vision for that story involve exploring what it means for L3’s consciousness to have accidentally entered the Falcon? Or could a future main Saga movie address this?
I do hope that the larger civil rights issued raised by the movie are addressed moving forward in the Star Wars universe. AI hasn’t been adequately dealt with in this universe, and while there was a droid army (whose sentience was occasionally acknowledged in the Clone Wars cartoon), the flesh beings of Star Wars have never had to reckon with how they treat their computerized slaves. Even Luke Skywalker treats his droids as less than equal, the way a racist treats a black co-worker – perhaps pleasantly, but always with an undercurrent of disrespect and condescension. Perhaps L3 is laying the groundwork for the next threat facing the New New Republic after Episode IX – a droid revolt that has been a long time coming*.
*and that would fit into Star Wars’ grand history of ripping off Dune, which features an ancient war called The Butlerian Jihad, waged against ‘thinking machines.’