Being a blockbuster juggernaut, Star Wars is where a lot of storytellers get their inspiration. Lots of writers want to emulate the trench run’s intense excitement or the emotional pathos of Luke confronting Kylo Ren on the salt planes of Crait. As such, today we’ll examine the climactic turning point of each Star Wars film from the main trilogies, starting with the original trilogy and proceeding in release order. For each one, we’ll cover not only if they work, but why or why not.
For those unfamiliar with turning points, they’re the moment in a scene at which the hero goes from losing to winning, or from winning to losing in a tragedy. Most stories have multiple turning points, since plots are fractal, but the most important turning point typically comes at the end. This is when the most important conflict in the story is resolved, typically referred to as the climax.
If you’d like to refresh your memory on how turning points work, Chris has an entire article on them. If you’re in a hurry, the main thing you need to know is the six most common types, which are:
- The Clever Deduction: The hero puts together previously established clues and determines a solution.
- The Battle of Will: The hero sticks to their guns or refuses temptation when it’s difficult, allowing them to triumph.
- The Hidden Plan: It looks to the audience that the hero is doomed, but they had an ace up their sleeve that lets them win.
- The Sacrifice: The hero sacrifices something important, often their life, to win the day.
- The Prior Achievement: Something good the hero did earlier in the story bears fruit, allowing them to vanquish whatever opposes them.
- The Gesture of Goodwill: The hero wins not by fighting, but by being kind to their adversary.
A New Hope
The first Star Wars film is an incredibly focused story. Nearly everything is about the threat of the Death Star, so it’s only natural to find the story’s climax there too. Even so, it’s not quite as simple as it looks; the filmmakers actually manage to sneak two turning points into the climax.
The first is when Han and Chewie return to shoot Darth Vader’s wingman. This is a culmination of Han’s character arc, where he goes from selfish to selfless, but it’s also a prior achievement turning point for Luke. Earlier in the film, Luke put a lot of effort into making Han care about others, and that comes to fruition here.
But then we have the second turning point: Luke turning off his targeting computer. This is a rarer type of turning point that we don’t actually have on our list: the leap of faith. In a leap of faith, the hero must give something up and trust a less-well-known method for victory. Here, that means giving up the assistance of his computer and trusting in the Force.
Normally, I don’t recommend introducing multiple turning points into the same climax. It can make the story feel disjointed, like it doesn’t know when to end. New Hope succeeds for two reasons. First, both turning points are also the conclusions to major character arcs: Luke learning the Force and Han learning not to be a jerk. Second, Luke actually turns off his targeting computer before Han arrives, then makes the shot afterward. This weaves the two turning points together so they feel like part of the same climax.
The Empire Strikes Back
While still an amazing film, Empire isn’t quite as focused as New Hope, so it’s a little trickier to tell where the climax is. The last significant conflict is the Falcon escaping to hyperspace, which R2D2 solves with information he got from Cloud City’s computer. That’s a decent prior achievement turning point, but most people will probably say that the climax is when Luke escapes from Vader after their lightsaber duel.
The scene is iconic. Luke has lost both his weapon and his hand. He’s crawled out onto a narrow ledge and has nowhere to go. Vader, Luke’s recently revealed father, offers safety and power if only Luke will join him. There’s no other way out, except to fall, which means almost certain death.
This is a battle of will turning point, where the conflict hinges on whether the hero can resist temptation. This is a tricky turning point to use in visual media because we don’t usually know what the protagonist is thinking, but Empire pulls it off anyway thanks to acting and camera work. Vader makes his offer, Luke looks down and the camera shows us the seemingly bottomless pit below him, then we see Luke’s expression of contentment. He knows the only way out is down, and he’s made peace with it. Props to Mark Hamill’s performance.
Of course, Luke doesn’t actually die, and in a different movie that could have been annoying. It might have felt cheap, like the hero made a difficult choice and then didn’t have to deal with the consequences. Fortunately, Empire features so many things going wrong for the good guys that by this point, the audience is grateful that Luke has finally caught a break.
Return of the Jedi
Much like the previous film, it’s a little tricky to say exactly where Return of the Jedi’s climax is. This time, we have two largely separate conflicts: the Rebellion’s battle to destroy the second Death Star and Luke’s battle against the Emperor. At first, the fights happening in space and on the ground look separate, but they’re both actually about the Death Star, so that makes them the same conflict.
Han resolves the Death Star conflict with a clever deduction. He realizes that he can use a captured Imperial walker to trick the enemy into opening the shield generator’s doors, thus allowing him to take down the shields, which makes it possible for Lando and Wedge to make their run. While flying inside the Death Star is certainly cool to watch, there isn’t any serious doubt that they’ll succeed, so that conflict is quickly resolved.
Luke’s conflict is more drawn out and also more emotionally loaded, since it’s partly about trying to redeem his father from the dark side. The Emperor also seems like a more valuable target than the Death Star itself, since if it’s destroyed, the Empire might just build a third one.*
This is another battle of will turning point. The Emperor wants Luke to give in to anger, thus joining the dark side. This includes killing Darth Vader. Already, we can see some cracks showing in Star Wars storytelling because it’s really not clear why killing Vader would put Luke on the Emperor’s team. It seems like Palpatine would just be out a powerful lieutenant and then also have to fight Luke himself. For this to work, you have to fill in a lot of exposition about how the dark side can take over a Jedi’s mind if they act in anger, and that every dark side character is on the same team.
Once you’ve done that, though, the turning point works pretty well. Luke has Vader at his mercy, then sees that the wires of Vader’s artificial hand are the same as his own. This reminds Luke that he’s about to make the same mistake his father originally did, which gives him the resolve to say no. From there, we have one final turning point: Vader killing the Emperor.
This is a solid prior achievement. Luke’s been trying to bring his father back for a good chunk of the movie by this point, and in refusing to kill Vader, Luke sealed the deal. Not only is it clear why Vader chooses now to turn against Palpatine, but the audience also feels like Luke deserves this win.
The Phantom Menace
Oh hey, it’s the prequels! Spoiler alert: the turning points get a lot worse from here. In The Phantom Menace, we have a conflict that’s even more scattered than in Return of the Jedi. There’s a battle in space, a battle on the ground outside the city, a battle on the ground inside the city, and also a lightsaber fight between Darth Maul, Qui-Gon, and Obi-Wan. Whew, I think that’s everything.
Sadly, two of those conflicts don’t matter at all. Apparently the Trade Federation ship is load bearing, so when it gets destroyed all the droids turn off, completely negating both ground battles. Even the space battle feels pretty pointless as there isn’t actually a turning point. Anakin blows up the control ship by accident. I guess the turning point was when the Trade Federation shipwrights decided to put the main reactor inside the launch bay.
This leaves us with the lightsaber battle as the climax by default, even though it’s not actually that important to the political conflict that’s supposedly the main plot. Here at least we get some emotion with Qui-Gon’s death, leaving an enraged Obi-Wan to face Darth Maul alone. Granted, in the last film, fighting in anger was a path to the dark side, but if Lucas doesn’t care, it must not be important.
The turning point of this duel is supposed to be a clever deduction. Obi-Wan is barely hanging on partway down a bottomless pit, and his lightsaber is gone. For some reason, Maul is just standing at the top as if he’s forgotten the Force push power he used just a few seconds ago. Then Obi-Wan looks off to the side, and the camera cuts to show us that Qui-Gon’s lightsaber is still on the floor. It’s not clear why Obi-Wan is looking to the side, since he can’t actually see the lightsaber from his position, but whatever. The idea is that he realizes Maul forgot about Qui-Gon’s lightsaber.
Problem: this still requires Maul to stand still while Obi-Wan Force-jumps out of the pit, somersaults over Maul’s head, lands, grabs Qui-Gon’s lightsaber, and finally attacks. Sure, if something like that happened to me, I’d be pretty stunned, but Maul is an elite Sith warrior. Seems like he would have reacted at some point. This is what happens when you don’t pay attention to fight scene fundamentals; you end up with a turning point that doesn’t actually resolve the conflict.
Attack of the Clones
Attack of the Clones is unquestionably the worst of the big-budget Star Wars films. The romance arc is painful, no one bats an eye at child murder, confusing space politics are everywhere, and there’s no throughline to speak of. Despite that, it manages to have the best turning point of the prequel trilogy. Or, perhaps more appropriately, the least terrible.
For the first time since New Hope, there’s no question about where the climax is: it’s the big lightsaber fight against Count Dooku at the end. It’s not a particularly good climax, as the heroes are fighting a villain we have almost no investment in, but at least we know where it is. It also features Anakin picking up Obi-Wan’s lightsaber for some dual wielding, which raises questions about why he doesn’t just carry a spare, but we’re not here to critique the fight itself, damn it!
Sorry about that, sometimes I can’t control myself. Anyway, once Dooku wipes the floor with Anakin and Obi-Wan, Yoda shows up. The fight choreographers desperately try to convince us that Yoda can match Dooku with a lightsaber even though no reach, he has. Then we finally get our turning point: Dooku puts the wounded Obi-Wan and Anakin in danger, forcing Yoda to save them so that Dooku can get away.
This turning point is unique among Star Wars films as it features the good guys not getting what they want, which was to capture Dooku. From Dooku’s perspective, it’s a clever deduction, as he realizes that Yoda will stop fighting him in order to save the others. From the good guy’s perspective, it’s a failed sacrifice. Yoda isn’t willing to sacrifice Obi-Wan and Anakin, so Dooku gets away.
The only problem is that it really seems like Dooku could have pressed the attack while Yoda was distracted. However, that might have only forced Yoda to let Obi-Wan and Anakin die as the fight continued. That probably isn’t what Dooku wanted, so we can excuse it. This is a surprisingly strong turning point by prequel standards, both giving a satisfying resolution to the conflict and building up the villain’s threat level for next time.* If only any other aspect of the film was as good.
Revenge of the Sith
Oh boy, Revenge of the Sith, a climactic turning point so bad it’s become a meme. I am, of course, referring to the Mustafar duel between Obi-Wan and Anakin. You can tell it’s the climactic fight not only because it’s the last major moment of conflict in the story but because it’s nearly fifteen minutes long. Dear lord. The only possible rival for this title is the fight between Yoda and Palpatine, but that ends significantly earlier when Yoda gives up for no reason.*
Like I said, the fight goes on for quite a while. While there’s a lot happening visually, the emotions are a small bit of butter spread over too much bread. You can only have so many versions of Obi-Wan being sad that Anakin is evil now and Anakin being hyped that he’s evil now. And after all that slog, we get to what’s ironically the most abrupt turning point in the Star Wars franchise. Obi-Wan tells Anakin not to try it because he has the high ground, Anakin tries it, and the fight is over.
From a satisfaction standpoint, it’s hard to get worse than this. We’re left wondering why Anakin tried to leap directly over Obi-Wan’s head instead of just stepping onto the lava-shore like a reasonable person. We also see Jedi jump around all the time in fight scenes, so why is this particular attempt doomed to fail? The film’s internal logic is so flimsy that they needed Obi-Wan to effectively announce it was time for a turning point; even Phantom Menace isn’t that bad!
This turning point doesn’t fit anywhere on our list because it’s nothing. Lucas* just decided the fight needed to end here, and so it did. There’s no satisfaction, as it feels like this could have happened at any point in the fight with exactly the same results. The resolution is also painful to watch. After badly wounding Anakin, Obi-Wan just leaves him to burn to death? It’s like he’s as eager to be done with this scene as we are.
Since Palpatine arrives shortly afterward anyway, I have no idea why Lucas didn’t use that as a signal that the fight needed to end. If Obi-Wan had seen Imperial ships approaching, he’d at least have a reason for running away so quickly. Granted, we’d still need a real turning point in the actual lightsaber fight, but at least the resolution would have made more sense.
The Force Awakens
At long last, it’s time for the new trilogy. I’m sure this will be fine, as people certainly don’t have highly conflicted and sometimes toxic opinions about these films! As a spiritual remake of A New Hope, you might expect The Force Awakens to have a space battle as its climactic turning point, but nope, it’s a lightsaber duel.* This time we’ve got big bad Kylo Ren on one side and scrappy Rey on the other. There was a space battle earlier, but it’s done now.
From a production standpoint, the duel is great. Beautiful choreography, a breathtaking set, and wonderful emotional work from the actors. The film even goes out of its way to establish that Rey is skilled in melee combat so we know why she can hold her own with a lightsaber. Unfortunately, the actual turning point can’t match the setup for quality.
After exchanging blows for a while, Kylo has Rey up against a cliff, their sabers locked. Kylo shouts, “You need a teacher! I can show you the ways of the Force.” Rey then mutters, “…the Force” as if she’d forgotten it existed until now. Then she closes her eyes, a few seconds pass while some hopeful music plays, and suddenly she’s winning the fight. Kylo is defeated after a few more clashes, and the good guys escape.
I have some notes. First, it was a mistake for the good guys to win here at all, and not because Rey is “too good” with a lightsaber or some other sexist nonsense. The issue is that once you defeat Kylo so completely, he loses his threat level for the next movie.* The good guys had already destroyed Starkiller Base; they could have taken a loss here and then escaped without creating any plot problems.
Zooming further in, the turning point is unintentionally funny. It comes across like Kylo had to remind Rey that the Force exists, then he waits patiently while she remembers. That’s not any kind of turning point. It’s possible they were trying to imitate Luke’s leap of faith from New Hope, but that only worked because Luke took the extra risk of turning off his targeting computer. Rey doesn’t give anything up; she just recalls an ability she already had. I wish I could say this was as bad as the new trilogy ever gets, but I’m afraid there’s worse to come…
The Last Jedi
…Fortunately, it’s not here yet. Last Jedi has a number of ups and downs, from a touching reunion between Luke and Yoda to Fin and Rose being shunted off on a pointless side quest for most of the runtime. It’s a very uneven movie, and part of that unevenness is feeling like it should have ended several times before it actually does. First there’s the throne room confrontation between Rey and Kylo, which feels like the climax, then there’s the Holdo maneuver that feels like the climax, but both times the movie keeps going.
Finally we get to the actual climax: Luke versus Kylo on Crait. It’s gonna be another big lightsaber fight, master against apprentice, but then, surprise: Luke’s actually a Force projection. At first, this looks like a hidden plan. The audience doesn’t know that Luke is a projection, after all. But they do know that Luke is holding off Kylo and the First Order while what’s left of the Resistance escapes. That’s the important part of the plan, and it isn’t really hidden.
Instead, this is a sacrifice turning point, as it turns out that projecting this image across the galaxy is too much for Luke, and he passes away soon after. The projection reveal is primarily there to explain how Luke can face the entire First Order army without getting shot to bits and to mislead the audience about what’s happening. The Last Jedi really likes to do that, for both good and ill.
As a climactic turning point, this one is distinctly okay. Its biggest problem is that we’ve never seen this particular power before, so there’s a fair bit of “wait, Luke can do that?” when the reveal comes. You might be able to extrapolate from the existence of Force ghosts and the Force Skype call between Rey and Kylo earlier, but that’s quite a stretch. The Force is a super arbitrary magic system, so expecting the audience to intuit new powers is a big ask. There’s also the weird inconsistency that Luke is totally without substance but can somehow hand Leia a pair of dice. I don’t know what the new films’ obsession is with those dice.
Despite those problems, Luke’s sacrifice generally gets the job done. It caps off Luke’s arc of working through his despondency, and it’s refreshing to see a Star Wars character solve a problem without violence. It’s also a touching end to Luke and Kylo’s relationship. One of Luke’s main character traits in this film is guilt over his nephew turning evil, so stopping Kylo without harming him feels very fitting. It’s something a true Jedi master would do.
There are still a lot of problems with the ending, like how happy the survivors are despite nearly the entire Resistance being dead, but that’s not the turning point’s fault.
The Rise of Skywalker
Here we are at the end of what Disney is calling the Skywalker Saga, a name they presumably came up with because they would like to keep printing money off the Star Wars IP, thank you very much. The Rise of Skywalker is a mess, both because Last Jedi left it in a difficult position and because of some truly baffling choices on the filmmaker’s part. For instance, there’s an entire side quest just to convince us that Poe is straight.* Sure, Disney.
But hey, Attack of the Clones is a garbage movie, too, and it has a decent climactic turning point, so maybe… Sorry, but that Force lightning won’t strike in the same place twice. Rise of Skywalker’s final turning point is exactly as bad as you think. If you haven’t seen it, that turning point comes in the final battle against Palpatine, after a very long fight scene in which Rey and a reformed Kylo* slaughter a handful of the Emperor’s mooks.
Palpatine tosses Kylo into a hole for later, then faces Rey alone. Rey is having a hard time, but then the spirits of past Jedi show up to give her a boost. At least, the spirits of Jedi who’ve been voiced in a Star Wars film or TV show up. Sorry, Mara Jade, maybe you’ll be on The Mandalorian eventually and then they’ll add you to the deluxe edition or something.
This spiritual power boost is already a little bit iffy. I think it’s supposed to be a prior achievement turning point, rewarding Rey for her dedication to the Jedi way, but that doesn’t work. Everything Rey did in that area was for the purpose of getting more powerful from the Force, so it doesn’t feel like she deserves a big reward. For this to work, she’d have to be more like Chirrut from Rogue One. He’s devoted his life to the Force without any personal gain, so when the Force guides him across a battlefield unharmed, it’s satisfying. With Rey, it just feels like she’s being bailed out, and it raises the question of why the Jedi spirits haven’t done this before.*
But wait, it gets worse. Flush with power, Rey stands up to face Palpatine again. He hits her with lightning, and she blocks it with a lightsaber. They’re evenly matched, until she grabs a second lightsaber, and now suddenly she can push through the lightning. Huh? Why would a second lightsaber have any effect on that? I thought she was supposed to be more powerful because she’s now channeling all of the Jedi, but this makes it seem like she could have won the whole time by picking up a second laser sword.
This is almost as bad as Obi-Wan announcing that he has the high ground. They wanted a visual cue to show that the situation had changed, and all they could think of was adding more lightsabers. Why not just have her catch or deflect the lightning? That would fit with the idea of channeling all of the Jedi, and it would clearly be something she hadn’t been able to do before. Instead, Rise of Skywalker’s ending perfectly matches the rest of the film: a hodgepodge of ideas that were never properly aligned.
While few of us will ever work on something as big as a multimillion-dollar scifi film, the basic rules of climaxes and turning points are fairly universal across different mediums. We can all learn from how well New Hope mixes a prior achievement together with a leap of faith, and we can all benefit from avoiding a situation where our protagonist has to announce that it’s time for the turning point. I hope you’ll all go out and apply these lessons to your own work, and if they’re helpful, maybe I’ll do this again with a different franchise. Hopefully one with fewer entries, because that was a lot of Star Wars. Just kidding, it’ll definitely be the MCU.
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