The best part of a lightsaber duel is the talking

A quantitative look into why the duel from The Force Awakens feels like the Prequels.

May 3, 2016

Like many Star Wars fans, I was excited for The Force Awakens because it had real promise to heal some of the damage done to the Star Wars universe by the Special Edition and the Prequels. Overall I wasn't disappointed - it's a solid, entertaining film, and a huge advance from the Prequels. But the lightsaber duel felt a bit lacking. A common complaint about the prequels was that the tight choreography ruined the duels by turning them into a lightsaber dance, rather than a lightsaber fight. The Force Awakens has the sloppiest fighting yet, so why didn't it feel like the Original Trilogy?

The fancy fight choreography wasn't the real issue with the Prequels' duels. The real issue was that they lacked story development. A good lightsaber duel advances the story - it's a visualization of a conflict between characters, not just a random fight. There are many ways that the story can be advanced during a lightsaber duel, but frequently it happens by characters talking: the conflict by sword parallels a conflict of words. This is clearly seen by simply counting the number of words spoken during each lightsaber duel:

There is a clear and precipitous drop in the amount of talking from the Original Trilogy to the Prequels. Unfortunately, The Force Awakens continues the pattern set by the Prequels.

It's a bit overly simplistic to just count words. For one, not all duels span the same amount of time - the shortest is a mere 24 seconds (the first duel of the Prequels) and the longest 6:24 (the last duel of the Prequels). To understand the balance between talking and fighting we must dig a little deeper!

A closer look at lightsaber duels

There are 13 Star Wars lightsaber duels, and we begin by measuring some key data for each of them. We are interested in the balance between talking and fighting, and so we try to quantify the amount of talking and the amount of fighting in each duel by measuring:

Now let's step through the data, in chronological order:
  • A New Hope, Obi-Wan Kenobi vs. Darth Vader.
  • Time: 1:43.
  • Time fighting: 100%.
  • Words per minute: 39.
  • Memorable line: "When I left you, I was but the learner; now I am the master."
The Jedi master returns from hiding to confront his former pupil. Obi-Wan hints that death is not the end for him and then disappears when struck by Vader's lightsaber.
  • Empire Strikes Back, Luke Skywalker vs. Darth Vader.
  • Time: 4:54.
  • Time fighting: 57%.
  • Words per minute: 16.
  • Memorable line: "It is useless to resist. Don't let yourself be destroyed as Obi-Wan did."
Against the advice of every other Jedi in the galaxy, Luke abandons his training to confront Darth Vader. He gets his first lesson in the dark side, and loses his hand. In the aftermath he learns that Darth Vader didn't betray and murder his father (from a certain point of view).
  • Return of the Jedi, Luke Skywalker vs. Darth Vader.
  • Time: 3:51.
  • Time fighting: 36%.
  • Words per minute: 43.
  • Memorable line: "Your thoughts betray you, father. I feel the good in you... the conflict."
Luke returns as a Jedi Knight for a final confrontation with Darth Vader. Luke spends most of the duel refusing to fight, but at the end is provoked and takes real steps towards the dark side. In the aftermath, Luke throws away his weapon and brings his father back.
  • The Phantom Menace, Qui-Gon Jinn vs. Darth Maul.
  • Time: 0:24.
  • Time fighting: 100%.
  • Words per minute: 15.
  • Memorable line: "Go. Tell them to take off."
The first film to have multiple duels starts out with the shortest yet, in which two people hit at eachother with lightsabers and then one runs away. This confrontation leads the Jedi council to launch an investigation into the mystery of the Sith, which makes no progress until the end of Episode III.
  • The Phantom Menace, Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi vs. Darth Maul.
  • Time: 4:40.
  • Time fighting: 78%.
  • Words per minute: 0.
  • Memorable line: "No!"
The Jedi again run into their mysterious attacker, and this time a 3-person fight ensues. We know next to nothing about Darth Maul, and unfortunately we learn nothing more about him during this duel. Qui-Gon dies, leaving Obi-Wan as the senior Jedi. Darth Maul also dies.
  • Attack of the Clones, Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker vs. Count Dooku.
  • Time: 1:39.
  • Time fighting: 92%.
  • Words per minute: 22.
  • Memorable line: "I am a slow learner."
The Jedi confront a new Sith lord. Anakin brashly attacks solo and is force-d aside. He and Obi-Wan then take turns fighting Dooku, who ultimately defeats both of them.
  • Attack of the Clones, Yoda vs. Count Dooku.
  • Time: 0:45.
  • Time fighting: 100%.
  • Words per minute: 16.
  • Memorable line: "Fought well you have, my old padawan."
After a brief force battle, Yoda turns into a green Sonic the Hedgehog and spins around with a miniature lightsaber. We learn that Dooku trained under Yoda. The duel is a draw and Dooku runs away.
  • Revenge of the Sith, Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker vs. Count Dooku.
  • Time: 1:29.
  • Time fighting: 100%.
  • Words per minute: 28.
  • Memorable line: "Twice the pride, double the fall."
Episode III has five lightsaber duels with a cumulative length surpassing the total length of all three Original Trilogy duels. The first of these is a rematch of the duel from the previous movie. A matured yet still proud Anakin gets some tips on the dark side from Dooku, whom he defeats and then decapitates.
  • Revenge of the Sith, Obi-Wan Kenobi vs. General Grievous.
  • Time: 1:33.
  • Time fighting: 100%.
  • Words per minute: 10.
  • Memorable line: "Army or not, you must realize you are doomed."
Obi-Wan tries to stop the war by fighting one of Dr. Moreau's robots, who apparently is a general. Once Obi-Wan remembers that he has the force and General Grievous does not, the duel devolves into a giant iguana chasing a hamster ball.
  • Revenge of the Sith, Mace Windu, Kit Fisto, Agen Kolar, and Saesee Tiin vs. Darth Sidious.
  • Time: 1:10.
  • Time fighting: 100%.
  • Words per minute: 0.
  • Memorable line: ""
Mace Windu finally solves the investigation into the Sith that he opened in Episode I, and he and friends go to arrest Palpatine. Awkward swordplay leads us to exactly where we would have been had this duel not taken place at all - Mace Windu with his lightsaber out and Palpatine on the ground.
  • Revenge of the Sith, Yoda vs. Darth Sidious.
  • Time: 0:54.
  • Time fighting: 100%.
  • Words per minute: 21.
  • Memorable line: "Faith in your new apprentice, misplaced may be, as is your faith in the dark side of the Force."
Green Sonic returns to fight in Palpatine's office. The duel quickly turns into a force battle, which Yoda loses.
  • Revenge of the Sith, Obi-Wan Kenobi vs. Anakin Skywalker.
  • Time: 6:24.
  • Time fighting: 88%.
  • Words per minute: 10.
  • Memorable line: "This is the end for you, my master."
The longest of all the Star Wars duels only takes two breaks from the fighting: the first while our combatants kick eachother, and the second during a tarzan swing over lava. We learn that lava is only hot if it actually touches you, and that even a lightsaber duel can become tedious. Obi-Wan professes his love for Anakin and then leaves him to slowly burn to death.
  • The Force Awakens, Rey and Finn vs. Kylo Ren.
  • Time: 4:03.
  • Time fighting: 84%.
  • Words per minute: 6.
  • Memorable line: "That lightsaber. It belongs to me!"
Rey and Finn run into Kylo in the woods. Finn is quickly defeated, which is not a surprise since he already lost a duel to Random Joe Stormtrooper. Just as Mr. Ollivander predicted, Luke's ANH lightsaber comes to Rey, whom it had previously chosen. Once she remembers that she has the force, she defeats Kylo. This is also not a surprise since she already demonstrated greater force mastery.

The balance between talking and fighting

With these data we can now directly evaluate the balance between the amount of talking (words-per-minute) and fighting (% time fighting) in each of the 13 duels:

Hover or tap on a circle to see which duel it represents. The duel from A New Hope features 100% fighting, with great dialogue throughout. Empire Strikes Back has much less talking (even less than some of the Prequel duels), but it also has much less fighting. Nearly half of the duel Luke and Vader aren't even in the scene together. Even though it has less talking, Empire Strikes Back is a great duel because the talking and the fighting are well balanced.

A typical Prequel duel has 100% fighting, mixed with a small amount of talking - a recipe for a dull duel. For any amount of fighting, the Original Trilogy duels have more talking - a better balance between talking and fighting. The Force Awakens is better balanced than many of the Prequel fights, but still falls solidly within the Prequel region.

With this figure we can see that the two Prequel duels that are most similar to those of the Original Trilogy are the duels between Obi-Wan, Anakin, and Count Dooku in Episodes II and III. Interestingly, these duels were very directly designed to mimic the duels from Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, respectively. So, the prequel duels that were intentionally designed to reflect the Original Trilogy duels are closest to them in the figure. This supports the idea that these metrics capture part of the essence of the Original Trilogy duels.

The two Prequel duels that are furthest from the Original Trilogy region are the Obi-Wan vs. General Grievous duel and the Mace Windu and Friends vs. Palpatine duel. These are undeniably the all-time worst lightsaber duels, and the fact that they are the most out-of-balance comes as no surprise.

Returning balance to the lightsaber duels

It's pretty clear that the duel in The Force Awakens tried to correct for the lackluster Prequel duels by greatly simplifying the choreography. Unfortunately, they missed what really matters - dialogue that develops characters and moves the story forward. A good lightsaber fight doesn't have to have simple fight choreography. Within the context of the Star Wars universe, it makes sense that if the lightsaber is the weapon of the Jedi, at least some would study swordsmanship. The best evidence that engaging duels can have expert swordplay comes from a pair of duels in a different movie:
  • The Princess Bride, Inigo Montoya vs. the Dread Pirate Roberts.
  • Time: 2:41.
  • Words per minute: 47.
  • Memorable line: "There's something I ought to tell you... I am not left-handed either."
A beautifully choreographed duel in which Inigo and the Dread Pirate Roberts develop a mutual respect through their expertise at the sword.
  • The Princess Bride, Inigo Montoya vs. the six-fingered man.
  • Time: 4:13.
  • Words per minute: 50.
  • Memorable line: "Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die."
Inigo finally gets the revenge he's been seeking the whole movie.
These duels are perfect examples of how a well-choreographed duel with expert fighting can still be exciting, because it has lots of dialogue and advances the story.

It is worth noting that dialogue is neither a necessary nor sufficient condition for character and story development during a duel. But in space adventure films like Star Wars it tends to play an important role, and The Force Awakens was no exception. Rey and Kylo already had a confrontation (which Rey won), so Finn could have been knocked out by the explosives they just detonated, and then the whole duel could have been cut without any loss to the story or characters.

My ideal for Episode VIII would be lightsaber duels that are more like The Princess Bride than the sloppy swordplay and limited dialogue of The Force Awakens. Rey seems to pick things up easily, so she certainly ought to be an expert at the sword. Add in some talking for character and story development, and Episode VIII can finally be the film that brings balance back to the lightsaber duel.

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