Scariest Moments in Star Wars Moviesby Todd King, contributing writer
It's scary (and not-so-scary) season, so I'd like to jump on the hay-ride bandwagon and present what I think are the scariest moments in the Star Wars movies. Here are mine in no particular order:
Vader sails through the air. © Lucasfilm.
There's plenty of eeriness that exudes from Darth Vader even from his very first appearance. There's always an air of uneasiness whenever he's on screen, and there are many factors that contribue to his foreboding presence. His menacing appearance is certainly a factor. His near-skull-like face place and angled helmet make you feel like you don't quite know what you're looking at (is this a man?). His body suit is made up of material that shines against the lights like some reptilian skin. There are lights and switches and striped shoulder armor mixmatched over him like some machine's apparatus. His cape outlines his hulking stature and billows as he marches, like Count Dracula floating across the room.
That's all enough to just conjure a scary image but like Dracula, there are a couple unsettling moments where Vader's movements are quite intimidating. The moments I'm talking about are of the "blink and you'll miss them" type.
First, when Luke first confronts Vader in The Empire Strikes Back and they begin their lightsaber duel. The dark Lord pushes Luke down the steps of the freezing chamber. Luke is hurt, unarmed, and when he looks back up toward his enemy, Vader seems to gently touch off the ground and glide through the air! He falls so slowly you'd think he's merely floating. This is a subtle cut but gives off enough of an impresssion to disturb the viewer. It's intended to be disturbing since this shot originates in the movie's storyboards and described with the text: "Immediately Vader takes off as a huge jet of steam spurts up—he sails through like Satan in the clouds."
Original storyboard from EMPIRE STRIKES BACK showing part of the duel where Vader "sails through like Satan." © Lucasfilm.
There's an equally short moment in Return of the Jedi when the roles are reversed and Luke kicks Vader down the Emperor's steps. Only this time, Vader doesn't tumble in a heap like Luke did. Instead, Vader floats downward in a slow spiral. Even though Vader is injured and indeed hits the ground, he does so in this weird anti-gravity manner that remains unsettling. He is human, but abnormally so.
Later on in the duel from Empire, the opponents become separated in the halls of Cloud City. Luke searches around the corners with trepidation, believing that Vader could be hiding anywhere. At one moment, in front of a large circular window, he doesn't see Vader. Luke hears him. From some hidden point in the room, we hear Vader's breath. We hear that distinct respiration and we know Luke is in trouble—like hearing those two deep musical notes from John Williams before the shark attacks in Jaws. That breathing sound has always been creepy but at this moment, when we hear him before we see him, it sets up a terrifying moment of suspense.
A Rebel soldier is in momentary disbelief at the sight of Darth Vader in ROGUE ONE. © Lucasfilm/Disney.
Likewise, a similar event takes place at the end of Rogue One when, trapped in a starship's hallway, rebel troops turn to face something they hear down the corridor. We then hear that familiar sound of Vader's breathing—familiar to us, but not to the helpless rebels who we know are about to face their doom. Vader ignites his lightsaber, and the soldiers are in a moment of utter fright and bewilderment. Their commander has to shout the order, "Open fire!" to wake them up for the attack, but it's already too late. What happens next is a 40-second massacre in this harrowing scene.
The Sarlacc Pit
Luke is forced to walk the plank over the Sarlacc Pit in RETURN OF THE JEDI. © Lucasfilm.
A common mortal fear in humans is being eaten. Movies like Jaws and Jurassic Park play on this fear, where people become food to killer sharks and giant T-Rexes. It's a terrifying prospect when the food chain is upturned. That's why it's equally scary in Return of the Jedi when our heroes are captured by Jabba the Hutt. Instead of just killing them straight out, Jabba sentences them to be fed to a giant desert monster.
To all appearances, the monster is nothing more than a pit amongst the dunes—but it's far worse than a nasty hole in the ground. The hole in question is a gaping mouth ready to consume whatever may fall into it, like some jumbo fly trap. It's the spike-riddled mouth of a sarlacc, through which life forms experience, as C-3PO describes, "a new definition of pain and suffering as you are slowly digested over a thousand years." The mere idea of that fate is beyond dreadful.
Luke, Lando, and Chewbacca were already prepared to fight back, and formed a surprise attack where they would escape. Several of Jabba's minions, however, wouldn't be so lucky. In the ensuing battle—one of the great action sequences in Star Wars—a few guards and even Boba Fett himself fall down into the pit. While the latter, that famed bounty hunter, appears to meet his end, his armor and weapons aid in his escape as seen in The Book of Boba Fett, an act that leaves him scarred for life. Whatever the outcome of favorite characters, the sarlacc pit remains an immensely scary setting.
The enigmatic Darth Maul. © Lucasfilm.
The original concept of Darth Maul in George Lucas's script called for a scary new villain. He told his artists to draw "a figure from your worst nightmare." This request eventually led to the design of Maul with the strangely-patterned markings on his face, a crown of devil-like horns, and a black and red color scheme that added to his demonic appearance. His mere presence on screen was disturbing enough but his actions always spoke louder than his sparse words. Maul would fight with the agility of a jumping spider, leaping to evade the lightsaber strikes of Obi-Wan Kenobi, and stabbing Qui-Gon Jinn as quickly as a bite. He was so frightening that fans were a little sad that he met his end so fast—we wanted more of this mysterious assassin-like villain. But for the time he was in The Phantom Menace, he left quite an impression. That impression was strong enough to eventually include him in The Clone Wars series, where his story indeed continued, and it wasn't for the faint of heart.
The Fall of Anakin
Anakin is left for dead in REVENGE OF THE SITH. © Lucasfilm.
Star Wars was never centered on horror, though it came with its share of scary images, intense events, and frightening surprises. The saga also didn't delve into much gore. For instance, when a limb was cut off from a lightsaber strike, there was no gushing blood or guts (except in one instance at the original Cantina and that explanation is handled by fans and wikis beyond the scope of this article). However, one incident could not be ignored. Once incident could not happen without some intense visuals.
The turn of Anakin Skywalker into Darth Vader was always hinted at being gruesome long before the prequel films even had screenplays. In early Star Wars literature and novelizations, there were hints at the event that crippled Anakin and necessitated his life-preserving guise. What happened that disfigured the man once known as a great Jedi Knight? Those hints included damage from a lightsaber duel between him and his former ally Obi-Wan Kenobi where they did battle over, around, or inside a volcano. It was believed back then that Anakin fell into said volcano and somehow survived. Our imagination couldn't escape the idea that such a fall would render a person, shall we say, injured. What could that possibly have looked like? Whatever happened, that duel—in our young minds—must have been terrible and epic.
When the long-awaited battle finally came to the screen in Revenge of the Sith the outcome was unavoidably dreadful. While Anakin didn't fall into a volcano, he burned from the heat of lava on a molten slope. The result couldn't not be horrible. I don't wish to detail the fearful scene here, but it was the catalyst for Episode III to be the first Star Wars movie rated PG-13.
Luke faces his fears in THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK. © Lucasfilm.
We've established that Darth Vader was scary. We get it. He started off as very intimdating and mysterious—but in the original trilogy, he didn't appear so nightmarish until the second film, The Empire Stikes Back. One particular moment where he was shot with the intention of abject fright was in the dark cave in Yoda's swamp. The Jedi Master said: "That place... is strong with the dark side of the Force. A domain of evil it is." He wasn't kidding.
Luke brashly entered the cave but soon found that the darkness and doubt he brought with him was exactly what he would face inside it. Out of nowhere, Darth Vader himself appeared. It was a shocking moment to first-time viewers who didn't know what was happening and how Vader could have been in there at all. As the action shifted into slow motion with staggered frames, we knew something was off here—the language of cinema let us know that this scene wasn't really happening the way we percieved. It turned out to be a test for Luke, a passage in the training of the Jedi to face the mirror. Unfortunately, Luke's continued doubt in his soul led to the nightmare of this scene to almost come true.
Luke Faces The First Order
Luke faces the First Order in THE LAST JEDI. © Lucasfilm/Disney.
Say what we may about The Last Jedi, it has its moments of hair-raising tension. Toward the end when Luke Skywalker stood alone facing the giant land walkers of the First Order, I didn't know what was going to happen. His former student, Kylo Ren, consumed with rage, ordered every machine to open fire on that one man. The barrage of laser fire was relentless, and while Kylo Ren ordered "More!" Luke showed no sign of deflecting the blasts. Still, more fire rained upon him to where we couldn't even see his outline. The length of this shot was enough to fill my mind with many possibilities of the outcome. There was nothing like seeing this moment for the first time and wondering in both excitement and fear about what could happen next.
Sith Throne Room
The throne of the Sith in THE RISE OF SKYWALKER. © Lucasfilm/Disney.
The Emperor's return in The Rise of Skywalker was a bit of a sudden plot-wise but the visuals accompanying his return were spine-chilling. There he was as an incomplete clone, blinded eyes, corpsed fingers, a deranged shell of a person behind held up and moved around by some unseen arm of a large machine. Gone were his fiendish retorts and unhinged mirth—now he was nothing but a manifestation of evil. Along with his disturbing appearance, the throne room on planet Exogol looked like ground-zero for maleficence in the galaxy. It was a barren rocky courtyard marked with a jagged throne while surrounded by a host of dark shrouded figures, evil Sith spectators, all whispering vile incantations. The whole atmosphere reeks of doom. It's what I always imagined a sci-fi dungeon would look like.
Luke is tortured by the Emperor's lightning in RETURN OF THE JEDI. © Lucasfilm.
Like the scene of Anakin on Mustafar mentioned above, scenes of torture are obviously disturbing. It wasn't just Anakin's fate that made us wince, but Luke was no stranger to pain. Although Anakin had fallen to the dark side and it was sad to see the karma he wrought for himself, Luke remained on the light side of the Force through and through. And that's what makes his moments of suffering hurt the most.
In earnest, he tried to rescue his friends from the trap on Cloud City in The Empire Strikes Back, but it all backfired on him as Yoda and Obi-Wan had warned it could. When Luke finally faces his then-arch nemesis, Darth Vader, he's able to withstand much of the beating he took from their duel. He could not, however, stand his ground forever against a stronger foe. In a split-second among the clashing lightsabers, Vader maneuvered his blade to render Luke helpless against a strike on his wrist. Vader cut off Luke's hand in a sudden move of his anger. Luke was horribly injured, completely disarmed, and utterly beaten in one quick moment.
Likewise, in their following duel in Return of the Jedi, Luke manages to get the upper hand, but won't turn to the dark side. He makes himself vulnerable knowing that no matter what happens—even if he dies—he has won because he stood up against evil and never gave in. To the Emperor, however, Luke was a fool to not finish the battle and claim the mantle of rule. So, the Emperor, knowing that Luke had attained mastery of the Force, also knew that he had to kill him immediately. While throughout their encounter the Emperor claimed to be unarmed, he was not without a weapon. Channeling some dark energy by evil use of the Force, he shot lightning from his fingertips, hitting Luke to the ground in shocks of electricity all over his body. A harrowing moment but one that leads to the emotional climax of the original saga.
So, what scared you in the Star Wars movies? What do you think are some frightfful moments in the saga? Add them in the comments.