Watching the Starkiller Base assault in The Force Awakens made me think about the way all the Star Wars episodes deal with epic, big space battles. After all, whatever all the things the films are about, they are Star Wars. And ever since the beginning of the saga, almost every episode had to contain some major space battle, mostly as part of the epic finale. However, if we look at the way these big space battles have been handled, there has been a shift in the approach that can be perceived, and a certain divergence from it in the newer episodes. So how did different episodes (including the newest one – so beware, potential spoilers ahead!) tackle the issue of an epic major space action?
A New Hope was the film to actually set up our expectations. The battle of Yavin is the epic conclusion of the story, and one would have to find very convincing arguments to maintain that it has so far met its match. What is it that makes a big Star Wars battle iconic? I believe it comes down to several things. First, it is the fact that the battle matters, that something big is at stake, something of galactic proportions is directly involved. There is a clear objective, a pattern which we might define on the simplest level as “getting from point A to point B” (be it literally, in space, or just trying to accomplish a certain task, instead of just randomly flying and shooting around). This focus usually enhances the combat itself, because the pilots have to perform clever maneuvers, cover each other, or wait for special moments to fire a proton torpedo and so on. And, last but certainly not least, I believe that for it to have the proper impact, the audience should be able to follow as many of the characters involved in the battle as possible and keep track of what is happening to them. Apart from A New Hope, however, the last point has proved to be the most difficult to get right.
Which battles should we talk about? Obviously, we have the Death Star assaults in Episodes IV and VI. Both have definite objectives and the fate of the Galaxy depends on their outcome. The new film takes the same route, but both Episode VI and VII lack in terms of clarity and individuals to follow. In Return of the Jedi, we can follow at least Lando in the Falcon and, somewhat less consistently, Wedge Antilles and Green Leader with his final kamikaze attack on the Super Star Destroyer. Clearly made with the same mould is the Trade Federation ship attack at the end of Episode I. Just like in Return of the Jedi, it takes place at the same time as a large ground battle and a lightsaber duel, and these are all interconnected. However, the space attack’s focus is somewhat different. The Naboo squadron keeps mostly flying around and realising it cannot do anything. Obviously, this is just because the main point of this battle is to show little Anakin’s connection to the Force and early piloting skills, which he will later get praised for by old Obi-Wan in his first encounter with Luke.
Episodes II and V, even though they contain some shorter and actualy quite nice starfighter/starship sequences, lack a major space battle. Of the criteria mentioned above, the first is missing. Whereas Obi-wan’s chase with Jango Fett or the Falcon‘s with Imperials in the asteroid field are visually and plot-wise very well done, there is actually no big galactic issue at stake, at least not directly.
And then there is Episode III. On first sight, there is no major space battle of the classic kind. Nothing at the end of the film, and no superweapon held by the Separatists that would need to be destroyed. There is a major and epic action of galactic importance, however – right at the beginning of the movie. The Battle of Coruscant. Most of the battle itself takes place off-screen, but we get to follow a particular piece of it when Anakin and Obi-wan attempt to reach General Grievous’s ship where the Supreme Chancellor is being held.
Epic, large-scale battle? Check. Galactic importance? Of course, the leader of the Republic is being held hostage (all his charades notwithstanding). Action with a clear objective, getting from point A to point B, which the audience can follow? Check. Clear focus on characters who cooperate so we know what is going on in the battle? Indeed. Some may consider “buzz droids” a bit silly, but I would actually say Episode III is right behind A New Hope in having the most well-built space battle (at least in the terms here defined).
Because Star Wars space battle should not be just about ships flying and lasers flashing on the screen, it is much better to have at least two (or more, preferably) characters to follow, because they can interact. (Episode IV has several heroes AND their enemy, Vader, and the audience can follow all of them!) Where The Force Awakens came short was that its final space battle was essentially one-man show; there are more pilots than Poe Dameron, but they don’t actually do anything that can be specifically identified as their work. And that is certainly a pity and a small thing that could have raised the quality of the scene much, much higher.
The reason many fans would consider Episode IV to be the best is because it lets us follow individual characters, not just Luke. Most people don’t catch the names of Biggs, Porkins or Wedge Antilles on first watching, but they might notice one pilot they like or just find in some way remarkable and fear for them when a TIE fighter is on their tail or feel relieved when a comrade saves them (and also feel sad when they are blown up!). What I think all the other films omitted or perhaps what the makers didn’t realise, or forgot – sadly including The Force Awakens – is that the suspense does not come just from waiting for the main hero to blow up the thing, but from feeling empathy for his fellow pilots. We always know the hero is going to blow up “the thing” in the end. But what other things are happening on screen at the same time, and what is their purpose?
In A New Hope, the drama of the final battle comes from time running out and Vader breathing down on Luke’s neck, taking his friends out one by one. But what stirs our emotions isn’t just that instead of two pilots protecting Luke, there is now only one. It comes from the fact that if something goes wrong, first, Wedge is the one who is going to die, and then it is Biggs.
Most of the other films tried to copy Episode IV by showing us more pilots and giving them if not names, then at least call signs. “Green Leader”, “Bravo Leader”, “Blue Three” – these are all nice, but mostly the films don’t go beyond. In Episode I, we actually know the Bravo Leader from before – he is the pilot who chatted with Ani on the way and who oversaw the Nubian’s escape from Naboo (that was an example of a very, very good short space combat sequence). It would have made all the difference to have e.g. just one scene with him being chased by a droid starfighter and Ani, or somebody else, saving him (or not) to add a bit more personal dimension to the battle.
The same, as I have already mentioned, would have worked for Episode VII. If the idea already was to revive the assault on a superweapon-wielding space station, just a little more effort might have made it perfect. J.J. Abrams and his team already went as far as to introduce a couple of pilots, very easily identifiable when we see their faces inside the cockpit, but with almost zero chance to keep track when we watch the dozens of the same fighters. It is sad we didn’t even hear the pilots’ names. It would have been also great to actually see them keeping a TIE or two from Poe Dameron’s tail (or vice versa, to underline how great pilot he actually is).
That all said, despite their name, Star Wars actually are not about space battles. But it is an iconic part of the saga, and for most part, I would say there is space for improvement of the big final battle scenes (the smaller skirmishes are actually usually really great and thrilling). Very small personal touch is all it would take. Here’s to hope we get to see something more in future episodes, even though by all logic, the “middle episode” should contain a major land battle rather than space battle (think Hoth and Geonosis) – unless the upcoming Rogue One claims the land battle for itself. And if not, well, there is always Episode IX.