You could spend a week straight talking about what makes Star Wars so appealing. It’s a fresh take on Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey. It introduced a world to viewers unlike any they had ever seen. The mythology is so dense and so vast that it begs endless philosophizing. But really, at the end of the day, the topic worth discussing most is those frickin’ awesome actions scenes.
There’s no limit to Star Wars‘ capability to thrill and amaze audiences of all generations. Action sequences have run the gamut, covering everything from space battles heavily inspired by WWII dogfighting, lighstaber duels reminiscent of old samurai movies, or daring escapes pulled off with swashbuckling heroics. These scenes are able to hold our attention not only when they transpire on screen, but also in the middle of a boring day when they play out in our heads. The worst that can come from this is you accidentally whispering blaster noises in public while you daydream.
Times have changed and special effects have gotten better, but the components that make a successful action scene never really change. Of course, not all of them are winners. But since an overwhelming majority are, we’ve focused this list primarily on those that excite us upon each viewing, as much as they had when we saw them for the first time.
Now that the anticipation is killing you, here’s Star Wars: 14 Amazing Action Scenes (And 3 That Suck).
17. Amazing – The Battle of Hoth (Empire Strikes Back)
Any debate over the greatest action scene in Star Wars can begin and end with The Battle of Hoth. Prior to Rogue One, this is the closest Star Wars ever got to feeling like a legitimate war film. The Empire’s assault on Hoth is as cold and unforgiving as the planet it takes place on. It also gets the blood pumping every time.
During an emergency evacuation of Hoth, Rebel fighters must hold off a horde of Imperial Walkers, stalling them so their compatriots can flee the planet. This proves difficult when the Walkers demonstrate their resistance to blaster fire, both from soldiers firing on the ground and speeders flying overhead. Midway through the fight, Rebel pilots have to rethink their strategy. What results is one of the most famous visuals in Star Wars history.
The battle of Hoth does several amazing things, both on its own and as part of the series. It’s beautifully executed and introduces us to breathtaking new images (this is our first interactions with AT-ATs), but it also says something about the ever-changing Star Wars saga. When somebody in Luke’s own speeder dies unceremoniously, we get a taste for how devastating this war truly is.
16. Amazing – The Sarlacc Pit (Return of the Jedi)
As far as swashbuckling in Star Wars goes, it doesn’t get much better than this scene in the first act of Return of the Jedi. Most people aren’t crazy about the beginning of Jedi as a whole, citing the dealings in Jabba’s palace as overly complicated and screen time consuming. But all of that pays off in a chaotic battle scene that takes place over a ravenous, suggestive looking monster.
After Luke’s plan A is foiled (or maybe it was supposed to go this way, nobody knows), he, along with Han and Chewbacca are taken to the dreaded Sarlacc pit. Before falling to their doom, a process that 3PO explains will entail a thousand years of digestion, Luke subtly nods to Lando and R2, steadily building suspense until the real action begins.
This scene is so much fun, from Luke leaping from ship to ship and displaying his advanced lightsaber skills, to Han and Lando’s panicked (but still funny) bantering when Lando ends up in the Sarlacc’s tentacled clutches. It all leads to a rousing escape, accented by a fiery explosion over the dunes of Tatooine.
15. Amazing – Speeder Chase on Endor (Return of the Jedi)
Here’s one of the rare instances in a Star Wars film where an action scene benefits from the lack of John Williams’ iconic score. Devoid of music, the audience is treated to the otherworldly yet strangely realistic sound design of Ben Burtt. This along with some expert editing make the speeder chase on Endor one for the books.
When Han Solo’s plan to sneak up on a stormtrooper goes horribly awry, Luke and Leia run down to provide backup, just when two other stormtroopers depart on speeder bikes. Luke and Leia mount an abandoned speeder and gun after them. The pursuit gets increasingly dicey as Luke and Leia weave in and out of trees kept apart by minimal distance.
The whirring sound of the speeders is, by itself, enough to make even the strictest germaphobe bite their nails. Even though Luke and Leia are prominent characters, and even though the scene is only midway through the movie, one might actually expect one or both to die here. One can only imagine how painful a death by tree-collision would be.
14. Amazing – Rey and Finn Escape Jakku on the Falcon (The Force Awakens)
Rey and Finn’s Jakku escape perfectly encapsulates what an action scene, in a Star Wars film of otherwise, should do for a movie. The euphoria of seeing the Falcon soar again is only a fraction of what makes this scene so great.
Soon after meeting for the first time, Rey and Finn are spotted by stormtroopers and have to make a run for it. The two of them, along with BB8, board a piece of “garbage” and take flight, staying close to the Jakku’s sandy surface to confuse the TIE fighters’ tracking. The scene follows the trio as they dodge the decaying remains of Star Destroyers, and it’s miraculous.
This chase sequence three things all scenes should do: advance the plot, advance the characters, and advance the world. In terms of plot, Rey and Finn temporarily evade the First Order. For character, Rey and Finn bond and Finn demonstrates his knowledge of First Order technology (which comes in handy later). Finally, in regards to world-building, when TIE fighter debris rain from the sky, we find out how desperate the scavengers of Nima Outpost are. They run into the debris, risking their lives, just for parts to exchange for food.
13. Amazing – TIE Fighter Dogfight (A New Hope)
As fantastic as the escape from Jakku is, it’s impossible to ignore the large amount of inspiration it pulls from this scene. The same could be said about The Force Awakens as a whole in relation to A New Hope. But who can really blame J.J. Abrams? This dogfight (which, unlike the previous list item, benefits from John Williams’ sweeping music) is as awe-inspiring today as in was back in ’77.
Luke, Han, and Chewie, along with Princess Leia and two droid companions, escape the Death Star on the Falcon, though sadly thanks to Obi-Wan’s sacrifice. With hardly a minute to mourn, Luke is shaken out of his grief by Han when two TIE fighters are hot on their tail. They assume gun torrents on the Falcon, and a furious space battle ensues.
Leia downplays the escape afterwards. Her guess is the Empire let them go so they could track them to Yavin. But the scene itself still feels like life or death. No moment in the series is more joyous than Luke celebrating a successful TIE fighter takedown and afterwards hearing Han Solo, the cockiest man in the galaxy, advise him against getting cocky.
12. Amazing – Anakin v. Obi-Wan on Mustafar (Revenge of the Sith)
When all was said and done, most fans left the prequel trilogy disappointed. Still, they had some positive things to take away before they entered a Star Wars-less existence (temporarily). Most of these qualities came in what most consider the best prequel, Revenge of the Sith. If Anakin’s journey to the Dark Side had been dull up to this point, at least it would get interesting fast with this phenomenal lightsaber duel.
Anakin Skywalker has reached the point of no return. He’s killed Jedi masters, slaughtered innocent younglings, and even murdered poor Nute Gunray (that last one actually isn’t so sad). Despite his reluctance to fight a brother from another mother, Obi-Wan knows he must destroy Anakin for the Jedi to survive. Their final showdown takes place on Mustafar, a molten world drenched in boiling lava.
Some might criticize the duel on Mustafar for being needlessly gargantuan. Still, George Lucas deserves credit for putting his all into this climactic melee between former friends. Lucas smartly utilizes Anakin and Obi-Wan’s environment (though it was mostly green screen) to create interesting challenges for the two foes to encounter. It feels like they’re not only fighting each other, but also their surroundings.
11. Amazing – Destroying the Death Star (A New Hope)
A perfect climax to end all perfect climaxes. A New Hope‘s grand finale is all about high stakes, high drama, and high-quality special effects. After roughly two hours of movie greatness, it seems impossible to believe the third act of Star Wars could surprise anybody. But cinema doesn’t get much more wondrous than this.
From small beginnings on a remote desert planet, Luke now finds himself in the defining fight of the Galactic Civil War. The Rebels have uncovered a weakness in the Death Star’s design, and plan to exploit it using a fleet of their best pilots. From the moment X-Wings descend on the Death Star, the action doesn’t let up.
Through all the blaster fire, explosions, and heavy casualties, this scene never feels out of control. The chaos is kept in check, allowing for audiences to stay focused on what’s important: the conclusion of Luke’s arc. When he finishes off the Death Star with a single proton torpedo, we finally see our zero become a hero.
10. Amazing – Beasts in the Petranaki arena (Attack of the Clones)
After a long and boring love story (and before an onslaught of special effects obliterates any story at all), Lucas actually provided an action sequence with some verifiable tension. The scene on Geonosis that pits our lead characters against a trio of terrifying beasts respectably builds suspense until animalistic violence erupts.
Stripped of their weapons before a crowd of insatiable Geonosians, Anakin, Obi-Wan, and Padmé are each chained to their own individual pillars. With their restraints on tight, the three are put at the mercy of horrible beasts, one for each of victim. Our heroes only have their wits to shield them, and the result is one of the prequel trilogy’s more intelligent action scenes.
Attack of the Clones still holds up poorly due to its laughable romantic subplot. But this little scene in the middle provides a slow-burn monster mash reminiscent of the Rancor fight in Return of the Jedi. The sequence also cleverly omits the musical score.
9. Amazing – Duel of the Fates (The Phantom Menace)
Of The Phantom Menace‘s four competing climaxes, only one stands out in a positive way. The Duel of the Fates offered viewers brief sanctuary from the middling politics that defined the larger part of Phantom Menace. The lightsaber fight, which pitted stuntman Ray Park against Liam Neeson and Ewan McGregor, convinced fans to stick around a little longer before that dumb kid tried spinning (which is supposedly a good trick).
After finishing up somewhere to then go to somewhere else, Queen Amidala, her Jedi companions, and a company of palace guards open a door to me greeted by a horned fiend known as Darth Maul. Amidala and her guards take “the long way” while Qui-Gonn Ginn and Obi-Wan Kenobi toss their robes aside to fight Maul. Little do they know, this guy’s lightsaber is double sided.
It was here when people found out that, for better or worse, the lightsaber was more multifaceted that we thought. Add this surprise to Park’s masterful acrobatics, and the Duel of Fates sticks out as a rapidly paced fight scene worthy of a kung-fu movie.
8. Amazing – Darth Vader massacre (Rogue One)
Since action rages throughout Rogue One, it’s difficult to pinpoint isolated moments of action greatness. The Jedha City ambush is certainly one, as is the ground battle on Scarif. But some of Rogue One‘s best accomplishments take place above Scarif. In the film’s concluding space battle, a few incidents (re: two Star Destroyers smashing into each other and then falling out of the sky) really made heads spin. Particularly one with everybody’s favorite Sith lord.
After e-mail and Dropbox fail them, Jyn Erso and Cassian Andor finally send the Death Star plans to the Rebel alliance. A team of Rebels make haste to deliver the plans to Princess Leia. You already know this number. But what you didn’t know, prior to Rogue One, is how close Darth Vader came to terminating this heist before it was accomplished.
In a scene more brutal than any in Vader’s cinematic history, the hallway massacre presents the Sith lord as more vicious as he’s ever been. There are no awkward or jerky movements here, allowing Vader to fight in swift motions that unleash unspeakable damage. All of this is shot marvelously by Oscar nominated cinematographer Greig Fraser (Lion, Zero Dark Thirty).
7. Amazing – Commandeering the Droid Ship (Revenge of the Sith)
The prequels had an issue with opening scenes. The whole trilogy stumbled out of the gate with trade negotiations. Attack of the Clones didn’t fare much better, as it began with sudden explosion followed up by incomprehensible space politics. But the opening sequence of Revenge of the Sith rekindled some of that old Star Wars magic.
On a mission to save Chancellor Palpatine, Anakin and Obi-Wan navigate a furious space battle between droids and clones. They just barely make it onto General Greivous’ ship, Palpatine’s current prison. From a long opening take to thrilling crash landing, the beginning of Revenge of the Sith packs more excitement in one sequence than most of the prequel trilogy combined. And there are reasons for that beyond the special effects.
First is the overall tone of the intro, which, give or take a decapitation, keeps the mood fun and adventurous. And best of all, none of it gets interrupted by space politics or confusing additions to Star Wars mythos. The intro is what it claims to be: a fast paced scene to rope you into the movie. The creative ship designs are also memorable (and something the new films could actually learn from).
6. Amazing – Luke v. Darth Vader on Cloud City (Empire Strikes Back)
AT-ATs in the snow aside, no shot from Star Wars strikes viewers quite as deeply as the one included above. Here a new force for good squares off against an old institution of evil. It’s the novice versus the experienced, the small versus the large, David versus Goliath. This image arouses all of those emotions before the fight even begins. And what a fight it is.
Eager to take on a challenge that he’s nowhere near prepared for, Luke finally comes face to face with his arch nemesis, Darth Vader. Luke begins their duel confidently poised, until Vader launches an assault on his body and mind that leaves him scarred, tattered, and handless. Meanwhile, Vader himself weathers little if any damage. His final blow is an emotional one, in which he offers Luke information that demolishes everything he knows.
Like with the fight on Mustafar, the Cloud City duel understands that location is tantamount. What good is beautiful production design if you don’t make the most of it? Luke and Vader fight on every possible level of the carbon freezing facility, each one bringing more danger than the last.
5. Amazing – The Asteroid Field (Empire Strikes Back)
After the Battle of Hoth, Empire Strikes Back split its narrative between two paths. One followed Luke on his voyage to Dagobah. The other followed Han, Leia, Chewie, and 3PO as Darth Vader hunted them mercilessly. The latter half of the movie reaped the benefits of a malevolent antagonist, a scintillating “will they, won’t they?” love story, and some choice action set pieces.
With a Star Destroyer gaining, Han Solo, ever the dashing rogue, makes a gambit by careening the Falcon into an asteroid field. The ship loses a few TIE fighters along the way by gracefully swooping over and under a flurry of asteroids. The Falcon barely makes it through and finds a safe(ish) hiding place.
The asteroid field in Empire offers a twist on the space battles Star Wars had been privy to thus far. There’s no blaster fire on the Falcon’s end, as Han cleverly lets his surroundings do the work for him. However fast the TIE fighters might be, their maneuverability isn’t fluid enough to keep them from crashing into asteroids.
4. Amazing – Rey v. Kylo Ren on Starkiller Base (The Force Awakens)
Above Starkiller base, a frenzy of blaster fire and explosions cast a shadow over everything on the planet’s surface. But down there, something far more exciting is happening. In the ultimate showdown between Rey and Kylo Ren, a rivalry is born, sure to link them together stronger than any friendship ever could.
After killing Rey’s personal hero and injuring her dear friend, Kylo Ren reaches out for Anakin Skywalker’s legendary (and infamous) lightsaber. But Rey grants him no such satisfaction, and summons the lightsaber to her own hand. She holds it at the ready, and proceeds to put down a beating on Kylo Ren that he won’t soon forget. After all, she leaves evidence of the defeat in a scar along Ren’s face.
This is a well balanced concoction of everything that makes lightsaber fights great. The stunt team cleverly utilizes location, enlisting the crumbling earth and falling trees as indifferent combatants in Rey and Kylo Ren’s conflict. The choreography is precise, but contains a dash of clumsiness brought on by raw emotion. These people want to MURDER each other. And if everything else in the fight didn’t make that clear, Daisy Ridley and Adam Driver’s powerful performances do.
3. Sucks – Coruscant Speeder Chase (Attack of the Clones)
The low point in Star Wars‘ oeuvre of action set pieces comes early on in Attack of the Clones. Lucas, continuing a trend he began with the original trilogy’s special editions, crammed as many bright lights and flashy space ships he possibly could into this this mess of a chase scene.
After an assassin attempts a roundabout hit on Padmé, Anakin and Obi-Wan, who’ve done a piss poor job of protecting the senator, embark on a wild goose chase after the culprit(‘s droid and then the culprit). In an affront to laws of physics, Anakin and Obi-Wan zoom around Coruscant, seemingly twisting the wheel at random, and somehow manage to locate their target. This isn’t just Star Wars action at its worst, it’s movie action at it’s worst.
Say what you will about J.J. Abrams’ tentative world expansion in The Force Awakens, but nobody paces an action scene quite like him. His sequences move at such breakneck speeds they border on frenetic. Still, they pull back just enough to allow audiences to enjoy the ride rather than beg to get off. For this scene, Lucas could have benefitted from someone like Abrams offering input.
2. Sucks – Escape from Naboo (The Phantom Menace)
Outside the Duel of the Fates, practically everything that happens on Naboo is a chore to sit through. Not a single moment captivates the audience, whether it’s a no-consequence underwater speeder chase or a Gungan/Droid battle underneath some gelatinous dome. The city of Theed is a particular hub for boredom. So much so the audience can’t invest in the characters when they’re trying to escape it.
Searching for Queen Amidala and her officials, Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan sneak into Theed, currently occupied by the Trade Federation. With remarkable ease, the two Jedi knights sneak into the palace. Then, just as easily, they dispose of a dozen battle droids quicker than you can say, “Is that it?” Also Jar Jar is there, offering no help whatsoever.
When designing the primary, “roger, roger” battle droid model, George Lucas himself said that Jedi could slice them up like butter. Strangely he thought this was a good thing. While Imperial stormtroopers were poor marksmen, they at least put up a better fight that battle droids. Watching two Jedi slay battle droids is about as interesting as playing a video game on easy. Strangely comforting, but about as exciting as watching paint dry.
1. Sucks – Ewok scenes during Battle of Endor (Return of the Jedi)
Ewoks marked the beginning of George Lucas’ fall from grace. Though they aren’t a total detriment to Return of the Jedi as a whole (the annoying teddy bears are outweighed by several action scenes mentioned above), they still work mostly against the film rather than for it. And nowhere are the furry little troublemakers more obtrusive than in Jedi‘s final battle scene.
All hope seems lost when Han, Leia, and Chewie are captured by Imperial troopers. The trio, along with the few reinforcements they brought with them, are held at gunpoint outside an Imperial complex crucial to the Rebels achieving victory. Fortunately, a bunch of Beanie Babies throw pebbles at soldiers with guns and completely and utterly win the fight. Obviously.
This is the real reason Ewoks stick in everybody’s craw. If they had simply been comic relief, or just a fulfillment of Star Wars‘s crazy creature quota, then fine. Even if they were in the final battle, and just bopped one or two stormtroopers on the head, that wouldn’t be terrible. But the fact that they play such an integral role in the Battle of Endor, seeming to win the conflict without any help from Rebel soldiers, is endlessly mind-boggling.
Which Star Wars action scenes do you love? Which ones do you hate? Sound them off in the comments!