Looking away to the future – unpacking the economic brilliance of Star Wars’ iconic binary sunset scene

The Force Awakens arrives in theatres exactly six months from today – so what better excuse is there to launch a series of Star Wars-themed posts between now and when the film opens on 17 December?

To kick things off, let’s go back to where it all began: 1977’s Star Wars – Episode IV: A New Hope (or just plain Star Wars, if you’re a purist!). Specifically, I want to take a closer look at the binary sunset scene, which isn’t just one of the most iconic moments in the entire Star Wars saga – it’s one of the most iconic scenes in all of cinema history, period.

Why is the binary sunset such an iconic scene?

On the face of it, the binary sunset scene – which sees a young, frustrated Luke Skywalker watch as the twin suns of his homeworld, Tatooine, set – might not seem like such a big deal. It’s incredibly brief (clocking in at under a minute), there’s no dialogue, and nothing really happens.

Sure, it’s easy to appreciate the visuals on display; Gilbert Taylor’s cinematography is gorgeous, and the optical effects used to realise the otherworldly sunset itself still hold up well in a post-CGI era. But it takes more to make a classic scene than just dazzling imagery – so what makes the binary sunset so special?

Well, first up, this scene does a lot to establish Star Wars’ tone.

An overlooked element of the franchise’s appeal is that it takes the previously cold, unrelatable trappings of the sci-fi genre and transforms them into something warm and identifiable.

Under the direction of series creator George Lucas, conceptual artist Ralph McQuarrie and production designers John Barry and Roger Christian created a “lived in” environment which – with its dented vehicles, patched-up clothes and scuffed-up corridors – was more like our own world than the shiny, unrecognisably futuristically locales in vogue in sci-fi at the time. Star Wars may take place a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, but it was still a place we could recognise, and crucially, it was populated by people we could relate to.

Nothing embodies this better than the binary sunset scene. Sure, Luke is wearing a weird kimino-style outfit and he’s gazing at the kind of astronomical phenomena typically only witnessed by someone with severe cataracts – but what could be more relatable than the image of a wide-eyed teen dreaming about the future as the day winds down?

That’s what makes these 36 seconds of footage so important to the wider Star Wars saga: it gets us in the right frame of mind for a story that’s as much a coming of age tale as it is a space opera. It helps us to look past the starships and lightsabers – the awesome, awesome lightsabers – and become emotionally invested in Luke and his journey.

Making us care about Luke Skywalker – the quintessential teenager

And that’s another thing the binary sunset scene does so well: it effectively and economically sets up Luke’s character arc in A New Hope and its sequels The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, as he transitions from farm boy to Rebel hero to Jedi Knight.

See, up till this point in A New Hope, our opinion of Luke is that’s a good-nature kid…but he’s also a bit of whiner.

So, for us to invest in Luke as our main protagonist, we really need to understand where he’s coming from and why he’s prone to the odd bout of bitching – aside from the fact that he’s a teenager! – otherwise, we’re not going to care about his heroic struggles later.

Fortunately, the binary sunset clearly communicates the underlying cause for Luke’s angst in only a few fleeting frames, by tapping into emotions we can all empathise with.

Before the scene starts, we already know the Luke is desperate to leave his uncle and aunt’s farm in search of adventure. Essentially, he’s every one of us at that age: eager for our adult life to begin and frustrated that it hasn’t yet. So, when Luke stomps across the barren desert plains as the scene starts, we’re already starting to feel for the kid and his situation.

Then, as the suns slowly being to sink in the evening sky, and Luke gazes towards the horizon, his yearning for something more becomes downright palpable. The wannabe fighter pilot squints off into the distance – almost as if he can glimpse his exciting future, just out of reach – and we’re not seeing him as a petulant teen anymore, but as the dreamer he really is. And at long last, we get him.

From here on out, we can forgive Luke for the occasional juvenile outburst – because why shouldn’t we? Who hasn’t had at least one moment in their life when they longed to do what they felt in their bones they were meant to do with their life? Or suffered from the crushing feeling that their present situation was never going to change?

John Williams: Star Wars’ MVP

Obviously, Mark Hamill deserves props for his performance as Luke in the binary sunset scene. He does a fine job of capturing the mixture of hopefulness and anguish this moment required, all without uttering a single word.

Ultimately, though, it’s John Williams’ score that really sells Luke’s character beat and makes the scene work overall. The legendary composer employs a musical motif, “The Force Theme”, that’s just as iconic as the scene it appears in; indeed, you could argue that the binary sunset scene – or heck, the entire Star Wars saga, come to think of it! – wouldn’t even be iconic without Williams’ soundtrack.

The sense of impending destiny that Williams has imbued “The Force Theme” with is nothing short of uncanny; as it plays here, we (like Luke) know we’re on the cusp of something amazing, just waiting to happen.

Best of all, this sentiment swells within the music as Luke peers towards the sunset, then subsides as he looks away, evoking our young would-be hero’s inability to realise this destiny, and the disappointment he suffers as a result.

Will the binary sunset scene influence The Force Awakens?

So, the binary sunset scene clearly looms large over Star Wars’ past – but how will it impact its future? Given it’s the most iconic scene in the saga, how can we expect director J.J. Abrams to reflect its influence in The Force Awakens, visually or otherwise?

Honestly, I’ll be shocked if it doesn’t. Indeed, given this new entry appears to self-consciously harken back to the aesthetic and tone established in A New Hope – consider the fresh-faced protagonists and desert wasteland that dominate last year’s teaser trailer – the spirit of the binary sunset scene will almost certainly be present and accounted for, if nothing else.


Agree? Disagree? Let me know in the comments below or on Twitter or Facebook!

3 thoughts on “Looking away to the future – unpacking the economic brilliance of Star Wars’ iconic binary sunset scene

  1. patricia richards says:

    I couldn’t agree more about the Binary Sunset scene. It’s simplistic, poignant & speaks volumes in the 35 seconds of screen time. the sense of longing that Luke feels for something greater than his desert existence really sets the tone for the rest of the film

    Liked by 1 person

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