Happy birthday, 'Star Wars'! Let's rank the first one's best moments
The little movie that could and did (and how) turns 40 today. Let's talk only about the original (and not call it "A New Hope").
On May 25, 1977, a major cultural event occurred: “The Brady Bunch Hour” aired its final episode. Also “Star Wars” came out. The second biggest movie of all time — right after “Gone with the Wind,” which actually sold considerably more tickets, believe it or not — has been with us ever since. Know how every May 4 is “Star Wars Day” because of some dumb wordplay? It’s really every day, is it not?
But May 25, 2017 is a biggie — the 40th birthday of the movie that cheered humankind up towards the end of the bleak-o-rama ’70s. What will be our end-of-Trump mega-crowd-pleaser? (Other than whatever new “Star Wars” movie comes out then, of course.)
Let’s not think about all the sequels and prequels and spin-offs (or the animated shows, or the books, or the toys). Let’s focus strictly on the 1977 film called “Star Wars,” which we refuse to call “A New Hope” on principle and because it’s a lame name. Let’s rank our favorite moments — scenes, set pieces, little gags — from the one that started an empire:
23. Final ceremony
There aren’t any words — just deafening fanfare and blinding smiles. What even needs to be said after everyone’s taken down the Galactic Empire? Everyone cleans up great, too, even Chewie. Making this slightly weird, though, is this: George Lucas basically ripped the scene, almost shot-for-shot, from a ceremony sequence in “Triumph of the Will,” Leni Riefenstahl’s brilliantly made but, well…“morally repugnant” seems too nice a word for a propaganda film that helped the Nazis gain more power in Germany before the war. Still, great filmmaking is great filmmaking!
22. “But I was going into Tosche Station to pick up some power converters!”
It’s not the Luke line people quote the most, but it is the one they tend to do the most in jest. Mark Hamill briefly becomes a whiny brat in the scene where he and Uncle Owen (Phil Brown) go to the market to buy them some new droids, and wind up with two robotic freedom fighters. It’s a great meet-cute between Luke and C-3PO and R2-D2, if less so for Owen; after all, once he reluctantly takes these two pawns of the rebellion home, he’s sealed his own fate.
21. Battle after they leave the Death Star the first time
It’s the first time we see what the Millennium Falcon can do in battle, and it’s cool — though honestly, the sequence has always felt a little shoehorned-in. After rescuing Princess/General Leia (Carrie Fisher) and watching Obi-Wan (Alec Guinness) die/magically disappear, our heroes escape, but only after a little skirmish with Tie-Fighters. And yeah, when Luke blows the last remaining one up and everyone goes “Whoo!”, it’s neat — but it does feel like someone nudged George Lucas and said, “Maybe we can squeeze in a little extra action? For the kids!” Still.
20. That game that’s not chess
Killing time on the Millennium Falcon en route to the Death Star, R2 and C-3PO play a game that’s not quite chess with Chewie. It’s here that we learn that Wookiees are kind of dicks.
19. “These aren’t the droids you’re looking for”
We don’t really know what the Force us when Obi-Wan uses it on two random Stormtroopers as they enter Mos Eisley, so imagine how mind-blowing this scene is to a kid or someone who’s been living inside a cave their entire life and is only now watching “Star Wars” for the first time. It’s our introduction to the good side of the Force, and boy, does it look handy.
18. Vader vs. Obi-Wan
It’s arguably the emotional peak of the film — and it’s the one part that actually does seem a little bit of that dreaded and overused word “dated.” The first film wasn’t expensive — though it wasn’t dirt cheap — but the lightsabers aren’t quite up to snuff, and the lightsaber dueling definitely isn’t. Obi-Wan and Vader basically touch laser beams; there’s none of the huge lunges, much less the Olympic-level gymnastics, you’d see later in the series. It’s probably the tamest sword-fight in cinema history, and not even the evil Special Editions could beef it up. And yet try not to cry once their duel ends.
17. “We seem to made to suffer. It is our lot in life”
Emo robots rule.
16. Obi-Wan explains the Force to Luke
Guinness nails his monologue about the power and the responsibility that comes with being one blessed with the Force. The actor would spend the rest of his life complaining about “Star Wars”; a golden-tongued wit, he hated spouting every single syllable of Lucas’ dialogue. But he’s such a pro that you’d never imagine him screaming on the inside as he plows through a speech anyone else would have made clunky.
15. Tatooine sunset
Luke throws a fit, and for a good reason: Owen won’t let him run off to become a pilot. He’ll be stuck in the desert forever, bossing around robots and eating sand. So he does what any brooding kid would do: He runs outside to stare at the sun. Only there’s two suns: one blood red, one off-white. The John Williams score swells and a moment you’d see in any teen movie becomes transcendent.
14. Luke finds Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru (Shelagh Fraser) dead
Their corpses are roasting in their burned sunken home, and suddenly, for Luke, what seemed like a fun lark — a good reason to get out of the house — goes next-level. This is going to be dangerous. You can watch Luke mature about 10 years in a single medium shot of him trying to turn away from the sight, then looking back. And yet he still has no idea what’s in store.
13. Luke and Leia swing across that big pit thing
It’s one of the highlights of the impregnating-the-Death-Star stretch. And it’s made all the more meta fun by the part where Leia plants a kiss on Luke’s cheek, as though they were just your typical adventure movie lovebirds-to-be. Whoops! And of course, Lucas would double down on this by having them make-out in “Empire.”
12. Busting Leia out of prison
Everyone calls her “Princess.” Luke, Han (Harrison Ford), et al. probably expect some damsel in distress — a quiet, comely lass who will greet them as liberators. We the viewers already know she’s not like that at all. She’s a badass who can go threat for threat with Darth Vader. And when they finally get her cell door open, she’s quick to call them on their s—. Han hates her right away, and she even calls Chewie a “big walking carpet.” The rest of us think she’s amazing.
11. Alderaan blows up
It’s also one of the biggest emotional scenes: Leia tries to talk tough with Grand Moff Tarkin (Peter Cushing), who rewards her by turning on the newly-operational Death Star and blowing her planet to smithereens. Leia begs Tarkin not to do it, and is catatonic when he does. Then we cut to our boys in the Millennium Falcon, with Obi-Wan musing that it felt like “millions of voices suddenly cried out in terror and were suddenly silenced.”
10. “Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi. You’re my only hope”
It’s the magical part where Luke is tinkering with R2 and suddenly a hologram pops up, showing Leia’s message to Obi-Wan. And it’s when Luke first realizes there’s a universe outside his little corner of the world that he may actually get to see rather than dream about. And, of course, he has to remark that the woman he doesn’t know is his sister is “beautiful.”
9. Opening invasion
We’re not talking about the crawl or even the opening shot of the Star Destroyer flying over our eyes. (Those come later.) We’re talking about the invasion itself: When Darth Vader and team bust into that getaway ship, gun down rebels with cool helmets and take Leia prisoner. Yes, it’s cooler than the part in “Rogue One” where Vader kills all those dudes right before all this happens.
8. Trash compactor
This little interlude is one of the most playful parts of the movie. Of course, it involves a near-death experience. Leia, Luke, Han and Chewie think they’ve escaped, only to wind up in a trash compactor that’s about to start compacting. There’s bickering. There’s a snake. There’s our leads getting trash all up in their grill. Then there’s a good payoff gag where the compactor stops, our heroes cheer and C-3PO, listening in, thinks they’re screams of death.
7. “We’re fine. We’re all fine, here, now. Thank you. Uh, how are you?”
Lucas wasn’t one for dialogue, but Han’s tossed-off, stumbling line — as he tries to convince the Empire fuzz that they haven’t just broken Leia out of prison — is the film’s single funniest moment. Not that “Star Wars” is that funny, but still.
6. Mos Eisley Cantina
Sorry, the cantina-ish scene from “The Force Awakens”: Your army of half-CGI, half-actually costumed creatures has nothing on the Thrift Store version in “Star Wars.” It’s just a dark and sweaty-looking room full of people wearing cheap masks or prosthetics on their faces, but that’s the charm. Better music, too.
5. Han shoots first
4. “Use the force, Luke”
It comes after a thrilling and, for our heroes, frustrating battle, as plane after plane goes down trying to fire a little fireball into a tiny hole. (We won’t even make a joke here.) It’s actually the second time Luke realizes Obi-Wan isn’t dead — that he still exists, somewhere, there to guide him when he needs him most. The release his voice provides, after so much destruction and so much dwindling hope, is almost as cathartic as the Death Star blowing up itself.
3. Opening crawl + opening shot
We’re combining these into a single one-two punch, because they go together like peanut butter and Fluffernutter. It’s as major and kinetic and exciting as the opening of “A Hard Day’s Night”: that orchestral explosion that kicks off the title card, followed by exciting sounding text that introduces us to the story-so-far (except for all that prequel business). Brian De Palma even had a hand in writing some of those words. Then there’s that pan up, followed by a little ship, itself followed by a looming Star Destroyer. And we’re off.
2. The assault on the Death Star
It’s the “Star Wars” battle to beat, frankly. The subsequent episodes tend to go super-duper-mega-sized with the battles, even dragging them out into cross-cutting monsters that eat up entire half hours. This gets it done in less than 10.
1. The Death Star blowed up real good
Lucas made the explosion even bigger in the Special Editions. It was cool. But we’ll take the more modest blast from 1977, and not just because we’re purists. The whole train of events is perfectly paced: Luke firing the final shot, the ball of fire entering the hole, that huge sigh Luke gives, then the flurry to get out of there before the whole thing blows. By the time it does it is — yeah, we’ll go there, it's been a long week — orgasmic. More or less. No wonder these movies are popular.