We Ranked the 40 Greatest Star Wars Moments

19 minute read

No science fiction franchise has been more influential than Star Wars. (Sorry, Star Trek fans!) Over the last 40 years, the space opera saga created by George Lucas has delivered 1,062 minutes of lightsaber duels, intergalactic dogfights and dynastic drama. Even non-fans are likely to immediately recognize iconic imagery like Darth Vader’s helmet, the Millennium Falcon, or Luke Skywalker’s lightsaber. Which begs the question: of the hundreds, maybe thousands, to choose from which Star Wars moments are the best?

The series, now owned by Disney, turns 40 on May 25. So TIME’s entertainment team and sundry Star Wars super fans on staff ranked the top 40 scenes. We included only moments from the original trilogy, the prequels, The Force Awakens and Rogue One. (The 1978 Holiday Special not so much.) This list was debated at length. What did we miss?

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40. Darth Vader reveals Luke’s lineage, Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back

Widely considered to be one of the greatest twists in cinematic history, the moment Vader reveals his true identity to Luke has become synonymous with the allure of the Star Wars saga. After Luke abandons his Jedi training to rescue his friends on Cloud City—despite warnings from both Yoda and the ghost of Obi-Wan—he ends up locked in a duel with the Sith Lord. The scene culminates in both the loss of Luke’s right hand and what is arguably the most famous movie quote of all time: “No, I am your father.”

39. Leia and Han saying “I love you.” “I know.” Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back

Playing Han, Ford reportedly improvised this quip. As Han is lowered into the carbonite mold at the end of Empire, Leia lets out a desperate “I love you.” The script had Han responding with a generic, “I love you too,” but Ford thought cocky Solo would have a snarkier response. The exchange perfectly captures the character—always bursting the dramatic bubble. Not to mention the dynamic between the two lovebirds, one of the greatest in cinematic history.

38. Vader’s ruthless massacre, Rogue One

The first true demonstration of the full extent of Vader’s power didn’t come until the closing sequence of the most recent Star Wars film. But it was well worth the wait. As the group of Rebel soldiers who received Jyn Erso’s transmission of the Death Star plans attempts to evade pursuing Imperial forces, Vader finds his way on board their ship. The merciless slaughter that ensues gives undeniable credence to his standing as the most feared monster in the galaxy.

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37. Yoda lifts Luke’s X-Wing, Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back

Until this moment, the power of the Force seems relatively muted: We know it can summon small objects, it can be used to deceive the weak-minded, and it can even help a torpedo find its way into a thermal exhaust port. But when the diminutive and aging Yoda uses the mysterious Jedi power to lift Luke Skywalker’s massive X-Wing starfighter out of the Dagobah swamp, we finally recognize just how awesome the Force can truly be.

36. The opening crawl — Episode IV – A New Hope

When the first Star Wars was released in 1977, contemporary movies simply didn’t open like this. So audiences knew they were in for something different when the words “STAR WARS” blazed across the screen with the full might of John Williams’ best orchestral work behind them. (The text effect was an homage to the Flash Gordon reels of the 1940s.) The words that followed—“It is a period of civil war…”—both grounded viewers in this new universe and became iconic in their own right, establishing a practice followed by every subsequent movie save Rogue One.

35. Yoda schools Luke in the ways of the Force, Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back

“Do or do not, there is no try,” Yoda famously instructs Luke while training him on Dagobah—a maxim that strips away the mystique and complexity of the Force to reveal the core Zen principle of mastering it. Luke responds to this advice by making a half-hearted attempt to lift his X-Wing out of the swamp, prompting Yoda to put on an impressive display of Jedi prowess.

34. “May the Force be with you” — Every Movie

Arguably the most famous Star Wars phrase, the saying is more or less a blessing and a “good luck.” Pay close attention to who uses it: It’s always the good guys. And its use can be evidence of character development, as it was the first time the notoriously Force-skeptical Han utters it to Luke on his way to the Battle of Yavin.

33. Obi-Wan mind tricks the Stormtroopers, Episode IV – A New Hope

Obi-Wan’s seemingly effortless ability to convince the Stormtroopers on Mos Eisley not only that they don’t need to see Luke’s identification but that R2-D2 and C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) aren’t the droids to whom Leia entrusted the Death Star plans serves as Luke’s memorable introduction to the ways of the Force. It also brought about one of the franchise’s most oft-repeated—and parodied—lines: “These aren’t the droids you’re looking for.”

32. Luke and Vader’s first lightsaber duel, Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back

Even without the iconic reveal that Vader is Luke’s father, not the man who murdered him, the Sith Lord’s first battle with his newly trained son is one for the books. This high stakes showdown between good and evil is the perfect culmination of the events leading up to it. Not to mention that the actual fighting is a vast improvement on the choreography of the only lightsaber duel that precedes it—the rheumatic, anticlimactic clash between Obi-Wan and Vader in A New Hope.

31. Vader unmasked, Episode VI – Return of the Jedi

Why is Vader considered one of the most compelling movie villains of all time? It’s at least in part due to his utterly terrifying mask, which kept the “real” Vader hidden from view. So it was all the more powerful when, with Vader drawing his last breaths, Luke removed the Sith Lord’s mask, revealing the face of a remorseful and disfigured old man.

30. Admiral Ackbar yells “It’s a trap!” Episode VI – Return of the Jedi

Was there a more gif-able line filmed in the pre-gif era? Admiral Ackbar (voiced by Erik Bauersfeld) figures out the rebels have entered an ambush a bit too late during the Battle of Endor. While the line has been a favorite of nerds for decades (and is oft-used by Star Wars-obsessed Stephen Colbert), it flourished in the Internet era when prank-reaction memes were in high demand.

29. Vader rescues Luke from the Emperor, Episode VI – Return of the Jedi

The story of Anakin Skywalker—the central character of the Star Wars saga—finally comes full circle as Vader tosses the Emperor down the Death Star reactor shaft, proving there is, in fact, still good in him. Vader’s decision to kill his master in order to save his son is one of sacrifice, as the Force lightning that surges through his body when he picks up the Emperor ultimately kills him. It’s also one of redemption, allowing him to become one with the Force at the moment of his death.

28. Rey summons Luke’s lightsaber with the Force, Episode VII – The Force Awakens

Kylo Ren reaches his hand out for the lightsaber in the snow. It quivers. And then it flies past Kylo and into the hands of Rey. Sure, much of Force Awakens played like A New Hope redux with Rey as a stand in for Luke, but for every little girl who was told growing up that she couldn’t play Jedi because “girls don’t get light sabers,” seeing a woman wield the famed weapon was the ultimate moment of vindication. Some of those girls, now grown up, may have teared up a bit in the theater…

27. The Battle of Hoth, Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back

The problem with putting all your strategic eggs in one basket, any military commander will tell you, is that basket is a prime target for an enemy assault. So learned the Rebels on Hoth, when the Imperial fleet dispatched a phalanx of mighty AT-AT “walkers” to neutralize their base. The Battle of Hoth gave us a classic Star Wars scene: The Rebels figuring out they could jerry-rig their fighters to tie up the walkers with cabling, sending them plummeting into the snow in epic fashion.

26. Han flies in to save the day, Episode IV – A New Hope

Just when it seems as though Luke is about to be shot down by Vader and his squadron of TIE fighters before he can take the shot that will destroy the Death Star, Han shows up in the Millennium Falcon to return fire on the Imperial ships. This moment is made all the more epic by Han’s earlier declaration that he was only helping the Rebels for the reward money, as it shows how far the cynical smuggler has come since being pulled into the story.

25. BB-8’s thumbs up, Episode VII – The Force Awakens

Anyone can anthropomorphize an animal or an alien—make it fluffy, and everyone will love it! Star Wars managed to do it with machines. BB-8 became the breakout star of The Force Awakens as soon as he decided to help out Finn (John Boyega) in his mission to woo Rey (Daisy Ridley). The thumbs up (via butane-like lighter) BB-8 gives Finn seals his fate as most-adorable droid.

24. The Imperial March, Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back

If A New Hope is about the triumph of good over evil, The Empire Strikes Back is exactly the opposite. Nothing drives home the terrifying size and scale of the Empire like this scene, which shows the sheer number of Star Destroyers in the Imperial Fleet—and reveals Darth Vader’s Executor-class Super Star Destroyer, a battleship of immense size. But what really made this scene memorable is John Williams’ Imperial March, an instantly memorable orchestral triumph that oozes pure evil.

23. “Help me Obi-Wan Kenobi, you’re my only hope,” Episode IV – A New Hope

Princess Leia, about to be captured by Darth Vader’s stormtroopers, sends an S.O.S. to the only person she knows who could be of any help: aging Jedi Master Obi-Wan Kenobi, who’s living in hiding on the desert planet Tatooine. Leia’s plea has became a meme unto itself, uttered even by non-fans to appeal to potential saviors in times of crisis.

22. Vader’s first breath, Episode III – Revenge of the Sith

The moment Lucas’ prequels were ultimately (and sometimes gruelingly) building toward: the transformation of the horribly maimed Anakin into Vader. The final scene of Episode III gave fans a detailed look at the origins of the galaxy’s ultimate villain. But it also underscored why Vader—consciousness alienated from its physical form—has always been a singularly compelling portrayal of evil.

21. Kylo Ren throws a fit, Episode VII – The Force Awakens

Think what you will of Kylo Ren, but no new villain was going to live up to Darth Vader. So why not make Ren a petulant baby? Casting Adam Driver (Girls) was a stroke of genius. Kylo pulling out his lightsaber and destroying whatever is nearby proved that he was a worthy villain, if an immature one.

20. Lando’s treachery, Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back

From the second Han even mentions his buddy Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams), viewers are left on edge: Can he—can we—really trust this guy? Kind of seems to be the case on Cloud City. Lando provides nice digs, fresh clothes, and even an invitation to brunch. But once the dining room door opens, Darth Vader waiting at the head of the table, it becomes clear he’s a double crosser of the worst variety. (The kind that ruins brunch.)

19. Leia strangles Jabba, Episode VI – Return of the Jedi

Let’s get this out of the way: Lucas’ notorious decision to show Carrie Fisher chained up wearing a gold bikini was an unabashed grab at teenage boys’ wallets. (Fisher was not a fan and reportedly warned The Force Awakens star Daisy Ridley to refuse to wear any swimwear.) But oh, what eventual catharsis: Leia strangles Jabba with the very chains that enslaved her. Leia was the first powerful princess capable of saving herself rather than waiting for a night in shining armor.

18. Yoda fights Darth Sidious, Episode III – Revenge of the Sith

The original trilogy denied fans the opportunity to see either of the (arguably) most powerful Jedi Masters wield a lightsaber. So naturally, the prequels could only culminate in a head to head battle between the two. With the fate of the Republic hanging in the balance, Yoda and Darth Sidious (Ian McDiarmid) engage in an acrobatic duel of wits, swordsmanship and Force wizardry that illustrates the stark differences between the Light and Dark sides.

17. The Mos Eisley Cantina, Episode IV – A New Hope

One of the biggest faults of the Star Wars saga arguably is that it focuses so much on its human (and human-like) characters even while building a rich universe of bizarre aliens. Except, that is, for A New Hope’s classic cantina scene, which takes viewers on a whirlwind tour of Star Wars extraterrestrials. And that song is just so catchy!

16. Yoda explains anger, Episode I – The Phantom Menace

One of the best pieces of Yoda wisdom actually comes in the much-maligned Phantom Menace. The little green master succinctly explains Anakin’s imminent downfall—and the theme of the prequels: “Fear is the path to the Dark Side. Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering.”

15. Luke’s Tauntaun, Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back

Han is introduced as a scrappy pirate who doesn’t care about anybody but himself. But he turns a corner when he risks his life to save Luke from exposure on the punishing environment of the ice world Hoth. After finding Luke, Han keeps his friend warm by slicing open his Tauntaun (think space camel). Han delivers this classic line: “I thought they smelled bad on the outside.”

14. Kylo Ren kills Han, Episode VII – The Force Awakens

The only person who saw this twist coming was Harrison Ford, who apparently wanted Han to be killed off way back in the original series. It took major guts for J.J. Abrams to axe one of the series’ most iconic character. But it gave an often-playful movie emotional heft and cleared the way for the new cast to grow into its roles.

13. Ewoks celebrate Rebel victory, Episode VI – Return of the Jedi

Although the Ewoks remain polarizing creatures among Star Wars fans, it’s hard to deny that seeing the teddy bear-esque warriors dance around to the “Yub Nub” song to celebrate the defeat of the Empire isn’t amazingly adorable. The scene was controversially replaced in the 1997 Special Edition of Return of the Jedi in favor of a sequence showcasing the impact of the Imperial downfall on different planets across the galaxy. Not as amazingly adorable.

12. Yoda battles Count Dooku, Episode II – Attack of the Clones

Episode II gave fans precious little to love. But it was the first movie where Yoda was digitally animated, rather than portrayed by a puppet. The CGI allowed for this ridiculously fun (and flexy) lightsaber battle between the Jedi Master and Count Dooku (Christopher Lee).

11. Vader Force-chokes Motti, Episode IV – A New Hope

Admiral Motti attempts to give Vader a dressing-down over his belief in the power of the Force. Big misstep. Motti realizes it before he can even finish his tirade as Vader’s suffocates him from across the room. “I find your lack of faith disturbing,” Vader forebodingly croons as the Imperial officers cower before him.

10. The speeder bike chase, Episode VI – Return of the Jedi

No action series is complete without at least one high-speed chase, Star Wars included. Packed with seat-gripping first-person shots, Luke and Princess Leia’s (Carrie Fisher) 125-mph pursuit of Imperial scout troopers through the dense forest of Endor is one of the saga’s most thrilling sequences.

9. Yoda Teaches the younglings, Episode II – Attack of the Clones

Before the prequels, we only got to see how Yoda taught the ways of the Force to Luke, already an adult. Here we get a fun look at what it’s like to grow up in training to become a Jedi warrior. Turns out it’s a lot like preschool, but with more lightsabers.

8. Luke’s leap off Jabba’s gangplank, Episode VI – Return of the Jedi

Although Luke doesn’t complete his training with Yoda until after Han’s rescue in Return, it’s clear his powers have grown by the time he gets to on Tatooine. No longer the Jedi novice who faced Darth Vader (voiced by James Earl Jones) in Empire, he calmly leaps toward a grisly death in the pit of the Sarlacc before executing a perfect Force-powered somersault back onto Jabba’s skiff. Turning the tables never looked so balletic.

7. “Chewy, we’re home,” Episode VII – The Force Awakens

Let’s be honest, Star Wars fans have had to put up with a lot of disappointment over the years, from the lackluster prequels to dubious spin offs. Needless to say, there was a lot of anxiety about the series return to the big screen with The Force Awakens. When Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) find their way back to the Millennium Falcon after years apart, Han might as well have been speaking for the entire audience.

6. Binary sunset, Episode IV – A New Hope

Early in A New Hope, Luke is pretty much just like any other teen: impatient, whiny and desperate to leave home. What sets him apart—and his fantastic destiny to come—is illustrated in a powerful moment: Luke is taking in the Tatooine sunset, except there are two suns. Kansas? Nope, not anymore.

5. “Use the Force, Luke,” Episode IV – A New Hope

Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) is flying his X-Wing into the Death Star trenches, he gets a call from beyond: It’s Obi-Wan, telling him to turn off his fighter’s targeting computer. From a technological standpoint, it’s madness. From a cosmic vantage, necessary. Luke obliges, using the Force to guide his torpedos into the thermal exhaust port, setting off a chain reaction that destroys the Empire’s fearsome planet-killer. This wins the day, but it also shows the Force is powerful far beyond mere parlor trickery.

4. Republican liberty dies, Episode III – Revenge of the Sith

Lucas’ preoccupation with intergalactic governance was at times distracting and, as commentary on the Bush era, a little on-the-nose. But Padme’s (Natalie Portman) “So this is how liberty dies with thunderous applause” is one of the few great one-liners from the prequel trilogy.

3. Obi Wan vs Anakin on Mustafar, Episode III – Revenge of the Sith

A key moment fans slogged through three prequels for: Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) breaking bad and taking on his mentor. And boy did Lucas milk it. This may be the longest fight scene ever chock-full of risible dialogue like “From my perspective, the Jedi are evil.” Most memorable though is Anakin’s limbless body rolling around on the ground…before catching fire.

2. Yoda declares the start of the Clone Wars, Episode II – Attack of the Clones

Sensing the Jedi victory on Geonosis was really no victory at all, Yoda (voiced by Frank Oz) is quick to shut down Obi-Wan Kenobi’s (Ewan McGregor) gratitude for the arrival of the clones. “The shroud of the dark side has fallen, begun the Clone War has,” he muses as the scene pans to Chancellor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) overlooking the massing of an army to the ominous tune of the Imperial March. The scene effectively set the stage for all the internecine battles to come.

1. The trash compactor, Episode IV – A New Hope

This is the first time the band (Leia, Luke, Han and Chewie) comes together. From the moment they start exchanging charged barbs, you know they have something special. It’s the perfect mix of terror and humor at which Star Wars excels. (This famous scene has one unanswered question: If the trash compactor compacts every few hours, how does the trash monster not get crushed multiple times a day?)

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Write to Eliana Dockterman at eliana.dockterman@time.com and Megan McCluskey at megan.mccluskey@time.com