One of pop culture’s most iconic and enduring franchises, Star Wars is a film series that has meant so much to so many people since the original movie debuted in 1977. As one can see by the outpouring of emotions in the lead-up to this winter’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens, love of the saga is as strong as it’s ever been, with millions of fans filled to the brim with hope that the J.J. Abrams’ film can be a worthy successor to the classic trilogy.
The movies have made such an impact on the zeitgeist that even those unfamiliar with the works of a galaxy far, far away know their various aspects and the reasons why they hold such a high place in people’s hearts. As the film community reflects upon the Star Wars legacy ahead of the Force Awakens premiere, we take a look at the 10 best moments of the saga (so far).
Note: This list is ordered by canon timeline chronology. It is not ranked.
1. The Duel of the Fates
While many fans consider the prequels to be disappointing, even that trilogy’s hardest critics admit there are some positive elements to them. One of the more acclaimed sequences from The Phantom Menace is the lightsaber duel between Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson), Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor), and Darth Maul (Ray Park). Going back before the days of the Galactic Civil War allowed George Lucas to show Force users at the height of their powers and in their prime, displaying the awe-inspiring abilities and athleticism of those strong with the Force. It was the kind of action viewers wanted to see in the prequels.
What sets this fight above the rest is the music of John Williams. There’s no denying that “Duel of the Fates” is one of the best pieces of film score written, and it gave Episode I an epic feeling that the rest of the film sorely lacked. It was unfortunate that Darth Maul had to meet his ultimate demise at the duel’s end, but one of the better characters of the prequels at least got his moment to shine and provide a quality moment to the story’s beginning.
2. Tusken Raider Slaughter
One of the main reasons the prequels are considered a letdown is the handling of the Anakin Skywalker character and his fateful turn to the Dark Side. Instead of seeing a noble warrior take a tragic fall, fans saw a creepy, whiny young man who seemed like a bad seed from the get-go. But Lucas was able to craft one compelling scene for his protagonist in Attack of the Clones. When Anakin (Hayden Christensen) returns to Tatooine to see his mother, he learns that she was kidnapped by Tusken Raiders. He tracks the group down and watches in horror as Shmi (Pernilla August) dies in his arms.
It was the moment that started Anakin down the dark path that would forever dominate his destiny. Not only was it a haunting sequence that tapped into our own basic fears and emotions and gave Christensen a rare chance to act convincingly in the film, it made his motives later on in the trilogy more understandable. Establishing that Anakin’s premonitions could turn true was an interesting angle to explore, and in Revenge of the Sith when he has similar dreams about Padme (Natalie Portman), his actions have a sympathetic angle.
3. Tantive IV vs. Star Destroyer
For many, this was the moment that started their infatuation with Star Wars. Nobody was sure what to expect when Lucas unleashed his weird space opera to the world, and people were immediately blown away. It instantly captured the spectacle that would define the series, showing the small Rebel ship fleeing for its life as it’s pursued by a massive Imperial Star Destroyer that just kept going and going across the screen. The visual effects were awe-inspiring and not only thrilled audiences, but influenced an entire generation of directors.
Another impressive aspect about this moment was how Lucas used the visual language of cinema to efficiently set up the conflict between the Rebels and the Empire. Our heroes were a scrappy little band outmatched by a regime whose power spread throughout the galaxy. It still is one of the best technical achievements in the history of film and set the tone and model the rest of the series would follow.
4. Obi-Wan’s Sacrifice
Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness) helps young Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) take his first step into a larger world, but the elder Jedi Master admits that he is “getting too old” to go on adventures through space and defeat the Sith. While Luke is willing to learn the ways of the Force, he’s eager to go on his journey with Old Ben, who he’s known his whole life. Kenobi knows that if Luke is to truly be the Jedi’s last hope of bringing balance to the Force, the son of Anakin needs to go on the path himself.
When confronting his former apprentice Darth Vader on the Death Star, Obi-Wan sees his opportunity to send Luke along. Knowing he is outmatched against the dark lord and Luke is too inexperienced to help, he sacrifices himself so Luke will get on the Millennium Falcon and fully embrace his destiny. Not only that, Kenobi’s death allowed him to become one with the Force and be a guiding voice in Luke’s ear throughout the remainder of the trilogy, helping him when needed.
5. Death Star Trench Run
While the original film’s opening sequence was an ideal way to start the franchise, this thrilling finale was what really pushed Star Wars to the next level in terms of moviemaking technology. Using footage of old World War II dogfights as their guide, the team at fledgling special effects company ILM created an enthralling space battle that still captivates to this day. Something like this had never been done before, and seeing the ships zoom around the narrow trench ensured that the ending would not disappoint.
Most of the action in the original trilogy was also used as a vessel to further develop the characters, and that’s no different here. Luke, of course, fully embraces the power of the Force and uses it to destroy the Death Star. But he would not have had that chance if Han Solo (Harrison Ford) didn’t come flying in to save the day and take out the remaining TIE fighters. It showed that this smuggler had a heart of gold and cared about more than just himself, endearing him to legions of fans forever.
6. Yoda Lifts the X-Wing
Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back is meant to represent the true nature of the Force, and how one does not need to have the appearance of a “great warrior” to become a Jedi Knight. His teachings are full of wisdom that still resonate to this day (“There is no try”), making the character a great example of movie magic. And nothing symbolizes what Yoda is all about more than when he brought Luke’s X-wing out of the Dagobah swamps.
Becoming exceedingly frustrated, Luke gives up relatively quickly when he attempts, in part because he feels Yoda is asking too much and is not fit to train him. Yoda realizes that the only way to sway Luke over is to raise the ship himself, landing it safely on the ground without much effort at all. Incredulous, Luke gapes in amazement at what Yoda has done and the possibilities the Force presents. As Yoda says, mastering the Force is all about the power of belief and trusting that you can do anything you set your mind to.
7. “I love you.” “I know.”
The Empire Strikes Back is widely considered to be the best Star Wars movie to date because of the way it seamlessly balances style and substance. The action is on a grander scale, and so is the drama. Director Irvin Kirshner worked hard to portray Luke, Han, and Leia (Carrie Fisher) as real people, pushing them in new directions as he examined their emotions. It’s in this film the romantic relationship between Captain Solo and the Princess fully blossoms, as the two fall helplessly for each other while being chased across the galaxy by the Empire.
When they’re finally captured in Cloud City, Darth Vader opts to test the carbon freezing mechanism on Han to see if it’s safe for Luke. With Han’s fate unknown, a distressed Leia tells the scoundrel that she loves him. Han responds famously in a manner that remained true to his character: “I know.” Depicting Han at his most vulnerable, moviegoers were able to see him in a new light and get further proof that under that scruffy-looking, rough exterior was a kind-hearted person who was afraid he may not be able to see his dearest friends again. There’s a reason this exchange has become a calling card for Star Wars couples everywhere.
8. “I am your father.”
Arguably the biggest moment in the entire franchise, Luke cannot believe what he hears when Vader reveals his true identity. After being trained for the intention of killing Vader and ending the Dark Side’s rein, the young Jedi is faced with the knowledge that the most feared man in the universe is actually the father he was so interested in learning about. It was such a shocking twist, that Lucas was forced to include a scene in Return of the Jedi where Yoda confirms Luke’s parentage so children in attendance would know it wasn’t a lie.
This moment added so much depth to the movies, both in the present and retroactively. It gave the Luke/Vader relationship a whole new element and presented a new challenge for Luke in his training and set the stage for a great struggle in Jedi. Audiences also got a closer look at Obi-Wan’s psyche and the lengths he went to when initially training Luke. Being dishonest doesn’t seem to be the Jedi way, but from a certain point of view it was the right call, since Luke was committed to destroying Vader until he heard the truth. Rewatching the movies after this had a whole new element of intrigue.
9. Luke Defeats Vader
Aside from saving Han from Jabba the Hutt, the biggest hanging thread from Empire that needed resolving in Return of the Jedi was Luke’s conflict with Vader. Knowing that it’s too dangerous for him to remain with his friends on Endor, Luke gives himself up so Vader will take him before the Emperor (Ian McDiarmid). After much goading, Luke tries to kill Palpatine in cold blood, but Vader blocks the attack, starting his second and final duel with his son. However, Luke is reluctant to fight and hides in the shadows of the Death Star.
Trying to bring Luke out, Vader threatens to turn Leia to the Dark Side if Luke refuses. Channeling his father’s anger, Luke unleashes a furious attack on the Sith Lord, pummeling him into submission. Using all his strength, Luke overpowers Vader and viscously chops off his hand. Realizing that he is beginning to embrace the Dark Side, Luke stops short of doing anything malicious and informs the Emperor he is now a Jedi Knight. The whole trilogy had been leading up to this moment and it was a triumphant one for the character and audiences.
10. Vader Rescues Luke
When Luke rejects the Emperor, Palpatine is none too pleased and tortures the new Jedi with Force lightning. Luke cannot handle the attacks. Hopeless, he begs for Vader to aid him, but his father stands by his master’s side and watches what is sure to be the end of his son’s life. However, seeing Luke in so much pain must have triggered something in Vader, since he uses his last bits of energy to lift the Emperor and toss him off the balcony, essentially sacrificing himself so Luke can lead a full life.
Throughout Jedi, Vader remained adamant that it was pointless to resist the Dark Side and, despite Luke’s best intentions, it was too late to save Anakin from the path he chose long ago. But once Luke stands up to Palpatine and defies his ways, it illustrates that Luke was right about Vader. There was still good in him, as Luke had maintained all along. It just took the last person in the galaxy to believe in Anakin left to bring it out and put an end to the destructive war (for the time being, at least…)
There are no shortage of great Star Wars moments, and the new films planned by Disney are sure to have fond memories of their own. In fact, the marketing campaign gave fans one in the second Force Awakens teaser trailer, when Han told Chewie they were back home on the Millennium Falcon. With any luck, J.J. Abrams’ film will be a rousing return to form for the franchise and give a new generation an experience they’ll never forget.
As always, our list is not meant to be all-inclusive, so be sure to share some of your picks in the comments section below!
Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens releases in theaters on December 18th, 2015, followed by Rogue One: A Star Wars Story on December 16th, 2016, Star Wars: Episode VIII on May 26th, 2017, and the Han Solo Star Wars Anthology film on May 25th, 2018. Star Wars: Episode IX is expected to reach theaters in 2019, followed by the third Star Wars Anthology film in 2020.