There are a lot of memorable scenes in the Star Wars universe: Obi-Wan and Luke entering the Mos Eisley Cantina; Luke successfully destroying the Death Star; Admiral Ackbar shouting, It’s a trap. But out of all of them—even Darth Vader revealing to Luke Skywalker that he is Luke’s father—my all-time favorite is the beginning of Return of the Jedi, when Luke narrowly escapes being thrown into the Sarlacc pit; it encapsulates what makes the franchise so beloved, and something that was tragically missing from the ensuing prequels.
I was maybe four or five when I first saw Star Wars, so you can imagine how impactful such a scene was on someone so young. (Not to mention the scene prior, which saw Luke kill Jabba’s Rancor.) Not only was Luke’s escape from the pit terrifying, but it was immensely thrilling. And he did it with such aplomb and swagger, like it was just another day at the office.
After killing Jabba’s Rancor, Luke, Han and Chewie find themselves on a barge being transported to the pit of Carkoon, which is the Sarlacc’s nesting ground. As they approach, Han expresses his worry, and remarks to Luke that they’re about to meet their inevitable doom. But Luke remains unfazed.
“Just stick close to Chewie and Lando,” he says. “I’m taking care of everything.”
“Oh, great,” Han responds. He is as incredulous as we are, resigned to the fact that there’s seemingly no way out.
Meanwhile, Jabba, being the grotesque beast that he is, toys with Leia from the safety of his sail barge, conducting the chaos as people cheer on. Every moment, cut, and piece of imagery helps build the tension as the characters are literally being driven toward their death. Once they arrive, the weight of the situation becomes crystal clear as the camera closes in on Luke’s face.
He’s about to die, I thought, a sure and cruel end for a young hero. There were a lot of deaths in the original Star Wars trilogy, but surely being gulped by the Sarlacc was the worst way to go.
But even with death knocking, Luke remains defiant, as though he’s somehow in control of the situation. After Jabba demands the prisoners beg for mercy, Luke shouts out a warning. “Jabba, this is your last chance. Free us, or die.” Jabba laughs at the ridiculousness of his threat. The camera perches over Luke’s shoulder, giving the audience a perfect view into Sarlacc’s snarling maw; it’s a disgusting, terrifying site.
Luke looks around, gives a confident nod to Lando. They know something we don’t.
And then Luke springs into action, jumps off the plank, and does an acrobatic flip back onto the barge. R2-D2, who has been in on the plan the whole time, flings Luke his lightsaber, kicking off what would become one of the greatest movie escapes of all-time.
The entire scene is full of wonderful action, close-calls, and the near death of Lando, who almost falls into the Sarlacc pit. The whole time Luke is deflecting blaster shots, jumping between barges, and generally being a badass Jedi. All the while Leia chokes Jabba to death, and escapes imprisonment. Finally, Luke shoots Jabba’s barge with a mounted gun, swings over to a different ship with Leia, and escapes what seemed like certain death.
That, for me, best optimizes what Star Wars is all about. Not only did Luke refuse to follow Jabba’s orders, but he did it with an impressive coolness. Luke infiltrated Jabba’s hideout, got captured, killed the Rancor, faked Jabba out by pretending to fall into the Sarlacc pit, and then blew up his barge.
The scene had it all, and it’s why it remains my favorite moment in the entire Star Wars universe. It was great to see a plan so beautifully orchestrated, and it gave us a great demonstration of Luke coming into his powers. Sure, Boba Fett met his maker in the sorriest possible way, but, otherwise, you had Luke kicking butt, Leia once again proving she could handle herself, and Han and Chewie working together.
What’s your favorite Star Wars moment?