Let’s Talk: Making Vader Terrifying – By Stephen Stachofsky.
Once upon a time Darth Vader was terrifying. In the first years of Star Wars, the Dark Lord Vader was a cinematic monster and he definitely is still one of the most recognized villains of the last century.
In the beginning there were audiences that were terrified of the towering presence of Darth Vader. Vader instantly became synonymous with evil, death, and fear. His mystical powers over the dark side and his ability to choke the life out of those around him without touching them carried a weight that was lost as the prequel trilogy came into being. As a child of the nineties, I remember being old enough to go to the theatres and though I was very young, I remember the first glimpse we got of Maul. Suddenly there was a new level of visual brutality and terror. Though Maul was underutilized and only featured in Episode I, the comic book community of Star Wars ran with the character, and left the original dread lord behind. The 2000’s had a slew of new sith types crop up and as the various iterations of the Clone Wars were brought to life, audiences fell in love with Anakin Skywalker instead of Darth Vader.The Star Wars franchise can never really part with its prime emblem but it doesn’t feel that the Dark Lord has really ever been as evil, as dark, and as scary as he was in the beginning when we were first given his signature breath and billowing black cloak and armor. That is until recently.
The first example of putting the Darth back in Darth Vader came by way of the unexpected triumph that was Rogue One. One of the prime ways of conveying the absolute terror of Vader, is in how other characters react to him both on and off the screen. The scene on Mustafar between Lord Vader and Director Krennic is a perfect example. Ben Mendelsohn, Director Orson Krennic, can be seen visibly sweating during the scene at Vader’s fortress. His body language is distinctly fight or flight, and though he is a conniving, reaching, power-hungry worm, it is clear that Krennic would rather be anywhere else than in the presence of Darth Vader. Quipy force choke joke aside, James Earl Jones’ iconic voice portrayal can only be described as barely contained contempt. The dialogue leaves the audience with a clear picture; Krennic fears for his life every second he and Vader are in the same room, and Vader is barely containing the urge to squash the insignificant bug that is Krennic. Ben Mendolsohn has found himself cast multiple times as the smarmy businessman who tries to be bigger than just a paperpushing suit, which Krennic is even with the uniform. Even the threat of Vader elicits fight or flight responses from characters in other scenes of the movie but the greatest triumph of Rogue One was the hallway massacre.
If you’ve watched Rogue One then you know what scene I am referring to when I say, hallway massacre. The whole premise of Rogue One is the story of how the rebels obtained the first Death Star plans, and from the original trilogy we know that no one survived the mission. Rogue One’s ending butts right against the opening scenes of the original trilogy, and answers the question of how the empire caught Princess Leia’s ship, the Tantive IV. There is a brilliantly horrifying display of power at the end of Rogue One. The rebel fleet has managed to secure the plans but the flagship is heavily damaged. An imperial shuttle is seen boarding the damaged alliance ship. Suddenly we are watching alliance soldiers scrambling to evacuate the ship and copy the Death Star plans to a hard disc. The sequence features a lot of hastily shouted military jargon, and frantic camera angles. We see the soldier with the plans running into a damaged hallway of the flag ship, and he gets trapped by a bulkhead that is jammed. The cameras level out and start to slowly pan past the rebel soldiers to view a dark hallway. Fear is found in the unknown, I often thank Batman Begins for that lesson, and when you have the most recognizable villain in history, you capitalize on the smallest aspects of his persona. In the dark, seemingly empty hallway the audience is given only Vader’s signature breathing. Then he ignites his iconic red lightsaber, the only light source in the hall. The camera work is smooth and steady as Vader starts to walk down the hall towards the soldier with the plans. Three things play into the brutality in this scene that shows exactly how terrifying Vader is.
First, Pacing. When Vader starts to walk, his pace doesn’t slow or waver. He also doesn’t rush. It is a deliberate and intentional pace that even 13 soldiers firing in concentrated bursts can’t slow.
Second, Swordwork. Vader’s lightsaber skills are not necessarily what I am referring to here, rather the effort he exerts in killing the 13 rebels in the hall, barely any at all. The men in the hallway are not worthy of his time. He uses one hand to swing the lightsaber in wide, unfocused arcs, like someone would use a machete to clear away brush. This shows a level of contempt and a lack of fear on his part that only serves to heighten the fear of the audience and the men in front of him.
Third, the Force. The prequel trilogy aside, we don’t see Vader use the force for much more than small concentrated actions, choking subordinate officers for example. It really isn’t until The Empire Strikes Back that we start to realize just how total his command over the force is. Then the hallway scene happened. We see Vader mix in the use of the force as a tool of destruction along with his saber. Lifting rebel soldiers and crushing them, or hurling them with deadly force into the bulkheads of the ship, make for a display of the force that we hadn’t seen before from Vader outside of pre-purge video games.
Say what you will about Dave Filoni, the creative force driving much of the Star Wars titles right now, if I have to live in a world where my favorite Star Wars stories are considered “legends,” at least someone is making decent new content. Filoni is one of the chief culprits of declawing Vader via his Clone Wars series. He did manage to start adding back some of the fear with the way he and his team handled The Inquisitor in the first season of Star Wars Rebels. While Rebels is much younger in its feel, target audience, and story content, the Inquisitor, voiced by Jason Isaacs, brought another layer of fear to Vader, who had yet to arrive on the scene for the cast of Rebels. In his demise, rather than accept the mercy shown to him by the Jedi, Kanan, the Inquisitor states, “there are some things far more frightening than death” and chooses to fall into an exploding reactor. The haunting notes of the iconic Vader theme are heard in the background leading the audience to believe that this villain character would rather die than face his master. It leads us to question what kind of a creature could instill such terror.
One of the recent installations into the Star Wars canon are the Darth Vader Comics.* Before I give my favorite scary Vader moment of the past five years, I want to touch on them. I read almost 100 issues of the comics in preparation for this blog post, and while Marvel makes great comics, for the most part I came away with the following conclusion. These stories of Vader are great, but with the exception of the volume “Vader Down,” they really don’t add to the terror of Darth Vader. If anything, they take it away. They do this not intentionally, but by the nature of how they are written. Darth Vader is scary because he is written as an antagonist. Part of what adds to the fear of Darth Vader is the fact that audiences don’t understand or have knowledge of what he is doing or how he is thinking. To bring Falcone from Batman Begins in again, “… you always fear what you don’t understand”. The Vader comics, by making Vader the protagonist in a technical sense, take away the mystery of the character. Understanding his actions and motives makes him less scary. They are great reads and have some awesome moments in them so if you haven’t picked them up I advise you to do so, but they don’t make the re-Vadering of Vader list because of that aspect.
As for one of the best scary Vader moments of the last couple decades, well here you go. SPOILER ALERT for Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order. Fallen Order was a wonderful single player story game that, for me, has earned its place amongst the pantheon of the great pre-purge games like Knights of the Old Republic. Throughout the game, Jedi padawan, Cal Kestis is dogged by the Empire’s purge troopers, and inquisitors. The first were an elite force of stormtroopers whose sole purpose and training was to counter Jedi survivors of order 66. The second were a group of force sensitives trained by Vader to hunt Jedi. Though not as powerful as full Sith, they were formidable opponents. Cal is dogged in particular by Trilla, one of the chief members of the Inquisitors. In the culmination of the game, Cal goes up against the Inquisitor yet again, though this time the player has had a chance to level Cal up. After a tough boss fight, the game starts a cut scene. Cal and his companion Cere offer redemption to Trilla, and just as it seems she might take the opportunity to break with the dark side, enter the Dark Lord himself.
The first thing the player notices is the presence of mist/fog behind Trilla and slightly out of focus. Then some of the best animation in the game takes place. Trilla’s face changes from supplication, to surprise, to recognition and terror. The flow is seamless and stunning to watch, as if watching a live actor. Of course some of that is due to the motion capture tech the game characters were built on. As Cal and Cere stand stupefied, from the steam/fog, comes the signature breathing, and then the domed helmet. Cal, prone to side comments, quips to Cere, but Trilla is completely catatonic. My wife, who watched my playthrough, asked if Vader was using the force to hold Trilla in a sort of stasis, but honestly I couldn’t really tell. Even if he wasn’t, his mere presence did the job for him. Vader walks up and strikes down Trilla causing the two Jedi to attack. There are a few things that make the fight downright terrifying as a player. First is that Vader just cut down the inquisitor that you, as the player, had fought multiple times with little success. He then swats aside your Jedi mentor with no effort, who subsequently falls into a pit of lava. The second horrifying thing comes as the cutscene ends. The player enters another boss fight, only this time it is against Vader. Vader, who you can’t hit, damage, slow, stun or in any other way effect. After Vader tosses you and the environment around like a rag doll in a truly breathtaking display of force mastery, the player is called on to use all of the platforming skills the game has taught you to escape the Dark Lord. The game team does squeeze in a wonderful jump scare as Cal thinks he’s escaped and opens a door to near decapitation from Vader. The final fight plays out in another cutscene. Again we see the nonchalance and contempt of Vader’s fighting style taking center stage. He doesn’t commit more power than he has to and insists on fighting with a single handed, weaker grip on his lightsaber. Though his arrogance does cost him victory in the end as he underestimates the power of Cal’s droid companion to receive a devastating shock. Even injured however, the titan of the dark side barely slows and is more than a match for Cal and Cere. The duo barely escape leaving the door wide open for a Fallen Order 2. The 12 minutes of terror really cement the fear into the player who is left heart pounding, relieved to have just escaped, barely, the dread Dark Lord of the Sith. Watch the clip or better yet, play the game. It was exhilarating and exactly what I hope for anytime Darth Vader is brought into anything in the Star Wars Universe.
Thanks for reading, listening, and supporting the SB team.
*Comics stack courtesy of Allen County Public Library