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30 Best ‘Star Wars’ Moments

From jaw-dropping lightsaber duels to last-minute rescues, we count down the saga’s most unforgettable may-the-Force-be-with-you scenes

Star Wars

Alec Guinness in 'Star Wars.'

Everett

The Internet was nearly broken last week when the subtitle of the new Star Wars movie was revealed: The Force Awakens. No one knows what it means yet, whether Disney's stewardship of the saga will affect things in a big way, or why there is no "Episode VII" attached to it as well. But the confirmation of an official title, along with the news that director J.J. Abrams had completed principal photography on the December 2015 release, was enough to get George Lucas' space saga squarely back in the headlines.

We're just over one year out from the first new movie set in a galaxy far, far away in a decade, and the idea that we'd ever see another Star Wars installment in our lifetime — an idea as seemingly impossible as doing the Kessel run in less than 11 parsecs — is now a reality. In honor of this momentous occasion, let's look at 30 scenes that define the first six films in the series and remain iconic in their own way…with the (new) hope that there are many, many more of these to come.

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30

Luke and the Binary Suns (‘A New Hope’)

It's small moment in the original Star Wars (or, if you like, "Episode IV"), but a striking one: A frustrated Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) storms out of his uncle’s farm and stands on a small rise, looking out at Tatooine’s two suns setting in the distance. It’s a classic sci-fi image, straight off of a vintage paperback or 1950s SF magazine cover, and a nice homage to the movie's pulpy roots. But the scene is both poignant and majestic (thanks, in no small part, to John Williams’ magnificent score), a nice shorthand for Skywalker's longing for excitement and adventure. Be careful what you wish for, Luke.

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Into the Arena (‘Attack of the Clones’)

Say what you will about the Star Wars prequels: Each one has a few terrific scenes worthy of the original films. Case in point: Episode II's sequence involving the battle arena on the planet Geonosis, where Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen), Padme (Natalie Portman) and Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) find themselves in a pitched battle involving hideous monsters and a Sith army. Then scores of Jedi Knights in full melee mode, just like we always envisioned them, join the fray…and oh, it's on!

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28

Order 66 (‘Revenge of the Sith’)

As Darth Sidious/Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) unleashes his full plan to destroy the Republic and create the Empire, he initiates "Order 66" — the execution of all Jedi Knights by clone troopers and, of course, his new apprentice Anakin Skywalker. The slaughter of the the saga's spiritual, white-knight warriors is shocking to finally see — even children do not escape the Emperor's wrath. It's a dark moment in what's arguably the series' darkest film.

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27

Down the Garbage Chute (‘A New Hope’)

After Han Solo (Harrison Ford), Luke and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) bumble their way into a fierce firefight while breaking Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) out of an Imperial prison block, they need an exit strategy — so Leia takes charge and sends them down the garbage chute. Note to self: This is not a good escape plan, unless someone likes being dragged under by a tentacled monstrosity in a lake of filth. And should you have forgotten that Lucas took inspiration from the old Flash Gordon serials he loved growing up, he puts the crew in a classic cliffhanger situation by literally having the walls close in on them.

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26

The Destruction of Alderaan (‘A New Hope’)

The first true test of the Death Star happens as Governor Tarkin (Peter Cushing) unleashes the full power of the Empire's ultimate weapon on Princess Leia’s adopted home planet, turning the peaceful world of Alderaan into flaming bits of space debris. The scene is a nice way of letting moviegoers know that these guys aren't above theatrical gestures when it comes to sheer villainy, but it's also genuinely unnerving — genocide with the flick of a switch.

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The ‘Birth’ of Darth Vader (‘Revenge of the Sith’)

Yes, Lucas blows it at the very end with that "Nooooooo!" as the Emperor’s new apprentice stumbles off the operating table like Karloff in his Frankenstein boots. But there is something undeniably chilling about seeing the burned, living husk of what's left of Anakin Skywalker being encased in that black armor, the mask descending toward the camera like a final harbinger of doom. And then he takes that first filtered, instantly recognizable breath — and the final stage of the birth of Darth Vader is complete.

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24

The Battle Over Endor (‘Return of the Jedi’)

No one can stand the Ewoks (it's a scientifically proven fact, people), and the real drama near the end of the original trilogy is taking place in the Emperor’s chambers on the new Death Star. But there’s a shot near the beginning of this climactic showdown — where a legion of Imperial fighters are blitzing the rebel fleet — that's nothing short of breathtaking. You also have to admit that the cross-cutting between the fighting in space, the struggle on the surface and the Vader/Luke duel on the battle station is superbly handled, despite the presence of those tribal teddy bears.

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23

Behind the Mask (‘The Empire Strikes Back’)

While studying under Jedi master Yoda (voiced by Frank Oz) on the eerie swamp planet of Dagobah, Luke is sent into a festering, evil-looking cave. While he's in there, the young man has a vision in which he confronts Vader, decapitates him and watches the weezing Sith Lord's mask break away to reveal…his own face. Welcome to a sobering and chilling foreshadowing of events to come, one which doubles nicely as Luke’s first real failure as a Jedi in training.

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22

‘That Is Why You Fail’ (‘The Empire Strikes Back’)

A dejected Luke tries to raise his X-Wing fighter out of the swamps of Dagobah using just his mind, but gives up when he can’t budge it and questions whether he will ever master the ways of the Jedis. Cut to the tiny Yoda, who raises it himself in what becomes the saga's key exchange about the power of faith in the Force. Luke: "I don't believe it." Yoda: "That is why you fail."

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21

See You on the Dark Side… (‘Revenge of the Sith’)

This is the crucial Sith scene where Anakin Skywalker gives himself irrevocably to the dark side of the Force. A lot happens rapidly: Jedi master Mace Windu (Samuel L. Jackson) confronts Palpatine; the latter unveils his ghastly true appearance as Darth Sidious; Windu is murdered by the Sith Lord's corrupted powers; and a conflicted Anakin is officially rechristened as Darth Vader. But the worst is yet to come …

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20

The Pod Race (‘The Phantom Menace’)

It feels more like a dry run for one of the Star Wars video games that Lucas Arts was pumping out in the Nineties rather than a movie scene and it doesn't even remotely move Menace's plot forward. (The less said about those announcers, the better.) But this major set piece in this first of the prequels is admittedly a top-notch, suspenseful action sequence that features some dazzling special effects. This adrenaline rush of a race also gives us our first glimpse at the skills, reflexes and piloting ability of little Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd).

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19

Escape From Jabba’s Yacht (‘Return of the Jedi’)

Luke, Leia, Lando (Billy Dee Williams) and Chewbacca thaw Han out of his carbonite tomb, only to find themselves all trapped aboard the sand yacht of the repulsive Jabba the Hut. They're headed for certain death — until they break out in a fantastic action sequence. There's plenty to "ooh" and "ahh" over here, from Luke showing off his considerable Jedi skills to a bikini-clad Leia strangling Jabba with a giant chain. And let's not forget Sarlacc's maw in the Pit of Carkoon: fall in, and you are slowly digested over 1000 years.

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18

Yoda vs. Count Dooku (‘Attack of the Clones’)

Clones introduced a Sith Lord with the giggle-inducing name of Count Dooku (played by the great veteran actor Christopher Lee), whose mastery of the dark side of the Force is strong enough to best both Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker. But the seemingly unstoppable Dooku still has to go through Yoda, and in this surprising scene, we see at last what a little green 900-year-old Jedi Master can do with a light saber.

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Obi-Wan and Vader’s Final Battle (‘A New Hope’)

The master and his star pupil reunite, giving audiences their first, albeit somewhat stiff, look at a light saber duel, and found Obi-Wan making the ultimate sacrifice as he and Darth Vader clash in the corridors of the Death Star. (To be fair, the old Jedi does become one with the Force…so he's got that going for him, which is nice.) Their final contest takes on a different meaning when placed alongside their apocalyptic battle in Revenge of the Sith, but it’s still dynamic and full of gravitas.

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16

The Battle of Hoth (‘The Empire Strikes Back’)

Imperial AT-AT walkers have landed on the surface of the ice planet Hoth, as the Alliance is routed out of it secret base. The rebels, however, aren't going to give up without a fight. In a series filled to the brim with thrilling battles and stand-offs, this one ranks as one of the most exciting extended sequences of them all. The lumbering walkers are an inspired piece of weaponry, and the snowspeeders zipping around and between their legs (the bigger they are, the harder they fall) captures some of the same excitement of the Death Star battle from A New Hope.

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15

Jump to Hyperspace (‘A New Hope’)

Luke and Obi-Wan board the ship they've hired to transport them out of Tatooine, a bucket of bolts known as the Millennium Falcon. Its pilot, Han Solo, blasts them out of Mos Eisley, pursued by Imperial ships; the only escape is through hyperspace. It’s such a brief, simple effect — the stars turn into streaks outside the cockpit window — but it carries such an electric thrill the first few times (or even the first few dozen times) you see it. This was the ship that could do the Kessel run in less than 12 parsecs…blazing past the speed of light is not a problem.

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The Cantina (‘A New Hope’)

In the wretched hive of scum and villainy known as Mos Eisley, Luke and Obi-Wan walk into a local cantina in search of a pilot — and enter a bar the likes you’ve never seen before. Packed with alien beings of all shapes, sizes and skin textures, the cantina gives us a crazy cross-section of the weird and wonderful Star Wars universe, all set to the catchy music of the slug-like Figrin D’an and the Modal Notes, the in-house band. It's the first real hint of the possibly hundreds of different types of creatures that co-exist in this universe.

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‘Only a Sith Deals in Absolutes’ (‘Revenge of the Sith’)

Ever since we first heard the story of how Anakin Skywalker turned into Darth Vader, fans waited to see Anakin and Obi-Wan — once the closest of friends — throw down on the molten lava planet Mustafar. It’s the longest light saber duel in all six of the movies and arguably the second most intense, as its fraught with sadness (and then horror) as Obi-Wan is forced to mutilate his friend and watch him burn alive.

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Asteroid Flight (‘The Empire Strikes Back’)

Perhaps the single most white-knuckle, gasp-and-hide-your-eyes moment in the entire series comes when Han Solo tries to shake off Imperial ships by flying the Falcon through an asteroid field. Huge hunks of stone cascade all around the ship as it dives and darts through the field, avoiding destruction dozens of times and keeping the audience on the edge of its collective seat.

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11

Han Shoots First (‘A New Hope’)

This scene remains perhaps the most egregious example of George Lucas going back years later to revise his work and irreparably ruining it in the process. This famously (and controversially) tampered-with scene — in which Han blasts Greedo before the green-skinned bounty hunter has a chance to pull out his weapon — established Solo as a much more dangerous character than he ended up being. You can throw all the revisionist history out there you want, George. We all know who has the quicker draw.

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10

The Kiss (‘The Empire Strikes Back’)

It put the idea of a Han-Leia-Luke romantic triangle to rest — a good thing too, knowing what we later found out about Luke and Leia's shared ancestry. The kiss between the sassy princess and the smart-ass smuggler was a defining moment that changed the dynamic between the characters, added a romantic spark to the storytelling and made the later events that much more powerful — because it made it that much more personal.

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The Millennium Falcon vs. TIE fighters (‘A New Hope’)

Escaping from the Death Star after breaking Princess Leia out of prison, the Millennium Falcon is pursued by a squadron of Imperial fighters, forcing Han and Luke to man the ship's guns. A furious, exhilarating battle ensues, and you can’t help but feel Luke's glee as he blasts the Empire's minions out of the sky. ("Don't get cocky, kid," cautions Han — got to knock the kid down a few pegs.)

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8

Duel of the Fates (‘The Phantom Menace’)

Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) and Obi-Wan Kenobi battle the Sith Lord Darth Maul (Ray Park) in what is, hands down, the most electrifying moment in Menace. Not only do we see ripping swordplay and top-notch derring-do from a Jedi duo and a Sith at the height of their powers, but Maul possesses the single most badass weapon of the whole series: a double-bladed lightsaber. It's a shame that Lucas threw away Park's character as casually as he did Boba Fett, but we'll always have that incredible two-on-one duel.

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The First Firefight (‘A New Hope’)

As soon as the first Star Wars opens, we go right from that amazing shot of the Imperial Destroyer to the first battle between rebel soldiers and Imperial stormtroopers. The fighting is fierce and the blasters are blazing in the best B-movie tradition, and we also meet C-3P0, R2-D2, Princess Leia and an ominous bad guy named Darth Vader in quick succession. A terrific 10 minutes that sets up so much of the story to come.

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The Theater Scene (‘Revenge of the Sith’)

Ian McDiarmid as Chancellor Palpatine/Darth Sidious delivers what may be the best acting moment in the franchise in this scene, in which the soon-to-be emperor carefully and subtly manipulates the emotions of his future apprentice Anakin Skywalker, laying the groundwork for his conversion to the dark side. Never mind that this all happens while the pair watch a weird liquid energy performance art piece; McDiarmid is full of restrained menace as he recounts the legend of Darth Plagueis in this superbly directed scene.

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The Never-Ending Imperial Destroyer (‘A New Hope’)

Is there anyone who does not know this very first Star Wars shot, easily one of the greatest intros in modern film history? Following the opening crawl, the camera pans down from the stars to the surface of a planet, over which a rebel blockade runner flies into view. Then we see what is pursuing it — an Imperial Destroyer that soars overhead and just keeps coming and coming and coming, filling the screen with its massive bulk. That shot still has the ability to make one's jaw drop. It all starts here.

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The Grudge Match (‘Return of the Jedi’)

It was a foregone conclusion that Vader and Luke would meet again, this time not just as Sith Lord and Jedi Knight but as father and son.  Their final confrontation makes a lot of that movie's other faults forgivable. It's operatic and dark, with the Emperor goading Luke to kill his own father and embrace the dark side — until Palpatine decides that Luke himself must die, leading Vader/Anakin to redeem himself in the noblest way possible. It’s the dramatic climax that the entire original trilogy was building to, and it pays off powerfully. (So why did George Lucas tamper with it for the Blu-ray release, exactly?)

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‘He’s Alive…and in Perfect Hibernation’ (‘The Empire Strikes Back’)

The scene raised the stakes for the entire story: Han Solo was frozen in carbonite, meaning one of the saga's major heroes was taken out of commission, his ultimate fate left uncertain. The sequence is filled with dread, anguish and grief, making our characters feel like real human beings (no offense, Chewbacca; we feel your pain, too) for perhaps the first time in the entire saga. Han's parting line to Leia's "I love you" (“I know") is as perfect as it gets.

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The Death Star Battle (‘A New Hope’)

When it came to Hope's climactic battle, in which a ragtag rebel fleet attempts to destroy the Empire's planet-killing space station, George Lucas wanted to emulate the feel of the aerial dogfights he had seen in World War II movies. With the aid of the groundbreaking visual effects pioneered by John Dykstra, the director did it: The clash between the rebel and Imperial fighters is more dynamic than any space battle seen on the screen before. Ships dive, circle and strafe each other — the camera moving right along with them — in a breathless 10-minute sequence that left the Death Star going up in an explosion and audiences gasping with delight.

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‘I Am Your Father’ (‘The Empire Strikes Back’)

The light saber duel between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader was easily the most anticipated moment in the first of the Star Wars sequels, and it lived up to the hype: Vader relentlessly pushes Luke to his physical limits, as the young Jedi-in-training tries to muster his still-growing abilities. And then there's the moment that stunned audiences and elevated the franchise into the realm of tragedy: Luke learns simultaneously of both his mentor Obi-Wan's deception and his own hideous lineage in one fell swoop. (Take that, Freud!) No wonder he throws himself off that bridge — even if he lives, despairing and confused, to fight another day.

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