Return of the Jedi Creatures

Jabba the Hutt is 35 years young and he’s never looked better than he did as a one-ton puppet in Return of the Jedi. Weight like that is precisely what so many other CG characters since 1983 have lacked. As Solo: A Star Wars Story rules the box office, it’s worth remembering that the original Star Wars trilogy wrapped up this same time three and a half decades ago.

Return of the Jedi has a lot going for it, but it often suffers by comparison to A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back. Even David Fincher, who got his start working at Industrial Light & Magic on Return of the Jedi, seems to find the movie less interesting. He referred to it as the “one with all the creatures,” and the movie still is the zenith of creature effects work in the Star Wars franchise. On that front, it remains unassailable even as advances in motion capture technology have given us more and more highly expressive characters in Hollywood films.

Let’s take a look back at what made Return of the Jedi so special and what future Star Wars movies can possibly learn from its unforgettable alien line-up.

Before we dip our heads into Jabba’s palace, let’s touch briefly on a couple of the things Return of the Jedi has going for it besides creatures. One is the redemption of Darth Vader and the culmination of Luke Skywalker’s story arc. Luke’s three-movie maturation from a whiny teenager to the galaxy’s ultimate bad-ass Jedi warrior is something I wrote about last December while making the argument that he’s the greatest Star Wars character.

Apart from that, Return of the Jedi also had the benefit of coming at a time when fewer real-life environments had been explored on-screen in the Star Wars universe. In addition to providing the setting for a thrilling speeder bike chase, the forest moon of Endor, filmed in the redwood forests of Northern California, gave the movie a uniqueness of location that is really only rivaled by The Empire Strikes Back. It’s a toss-up: along with the forest moon, Jedi sailed us back over the sand planet of Tatooine and flew us into a half-constructed Death Star II, while Empire gave us the ice planet of Hoth, the swamp planet of Dagobah, and Cloud City on Bespin.

Rogue One’s beach planet of Scarif and The Last Jedi’s oceanic planet of Ahch-To (where the island of the first Jedi Temple is located) have made strides toward restoring some of that lost locational uniqueness. But as cool as the idea of a scavenger planet is, and as neat as the streaks of red soil on that salty mineral planet look, locations like Jakku and Crait do feel like something of a Tatooine or Hoth remix.

As the Star Wars franchise has found new life under Disney, it feels like it has shifted more toward human characters and there have been fewer aliens with speaking parts. Penguinish porg cuteness notwithstanding, where have all the cool aliens gone? The only real vocal stand-outs that we’ve seen thus far are the mo-capped Maz Kanata and maybe Admiral Raddus, the Mon Calamari whose design was based on Winston Churchill. (Supreme Leader Snoke was more humanoid-looking, like an overgrown Imperial Advisor with lightsaber scars.)

For all we know, Solo: A Star Wars Story might rectify this shortage of new species (or even returning species), but other than a pre-existing Wookie named Chewbacca, there haven’t been any aliens featured prominently in the advertising. Most of the ones we see now are relegated to background status—if they even appear on-screen at all, as opposed to just having a toy released. Anyone remember the strange saga of Constable Zuvio?

Contrast this with Return of the Jedi and all its weird and wonderful aliens. It begins in Jabba’s palace, where characters like Bib Fortuna, the Gamorean Guards, and Salacious Crumb build upon the Mos Eisley Cantina’s promise of a galaxy populated with colorful creatures. Unfortunately, George Lucas went back and tampered with the Max Rebo Band for the Special Edition of Return of the Jedi, but the original trio lives on in memory, even if Sy Snootles is now an in-your-face CG singer.

There are also the skiff guards and a whole host of other peculiar faces lurking in the background of Jabba’s throne room and sail barge. You’d probably only know their names if you collected their action figures, but the various squid heads, yak faces, and three-eyed monsters with goat snouts all sport eye-catching designs that enable fans to pick them out of the crowd. Even casual viewers might zero in on them if only to wonder, “Who’s that guy?”

That was always part of the fun of Star Wars. Characters who were meant to be window-dressing looked so interesting that fans were left wondering what their stories were and they would buy up ancillary novels and comic books just to find out. That’s still going on, of course, but for whatever reason, the world that we’re seeing on-screen has yet to catch up to the creature-effects level of Return of the Jedi.

Scenes in subsequent Star Wars films have deliberately tried to recapture the same magic (most recently: The Last Jedi with its Canto Bight sequence) but there was always something missing. In some cases, it was that weight and tactility that Jabba and his court had; in others, it was just the one-of-a-kind nature of the alien designs that found their way into the grimy, lived-in universe of the original Star Wars trilogy.

The new movies have given us memorable new droids like BB-8 and K-2SO, and even some memorable new bad-guy armor like that of the Elite Praetorian Guards. But for whatever reason, they’ve yet to crack the code for aliens. Even the new Admiral Ackbar and Nien Nunb looked a little off.

Those two characters — one an admiral in charge of the Rebel fleet, the other Lando’s new co-pilot in the Millennium Falcon — are a couple other good examples of unique aliens that Return of the Jedi introduced and kept visible, giving them almost as much face time as humans in their scenes. Fast forward to The Force Awakens, and it feels like they both lost their mojo a bit. (Side note and spoiler alert: maybe that’s why they unceremoniously dispatched Admiral Akbar, the great giver of memes, off-screen in The Last Jedi).

Sure, we saw a few inspired creatures in the Star Wars prequels. Annoying as his voice was, if you consider the character from a purely visual standpoint, even Jar Jar Binks had a certain floppy-eared je ne sais quoi about him (though maybe we can attribute that to him being based on the Disney character Goofy). Yet the prequels and the Special Editions also tried to give characters like Yoda and Jabba CG facelifts and it didn’t work.

It’s good that today’s up-and-coming Star Wars filmmakers are making the effort to use more practical effects again, but if necessity is the mother of invention, maybe part of the originality on display in the original trilogy sprang from the limitations of the technology and the concomitant need for designers to really innovate. The unimaginative modern breed of computer-generated aliens is not a problem limited to Star Wars, of course. It’s also something you see in science fiction movies, which have struggled to come up with distinguishable alien designs in the years since Alien and E.T. the Extra Terrestrial.

The monsters in Cloverfield and Super 8 famously looked so much alike that people even speculated those two movies might be set in the same universe. As it turned out, the only connection was that they had originated from the same designer.

Spare a word for the Ewoks—yes, the Ewoks, those lovable, lifelike creatures, who I’ll defend to my dying day. Say what you will about the Ewoks, but Wicket W. Warrick and his tribe are the most realistic teddy-bear aliens to ever grace the big screen. Again, maybe part of the reason they looked so realistic is that they were people in costumes with real fur, inhabiting a three-dimensional physical space.

As it looks to the future at the rate of one new movie per year, perhaps the Star Wars franchise is in need of an affirmative action program for aliens. One solution to the dearth of creatures in the current galaxy far, far away might just be letting a visionary director with an avowed love for monsters like Guillermo Del Toro take the reins of a Star Wars movie.

Either that or they could just keep going the Admiral Raddus route and start resurrecting more of those alien species that we saw in the original trilogy. Honestly, if those were just lightning in a bottle and designers have reached a point where there are no new genius ideas floating around out there in the creative ether, they almost wouldn’t need to look any further than the wall-to-wall aliens that already exist in the Star Wars universe. Just show us some new versions of old favorites. What’s Greedo’s species up to nowadays?

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