50 Greatest Star Wars Moments

5. “I Love You.” / “I Know.”

Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back

In The Empire Strikes Back, after Han and Leia are betrayed by Lando Calrissian in Cloud City, Darth Vader freezes Han Solo in carbonite and gives him to the bounty Hunter Bobo Fett, who intends to collect the bounty put on Han by Jabba the Hutt. Before this happens, knowing that they only have seconds left with each other, Leia and Han share a desperate kiss, after which Leia finally tells Han that she loves him. Han being Han, replies with, “I know.”

This moment is the climax of an entire movie’s worth of push and pull between Leia and Han, who spend most of their time fighting with each other and denying their obvious attraction. Finally declaring their love when they don’t know if they’ll ever see each other again is so deliciously melodramatic, as romantic as it is heartbreaking. Harrison Ford really sells this moment, his eyes filled with uncertainty and fear. But when he tells Leia that he knows she loves him, it isn’t arrogant or dismissive; it’s an acknowledgement of the feelings they both refused to say out loud, but knew deep down were there the whole time. It’s also worth noting that this moment almost never happened. As all ardent Star Wars fans know, Harrison Ford improvised this line because saying “I love you too,” didn’t feel in line with Han’s character. He was right, and we’re all the better for it.

As far as endings go, The Empire Strikes Back is fairly bleak, save for a sliver of hope in its final moments. All of our characters are at their lowest points and stuck at a crossroads. But Leia and Han’s acceptance of their feelings for one another, in the face of impossible odds, is cathartic and has remained so for decades. This iconic exchange is one of the most quoted moments in the Star Wars franchise and one of the most well-known onscreen declarations of love in movie history. You don’t have to look far to find these lines printed on matching t-shirts, keychains, and wine glasses. This moment has resonated with viewers for more than 40 years because of how well it encapsulates the characters we’ve come to know and root for. (MR)

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4. Darth Vader Throws the Emperor to His Death

Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi

In the final confrontation of good and evil in the original Star Wars trilogy, Luke refuses to give in to the Dark Side and feels the consequences. Emperor Palpatine uses his Sith powers to blast Luke with a bolt of electricity. “You have paid the price for your lack of vision,” the Emperor states, which is ironic because he cannot foresee what is about to happen. Vader, whose presence in the scene has been returned to time and time again through the editing, screams “no” and lifts the Emperor into the air and across the room, ultimately throwing him down a shaft and to his death. It costs Darth Vader his life, but it restores balance to the galaxy. Vader becomes Anakin once again, choosing his son over his mission, forgoing his beliefs to finally capture the good held within.

All good tales function around the morality of good and evil, from the Bible to Shakespeare to the best of cinema. The stories that allow us to feel the catharsis of the light being victorious over the dark are the ones that best stick with us. In Star Wars, Luke Skywalker is good and the Emperor is bad. Darth Vader’s choice to do the right thing is what swings the balance in the favour of good. The filmmaking here illuminates the magnitude of this choice, the camera returning to Vader time and time again despite him being a less-than active part of the confrontation between both sides. Masked and helmeted, his emotion is spoken through the filmmaking principles of close-ups, editing and score. We know what Vader must do, and we anticipate it through every painful second.

The act itself is not so remarkable. Vader simply picks up the Emperor and throws him away. But the choice to do so is what defines this legendary character and helps to define the entire franchise. Star Wars is all about morality and the choices we make. In this moment, the most crucial of them all, Vader makes the correct choice. Vitally, this ensures that the light side doesn’t win by killing (thus embracing the dark), but that the dark side loses by destroying itself – here, evil kills evil. This is as poetic as any moment in cinema gets; a spectacular finale to arguably the greatest film trilogy in existence. (JW)

3. “You Were the Chosen One!”

Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith

“You were the chosen one. It was said you would destroy the Sith, not join them. Bring balance to the Force, not leave it in darkness.”

Anakin Skywalker has fallen to the Dark Side. He has slaughtered every Jedi trainee at their temple and engaged his old master Obi-Wan Kenobi in a ferocious duel on the volcanic planet Mustafar. After proving themselves to be equally matched in power and skill, to break the stalemate Obi-Wan leaps to higher ground, pleading with his apprentice to not try and follow. Driven by ego and anger, Anakin makes the jump and his master severs his limbs, leaving him to painfully burn at the edge of the lava field. He howls out, “You were the chosen one!”

After decades of build-up we finally got to see Anakin vs Obi-Wan, and boy did it live up to expectations with its impossibly quick fight choreography, complex staging and raw emotions. But, what really stays with you, is this moment at its close. Obi-Wan is forced to leave his apprentice, a chosen one gone wrong, to his apparent painful death after utterly failing as a mentor and more heartbreakingly as found family member, “you were my brother Anakin, I loved you.”

If the celebrations following the destruction of the Death Stars was the series at its happiest, then this is its lowest emotional point, where hope runs out. We know who Anakin becomes, that this was inevitable, and yet it still hits hard because we’ve spent three movies with these surrogate brothers and it’s heartbreaking to see their relationship end like this. (SSP)

2. Yoda Raises the X-Wing

Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back

“That is why you fail.”

After gruelling jedi training exercises with Master Yoda appear to be getting him nowhere and he is plagued by visions of his friends in danger, Luke Skywalker comes close to giving up entirely. In response to claims he is asking the impossible, the diminutive Jedi sage uses the Force to miraculously lift Luke’s submerged X-Wing ship out of the Dagobah swamp. In response to Luke’s incredulous “I don’t believe it”, Yoda sadly replies “That is why you fail”.

From the moment he met Luke and wasn’t what the aspiring Jedi expected, Yoda was underestimated. Years before, we as an audience would see a more acrobatic Yoda; this is the only time he demonstrated his power in a tangible way, accompanied by a swelling, almost romantic John Williams score. This is the moment that the impatient young Luke receives a much-needed humbling and the greatest lesson the 900 year-old master would teach him: have patience, and don’t judge what someone is capable of by their appearance.

Yoda’s miraculous demonstration of his mastery of the force, achieved through some very old-fashioned techniques including puppetry and model work, is still a magical moment over 40 years on. (SSP)

1. “No, I Am Your Father.”

Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back

In the first one-on-one physical confrontation between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader, Luke is floored and at a distinct disadvantage. “You are beaten. It is useless to resist. Don’t let yourself be destroyed as Obi-Wan did,” Darth Vader tells Luke before he removes Luke’s hand from his arm. The pair exchange words on the battle between good and bad, Vader ultimately asking Luke what Obi-Wan told him about his father. “He told me enough. He told me that you killed him,” Luke says. “No, I am your father,” Vader replies. It is arguably the most famous plot twist in movie history.

Medium shots frame our hero and villain equally on opposite sides of the frame, the edit taking us to a wider establishing shot in the interim of their dialogue exchange to signify the threat of falling to an eternal doom. In those wider shots, Vader is larger. He has the upper hand, he is the experienced fighter, Luke is in trouble. The score remains quiet for large periods, raising in conjunction with the Vader taking Luke’s hand off in battle and again when Vader reveals the dark truth underpinning their relationship. The use of the Imperial March theme at this point does a particularly great job of signifying that Luke may be en route to a destiny none of us want for him; one of darkness and misery. It is as if written in the stars.

There’s a Shakespearean quality to all of Star Wars, but few moments encapsulate the almost mythical nature of its central narrative quite like this one. It has become the most famous twist in all of cinema, one of the most beloved and parodied moments in the history of Hollywood. Few people born post-Star Wars’ release are able to escape the knowledge that Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker’s father, whether they have interest in the films or not, which is evidence of this moment’s impact, both within the narrative of the film and the wider culture that queued around the block to see it and felt forever entangled within it. Cinema has rarely had such a monumental moment as this one; the greatest Star Wars moment ever. (JW)

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Ever since we were introduced to a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, Star Wars has captured our imaginations, inspired us, and even made us cry. Which moments had the biggest impact on you? Let everyone know in the comments below, and be sure to follow @thefilmagazine on Facebook, X (Twitter) and Instagram for more insightful movie lists.

Thank you to Katie Doyle (KD), Kieran Judge (KJ), Margaret Roarty (MR), Sam Sewell-Peterson (SSP) and Joseph Wade (JW) for their contributions.

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