I know I’ve expressed disdain with what you might call “Buzzfeed-style” articles here before, but let’s be honest—who doesn’t love a good animated gif? A few properly-chosen seconds from your favorite piece of media can be like a little fortune cookie that allows you to reconnect with it for just a moment; in service of a larger point, to illustrate recurring imagery, or just for the fun of it.
I recently asked the staff to share their quintessential Star Wars movie moments; not just cool stuff, but the moments that spoke to them deep down, that encapsulated everything they love about SW in just a few seconds. On a whim, I then set out to track down an appropriate gif of each moment to go along with their responses. That part was a lot harder than I’d expected. Let’s see how I did.
Alexander: To choose a single moment to encompass all that one loves about Star Wars would normally be a quite difficult task, there being six entire films to choose from and a great many scenes deserving of recognition for their quality. Thankfully, the decision made itself for me, as I could not think of any scene more suitable than the one that drew me in to the franchise in the first place. When A New Hope appeared on my television screen, I was coming to the story somewhat later than most. The opening crawl and the famous battle over Tatooine were already in the past, and we had moved on to the boarding of the Tantive IV. The first face I laid eyes on was that of poor, doomed Pello Scrambas, soon to perish due to his truly terrible understanding of tactics and his inability to find anything approaching real cover.
Then, something extraordinary happened. The ship was boarded. A legion of faceless soldiers, clad in identical suits of white armor, armed with rifles firing not bullets, but lasers (or, at least, what the average person imagined lasers to look and function like at the time). It was quite unlike anything that I had ever seen before, existing outside the boundaries of genre as I knew them (even today, Star Wars stands almost alone in terms of visual distinctiveness). Much is often made of the image of Star Wars as being “dirty” and “real,” but what frequently goes ignored is that some of our first glimpses into the universe were in the polished and immaculate white halls of a royal starship. Alderaan may not have had quite as significant an obsession with chrome as Naboo did, but to be fair, Lucas was working on a budget. It wasn’t dusty old Tatooine that seized my attention, but the obviously out-of-this-world events that were taking place in its orbit.
Still, the stormtroopers and the guardsmen weighed down by their ponderous helmets (perhaps meant to make up for their tragic lack of body armor) were just the setup, the first half of a two-pronged attack. The stormtroopers, the starships, the futuristic designs, all of this carefully cultivated to give the image of what one would naturally expect from a work of science fiction. Then came Vader, our first hint that this story is going to be something much, much more interesting and unusual. A towering cyborg encased from head to toe in black armor, a floor-length cape at his back, and a mechanical hiss a substitute for breathing, he was a jarring departure from everything else we had seen so far. Even without a word, his very presence stood in contrast to his surroundings. It was as if the dark lord out of some medieval fantasy had stepped onto the stage, and we had to adjust our expectations in light of this new addition.
What I love most about Star Wars has never been the story or the characters. It’s the setting, the fundamental concept elevated above all else that fuses fantasy with science fiction and a thousand thousand other things, and that fusion is best embodied in the form of Darth Vader. Remarkable a scene as it is, the battle itself is ultimately fairly mundane in nature without him and his mission. Vader stands (literally) a head above the rest, equal parts past and present, samurai armor and cyborg (later revealed to be a former knight in possession of a laser sword), in pursuit of a planetary princess in possession of the plans for a cataclysmic superweapon. It was a winning combination. Darth Vader gave the audience the villain they wanted and Star Wars the villain it needed, someone memorable and iconic who was able to reduce a fight over the fate of a million worlds to something more personal, more visceral, and the moment he entered the picture the nature of the story changed for the better.
Tyler: It’s hard to pick a moment from the Star Wars films that speaks more deeply to me than the Binary Sunset scene from A New Hope. Our hero has just been told by his uncle that adventure can wait, as he needs him to help out for another season on the moisture farm. Frustrated, Luke charges up and out of the farmstead, and watches the twin suns of Tatooine sink beneath the horizon, much like his hopes of ever escaping the farmstead and experiencing everything the galaxy has to offer. Excitement and adventure are tantalizingly out of reach. It’s an experience that many viewers can sympathize with- many of us would give anything to break the monotony of day-to-day life and go off on some damned fool idealistic crusade, yet such excitement remains eternally out of reach, due to the reality of our day-to-day work and responsibilities. Of course, for those who have seen the movies before, there’s an element of tragedy to this scene as well- Luke will embark upon his Hero’s Journey very soon, but it will come at a terrible price.
Visually speaking, this scene perfectly conveys the blend of the familiar and the alien in Star Wars. At its core, this scene involves a farmboy wistfully watching the sun set, pining for adventure and a break in the ennui of farm work. There’s this stark, unforgiving beauty to the deserts of Tatooine, and this scene perfectly captures it. Yet of course, it has this wonderfully alien vibe to it. The sun on the horizon is a binary star. The farmstead is in the middle of the desert, and primarily produces moisture. The actual farm implements are inescapably futuristic, dingy though they may be. While the desert setting itself isn’t alien to Earth, the sheer vast, flat emptiness of the Jundland Wastes is rather alien to me, as someone who grew up in the mountains of West Virginia. It is absolutely one of the most iconic scenes of the Star Wars saga, and brilliantly conveys both the emotional state of the hero and the blend of the familiar and the alien in Star Wars. And of course, the scene is only enhanced by John Williams’ score. The accompanying soundtrack truly makes you *feel* Luke’s frustration, as his ambitions sink with Tatoo I and Tatoo II into the night.
It’s a scene that speaks powerfully to where I am in my life. How I wish I could hop on a starship- or hell, a train- and leave my responsibilities and do something exciting with my life. How I wish to escape this state- I don’t want to spend the rest of my life in West Virginia, much as Luke didn’t want to spend his days as a moisture farmer. While I have academic and professional ambitions, they currently lie tantalizingly out of reach- much like an appointment at the Imperial Academy. Things that Jedi do not crave lie just over the horizon, but they might as well be thousands of miles away at the moment.
Ben: Now they are so well known as to be passé. Lightsabers are so, well, so dull, so frequent that it’s hard to imagine when they didn’t exist!
Oh, but it’s only a laser sword! They would have existed before Star Wars! Certainly, but until Star Wars did it, no film had realized it so well nor with such cool imagery.
Still the cynics persist: It’s just a fluorescent tube! Well yeah but you ever seen the Sammo Hung film Pedicab Driver? There’s a mass fight between two rival pedicab companies and, at one point, Sammo and his opponent go at it with fluorescent tubes before they both get zapped by them. It looks cool there so how much better will it look in Star Wars? Answer is loads better.
But it’s not just a case of it being cool, no, this is a very elegant way of inserting swords into a space opera, it weaves in the swashbuckling genre by stealth for its later explosion in the film. There’s other fighting devices in sci-fi, but not even Klingon Bat’Leths can match lightsabers for sheer enduring popularity – and this was long before the double-bladed version turned up!
More than anything else the lightsaber design transcended its appearance – people don’t see a plastic moulded tube with a florescent tube stuck on and careful editing to make it look better. No, they see a wondrous saber of light – and much of that is due to Hamill making it look believable.
It’s a short while later, in the stinking pit that is Mos Eisley, just how lethal these blades are as Kenobi quite casually disarms an attacker! And that , in Mos Eisley, gets you all of 3 seconds attention! Then, when on board the Falcon we’re told a person can use the Force to use a lightsaber to bock blaster bolts! Not only is it utterly lethal and cuts through anything – anything? Well, there the EU has many stories of its own to tell – but if you’re fast enough, it deflects laser fire – how cool is that?
Finally, the last aspect is that lightsabers are not only restricted to the heroes, oh no, the villains get them as well. Of course, the heroic saber is blue while the villainous saber is red, as seen in the duel between Darth Vader and Obi-Wan Kenobi.
All of these elements add up to a captivating concept brilliantly executed which immediately set Star Wars apart from everything else. At the same time it was used sparingly, when the sabers came out, you knew serious shit was about to go down. And if said saber is red, very deadly serious indeed… And if it was green? Well, let’s just say if you’re a gangster, the outlook for your minions isn’t great.
Lucas: For me, Star Wars has always been about a lot more than just Jedi and Sith. Those Force-wielding warriors are just one part of a vast and magnificent setting, encompassing droids, stormtroopers, princesses, scavengers, politicians, moisture farmers, smugglers, fighter pilots, bounty hunters, mining colony administrators, gangsters, and fleet admirals. Children who watched Star Wars dreamed about flying with Rogue Squadron, making the Kessel Run, shooting stormtroopers, and ducking Boba Fett right alongside their dreams of learning the Jedi ways from Yoda and dueling Darth Vader. X-wings are just as central to the original trilogy’s iconography as lightsabers.
Star Wars is just as much about Lando, Wedge, Tarkin, Boba, Artoo, and Jabba as it is about Luke, Obi-Wan, Vader, and the Emperor. But most importantly, it’s about Han Solo. Han, unlike any of those Forceless others, is a lead character, the lead character who embodies the presence of the Forceless everyman in the films. He doesn’t get a lightsaber. He doesn’t want one; he’s not interested in “hokey religions and ancient weapons.” He doesn’t need one; give him a blaster and a ship and he’s all the badass you could ask for. He’s not just some sidekick; he’s valuable, a hero in his own right. He saves Luke at the end of A New Hope, because the Force is great, but you need Han Solo watching your back, too, if you’re going to blow up that Death Star.
We see our dreams in Luke — we want to be special, to escape the farm and become a hero, to discover from out of nowhere that we have a great destiny, to be righteous and pure, to have magical powers and an awesome sword and defeat the darkest, scariest villains. But in Han, we see ourselves. Scruffy. Smartass. Terrible luck. No special parents, no special destiny. Good at heart, but maybe not perfect, you know? No magical advantages, just the ability to make the best of what he’s got. And that’s what makes him so cool. Well, that and he’s played by Harrison Ford. Han’s charismatic, identifiable, the guy we like to think we could actually be when we grow up. Han is at the heart of Star Wars, a significant player in elevating it from stock Campbellian fantasy to magnetic pulp perfection.
And what’s the ultimate Han moment? Shooting first. Because Han doesn’t just represent the everyman; he represents the scoundrel. He drags the criminal underbelly into the story, introduces moral complexity to the black-and-white struggle as his mercenary habits slowly but surely give way to his heroic instincts. He’s the guy who reclaims his soul but never gives up his edge. He’s the Wild West cowboy, dark and dangerous even when he’s doing the right thing. And that’s all set up perfectly by his introduction to the saga.
We meet Han when he negotiates with Luke, but we get to know him immediately afterward, when he’s cornered by a bounty hunter with a grudge. From that, we immediately learn that Han’s a scoundrel, a guy in trouble in the underworld. But he’s cool under pressure; he bickers and bullshits and acts like this happens every week. But what lets us know that Han’s a real pro is that, while Greedo’s distracted, Han is slowly drawing his blaster under the table. It’s a great sequence, letting us in on the secret of how thoroughly Han has this guy outmatched. And then, the moment that lets us know something more: Han’s not a squeaky-clean hero. He’s not some Walter White antihero, but he’s a guy living on the edge, a guy making moral compromises the shiny Jedi Knights don’t make. He shoots Greedo dead under the table while Greedo threatens him; the bounty hunter never even sees it coming. Han doesn’t wait to be attacked; he shoots first and flips the bartender a coin to clean up the mess. It’s a wow moment, when everything comes together to let us see exactly who this Han Solo character is going to be: beleaguered by bad luck, gritty, but cool, cocky, competent, and a crucial counterpoint to Luke Skywalker’s all-American morality.
I won’t get into the problems with taking that first shot away; we’ve all heard that lament before. No, I just want to celebrate that scene, that badass moment, climaxing our first dip into the underworld that’s such a key part of the universe, setting the perfect tone for the gritty everyman Han, and letting us fall in love with our favorite scoundrel. An iconic moment introducing an iconic character, it’s everything I love about Star Wars.
Mike: Dirty secret time: growing up, long before I ever saw Star Wars, I watched a fair amount of Trek. I don’t think I ever consciously sought out The Next Generation, but I remember it just sort of being on a lot, and I would guess I saw maybe 20 or 30 episodes over the years. As a teenager, I finally had my own TV in my bedroom, and there was a point where Voyager came on just as I was supposed to be going to bed, and for maybe a year or so my nightly routine was to sit in bed and watch it until I fell asleep (which tells you all you need to know, really, but that’s another article). The Trek universe was entertaining enough, but I just never really connected with it. The Special Editions hit when I was 14, and suddenly I was met with a kind of sci-fi I scarcely knew existed–one where shit gets dirty, and hologram voicemails skip, and you get a lot of carbon scoring from all those battles you’ve been in.
Actually, that’s not completely true–there was another sci-fi franchise I grew up with that had connected with me in exactly that way: Back to the Future. To this day I explain my childhood to other SW fans by saying that the experience they had with SW, I had with BttF. I would’ve been exposed to TNG around the same time, mind you, but when I had to make a car for Pinewood Derby in Cub Scouts, I didn’t make the Enterprise, I made a DeLorean.
(Granted, the Enterprise is probably the one thing that would’ve been even less aerodynamic than my DeLorean, but you get my point.)
Even as a nine-year-old, BttF spoke to me in a way that Trek never did—and unreliable technology isn’t just atmosphere in those movies, it’s basically the entire plot. So looking back, I can see why SW felt like home when it appeared on my radar. This was a universe I understood, where the tech was fancy, sure, but it lived and breathed just like the characters. And nothing expressed that better than the Falcon itself, which looked awesome to us in the real world but came across as a total piece of shit in-universe—and for all her special qualities, she could actually be a piece of shit once in a while.
Much like BttF, not only does a busted hyperdrive provide the essential underpinning of two-thirds of Empire‘s plot (seriously—take a second and think about how differently things would have gone if Han and Leia had jumped straight from Hoth to the rendezvous), I would even go so far as to say that that context is what made the Han/Leia romance plot feel so natural and compelling despite all the grandiose Star Warring going on. Anakin and Padmé’s first kiss was in a palatial estate, on the planet she used to run—Han and Leia’s was surrounded by engine parts, with the smell of welding in the air. Yet which couple would we rather have been?
Lisa: I’m not sure how old I was when I first saw the movies. I remember being at a friend’s house and watching A New Hope with them and being completely fascinated. I must’ve looked it too because my friend’s mom gave me the trilogy to take home with me so I could watch the rest and continue to watch them as much as I wanted. And watch them I did. I poured over the movies as often as I was allowed to, taking it all in. From C-3PO and R2-D2’s first conversation to Luke Skywalker holding his father’s lightsaber to Leia taking matters into her own hands during the Death Star rescue to the first time I laid eyes on an X-wing, I remember feeling the obsession grow with each new scene.
It is difficult for me to pinpoint what I love the most. The hook, if you will, for the series for me. There are many aspects that I like but after thinking for several days on this I have to go back to my youth and how I felt. R2-D2 was my love growing up. For every Yoda action figure my brother got, I received an R2. For every time someone talked about the Jedi or Darth Vader I loudly voiced my opinion that Artoo is the best Star Wars character.
Artoo is the real hero of Star Wars and I happily enjoy the fact that as a droid he can keep showing up in as many movies as they see fit because he’s ageless. Artoo continually risked his existence to bring information or lightsabers to where they needed to be. He assisted Luke during the trench run, he went toe to strut with Yoda over a light, he freed Leia, Han, Chewie and Luke from Jabba and got fried during the battle of Endor trying to take down the shield. Pretty much anywhere the ‘heroes’ were, Artoo was there facilitating their path to victory.
The concept of a non-human hero really hooked me. I want my own R2 unit and adore the fact that I live in an age of smart phones that I can talk to and that answer me. It is kind of like realizing a childhood dream, or close enough at this point. The fact that George Lucas could put a droid on screen that never actually says a word but that I as a viewer can feel like I know exactly how the droid feel or what he’s saying will always amaze me. My text message notification is one of his sounds and it makes me smile every time it goes off not because I’m excited about getting a text message, but it makes me remember that initial feeling of seeing the Star Wars movies.
I’m not sure my love for Artoo really solidified until Return of the Jedi. I had a pretty big crush on Luke Skywalker but seeing Artoo roll his way into Jabba’s palace and offer himself up as a present to a big crime lord and then end up being the key to saving the others by smuggling in Luke’s lightsaber ended up solidifying my obsession with Artoo. This obsession would eventually cause me to drive four hours to the nearest US postal mailbox dressed up to look like R2-D2 so I could take my picture by it.
Jay: Let’s defy expectations. One might expect us to remark on the first reveal of the Executor or the Emperor’s Arrival — and such moments did and do hold particular moment in our catalogue of early Star Wars recollections — but we want to talk about something a bit more grand than all that, even more universal. What could that possibly be? Our selected moment: the Endor Victory Celebration.
No, we don’t refer to Yub Nub — though the removal of that song from the end of the film is an unspeakable crime — but rather the celebration itself and what it represents. Not the downfall of the Empire, which is clearly an unmitigated tragedy for the galaxy, but what it represents for the protagonists and the viewers of the films. The scene shows — for the first and only time — the gathering of all the protagonists, both primary and secondary. Some of those secondary protagonists are present only in spirit, but they are there and able to participate in the celebration through the media of Luke Skywalker and the audience themselves. Even Wedge Antilles — a tertiary character to survive the entire trilogy and take on great significance in the EU — is present, and he gleefully participates in the festivities while Lando Calrissian and Chewbacca discuss their respective escapades with sound and gesture.
This is a different moment from all the rest: it doesn’t symbolize what the Star Wars experience is or would be, but rather, what it was and has been. It’s a family gathering — both a reunion and a last hurrah. It ties together all the characters and plotlines from the trilogy and lets the audience say goodbye to them all at once. It’s a feeling of fondness and familiarity. It captures moments that echo through the entire film — and indeed, trilogy — from the “now I owe you one,” to the end of Luke Skywalker’s training with his two Jedi masters, and culminating in the gathering of the Rebel fleet with all of the main heroes reunited. Return of the Jedi, for all its criticism, does represent the culmination of the original trilogy.
It’s especially relevant in the era of the sequel trilogy, especially with the word filtering down that Episode VII may feature the Big Three in a key role: this is a contemporary incarnation of what ROTJ was in general, nostalgia for a story that is the fruition to the Original Trilogy. Though we’ve had it already, this happens from time to time: Shadows of the Empire was another example, almost two decades ago now. Whether or not Episode VII will do this successfully remains to be told, but at the very least: at least we can always go back to ROTJ with fondness and see all our friends one last time.