Freeze Frame: Star Wars, The First 34 Seconds

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This is part of an ongoing weekly series called “Freeze Frame,” where we break down our very favorite sci-fi/fantasy/adventure moments – the scenes that we look forward to, that remind us why we so love this job. As you might guess, such discussions are riddled with spoilers. So consider yourself warned. (See previous Freeze Frame features.)

Okay, so I’ve had some choice words for George Lucas since Techland launched. I don’t like what he’s done in recent years, messing with some of our franchises. And I feel like lately, the more he tinkers, the more he loses sight of what we loved about his ideas in the first place.

But you can’t take this one away from the guy: The first 34 seconds of Star Wars, the first shot of action post-scrawl, is still probably the best opening sci-fi scene ever filmed:

I was on the verge of being conceived by my parents when the first Star Wars (fourth chapter) hit theaters. But my dad still remembers vividly the impact of the movie’s first moment – the way that the depth, detail, and action of this opening space fight was unlike anything audiences had ever seen. He left Star Wars and then got right back in line to see it again…he says he had never before seen a movie screen used so dramatically. (More at Techland: Star Wars the photo exhibit – the droids do Dubai)

And I think that’s why Lucas holds on to that initial moment for a whopping 34 seconds. We pan down from the blackness of space, framing a couple planets and stars, in a shot that initially looks a whole lot like 2001: A Space Odyssey, as well as plenty of other sci-fi vehicles. But then the camera stops, and in rushes an intergalactic car chase, and then the biggest, most aggressive spaceship you’ve ever seen.

For second after second, the intricately-modeled Imperial Star Destroyer stretches in front of us, as big as the planets in the margins, and as an audience we know instantly that we are not seeing anything close to your standard space adventure. This is big and loud, tense and electrifying; this isn’t stargazing, but sheer spectacle. And it’s all right there in that first moment, Goliath chasing David as we’ve seen in so many westerns, set against the planets and moons.

This is why it’s worth noting that in the very next shot, Lucas lets us see it again, from a different angle. It’s a well-earned double-take, but this time, while the small rebel cruiser zips out of frame the evil pursuer all but comes to a halt in front of us, towering like a skyscraper above Tatooine.

Sometimes with a movie, you just know that you’re in store for something special. And in the case of Star Wars, it takes less than 60 seconds to know that no matter how far, far away this galaxy is supposed to be, it looks pretty awesome.

Your thoughts? Star Wars: Best opening sci-fi shot ever?

More at Techland: The best sci-fi films of the decade