It’s hard to determine what makes a film timeless, since films are like technology: they only improve as time moves forward. Great works of the past, whether they were westerns, comedies or science fiction, reside in a figurative Smithsonian, and deservedly so. That’s where paradigm-shifting, zeitgeist-infusing, thrill-inducing wonders belong after setting the stage for a new generation of movies. Movies that have eclipsed them in special effects, writing, acting, costumes, cinematography, set design, and direction. We don’t realize it because nostalgia clouds judgment even worse than the dark side. No one really acknowledges greatness until it’s far behind in the rear view mirror.
And yet, there are some things that remain as extraordinary as when they were invented. Sunglasses. In N Out. Game 7. Star Wars.
Of all the reasons to keep watching Star Wars movies, one is often overlooked: there are lots of secrets stashed in that galaxy far, far away. Seven episodes into the saga, many questions still remain unanswered. Who are Rey’s parents? How did Maz end up with Luke’s old lightsaber? And, perhaps most importantly of all, why does Star Wars always go silent at the end?
It’s impossible to answer the first two questions since intel from that side of space is leak proof – secure from even the most sophisticated Russian hacker. The last one though is a conundrum that diehard fans, including those who have memorized every line or speak every language in the films, have yet to sufficiently explain.
Every Star Wars episode ends without dialogue. It doesn’t matter whether the scene is sad or euphoric, sunny or dreary, in a starship or on a planet, the characters (seemingly aware of the moment) internalize their emotions, unite in silence and allow the saga’s closer, John Williams, to finish the final minutes.
Though deliberate, it’s unlikely that George Lucas was attempting a new form of subliminal messaging. Much like his decision not to show acting credits at the beginning of a film, it just felt like the right thing to do, and it was. Because when you consider everything that Lucas set out to accomplish with Star Wars, combining the mythical storytelling of Akira Kurosawa with the wizardry of modern filmmaking, it was the simplest moments that defined greatness. Any movie scene can hook a viewer with nudity and violence and more nudity. Very few, though, can do the same without uttering a word.
This was evident in A New Hope, when Luke and Han received their medals of valor after nuking the first Death Star. There was nothing left to say, nothing that had to be said after everything that was witnessed over 121 minutes. The thousands of rebels who were applauding felt the same way.
But it wasn’t just in endings that Star Wars found a reason to omit dialogue. In a tumultuous struggle where every good or bad break can determine the fate of thousands of civilizations, the characters can’t always say what’s on their minds. Instead, their thoughts and struggles are reflected in both their actions and the environment. There were two such instances in The Empire Strikes Back, both of which took place during Luke Skywalker’s time on Dagobah with Yoda.
Luke was Yoda’s greatest challenge not only because he was trying to cram 25 years of Jedi training in a week, but because he was unable to comprehend what he was really being prepared for: discovering the sinister truth about the Jedi and his family past. Yoda set him on that path during that illusionary exercise where Luke, in complete ignorance of the situation, engages and decapitates Darth Vader, then stares in blank disbelief as the face looking at him from the ground is revealed to be his own. In those few seconds, Luke was every member of the viewing audience.
A similar moment occurred when Yoda, after attempting to explain the spiritual nature of the Force, fully demonstrates it by levitating Luke’s X-Wing out of a smoking marsh and parking it right at his feet. Having lipped off earlier in the lesson, the once skeptical student was suddenly humbled. Everything he knew and believed was turned upside down by something he once wore like a backpack.
Years later, though, Luke would be the one to silence the doubters, the hecklers, and the hooligans with his Jedi sorcery during the Sarlacc battle in Episode VI. Nothing in cinema tantalizes quite like the minutes preceding a showdown, which was exactly what went down as Luke faced death in the desert dunes. The winds blew harder. Signs came from every direction. Luke looked at Lando. Lando looked at Han. Han looked at somebody. Jabba’s sail barge shook with anticipation as all the outlaws on board held their breath.
When the buildup was over, the final tally included 23 glances, 15 body signals, 11 horn blows, and zero words spoken. Yes, the whole thing went on too long, but the effect was a good one. And it’s something that’s often being used in films and television today.
In the 2006 film Babel, the scattered stories of Alejandro Inarritu’s death trilogy conclude much like the final scenes in Revenge of the Sith—with every soul-crushing moment playing out without prose. Hope is lost and families are torn asunder, but as always, life begins again. While this is becoming more commonplace in endings, it had never been done for an entire film. That is, until Christopher Nolan decided to make Dunkirk.