This month marks the 40th anniversary of the first Star Wars movie. While the franchise has had its share of ups and downs over the years, the good, in this case, far outweigh the bad. The series is filled to the brim with iconic moments and memorable scenes. Now, in celebration of 40 fantastic years of a galaxy far, far away, we take a chronological trip through all eight movies released so far to bring you 40 of the best, coolest, and most memorable moments from the Star Wars series.
The Phantom Menace
Duel of the Fates
Even among fans of the prequel trilogy (and yes, they exist) there’s not a lot of love for The Phantom Menace. It’s silly, childish, and over all doesn’t quite mesh with the rest of the saga. That being said, even the most ardent detractors of George Lucas and the prequels would be hard-pressed to find much wrong with the lightsaber battle between Qui-Gon Jinn, Obi-Wan, and Darth Maul. Backed by the now iconic “Duel of the Fates” by composer John Williams, this was a stunning evolution from the relatively static duels of the original series, and remains the best—possibly only—reason to give The Phantom Menace any more of your time.
Attack of the Clones
Tuskan Raider Massacre
Up to this point in Attack of the Clones, we hadn’t seen much of Anakin Skywalker’s descent into the Dark Side. This was the moment that changes everything for the ill-fated Jedi, where he loses control of his emotions and uses his powers for personal gain by getting revenge on the tribe of raiders who kidnapped and killed his mother. The violence is suggested rather than shown, letting us fill in the gaps as to how he murdered the entire tribe. That restraint allows the moment to be that much darker, and more terrifying, giving us a small taste of the brutality of which we know Darth Vader to be capable.
Yoda vs Count Dooku
We got precious little of Christopher Lee as the shadowy former Jedi turned rogue turned Sith Lord, but this battle gives us an idea of his strength. As a benefit, we finally get to see how Jedi master Yoda throws down against his foes, and it’s amazing. Seeing the usually timid and calm Yoda grip his lightsaber and zip around the chamber in a blur of green was a moment that elicited cheers from the crowds in theaters, and remains an incredible moment 15 years later.
“Begun, the Clone Wars have.”
Up to this moment, the Clone Wars had been an arcane, unseen moment in Star Wars history, subject to debate and speculation among fans. This was a huge moment. First, there was the earlier reveal that the clones in question also birthed the most legendary bounty hunter of all time, Boba Fett, which suggested all manner of potential for badassery. Then came the cold truth: the clones were the precursors to the Stormtroopers, and we were watching the most willing march into the depths of fascism yet seen on the big screen. It was a powerful moment that showcased how high the stakes actually were, and an example of how flimsy benevolent democracies actually are.
Revenge of the Sith
The Battle Over Coruscant
Star Wars is full of great space dog fights—it’s sort of the nature of the beast—but the opening scene of Revenge of the Sith was the biggest, baddest space battle of them all. They waste no time thrusting you back into the midst of action, offering stunning visuals and non-stop thrills. We also got to see Anakin’s amazing skills as a pilot finally come into their own, lending credence to Obi-Wan stating that he was the greatest pilot he’d ever seen in A New Hope. Capping all that off was Palpatine manipulating Skywalker into executing Count Dooku, the next giant leap toward his rebirth as Darth Vader. This scene alone almost made up for Jar Jar Binks and all the whining about hating sand. (Almost).
Order 66/Assault on the Jedi Temple
This was the moment that should have defined the prequel trilogy. While most still remember those movies for the wooden acting and laughable dialogue, Anakin’s final betrayal of the Jedi (and first official act as Darth Vader) was a breathtaking moment of sheer horror and sadness. From the montage sequence of the clone troopers turning against the Jedi they had fought besides for years, to Vader’s unleashing of his lightsaber against a shocked youngling, this was an expertly crafted and horrific scene that displayed all that Star Wars was capable of achieving, and proved that the series could be more than “just” a silly space opera.
Obi-Wan vs Anakin
For years, fans had speculated as to how Darth Vader had become “more machine than man.” While the nerdiest of the nerdy (myself included) had long availed themselves to the deep lore regarding his transformation, seeing it in action was a moment of pure satisfaction. Beyond that, we finally got the chance to see the Obi-Wan vs Vader duel that we never got from the original trilogy. It’s the perfect metaphor for Anakin’s fall—he’s crippled, burnt, and unrecognizable.
Chirrut Imwe Attacks
Martial arts superstar Donnie Yen can’t help but bring a high level of badass to whatever movie he’s in, and while he wasn’t fully utilized in this capacity in Rogue One, his battle against the Stormtroopers in the Holy City of Jedha was a fantastic moment and stark departure from the Star Wars series overall. With no weapons except a wooden staff, and without any sight, Yen’s Imwe laid waste to an entire squadron of troopers, instantly making him an iconic Star Wars character.
Destruction of Jedha
The Death Star was always terrifying, but we never got the chance to see the effects of the ultimate weapon from the perspective of those being attacked. While the obliteration of Alderaan (see below) is certainly nothing to sneeze it, watching the massive wave a destruction ripple its way towards the heroes of Rogue One was an awe-inspiring, terror inducing moment. The knowledge that this was the Death Star on a lower setting only heightened the horror, as it suggests even worse horrors for the population there.
Jyn and Cassian Die
Not just them, either. Everyone we came to love in Rogue One was summarily done away with by movie’s end, making for one of the most gut wrenching climaxes in the entire series. Still, Jyn and Cassian sitting on the beach, holding each other’s hands, and basking in the knowledge that their efforts and sacrifices have saved the rebellion is ultimately what Star Wars is all about—finding hope in the darkness, even when the darkness means your impending death.
Darth Vader Goes Off
Director Gareth Edwards shows remarkable restraint by not including any lightsabers in this bridge between Revenge of the Sith and A New Hope, right up until the moment that he did, and WOW was it ever effective. Shot as a horror scene, seeing Vader’s saber light up the darkened hallway and then watching unleash the full brunt of his power on those rebel scum heroes was easily the coolest moment in the entire series.
A New Hope
Darth Vader’s Introduction
Of course, an argument could be made that it doesn’t get any cooler than this moment, when the world is first introduced to the most iconic villain of all time. In 1977, audiences had no idea what they were in store for as the crew of Leia’s ship prepared themselves for this boarding, and seeing the black visage walk in through the smoke and destruction, standing in stark defiance of the sterile white of his surroundings, was a moment that’s every bit as breathtaking today as it was 40 years ago.
“These aren’t the droids you’re looking for.”
The Jedi mind trick is one of the most iconic of all Force powers. For decades since this line was uttered, geeks and fanboys around the world have imagined what they would do with these powers were they actually achievable. Beyond that, it’s the first real indication of just what Luke is signing up for by agreeing to be trained as a Jedi Knight, and the kind of power he’ll eventually be able to wield.
Han and Greedo
Look, we can debate who shot first all day long (Han did) but this was the moment that solidified Han’s status as a total badass. His cool composure when speaking with Greedo, whose presence and language is still shocking to this day, told us all we need to know about Han, and then he shot him (first) and walked away with a dismissive “sorry about the mess.” Hell yeah, Han. I’m on your side for life.
Darth Vader Force Chokes Admiral Motti
Our first ever glimpse of the power of the Force, in addition to our first glimpse of just what Darth Vader was capable of. As his is look and voice wasn’t terrifying enough, you mean to say he could potentially kill you just by thinking real hard about it?! It’s a moment that still resonates thanks to its horrifying implications.
The Destruction of Alderaan
One of the oldest tenants of story is to show, not tell. Nothing shows just how evil your evil empire is like the flippant destruction of an entire planet. Now we know what the stakes are and what we’re fighting for. And brother, it’s not looking good. This moment was made even better due to the fact that Obi-Wan somehow felt the destruction from light years away, upping the ante for what the Force is capable of offering its users, in addition to giving us one of the most iconic lines in movie history, “I felt a great disturbance in the Force.”
As boring as the actual fight was, this was a shocking moment where the stakes got personal. Up until now, all the death and destruction had been against people we didn’t know or see. Here was the death of someone we loved and were rooting for. This moment proved that Star Wars was not here to mess around, and that anything could happen. Add to that the mystery of what Kenobi meant by becoming “more powerful than you can imagine,” and you’ve got a recipe for a powerful cinematic moment.
Death Star Trench Run
Here’s where the rebellion becomes something more than a rag tag group of freedom fighters. Here’s where we know that good can triumph over evil. Here’s where we finally get payback for the deaths of millions on Alderaan. Not to mention how stunning it looks as the X-Wing pilots fight their way through the trench, facing off against TIE fighters and laser turrets. The tension is high, and when look takes his blind shot into the exhaust port and destroys the Death Star once and for all, you still can’t help but cheer, even four decades later.
The Empire Strikes Back
Ghost of Obi-Wan
Following Luke’s harrowing escape from the cave on Hoth, we’re given a brief vision of his slain former master. Is this for real? Is he hallucinating? We don’t know. The mystery of it only deepens the effect, however, and we finally get a glimpse of what the fallen master meant by becoming more powerful.
The image of the massive AT-ATs (Imperial Walkers) stomping their way to the rebel stronghold on Hoth was daunting—literally earth shaking. Their inability to make a dent in the powerful armor of these massive beasts sent shivers of worry down the spines of fans as they wondered just how they were going to get out of this mess. Thankfully, the best solution was also the most obvious. It felt like a gamble—surely those legs were too powerful to be hindered by one little old pull cable. But seeing the empire stumble on their hubris made it all worthwhile.
All movie we’d heard about a powerful Jedi master; by the time the little green guy with awkward syntax shows up, we begin to suspect that Luke actually was hallucinating the whole vision of Obi-Wan back on Hoth. But then the truth comes out. The obnoxious alien is, in fact, Yoda. This is one of the most memorable bait and switches in movie history, and just goes to show that you can’t judge a book by its cover.
Yoda Lifts the X-wing
As cool as the Force has been up to this point, we hadn’t really seen anyone wield it in any truly remarkable ways. Watching this tiny creature lift the massive space craft out of the swamp—with his frickin’ mind!!—showed us the practical realities of using the Force.
“This is no cave.”
This entire sequence serves as a metaphor for where everyone is at at this point in the original trilogy. They’re literally in the belly of the whale, with nowhere to turn for solace or respite. Their narrow escape is just about the most positive thing that happens in The Empire Strikes Back, and even that is too harrowing for comfort.
Han Gets Frozen in Carbonite
Has there ever been a darker third act than Empire? Nothing good happens to anyone, but Han gets the worst of it. It’s painful to watch as one of cinema’s most beloved characters is ripped from our arms in so callous a manner, and it’s made all the more intense by Leia’s declaration of love for the rogue. That it’s punctuated by Han’s too cool “I know,” is somehow only more heartbreaking.
“I am your father.”
Return of the Jedi
Jabba the Hutt
We’d only heard about Jabba up until this point in the original trilogy, and seeing him for the first time, in all his grotesque glory, was more than enough to justify the whispered mentions and fear associated with the name—that he was also a vicious, murdering gangster certainly didn’t help things either. Admittedly, this moment was later ruined by Jabba’s inclusion in the remastered cut of the original movie, but even that pales in comparison to his larger than life presentation in Return of the Jedi.
The Rancor Pit
Evil empires and planet destroying space stations are worthy opponents, sure. But sometimes you just need to fight a giant monster being held as a pet by a space slug gangster and his minions. This moment really took us back into the kind of fantasy that Star Wars is, and reminded us that a galaxy far, far away is a galaxy wholly unlike our own. There are more dangers in these lands than just human, and the rancor definitely ranks among the worst. We also got to see how far Luke had begun to progress in his training as a Jedi, as the former moisture farmer keeps his wits and bests this terrifying foe.
Leia Rescues Han
While we pretty much knew that Han wouldn’t be gone forever at the end of Empire Strikes Back—they did go out of their way to tell us he was still alive—it was still terrifying wondering how his rescue would occur. That it was pulled off by Leia, who reveals herself to be “Someone who loves you,” made it all the more meaningful.
Sand Barge Battle
This scene is literally filled with fantastic moments for all its characters. It’s a non-stop ride that sees vengeance for Han as Boba Fett falls into the sarlaac, Luke showing off his newly developed Jedi skills, Lando being redeemed by his efforts, and of course Leia choking that disgusting, rapey space slug to death by herself because she don’t need no man to rescue her. This entire scene made the repeated gut punches of Empire worth it, and finally let us see our heroes getting their mojo back.
Emperor Palpatine’s Introduction
As scary as Darth Vader is, he’s really only number two in terms of galactic villains. Seeing the man who holds Vader’s leash for the first time was truly an exciting moment. While we’d gotten a glimpse of him in Empire Strikes Back, but only as a hologram. Seeing him in the flesh, as well as the fear and reverence he inspired, brought an entirely new dimension to his character. Especially considering how old and infirm he appeared. In a way, he stood in stark contrast to Yoda, reminding us that size and appearance have little to do with the power you control.
Speeder Bike Chase
There’s nothing terribly deep or meaningful to unpack here, this was just one of the cooler and most memorable moments from Return of the Jedi.
“Now witness the firepower of this fully armed and operational battle station.”
As the climax of the original trilogy speeds forward, everything is on the line. The revelation from the Emperor that the second Death Star is in fact ready to go, and that he’s lured the rebellion here as a trap (as was so memorably pointed out by Admiral Akbar) means that not only is Luke fighting for his soul, but he’s also fighting for the continued existence of his friends and their beliefs. That Luke is able to resist giving in to his anger and hatred proves how powerful he is as a Jedi (despite his, shall we say, remedial training), but the stakes have certainly never been higher.
“Let me look on you with my own eyes.”
This is it; Luke’s Hero’s Journey has all led to this point. In mythological context, the best stories are always about facing down the sins of your parents and coming into your own as an adult, and this was about as powerful a moment as has ever been constructed, narratively. This was the moment that the entire saga, up to this point, had been building towards. Here is where Star Wars became truly mythical, and where we saw that no one, no matter how evil, was incapable of redemption. That idea has been the foundation of religious teachings for millennia, but never before had it been so aptly applied to the modern world.
The Force Awakens
Kylo Ren Halts a Laser
The Force Awakens wastes no time in showing us what we’re dealing with when it comes to Kylo Ren. His mastery of Force power is put on stunning display from almost his first moment on screen, and watching the laser beam stop in mid-air gave us a full appreciation for his strength.
The Millennium Falcon Rides Again
Part of what the prequel trilogy was lacking was an iconic vessel. The Jedi Starfighters were cool and everything, but there was nothing as distinctive as the Millennium Falcon. Seeing her in action again was one of the many cheer-worthy moments for which Star Wars is known. The fact that it was Rey who rescued her from the trash heap also felt like the perfect passing the baton moment and offered a new generation a relatable hero to root for.
“Chewie, we’re home.”
It seems fitting that the first introduction of classic characters in the sequel trilogy would be Han and Chewbacca. The resident skeptics make Rey’s journey towards understanding the Force more believable and their introduction shows us all we need to know about the world she’s entering into. Beyond that, the now iconic line immediately wedged itself into the consciousness of Star Wars fans, serving as a sort of meta-commentary about where we were at within the series. The Force Awakens was a lot like coming home after years away, and Han’s excitement here mirrors our own.
Rey Uses the Force
While some internet clowns decry this as evidence that Rey is a Mary-Sue (she’s not), this was a brilliant moment that shows just how powerful our new heroine actually is. Tied up and with no way to escape, she taps into her potential and uses the Force for the first time consciously, Jedi mind tricking some poor Stormtrooper (played by Daniel Craig) into freeing her. This was Rey accepting her destiny, and taking her future into her hands. In the end, that’s what Star Wars is all about.
I still can’t believe they made me watch that with my own two eyes.
The Final Showdown with Kylo Ren
Finn’s epic hero pose. Kylo’s frantic attempts to stop his bleeding from Chewbacca’s shot. Rey’s eventual victory. The planet breaking up around them. This scene ranks as one of the greatest lightsaber duels in the entire franchise. That all involved had a haphazard style only added to the tension of the scene, especially as Finn lay on the ground, possibly dying as a result of his bravery. Dark and frustrating it may have been, but it displayed the kind of willingness to tinker with the formula that will make the sequel trilogy shine.
Rey Meets Luke
The eventual appearance of Luke Skywalker had been teased all movie, but it wasn’t until the final moments that we laid eyes on our hero from the original series. Seeing Rey hold his former lightsaber out as an offering—a pleading—left few dry eyes in the house, and still works well on subsequent viewings. Final images don’t often reach the heights of The Force Awakens—it’s evocative of all that came before it as well as all that will come after it. This is where past, present, and future collide, leaving the doors open for even more greatness from the Star Wars universe.
What are your favorite moments from the Star Wars series?