The Moments That Made Star Wars Iconic
Individually, the two words are ostensibly simple. Put them together, however, and an endless array of imagery from a galaxy far, far away floods the mind’s eye. Adventure and excitement might be off-limits to the Jedi, but these are exactly the emotions that Star Wars elicits in its millions of fans. The series was born a long time ago, but the social impact of its tales appears to be eternal. Children experiencing the likes of The Force Awakens or the Rebels cartoon are catching the fever just as audiences did back in 1977, but while many fictional properties possess the ability to enrich childhood, few possess the staying power to influence a lifetime. Those rare instances are where fiction transcends a medium entirely.
These are the moments that ingrained Star Wars not only in the hearts of fans but within pop culture itself:
The Torch is Passed – Episode VII
The through line of The Force Awakens is Rey’s struggle with the burden of destiny. That arc is a common one throughout the various Star Wars sagas, but this time the subject is handled a little bit differently.
Anakin (in Episode I) and Luke (in Episode IV) were both obsessed with expanding beyond the limitations of their upbringings, and Rey comes from similar sand-ridden roots (cue Anakin cringe), also looking for any sense of purpose to take her away from the dunes of Jakku. However, the first time she has an opportunity to become more than just a scavenger (her discovery of Anakin and Luke’s lightsaber) doesn’t go well. She rejects the responsibility outright and runs away.
Cut ahead to the film’s third act, when Rey accepts her calling as a Jedi in one of the biggest “HELL YES!” moments of the film. After Finn falls in battle to Kylo Ren, dropping the Skywalker family lightsaber in the process, she takes the weapon right out from under the spiteful young Sith’s grasp. With the click of a button, the new trilogy’s protagonist is born.
Not the Droids You’re Looking For – Episode IV
The most notable instance of the infamous Jedi mind trick, this entry almost speaks for itself. There are a multitude of Star Wars quotes that have found their way into the cultural zeitgeist, but few are more prevalent than Obi-Wan’s clever dismissal of a few suspicious enemy agents.
Plus, it never gets old seeing the vast levels of Stormtrooper ineptitude, right?
Phantom (Menace) of the Opera – Episode III
The biggest issue of the prequels was just how unbelievably on the nose they were about literally everything. Subtlety and subtext went out the window, and tone took a backseat as Lucas became obsessed with presentation. Lame explanation after lame explanation erased all the mystery the Star Wars universe possessed (don’t get me started on midichlorians), and the prequels became quite possibly the worst case of cinematic style over substance ever. As much fun as it is to crap all over the endless number of misfires that George Lucas committed during them, however, there are a couple of prequel moments that deserve recognition, and this is one of them.
The eerie dialogue passed back and forth between Palpatine and Anakin at the opera possesses something that is incredibly rare for the prequel series: restraint. The context of what Palpatine says as he continues his quest towards swaying the young Jedi to the Dark Side isn’t shoved down the audience’s throat. Much like the original trilogy, the viewer is given the freedom to make up their own interpretations on what should be taken literally, or what should be simply left to the mystical nature of Star Wars.
It was a welcome change and a big reason behind why Episode III is looked at as the best (least worst?) entry in the prequel trilogy.
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Sarlacc – Episode VI
One of the most iconic action sequences of the series, the lead-up and payoff of the rescue of Han Solo is just downright fun, capturing the lighthearted essence and adventurous nature of the original trilogy.
The dialogue interspersed between the bouts of combat are brilliantly paced, and Lucas even pulled a Game of Thrones moment of expectation subversion when he killed off Boba Fett in a less-than-spectacular fashion.
“Boba Fett? Boba Fett?! Where?!!”
(Still) the Fastest Hunk of Junk in the Galaxy – Episode VII
Few moments in The Force Awakens elicited more applause from audiences than when the Millennium Falcon made its triumphant on-screen return. It is yet another instance of how invested fans are in the property, as the Falcon signifies more than just a ship characters use when traversing the galaxy – it’s a character in its own right.
Only What You Take with You – Episode V
The Cave of Evil is a prime example of the original trilogy’s expert use of ambiguity. The viewer (like Luke) doesn’t know what the Cave is, why it’s there, or the full extent of its powers, and its on-screen presence is made all the better for it.
Any narrative gaps get filled in by the audience’s imagination – to a degree that standard exposition simply can’t achieve – and the sense of dread only deepens the further Luke proceeds through its murky testing grounds.
The scene’s haunting atmosphere would go on to help define the darker tone of The Empire Strikes Back, believed to be the franchise’s best installment by most of the Star Wars fan base.
Brothers No Longer – Episode III
With his rendition as a younger Obi-Wan Kenobi, Ewan McGregor became the prequel trilogy’s most iconic inclusion. The actor’s talent and drive allowed him to exceed the often stilted dialogue plaguing Lucas’ scripts, and his presence was never more poignant than on the volcanic planes of Mustafar. The raw display of heartbreak as he ostensibly fights his pupil and best friend to the death is truly devastating, regardless of the viewer’s preconceived notions about Anakin or Episodes I and II.
While the duration of the lightsaber fight between the two former friends potentially goes on a little too long, there is no argument regarding the brilliant quality of McGregor’s acting during the trilogy’s climactic final battle.
Now I Am the Master – Episode IV
Obi-Wan and Vader meet for the first time since their brutal battle on Mustafar, but even though decades have passed, the beef is still strong with these two.
The series’ very first lightsaber battle, the bout is best known for dialogue that cuts just as sharply as any blade. The exchanges back and forth are also another example of Lucas’ use of world-building through vagueness as opposed to spoon-fed exposition. The viewer doesn’t initially know the full context of their conflict and becomes hungry for more details regarding their broken relationship. It also showcases Lucas’ willingness to raise stakes and play with viewer expectations by killing such a significant character.
The Battle of Hoth – Episode V
Switching out the dark depths of space for the blinding snow-covered landscapes of Hoth provided audiences with a truly mind-blowing change of scenery. The stark contrast in battleground location was a level of creativity not seen very much in the likes of early science fiction films, whose settings rarely left the company of the stars.
Hoth also meant a difference in the type of ships and vehicles required for combat. Snowspeeders and AT-ATs became synonymous with Empire, and remain fan favorites to this day. Plus, Luke gets to show off a bit of badassery by single-handedly taking down one of the massive walkers (not bad, considering he had only completed about three minutes of Jedi training at the time).
Duel of the Fates – Episode I
The Phantom Menace is a flashy smorgasbord of poorly conceived narrative cohesion, racial stereotypes, and unbearable failed attempts at comedic relief. But be honest – how cool is that last lightsaber fight?!
Accompanied by one of John Williams’ best compositions for the franchise, the spectacular battle between Obi-Wan, Qui-Gon Jinn, and Darth Maul was a glimpse at what limitless budgets could bring to the filming of lightsaber fights. The verticality from the interesting locale, combined with brilliant pacing, culminates in a breathtaking sequence that is just as thrilling almost twenty years later.
The Mos Eisley Cantina – Episode IV
One of science fiction’s finest examples of worldbuilding, few places evoke Star Wars more than this wretched hive of scum and villainy. A simple glimpse around the cantina tells the viewer all they need to know about the Star Wars universe, as the appearances of its various occupants match the grunginess of the cantina itself.
It showed that the Star Wars galaxy wasn’t sleek and sexy, like the ones in so many other science fiction properties at the time. The result is a universe that feels lived in and truly tactile to the audience.
Han Shot First – Episode IV
The Jedi Returns – Episode VI
In the final battle of Return of the Jedi, the viewer can’t help but cheer as Darth Vader’s arc comes full circle. Seeing his son being killed at the hands of the Emperor proves too much (even for a Sith Lord), and Vader chooses family over his beloved master. Unfortunately, his time removed from the Dark Side is short, as the Emperor ensures their mutual destruction via his force lightning.
Vader is able to hang on just long enough for Luke to finally get a glimpse beneath the mask, and the viewer discovers that it wasn’t a monster under the machinery at all, but a broken man haunted by a lifetime of mistakes. Having finally seen his son with his own eyes, he passes away in Luke’s arms.
No longer a master of evil, Anakin dies a Jedi.
The Trash Compactor – Episode IV
The moment when Luke, Leia, Han, and Chewie all meet for the first time is best known for its witty dialogue exchanges, but the scene accomplishes more than just that. Their on-screen chemistry is undeniable from the start, and these dynamics weren’t commonly found in ’60s and ’70s sci-fi. Many related projects focused on the spectacle brought forth from their bombastic settings, and put character development on the backburner. This was never the case with Star Wars, as the characters feel like friends and family instead of strangers sharing a common cause.
Sith Lord Abattoir – Rogue One
Darth Vader’s role might be limited to just a handful of minutes in Gareth Edward’s Rogue One, but the Sith Lord’s screen presence is felt here more than ever. Watching him cut through Rebel soldiers like butter is a terrifying sight to behold, as the viewer finally gets a peek at why the galaxy quakes when simply hearing his name.
A true force of nature, the display of savagery makes the man live up to the legend, and almost makes us forget all about Anakin’s whiny portrayal in the prequels.
There is No Try – Episode V
Almost everything Yoda says is quotable, but his most memorable quote is also one of the best lines in the whole series. Eight simple words, but together they form a profound message:
“Do. Or do not. There is no try.”
Yoda’s lesson is based around the concept of remaining mindful of the present, and that a goal can only be achieved through undying devotion. It’s a simple but poignant statement that transcends the worlds of space wizards and laser swords, seeping into the realms of day-to-day life: excuses and limitations are simply self-imposed constructs that can be vanquished, regardless of size or stature.
Death Star Trench Run – Episode IV
Before blowing up a world-destroying space station became a weekly event in the Star Wars universe, the first time seeing the Death Star get taken out was a mind-blowing sequence for viewers.
Groundbreaking special effects brought the audience right inside the cockpits of both sides of the conflict, but it’s the moments of character development that define the battle. Luke (with encouraging words from Obi-Wan) buys into his Jedi ability wholesale by choosing the Force over his targeting computer. The victory is only made possible, however, by Han returning and taking out Vader’s ship, enabling Luke to take out the super weapon. The act marked Han’s transformation from smuggler to Rebel hero.
I Know – Episode V
One of the most gut-wrenching moments in Star Wars canon, Han Solo’s open-ended fate at the end of The Empire Strikes Back shocked audiences. It was one of many dark cliffhangers towards the end of the film, but the emotional lead-up to his carbonite freezing makes the scene cut deeper than any of the rest.
Not knowing whether or not Han would survive the process, Leia decides to reveal her feelings for the smuggler. His reply consists of just two words but tells everyone all they need to know about what makes Harrison Ford’s role one of the franchise’s most popular characters.
In true Han fashion, the man even makes becoming a Popsicle suave as hell.
I Am Your Father – Episode V
The lede isn’t buried due to the movie’s title, but fans simply weren’t prepared for the dark developments of The Empire Strikes Back. Luke’s lightsaber fight with Vader is a marathon of brutality, amplified even more so when the viewer learns of Obi-Wan’s deceit. Vader didn’t kill Anakin Skywalker – he is Anakin. Rather than join his father, Luke risks death by careening down the vents of Cloud City, and is just barely saved by his comrades.
Before becoming one of the most commonly (mis)quoted movie lines of all time, the reveal of Darth Vader’s familial ties to Luke Skywalker dropped jaws. And while the quote has quite often been used for humorous purposes, there is nothing comical at all about the third act of The Empire Strikes Back. It is one of fiction’s most prominent examples of building upon the framework of a story through intensification of tone and stakes.
The Opening Crawl
The anticipation. The energy. The excitement – there’s nothing quite like being in a theater of die-hard Star Wars fans as everyone awaits that booming John Williams score and vibrant yellow banner.
Then it finally hits.
Waves of joyful nostalgia crash in droves with each new scrolling line, and the viewer is transported right back to where they were the first time they experienced the galaxy far, far away. It’s lightning in a bottle all over again, every time pure, unadulterated –
These are just a handful of the countless great moments Star Wars has given us over the last four decades. What are some of your favorites that didn’t make the list? Let us know your inclusions in the comments!