my favorite star wars scene or: how i learned to stop worrying and love the sarlacc

I’m usually worried about rehashing yet again an over-tread topic, so I wouldn’t normally write about Star Wars, possibly the single most-discussed film(s) I can think of. Just off the top of my head I can tell you that Jonathan Seabrook’s analysis of George Lucas’s turn to the dark side (in Nobrow : The Culture of Marketing, the Marketing of Culture) has more to say than I ever would, and Chuck Klosterman’s essay (in Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs) captures most of the personal reaction I have toward the franchise.

But now, when you least expect it — the biggest piece of even the most remotely newsworthy Star Wars development was weeks ago — I think it’s a good time to just riff on my favorite scene and my somewhat tortured relationship with it. It comes at the end of the first act of Return of the Jedi. For those who do not already know the original trilogy backwards and forwards: I’m talking about the end of the sequence where Luke and friends infiltrate Jabba the Hutt’s compound to rescue Han Solo. It doesn’t go very well, our team is discovered, and Jabba sentences them to a thousand-plus years serving as a snack for the sarlacc, which amounts to a living hole in the ground.

This is a good point to take a Clerks-type detour into the practicalities of Star Wars. It’s explained that the sarlacc keeps its victims alive in its belly for a thousand years or so, but how exactly does the sarlacc keep them alive for that long? Wouldn’t they die from dehydration in under a few days or starvation in a month? Maybe I’m so focused on this detail because when I was a kid, this possibility of enduring unendurable pain for an indefinite amount of time haunted me, and it took me surprisingly long to realize how completely impractical and unlikely this monster was. Unless the sarlacc’s stomach involved some elaborate scheme for keeping its victims alive via feeding tube and Nalgene bottle, your suffering would end after a few days.

Extended Star Wars documentation suggests there is, indeed, an explanation, one involving merged consciousness and other mechanisms, which just strike me as a overworked effort to substantiate that single, unlikely claim that the sarlacc digestive tract could involve a millennium of discomfort. And yet, this is all beside the point, because as monsters go, I approve of the sarlacc in all its terrifying, metaphorically rich unlikelihood.

Anyway, the part of the movie I wanted to highlight is at the beginning of the battle that ends the first act of Return of the Jedi. With his hands bound, moments before he’s about to be walked off a plank into the monster’s maw, Luke announces to Jabba the Hutt, the glorified-slug-cum-gangster, “This is your last chance. Free us or die.”

Objectively, you have to admit that the matter-of-fact way Luke delivers this line makes him look kind of psychotic in context, as though he’s the only one in the immediate area that understands that he has the upper hand. This is playing to us the audience, partly, I know. But from anybody else’s perspective, even Luke’s, it’s absurd to make this bizarre offer, much less in the manner he makes it; Luke knows that Jabba will laugh in his face, and the Jedi might as well not make what must seem like a completely non-credible threat. The least Luke could say would be something like “FYI, butt-ugly, I dress like Johnny Cash because I’m a badass and I can floss your teeth with that chain you’ve got my crush/sister tied up with. So take a minute to consider letting us go.”

As he does in fact deliver it, Luke’s outrageous demand and patronizing tone is melodramatic, a mode appropriate for a “space opera,” of course, but any other justification of the line and Luke’s delivery don’t really reflect very well on him. With this gesture that theoretically invites a peaceful response, Luke can claim he gave Jabba a chance to repent before he shredded the bag of slop. Clearly, though, Luke doesn’t really want Jabba to consider this possibility for even a minute. As is, with an offer that will surely be rejected, Luke can feign a vague interest in non-violence but still indulge in some old-school wrath when Jabba inevitably declines.

(This is part of a larger lesson that you could learn from the Star Wars trilogy: Sharp-dressed villains with elegantly molded face masks get redeemed, while blobby, withered, or just-plain-creepy bad guys get theatrically dead.)

I can objectively recognize all of this, yet at the same I will have to tell you that the subsequent beat-down that Luke gives Jabba’s gang is one of the most satisfying I can think of. Here’s what this says about me: Whatever my philosophical positions, I really enjoy seeing the hammer of righteousness come down on the unrepentant in a fictional setting. So maybe my real complaint is that Luke gave me exactly what I wanted.

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