“May the Force be with you,” the popular slogan from the Star Wars franchise, has become the basis for a “holiday” of sorts, thanks to its massive fanbase, which, somewhere along the way, observed that “may the Force” sounds a bit like “May the 4th.”
Perhaps the real holiday should be a little later in May; May 25th, to be exact, the anniversary of the day the original film was released way back in 1977. This year’s date is particularly historic as it marks exactly 45 years since the film’s release, and (two days later) on May 27, the streaming series Obi-Wan Kenobi will debut on the Disney Plus streaming service.
With all the commotion, it’s time to celebrate the franchise by considering what makes it so remarkable and citing its greatest moments.
Star Wars is, without question, the greatest saga ever told on screen. Though there are many novels (both the newly-dubbed “Legends'” novels of the former expanded universe as well books from Disney’s new canon) and games that have widened the scope of Star Wars, this story was made for the screen. It might have drawn upon mythological archetypes as well as the conventions of serialized storytelling but wasn’t based on a specific pre-existing story and, as a result, it was only held in check by the imagination of creator George Lucas and his production team, and the very limits of what was possible to film, limits which Star Wars managed to literally breakthrough. While the whole experience of Star Wars is greater than the sum of its parts as more and more time elapses from the 1983 release of Return of the Jedi, it makes more and more sense to look at the original three films as one single film. There are so many memorable moments in the saga. While some of these moments are funny, others are powerful. They all add so much to the story.
The rankings below represent an entirely subjective take on the franchise. In other words, it’s an opinion, and your own opinion might be very different and is no less valid. Even for me, the writer, my mind could change at a moment’s notice and with little provocation. Number 7 below could easily be number 1 on a different day. An article floating around the net makes a good case for it being the greatest moment not just in the franchise but in all of cinema. As a result, it’s important to remember that this list is just for fun.
Okay, let’s start from ten and work our way up, but first, an honorable mention.
Honorable Mention – Revenge of the Sith:
The scene: Palpatine has basically taken over the universe, and now he’s gloriously ugly. He has nothing left to do but sit at his desk and just enjoy being the master of everything. Yoda then walks in, waves his hand, and the Royal Guards are dead.
Yes, George, this is genuinely funny. Even my brother laughed. We thank you.
10. Anakin’s Betrayal (Episode 3) I don’t hate the prequels as much as some fans, though Phantom Menace is hard to watch, as is most of Attack of the Clones, but this is the only prequel scene to make the list. Anakin’s Betrayal refers to the John Williams’ musical piece that accompanies the start of the Order 66 sequence. From the time the order is given and the next few scenes after that, something is really happening in this film. While the CGI animated aesthetic of the prequels cannot beat out the substantive look of models, miniatures, sets, and props that made the original Star Wars films work so well, there is still a bit of style to the visual aesthetics of the scenes shown here. It feels moody and adds a lot of gravitas to the story. I particularly love the speeder bikes shown cruising over the landscape of an unnamed alien world and the ash planet where Ki-Adi is killed. George actually decided to really direct this scene, and it’s fantastic. Plo Koon’s death is also powerful, and what I remember seeing most the first time I saw this film in the theater. The sequence actually builds a bit as survivors must regroup and try to put the pieces together for once, so the storytelling really matches the visuals quite well.
9. The Rancor (Episode 6) This scene might not be all that important to the story of Star Wars, but it is important to the type of story that Star Wars is: it’s a fantasy story set in a science-fiction world and a hero facing off against a deadly monster is one of the most familiar tropes in fantasy. Rarely has man vs. beast been done better than it is here. The puppet of the rancor is brilliantly done, even if a few matte lines in some releases of the film are evident (with its slime, drool, and warty skin, it never feels as fake as the monsters in Attack of The Clones’ arena sequence.) This scene is also the perfect length: The monster is released, it eats a guard, attacks Luke twice, and Luke manages to kill it. This is pretty efficient as far as writing goes. Two other notable things about this scene: the monster is a bit of a softie: Luke hits his claw with a rock and the creature reels back and roars in anger of pain from what should be an inconsequential attack. This might lead into what makes the second aspect of the scene: the monster’s keeper is deeply saddened when the rancor does. For a rather long moment, everything else in the film is set aside for this really funny beat where the keeper enters the chamber, pushing Luke aside in the process to mourn the death of his pet. He even must be comforted by another person. This is one of the most underplayed and effective moments of humor in the saga, and it helps us believe that this fictional place, and the people within it, are real.
8. Binary Sunset (Episode 4): Star Wars might take in a fantastical universe with strange technology that can often be unlike anything we have on Earth, but the viewer never gets lost because it all felt like it so grounded somehow. This was because I could always relate to the characters. What teenager hasn’t had the same feelings that Luke has as he looks at the twin sunset of his homeworld, having just been told that he’ll be a farmer for the foreseeable future, yet he knows that he was meant to do something greater. He knows that he’s meant to find himself out there in places he has not yet seen. The feeling is universal, and there need not be any words to express it, just a powerful piece of music and a look of real longing in Luke’s eyes. It’s only just over thirty seconds long, but it speaks to a universal truth that everyone can relate to.
7. Speeder Bike Chase (Episode 6): One of the greatest action scenes in Star Wars is the speeder bike chase. It comes not a moment too soon. Return of the Jedi has a lot to cover as it must resolve many of the heavy story threads the previous film had set up, but it was so important to keep a bit of fun and whimsy. There’d been quite a lot of expository scenes just prior to the speeder bike chase, so an action beat at that point in the film – long before the actual climactic battle – was almost a necessity. The sound design is superb and is equaled by the fantastic visuals of these speeder bikes speeding through the dense forest. The design of the bikes really helps as well: they might be much faster than any land vehicle we have here, but certain aspects, mainly handlebars, brake levers on the handgrips, and the motorcycle-like sound they produce, make it easy for anyone to imagine what it’s like to ride these vehicles.
6. Lifting the X-Wing (Episode 5): Luke’s knowledge of the Force is limited by his own shortcomings; in order to master the Force, he must understand what those shortcomings are. Nowhere is this better demonstrated than in this scene, where the much smaller Yoda is able to use the Force to pull his X-Wing from the swamp. The music here underlines one of the saga’s most mythic moments in a powerful way.
5. Hoth Battle (Episode 5): Irvin Kershner found the perfect way to direct a Star Wars film. His approach was to give us enough imagery that seems so grounded so that, when Kirshner does show us something fantastic, we are never too far away from something that we can relate to. Just after we see the walkers far in the distance, Kershner delivers a great shot of a bunch of armed Rebels taking position on the line with weapons drawn. This shot looks like it could come from any film about a real war: it all seems like a real battle is about to take place. As the things begin to escalate, and as the Rebels realize that the day will not be won, the spell that Kirshner has over us is never broken. This is one of cinema’s greatest battles.
4. “You’re all clear!” (Episode 4): There are moments in Star Wars that are just so exciting that they cause the pulse to race faster every time you see them. Like the medal ceremony scene, which almost made the list and probably would make it any other day. Wherein the music tells the story, and the way the music quickly transcends to the closing credits, the audience has a “that was a great movie” adrenaline rush. Or the great line “I can’t hold them off forever” gunfight in the detention block.” These scenes make you feel good while watching a great adventure. Then there’s the trench run, an extended action sequence that is utterly flawless, and the editing is always on point to get the maximum amount of tension as the rebels attempt to do the seemingly impossible. Can anyone describe the feeling they get when laser blasts shower from above to repel the TIES chasing Luke, allowing him a clear shot? Han’s triumphant return to the story is as exciting as it is rewarding.
2. “I am your father.” (Episode 5): There is no doubt that Kirshner was technically the best of the three directors that worked on Star Wars. He and his team always knew how to light the shot, where to place the camera, and how to punctuate a moment. The duel between Vader and Luke on Cloud City is directed to perfection. From the opening shot where Vader’s imposing silhouette awaits Luke atop a smoky staircase to the end where Vader reveals Luke’s true lineage. Every single shot is perfectly attenuated to get the maximum impact. And it is here where the story of Star Wars becomes much deeper than anyone could have imagined.
1. Jedi’s Fury. (Episode 6): But it’s one single moment that tops this list. “Sister. So – you have a twin sister.” This is Vader, trying to find that one thing inside Luke that will sway him to the Dark Side. “It probably worked better than he had foreseen, as Vader reacts with fear, perhaps for the first time since donning the suit and helmet, as Luke comes out of hiding with his lightsaber drawn. Luke needed to touch the Dark Side to defeat Vader, which is what happened here, and that fury is unmatched. The music swells as we see Luke advancing against his father in one of the most powerful single shots in all of cinema. Luke keeps pressing on, relentlessly wailing on his father after he has already fallen. Eventually, with his rage, he amputates his father’s hand. It’s only in seeing himself in his father and realizing that fury is exactly what the Emperor wants, that Luke holds back. He had touched the Dark Side, but that’s where his flirtation with it ends. This moment might be brief, but it incorporates the most important themes in all three films, making it one of the best payoffs in cinema history.
Many other moments, particularly from The Mandalorian and The Book of Boba Fett, could be listed here (who doesn’t love Fett riding a Rancor monster?). Still, the moments above are my most memorable.
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