Originally published on Filmophilia.com
So, it’s Science Fiction month here at Filmophilia (in honor of the impending release of Prometheus) and us geeks have been hard at work trying to churn out as much nostalgic sci-fi material as we can for your nerdy reading pleasure. Still, earlier today, a realization hit me harder than if I had been kicked by a spooked Bantha: we have been shockingly devoid of any Star Wars-related material. Now, before you dweebs chastise me and petulantly begin screaming about how Star Wars is more congruent with the archetypes of mythological fantasy than science fiction let me assure you that I am well aware that Mr. “Toy Boy” Lucas essentially just pilfered the annals of Joesph Campbell literature and added a pinch of Flash Gordon. Still, to the layman, the science fiction genre is always where Star Wars would be placed (which is something that video stores – if they still existed – would support).
Now, what should be profiled in a Star Wars-related article? Should we look at its merits as a re-working of age-old myths? How about the familial dynamics of the Skywalker clan? No? Too boring you say! Perhaps we should go a little more low-brow and take an in-depth look at the best uses of its most badass weapon: the lightsaber. Which were the coolest scenes and what made them so awesome? Well, my lovely readers and fellow nerds we shall soon discover this. This is Top Five: Lightsaber Battles.
5. Duel of the Fates – Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999)
Yes, I know that many will claim that this fight feels (at certain points) to be overly rehearsed. Still, it is a marvelous action set-piece in addition to being one of the darkest moments in this predominantly saccharine freak-show. While sometimes resembling more of a dance than a sword fight, the Duel of the Fates sequence maintains a certain level of power. It is certainly not an emotional power (we have little to no investment in any of three combatants) but on a purely sensory level this sequence remains a triumph. From the ethereal score by the legendary John Williams, to the fairly effective CGI-work (simply meaning more effective than the other parts of this soulless spectacle) to the supreme athletic grace of stunt-man Ray Park (Maul) there are many aspects of the battle which achieve what Lucas was probably always intending, that is, his audience pointing at the screen exclaiming: “Gee Whiz! That was pretty dang cool!”
4. Vader VS. Kenobi – Episode IV: A New Hope (1977)
Ok, I don’t want to hear a word about the fact that this fight is “slow,” “dull,” or “boring.” I get it. On a purely visual level this fight scene barely registers. It is somewhat blandly shot, the lightsaber effects look like a trial run and Alec Guinness fights like he has a piano on his back. However, all of this is utterly subsidiary to what is going on in the scene emotionally and thematically. This particular battle is integral to the Star Wars mythos in several different ways. First, it firmly establishes the ubiquity and omnipotence of the Force. Also, it provides a critical continuity point for the two different series. This scene is a resumption of the conflict between Vader and Kenobi (which comes to a head initially in Episode III). It’s ironic, however, that this sparse and slow-moving battle is more involving than the lighting-fast sword play and fake, CGI lava which constitutes the final fight from that film.
3. The Sail Barge Battle – Episode VI: Return of the Jedi (1983)
Luke Skywalker’s evolution throughout the original trilogy is a truly epic character arc. Not only does he become less of a whining bore (“But I was going into Toshi station to pick up some power converters!”) but his fighting skills and Force prowess shoots through the roof in the interim between getting his ass handed to him at the end of Empire and the opening of Jedi. This scene, where he single-handedly facilitates the escape of all of the major Rebel Alliance players from the clutches of that obese slug, Jabba the Hutt, is the first depiction of the true fighting power of a Jedi Knight in the original series. This is also just simply one of the best action scenes in the whole trilogy. It’s spectacularly realized and it is much more thrilling than all of the melee fighting in the prequel series. I mean, how many times can you see a brainless droid get cut down?
2. Luke Skywalker VS. Vader – Episode VI: Return of the Jedi (1983)
As mentioned above, Luke matures dramatically between the fifth and sixth installment in the franchise. In this final major lightsaber battle in the original series Luke not only overwhelms his father physically (even giving him a taste of his own medicine hand-chop) but, more importantly, is able to transcend past the dark lineage of the Skywalker family and claim his title as a Jedi Knight. This fight scene is so well done because the stakes are so high and represents Luke’s final chance to convert his father. Also, the actual fight choreography is superb not because it is seamless (like the prequels) but because it is the opposite. We get a sense of the emotions through the actual style of fighting employed by the two combatants. At the end of the scene, when Luke finally gives into his rage and goes after his father, his technique is not a poetic dance, but vicious and ugly. In short, he seems to want to actually hit his father with his lightsaber – a desire that contrasts with the prequels, where spinning around in a circle and doing quadruple backflips seemed to take precedence.
1. Luke Skywalker VS. Vader – Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
As you might have expected, the final battle of Empire is the greatest lightsaber battle in Star Wars history and is the definitive turning point in the entire series. Pitch-black in tone and breath-taking in execution, this fight scene melds spectacle, emotion, effects, choreography and character development into a dramatic package that fundamentally changes the two characters involved (and their dynamic) in an irrevocable fashion. Everything about this sequence works. The initial stand-off in the Carbon Freezing Chamber is so artfully done, particularly the way in which cinematographer Peter Suschitzky created the iconic silhouette images of Luke and Vader. Also, the violence depicted in the sequence is truly the most disturbing ever captured in the series – such as the mute-apathy Vader has when he Force-throws a myriad of objects at a besieged Luke and the drunken frenzy-like fashion that Vader attacks with when the battle moves out onto the platform.
This fight scene is another great example of how the original trilogy differs from the prequels. As opposed to the more recent Star Wars movies, fight scenes like the one found in Empire show violence as actually having consequences and being able to affect the overall scope of the story. They are not arbitrary or supplemental, but critical scenes where slowly established conflicts are confronted, thematic currents are explored and characters must face an external and internal reckoning.