The best moments in the Star Wars franchise, ranked

Digital Trends offers a full menu of most powerful Star Wars lists: most powerful villains, most powerful heroes, even coolest TIE Fighters (OK, the last one is not strictly most powerful, but I wrote it and it’s really funny.).

These lists are great fun, but what we most care about in our Star Wars movies is story and emotion. We all cherish the times we thrilled, chilled, and gasped through the saga’s epic sacrifices, tragic losses, and shocking revelations. To honor these moments, we present a definitive ranking of the biggest, boldest, and most operatic moments from the Star Wars feature films.

10. Obi-Wan dies (A New Hope)

Star Wars: A New Hope (1977) – ‘Ben Kenobi’s Death’ scene

As Luke (Mark Hamill), Han (Harrison Ford), and Leia (Carrie Fisher) attempt to escape the Death Star, encountering obstacles at ever turn, Obi-Wan (Ben) Kenobi (Alec Guinness) confronts his old nemesis, Darth Vader (David Prowse) and proceeds to engage in what remains the least stirring lightsaber fight ever committed to screen, so much so that George Lucas and other Star Wars creators have been trying to one up/remake it ever since.  This includes the recent Disney+ offering Obi Wan Kenobi, which more or less exists as an excuse to restage the duel as elaborately as possible (though a fan had already brilliantly reimagined it).

Lucas, perhaps recognizing that the fight was a bit underwhelming, compensated by following it with a cathartic response. Luke, watching in heartbroken disbelief as Vader strikes down his beloved mentor, launches into a frenzied stormtrooper massacre. The reaction, more than the death itself, provides the emotion in the scene, along with, as always, John Williams’ legendary music.

9. Rey battles Kylo in a snowy forest (The Force Awakens)

Star Wars: Episode VII The Force Awakens – Finn & Rey Vs. Kylo Ren [4K 60fps]

The Force Awakens is not a great movie, but J.J. Abrams, with his talent for faithful recreation (not to say mimicry), does provide a handful of stirring moments and this is one of them. Finn (John Boyega) and Kylo Ren are engaged in snowy forest combat when Finn goes down and Kylo attempts to Force retrieve his fallen lightsaber. The saber rattles suspenseful, then flies up and past Kylo into the sure grip of Rey (Daisy Ridley), who proceeds to whale on Ren like he’s the schoolyard bully who took her brother’s lunch money.

This is tremendously satisfying, not least because of its importance as a girl power moment, and I don’t say this with derision. One of the reasons why the movie was so huge was because a young woman finally took on the Jedi hero mantle and this is the scene when the force fully, well, awakens in Rey. Did you also know she was the last Skywalker? For a man who prides himself on his mystery box storytelling, Abrams’ titles can be thuddingly literal.

8. Luke Skywalker dies (The Last Jedi)

Luke’s Death scene

Whether you like the film or not, you can’t deny the power of Luke’s death scene. After sacrificing himself to save his friends one final time (without shedding blood, I might add), he gazes out at the setting sun from the island of Ahch-To, his adopted home for so many years, and imagines the twin suns of Tatooine before poofing out of the mortal realm to join his fellow deceased Jedi.

As I wrote previously: “The final vista of the twin suns, bold and glorious, reveal that his nostalgia for them never faded, despite all of Yoda’s entreaties to live in the moment. At heart, Luke was still a young man and a dreamer. Perhaps, then, his greatest sacrifice was to lay low for the greater good when he still wanted to be out among the stars, skywalking.”

7. ‘Execute Order 66’ (The Revenge of the Sith)

“Execute Order 66” [4K UHD] | Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith (2005)

Lucas is a master of weaving parallel action, especially in his multi-strand climaxes, and this montage is one of his most emotionally affecting. As the Jedis and Clones are fighting the Separatists across far-flung worlds, Emperor Palpatine orders the execution of the secret Order 66. In effect, this is the moment that the Clone troopers become stormtroopers that now serve the Empire. In an instant, their programming switches over and they assassinate the Jedi they’ve been fighting alongside. The Jedi are so completely caught by surprise, they crumple under Clone fire almost without resistance.

The montage is brief, but it’s among the most lyrical filmmaking in Lucas’ oeuvre. John Williams wrote some great choral music for the prequels — think “Duel of the Fates” — and the mournful choir he weaves throughout this requiem is among the most moving. The sequence ends with Yoda literally clutching his broken heart.

6. The destruction of Scarif (Rogue One)

Rogue One A Star Wars Story: Destruction of Scarif and death of Jyn Erso & Cassian Andor [1080p HD]

Watching the film for the first time, I remember being pleasantly surprised (and also, of course, grief-stricken!) as our heroes began to fall one by one under the relentless barrage of Imperial troops. Like any Star Wars aficionado, I was stunned out of my shorts that the Stormtroopers actually hit something. But beyond that, the idea that primary characters in a major serialized franchise would bite the dust without any chance of coming back as Force ghosts or whatever was really something rare and unexpected.

Even so, I thought our protagonists would be rescued as the Death Star blast hurtles toward them like the most terrifying nightmare blend of nuclear apocalypse and tsunami (tsupocalypse?). Instead, the bold ending gave new depth to Star Wars, viscerally underscoring the reality that fighting totalitarianism has real costs. And of course, Disney never had any worries. Even without Force ghost resurrections, characters can always return in a prequel.

5. Luke defies the Emperor (Return of the Jedi)

Luke Confronts The Emperor

After first seeing ROTJ at age 10, I knew this was my favorite movie scene ever, though I couldn’t articulate why. Years later, I recognized that it’s the moment in every good story when the protagonist makes a climactic choice under pressure that defines his values — the culmination of the moral struggle that is the raison d’être of storytelling itself.

“Your hate has made you powerful,” the Emperor tells Luke as he is on the verge of vanquishing Vader with his new lightsaber. “Now fulfill your destiny and take your father’s place by my side.” Luke, realizing with horror what he is about to do, throws away his lightsaber. “Never. I’ll never turn to the Dark Side,” he proclaims. “You’ve failed, your highness. I am a Jedi, like my father before me.” It’s a simple but powerful expression of the willingness to die for your beliefs. Thankfully, Luke doesn’t end up paying the ultimate price, though the Emperor does fry him like a bucket of KFC for a while.

4. ‘You were the chosen one!’ (Revenge of the Sith)

Obi-wan vs anakin – duel on mustafar Star Wars revenge of the sith

Lucas had been imagining this confrontation between Obi-Wan (Ewan McGregor) and Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) even before he made A New Hope back in the ’70s. I remember reading about it in a movie magazine as a kid in the ’80s and being very excited. Of course, I didn’t know at the time that we would all have to suffer through The Phantom Menace to get there. But suffering is just part of the Hero’s Journey, I guess.

Yet the tepid response to the first two prequels, even among fans (I have since made a revisionist case for Attack of the Clones), is part of the reason why the climactic showdown between Obi-Wan and Anakin on the lava planet Mustafar is so affecting: the intensity of the emotion floors us after all the flat acting and inert digital backgrounds. When Obi-Wan, his voice raw and ragged, cries out, “You were my brother, Anakin!” as his erstwhile Padawan writhes in limbless agony, the tragic regret he feels cuts deep.

3. Han Solo goes into carbon freeze (The Empire Strikes Back)

Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back (1980) – ‘Carbon Freeze’ scene [1080]

This harrowing sequence is a big reason why The Empire Strikes Back is so sweeping and epic. Darth Vader captures Han and Leia as a way to lure Luke to Cloud

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