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Monday, December 7, 2015

Counting Down: The Top 5 Star Wars Lightsaber Battles (So Far)

            We’re almost there, people!  By the time this post goes up, it will be officially possible to count down the days to the international release of Star Wars Episode 7: The Force Awakens using just the pre-existing fingers on your hands.  And if you are at all like me, you can barely wait. 

            However, since we still have some time left to kill, and in order to fully prepare myself for this experience, I took the time the past few weeks to go back and relive all 6 of the original films (yes, ALL of them), starting with the originals and then jumping back and re-watching the much-maligned prequel trilogy as well.  And in doing so, I came to a conclusion- I love this franchise in its entirety.  So much so that, although revisiting each film with a somewhat-better-tuned critic’s eye did lead me to notice faults with both sets of films I hadn’t thought about as a child, I still found that I really didn’t care, and I don’t expect I ever will.  There is a vision that drives these stories, one greater than the limitations of its individual parts, and even some of the lesser writing or more ham-fisted directing/casting choices (and yes, both are bigger problems with the prequels) can’t bring them down. 

            Unfortunately, the movies alone weren’t enough to dispel the massive Force-fueled kick I’m on right now, so in addition to jumping back into the books as well (Shatterpoint, the Thrawn Trilogy, and Matthew Stover’s book for Revenge of the Sith are particular favorites), I decided to play a little game; since one of the mainstays of any proper Star Wars tale is the lighsaber combat- because lightsabers are and will always be one of the coolest concepts for a weapon to ever be created- I felt it would be worthwhile to try and hammer down the 5 best lightsaber-centered battles in the franchise (thus far).  Should we get more from the new movies to choose from- and I am very, very, very much hoping that we will- I might revisit or redo this list in a few years’ time once the new trilogy is complete. 

            With that having been said, here are what, in my opinion, make up the 5 coolest, most kickass, and all-around most emotional or important lightsaber fights, taken strictly from the current crop of 6 feature-length films.  Comments and disagreements are welcome in the comments below.  Enjoy! 

5. Yoda vs. Count Dooku, Episode II 

            While I can certainly understand the objections of critics/fellow Star Wars fans like Belated Media to the fact that Lucas has Yoda actually carry a lightsaber and fight, arguing that doing so goes against the philosophy that he represents, I must state for the record that I very respectfully disagree with them.  Because this encounter, short as it is, is nothing less than two minutes of pure, distilled AWESOME.  I love how Yoda moves, how he leaps and jumps and twirls, and how NOTHING can touch him.  Is it fan service?  Horribly blatant fan service?  Of course it is!  But it’s the RIGHT kind of fan service!

4. Luke vs. Darth Vader, Episode VI 

            It lacks the flash and technical prowess of the fights from the newer movies, but like its counterpart in Episode V (which we will get to presently), this struggle makes up for it in how heavily it drips with atmosphere, and comes laden with all the emotions the entire original trilogy had spent their collective running time meticulously building up, bit by bit.  This is (or will have been, once the new series is over) the culmination of both the original trilogy and the overarching story of the entire film set, the true moment where the prophecy of a Skywalker bringing balance to the Force comes to pass.  It’s also the final watershed moment for both Luke and his father, as Anakin overcomes the influence of the Emperor and Luke becomes a true Jedi Knight, allowing him to move forward and help properly rebuild the galaxy.  As such, there is a weight to this scene that very few action scenes on general, much less Star Wars ones, are able to carry. 

3. Maul vs. Obi-Wan/Qui-Gon, Episode I 

            I can still remember when the new Star Wars movies started up when I was still a kid, and in true Star Wars fashion the merchandising and marketing were EVERYWHERE.  There is, literally, no escape once the premiere of a Star Wars film is coming up and the ad campaign kicks into high gear.  And one of the first things Star-Wars-related I recall seeing was Darth Maul’s creepy-ass face and double-sided lightsaber plastered everywhere.  Much like the side-guards in the Force Awakens trailers everyone is arguing about now, one couldn’t but wonder back then how a lightsaber like that would actually work in combat. 

            What a payoff it was when we finally did get to the finale, and the result was, on a purely technical level, easily the most visually impressive and best-scored fight we’d yet gotten in Star Wars.  There was a smoothness to the action we hadn’t seen before, and even though (like with Yoda’s fight mentioned above) it didn’t have as much narrative behind it as the others on this list did, it turned pretty emotional by the end, when Obi-Wan is forced to overcome his grief over his master’s death quickly enough to also take on a Sith Lord head-to-head.  Sure, there are better ways they could have handled this aspect of Obi-Wan’s growth, but as it is, this is still one hell of a battle, one I never get tired of watching over and over again. 

2. Obi-Wan vs. Anakin, Episode III 

            Fun fact; Revenge of the Sith is, thus far, the only Star Wars film I had the chance to actually see in theaters.  And after rewatching it again for the first time in years, I think it’s not only the best of the prequels by far, but its greatest moments can stand right alongside anything in the original trilogy, and one of the highlights of those is the final confrontation between Anakin and Obi-Wan.  It is one of the longest and most drawn-out fights in the entire franchise, but every minute of it is worth it. 

            In stark contrast to many of the prequels’ worst moments, the acting here is key; Ewan McGregor and Hayden Christensen (who was always at his best in these movies where he didn’t have to read Lucas’ awful scripts out loud) both do a remarkable job selling the pathos of the moment; the grand strokes of the Star Wars legend, particularly those of the prequels, have the same perfect, reinforcing symmetry of human error and disaster of a classic Greek tragedy, and one of the best examples of this is the heart-breaking series of circumstances that force Anakin and Obi-Wan, a duo closer than brothers, to do battle to the death.  We knew going into this one that this was the defining sequence for both characters, and for all the other issues the film has, at least it got this part right. 

            Best shot; a fountain of lava shooting up the same time Anakin and Obi-Wan make a desperate lunge towards each other out on the soon-to-fall platform, with the Sith-red color of the environment perfectly opposing the radiant blue of their lightsabers.  Simply beautiful. 

1. Luke vs. Darth Vader, Episode V 

            The effects aren’t as visually dazzling as those in the prequel battles.  The stunts are not nearly as sweet to the eye as the smooth, graceful choreography in those selfsame films. 

            And yet, this is by the far the best and most viscerally powerful of all the examples of lightsaber combat out of all the films put together.  Why?  Because it nails down exactly what the final clash in Return of the Jedi got right- rich visual atmosphere and gripping, narrative-driven emotion- only it does them even BETTER.  I can’t put enough emphasis on how much I love the use of color here.  Almost everything is in deep shadow, with some parts (Vader himself in particular) often pitch-dark, which is the absolute best way to showcase the neon glow of a lightsaber, creating the best-possible contrast between the living, sky-blue of Luke’s blade, and the deep, blood-red of Vader’s. 

            And although it only has a few jumps or kicks, it is intense to watch, simply because it’s built on what is, up to that point, a flawless Hero’s Narrative.  Only one movie ago, we saw Vader cut down the only friend Luke had left after his family was killed.  Earlier in the same movie, we saw him vaporize blaster fire with a wave of his hand.  Vader had been built up big-time going into this, and his status as one of the greatest and most threatening villains of all time was well-established.  Even as the fight progresses, we know Luke isn’t really strong enough to beat him- not yet- and his growing sense of desperation to hold on as the fight builds in intensity is a great credit to how well Mark Hamill grew into the role.  For me, it will always remain not just the best lightsaber fight of the franchise, but one of the overall best scenes in the entire series to date. 

            Although, who knows?  Maybe Abrams and his crew really do know what they are doing, and this coming set of movies will have their own fights that only match, but even exceed the ones here.  If so, expect a revised version of this to come out in about 3.5 years’ time.  If not…..then no galaxy in existence will be enough to contain my Sith-like rage. 

-Noah Franc 

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