Believe it or not, there was a time before The Last Jedi was released. Before the great fan schism of 2017, before Princess Leia Poppins Solo, and before Luke winked at C-3P0. A time when all we had were scant marketing materials. We had a teaser trailer which gave us old and busted B-wing-looking things, new Imperial walkers, and Porgs.
But since we are living in a post-TLJ world, we need to talk about the Porgs.
We first learned about Porgs through the marketing materials. If your opinion was anything like mine, you likely balked at them as well. Here we go again, you thought in quiet resignation, someone thought they would cutesy-up the film so they can sell plushies and backpacks. Rian Johnson could be a grisly filmmaker, simply consider Brick and Looper (specifically Looper’s penchant for exposing kids to violence), but even he was subject to the inevitable Disney-watering-down-effect. I was not excited and am on record as being significantly skeptical of their impact on the film. What could they possibly have to offer?
And now we know. A little behind-the-scenes information revealed that Rian Johnson and crew had a difficult time dealing with all the puffins on Skelling Michael, the island off the coast of Ireland where they were filming Mark Hamill’s scenes (the island is a nature preserve and is covered in these adorable little birdies called puffins). Johnson came up with the idea to digitally alter the puffins that were on film and came up with the Porgs we now know and (may or may not) love. It is a considerably elegant solution to a common problem. Instead of erasing the natural life of the natural environment they were shooting, they added that same quality of life and vitality to their fictional location.
Granted that does not explain the lizard nuns, but another that’s a story for another time.
Within the actual text of the film, the name “Porgs” is never mentioned out loud.
Related, one should consider The A.V. Club’s fascinating deep-dive into the appropriateness of capitalizing the term Porg. Porgs are never stumbled over nor questioned by the film; the characters simply accept their existence as factual, less-than-bothersome, and periodically delicious. Space-squirrels, you might allow for. They have two main functions in the film: light comedy and illustration of certain elements of life and the Force.
The comedic elements are executed splendidly. They are never lingered upon nor gratuitous. In fact, their first moment playing with Luke’s discarded lightsaber almost passes by sooner than the audience can recognize what is happening. One Porg stares down the barrel of the saber while another maniacally attempts to activate it. And the moment the viewer has worked out exactly what is happening, the saving hand of Rey gingerly plucks the saber out of the flippers of the Porgs. The audience is left pondering, “Were we about to watch a murder of Porgs murder a Porg?”
Other moments in Porg comedy occur around the Millenium Falcon. Chewbacca has to brush several of them off of the console and dashboard of the Falcon as the beasts chew through wires and seat cushions, akin to the mynocks of The Empire Strikes Back. When the Falcon arrives at Crait to save the remaining members of the Resistance, the remaining Porg screams his war cry in advance of the death he intends to deliver. Lastly, as Chewie banks the Falcon through the under-crust salt mines of Crait, said remaining Porg is smooshed up against the glass, presumably to Chewie’s delight.
But the moment we began to take Porgs more seriously was when Johnson used imagery of Porg-life during Skywalker’s monologue on the nature of the Force. We see newborn Porgs but we also see broken and empty shells being dashed by ocean waves, demonstrating the nature of life and death, of peace and violence; we are forced to consider what we initially thought were cute merchandising opportunities come to life and recontextualize our approach to them. While they may not (or simply may) be sentient, they are still involved in the circle of life, potential victims of human interference, and an opportunity to enjoy the natural beauty of the first Jedi temple’s home.
Lastly, there may be an alternative (read: more sinister) interpretation of the Porgs, that they are more malevolent than we may be led to believe. What if the Porgs circling Chewbacca while he casually roasts a Porg over an open fire are less horrified and more anticipatory? What if the final Porg that looks up at the wookiee with pleading eyes is not pleading for mercy but rather more like the orphan Oliver, “Please sir, I want some more?” Perhaps the Porgs were so interested in Chewbacca’s meal choice because they had never feasted on Porg meat so deliciously seasoned.
And what of the Alpha Porg? Where had all the other Porgs gone to in between take off from Luke’s sacred Jedi temple planet and saving the remaining Resistance fighters? Is it not possible that the Porg shown on the dashboard and later smooshed into the windshield has dominated and consumed the other Porgs, becoming the Alpha Porg?
Perhaps when Chewie roars his own warcry upon exiting hyperspace (just before swooping in to save Poe and crew), the Alpha Porg responds in kind? These murderous beasts have no fear of lightsabers, enjoy the taste of their own species’ flesh, and call for the glory of Valhalla as they enter battle, like tiny plush wraiths with wings.
Also consider that a group of Porgs is called a murder of Porgs.
For all the possibilities that the Porgs have added, it is clear that their existence in the film was handled with more care than the Ewoks or similar characters. They were not added simply for economic padding nor cutesy distractions from the darker and more mature themes that TLJ clearly played upon. Rather, they serve as world-building and monologue visualization. They are the tools of a mature storyteller and should not be relegated to simply more cynical motives.
Either that or they want to kill us all. I, for one, welcome our new Porg overlords.