Everyone knows the now iconic opening to the Star Wars movies, with John Williams’ incredible score accompanying three paragraphs of crawling text designed to set up the following couple of hours of space-set action and adventure. Watching the films constantly since a young age, these crawls are seared into my memory but I’ve also been obsessed with what immediately follows the floating exposition. As the wall of text disappears from sight and the music fades, we’re left hanging in space in a galaxy far, far away ready for an adventure as the camera pans down – or very occasionally up – to reveal the film’s true beginning. I love the way these seamless shots introduce and reintroduce us to this cinematic world, and I’m engrossed with the techniques of how the story begins to unfold with a simple camera move and the reveal of some ship or planet in space. As we were approaching the final instalment of the ‘Skywalker Saga’ late last year, I was just as excited to see how the film immediately began as I was to see how the film, and saga, concluded. And now that it has, at least for now, I thought I’d share my thoughts and opinions on each and every opening shot with my personal ranking. Well, each and every one that begins in the traditional way, so The Clone Wars animated movie and Solo: A Star Wars Story have not been included.
10) Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace
The Phantom Menace doesn’t have a bad opening, it just doesn’t have a particularly interesting one. We pan down and to the right as we track a Republic vessel pass the camera towards the planet of Naboo and the orbiting Trade Federation space stations. It certainly doesn’t wake you up after the dreary opening crawl and while this is the first film chronologically, newcomers to the franchise should still watch A New Hope first because the opening of that movie gives you a much better sense of the franchise, and is just an exciting sequence unto itself. So, the opening of The Phantom Menace is a bit basic and dull but it still successfully achieves what it needs to accomplish. It’s simply an establishing shot giving our first look at the hero ship – clearly designed to be reminiscent of the Tantive IV – the planet of Naboo which will be a primary setting, and the villainous Trade Federation vessels, accompanied by minimal scoring from John Williams. Ultimately, the opening is necessary but boring.
9) Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker
Considering I’ve only witnessed this shot twice at the time of writing, the opening of The Rise of Skywalker could go up – or even go down – in my estimations when I get my hands on the 4K Blu-ray and can watch the film over-and-over again. Like The Phantom Menace, it acts as little but an establishing shot. There’s a pan down to three TIE fighters flying towards a Star Destroyer orbiting the magmatic planet of Mustafar. The fight scene that then ensues on the planet’s surface is great; a very cool and moody way to open the movie. The only problem is that you can’t just cut straight to that but instead need to find a way to transition from the opening crawl to some space-set scene. And so, we get a fairly standard establishing shot of the planet rather than having any action in orbit. Again, it’s successful in its goal but it’s just a fairly uninteresting way to open the movie. Although, it is a visually interesting shot of deep black and angry red that carries on into the action sequence, representing the anger boiling within Kylo Ren, and seeing Mustafar again was an unexpected treat.
8) Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
As the first film in the ‘A Star Wars Story’ anthology, Rogue One opens a little differently because there’s no opening crawl, even though I think it could have used one. Despite that, the film does open with a traditional starfield and we pan up (one of only two films in which we pan up instead of down) to see a small ship flying through the rings of a planet towards its surface. The shot is quite bizarre and almost abstract in nature. I remember the first time watching it and having no idea what I was looking at until we pull back to reveal the planet and its rings in full. And while the music in the film doesn’t compare to a classic John Williams score, I have grown to really love the opening piece of Michael Giacchino’s soundtrack. Much like The Phantom Menace and The Rise of Skywalker, it’s a fairly standard opening for a Star Wars film, simply showing a ship arriving at a planet but I think they found a very interesting and visually inventive way to do so.
7) Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi
When trying to look on it with fresh eyes, the opening shot of Return of the Jedi is quite surprising. Within the first second of the film we pan down to reveal the second Death Star above the forest moon of Endor. This pivotal element is revealed straight away with a quick shot rather than with a dramatic build-up, something The Rise of Skywalker copied with Palpatine’s return. Thinking on it, I do like the idea of simply showing you the station straight away with little flair. A Star Destroyer then passes overhead in a clear homage to the first film; they’re framed almost identically. Star Wars has always been paying homage and copying itself, which is something some people who complain about the sequels seem to forget. A new Lambda class shuttle soon departs the larger ship and heads for the station flanked by TIE Fighters. The shuttle is a very cool design and the sound effect of its wings opening has always stayed with me. At one point, you can’t tell what’s the score and what’s sound design. Overall, it’s a strong opening and I love the way evil dominates the screen, which will make the rebel victory at the film’s end all the more satisfying.
6) Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones
The opening of Attack of the Clones offers the franchise’s first pan up instead of down as Coruscant fills the top of the screen, orbited by countless ships flying to and from the planet. The entire film does a great job at showing just how bustling and congested the planet is, ground and air alike, and that begins with the opening shot. Three N-1 starfighters – a ship design I absolutely love, more so than X-Wings or any of the more famous designs of the franchise – guard a large chromium Naboo diplomatic barge and the sequence follows them from space to a landing platform within the clouds. Most of all, I love how disorientating this scene is beginning with the opening shot. The surprise camera pan upwards then shows us the ships turning upside down as they approach the planet. It’s interesting to begin the film this way and it creates a sense of unease and mystery. We know something is about to go wrong, and it does. It also does the rare but always welcome job of showing there is no up in space. The idea all these ships would be perpendicular with each other is barmy and so seeing them adjust makes this crazy fantasy space opera seem almost real.
5) Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back
On first glance, the opening shot and following sequence of The Empire Strikes Back is quite basic. Just a pan down to a Star Destroyer flying ever so slowly towards camera, as opposed to most other opening shots where the ship is flying away from camera, before it fires some probe droids from its mechanical belly in search of our rebel heroes. The film begins not with a chase but with a terrifying dominating presence flying above the hidden rebellion, before tracking one such probe down to the surface of Hoth, with this one small droid bringing certain doom. It’s a curiously simple opening which tells us the status quo of the war right at the beginning of the movie. The rebellion isn’t in open conflict and attacking the Empire after their success in the previous film, but rather they’re silent and hiding from Star Destroyers. The Empire has most certainly struck back. It’s a competent opening shot but ultimately, it’s this high on my list because of John Williams’ incredible music that presents this air of mystery and intrigue. ‘Empire’ has the best score of the series – a mean feat – and every time I sit down to watch the movie, I know I’m in for an incredible Star Wars adventure from the first few seconds.
4) Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi
The Last Jedi was originally going to open in a very different way than it ultimately does, instead panning down from the starfield into a window onto a close-up of Finn’s face as he awakes, and then the scene we see in the finished film plays out with him falling from his bed of bacta. Instead they changed it for a more traditional opening and it’s one I enjoy a lot. We pan down to see D’Qar and suddenly the score hits us fast and loud as the camera rushes down in one swift shot. We pass the Raddus and the Resistance fleet and follow the trail of transporters from their destination in the hanger of the ships to their origin point on the planet’s surface, showing us that the evacuation is in mid-swing. It’s a very energetic and urgent way to open the movie, essentially beginning in an action sequence, and it’s aided by the fantastic score and sound design, such as the whoosh of the ships as the camera flies past. It also helps make the geography stick in the mind of the viewer and, like the best opening shots, it’s all about simple visual storytelling. Before the first cut we know exactly what’s happening without a single word being spoken.
3) Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith
The opening shot of Revenge of the Sith is utterly unique in the franchise. First, we hear those incredible drums like we’ve never heard them in Star Wars before and then, as the crawl bluntly states, “War!”. Two Jedi starfighters fly past the camera and we track them as they circumvent a Republic cruiser until suddenly they go over the crest of the larger ship and we see a ginormous space battle below. The camera almost pauses to let the scale sink in before rushing back to Anakin and Obi-Wan as they enter the battle in the atmosphere of Coruscant. And the film doesn’t cut. We get a long shot as we follow our heroes, both up close and at a distance, through the raging conflict. Sure, it’s all done on a computer so the idea of it being one take isn’t really a marvel but it sure is immersive. And the battle itself spectacular. They throw everything into it, even the kitchen sink. Literally. One of the chunks of debris seen crashing into a ship is a kitchen sink. Usually space battles in Star Wars are between starfighters but these are huge capital ships. Behemoth engines of war firing shells at each other while fighters dart between them. It’s epic. Following Anakin and Obi-Wan is a genius move and we see the battle through their eyes, keeping the sprawling action grounded to the story. Even with the sequels and spin-offs, we’ve never seen a Star Wars space battle like it and what’s more amazing is that it takes place during the very first shot of the movie.
2) Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope
The opening of the original Star Wars is a classic and iconic moment of cinema. What is there to say about it other than you’re probably shocked it’s not number one. But this is a personal list and while the historical and legendary nature of the opening certainly propels it to near the top of the list, it doesn’t quite get the number one spot. Which is not to say I don’t love it. I do. The music cue and sound effects are burnt into my memory. The sheer simplicity of storytelling is astounding. Even without the crawl, you learn everything you need to from one shot. We pan down from the wall of text flying away into the distance to witness a small rebel ship fly overhead before being followed seconds later by a huge dominating Imperial Star Destroyer, both ships firing on each other. While the first act of the movie slows down soon after, it’s a thunderous and exciting way to not only begin a movie but introduce people to this whole franchise. However, I just don’t have the personal attachment to the film and the opening like many do, especially those who saw it in 1977. I first saw it on VHS and while the film still captured my imagination from the first second, it isn’t my favourite opening of the franchise.
1) Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens
Pan down. A ball of ice hovers amid a field of stars, half in shadow. A triangular ship crosses over the planet, different yet familiar, and the absence of light caused by its appearance allows it only to be seen in silhouette. From this visual storytelling we understand. The occupants of this ship wish to remain hidden and this Star Destroyer is not dominating the screen like they used to. The First Order is working from the shadows. Even from this one shot you realise they are not in control of the galaxy like their Imperial forefathers. Just as the Destroyer is about to eclipse the light of the planet entirely, we see some small transports exit its hanger, again in shadow, almost getting lost in the darkness of space before suddenly flying past the camera, creating a sense of urgency as the music builds.
I never got to see the prequels in the theatre and so I thought I would never get to see a Star Wars film on the big screen. Never experience the bombastic opening theme and the pan down (or occasional up) to a new world and a new adventure in a galaxy far, far away. I’m so happy I was wrong. Back in 2015 I was so excited for this film and it didn’t disappoint. I love it, from the opening shot onwards. I remember watching the opening happen and thinking “I’m watching new Star Wars!”. What a cool visual to open the movie and the entire sequence exceeded my expectations, even though I didn’t know what to expect. Star Wars was back and this opening was everything to me. Watching it now I still feel the excitement I once did when I was watching it as a brand-new Star Wars film, and I hope that feeling never goes away.
So, there you have it. My ranking of all ten traditional Star Wars film openings. What do you think of my list and what would yours be? Let me know in the comments and be sure to geek out with me about TV, movies and video-games on Twitter @kylebrrtt.