What makes Star Wars feel like Star Wars?
It’s lightsabers! No, it’s rebels versus empire! It’s bounty hunters! It’s space battles!
In the end, Star Wars works because of a disparate mash of influences, from Samurai films to Flash Gordon to Cold War politics. But there’s one essential ingredient that often gets overlooked. Without it, Star Wars just isn’t Star Wars. And Halloween season makes for the perfect time to celebrate it.
Kiss a Wookiee, Kick a Droid
Way back in 2008 (yes, you’re old now) an a cappella arrangement of John Willams music went viral on YouTube. Performed with lyrics by YouTuber Corey Vidal, the video put Star Wars-themed words to some of most the iconic Williams scores. The lyrics to the Indiana Jones theme went something like this:
“Kiss a Wookie / kick a droid / fly the Flacon through an asteroid / til the princess is annoyed. This is spaceships / it’s monsters / it’s Star Wars / we love it!”
This lyric, when I first heard it not on YouTube but performed by my college’s men’s a cappella group (I went to a nerdy school) struck me as odd. One word particular:
Tasked with boiling Star Wars down into two two-syllable words, Corey Vidal chose spaceships and—of all things—not Jedi, not rebels, not magic, not robots—monsters.
A Monster Mash
This struck me because I had simply never thought of monsters as an essential Star Wars ingredient. Aliens, sure. But the word “monster” carries such a particular flavor. It evokes creature features and pulp fiction.
Bu like an amateur wine-taster receiving instruction from an expert sommelier, I realized the flavor note of monster had been there all along. I’d just been too enamored by the Wookiees and droids and spaceships to taste it.
Almost every Star Wars film has some sort of monster sequence. When you look at the Star Wars stories helmed by George Lucas himself, you can see a changing relationship with the concept of “monsters” over time.
But before that, a quick detour to recognize a legend.
King of the Monsters
If we’re talking Star Wars monsters, many names deserve a mention. Special effects artist Jon Berg comes to mind, as does Neal Scanlan, who managed to bring back the spirit of creature effects in Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015). And of course Ralph McQuarrie, whose concepts informed som any of the classic creatures we love. But there’s one other name we need to recognize in particular:
Phil Tippett, King of the Monsters.
Phil Tippett introduced monsters to Star Wars. He and Jon Berg created the Dianoga—the trash monster of Star Wars: A New Hope (1977)—as well as the stop-motion creatures on the Falcon’s Dejarik board (pro tip: Let the Wookiee win). Tippett also created the hand-puppet version of the Wampa that would appear in The Empire Strikes Back (1980).
By the time Return of the Jedi (1983) rolled around, Tippett was in charge of the whole Lucasfilm creature shop. His work on Jedi won him his first Oscar.
So if you’re settling into some monstery Star Wars goodness this Halloween, remember to thank Phil Tippett.
Why We Need Monsters
What makes “monsters” an essential ingredient of Star Wars?
Monsters usually have no motive. They usually connect only tangentially to the main conflict. You might even call them a distraction. In our modern ideal of the tightly-plotted film with all the fat trimmed and zero loose ends, a monster sequence has no place. When Jon Favreau’s The Mandalorian takes an episode to show Din Djarin fighting his way through mudhorns or snow spiders, a certain cadre of fans inevitably cries, “Filler episode! Filler episode!”
But here’s what those fans have missed: Star Wars is a modern-day Flash Gordon. George Lucas envisioned it as an adventure serial with Hollywood-quality special effects. Adventure serials consist of cliffhangers and misadventures.
Monster sequences like the Dianoga of A New Hope or the Rancor of Return of the Jedi force the film to press pause on the main plot line. They insist on a bit of narrative fat, a bit of superfluous tension-building.
Some people find this un-cinematic. In a way, they’re right. And that’s the point. Star Wars wasn’t built to be a tight, ultra-focused narrative machine. It was built to be a romping adventure.
Which makes Lucas’ relationship to monsters all the more fascinating.
Monsters Through the Saga
In the Original Trilogy, monsters exclusively serve this tension-building purpose. They play the role of the mindless antagonist. This continues into the prequels, with the “Always a bigger fish” sequence of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999).
But in Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones (2002), a change takes shape.
It starts with the Tusken Raiders. In A New Hope and The Phantom Menace, they appeared as nothing but violent monsters. In Attack of the Clones, they haven’t changed. But our perspective on them has. When Anakin confesses to slaughtering “Not just the men, but the women, and the children too,” we as the audience begin to build empathy for monsters (and also, a million memes were born).
Clones ends with a gladiator-style arena battle. The villains trot monsters out onto the sand to kill and be killed as sport for a cheering (clicking? buzzing?) audience of Geonosians.
But wait—monster-killing is supposed to be fun! Isn’t it? This isn’t fun. These poor monsters live in captivity! They’re being forced to fight!
Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith doesn’t have a designated “monster sequence.” But the monsters haven’t disappeared. They’ve just changed.
The only real, classic, creature-feature monster in this film is the lizard-like Boga—Obi-Wan Kenobi’s noble steed as he tracks down General Grievous on Utapau. But this monster doesn’t serve as an antagonist. Rather, as every other ally turns against Kenobi, this “monster” gives its life in service to him.
The film, as far as I can tell, only features one other monster.
Revenge of the Sith—and Lucas’ entire Star Wars saga—culminates in a scene that evokes the creation of Frankenstein’s monster. It’s the birth of the first and most fearsome monster in all of Star Wars: Darth Vader.
This is the Skywalker story, after all. The Saga’s perspective on monsters shifts as our perspective on Anakin shifts. We first meet him as a pure villain, an almost primal force of evil, faceless and violent—just like the Tusken Raiders, or the Wampa, or the Rancor. But our relationship to him grows more complex and more empathetic as the Saga goes on. We see his redemption Return of the Jedi, but we discover his humanity in the prequels.
It’s poignant that Lucas’ final Star Wars stories come in the much-beloved animated series, The Clone Wars. Monsters such as the Godzilla-inspired Zillo Beast appear all throughout the series. But almost always, Lucas and Dave Filoni give these creatures an empathetic arc.
By the end of The Clone Wars, it almost feels wrong to watch Luke Skywalker kill Wampas and Rancors instead of finding some non-violent way to end the conflict. Lucas has taken us on a journey.
Monsters After Lucas
The Disney Era has brought its fair share of monsters. Many creators—like Jon Favreau, J.J. Abrams, and Ron Howard—return to the adventure serial monster sequences of the Original Trilogy. One could argue that Rogue One contains the most frightening monster sequence in all of Star Wars, as Darth Vader cuts his way through rebel troopers in a dark hallway. And the Favreau-directed Krayt Dragon battle of The Mandalorian makes for an all-time great Star Wars television moment.
But there’s another side to it. Dave Filoni has carried on the tradition of sympathetic monsters in Star Wars Rebels, perhaps more pointedly than in any other Star Wars project. The Book of Boba Fett also stands out for making Tusken Raiders and Rancors fully sympathetic. In the videogame Jedi: Fallen Order, Cal Kestis encounters a giant Shyyyo bird. It first appears monstrous. The player thinks, dank farrik, will I need to fight that thing? But this big bird is only injured. When Cal heals it, they become allies. Once again, we find sympathy for monsters. (Of course, you spend much of the game visiting new planets and killing off their local fauna, so the theme only carries so far).
If you’re looking for a creature feature this Halloween, maybe take a look at your Star Wars collection. And the next time you’re debating with your friends about what makes Star Wars so great—remember the monsters.
Cover photo courtesy of StarWars.com