The scene in A New Hope when Luke enters the Mos Eisley Cantina is, in many respects, one of the most important scenes in the film. In fact, I would even put it close to the top of the list (perhaps AT the top). You see, Luke’s entrance into the Mos Eisley Cantina quite literally represents the crossing of a threshold, the moment he, as the hero of the movie, enters an entirely new, foreign realm and truly leaves his past life behind him. One of the stages in what mythologist Joseph Campbell dubbed the Hero’s Journey, “Crossing the Threshold” is the moment where the burgeoning hero puts his/her past life behind them. Life will truly never be the same again for the individual in question, and they must now begin the process of adapting to this new, unexplored territory.
And that new, unexplored territory is precisely the galaxy that Luke will encounter once he leaves Tatooine. The Cantina, then, serves as a small microcosm of the galaxy-at-large, a cross-section of intriguing and frightening beings he may (and will) come across as he ventures forth. Very quickly, though, Luke discovers, and we along with him, that this realm, with all of its fascinating strangeness, is also incredibly dangerous. Only moments after his entrance into the Cantina, Luke is accosted by two individuals, Dr. Evazan and Ponda Baba, who wish him harm because they “don’t like him.” In fact, Dr. Evazan will even level a death threat at the young Skywalker.
Nothing says “Welcome to the Real World” like your life being threatened.
Of course, we can feel bad for the poor kid receiving the threat, but this danger is also necessary for Luke, even if it seems sudden and extreme. More dangers await Luke in the future and, frankly, he has to start growing up at some point, leaving his boyish immaturity behind. Metamorphosis is necessary for the hero, and transformation will only happen as one encounters the realities of this new realm.
Yet, while it may be that Luke physically enters the Cantina and begins to encounter this new, unchartered territory, he is not the only one who crosses the threshold. We also cross it with him. Luke’s crossing is our crossing, the moment when we are also introduced to a number of the strange creatures and mysterious sounds of the Star Wars galaxy. Even though we have, up to that moment in the film, encountered some of the exciting wonders of the Star Wars, these moments were limited in scope. Now, as Luke enters the Cantina, that universe rapidly expands for him and us.
But what makes this all the more interesting is that writer/director George Lucas intentionally allows you and I to experience the sights and sounds BEFORE Luke. It is, in a sense, as if we descend into the Cantina ahead of the young Skywalker and then turn around to see his expression.
And what we experience, what Luke experiences a moment after us, is anything but subtle, overwhelming the ears and eyes.
The iconic music of the Cantina band begins playing immediately as the scene begins, music that is nothing like the orchestral sounds we have heard up to this point in A New Hope. Plus, this music is diegetic, coming from the strange looking band in one corner of the establishment. What we are hearing is exactly what Luke will hear, and what the other patrons of the Cantina hear.
And speaking of those patrons, we are introduced to them as the band plays. In shot-after-shot, we get to meet these new, and quite literal, alien creatures. Having crossed the threshold into the Cantina with Luke, our old ways of describing reality, and Luke’s, are left behind, and we must now begin to formulate new terminology and definitions going forward. These beings push our limits of conceptual understanding, we simply have no words to adequately describe them.
Of course, today, we DO have names for the numerous alien species that inhabit are in the Cantina. Plus, many of those species have appeared in a number of other parts of the Star Wars canon (and Expanded Universe). But knowing that there is a Duros, Bith, Devaronian, Ithorian, and Aqualish in the Cantina should not distract us from the original purpose of the Cantina scene: as a physical representation of his crossing the threshold into the unknown, introducing both him and us to a handful of the strange, fascinating, and terrifying mysteries that the galaxy (and Star Wars universe) offers.
This is also precisely why I suggest newcomers to Star Wars begin with A New Hope. In doing so, they will not only cross the threshold of the Cantina with Luke, but will cross over into the Star Wars galaxy in the same way so many of us have also done.