In the Belly of the Sarlacc

In the desert of Tatooine, the audience sees the heroes at their worst. They’re enslaved, degraded, bound, and hovering above the belly of the beast. In Star Wars: Return of the Jedi, the Sarlacc pit scene uses specific film elements to portray one of the pinnacle parts of the Hero’s Journey.

The scene opens with shots of the desert and our heroes, in various predicaments specific to each character. Han, Chewie, and Luke are to be executed via the Sarlacc pit. Leia, C-3PO, and R2D2 are forced to serve Jabba the Hutt as a slave, a translator, and a drink tray, respectively. For these characters, it is the worst case scenario. There is only one character that knows for certain that they will survive, and that is Luke. In his version of the Hero’s Journey, Campbell states: “The black moment is the moment when the real message of transformation is going to come. At the darkest moment comes the light.” (Campbell). That is what we are seeing here. Literally and metaphorically representing the light, Luke valiantly slashes his way through the guards and sparks a chain of events which leads to their escape, unharmed. Lucas does not represent the Monomyth with any degree of subtlety. There are various renditions of the Hero’s Journey, and many of which refer to an “Abyss” or “Belly of the Beast” as well as some sort of light vs. dark motif. Connor Butler states this: “The Belly of the Beast is used to strip the heroes of their advantages and place them in vulnerable positions.” (Butler). The characters had no more advantages, were placed in their most vulnerable positions, and literally about to be thrown into the belly of a beast.  Here, we see Luke, a disciple of the “light side” of the Force, escaping he and his friends from being pushed into the belly of a large beast. 

The scene, by today’s standards, does seem dated. You can see some issues with the lighting that make the characters look like they are standing in front of the background, rather than in it. Their uncovered ship is speeding over a desert, and the characters are only getting some light, inconsistent hair tousling from the wind. Chewie’s fur, at around 48 seconds in, has tiny little green outlines from the green screen. The fight scene is built up for nearly a minute of suspense, before culminating in a childish, slapstick fight where the characters bumble about. Luke, despite his training in focus and discipline, gets distracted mid-fight and gets trapped by a very slow grappling hook from Boba Fett. Han Solo translates Chewie’s speech, exclaiming, “Boba Fett?! Where?” before turning around and accidentally knocking Boba Fett to his death. Lando, Han, and Chewie essentially offer no actual action to this scene other than pushing a few guards into the Sarlacc pit, and mainly offer comedic relief.

Despite how it has aged, the scene has set the standard for any given “turnabout” scene, where the characters are in the belly of the beast, in the worst circumstances they could find themselves in, threatened with death and worse, and they pull through in one fell swoop. The track playing in the background is aptly titled “The Return of the Jedi”. The track is reminiscent of Jaws’ iconic theme, using orchestrated string instruments and woodwinds to tell the audience what is happening without having to tell them explicitly. It builds suspense and signals to the audience that something big is about to happen. Then, the theme swells and changes into the original leitmotif used in all Star Wars movies. This means something to the audience, who has, at this point, already seen two of these movies and heard this theme interspersed throughout. Since this theme is only ever used in scenes where the heroes have the upper hand, the audience, whether they know this consciously or not, are relieved to see that the heroes are once again winning the fight. This is true as soon as the fight starts, even though we see parts of the scene that could go either way, like Lando falling or Boba Fett preparing to shoot Luke in the back. Through the sound design alone, we do not question whether or not our heroes will win, even if it seems like a close call at times.

The special effects used were adapted in a way that no one had ever really thought of doing before. One paper states that: “Mainstream filmmakers like Lucas, who were well aware of the avant-garde, adapted these techniques for a photorealist mise-en-scène and fantasy diegesis but preserved many of their more spectacular features.” (Turnock). The effects were not used as a mesmerizing focus to each scene, but rather accompanied the other elements of the film to make the effects seem real. In this particular case, the Sarlacc pit is digitally enhanced to feel as if it is something that actually consumes the guards that fall into it. The lasers flying around hit metal and cause sparks to fly. The effects do not exist in a vacuum, but rather have impact and narrative value in the scene. Looking at it now, it seems very standard, but that is only because this scene set that standard. Up until then, CGI and special effects were not at all used like this. It took audiences by surprise, they were amazed to see things like the laserbeams, the flying ships, the light sabers.

It is also understood that Star Wars, in general, does not have a heavily narrative-focused approach. Scenes like this are relatively common, where, in four minutes and thirty seconds, the positions and development of the characters are pushed forward forcefully. Other blockbusters, like The Godfather, would take far longer to establish and elaborate on characters’ motivations and developments. Because of the use of the Monomyth, Lucas essentially streamlines this development. The scene creates the sense of despair, the abyss, and then the characters quickly find their ways out of it in less than a few minutes. As Thomas Schatz puts it: “This is not to say that Star Wars does not “work” as a narrative, but that the way it works may indicate a shift in the nature of film narrative.” (Schatz). The Sarlacc pit scene shows us that the narrative isn’t exactly taken seriously. The comedy relief, clunky fight, and unceremonious end to Boba Fett all gives the audience the relief from the suspense that has been building, but in a fun, low-stakes way. Star Wars: Return of the Jedi’s Sarlacc pit scene, despite it seeming to pale in comparison to today’s special effects, paved the way for movie making CGI. The music utilized in the scene created such a specific tone, reminiscent of the suspenseful music of Jaws. Each of these things were used to put a dramatic spin on the age old Hero’s Journey. Lucas’ mix of tried and true film making techniques like sound design and the Monomyth narrative combined with (at the time) new age special effects created a scene that has lived on as one of Star Wars’ most famous segments.

Butler, Connor. “The Hero’s Journey.” Star Wars and the Hero’s Journey (May 7, 2019): 8-15. 

Campbell, Joseph, Bill Moyers, and Betty S. Flowers. “The Journey Inward.” The power of myth 

(1988): 37-67. 

Schatz, Thomas. “The New Hollywood.” Movie Blockbusters (2003): 15-44. 

Turnock, Julie. “The True Stars of Star Wars? Experimental Filmmakers in the 1970s and 1980s Special Effects Industry.” Film History 26, no. 4 (2014): 120-45.

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