The single best moment in the 100-year history of film is the “Binary Sunset” scene in Star Wars.
You know this scene. If you’re of a certain generation it is burned into your retinas, it’s probably the image you’ll conjure up years from now as you take your last breath. No other scene in any other movie can quite compare. The yearning and wistfulness and innocence and desperation hit you like a freight train the first and the fiftieth time you see it.
There are some close runners-up: Rocky bounding up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The Man With No Name riding away from the cemetery at the conclusion of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. The soldiers in Saving Private Ryan preparing the town of Ramelle for siege while awaiting their certain doom. But these are merely great scenes – highly cinematic, evocative and emotionally stirring – they are not Binary Sunset.
The scene I want to call your attention to, here on the first day of a brand new year, is only a touch over 35 seconds. It happens early on in Star Wars, just after Luke is told he’ll be trapped on Tatooine with his aunt and uncle for yet another season of “moisture farming”. But Luke has that feeling we all have at one time or another, the notion that something’s missing and there’s so much more happening out in the world that we should be a part of. He stumbles out of the abode’s entrance and saunters up to a desert ridge, walking directly into a magnificent sunset.
But this isn’t any sunset – there are two suns! We are at once reminded that Luke, even though he lives in a galaxy far, far away, has the same wanderlust and longings that we do. We get a close-up of Luke’s eyes surveying this miraculous double sunset and this is the exact moment that Star Wars captures us. It grabs the 16-year-old within us and never lets go, we are now and forever in its grasp. Not to downplay the creatures or the father-son stuff or the starship battles, but this scene is the key to the whole thing. Star Wars instantly vaults itself above any science fiction or adventure film that’s come before it or since with this single shot of a boy searching the sky for his destiny.
And that score! As if the visual wasn’t overwhelming enough, the f*cking London Symphony Orchestra shows up – the singular, mournful horn gives way to the swell of an entire string section, then woodwinds and brass. We are overcome! This particular piece of music has several different names: Force Theme or The Throne Room or Ben Kenobi’s theme or Binary Sunset or Jedi Knights and the Old Republic Theme or “May the Force be with you”. What John Williams did with the score for Star Wars ended up being the grand comeback of the forgotten art of the leitmotif. Composers of opera and ballet like Wagner had long ago used leitmotif in their compositions so that each piece of music could represent a certain character or theme. In Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, the evil Von Rothbart has his own theme song; so too does the evil Darth Vader in Williams’s Star Wars score.
But the Binary Sunset leitmotif appears throughout the film, it comes in many variations and is alternately used to represent Obi-Wan Kenobi, Luke Skywalker, the Jedis, the Force itself or even Destiny. It appears throughout the trilogy but nowhere is it used to more visceral effect than than in this moment.
Through Luke’s eyes, we are reminded at how big the universe is and how much more there is out there to see and do. We are reminded that there are still many adventures to come and distant worlds we have yet to travel to.
Today is the first day of a brand new year. I know not where this year will take me, what missions I will accomplish, what battles I’ll fight, what friends I will make and what amazing discoveries lie ahead for me. But like Luke Skywalker, when I gaze out ahead, I know there is so much more in front of me.
And I can’t wait to go forth. Not another instant. I may not be prepared for everything I’ll encounter, but that’s okay – that’s part of the journey.
So 2012, here I come. Let the adventure begin!
Who’s coming with me?