Is the Sarlacc Pit Possible? Three Real Sarlaccs (sort of) from the Animal Kingdom
A movie monster that doesn’t move? George Lucas you brilliant son of a bitch.
May 1983 | The sarlacc pit sequence from Return of the Jedi has become one of the most iconic scenes of sci-fi cinema, for better or worse. Watching the scene again today, the whole escape set piece really does pull on the heartstrings — it’s an immortalized testament to 80’s action aesthetic, from the puppeteering of the pit monster to the shameless Wilhelm scream. It’s tense and funny perfectly endearing.
But scary? Not a word I’d lightly use.
The sarlacc itself is an interesting case study I’ve always wanted to look closer at. The creature’s origin (creatively, at least) was marred with setbacks due to both budget and technology resulting in a final design that even Lucas wasn’t happy with in the end. But was this a losing battle to begin with? I mean, a monster that sits idly in the sand waiting for prey to slip within reach… To many people it may seem a bit benign, if not preposterous. And the biology gets even more bizarre when consulting the (expert source) Star Wars Wookieepedia:
“Sarlaccs would begin their lives as spores and were able to travel great distances… Once sarlaccs reached their maturity after 30,000 years, they would burrow themselves nearly 100 meters below the surface, feeding on creatures unfortunate enough to fall into their mouths. Victims of the sarlacc would be injected with immobilizing neurotoxins that caused constant pain, and, while still conscious, would be digested for millennia.”
Millennia?! On paper the sarlacc does indeed check the menacing box but on screen this fearsome presence is definitely absent. Could it be, quite possibly, just impossible to make a truly imposing immotile predator? Is being wedged motionless in the sand the Achilles heel of monster movie menace? Well the animal kingdom would beg to differ.
The natural world is no stranger to this hide-patiently-and-wait method of predation. In fact, different types of animal have adapted this strategy so often, and so independently, that it must be a remarkably efficient way to find a tasty meal. For the sake of time, let’s look at just a short list of three instances that put the sarlacc to shame.
For anyone who learned about wildlife from PBS and the Kratt brothers way back in 1996, the most obvious answer is likely the antlion. It’s the only animal I was able to find that, just like the sarlacc on Tatooine , bides its time in a sand pit until prey wanders a bit too close.
Adult antlions aren’t too remarkable, but the larvae are basically sarlaccs-in-miniature — only much more frightening. Certain species of the insect will bury a few centimeters down into loose sand or soil and excavate themselves a fancy little pit of death along busy ant-highways and thoroughfares. Most scary of all, the antlion can fling sand up at struggling ants to force them to lose footing and plunge deeper into the shallow pit.
Something true to nature, entirely believable, and downright terrifying on larger scales. Star Wars creators, take note.
Next on the list is an animal that’s a bit more commonly known, but still equally terrifying — the sea anemone.
Yes, terrifying. Popular culture has lulled you into a false sense of security around anemones by generally portraying them as cozy, cuddly homes for clown fish, but that’s far from the full story. Like the sarlacc the anemone uses tentacles to snare its prey, however while the sarlacc is much more grabby, the anemone uses a more subtle invisible-toxic-stabby motion.
Because the animal is immotile (at least for most of its life) the tentacles are simply there to extend its reach and deliver more deadly neurotoxin — the effect of which can be instant. Beyond that, the anemone funnels the stunned prey down into a mouth hidden among its tentacles and directly into the animal’s stomach. Now keep in mind that these toxins are meant to paralyze, not kill, meaning that digestion begins while the anemone’s food is still alive. And while the sarlacc is able to inject similar stunning toxins once prey is inside its belly, the anemone wastes no time in going poison-first. Like I said, terrifying.
Last but not least I want to take a deviation from the animal kingdom to — quite possibly — the most sarlacc creature of them all: the pitcher plant. First things first it’s important to mention reproductive strategy, because obvi that’s the most intriguing to everyone here. For immotile animals and plants, seed or sperm or spore dispersion (take your pic) is extra critical for life strategy. These baby creatures are going to land somewhere that needs to provide them food and resources for the rest of their lives. If you’re anchoring down for 30,000 years, you better choose well.
But a larger similarity with pitcher plants is probably the most morbid; like the sarlacc pit, our real-life pitcher plants take their time in digesting prey. Some plants will take over two weeks to break down the bugs they trap inside, with some sources recording over two months — and the digestion never truly finishes off the prey, which stay inside rotting forever until the plant inevitably bites the dust as well.
Almost every element of the sarlacc anatomy and behavior has, in some way or another, been observed piece by piece in the animal kingdom… except one: the size. There are animals on the scale of sarlaccs in the real world, but nothing immotile has ever come close to this magnitude.
Could this be what makes the sarlacc so… blasé? All the terror and peril that surrounds its miniature relatives is genuinely shocking to study up close, but with no precedent on a larger magnitude, maybe this biology just doesn’t scale up.
But I want to propose a different reason that the sarlacc fails to deliver, one that’s less sciencey and more emotional: it’s simply trying too hard. If we look past the poor puppeteering and VFX, we see an animal that’s just dying to get its hands onto some tasty prey. For the duration of Luke’s escape, the sarlacc is flailing around wildly just hoping to rope in something — anything — for dinner. Unlike the immotile predators of the real world, the sarlacc doesn’t wait for the right moment. It comes across as desperate.
The point of a sit-and-wait predator isn’t that it’ll attack you viciously, but that you’ll wander into its clutches unknowingly when casually strolling down the street. Real predators just lay patiently for their time to strike, either by camping out on your route home or luring you by with aromatic sweets.
It’s this eerie confidence that makes the antlion, anemone, and pitcher plant so frightening. Unfortunately, that’s something the sarlacc sorely lacks.