Unlearn what you’ve learned about the clones of the episodic Star Wars saga–the filmic evidence may surprise you.
One of the things that has always fascinated me about the Star Wars galaxy is how teeming it is with life of all different shapes and forms. Somehow, all these various lifeforms manage to get along well enough to coexist. Of course, “coexist” comes with a pretty big caveat, since this is a galaxy where humans clearly reign supreme. The Empire, the Rebellion, the Old Republic, even the mostly alien Separatist government are all led by humans. The other part of that caveat is that coexistence doesn’t necessarily mean a galaxy without discrimination. Ostensibly less civilized alien cultures like those of the Gungans and Ewoks are viewed with disdain by many of the humans who interact with them, including some of our heroes. Droids, meanwhile, are treated largely like slaves, bought and sold, chained with restraining bolts, and often mocked, rebuked or deactivated by their human owners. Heck, a droid can’t even walk into a bar without getting hassled! But of all the “races” of sentient life in the Star Wars universe, the most difficult group to define and place within the existing framework is the clone army of Kamino. They look like humans, but the clones actually may have more in common with droids.
Before we delve into this topic much further, I’m going to ask you a big favor, and it’s not going to be easy. I want you to set aside your knowledge and fondness for the clones of The Clone Wars animated series and also the former Expanded Universe. Why? Because there is a very big difference between the clones of the films and those of the secondary sources.
I’m not going to wade into the minefield of what does and doesn’t count in the Star Wars galaxy, but I do think that the six saga films under George Lucas’ purview represent a complete statement, and the primary objective of this column is to analyze that statement. Drawing patterns and discovering hints as to the creator’s intent is much more difficult when considering material from different artists. At best, including other artists’ works can muddy the waters; at worst, it threatens to obfuscate the perspective entirely.
In this case, the latter possibility is a legitimate threat. Outside of the films, the conceit of the clones is that while they may look alike, sound alike and fight alike, they are each unique individuals with differing feelings, perspectives, and preferences. There is a nobility and a heart to these characters that is starkly at odds with the ways they’re portrayed in Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith. In the films, they are largely depicted as automatons, flesh-and-blood droids, marching in perfect synchronicity and programmed like their mechanical progenitors to execute Order 66 with machine-like efficiency.
While both interpretations are valid, I’ve always sided with the cinematic portrayal for a few key reasons that I believe make more sense thematically and tonally within the context of the larger saga.
To start with, by dehumanizing the clones, Lucas draws a clearer parallel to the Separatists’ battle droid army, a demonstration of the ways in which the Republic lowers itself and compromises its values by adopting the methods and means of its enemy. This dehumanization has a secondary effect as well by casting a creepy pall over the entire enterprise; due to their unnatural origins, they are pseudo-monsters as depicted in the films, legitimately unsettling and disturbing. And consequently, their very existence and appropriation by the Jedi heroes causes us to question their moral righteousness, a topic I delved into more extensively in a previous article.
Finally, the cinematic clones also reinforce the notion that the Clone Wars are a complete exercise in artificiality: two fake armies fighting each other over a fake conflict perpetrated by a fake hero and leader in the deceitful Palpatine.
But the comparisons between the battle droids and the clone troopers don’t end there. Consider that in Attack of the Clones we are first introduced to the clones on Kamino in a conveyor belt sequence that largely mirrors a later scene in the film set within the droid’s mechanical foundry on Geonosis.
In that latter sequence, C-3PO points out that “machines building machines” is “perverse,” likely because he was built by human hand. Although Obi-Wan doesn’t verbally express the same sentiment on Kamino, he certainly appears similarly unsettled by what he witnesses. By developing this shared visual language between the origins of the droids and clones, we are shown how they are two sides of the same coin, both sub-human, artificial, manufactured. The droids and the clones are not the difference between a machine and a human, but rather the difference between an antiquated machine like a rotary telephone and a modern-day one, like a smartphone.
We also learn something else during this sequence that is vital to consider. Like the droids, clones are capable of being programmed, albeit genetically rather than mechanically. The Kaminoan cloner Lama Su indicates that they have been made “docile” and “totally obedient, taking any order without question.”
From a technical standpoint, inventing something that doesn’t question you, that is completely loyal and unified in its servitude makes the most pragmatic sense for a fighting force. There isn’t a nation on this earth that wouldn’t prefer to make their soldiers more pliable and less prone to doubt and question their superiors.
But from a moral standpoint, the absence of choice and individuality is the absence of humanity as well. A being forced to kill and die for a cause not their own but instead one that has been programmed into them is arguably not even legitimately sentient, let alone human.
Finally, consider what we see of the clones in Episodes II and III. They never demonstrate concern or doubt, fear or affection. They are largely blank faced, emotionless and formal to a fault. In some ways, they are more stone-faced and inhuman than even the battle droids, who can at least act convincingly smug or afraid.
The only instance of potential emotional intelligence from the clones is in the form of some banter between Commander Cody and Obi-Wan in the preface to the Battle of Utapau and in its epilogue when Cody returns Kenobi’s lost lightsaber to him. But mere moments later, Order 66 is issued and Cody shows no hesitation. He orders his men to terminate Obi-Wan.
It makes you wonder: Cody has history with Obi-Wan; they refer to being in battle together previously. Is his banter with Kenobi a legitimate emotional response, a human connection indicating fondness, or is it programming as well? Perhaps some artificial character flavoring was added by the Kaminoans to put the Jedi at ease, to fool them into a sense of false complacency.
If the clones aren’t technically “robots” in the modern use of the word as a metal, mechanical being, they certainly are in the metaphorical sense and in the classic, original definition. Playwright Karel Čapek coined the term “robot” in his 1920 science-fiction play, R.U.R. and it referred to a genetically engineered synthetic creature that looked so similar to a human it could be confused for one. Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and its loose cinematic adaptation, Blade Runner, envision robots as similarly difficult to differentiate from humankind. Further, they dwell on the question we find ourselves circling at the moment: what does it actually mean to be human?
That may be a bigger idea than we have room to tackle in this piece, but let’s at least consider the basics. Philosopher René Descartes suggested that existence could be confirmed with one simple declarative statement: “I think, therefore I am.” Of course, any creature with a brain “thinks” in the broadest sense of the word. A cat thinks about the best moment to pounce on a mouse, a squirrel thinks about storing away food for the winter, a bird thinks about what it needs to build its nest.
What often gets lost in translation is that Descartes is referring to a specific kind of thinking process: the ability to doubt. In our world, by our definitions, only a human can doubt their own existence, can question reality, can force a structure of ideas and principles onto the chaos of reality and bend life’s randomness into a semblance of order. In short, a human’s ability to not take anything for granted is a defining attribute and difference between the human and the inhuman.
So, the question becomes: can a clone doubt?
Heh. I “doubt” it.
Doubt is anathema to the entire purpose for which these clones were created. Total obedience cannot exist when doubt is present. Rather, clones think in the same sense a computer “thinks” when playing a human in chess; it knows rules and possibilities, it can react with countermoves and plot a strategic offense using mathematical logic or environmental factors to achieve victory. But ask that chess computer to create a piece of art, or communicate its feelings, or describe the flavors of a particularly good steak and it will stare blankly at you. Clones are similarly conceived for one sole purpose: warfare.
Which is not to say that clones are as intellectually shallow as the droids, that their cloned brains can’t make better connections or react in more unconventional, surprising ways. As Lama Su informs Obi-Wan, clone troopers are “immensely superior to droids, capable of independent thought and action.” That independence clearly has its limits if Order 66 is any indication, so it’s probably more accurate to say that clones are “droids that can think” rather than humans with limitations.
If that thinking droids quote set off any alarm bells of recognition, I’ll confess to just making this connection recently. It’s a quote from Obi-Wan in Dex’s Diner and it’s just as prophetic as the more obvious “why do I get the feeling you’re going to be the death of me?” directed at Anakin. The full quote is this: “If droids could think, there’d be none of us here, would there?” He doesn’t know how right he is. In a few short years, the clones will wipe his kind off the galactic map.
Ultimately, what makes the clones so similar to the battle droids is what makes them so dissimilar to humans. They are slaves in the ultimate sense, independent only insofar as it allows them to concoct creative strategies to conquer any enemy. They may look human and sound human, but they have more in common with Frankenstein’s monster: animated through dark science, soulless, and unnatural; compared to even the droids R2-D2 and C-3PO, who are shown to resist their programming at times and actually evolve as characters over the saga, the clones are demonstrably the more robotic and artificial.
In our world, is a police officer, a soldier, a businessman, or a politician responsible for a atrocity he commits or participates in, even if he or she was just following orders? Yes. Because as humans we still have free will, we can still refuse to go along with something that we know is wrong. We can ignore orders, even when it’s difficult or dangerous based on a particular scenario, because we can’t be completely enslaved to another’s will.
But a clone trooper following orders bears no such responsibility; it’s not his fault. He’s literally just born that way.
About Power to the Prequels
Power to the Prequels is an ongoing column that aims to critique and analyze the Star Wars prequels and demonstrate their worth as individual films and also as components of a larger saga. The goal is neither to blindly praise these films nor condemn them but rather to specifically and respectfully consider the artistic decisions made by director George Lucas and draw conclusions that may differ from the mainstream consensus.