With STAR WARS news dominating the movie geek landscape, this topic seemed a no-brainer. There's so much rampant speculation on what the new movies will be about - standalone as well as Episodes VII - IX - and fans are amped for the first time in a while. As for myself, I'm curious as to how these movies will be received. The hype is intense, and the potential for being disappointed is just as intense. Catching lightning in a bottle more than once is as rare as the metaphor suggests, but the STAR WARS films did it. They've also missed that lightning many times - some spectacularly.
So why does STAR WARS work when it works? The big crime of the Prequels is that I just didn't seem to give a damn about anyone. Anakin's fall should have been compelling stuff - a tragedy of loss and wasted life. But Anakin, as written, just wasn't very likable. Same goes for the Jedi - and I get what George was trying to do here. In his way, he was trying for subtlety. There is no one right path, and the Jedi during the time of the Prequels had become so entrenched in their dogma that they refused to see the galaxy as it was falling around them. But he failed to address the point successfully. One could say that he was too subtle, but it was just poor storytelling.
But probably the most fatal flaw was that the Prequels just weren't much fun. There was no wiseass poking holes in all the pretension, and the moments of splendor and wonder were very few. There's a streak of cynicism in the Prequels that's simply not there in the original films. Too many scenes feel calculated, and not spontaeneous. The only character seeming to be having a good time is the Emperor, and Ian McDiarmid is by far the best actor in those movies, almost to the point that you're rooting for him to bring the whole thing down.
I don't want to turn this into a Prequel bash (too late) because there are moments that work in them. But for the most part, it's the original movies that deliver that moviegoing joy, and that's the bar that the new movies will be measured by. I think Lucasfilm is on the right track with the writers they've chosen, and J. J. Abrams will come at Episode VII with obvious passion. But I think it's good to remember those moments that stay burned in our collective imagination, and that minus all the build-up, all the anticipation, that these movies are still worth it. So here goes:
5. The Qui-Gon/Obi-Wan/Darth Maul Duel, EPISODE I: THE PHANTOM MENACE
Yeah, I just bashed the Prequels, but the duel in THE PHANTOM MENACE is undeniably terrific. It's the one moment in the Prequels where they actually came to life, and we were invested. The artistry on display is beautiful, and Ray Park's skills are impressive. There's an intensity to this sequence that seems noticeably absent in other action moments in the Prequels - although I do have a warm spot for the Pod Race, where Lucas gets to play with his fetish for speed - and for a bit, the Jedi throw aside the stoic curtain and get a little dirty.
There's one brief moment in the Duel that I really hoped to see addressed later in the Prequels, but it never was - after Qui-Gon's fall, with Maul goading him, Obi-Wan draws from the Dark Side of the Force to attack. At least, that's how I always saw it - a Jedi struggling with balance and failing. But it was never addressed again. But the stunt work is great, and we finally get to see a lightsaber duel among masters, no holds barred. It doesn't overstay its welcome like Anakin and Obi-Wan's duel in REVENGE OF THE SITH does, and it services the story. For those moments, we see what it truly means to be a Jedi, and a wielder of the Force. The best moment in all the Prequels.
4. The Battle of Yavin, EPISODE IV: A NEW HOPE
This display of space combat and battle has yet to be topped, not just in STAR WARS (an argument can definitely be made for the space battle in RETURN OF THE JEDI, but it's so intercut with other scenes that I think the original one is more pure and better edited for what it is) but in cinema, period. Each scene is edited for the most emotion and tension possible, and for those brief moments we begin to feel empathy for the many pilots, like Wedge, or Porkins, or Biggs. Even when Red Leader buys it - "Get set up for your attack run!" - we feel that loss. With John Williams' score pumping in, each scene done for maximum effect, it's one of the most riveting scenes in the entire saga.
Who doesn't want to cheer when the Millennium Falcon swoops in to save the day? Or Luke, trusting in the Force, decides to shut down his computer and go in blind? Even Vader seems to sense something about Luke, which begins that particular story arc. It's masterful directing and editing, and such a shot of adrenaline that to this day I remember my audience in 1977 literally standing up in the theater at points. You have to remember that audiences hadn't seen anything like this before. I imagine that every filmmaker since has watched it for inspiration. One of the best designed action sequences in movie history.
3. Han Shoots Greedo, EPISODE IV: A NEW HOPE
Face it. Han Solo, in RETURN OF THE JEDI? He sucks. Am I speaking blasphemy? Perhaps. Maybe it's the writing, or maybe it's Harrison Ford's performance. But Han in JEDI is completely tame, with none of the raw edges of the previous movies. In STAR WARS and THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, Han was dangerous, a scoundrel in every sense of the word. But he was our scoundrel, and his character made what could have been a very pretentious story into something far more accepting to the audience. Han Solo didn't believe in the Force, didn't give a damn about anyone but himself. Among all these wizards and farm boys and princesses, here was a guy we all could relate to a little bit. It's probably why the Prequels don't work very well - there was no character like Han in that trilogy. In JEDI Han seems to have had his teeth pulled, and he's not nearly the catalyst he was in the first two movies. He lets things happen to him too much, as opposed to making them happen, like in the way Han was introduced.
So, the controversial scene, the scene that Lucas insisted on deballing and thus inducing the rage of STAR WARS fans everywhere. This was a perfect introduction to his character - it showed Han as a dangerous man to cross, and that one scene opened up the universe in ways that perhaps Lucas didn't understand at the time. The STAR WARS universe wasn't just old men in robes with magical glowsticks, it was a place where back alley deals could very well get you killed. There was something sordid and grimy about Han and Greedo's little conversation in the back of that cantina, and a real window into that world. It's all about how the economy of great script writing can create a larger universe, and how a small scene can inform a film better than all the splendor and special effects ever could. There are no safe places in the STAR WARS universe. That's the real tragedy of what Lucas did when he changed this scene - he made this wonderful universe feel that much smaller.
2. Vader Saves Luke, EPISODE VI, RETURN OF THE JEDI
In hindsight, it's pretty easy to see coming. There was no way anyone would allow the movie to end with Luke going up like tinfoil in a microwave oven, after all we'd been through. But there is a power to this scene that is difficult to shake, even if it is inevitable. Here's another change that should never have happened, when Lucas added the "No!" James Earl Jones voiceover. Vader, standing silent next to his master, watching his son die, and you can see the emotions coming across that mask. It's probably David Prowse's best acting moment as Vader, like a man waking from a dream. And it's all done without dialogue on his part.
In those brief moments, you can feel the loss of so many years, so many people. That might just be me inferring more into it, having seen all the movies now, but it's also the moment that really nailed something for me - Darth Vader is my favorite character in the entire saga. Even not knowing how flubbed his backstory became, Prowse and James Earl Jones created a character that was more than a simple villain. He had motivations that went beyond simply, "Stop the good guys." Vader, in his way, thought that he was doing the right thing. He believed that might really does make right, until this young man, his own son, proved to him otherwise. It's a lesson that Yoda, or Obi-Wan, or any of the other Jedi failed to teach Vader. Compassion always wins.
1. Luke Skywalker And Darth Vader On The Scaffold, EPISODE V: THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK
There's been so much written about this at this point - some even by me - that I really don't have much more to say. It's the turning point in all the STAR WARS films, and the one that opens up all the possibilities the most. There's also a ton of EMPIRE moments that could have made this list, had I expanded to more than 5 - The Asteroid Field, the Battle of Hoth, Yoda and the X-Wing - but it would be foolish to deny the scene that everyone remembers the most from these movies. It's where Luke's innocence dies, and the Dark Side is oh so tempting - just reach out your hand, and you can be reunited with your family. Everything Yoda taught Luke at this moment could be so easily brushed aside.
What if Luke had taken Vader's hand? If people thought that THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK's cliffhanger ending was too much at the time, imagine what it would have been like had the movie ended with Luke standing next to Vader on the bridge of the Executor, watching as the Millennium Falcon flew away. I think every 10-year-old kid would have run screaming from the theater, and those three years between EMPIRE and JEDI may as well have been a billion. It's the moment the entire saga hinges on, and nothing is the same after that. These movies can be casually dismissed as children's fare, but just remembering from a child's perspective - that good and evil aren't as simple as we might want to believe - THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK opened up the world in profound ways. If your own parents are on the wrong side of something, how do you find the right one?
I couldn't be the movie fan I am today without the STAR WARS films. For one thing, without them I would have discovered Akira Kurosawa much later in life. Nostalgia is dangerous - it poisons the mind against rational thought, and any faults to be seen are washed away in emotion and sentimentality. It's important to understand why these movies worked on so many people as well as they did, but it's also important to look forward and to do something new with what you've built. The makers of the upcoming STAR WARS movies get to play in a huge sandbox, but they would do well to remember not to replicate these great moments that we love but to create new ones. But these scenes work because of the writing, and the trust that the filmmakers had in the audience, and that they were moments of real passion - even the Duel in THE PHANTOM MENACE feels like the Lucas really invested himself in it. These new filmmakers have a great foundation to build from. I remain forever optimistic that Disney and Lucasfilm will build something new and great from it. May the Force be with them.