As every “Star Wars” fan knows, “Return of the Jedi” begins with a heist: Luke Skywalker and friends’ rescue of Han Solo, frozen in carbonite at the end of “The Empire Strikes Back,” from Jabba the Hutt.
Whatever one thinks about the rest of the film, there’s a growing sense that the heist sequence is… stupid. In a post last week, Uproxx’s Mike Ryan concluded that the scheme is a messy disaster. His headline reads: “We Dare You To Explain Luke’s Plan To Rescue Han In ‘Return of the Jedi.'”
Cool. We humbly accept.
It’s true that the heist appears to consist mainly of spectacular fails that get everyone captured, then succeeds only at the last moment, when the heroes rally, turn the tables on Jabba, and escape by the skin of their teeth. But here’s the thing: All the “Jedi” haters are wrong. And we’re happy to explain why.
(Sidenote: we’ll assume the plan is Luke’s but we’d like to note that Leia outranks him in the rebellion hierarchy. It’s just as likely all of it was her idea.)
To understand the heist, you have to understand its goals. Was the plan just to bust Han out of the cooler? Nope. As the rest of trilogy makes clear, just rescuing Han isn’t enough. The heist is about solving the Jabba the Hutt problem too.
One of the first things we learn about Han Solo in the “Star Wars” saga is that he’s deep in debt to Jabba. Not long before the events in “A New Hope,” Han was smuggling something for the crimelord, but was forced to jettison his cargo after getting boarded by Imperials. Now he’s desperate to raise money fast to pay Jabba back.
That’s why Han takes the risky job of ferrying Obi-Wan Kenobi and Luke to the planet Alderaan — so he can get the money he needs to settle up with Jabba. So, as the Death Star closes in on the Rebel Base toward the end of the movie, Han and Chewie pack up their reward money to head back to Tatooine to pay off Han’s debt.
Except that doesn’t happen. Instead, Han turns back at the last minute to help Luke destroy the Death Star, then joins the Rebellion and has quite a few adventures, apparently hoping the whole angry-slimy-space-gangster thing will just blow over.
It doesn’t. So Jabba puts a huge bounty on Han’s head that, by “The Empire Strikes Back” has become a huge problem. Early on, we learn at least one bounty hunter has come gunning for Han between films and as a result he is (reluctantly) preparing to leave the Rebellion to deal with the debt. Unfortunately, the Empire, uh, strikes back — sending everybody on the run and upsetting Han’s plans to deal with Jabba once again.
Vader wants to get his hands on Han and Leia to lure Luke into a trap, so he hires several bounty hunters, including one also working for Jabba — Boba Fett. By the end of the film, it’s clear Vader and Fett have worked out some kind of deal that allows Fett to take Han to Jabba after Vader is done with him.
That’s a huge detail. Vader repeatedly shows he doesn’t give a damn about keeping his promises (just ask poor Lando Calrissian). But the one deal we do see him honor is the one with Jabba’s boy, Fett. We can guess at why. The “Star Wars” comics establish that Vader and Jabba have an ongoing business relationship, with Jabba helping the Empire in exchange for being left alone.
Jabba isn’t just a run-of-the-mill gang boss: He runs the “Star Wars” galaxy’s biggest cartel. Jabba is basically a powerful warlord, with slaves, guards, monsters, and capital enough to keep people hunting for Han for years on end. In “Empire,” we see how he’s never going to stop coming for Han, and that he’s powerful and obsessed enough that he’s now compromising Rebel security and operations. And he’s probably actively helping the Empire too.
Saving Han isn’t enough — Jabba’s gotta go.
That brings us to the heist. Let’s break it down step by step.
To begin, C-3PO and R2D2 — by themselves — show up at Jabba’s palace, where they learn, to 3PO’s horror, that Luke has offered them as slaves in exchange for Han’s release. Damn, Luke.
Next, a bounty hunter named Boushh arrives with a shackled Chewbacca to claim the sizable bounty on the wookie’s head. Tense “forceful and intentive” negotiating concludes the sale, and Chewie goes to Jabba’s dungeon.
Later, while everyone is asleep, Boushh sneaks into Jabba’s throne room and frees Han from the carbonite. Surprise: Boushh is actually Leia in disguise! Also surprise: Jabba was actually awake the whole time! Leia and Han are taken into custody, Han goes to the dungeon, and Leia is forced to become Jabba’s new metallic bikini slave. Oops.
Throughout this whole thing, we learn that Lando has infiltrated Jabba’s guards. He watches without helping as his buds launch several “rescue attempts” that all “fail.”
Finally, Luke actually shows up himself and, for some reason, arrogantly demands Jabba release Han and Chewie (and only Han and Chewie). Shocker: Jabba isn’t having it, and triggers a trap door sending Luke into a pit where he has to fight a beast called the Rancor.
Luke kills the Rancor, which enrages Jabba enough that he immediately sentences Luke, Han and Chewie to be fed to a beast called the Sarlacc. Jabba and his entire crew jump in his Sail Barge (a floating desert yacht) to watch as our heroes walk the plank to learn “a new definition of pain and suffering” while being “slowly digested over a thousand years.”
At the last minute, it turns out R2 had Luke’s lightsaber secreted inside his dome. R2 shoots it to him, Luke carves up Jabba’s goons with help from Chewie and Lando, and Leia takes advantage of the chaos to strangle Jabba.
On the one hand, it does sound kind of like a series of criminally negligent oversights by Luke were only salvaged at the last minute.
On the other hand, we’re not sure what version of “Star Wars” you were watching before, but we doubt any version of the plan included Luke sacrificing his friends to maybe get Han out by himself — and leave Jabba breathing.
If you’ve seen, like, even one heist movie, it’s obvious what happens: the team is getting crucial assets in place.
Step One: Get a spy in Jabba’s Palace (Lando) and start collecting intel.
Hanging around working for Jabba, Lando would have discovered most or all the following: Han is alive, still frozen and on display in the throne room; Jabba’s defenses — impenetrable walls outside, secret passages and trap doors, plus an army of bodyguards and dudes like Boba Fett hanging around — are extremely good; and Jabba rarely leaves his palace, except under specific circumstances.
Han’s status as still encased in carbonite matters. In “The Empire Strikes Back,” we saw stormtroopers slowly move the carbonite block using Repulsorlifts, meaning it’s heavy. And Jabba is too well-defended to take on directly. Luke might have been able to get into the palace and even get to Jabba, but he likely would have been killed.
Luckily, Lando also learned other crucial information. One, Jabba is a gross hedonist with a fetish for humanoid women. Two, he respects scummy scum criminals who do scummy scum things if it benefits him. Three, he’s a cruel narcissist who likes causing emotional or physical pain. (He’s highly susceptible to flattery, has a hair-trigger temper, and acts rashly when angered.) Four, he has a thing for flamboyant executions. And five, he will actually leave his palace to go watch people jump into the Sarlacc pit.
Lesson: To get Han out, he needs to be unfrozen and walking (and even better, fighting). And Jabba needs to be taken out of his palace to be killed.
Step two: Get Luke’s lightsaber into the palace without being detected.
Luke knows he can’t walk in armed. So he conceals his lightsaber in R2-D2, then “gifts” him and C-3PO to Jabba, knowing that while the crimelord would never accept them as trade for Han, he would keep them whether or not Luke handed them over.
As always, R2 knows what’s up, but no one told 3PO, which makes his shock and horror very authentic. That panders to Jabba’s cruel streak. Having 3PO genuinely reacting to whatever’s happening keeps the real plan covered, and the distracting interpreter helps R2 do his bit unnoticed. It’s exactly the same dynamic R2 used to try to get the Death Star plan to Obi-Wan, and it works about as well here. In any event, R2’s job is just to get Luke’s lightsaber to him after he’s been searched or captured.
Step three: Get Chewie into the palace.
This is easy. Leia walks in disguised as a bounty hunter and just hands Chewbacca over. Ryan notes this adds Chewie to the list of captives, which doesn’t seem especially helpful. But captured and in the palace is better than free and useless outside, and Chewie’s positioning will matter shortly.
Step four: Unfreeze Han.
This is where Leia’s blunder turns out not to have been one after all. Remember, for the plan to succeed, Han needs to be out of carbonite. But given what we know about the palace, the team had to have known whoever unfroze him was likely to get caught.
The unknown factor is what happens next. The team probably anticipated two possible outcomes: Maybe Leia pulls it off and sneaks a hibernation-sick Han out of the palace. If so, great, one less thing to deal with. Or maybe she’s caught in the act.
If she was caught — as everyone had to know was likely — the team probably anticipated that Leia would end up in the dungeon. You could argue that Jabba’s choice to chain her to his throne was one twist they didn’t expect. Certainly, having Leia chained to Jabba seems like a serious tactical problem. In any battle situation, she could be come a hostage, a possible human shield, or just an ally stuck out of the fight.
But we know Leia is a formidable warrior. And it’s not a state secret that Jabba has humanoid fever. It’s possible the team knew she could be chained to Jabba, and that this apparent problem could be turned into an advantage.
Meanwhile, unfrozen Han is sent to the dungeons, where Chewie is now positioned to guide and protect him when the stuff goes down.
Step Five: Provoke Jabba into leaving the palace.
Here’s where Luke comes in. Obviously looking to provoke Jabba, he Force-chokes the guards, smugly mind-controls Jabba’s press secretary, insults and threatens Jabba to his face, then tries to assassinate him with a stolen blaster.
That gets him dropped into the Rancor pit. Bad spot to be, sure. Luke likely did not 100 percent expect to fight a giant monster unarmed. He probably hoped his arrogance (and assassination attempt) would be enough to enrage Jabba into escalating straight to the Sarlacc.
But he’s been in tough situations before, and many of them (like taking down an AT-AT single-handedly or avoiding getting blown up in his X-Wing by Darth Vader) happened before he went to Jedi grad school with Yoda. If Lando was feeding the group intel, it’s doubtful he neglected to mention the very dangerous trap door Luke found himself standing on, or the huge monster underneath.
Either way, the Rancor’s death angers Jabba enough to take everyone to the Sarlacc pit.
Whether everything went according to plan is debatable. But despite being imprisoned (not a problem when you’ve got a Jedi pal with you), the team accomplished every key goal.
And so, at the Sarlacc pit, all the pieces come together. Luke cockily warns Jabba, “free us or die.” Jabba’s supplicants laugh. Luke’s offer is rejected, as Luke surely knew it would be.
Luke and Lando share a nod. R2 beeps his readiness. Luke gives a signal to R2, jumps off the plank, turns, catches the edge of it, and flies up in the air. R2 shoots him the lightsaber and Luke commences to ass kicking.
From this point on, things go poorly for Team Jabba. Boba Fett tries and fails to contain Luke. In the confusion, all of the henchmen surrounding Jabba rush to join the fight, leaving Leia alone with him.
She strangles Jabba with the chains he used to keep her close to him, while Luke, Han, Chewie and Lando mop the floor with Jabba’s henchmen. There are a few hiccups, like Lando almost getting eaten, but things generally go pretty well.
In one small-team operation, a Rebel general is saved, and a serious threat to the rebellion is eliminated for good.
Is it a perfect plan? No. Lando could have been caught. Jabba could have ordered the droids scrapped. Jabba could have executed Leia and Han on the spot. The Rancor could have killed Luke. The final battle could have gotten everyone shot. But there are similar risks in any high-risk, high-reward military op involving a small team of elite operatives (one of whom has magic powers).
Attacking Jabba is a tough thing to do no matter how good your plan is. “Return of the Jedi” at least tips off viewers that this is a flexible plan that can absorb some major speedbumps, which is more than can be said for some heist movies. But the plan only makes no sense if you’ve forgotten the big picture.
Then again, this is a movie that features a stone-age Ewok uprising, so maybe we’re overthinking things?