Return of the Jedi, the final film in the first Star Wars trilogy, opens with an exciting rescue. The droids – R2-D2 and C-3PO – are joined by Leia Organa, Chewbacca, Lando Calrissian, and Luke Skywalker in an attempt to spring Han Solo from the clutches of the crime lord Jabba the Hutt. This scene shows the conflicting nature of Star Wars as an incredible achievement of refined blockbuster filmmaking, and a juvenile vehicle made to maximize profits across media.
According to Thomas Schatz, the blockbuster is the most important reason for the American commercial film industry’s survival. “[…] Hollywood has been increasingly hit-driven since the early 1950s. This marks a significant departure from the classical era, when the studios turned out a few ‘prestige’ pictures each year […] The exceptional became the rule in postwar Hollywood, as the occasional hit gave way to the calculated blockbuster” (16). Financially successful films from directors like Stanley Kubrick, Sam Peckinpah, and Francis Ford Coppola in the late 1960s and early 1970s paved the way for Steven Spielberg and George Lucas to create the “director-as-superstar ethos” (27). Schatz saw Lucas’ Star Wars as a masterwork in commercial filmmaking that created broad appeal using nostalgia, action-packed plot, and stunning special effects.
Music is one of the most important aspects of Star Wars’ ability to invoke nostalgia. Emilio Audissino notes that the music in Star Wars represented a break from popular science fiction films, following in the footsteps of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. “Traditionally, music for the sci-fi genre would use a language inspired by 20th century modernism […] Lucas rejected the modernist and electronic options and chose Kubrick’s approach” (71). Lucas specifically mentioned to Spielberg that he wanted to evoke classic film composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold, whose work included action-adventure films like The Adventures of Robin Hood and Captain Blood.
Diegetic and nondiegetic music are used in this scene – music on Jabba’s barge fades into the background when the film cuts outside to contrast with Tatooine’s harsh wind. Williams’ dark score causes a mood change 90 seconds into the scene, marking the beginning of the crescendo to action. Deep brass tones punctuate cuts as Luke ensures his friends are ready and in position. The most important music cue is the Star Wars theme’s entrance as Luke dives off the skiff’s plank – rather than falling into the mouth of the sarlaac, he jumps back onboard to start the fight.
Hollywood nostalgia in this scene is also triggered by the pirate imagery derived from classic films like Treasure Island and Peter Pan – the ships on the Dune Sea filled with violent criminals and the plank walk are motifs taken from those films. Jabba even has a small cackling henchman that sits on him like a parrot. Lucas adapted pirate themes to sci-fi by filling out Jabba’s crew with aliens, ships that float through the air, and the sarlaac that inhabits the Great Pit of Carkoon. The action in the scene is sci-fi swashbuckling action, as Luke clashes swords with Jabba’s enforcers, and jumps from ship to ship to fight the mostly faceless antagonists.
The special effects, like the music and imagery, represent a merging of classic and new Hollywood. Jabba was a puppet that was operated by three people, and the humanoid aliens were created by the make-up and costuming departments. Luke’s green lightsaber, enemy lasers, and Boba Fett’s jet pack exhaust were created through rotoscope animation. Optical printing was used to make the ships appear as if they were floating above the ground. This scene also contains CGI that was added in the 1997 Special Editions; the banthas (seen at the beginning) and the mouth of the sarlaac were not in the original version(s). These elements were added by Lucas to create consistency with the prequel trilogy, placing the six films philosophically in line with Tolkien’s three essential elements of good worldbuilding (depth, detail, and consistency) (Butler 5).
Though the first 180 seconds of the scene are devoted to establishing each character’s location in the diegetic space, showcasing their personalities, and building tension for the upcoming action, the scene is still relatively fast-paced in its editing. The 56 cuts that compose those 180 seconds average 3.2 seconds per cut, and the 60 cuts in the next 80 seconds average 1.3 seconds per shot. This is well below the average shot length in US feature films in 1983, which Barry Salt has listed at just under 7 seconds (378). To Schatz, this indicates a fundamental change to the nature of film. “From The Godfather to Jaws to Star Wars, we see films that are increasingly plot-driven, increasingly visceral, kinetic, and fast-paced, increasingly reliant on special effects” (29). These cuts aren’t just fast, they switch between a multitude of characters in several distinct locations to hold interest and create tension. The audience sees the danger of Boba Fett in editing before the characters, as Lando dangles from the skiff while Luke fights off guards and Han stumbles blindly… that narrative chaos is created through the editing in a way only film can.
These components and their sheer scale construct a scene that defines blockbuster filmmaking. Despite the generally positive reception, the series was “quickly targeted as an example of the ‘empty,’ ‘juvenile’ entertainment that […] 1970s and 1980s blockbusters came to emblematize” (Turnock 138). Schatz saw Star Wars as a shift even from recent blockbuster film: “In Star Wars […] characters (even “the hero”) are essentially plot functions […] where Star Wars is so obviously and inexorably plot-driven, The Godfather develops its story in terms of character” (29). The attempts to capture an audience through spectacle rather than substance was described as “Bruce aesthetic” by critic James Monaco, after the robotic shark used to film Jaws, meaning that the “cinematic effect is ‘visceral – mechanical rather than human.’” (Schatz 26). This wasn’t helped by Lucas’ Disney-inspired total marketing strategy through action figures, comics, television specials, and more.
Boba Fett is one of the most notorious examples of marketing incepting audience interest in a character who is only fleshed out in transmedia storytelling. Fett was first featured in a cartoon as part of the ‘Star Wars Holiday Special’. His next appearance was The Empire Strikes Back, where he captures Han Solo for Jabba. These brief appearances created an air of mystery around the bounty hunter, and he quickly became a fan favorite.
His appearance in this scene is both brief and humiliating. 216 seconds into the clip, he runs onto the top deck of Jabba’s ship and flies down using his jet pack. Luke destroys his blaster, and Fett retaliates by tangling the Jedi in a cable launched from his wrist. Luke escapes, and Fett fires at him with another wrist blaster. He’s bumped by Han Solo, and his jet pack flies him into the side of Jabba’s barge. His final moment shows him tumbling into the pit, where the sarlaac devours Fett and ends the scene with a belch. Fett is defined by his tools more than his stoic nature – a glaring example of style over substance. His representation as a tough character is at odds with his death, and the gastrointestinal emission from the beast is an absurd comic bit that portrays the juvenile nature of the scene.
Unsatisfied with the Fett’s death, fans used transmedia stories to defy the narrative, and, by extension, the series’ more unsophisticated aspects. One story, called “A Barve Like That: The Tale of Boba Fett” immediately follows these events, and tells about how the bounty hunter actually escaped from the sarlaac while diving into his past and psyche. A sequel to that story, “The Last One Standing: The Tale of Boba Fett”, gives readers greater context to the relationship between Fett and Han Solo, and features a meaningful final conflict to contrast with their interaction in this scene. Boba Fett would go on to feature in other canon novels, comics, films, and television episodes that would give viewers more insight into the shallow character.
Luke igniting his new lightsaber as the film’s theme blasts triumphantly is the characterizing image of this scene, and Star Wars as a whole. Blending classic Hollywood with new ideas and technology is what made the franchise so successful, but the emphasis on action, gadgets, and effects are a deviation from character-driven auteur filmmaking that allowed for the blockbuster era to come about in the first place. One has to respect Star Wars’ inherent demand to be treated as an epic, even if it is ultimately a juvenile commercial vehicle.
Audissino, Emilio. John Williams’s Film Music: Jaws, Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and the Return of the Classical Hollywood Music Style. The University of Wisconsin Press, 2014. Scribd. Accessed 22 July 2020.
Butler, Catherine. “Tolkien and Worldbuilding. ASU, pp. 1-21. Accessed 22 July 2020. J. R. R. Tolkien (New Casebooks), Peter Hunt, Palgrave, 2013, pp. 106-20.
Salt, Barry. “Comments on Attention and Hollywood Films.” Film Style and Technology, 3rd ed., Starword, 2009. Cinemetrics, 2010. Accessed 22 July 2020.
Schatz, Thomas. “The New Hollywood.” Movie Blockbusters, by Julian Stringer, Routledge, 2003, pp. 15–44. Accessed 22 July 2020.
Turnock, Julie. “The True Stars of Star Wars? Experimental Filmmakers in the 1970s and 1980s Special Effects Industry.” Film History, vol. 26, No. 4, 2014, pp. 120-145. Accessed 22 July 2020.