It’s Time to the most celebrated Aliens Lead

Moviegoers were charmed and terrified, respectively, by two of the most celebrated alien movies ever: Steven Spielberg’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial and John Carpenter’s The Thing. Forty years later, we’re celebrating their legacies. Welcome to Alien Day.

Earlier this year, Marvel confirmed that the fourth issue of its ongoing Han Solo & Chewbacca comic, due out in July, would be a “Chewbacca-centric special issue” in which the Wookie would take the lead role, joined by guest star (and fellow Kashyyyk native) Krrsantan. It would be one of the few times in Star Wars history that Han’s constant sidekick would get top billing; the perpetual copilot would get a crack at the controls. Star Wars would finally let the Wookiee win.

Except that even when Chewie temporarily seizes the spotlight next month, he won’t have the chance to speak for himself. Throughout the comic’s run, Chewbacca’s been restricted to roars and growls, as Star Wars tradition dictates—even when he’s with Han, who understands his bestie’s native tongue, Shyriiwook. The Rodian character Greedo, of “Han shot first” fame, has his Huttese words translated into Basic. (That’s Star Wars for English.) But Chewie has to have Han interpret, and as always, our window into the Wookiee’s deeper thoughts, feelings, and interior life is lost. In muzzling Chewie, Han Solo & Chewbacca writer Marc Guggenheim is merely following the lead of decades of Star Wars stories—including a 2015 Chewbacca comic-book miniseries—which have only rarely clued audiences into what Wookiees were thinking. “I never really considered translating the Shyriiwook,” Guggenheim says via email. “It’s never translated in any of the TV shows or movies and I strive to avoid deviating from the conventions established in live action and animation whenever possible. Plus, I liked the challenge of doing a Chewie-centric issue all in Shyriiwook.” This well-intentioned decision, however rewarding, is merely the latest in a long line of slights suffered by one of the few heroes who appears in all three Star Wars trilogies.

The Rise of Skywalker rectified one notorious on-screen snub by giving Chewie the well-deserved medal he hadn’t received in Episode IV, but the sequel trilogy found new ways to get the big walking carpet out of the way. Whom does Leia hug after Han dies? Rey, whom she hardly knows. Who inherits the Millennium Falcon’s pilot’s seat? Poe Dameron, Lando Calrissian, and even Rey, who had almost no flight time. Who could forget Finn’s “You can understand that thing?”, or Luke’s complete lack of excitement at seeing his old friend? And that makeup medal? It wasn’t actually awarded to Chewbacca; it was Han’s hand-me-down.

This disrespect was par for the course. In the late 1990s, the pre-Disney architects of the now-decanonized Star Wars Expanded Universe decided to kill a character from the movies for the first time. Naturally, they chose Chewbacca. Chewie, Lucasfilm’s Leland Chee explained, was “a challenging character to write for” because “he can’t speak and just speaks in growls.” Instead of giving him a voice, a group of authors and editors dropped a moon on his head. Randy Stradley, the former Dark Horse editor who helped condemn the character to death, justified the decision by saying, “There have been very few stories in which Chewie’s presence, motivations, or desires have moved the plot ahead in a substantial way. He was the quintessential ‘supporting character.’” Chewie always plays second, third, or fourth fiddle. It’s his lot in life—and evidently in death.

Wookiee or not, there’s something emblematic about the second-class treatment the inescapable sci-fi franchise has afforded its most famous, most beloved, and most prominent nonhuman/nondroid character. Aliens on screen (and not just in Star Wars) are generally relegated to shallow, ancillary, and often antagonistic roles. Real aliens aren’t here to stick up for their fictional counterparts—unless the Department of Defense or NASA knows something we don’t—so I’ll advocate for them. Are we so self-centered, so insecure, and so small-minded that we can’t stand to see another species seize a sliver of the spotlight? Are we too parochial to suspend our disbelief and put ourselves in the place of fictional life that evolved elsewhere? When we do allow aliens ample screen time, must we insist that they be villains or, alternatively, look exactly like us? Here’s my plea: Let TV and movie extraterrestrials look like they aren’t from Earth. And let them play lead.

A few high-profile projects have followed that formula, with memorable results. This month marks the 40th anniversary of two seminal alien movies, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial and The Thing. The two classics’ titular aliens sit at opposite ends of the sympathetic-character spectrum. Much of E.T. is shot and told from the extraterrestrial’s perspective; he’s peaceful and friendly, but he’s also distinctive, unsettling, and even (at first) sort of scary, as one might expect a totally unfamiliar life form to be. (Special-effects artist Carlo Rambaldi won Oscars both for designing the big-eyed, apparently pacifistic, phoning-home E.T. and for making the mechanical head effects for the nightmarish Xenomorph from Alien.) Star Trek’s best-known extra-terrestrial, Spock, is not only a sidekick, but a half-human who looks human aside from his pointy ears and eyebrows. He also spends a lot of time wrestling with his human heritage. Meanwhile, Michael Dorn has been pitching a Worf show or movie for a decade, unsuccessfully so far. Maybe he’s struck out because his idea demands a less anthropocentric perspective; as he put it last year, “Instead of looking at the Klingon Empire from Starfleet, we look at Starfleet from the Klingon Empire.” For now he’ll have to settle for a cameo on Picard.