“Somebody’s Gotta Save Our Skins!”: On Star Wars’ Death Star Escape Sequence
From space battles to superhuman fistfights, adventure has become one of the most prevalent elements for sculpting blockbuster entertainment. Big-budget spectacle was arguably kicked off by George Lucas’ original Stars Wars, and while its macro-structure depends on some winning storytelling archetypes to anchor its visionary new galaxy (the film as ‘the hero’s journey’ is a thoroughly explored thesis), there’s a lot of focused attention within individual sequences to help sell the audience on the intergalactic action. By looking at the daring rescue sequence at the film’s midpoint, we can see writer-director George Lucas crafting compelling character dynamics and escalating tension to ensure the film is wickedly paced, while still introducing what will be the central narrative questions that will be asked of our heroes. In the Death Star escape, we learn our characters may be out of their depth, but they have the heart to see their missions through to find a brighter tomorrow for the galaxy.
Princess Leia has been kidnapped by Darth Vader and is being held in the planet-destroying fortress the Death Star. Who’s going to save her? A farm boy, a wizard hermit, two bickering robots, a drug smuggler, and his dog.
These descriptors may seem a bit reductive, but they’re actually the reason the Death Star escape is so brilliant. Subsequent films make it clear that all these characters are The Most Important People in the Galaxy, but for a 1977 audience, our intrepid band of heroes are seemingly nobodies, thrown into the path of the Empire by chance, and are forced to formulate plans in the moment.
Let’s think about an alternative story. The rescue mission is carried out by a crack team of Rebel commandos, the cream of the crop, the best soldiers in the Alliance. They train ruthlessly and plan meticulously, each with their own special skills and talents. They infiltrate the Death Star, encounter obstacles, but ultimately carry off the mission admirably. While undeniably effective, it’s far less interesting than what Lucas gave us.
With Luke, Han, and the rest of the gang, we have people who may not be good for a rescue mission, but thanks to the time we’ve spent learning about them as individuals, we are deeply invested in them. Wide-eyed idealists and smarmy wise guys who always find themselves in trouble are much more engaging to an audience because of their capacity to transform, through daring actions, into heroes. Nobodies have something to prove.
What makes most sense narratively is not the same always what’s compelling for an audience. While logically we might expect the Rebel forces to send a crack team, the odds would be less stacked against them, undermining the story’s capacity for tension. Luke, Han, and Leia fleeing the Death Star is impressive because they’re so out of their depth, depending on quick wits and sheer luck, with a flimsy plan that’s constantly changing in response to escalating stakes. Their escape shouldn’t work, and that’s what makes it so meaningful and satisfying when it does.
The cast plays a pivotal role in keeping the character dynamics bursting with energy. Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill, and Carrie Fisher all have electric chemistry, and they frequently elevate Lucas’ more ropey dialogue into energetic quips. Subverting the damsel in distress trope, Leia openly mocks her rescuers with cutting remarks, a tension that soon spreads throughout the crew, with Luke berating C-3PO and Han scolding a cowardly Chewie. No one is level-headed, none of them are in complete control. Seeing how our characters react to their ever-increasing peril, how they spar with each other in response to their own gradual realisation of helplessness, helps propel them into action.
Characters usually get interesting when they’re forced to do something, and the Death Star escape features constant, shifting obstacles that force the gang to think on their feet and keep the action compelling. Seeing their impulses and instincts is far more revealing than any conversation could be, and we get two such moments in one scene. After a gunfight in the detention level, Han tries to talk down an inquisitive officer over a comm line about what’s just happened, stuttering through sentences, and sounding generally unconvincing, “We’re fine… We’re all fine here now… Thank you. How are you?” Han isn’t used to solving his problems with words, and in an act of desperation he shoots the comm device.
More troops arrive, they pin down our heroes with laser fire. Thoroughly unimpressed by her rescue attempt so far, Leia seizes control, saying “Somebody has to save our skins!” before blasting a hole in a nearby garbage chute. We’ve seen two main characters respond to high-pressure situations with guns, but while Han used his in response to a dismal failure of talking his way out of a crisis, Leia acts intelligently, problem-solving in real time to get them out of trouble.
The role of action itself is key in this sequence. The laser beams themselves might look dated for modern audiences, but every explosive gunfight is filled with smoke, sparks, and bodies falling with the impact of laser fire. There’s a physicality to the action, one that builds on the growing chaos of the mission. Action is a last resort for characters who are outnumbered and outgunned, and every time it’s used, our heroes know they have barely any chance of winning a fair fight. Action signifies our characters losing control over their situation.
While hallway chases and swings across chasms help the sequence move at a steady click, Lucas knows how to reset the energy without losing any tension. Any time we cut back to Ben Kenobi, things get a lot quieter. He sidles through corridors, creeps around machinery, and delicately diverts Stormtroopers to avoid detection. And when Darth Vader is revealed in a static wide shot, lightsaber already ignited, waiting for his opponent, it’s the quietness of the confrontation that’s most striking. The fight has perhaps aged the worst out of all the lightsaber duels but it doesn’t matter. Its muted nature is in perfect balance with the spiralling chaos of our other characters. His swordsmanship isn’t particularly impressive, but at no point do you ever feel like Ben isn’t in control.
Ben’s death at the hands of Vader is crucial, making the Death Star escape an important stepping stone in our heroes’ journey of finding a place in this vast galaxy. Having unwillingly entered a fight much grander than themselves, our characters are reminded of the stakes at play when fighting evil. They made it off the Death Star, but not all of them, and the consequences are sobering. Ben’s earlier words haunt Luke, “You’ve taken your first step into a larger world.” There’s no turning back from here. This is an overwhelming war, and they’re now asked to commit themselves to the forces of good. Star Wars is a film about finding a cause, having faith in ideals larger than yourself, and while this set piece is the film at its most fun, by the end the characters are asked a serious question: what do you believe in, and are you willing to fight for it?