I Don’t Think The Empire Had Wookies in Mind: The Droids and Aliens of Return of the Jedi

The opening shot to George Lucas’s 1977 classic Star Wars is as unforgettable as they come: a minuscule blockade runner darts across the screen as a mammoth star destroyer follows in hot pursuit. This evocative image throws us directly into the action with a thrust of immediacy still unparalleled in cinematic history. The first peek we have into the Tantive IV[1] is not of Princess Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) or Darth Vader (David Prowse/James Earl Jones), the heroine and villain who spark the interplanetary saga that will consume the pop culture landscape for the next half century. Instead, Star Wars greets us with droids C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) and R2-D2 (Kenny Baker), the robotic duo who work as an avatar for the audience’s sense of confusion and incredulity. We immediately recognize this retro futuristic world as one quite unfamiliar to our own, yet 3PO’s nebbish disposition and R2’s blissful mischievousness feel like a routine plucked right out of a late night comedy routine.[2] The rise, fall, and rise again of the Skywalker clan are the ultimate story of the series but it’s the relationship of these two droids (as distinct as it is relatable) that orient the viewer into a galaxy far, far away.

C-3PO and R2-D2 are the most prominent non-human characters to populate Star Wars’s vast gallery of personalities but they are far from the only. Though the principally human cast maintains a tight focus in the center of the frame, it is the droids, aliens, and monsters that have left fans memorizing what casual viewers would describe as cool but inconsequential background noise. Return of the Jedi, the final entry in the original trilogy, makes a final gasp at extending the series’ tradition of memorable creature design. We get to see old favorites and original creatures that continue to prove just how vast and diverse the Star Wars universe is. Return of the Jedi is quite neatly split into two halves that allow for a stark contrast in locations, which invariably leads to a difference in alien modeling.[3] The climactic battle with the Galactic Empire forces our heroes to destroy an in-construction second Death Star, which has the capacity to damage the already fledgling Rebel Alliance.

But before they can tackle the Empire they must emancipate their beloved general Han Solo (Harrison Ford) from an existence that leaves him entrapped in carbonite. After being captured by the bounty hunter Boba Fett in The Empire Strikes Back, Luke, Leia, and company infiltrate the palace of Jabba the Hutt, seedy leader of the criminal underworld. Jabba’s desert fortress looks like Jim Henson’s studio on acid, filled with an air of debauchery uncommon to a story we have associated with fast pace plotting rather than prolonged hedonism. Exotic as Mos Eisley was in Star Wars, Jabba’s palace in Return of the Jedi creates an opportunity for Lucas and his technicians to justly realize a full-fledged alien environment that eluded them with the budgetary restraints of the original film.[4] The Hutt himself is a disgusting mass of flesh that moves only to stuff his face with food or to keep a slave/servant in check. Jabba serves as a counterpoint to Jedi Master Yoda, who instilled wisdom from meekness. This new monster flaunts his piggish lifestyle to a degree that makes him stand apart from the idealistic Alliance or even the suffocating order of the Empire. His evil is not a concerted one but a chaotic one that prides itself on shameful inhumanity.

The criminal figure has his very own musical act (the Max Rebo Band) that plays tunes of a lighter variety, creating a contrast in atmospheres that only darken the proceedings. If a slave girl gets out of line, Jabba simply drops them into the cage of the Rancor, a fearsome beast who looks like a slab of meatloaf in need of an exorcism. Luke eventually does battle with the monster and defeats him not through his more polished lightsaber skills but by propelling a rock at the door switch, thereby crushing the beast to death. The dimly lit, cramped palace is followed up by the expansive, bright Sarlaac pit, which looks like the space slug from Empire’s innards if illuminated. Jabba brings his merry band of lowlifes along to witness Luke and Han’s execution at the hands of the Sarlaac. But the leads escape thanks to the assistance of Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams) and R2, with the latter performing his trademark “in-the-knick-of-time” save that has gotten the heroes through many a scrape.

rebel_briefing_5

Luke, Leia, Han, Lando, and the droids soon regroup with the Rebel Fleet just before the assault on the second Death Star goes underway. The Rebellion, while primarily made up of humans, displays a number of alien races who join forces to combat the Empire’s stranglehold over the galaxy.[5] The Empire is noticeably absent of non-human soldiers to a point where the audience is forced to question why one would join such a force outside of conscription or perhaps even xenophobia. Even if a creature or two hide behind the uniformly white helmets, their voices and likenesses are never heard or seen, allowing for only Vader, the Emperor, or the countless Imperial officers walking on eggshells to put any sense of voice to the monolithic entity. One of the few weaknesses of the original trilogy is its lack of a central set of issues that adequately spell out the ideological differences between the Rebellion and the Empire. I’d like to think that the inclusion of multicultural aliens into the fabric of the Alliance is a small way of showing a vaguely liberal message of acceptance trumping intolerance.

Destroying the new Death Star depends on disabling its shield generator that sits on the neighboring moon of Endor. The forest landscape is populated by Ewoks, furry little creatures that resemble Teddy Bears with spears.[6] The lush vegetation of their world, combined with their petite stature, further distinguish the Ewoks from the cold, synthetic makeup of the Empire. On the surface, the language and culture of the Ewoks appear far more primitive than that of the main characters. However, we learn of their capacity to empathize, find joy, and observe loss to an equal, if not greater, degree than their human counterparts. One of my favorite scenes in the entire series is C-3PO’s recounting of the preceding events of the saga to the Ewoks. They’re enamored by his tales of adventures on other worlds, cowering in fear at the prospects of such faraway conflicts reaching their own soils. This brief reprieve from the action lets the audience take stock of the larger than life journey that these characters have undertaken over the course of three films. Here, the Ewoks serve as an analogue for our own wide eyed wonder at legendary heroes in the making. Return of the Jedi makes quite literal what the entire Star Wars narrative is all about: a fireside chat of sorts that allows us to recount our past and imagine our future with the ones we love.

Upon finding the heroes in the forest, the Ewoks immediately pronounce C-3PO to the position of godhood as his golden complexion sets him apart from all around him. This greatly humors our leads, as the droid’s bumbling neurosis has continually frustrated their efforts. But the protocol droid takes his newfound power in stride, using the opportunity to free his friends and build trust with a people who will aid the Rebellion in the anticipated final battle. Again, the success of Star Wars relies heavily on C-3PO and R2-D2’s guiding us through this series of worlds. For all their mechanical noises and robotic appendages, the pair becomes just as vital a part of the saga as Luke, Han, and Leia. The quirks of the saga’s droids and aliens, while not of our world, are undeniably human not only because of their creation at the hands of them but because they are allowed perspectives and desires that mirror our own, even from light years away.

Return-of-the-jedi-final-scene

[1] An Alderaanean space vessel, thank you very much.

[2] The similarities between 3P0 and Woody Allen are uncanny. This video replaces the droid’s dialogue with that of Allen, to amusing effect.

<p><a href=”https://vimeo.com/90430501″>C3PO 2.0</a> from <a href=”https://vimeo.com/freakshowtell”>FreakShow &amp; Tell</a> on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>

[3] This most recent re-watch helped the film stand out in both good and bad ways. It’s novel to open with the extended sequence of Han‘s rescue but it drags when the location changes from Jabba’s palace to his sail barge. The presence of an impending Death Star quite simply undercuts the more humdrum mission. This isn’t to mention the screen time that could have been devoted to Luke and Vader’s relationship. Don’t get me wrong, the stretch is still exciting but it makes the objective a necessary assignment instead of a worthwhile use of time.

[4] It should be noted that George Lucas didn’t direct in fact the film (as he co-wrote and produced Return of the Jedi). This final chapter was directed by Richard Marquand, a Welsh director who gained Lucas’s attention with the spy thriller Eye of the Needle (1981). Marquand has since confirmed Lucas’s towering influence over his directorial decisions, saying that it was akin to “trying to direct King Lear – with Shakespeare in the next room!”

[5] Fan favorites like Admiral Ackbar and Nien Numb make their debuts here.

[6] Word is that Lucas originally wanted the planet to be populated by Wookies but that Chewbacca’s proficiency with technology made a Wookie defeat of the Empire more probable. His instinct turned out to be valid since swapping the tall gearheads with tiny Luddites made the victory on Endor all the sweeter.

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