Can the Duel of the Fates beat out a duel between father and son?
One of the great things about Star Wars is that it inspires endless debates and opinions on a wide array of topics. Best bounty hunter? Most powerful Jedi? Does Salacious Crumb have the best haircut in the saga? In that spirit, StarWars.com presents From a Certain Point of View: a series of point-counterpoints on some of the biggest — and most fun — Star Wars issues. In this installment, two StarWars.com writers clash metaphorical sabers over the best lightsaber duel in Star Wars.
Darth Maul dueling Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace takes the crown, says Kristen.
Starting the prequel trilogy off with a bang, Obi-Wan and Darth Maul’s lightsaber duel in The Phantom Menace is the best in the saga. It’s literally called the “Duel of the Fates.” Everything hangs on this singular moment between two apprentices who have everything to prove and nothing to lose. Plus, visually, it’s just cool! Darth Maul has a double-bladed lightsaber and he’s fighting two experienced Jedi with a twirling, acrobatic style we had never seen before, at one point blocking a strike from behind without even looking. Amazing!
Let’s back up for a moment. While the choreography is certainly the main factor in making this the best lightsaber duel, Obi-Wan’s journey throughout the film plays a major part, too. He is still a Padawan when we meet him, but eager to make his master proud. Qui-Gon Jinn has respect for his apprentice and his skills, but Jinn quickly shifts his attentions when he discovers Anakin and there is an underlying feeling that Kenobi is getting pushed aside to make way for The Chosen One.
There’s a great bond shared between master and apprentice and Anakin’s arrival changes that dynamic. When Qui-Gon reveals Obi-Wan is ready to face his trials to become a Jedi Knight, their relationship as mentor and student transforms into something more like a friendship. Qui-Gon recognizes Obi-Wan has grown up and is willing to let him go so he can fully train Anakin. But that future is snatched away once Darth Maul delivers the killing blow.
Like Obi-Wan, Darth Maul just wants to please his master. Of course, there’s much more on the line for Darth Maul if he doesn’t succeed in getting rid of the two Jedi and Padmé, the Queen of Naboo. He’s replaceable, little more than a small cog in Darth Sidious’s machine. There’s no bond between this apprentice and his master and the trials Maul must face are different from Obi-Wan’s. Maul may hope to be considered worthy in the eyes of Darth Sidious, but in reality he has always been expendable.
This lightsaber duel is a culmination of mounting tension from both Obi-Wan and Darth Maul and here’s what makes it so epic: It’s a battle for survival. Obi-Wan just wants to get to his master, and eliminating the threat is the only way. Maul must survive so he can complete his mission. There’s a rawness inherent in their meeting with everything on the line.
Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon’s team-up against Darth Maul was just the warm-up fight. Once Maul and Obi-Wan are facing each other head on, the game changes. Obi-Wan lets out his aggression and Maul feeds on it. Their battle is a dance, desperation behind each move Obi-Wan makes. He knows Qui-Gon is running out of time and Maul is counting on his distress and trying to use that as a weakness he can overpower. Ultimately, Obi-Wan sees Maul’s arrogance as a tool he can manipulate, and uses the Sith’s pride as the perfect distraction to deliver the final blow. It’s the only time in the saga where having the high ground is actually a bad thing.
Obi-Wan and Maul’s duel in The Phantom Menace ranks for me as the Greatest of All Time because of its tension and the fast-paced fighting. But it also does so much more for the storytelling, foreshadowing what’s to come for the storied Jedi Obi-Wan Kenobi and setting up one of the greatest (and most surprising) rivalries in Star Wars. Just when you think you’ve seen the end of Maul, well…don’t cut him short.
It’s Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker in Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, says Matt.
Given the enormous plot payoff that concludes Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader's encounter in The Empire Strikes Back, selecting their lightsaber duel as the saga's absolute best seems like a no-brainer. But I'd argue their showdown on Bespin earns that status long before Luke loses his hand and learns of his unfortunate parentage.
For starters, the stakes are as high as Cloud City's tallest spire. Not only does Luke cut his Jedi training short at a pivotal moment, he does so because he believes his friends are about to die. Oh, and let’s not forget this little detail: Obi-Wan and Yoda fear his early departure from Dagobah could lead to him joining the dark side.
Of course, these are just the potential risks for Luke; for the audience, they're far more frightening. As Luke arrives at Bespin, viewers are already aware of what awaits him. We've not only witnessed the carbon freezing of Han Solo, but we’ve been told by Lord Vader himself that the procedure is just a test run. As far as first-time watchers are concerned, Luke's about to fall into a trap, one that'll see him encased in carbonite and delivered to the Emperor.
This tension-cranking foreboding carries over to Luke's arrival on Cloud City, where he has little idea of what he's getting into. As young Skywalker navigates the city's sterile, white halls, we know a much darker place awaits behind its closed doors and fans are nudged to the edges of their seats, waiting for the other shoe to drop.
When Luke and Vader finally meet, the tension is ratcheted to nail-biting new levels, due in no small part to the haunting atmosphere, a creative collision of audio and visual effects that ultimately serves up one of the series' coolest environments. The hum of the lightsabers, the billowing smoke, the orange and blue hues illuminating the otherwise dim chamber all combine brilliantly, spawning scene after scene that look as beautiful in static shots as they do in motion.
The ominous atmosphere sets the stage, not for a full-on, action-packed clash of lightsabers, but for an absorbing game of cat-and-mouse. As Vader taunts Luke, trying to entice him into indulging his darkest feelings, the two rely on Force powers as much as their weapons; Vader toys with his target, flinging objects at him, while Luke's far more defensive, calling on his nascent abilities just to survive.
While less flashy, the unconventional back-and-forth carries an emotional weight -- backed by each characters' feelings and motivations as well as thoughtful pacing -- that the saga’s other duels simply can't match. The moment when Luke holsters his weapon and enters the illuminated tunnel, for example, offers us a second to catch our breath...at least in theory. In reality, it only serves to set our minds racing, wondering where this ride will take us next. And let's not forget that this duel is beautifully inter-cut by action scenes of Leia, Lando, Chewbacca, C-3PO, and R2-D2 attempting to rescue Han before Boba Fett flees Cloud City and ultimately flee themselves. Arguably the saga's best escape sequence (but that's a debate for another day,) it perfectly complements Luke and Vader's more understated encounter.
You could fill an entire trash compactor with further evidence of the duel's superiority -- from the iconic look of Luke and Vader silhouetted against the carbon freezing chamber to their catwalk battle above the bottomless chasm -- but it's not necessary. By the time Luke's hand is history and Vader is bonding with his boy over ruling the galaxy together, their meeting in Cloud City has already established itself as the lightsaber battle to beat.
Do you agree with Kristen or is Matt right? Maybe it's another duel entirely! Let us know in the comments.
Kristen Bates is flying by the seat of her pants and doing the best she can. Slow walker. Spends too much time on the internet. Season ticket holder for the Boonta Eve Classic. Aspiring smuggler. Find her on the interwebs @kristenkbates.
A full-time freelance writer born in Lizzie Borden’s hometown, Matt Cabral has covered film, television, and video games for over a decade. You can follow him on Twitter @gamegoat or find him in the basement of an abandoned building hoarding all the canned goods, med-kits, and shotgun shells.
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