In Norse mythology, vessels in unforgiving waters were plagued by a creature with a terrible reputation. The Kraken was feared by ancient seafarers for dragging unlucky ships into the inky black depths. In Beowulf, one of the first known poems of English literature, the hero fought a vicious cave dwelling killer called Grendel which feasted on human flesh. In Homer’s The Odyssey, Odysseus narrowly escaped death in his encounter with two vicious sea monsters: the Scylla and the Charybdis. Man’s struggle with nature is one of the oldest themes in storytelling, and George Lucas knew this. Like the stories of old, the heroes in Star Wars encounter fearsome beasts of all shapes and sizes.
Lucas and his team of artists populated worlds in the prequel trilogy with a diverse array of aliens and monsters both fantastic and mundane. The subterranean canals of the planet Naboo, for instance, were home to gargantuan creatures like the Sando Aqua Monster and its forests and hillsides brimmed with herds of Falumpasets and Ikopi.
Illustrations from The Wildlife of Star Wars: A Field Guide, (2001) by Terry’s Whitlatch and Bob Carrau
But where the prequel films approached monster design from a more-is-more aesthetic, the original film trilogy took a straight-forward approach. Banthas of Tatooine are reminiscent of wooly mammoths, except with ram horns. Dewbacks are essentially giant lizards. Hoth plays host to the Tauntaun, my favorite Star Wars animal of all. Tauntauns are the result of mixing a bipedal rat with a dinosaur and giving it a camel head.
The incidental wildlife inhabiting the corners of this galaxy are bizarre, unique, yet strangely familiar. But the most memorable monsters are the ones which play a role in the journey of the heroes, like the beasts of ancient mythology. So let’s take a look at some examples of this mythological trope throughout the saga.
On the planet Geonosis in Episode II, three creatures torment Anakin, Obi-Wan, and Padme inside an arena packed with bloodthirsty spectators. They include the giant crustacean Acklay, the Nexu, a four-eyed cat-like predator, and the brutish Reek, a lumbering rhinoceros-like steam engine. Recalling the brutality of the Roman Colosseum, our heroes are chained to columns while these animals, starved and provoked by their handlers, are sent in to slaughter them. Like citizens of the Roman Empire, Geonosians revel in the sport of carnage, distracted from their own political subjugation. But on this day, the entertainment does not go as planned. The Geonosians have underestimated their Jedi captives. And their third prisoner is a headstrong and resourceful survivor who evades death by climbing to the top of her column just out of reach of the claws of the Nexu.
Taking inspiration from the Ray Harryhausen stop-motion movies like The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, and Clash of the Titans, the monsters of the arena pose challenges that allow Anakin, Obi-Wan, and Padme to combine their strengths. Good monsters should not only excite the imagination, they must propel the narrative. During much of Attack of the Clones, Anakin and Padme are separated from the older, wiser Obi-Wan. And they make mistakes. But when the trio is finally reunited, they face a collective threat that encourages teamwork and rewards cooperation with survival. Our heroes defy the beasts one by one and deny their captors a slaughter. Obi-Wan, Anakin, and Padme turn a blood sport into a triumph of will and an illustration of the power of friendship.
Realized in an age before CGI, the Rancor is a practical effect that was largely untouched by the digital tinkering of the Special Editions. Intended as an homage to Godzilla, the Rancor was first attempted with a man in a suit, but the result was less than ideal. FX guru Phil Tippett instead came up with the idea to use a rod puppet. By filming its movements at high speed, footage of the Rancor could be slowed down to give the illusion of size. Even though the rotoscoping and compositing has been cleaned up over the years, the effect still looks much like the miniature it is. However, what sells the illusion is the editing, the music, and an approach to make the Rancor more than simply a B-movie monster.
The Rancor Pit in Return of the Jedi serves a similar purpose as the arena battle in Attack of the Clones in which heroes are placed in peril for the amusement of spectators. Without his weapon, Luke must evade the ravenous beast. He uses quick thinking to drop a heavy metal door down upon the Rancor’s head. What makes this sequence so effective is what happens next. As the Rancor collapses to the ground, its final whimper is heartbreaking. Like many of Jabba the Hutt’s subjects, the Rancor is a prisoner; a pathetic life form with a bleak existence meant only as entertainment for a sadistic crime boss. While the Rancor occupies the familiar role of a dragon to be slain by the knight, its death is not presented as a rousing triumph. Instead it’s closer to tragedy.
In a sense, the Rancor foreshadows the fate of Darth Vader. Instead of cheering the end to one of the most iconic villains in all of cinema, Return of the Jedi forces us to see Vader in a more empathetic light. Much like the Rancor, Vader is a monster manipulated and used by a cruel master. Even though Vader was one of the darkest souls in the galaxy, when he takes his final breath, we feel the stir of loss for a life wasted by suffering. In death, some monsters can elicit sympathy.
The Empire, driving the Rebels from their hidden base on Hoth, relentlessly pursues the Millennium Falcon into an asteroid field. Pulling every spectacular maneuver he knows, Han Solo pilots the Falcon with its crew of Leia, Chewbacca, Threepio, and R2 into and out of near misses, tight squeezes, and collisions, until he manages to shake their pursuers by hiding in a cave on one of the larger asteroids.
The characters are allowed a brief respite and the film takes this opportunity to exhale after the breathless momentum of the first act. But safe havens are not what they seem to be in this universe. It doesn’t take long for Han to realize he made a mistake and he hastily turns the ship around and heads for the cave’s opening. The entrance is collapsing. The entrance also has teeth. The Falcon barely escapes the lunging maw of a giant space worm. Echoing the Biblical tale of Jonah, the heroes exit the belly of the monster and learn that fates worse than Imperial capture lurk in the cold vacuum of space.
When he was writing the original script for Star Wars, George Lucas found inspiration in Joseph Campbell’s book about the hero’s journey The Hero With a Thousand Faces. Luke’s arc in A New Hope faithfully matches Campbell’s outline more than in any other Star Wars film that followed, but Campbell’s themes continue to resonate throughout the saga. One of the key stages in Campbell’s monomyth structure is described as the Approach to the Innermost Cave.* This is a moment in which all the lessons the hero has learned until that point are carefully analyzed before being put to the test. Never is that more apparent than when Luke is captured and dragged into the literal ice cave of the abominable Wampa.
Attacked while riding his Tauntaun on a scouting mission, Luke is knocked unconscious and hung upside down by his feet in the ice while the Wampa feeds on his dead Tauntaun in the next chamber. Alone and at the mercy of injury and the elements, Luke must call upon everything he has learned about the Force. In a moment of clarity, he manages to calm his anxiety and summon his lightsaber from the snowy floor below. In a flash, he cuts himself free just as the Wampa charges. Luke gravely injures the animal and barely escapes with his life. But with his newfound skills, he is well on his way to becoming a Jedi.
The Wampa is a classic example of a cave-dwelling danger which tests the limits of the hero. It’s not a long or flashy sequence. We’re only given glimpses of the monster, but it represents a vital moment in Luke’s maturity as a Force wielder.
(It’s interesting to note that The Empire Strikes Back originally contained a subplot involving Wampas attacking Echo Base and being contained within a quarantine zone. An early trailer even showed C-3PO tearing off a bright yellow warning sign from the quarantine door during the invasion by the Empire. The Wampas were then let loose and wrought havoc on the Imperials. This idea would later be cannibalized by The Force Awakens when a pack of tentacled, monster ball-like rathtars get loose on Han Solo’s ship.)
Undoubtedly, the most spectacular Star Wars monster of all lives in the Pit of Carkoon on the planet Tatooine. The Sarlacc is a massive organism which is buried almost entirely in the sand. It’s gigantic, fang-lined mouth is the only visible part of the creature on the surface. A snapping beak and tentacles snatch its victims into its waiting stomach. The pit is a favorite location of Jabba the Hutt, who frequently uses it for ritual execution of his enemies. When Luke, Leia, Chewbacca, and Lando Calrissian fail to rescue Han from Jabba’s palace, Jabba gleefully sentences them a thousand years of digestion in the belly of the Sarlacc.
Like so many of the great movie monsters already mentioned, the Sarlacc presents a challenge that Luke Skywalker must overcome, but he does so in the most spectacular fashion imaginable. As he is being prepared to walk the plank into the eager mouth below, Luke signals his trusty droid, R2-D2 to eject a hidden lightsaber into the air. Luke catches it and ignites it with a hiss. He calls upon every skill he has learned and every trial he has overcome to cut down his captors. With the aid of Han, Leia, Lando, and Chewbacca, Luke vanquishes Jabba’s gang, and the Hutt’s rule of tyranny ends in a fiery finish. At long last the Jedi has returned.
The Sarlacc itself is not defeated, but the heroes manage to escape it in a swashbuckling close to the first act of Return of the Jedi. The core group is reunited and their bonds strengthened. They’ll need this renewed determination to face the greatest challenge ahead: confronting Darth Vader and the Emperor and defeating the Empire.
The Sarlacc represents an exciting penultimate threat in the mythos of the original trilogy which is why it deserves the number one spot in the Star Wars monster hall of fame.
*Reference: The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers (2007), Christopher Vogler