This list was originally published before the opening of Rogue One. We have updated it to include events from that film. Warning: There will be spoilers.
So there’s this little movie that came out recently, Rogue One. Maybe you’ve heard of it? I’m told it’s a Star Wars story, the latest extension of a cinematic universe that will never end. The ubiquity of the galaxy that George Lucas built in the hearts, minds, and ad spaces of moviegoers young and old is so total, it can be easy to lose track of how it got that way. The answers can be found below. Even in its most maligned installments, the Star Wars series contains moments of dread and delight that number among the best in the history of science fiction, fantasy, and action-adventure filmmaking. Here, pulled straight from the Jedi archives, are the 57 finest.
57. Dude, where’s my theme music? (Rogue One: A Star Wars Story)
A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away … nothing! Just a wide-vista shot of an unknown planet’s rim, a slightly off-brand variant of the first few notes of John Williams’s classic score by Lost composer Michael Giacchino, the words “ROGUE ONE,” and that’s it. Disney honchos had already indicated that director Gareth Edwards’s stand-alone “Star Wars Story” would jettison the traditional opening sequence as a way to set it apart from films set within the main saga’s trilogy framework, but hearing about it and witnessing it firsthand are two different things. After a lifetime of watching Star Wars movies, what didn’t happen in Rogue One’s opening seconds was nearly as striking as anything that did happen afteward.
56. The 20th Century Fox fanfare (Episodes IV, V, VI, I, II, and III)
Now that the Mouse has absorbed that galaxy far, far away, the traditional drum-and-brass theme music that opened every 20th Century Fox feature film will no longer be associated with the Star Wars saga. But for almost three decades, the adventures of the Skywalker clan were accompanied by this legendary Hollywood music cue by composer Alfred Newman; entire generations associated it with the battle between the Dark Side and the Light.
55. “Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi — you’re my only hope” (Episode IV: A New Hope)
In just eight words, Princess Leia Organa promised a whole universe of adventure. Luke Skywalker’s discovery of the hidden holographic message stored within his newly purchased astromech droid R2-D2 served as a sort of magic spell, the “open sesame” that unlocked all the excitement to come.
54. “Chewie, we’re home” (Episode VII: The Force Awakens)
If the purpose of The Force Awakens, the first Disneyfied installment of the Star Wars series, was to reconnect audiences with the franchise’s swashbuckling, childhood-defining glory days, this was the moment when the the connection was made most directly. Reprising their roles as interstellar smuggler Han Solo and his furry partner Chewbacca, Harrison Ford and Peter Mayhew stepped out of film history and back into the here and now the moment they set foot on their old ship, the Millennium Falcon, recently rescued from the trash yard by heroes-in-the-making Rey and Finn (Daisy Ridley and John Boyega, in star-making performances every bit the equal of Ford’s earlier turn). For a series obsessed with intergenerational sagas coming full circle, this was a meta moment of the highest order.
53. Kamino (Episode II: Attack of the Clones)
Star Wars creator George Lucas’s prequel trilogy has been maligned — rightfully, to one degree or another — for wooden acting, byzantine plotting, and recourse to racial stereotypes in the makeup of his invented alien races. But particularly when compared to TFA director and professional custodian of other people’s ideas J.J. Abrams’s recycling of previous environments (desert planet, forest planet, ice planet), Lucas’s knack for inventing stunning new locales and emotional palettes is a tremendous success. Look no further than Kamino*, the remote rain-soaked world where long-necked aliens craft the foot soldiers of the Empire’s genesis amid placid environments that exist halfway between the sterile white spaces of Kubrick’s 2001 and the uncanny domesticity of Eyes Wide Shut. Obi-Wan’s white-knuckle battle against flying bounty hunter Jango Fett and his son Boba is merely the icing on a meticulously crafted cake.
52. Speeder bike chase (Episode VI: Return of the Jedi)
Perhaps the most impressive thing about Luke and Leia’s pursuit of Imperial scout troopers aboard hoverbikes hurtling through Endor’s titanic trees at suicidal speeds isn’t what it looks like, but what it sounds like. Rather than rely on master film composer John Wiliams’s versatile score, as had so many high-velocity pursuits in the series’ past, this chase sequence was set exclusively to the sound effects supervised by Ben Burtt. The wooshing and whirring and exploding that results gives the action a relentless rhythm all its own.
51. Coruscant (Episode I: The Phantom Menace)
Our first trip to the capital of the Republic is one of George Lucas’s greatest triumphs. This planet-sized city had been long cited in ancillary comics and novels before it finally showed up onscreen, and the then-state-of-the-art CGI available to the filmmaker gave the enormous urban sprawl a stately beauty that looked like the yin to the yang of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner dystopia. Subsequent films would shore up the city’s night side, such as the noirish, neon-lit pursuit of an assassin by Anakin and Obi-Wan in Attack of the Clones, but our initial visions of the city-world leave the most lasting impression.
50. Mace Windu totally owns Jango Fett (Episode II: Attack of the Clones)
As chrome-domed Jedi Master Mace Windu, actor Samuel L. Jackson was essentially able to write his own ticket, up to and including wielding the only purple-hued lightsaber in the whole series. (Tie-ins would cite this as evidence that he’d mastered both the dark red and light blue sides of the Force, but I prefer to think of it as the Star Wars equivalent of his “Bad Motherfucker” wallet in Pulp Fiction.) Windu’s greatest onscreen achievement was undoubtedly his unstoppable saber-swinging assault on bounty hunter and clone-trooper godfather Jango Fett, a supposedly unbeatable warrior whom the Jedi punked out like an NFL superstar taking down the JV squad’s quarterback. In a series rife with severed arms, Windu straight-up decapitated the dude. “This party’s over” indeed.
49. Chirrut Îmwe’s walk (Rogue One: A Star Wars Story)
“I am one with the Force and the Force is with me.” With this mantra, Chirrut Îmwe, guardian of the Jedi temple at Jedha turned blind Rebel warrior, walked out of his battlefield shelter and into Star Wars immortality. It’s unclear whether Chirrut lacked the innate prowess of the Jedi or merely their formal training, or if indeed he was part of the semi-canonical order known as the Guardians of the Whills, who served in a monastic capacity at the Jedi’s side. But in this moment, when he defied the incoming fire of Imperial troopers to throw the switch that enabled the plans for the Death Star to be beamed to the Rebel fleet, both his faith and his strength in the Force were beyond dispute. His subsequent death in the arms of his comrade and partner Baze Malbus added poignancy to his sacrifice.
48. The Battle of Coruscant (Episode III: Revenge of the Sith)
A dogfight, a break-in, a rescue attempt, a cold-blooded murder, a crash landing: The opening minutes of the prequel trilogy’s final moments do more than many blockbuster franchises attempt in their entire duration. Obi-Wan and Anakin’s battle against the Separatist army, including their leaders Count Dooku and General Grievous, and their subsequent dash to safety with Chancellor Palpatine in tow is one of the most ambitious opening sequences in contemporary action-movie history. The fact that everything they do is basically in service of saving the life of the galaxy’s biggest creep gives it all a perfectly perverse twist.
47. The death of K-2SO (Rogue One: A Star Wars Story)
“Good-bye.” Aside from the late, great Anakin Skywalker, has any Star Wars character had a more poignant final word than the reprogrammed Imperial droid who provided the bulk of Rogue One’s comic relief? K-2SO’s rejiggering from war machine of the Empire to co-savior of the Rebellion had the side effect of preventing him from sugarcoating the truth of anything he said. He told it like it is, much to the amusement of the audience. So when he said good-bye to his friend and comrades Cassian Andor and Jyn Erso while going down in a blaze of Death Trooper gunfire, you could feel the finality in your guts and in your heart.
46. “This is no cave” (Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back)
One of the original Star Wars trilogy’s greatest accomplishments was applying the massive scale of science-fiction film that was previously the exclusive province of Kubrick’s 2001 to an action-adventure framework. Nowhere was this more apparent, and more goofball fun, than in the appearance of the enormous space slug that unwittingly swallowed the Millennium Falcon during its thrilling flight through an asteroid belt while escaping the Empire’s ships. There’s something almost Monty Python–esque about seeing this enormous beastie pop out of its crater hideout in an attempt to re-swallow the spaceship that just flew out of its parasite-infested gullet. Hell, the term “space slug” alone deserves a slot on this list.
45. The Cave (Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back)
This is a cave. During his training with aging Jedi Muppet — ahem, Jedi Master — Yoda, Luke Skywalker stumbles across a cave that’s rotten with Dark Side energy. When he enters, he undergoes a hallucinatory test in which he beheads Darth Vader, only to discover his own face beneath the tyrant’s mask. As foreshadowing, as mystery-making, and as sheer psychological mind-fuckery, it’s director Irvin Kershner and writers George Lucas, Leigh Brackett, and Lawrence Kasdan’s most cryptic and creepy moment.
44. Lando Calrissian makes his début (Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back)
With the possible exception of Darth Vader emerging from a cloud of smoke after a brutal gunfight, criminal turned civic leader Lando Calrissian is the Star Wars saga’s greatest example of a character whose onscreen début appears to shape the entire world around him. Played to suave yet sinister perfection by Billy Dee Williams, Lando first emerges on a landing platform in the Cloud City he rules; he first threatens, then embraces his old pals Han and Chewie, and finally flirts with their companion Leia. This guy was born to live in the clouds, dispensing intimidation and sex appeal as it suits him.
43. The death of Director Krennic (Rogue One: A Star Wars Story)
Sic semper tyrannis. Sporting a jaunty white cape and commanding a personal battalion of black-armored, gibberish-spouting Death Troopers, Orson Krennic at first appeared to be the arch-villain of Rogue One. But he was soon revealed to be a mere cog in the Imperial bureaucracy, hopelessly outclassed by senior, more ruthless maniacs like Grand Moff Tarkin and Darth Vader. He spends his final seconds of life watching as the Death Star, the weapon of mass destruction he helped create, fires its laser right at the satellite platform on which he lies wounded, crippled, and horribly aware of his own fate.
42. Finn and Rey compare notes (Episode VII: The Force Awakens)
The debate over whether or not TFA’s main character, Rey, was too good too soon at literally everything she did, or whether her ally Finn shook off his stormtrooper programming way too easily, missed something crucial: When you’ve got performers as engaging as Daisy Ridley and John Boyega onscreen, who even cares? No scene cements their individual talent and collective chemistry better than their joyous, “OMG, can you even believe it?!?!” conversation following their escape from First Order fighters aboard the salvaged Millennium Falcon. Each character is blown away by the other’s talent; each is quietly proud of their own accomplishments; watching them both babble enthusiastically about what they just pulled off is an absolute delight.
41. Leia chokes Jabba (Episode VI: Return of the Jedi)
Okay, here’s the thing about “Slave Leia”: What twisted dirtbag decided to call her that? I imprinted on how gorgeous Carrie Fisher looked in her Jabba-mandated getup as much as the next young nerd in the ‘80s, but her compulsory servitude in wearing it wasn’t on my radar then and is upsetting, not appealing, to me now. As far as I was concerned at the time, Leia was the same rebel as always, just stuck in a metal bikini, as her hands-on killing of the galaxy’s greatest gangster with the very chains he used to keep her prisoner proved. The Hutt made for a terrific miniboss, and getting shut down permanently by one of the series’ coolest characters — its only prominent woman at the time, to boot — was exactly the fate the slimeball deserved.
40. Bounty hunters (Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back)
“Bounty hunters. We don’t need their scum.” Oh, Admiral Piett, if only you knew. This brief scene from Empire, in which Darth Vader assigns a group of guns for hire with the task of tracking down Han Solo, gave rise to a half-dozen legendary characters within hard-core Star Wars fandom. These include Dengar, the bandaged and backpacked human; Bossk, the gutturally rasping reptilian; IG-88, the towering terminator-esque droid; and, of course, Boba Fett, the masked, jetpack-sporting gunslinger in Mandalorian armor whose role in the capture of Han and his crew lent him a prominence in Star Wars lore above and beyond his brief screen time. The Imperial officers may have scoffed, but viewers saw each member of this rogues’ gallery as an antihero waiting to happen.
39. Yoda vs. the Emperor (Episode III: Revenge of the Sith)
In this corner: the greatest Jedi Master we’d ever meet. In the other corner: his opposite number, the Sith Lord who destroyed the Old Republic and created the Empire that rose from its ashes. Their lightsaber duel in the cavernous Senate chamber rendered moot by the the Emperor’s ascent to power gave emotional heft to the diminutive green Jedi’s CGI-enhanced skills as a swordsman, first observed during his comparatively lightweight fight against Count Dooku in Attack of the Clones. In the end, Yoda proves the better combatant, but his rival emerges unscathed by making more skillful use of their battlefield. You couldn’t ask for a more perfect metaphor for how the Dark Side triumphed.
38. Kylo Ren’s tantrum (Episode VII: The Force Awakens)
When Adam Driver was announced as the chief antagonist of The Force Awakens, his most prominent prior role was Adam, the mercurial on-again-off-again boyfriend of Lena Dunham’s character on the HBO dramedy Girls. Wouldn’t it be funny, the joke went, if he played this new masked villain with the same emotional outbursts that characterized his turn as that show’s weirdo leading man? Lo and behold, that’s exactly what he did; Kylo’s lightsaber-swinging freakout upon discovering his quarry had escaped from his grasp in the sands of Jakku is the best example of this new-model menace. It’s ironic that the parody twitter account @EmoKyloRen caught on — as seen here, the actual Kylo Ren was emo enough as is.
37. Grand Moff Tarkin reborn (Rogue One: A Star Wars Story)
Here’s where I let my inner fanboy show. I’ve now had a Rebel Alliance insignia tattooed on my left arm for longer than I haven’t had it, and many of my earliest memories of cinema are inextricably tied to the plot and performances in A New Hope. Foremost among them is that of Peter Cushing, the much-beloved British actor who played that first film’s antagonist Grand Moff Tarkin. So I’ll confess right here and now that I was one of those people in the audience who cheered when they realized that Tarkin would be a main character in Rogue One thanks to the magic of CGI and motion-captured actor Guy Henry. For my money at least, this was no act of digital necrophilia, but an homage to a great actor and even better human being in a role that cast a shadow far longer and deeper than its screentime in a single film.
36. “We’re all fine here, now, thank you. How are you?” (Episode IV: A New Hope)
“You can type this shit, George, but you can’t say it.” Apocryphal or not, this quote, attributed to Harrison Ford in response to George Lucas’s jargon-heavy dialogue, is too good to check in terms of its characterization of the auteur’s mechancial approach to writing and directing for his actors. But during the scene in which Han, Luke, and Chewie overpower a guard station in an attempt to rescue Princess Leia, it all fades away. In its place is one of the funniest moments in the whole series, in which Han, pretending to be an Imperial goon, responds to telecommunicated queries about the chaos in the guardroom by pretending everything’s kosher, then wincing at his own ridiculous bullshit. The Star Wars saga isn’t exactly famous for its laugh-out-loud moments; this one is priceless.
35. The Jedi mind trick (Episode IV: A New Hope)
“You don’t need to see his identification. These aren’t the droids you’re looking for. He can go about his business. Move along.” What in the hell just happened? It’s simple, my young apprentice: Obi-Wan Kenobi just used the old Jedi mind trick on a gaggle of simpleminded stormtroopers, using the Force to brainwash them into following his orders. The phrase and technique entered the pop-culture parlance on their own, but it’s the subtle “Ain’t I a stinker?” look of satisfaction on Sir Alec Guinness’s face as Kenobi dupes these goons that makes the moment magic.
34. The garbage chute (Episode IV: A New Hope)
After Solo, Skywalker, and Chewbacca liberate Leia Organa from captivity on the first Death Star, they quickly discover their escape plan is missing, you know, the escape part. Leia improvises and blasts a hole into a garbage-disposal chute, at which point all interpersonal and alien hell breaks loose. Han mocks the princess’s idea: “What an incredible smell you’ve discovered!” A gruesomely Lovecraftian creature that lurks in the refuse, known as the Dianoga, attempts to make a meal of Luke. Finally, the trash-compactor mechanism switches on, threatening to squash our heroes into pulp until C-3PO and R2-D2 shut the thing down. It’s a techno-thriller, a creature feature, and a black comedy all rolled into one.
33. The kiss (Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back)
She’s a princess. He’s a scoundrel. Together they’re erotic dynamite! Sure, Luke may have won the Leia lip-lock sweepstakes earlier in the film, which just goes to show you how much of the mythos George Lucas was making up as he went along; whatever his faults as a writer, “intentional incest” is not likely one of them. But when accompanied by composer John Williams’s achingly romantic-love theme music, Han Solo and Leia Organa’s first kiss and the Sam-and-Diane chemistry behind it is the stuff of movie legend. Even C-3PO’s cock-blocking intrusion couldn’t stop the image from becoming the modern, somewhat-less-racist era’s answer to the Gone With the Wind poster smooch.
32. Han shot first (Episode IV: A New Hope)
Look, does my self-conception as a nerd depend on this? No, it does not. I’m secure in myself as a person, as a cineast, and as a huge dorkus malorkus to not be all that bothered by the older, more moralistic George Lucas’s revision of Han Solo’s cantina confrontation with a green-skinned mercenary. That said, I truly don’t care what subsequent releases of the first Star Wars movie attempt to portray as reality: Han saw the threat from the snout-nosed bounty hunter Greedo coming in that Mos Eisley drinking hole, and plugged the goon before the goon could plug him. End of story. It is what it is.
31. The death of Han Solo (Episode VII: The Force Awakens)
From the Six-Fingered Man in The Princess Bride to Shireen Baratheon in Game of Thrones, there’s no shortage of characters in contemporary fantastic fiction who could tell you it never pays to tell a sword-wielding madman you’ll do whatever they want — that is, they could tell you if, y’know, they weren’t dead. Unfortunately, no one communicated this to lion-in-winter rebel, smuggler, and deadbeat dad Han Solo when he confronted his twisted and estranged son Kylo Ren, the former Ben Solo. Assuming his kid’s guilt-stricken confession meant that he knew what he had to do, but didn’t have the strength to do it, and meant he wanted to return to the light side of the Force, Han offered his help … and got stabbed in the gut as a consequence. I go back and forth about whether this ignominious demise for one of the all-time movie badasses works or not. But there’s no doubt it gets under your skin — and damn, try talking to a little kid about this and you’ll see its power.
30. “Hope” (Rogue One: A Star Wars Story)
Not since Neo took flight at the end of the first Matrix movie has a CGI character earned this big an audience pop. The digital re-creation of Carrie Fisher’s signature character closed out Rogue One with, quite literally, a message of hope that transcended the deaths of every single major character in the film and connected the movie directly to the flick that started it all. Compared to, well, the final frame of every other Star Wars movie, this was a truly unconventional choice, and all the more rewarding for it. It’s impossible to look at that uncanny face and not root for its success.
29. “Lord Vader … Rise” (Episode III: Revenge of the Sith)
The Dark Lord’s soul-crushing cry of “NOOOOOOOOOO” became the stuff of meme legend, but it was the Emperor’s preceding declaration that truly gave the transformation of Anakin Skywalker into Darth Vader its mythic power. Halfway between Dr. Frankenstein’s “It’s alive!” and Jesus Christ’s “Lazarus, come forth,” Palpatine’s instruction to his black-masked protégé, delivered in actor Ian McDiarmid’s most sinister croak, gave this pivotal moment in the Star Wars saga the gravitas it deserved.
28. Obi-Wan Kenobi vs. Darth Vader (Episode IV: A New Hope)
The first lightsaber fight that the Star Wars series ever presented us was a clash of catchphrases as much as a battle of blades. “The circle is now complete. When I left you, I was but the learner. Now I am the master.” “If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you can possibly imagine.” A restrained affair compared to the emotionally and digitally supercharged duels to come, the Death Star clash between Obi-Wan and his former pupil had an almost Arthurian quality. Its finale — the Jedi disappearing after Vader dealt the killing blow, his student Luke screaming in disbelief — really did make it more powerful than viewers could imagine.
27. Tattooine Sunset (Episode IV: A New Hope)
There are times in any movie buff’s life when all you can do is marvel at the primal power that filmmakers are able to marshal. Luke Skywalker’s observance of the two-sun nightfall above the desert sands of Tattooine is a perfect example. With a special effect as simple as adding another glowing orb to the twilight sky, and with a mournful tune to complement the score’s triumphalism elsewhere, director George Lucas and composer John Williams crafted an otherwordly atmosphere with just a few proverbial brushstrokes. Countless subsequent blockbusters, even entire franchises, have come and gone without achieving this scene’s iconic impact.
26. “It’s a trap!” (Episode VI: Return of the Jedi)
It ain’t easy to wrap up your action-adventure spectacular with a giant battle waged exclusively by comparatively minor characters because your leads are occupied elsewhere — just ask The Matrix Revolutions. But in a single line from lobster-faced Admiral Ackbar, writers George Lucas and Lawrence Kasdan and director Richard Marquand pulled it off. When Rebel forces led by Ackbar and Lando Calrissian mounted what they believed to be a sneak attack on the second Death Star, they soon discovered that the battle station and its support fleet were expecting them all along. Ackbar’s dismayed declaration became one of the series’ most recognizable lines, a feat all the more impressive considering it emerged from the mouths of one of the saga’s silliest creature designs.
25. The Ewoks attack (Episode VI: Return of the Jedi)
To this day, there are Star Wars fans who claim the Ewoks, a species of teddy-bear warriors, represent some sort of fundamental betrayal of the saga’s serious adult tone and themes. Uhhh … you do realize you’re talking about a franchise involving “space slugs,” right? At any rate, there’s nothing childish about the Ewoks, who look like Teddy Ruxpin and fight like the Vietcong. These adorable little insurgents destroy the Empire’s best soldiers and announce their presence with a trumpet fanfare that would put 20th Century Fox itself to shame. If you dislike these pint-size guerillas, you’re probably a Sith.
24. “Execute Order 66” (Episode III: Revenge of the Sith)
Who knew that the fall of the Jedi would be the result of a subliminal message straight out of The Manchurian Candidate? Three murmured words from the Emperor is all it takes for the heretofore obedient Clone Troopers to turn on their Jedi generals and gun them down in cold blood. The carnage that results resonates with decades of conspiracy theories, yet exists in its own right as an elegantly evil final solution to the Jedi question.
23. Anakin and Padme enter the arena (Episode II: Attack of the Clones)
The courtship of Anakin and Padme has had its lows (“I hate sand”; the whole war-crime massacre of Sandpeople thing) and its highs (the frankly white-hot scene in which they discuss their forbidden feelings for one another by the fireside while she wears her finest leather bustier). And I get that actors Natalie Portman and Hayden Christensen had a weird sort of anti-chemistry. But the shot of the two of them being led hand in hand to an arena of insectoid aliens cheering for the impending death transcends the limits of both writing and acting and enters the realm of pure cinema. It’s a vista of perfectly lovely doomed romance, the likes of which are hard to find anywhere else in the saga.
22. Finn and Rey vs. Kylo Ren (Episode VII: The Force Awakens)
The Force Awakens’ climactic duel involved three young people who, despite their varying backgrounds and diametrically opposed ideologies, had essentially the same goal: shake off years of living by other people’s rules and prove themselves once and for all. Despite his (apparent, anyway) lack of proficiency with the Force, stormtrooper turned rebel Finn held his own against tempestuous First Order figurehead Kylo Ren for as long as he could. But it fell to Rey, awakening to gifts she had no idea were in her, to defeat her Dark Side nemesis. Her increasing confidence and his mounting frustration and fury — he’s so shocked by the ass-whupping Rey’s doling out that he literally pounds his own wounds, hoping the physical and emotional pain will fuel a comeback — are expertly performed, giving the fight scene real emotional impact, even if Kylo lives to throw tantrums another day.
21. A night at the opera (Episode III: Revenge of the Sith)
The most singular, most beautiful, and out-and-out weirdest scene in the whole prequel trilogy. Anakin Skywalker’s trip to a grand alien theater with his mentor Chancellor Palpatine showed the Dark Side at its most seductive. Without ever coming out and saying so, Palpatine is telling young Skywalker their mutual origin story: The old man’s Sith Master discovered a way to use the Force to create life, he may have used it to impregnate Anakin’s mom after murdering the poor Sith sap who taught it to him. The false promise of the Dark Side’s power, the portrayal of the Jedi as usurpers of democracy, the motif of students betraying teachers (boy, would that ever come back to bite Palpatine in the ass!) — it’s all conveyed with a nuance and restraint Lucas’s scripts for these films otherwise lack, and it’s ironically delivered in one of the loveliest examples of the galaxy’s high civilization we ever see. The scene is often credited to playwright Tom Stoppard, who gave the screenplay a ghostwriting pass at the behest of Lucas’s BFF Steven Spielberg; whoever the true author is, he should stand center stage in that bubbly blue arena and take a bow.
20. The podrace (Episode I: The Phantom Menace)
Yes, it’s like something out of a video game. As if that’s a bad thing! Since the original trilogy debuted, the ability of video games to create an immersive, you-are-there sensation for fans of high-speed action helped create a new multibillion-dollar industry to rival movies themselves. Why shouldn’t genre filmmakers look there for inspiration? With the help of Ben Burtt, the film’s sound editor and action-sequence supervisor, George Lucas gave us a game for the ages, in which the gifted child Anakin Skywalker races for his life (literally — winning will liberate him from his slave master) against an array of fast, cheap, out-of-control vehicles that are almost all engine. The breakneck speed and phenomenal sound effects more than earn the podrace a place in the Star Wars chase-sequence pantheon.
19. The Sarlacc (Episode VI: Return of the Jedi)
Part monster movie, part pirate adventure, all Star Wars, Luke’s battle to save himself and his friends from “the almighty Sarlacc” — a massive desert-dwelling beast we only see as a gaping maw of teeth and tentacles — is George Lucas at his throwback best. It’s a dazzling mix of moving parts: Luke’s lightsaber, the Sarlacc’s tendrils, Han Solo’s blind panic, Lando Calrissian’s hilarious yelps for help as the creature grabs him, Leia and R2’s escape back on Jabba the Hutt’s sail barge, Boba Fett’s beautifully unceremonious demise, the Sarlacc’s subsequent satisfied belch. Director Richard Marquand cuts back and forth between each element seamlessly, turning what could have been a visually incoherent melee into one of the original trilogy’s most thrilling fight scenes.
18. The Rancor (Episode VI: Return of the Jedi)
A stop-motion homage to creature-feature masters like Willis O’Brien and Ray Harryhausen, the battle between a captured Luke Skywalker and Jabba the Hutt’s saurian “pet,” the Rancor, remains the franchise’s monster fight to beat. From the sudden shock of the trap door to the slow reveal of the beast, from the comically gruesome demise of the squealing piglike Gamorrean guard who falls into the pit alongside the intended target to the tears of the monster’s human handler after Luke puts it down, the scene mixes thrills and chills with a surprisingly wide and deep range of emotions, something lesser hands couldn’t do. The similar blend of kill-or-be-killed tension and genuine pathos during the cave troll attack in The Fellowship of the Ring proves a young Peter Jackson was paying attention.
17. Rey finds Luke (Episode VII: The Force Awakens)
The return of the Jedi. Luke Skywalker was The Force Awakens’ structuring absence: The tragedy that spurred his disappearance drove the story in the form of its architect, his former trainee Kylo Ren, while the map to his location was the MacGuffin for which both sides spent the film searching. But the moment itself outweighs it all. A hooded figure turns around, revealing himself to be the grizzled, wizened older self of the wide-eyed boy who was once the galaxy’s last hope. The film ends with Rey offering Luke his old lightsaber, and the old Jedi just standing there, unsure of whether to take it. A million miles from the triumphant endings of the first films in the two preceding trilogies, this is one of TFA’s few truly original and innovative moments. And the face of Mark Hamill, whose career was forever defined by his star turn in Star Wars nearly three decades earlier, speaks volumes about how whole generations grew up and grew old with the franchise, without his saying a single word.
16. Darth Vader attacks (Rogue One: A Star Wars Story)
“I’ve been waiting to see this since 1978!” So screamed some overjoyed, aging fanboy at the opening-weekend screening of Rogue One to which my 5-year-old daughter insisted I take her. The generation-bridging event in question: Lord Vader’s one-man-army assault on the Rebel Alliance flagship to which the plans for the Death Star were beamed by doomed Rebel spies Jyn Erso and Cassian Andor. The horror and terror in the faces of the Rebel troops who face him becomes visible the moment Vader lights up his red lightsaber, wielding a Force they can neither comprehend nor combat. But his onslaught sets off a chain reaction of events that, in the end, leads to the Empire’s demise. It’s a vulgar display of power and an unwitting demonstration of hubris, all in one fell lightsaber swoop.
15. “UNLIMITED POWER!” (Episode III: Revenge of the Sith)
Some of the actors in the prequel trilogy give the films’ stately dialogue the old college try; others go about their business like they’ve been sentenced to community service. Ian McDiarmid, though? That guy is having the time of his goddamn life. He imbues every moment of senator turned chancellor turned Emperor Palpatine’s screen time with a deliciously sinister joy, as if the guy can barely contain how pleased he is with himself for being so much smarter than all these other idiots. That comes out with a vengeance in his transformation scene — the duel with Jedi Master Mace Windu in which the Sith Lord unleashes Dark Side energies that permanently deform him. In a voice that alternates between helpless old man and shrieking demon straight out of The Exorcist, Palpatine dupes Anakin Skywalker into (literally) disarming Master Windu, then hits his doomed opponent with a Force blast of unprecedented savagery, gleefully screaming about his UNLIMITED POWER while he does so. It’s this blend of menace, might, and mirth that makes the Emperor such a lovably loathsome arch-villain.
14. The first Imperial March (Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back)
One of the most striking things about A New Hope — known as just-plain Star Wars for years after it kicked off the series — was, in retrospect, something that never happened. You never hear that trademark “DUN DUN DUNNN DUN DA-DUNN DUN DA-DUNNNN” that’s forever associated with Darth Vader in the public imagination. Composer John Williams didn’t introduce “The Imperial March” to his score until the sequel, The Empire Strikes Back, when it accompanies a display of the Empire’s formidable fleet in all its mechanistic glory. The music and the moment have so much power that the mind basically backfills the song into the previous movie, as if we’d known this musical representation of the Dark Side all along.
13. “Do, or do not. There is no try.” (Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back)
Long before he pinballed around battlefields with a CGI lightsaber (in real-world chronology, anyway), Jedi Master Yoda was just a little old man in a swamp, a puppet voiced and operated by Jim Henson’s close collaborator Frank Oz. And from that Muppet mouth emerged the series’ second-most-famous maxim. Attempting to impress upon his impetuous pupil Luke Skywalker the need for quiet confidence, Yoda orders him to lift his sunken X-Wing spaceship from the waters of the swamp where it crash-landed, rejecting the young man’s plaintive “I’ll give it a try” with eight words that cut through the self-doubt and self-pity to show the stakes in stark relief. In the end, Luke does not, so Yoda does: Accompanied by one of John Williams’s simplest and most gorgeous themes, the ancient, tiny creature raises one little hand and lifts the ship into the air, to the amazement of Luke, R2, and the audience alike. “I don’t believe it!” Luke exclaims. “That,” a weary Yoda replies, “is why you fail.” It’s here that the character truly feels like the stuff of legend: infinitely old, infinitely wise, infinitely powerful, infinitely sad.
12. Obi-Wan vs. Anakin (Episode III: Revenge of the Sith)
“You were my brother, Anakin. I loved you.” It’s fitting that Obi-Wan Kenobi’s defeat of his childish student turned mass-murdering Sith Lord ends in a declaration of such touchingly childlike simplicity. In many ways the event that all six Star Wars films thus far had led to, the duel between Obi-Wan and Anakin on the lava-streaked planet Mustafar, where the older Jedi dealt his former friend the wounds that would leave him encased in armor for the rest of his life, actually lived up to the promise. Much of the pair’s adventures and falling-out were disappointingly prosaic compared to what the imaginations of millions of viewers had conjured up in the years since we first met them, but this battle felt impassioned, desperate, and raw. It’s as if their emotions, and not the rivers of molten rock, generated all the heat. Ewan McGregor delivered his final lines to his fallen ally with real sadness and regret in his voice, while even the much maligned Hayden Christensen converted his petulance into convincingly blinding rage and hatred. Fight scenes are to action movies as music is to opera: a way to convey emotions too powerful for ordinary words. On that score, this tragic grudge-match succeeded beautifully.
11. Darth Vader unmasked (Episode VI: Return of the Jedi)
There’s light beneath the darkness after all. After Darth Vader turns on his Emperor to save his son and incurs mortal wounds in the process, he implores Luke to remove his mask, so that he can see the person who saved his soul like a human rather than a machine. Under the mask, Luke discovers a bloated, bald, scarred old man whose skin is a sickly pale white, hardly the galaxy-conquering menace he appeared to be. But there’s a strength and dignity in that ruined face that his more intimidating disguise never had. And in the end, Luke hears what countless children dream of hearing from their estranged parents: “You were right.”
10. The opening crawl (Episode IV: A New Hope)
A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, a new movie began with a title sequence that became the most famous and most imitated in cinema history. Modeled on similar opening crawls from the Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers serials George Lucas loved growing up, the first of these elegant infodumps was a collaborative effort involving Lucas, designers Dan Perri and Suzy Rice, and even director Brian De Palma, who helped his friend Lucas tighten up the text for the final version. John Williams’s instantly recognizable theme music makes following those words as they disappear into a deep-space vanishing point truly feel like entering a new world.
9. Duel of the Fates (Episode I: The Phantom Menace)
One of the best fight scenes of all time, the three-way throwdown between Hellraiser-esque Sith warrior Darth Maul, Christlike Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn, and buzzcut young padawan Obi-Wan Kenobi is the high point of the whole prequel trilogy. Choreographed by stunt coordinator Nick Gillard, the duel showcased each combatant’s unique fighting style: Obi-Wan is brash and kinetic, Qui-Gon calm and precise, Maul a whirling buzzsaw with his instantly iconic double-bladed red lightsaber. The unusual setting, involving a series of elevated platforms and timed forcefields, adds a palpable sense of place and environment, in which every move’s consequences are clear and concise. So strong is the “O Fortuna” riff that composer John Williams concocted for the battle — his finest work in the prequels and up there with anything he did in the originals — that the song’s title has become synonymous with the battle itself.
8. The cantina scene (Episode IV: A New Hope)
Looking back, the idea is simplicity itself: In order to sell the audience on the far-out nature of this movie’s strange new world, why not take every creature we can come up with and stick them in the same dive bar at once? It’s hard to overstate just how well the trick worked. The “wretched hive of scum and villainy” described by Obi-Wan Kenobi was actually a pretty swingin’ place, with bug-eyed aliens playing that pitch-perfect jazz tune as aliens with nicknames like Walrus Man and Hammerhead sipped drinks, picked fights, and occasionally got murked by our heroes while the gruff bartender looked on. More than any other scene in the original film, this showed that in Star Wars, anything — like, literally, any thing — was possible.
7. The AT-ATs (Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back)
The most recognizable monster design from the original trilogy isn’t really a monster at all. It’s a tank, more or less — it just so happens to be shaped like a giant robotic dinosaur. The All-Terrain Armored Transports make mincemeat of the hidden Rebel base on the ice planet Hoth, both scaring and blasting the bejesus out of the besieged good guys. But when they go down, they go down spectacularly, as heroes Luke and Wedge discover when they use rope to tie up their legs or scale their colossal height to toss grenades into their guts. Impressive as they were onscreen, the AT-ATs truly achieved pop-culture immortality as one of the most sought-after toys for several generations of Star Wars kids. My own old AT-AT lives on as my little niece’s “pet” to this day.
6. Owned by the Emperor (Episode VI: Return of the Jedi)
It’s one thing to be the maniac who plunged the entire galaxy into tyranny and genocide. But do you have to be such a dick about it, dude? Seated in his throne room aboard the incomplete second Death Star, the Emperor taunts his prisoner Luke Skywalker with his friends’ impending defeat like a bully from an ‘80s teen comedy. “I’m afraid the deflector shield will be quite operational when your friends arrive,” he murmurs with transparently false sympathy before his face lights up with an evil grin. I’ve said it before, but Ian McDiarmid is a pure joy to watch in this role; he realized that being not just evil but obnoxious would give the Emperor the edge over all the hooded Dark Lords before or since.
5. Darth Vader rescues Luke (Episode VI: Return of the Jedi)
Of course, when you’re that evil and that obnoxious for that long, you’re going to make some powerful enemies. The most powerful, it turns out, was right beside him all along. After being manipulated by the Emperor into fighting his father, Darth Vader, Luke snaps out of his rage, shuts down his lightsaber, and simply refuses to fight any longer, choosing mercy over cruelty even at the cost of his own life. Naturally, the Emperor lights him up with Force blasts — until Lord Vader, who can no longer bear his son’s agonized cries for help, turns on his master, hoists him into the air, and tosses his wrinkled old ass down the Death Star reactor shaft. It’s pure catharsis and comeuppance involving two of the big screen’s best bad guys ever — the feel-good moment to end all feel-good moments.
4. The Yub-Nub Song (Episode VI: Return of the Jedi)
Accept no substitutions: The original Ewok song of celebration that ends the first trilogy is the only Ewok song that matters. For reasons beyond comprehension, George Lucas and John Williams replaced this charming, percussive, gibberish-based hoedown with corny pan-flute New Age–isms when Lucas re-released the trilogy decades later. But no viewing of Jedi in my house was complete without dancing around the living room to those gleeful “yub-nubs,” the xylophone made of captured Imperial helmets, and that final choral sweep into the closing theme. For me, this was Star Wars.
3. “I love you.” “I know.” (Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back)
To paraphrase Darth Vader, don’t underestimate the power of a down ending. Wedged between the triumphs of A New Hope and Jedi, Empire showed our heroes blowing it on every conceivable level — including the capture of Han, Leia, and Chewie by Boba Fett and Darth Vader, aided by their strong-armed “friend” Lando Calrissian. And what good’s a prisoner if you can’t conduct a prison experiment, right? Vader decides to try freezing Solo in carbonite as a dry run for what he plans for Luke Skywalker, and Han’s friends are forced to watch. It’s too much for Leia, who finally tells him how she really feels: “I love you.” His response, cooked up by Harrison Ford, summed up his swagger even in the face of impending doom: “I know.” Simultaneously sweet and smug, it makes the moment feel like a real interaction between two troubled people rather than the stuff of melodrama; by being less romantic, it’s actually more romantic. And after they’re reunited in the next film, Leia’s able to return the favor, saying Solo’s line back to him just before she saves both their lives.
2. “I am your father” (Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back)
Wait … what? It’s hard to imagine now, in an age where an entire ecosystem of blogs, news sites, and subreddits exists to unearth every mystery and unravel every riddle before movies and TV shows even finish, but the revelation that Darth Vader didn’t betray Luke’s father, but rather was his father, came out of left field and blew audience’s minds like a million miniature Death Stars. Nowadays it’s one of the most famous plot points in the whole saga, and virtually no one comes to this moment unspoiled. But it doesn’t matter, because the work done here speaks for itself. After a brutal lightsaber duel in which the young Jedi-in-training realizes he’s in way over his head, the Dark Lord has his quarry cornered above a chasm, maiming him in the process. When Vader reveals the truth, his voice pitched to maximum taunting cruelty by actor James Earl Jones, Luke’s reaction is pure anguish. Mark Hamill’s gut-wrenching, sob-choked screams of denial are often and unfairly parodied, but for my money it’s his finest moment as an actor in the entire trilogy. You’re seeing nothing more or less than a young man’s dreams of his father and himself being murdered by the father himself. It hurts because it’s supposed to.
1. The Death Star attack run (Episode IV: A New Hope)
Some might say it’s cheating to cite the entire climactic sequence from the first Star Wars film as the saga’s single greatest moment. Technically it’s not a moment at all, but an entire series of them, each rollickingly entertaining and memorable in its own right. There’s the terse dialogue between the Rebel pilots as they confront the technological colossus closing in on their base: “Red Five standing by,” “Stay on target,” “Almost there.” There are the dual countdowns aboard the Death Star and inside the Rebel base that give everything a race-against-the-clock urgency. There’s the imperious arrogance of Grand Moff Tarkin, played by Peter Cushing in an effortlessly excellent performance: “Evacuate? In our moment of triumph? I think you overestimate their chances!” There’s Darth Vader entering the fray personally, intent on executing the Rebels’ best pilot: “The Force is strong with this one,” he says, not yet realizing how right he is. There’s Luke Skywalker, heeding Obi-Wan’s voice from beyond and trusting the Force to guide him. There’s the setup of the attack itself: a crystal-clear “Get from Point A to Point B while dodging guns and enemy ships, hit a small target, then get the hell out of there” structure that makes every movement easy to grasp and irresistible to watch. There’s the last-minute return of Han Solo, who knocks an incredulous Darth Vader (“WHAT???”) out of the running with a joyous yawp and delivers the immortal lines “You’re all clear, kid! Now let’s blow this thing and go home.” There’s that final pull of the trigger, the shot of the torpedoes hitting their mark, and then … BOOM. Don’t each of these beats merit their own entry?
Maybe, but that would miss the point. The entire sequence is so perfectly paced, so expertly edited, so meticulously constructed that everything feels like links in a chain rather than stand-alone moments. For years now, I’ve learned the hard way that if I walk past a TV or computer where the attack run on the first Death Star is playing, I will drop whatever I’m doing, sit down, and watch it to the end. More than any other sequence in the series, this is an argument for George Lucas’s place in the action-director pantheon, and for the films’ power as cinema at its most propulsive, gripping, and joyous. Yahoo!
*This post originally misstated the name of a planet in Attack of the Clones.