Rogue One and the Future of Darth Vader

With Rogue One now on general release, it’s worth looking a little closer at one of its main stars: Darth Vader. He may not be in it all that much, but the artist formerly known as Anakin Skywalker looms large over the film, dominating the handful of scenes he’s in and leaving you with plenty of questions. Why’s he on Mustafar? What’s he doing in that big old watery pod? How does he get his helmet so shiny black?

Valid questions, all (especially that last one: Polish? Turtle Wax? Does he have his own little waxing droid?). But what runs through my head whenever I see Vader appear in Rogue One or the TV series Rebels is: what’s he thinking? Come on, big guy…

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Why? Because one of my biggest frustrations with Revenge of the Sith (my least favourite of all the Star Warses) is that I can’t reconcile the Vader at the end of that film with the one who appears at the start of A New Hope. The latter is so full of rage and hatred, while the former is pretty much just a scared boy who’s lost everything and is now stuck in a big black tin can. At what point did one become the other? And more importantly: how?

The re-emergence of the Star Wars franchise gives us a chance to find out, and I’m sure we will. The marketing for Rogue One teased Vader’s cameo perfectly, showing Lucasfilm and Disney are well aware of his continued impact on pop culture. There’s simply no way we won’t get a Vader standalone film, though I suspect it won’t be until Episode 9 is released as the character will likely continue to have a significant bearing on Kylo Ren in the new trilogy. This will hopefully give Lucasfilm plenty of time to think about how to approach the film, because it really isn’t easy.

The difficulty with making a Vader film is that the character works well when used in moderation. He’s a monster: the xenomorph from Alien, the shark from Jaws. Balance is everything. Show too much, and he loses his sense of mystery. Show too little, and the film loses its sense of threat (which is one of the problems I had with Rogue One). Vader exists on the edge of nightmare: always there, but just out of sight. We should’t know him too much: we should let our imagination run away with itself.

That said, there’s a fascinating character study to be had in a Vader film, one that shows the man behind the monster. Because the man is definitely still there. While watching him hack his way through rebel after rebel at the end of Rogue One, I didn’t just see a bad guy doing what bad guys do. That scene is one of the most thrilling in the movie because it’s utterly desperate: the Rebels are desperate to secure the Death Star plans, and Vader is desperate to get them back. At the end of the sequence, he looks on as the Rebels escape, not angry, not plotting their demise. He’s motionless, empty.

Again: what’s going on in his head? Whatcha thinkin’ Vadey!? My own interpretation is that everything he does in Rogue One, everything he did in the preceding, unseen 20 years after Sith, and everything he’ll continue to do is because of Padme. If his evil in the prequels was down to a love for her and a desire to protect her, isn’t it just as true that everything he does after the prequels is a bid to honour her memory? He wouldn’t just let that all go. The fact he’s still based on Mustafar, perhaps as some kind of weird tribute to Padme or act of self-punishment, shows that. Anakin Skywalker doesn’t simply let things go.

Don't rub it in, Elsa.
Don’t rub it in, Elsa.

The Rebellion isn’t just political for Vader then; it’s deeply personal. Every sabotage, every insurgency, every attack is an affront to his efforts to preserve the memory of his lost love. So he would be pretty desperate in that final sequence: just as the Empire is close to completing something that could essentially end the Rebellion and secure the peace he’s been longing for since Padme died, these pathetic, treacherous Rebels have come along and ruined that. He’s desperate, he’s angry, he’s going to destroy every last one of them to get those plans back. He’s the hate-filled Vader we see at the start of A New Hope.

If a Vader standalone is made, I’d love to see it take that angle. To see Vader as a purely bad guy is to misunderstand the point of the series. Star Wars deals in broad strokes: good and evil, light and dark, Rebellion and Empire, but the dramatic core is the stuff in between them, the frailties and contradictions that make us human and drive us to do the things we do. For good and for evil. Rogue One hints at that complexity in Vader, but there’s still a lot to build on. Hopefully a standalone can take it even further.

Notes from Rogue One

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WARNING: THIS REVIEW IS BUILT ON SPOILERS. MASSIVE ONES. DON’T READ IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN THE FILM.

Rogue One was always something of an anomaly for me. It’s a Star Wars film, so I was excited to see it, but it was a very different kind of Star Wars film: a gritty war film rather than a mythical fairy tale. As someone who loves the fairy tale quality of the saga, I was unsure about this new direction, and so my anticipation for Rogue One never hit quite the same levels as it did for The Force Awakens last year.

Now I’ve seen the film, I remain a little unsure. I love parts of it, but as a whole, it never quite seems to gel. It’s a bold and ambitious film; arguably one of the most ambitious blockbusters I’ve ever seen. For that it deserves a huge amount of praise. But it also creates some of the film’s biggest problems. Here are a few very spoilery notes from the film.

  • Felicity Jones is incredible here. While I think the film struggles significantly with the depth it gives some of the characters, Jones manages to counter that with a performance of deeply affecting silence. Her eyes in particular are tremendously powerful: full of despair, hope, fire, and anger. Everything is done with the eyes. The moment when she breaks down while watching the hologram of her father is one of the film’s greatest moments.
  • Just as he did on Godzilla, Gareth Edwards demonstrate a great ability to ground the fantastical in a tangible sense of reality. From the moment Krennic and his Deathtroopers turn up to take Galen Erso from his family at the start of the movie, everything feels real and that has a particularly important effect on the stormtroopers, who here feel like an actual oppressive army – irrepressible, genuinely scary – rather than a bunch of useless underlings who need target practice.
  • The film’s core message is brilliantly prescient, and is likely to have particular resonance with late teens/20-somethings. Contrary to Bob Iger’s recent comments about the film’s lack of political message, Rogue One is not just deeply political, it’s about becoming politicised. Jyn is so beaten down by the cruelty of the galaxy and her lot in life that she feels she can’t achieve anything and so resorts to apathy. The film forces her to take up a cause so she can express her frustration more positively, and as the real world darkens, that’s a worthwhile message for the film to convey. Also: super-political, Bob. Come on, dude, grow a spine.
  • The last 20 minutes of Rogue One are genuinely remarkable. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen anything so thrilling at the cinema. Like all the great finales, it convinces you that anything can happen, that there are no guarantees, and that either good or evil could win. The very final few sequences, in which Rebel troops desperately flee Vader, Death Star plans in hand, while the Sith Lord cuts through them like a hot knife through butter is as terrifying, desperate and vital as blockbuster film-making gets. This is a prequel. We know how it ends. But somehow, in that final act, everything feels up for grabs.
  • (Sidenote: the moment when the destruction of Scarif creates a gigantic mushroom cloud style explosion that resembles a sun is one of the richest and most poignant uses of Star Wars iconography I’ve ever seen. If Luke looking out towards the twin suns on Tattooine was an expression of pure hope and potential, Jyn and Cassian framed against a sun-like mushroom cloud is an expression of that same hope tainted by tragedy. Rebellions are built on hope… but also desperation.)
  • And yet, for all that, the finale also exposes one of the film’s key flaws. It has big moments that never quite feel earned. As our heroes are picked off one by one, it feels like Rogue One‘s doing it for shock, a way to underline how dark it is and make the wider point about the sacrificial nature of political resistance. That’s a valid point and the deaths make it well, but I wanted to care more about these people than I did. As the deaths kept coming, I sorta expected it and they lost a little impact.
  • This is extended throughout, particularly with Jyn. A key moment for her is when she tries to encourage a rebellion stripped of morale to fight on. They want to give up, convinced that there’s no way they can possibly fight a weapon like the Death Star, but Jyn insists they keep going, stating the film’s signature line: “rebellions are built on hope”. But the film doesn’t feel like it earns her change of heart. Key relationships – with her father, with Cassian – feel too thin, key moments in her life –  her childhood, her abandonment by her father and Saw Gerrera – feel underdeveloped. I wanted to see all that, not simply be told it. Perhaps the prequel novel Catalyst expands this, perhaps there’ll be future media showing her as the 16-year-old tearaway we’re told about, but for Rogue One to function like it needs to, all that really needs to be here, in Rogue One.
  • (Sidenote: While I admire the braveness of the film killing its cast, I wish Jyn at least had survived. It feels like they could have done so much with her. Imagine, for example, her watching or taking part in the Battle of Yavin, finally seeing the fruits of her and her father’s endeavours. Hope is a part of the film’s make-up, and in many ways her surviving to see the Death Star’s destruction undermines that message: hope, by its nature, is about believing in something, not actually seeing it. But it’s still a shame (though an admirable one) that we won’t get any more Jyn stories.
  • Director Krennic’s another key character the film never quite gets right. In isolation, he’s a fascinating villain: a middle manager with arrogant ambition. He’s pretty normal really, and the moment where he realises he’s about to be destroyed by the monstrosity he’s created underlines how pathetically human he is. But the film needs a bigger sense of threat. It needs the murderous sneer of Tarkin (who appears here but isn’t the main threat) or the cold calculation of Grand Admiral Thrawn (who would have been perfect for this), but Krennic doesn’t have that stature. Rogue One is the beginning of an endgame: the set-up for a battle that will bring 20 years of conflict to a head. It just never quite feels like that’s on the line.
  • While Edwards largely helms the film very well, there are definite flaws, mostly with tone. At times, Rogue One feels at war with itself, fighting to be a different kind of Star Wars film, but still knowing that it needs to be a Star Wars film. So you get some moments, such as the scenes of the insurgency on Jedha, that are deliberately touching upon very real world concerns. Others, meanwhile, feel like classic Star Wars, such as the aerial attack on Scarif. It creates a film that, on first viewing at least, feels patchwork and inconsistent, unable to feel entirely like one thing or the other. I hope that feeling recedes on repeat viewings.
  • Despite all of this, I did very much enjoy the film – I just didn’t love it as much as I’d hoped, or as much as I loved The Force Awakens. Ultimately there’s a mix of issues, some that simply won’t go away (the thinly-written characters) and some that maybe will (the sense of clashing tones and styles). But whatever flaws there are, they’re created by Rogue One trying something that nobody really had any right to expect. It’s a brave film that tears up the Star Wars rule book and asks us to accept a different version of the franchise. I have a feeling it’ll reward repeat viewings, but even after just the one, for its boldness and ambition alone, Rogue One deserves the benefit of the doubt and a huge amount of praise. The Star Wars universe is a vast and diverse place. Rogue One shows us that Lucasfilm and Disney are brave enough to explore it.

The Best of #GiacchinoStarWarsPuns

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Yesterday (16th September), one of the great modern movie score makers, Michael Giacchino, was announced as the new composer of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. He replaces the equally brilliant Alexandre Desplat, who for scheduling reasons forced by the film’s reshoots, could no longer commit to the project.

Giacchino is known for the brilliantly awful puns he and his music editors create for track titles. A few of my favourites are: Caesar No Evil, Hear No Evil (Dawn of the Planet of the Apes), A Thern For The Worse (John Carter), It’s a Small Jurassic World (Jurassic World), From Russia With Shove (Mission: Impossible Ghost Protocol), Cryo Your Heart Out (Star Trek Into Darkness) and arguably the greatest of them all… Hellavacopter Chase (Mission: Impossible III).

To celebrate the Star Wars news, I couldn’t resist taking to Twitter to drum up a hashtag covering all the brilliant puns Giacchino could put to use on Rogue One and any other Star Wars-based projects he may participate in in the future. My first offering was the somewhat predictable ‘When You Wish Upon A Death Star’, and there I expected the hashtag to die a sorry, unceremonious death.

How wrong I was. So here (in no particular order) are the best #GiacchinoStarWarsPuns the fine folks of Twitter threw together yesterday.

The full #GiacchinoStarWarsPuns list can be seen here