I don’t use the word perfect a lot, but I do for the space battle over Endor in Return of the Jedi. That film, released 37 years ago (nearly one month after the birth of a future online admiral with a penchant for fish people), undoubtedly laid out the structure for how good space battles are designed, shot, and utilized narratively. It is the fleet battle against which all fleet battles in sci-fi are measured against. Our gold standard.
Before I dive in, I’d be remiss if I didn’t give a quick shout out to the brilliant minds at Industrial Light & Magic, both past and present. Those wizards created fantastic physical and digital models for these space battles and the techniques to film or compose a shot. Regardless of these battles’ narrative elements, ILM’s work is perfect and without peer.
This article will focus primarily on the narrative structure of a good space battle and how, when used properly, they can be an integral and memorable part of a film. To do so, I will first showcase the decisions and story beats that comprise the space battle over Endor. Second, I will compare these traits to what we see in the two major fleet battles of the modern Star Wars era, the Battle of Scarif in Rogue One and the Battle of Exegol in The Rise of Skywalker. Along the way, we’ll see what works, what doesn’t, and what are the elements of the “secret sauce” that makes a damned good space battle!
The Battle of Endor. The final battle of the original trilogy, that saw the ragtag Rebel Alliance commit the entirety of its navy to battle against the second Death Star and the might of the Imperial starfleet. When looking at the elements that make the Battle of Endor so iconic, let’s consider the following aspects:
- The initial goals and stakes
- The main characters who will tell the story
- The narrative structure/evolution of the battle
In Return of the Jedi, we know from the moment we join our heroes on Home One what the goal is and what is at stake. Mon Mothma and Admiral Ackbar lay out the Rebels’ plan and why it is important. Not only is the otherwise-indestructible second Death Star not yet operational, but the Emperor is onboard. Those facts make it clear to the audience why the Alliance would risk gathering their forces into a single armada for a desperate attack. Conversely, we know that the Emperor is using this battle as a trap to destroy the Alliance once and for all. So, before a single ship of the Rebel fleet emerges over the forest moon of Endor, we clearly know the stakes.
Next, the characters through whose eyes we will see the battle unfold. Any good battle needs to be more than just fast starfighters and massive capital ships trading shots. We need a more personal perspective, lest we get lost in the chaos that is a major battle. For the Battle of Endor, Lucas and Marquand gave us four characters to see the battle through. On the side of the Alliance, we have Admiral Ackbar, Lando Calrissian, and Wedge Antilles. This was brilliant on many levels. First, we got differing perspectives on the same side. The veteran admiral who was the traditional officer, the brash but innovative gambler who was thrust into command, and the “everyman” of the Rebellion, Wedge. This trio provides a full spectrum of Rebel perspectives on the battle, including moments where they doubt each other. On the Imperial side, our primary viewpoint is Admiral Piett, with a smaller role played by Emperor Palpatine. These characters, whether piloting or commanding from large capital ships, make the story more personal than the assembly of ships facing off around them. They add gravitas and drama, and move the narrative forward.
Now, let’s look at the battle itself. A good space battle is like a finely-choreographed dance. It has structure, flow, different sequences at different paces, and is ultimately a complete piece. When we consider the Battle of Endor, we can broadly break down the battle into the following narrative chunks:
- Rebel fleet arrival and the trap sprung
- Engagement with Imperial fighters
- Death Star opens fire
- Engaging the Imperial fleet at point blank range
- Attacking the Death Star
- Ackbar attacks the Executor
- Final victory
Each of these moments is distinct. We see various viewpoints at each moment and feel the emotions of each character. The battle flows naturally through each of the segments I list above. Within these segments, we get smaller snapshots of the wider battle. Wedge taking out TIEs. The protection of the medical frigate. The deaths of pilots. Best of all, we see how Ackbar and Lando both have differing views on what should be done. Ackbar, the traditional officer who built this navy, wants to retreat and regroup. Lando, the gambler turned Rebel general, knows this is their only shot. Yet, once the decision is made to fight things out, each throws their all into the battle. The stakes for all three are the same. Just as Wedge could be vaped by a single blast from a TIE interceptor, so too could Ackbar die if the Death Star targeted his cruiser. The battle also doesn’t leave a lot of loose ends or introduce elements to be forgotten later. Beat the Imperial Navy? Check. Bring down the Super Star Destroyer? Check. Death Star destroyed? Check.
The final outcome is clear. By the time the Executor crashes into the Death Star, we know Ackbar’s fleet is going to win. As Lando and Wedge hit the main reactor, we know that the dreaded battle station is doomed. Lastly, to leave no ambiguity about the outcome, the final shot of the battle is the entire Rebel fleet, with the Falcon hot behind, moving to a safe distance from the exploding Death Star. Cinematic magic and a story that nearly four decades later is still the gold standard against which all space battles are judged.
Now, when we analyze the Battles of Scarif and Exegol against the elements I listed above, it becomes clear how these battles stack up compared to Endor. Starting with the first element (goals and stakes), we see both films do a solid job explaining the how and why.
The goal of the Battle of Scarif is to obtain the Death Star plans from Rogue One strike team at all costs. At the Battle of Exegol, it’s to stop the Sith Eternal fleet at all costs. The stakes too are clear. In the case of Scarif, the failure to retrieve the plans from Jyn Erso and her team will result in the fledgling Alliance being unable to destroy the Empire’s new battle station. For Exegol, it is clear that if they cannot stop the Sith Eternal Fleet that it will be turned loose on the remaining free worlds of the galaxy. So, for the first point, both meet the Endor bar.
Next, let’s examine the characters. At Scarif, we have the viewpoint primarily of Admiral Raddus, with additional points of view from classic A New Hope pilots Garven Dreis and Jon Vander, as well as some other pilots. We also see Captain Oquone, who leads his Hammerhead corvette Lightmaker into a suicide attack that ultimately brings down the two Star Destroyers guarding the shield gate. So, when compared to Endor, the film more or less follows the pattern of multiple POVs giving us a more personal stake in the battle. Exegol, on the other hand, falls short in this area. Our primary POV is Poe Dameron. Poe’s function is clear: he is the lens through which we experience the success or failure of the battle. While his doubts about leading the Resistance factor prominently and build directly off his arc in The Last Jedi, the lack of a meaningful push and pull with other characters limits his utility as a point of view—with the arguable exception of Lando’s arrival, as his success is a validation of the decision to send him in search of allies. While exciting in the moment, quick appearances from Wedge Antilles and Zorii Bliss pale in comparison to the much more fleshed-out roles that Ackbar, Lando, and Wedge had at Endor. This causes the battle to suffer narratively, which I’ll discuss more in the next section.
The biggest difference between Scarif and Exegol as compared to Endor becomes most apparent in the third area: the narrative structure of the battle and its evolution. Scarif takes a page directly from Return of the Jedi, crafting a battle that is broken into individually-distinct moments:
- Arrival of the fleet
- Attack on the shield gate
- Engagement with the Star Destroyers
- Y-wing ion torpedo attack
- Hammerhead corvette attack
- Arrival of the Death Star
- Escape of the fleet/Vader arrives on the Devastator
Each moment gives that scene a unique feel and raises the stakes. We have clear objectives, evolving tactics, and elevating stakes. While the Battle of Scarif is much smaller than Endor, One-fifteenth as many Star Destroyers and around one-twentieth the Mon Cala cruisers, because of course I’ve counted. it still manages to feel epic and keep us all on the edge of our seats. In fact, this last point is what made Scarif so great: that final scene of the fleet battle, where the Alliance is about to escape, twists our expectations. After a handful of smaller corvettes, gunships, and fighters escape, the Devastator arrives. Before you know it, a Nebulon-B frigate is broken in two and Raddus’s flagship Profundity is hammered and burning. We also get a clear and satisfying ending, with the escape of Leia on the Tantive IV, thereby setting up the opening scene of A New Hope.
Finally, lets analyze the narrative structure of the Battle of Exegol. It can be roughly chunked out as follows:
- Resistance forces arrive
- The navigation tower is turned off
- The landing on the Star Destroyer Steadfast
- The Resistance is depleted and near defeat
- The arrival of the galaxy fleet
- Palpatine’s lightning attack
- Final victory over the Sith fleet
Coincidentally or not, it has roughly seven story beats, just as Endor and Scarif do. However, when examined closely, most fall short. Let me be clear: I am torn on this battle. The arrival of the galaxy fleet, for me personally, is one of the most exciting and moving moments in the saga; where the peoples and worlds of the galaxy finally stand up for their freedoms and rally to the Resistance. The spark becomes a fire. Lando isn’t joking when he tells Poe “There are more of us!”. Over sixteen thousand ships—from various classes of Mon Cala cruiser to numerous frigate types to countless fighters and freighters—are there to answer the call. This is when the Battle of Exegol goes from being a small Resistance attack to a massive engagement.
Yet, the weaker areas previously noted have an effect on this. We have fewer POVs, and even those we have are mostly “target that cannon and blow it up”. The battle’s beats, while capable of being summarized as I do above, are less structured moments and more frantic motion and visual overload. Compare hundreds or thousands of ships simply buzzing around the Sith Xyston-class Star Destroyers to the more structured beats of Endor and Scarif. There are no clearly laid-out sequences within the larger battle like the attack on the Executor or the different waves of attacks on the Scarif shield gate. Instead, we get a battle that feels more like a swarm of bees than a choreographed dance.
Now, I can’t speak for what JJ Abrams and company had in mind for this scene. It could very well be that they intended the battle to feel this way and wanted the true narrative focus to remain on Rey and Ben’s fight with Palpatine. One could argue that the fleet battle itself was mostly a backdrop to the final confrontation between the Sith and the Jedi. This may be true and may have been the right call for the film, but based on the metrics of Endor as the “golden standard” of a space battle, Exegol sorely misses the mark.
With the sequel trilogy wrapped up, the future of Star Wars is open and headed in a new direction. While I truly enjoy all the films (including The Rise of Skywalker), I can only hope that the next time an epic space battle is on the drawing board for a new film they take primary inspiration from the battle that remains the undisputed king: the Battle of Endor.
|↑1||One-fifteenth as many Star Destroyers and around one-twentieth the Mon Cala cruisers, because of course I’ve counted.|