Here's Why We Saw a Vulnerable Vader in the Bacta Tank in 'Rogue One: A Star Wars Story'
Darth Vader is notoriously a dark and unrevealing character— yet in 'Rogue One: A Star Wars Story' we saw his vulnerable side.
With surprising appearances of classic characters and action aplenty, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is proving to be a major hit. At least part of its success is due to the movie’s brilliant treatment of one particular foe, who is known for his heavy breathing...
“Consumed by Darth Vader”
In this quote, Yoda may be referring to Anakin Skywalker’s (Hayden Christensen) seduction by the Dark Side of the Force, but it’s easily applicable to how eagerly the Star Wars fandom has responded to the return of #DarthVader. Indeed, the standout scene of Rogue One features a tight corridor filled with Rebel soldiers in possession of the Death Star plans, facing off against the seething Sith Lord, who lets loose like never before.
The scene has become so iconic that you can already see a LEGO recreation of it online! If you do re-watch the scene, it’s very clear that the film makers relished the opportunity to show the villain in all of his glory. Director Gareth Edwards enthused about the opportunity when he spoke to the team over at Empire Magazine for their podcast.
“He’s just such a rich character, in so many ways..."
Blue milk and cameos aside, Edwards also discussed the kind of balance that they tried to strike with the Dark Lord, and what movie makers need to do when they depict him onscreen.
"Vader’s very, very bad... so you try and just glimpse something of him that gives him some humanity, or it makes you empathise with him.”
No, Edwards isn’t talking about the cool, if slightly controversial dad-joke that Vader makes about Krennic’s (Ben Mendelsohn) aspirations. Rather, he's referring to a scene that features just before that atmospheric conversation: the glimpse of Vader immersed in his Bacta tank, in the bowels of his intricately designed palace on Mustafar.
“He’s more machine now, than man.”
In such an awesome movie and with such standout scenes as the corridor fight, it’s very easy to forget that this glimpse of a limbless Vader is the first time that we see him in Rogue One. It’s kind of odd when you think about it — after all, his usual modus operandi is striding around looking intimidating, Force-choking Imperial officers or fighting young Jedi.
Certainly, with the subdued reverence of his hooded acolyte and the Imperial guards, it’s a quieter and more mysterious scene than we’re used to with Vader. According to Gareth Edwards though, the inclusion of these brief moments were a deliberate choice to re-position Vader in the #StarWars series.
"He’s really a burns victim, and it’s not going to be fun for him when he’s not in the suit – he’s going to be uncomfortable. I love the idea of showing that he’s vulnerable as well…"
His reference to Vader’s burns is very telling. Though countless fans knew exactly when Rogue One was set, this quick glance at Vader’s injuries re-establishes where we are in the timeline, which is years after his brutal defeat at the hands of his old master Obi Wan Kenobi (#EwanMcGregor).
And that kids, is why you don’t play with fire...or with lightsabers...or on lava planets...or — well, you get the idea.
Joking aside, though we quivered with anticipation when we heard his muffled breathing through the Bacta, it is kind of shocking to see him in such an exposed position. There were very few instances in the Original Trilogy where this was the case. From A New Hope onward, he is malevolence and power personified. But as Edwards says, when we consider this new scene, it does change our perceptions of Vader somewhat:
“Just seeing those scars and realising that he’s... an amputee...it just [reminds] you of that [trauma] before he does all his stuff, it makes you torn…”
Obi Wan may have been reluctant to kill his “brother,” but it’s clear that by sparing him, Kenobi condemned him to a torturous existence.
Being immersed in Bacta is described as an unsettling experience in the Star Wars universe, and the fact that his fortress has been augmented to channel the hateful energy of the Dark Side of the Force means that Vader isn't exactly getting the best R and R whilst staying there.
It's fascinating to learn about Vader's injuries and their treatment in even these briefest of incidences. Yet this is not exactly the first exploration of them; the old Expanded Universe was only too eager to embellish upon what ails this mysterious man. Certainly, the most well-known instance of this was in James Luceno’s novel Dark Lord: The Rise of Darth Vader which reunited readers with the fallen Jedi mere weeks after the events of Revenge of the Sith. Here Vader finds himself struggling to adapt to his ravaged body, and he is forced to adapt his lightsaber technique as he hunts down several Jedi who have escaped the purge of Emperor Palpatine’s (Ian McDiarmid) Order 66.
Luceno fills the opening chapters with a very detailed analysis of Anakin’s injuries, and there are enough of them there to make you wince- Kenobi and the flames of Mustafar really did a number on him. Apart from the fact he can no longer breathe or move without robotic assistance, the book tells us that Vader’s neck needs support, since some of his vertebrae has been burned away. His “poorly constructed” suit chafes at his open wounds and he requires a regular scrub to remove all of his dead skin. Naturally, he isn’t happy about any of it, and Vader even concludes:
“All in all, he thought: This is not living. This was solitary confinement. Prison of the worst sort. Continual torture. He was nothing more than wreckage.”
The book may be listed as non-canon since Disney’s takeover of Lucasfilm, but it’s still a very decent guide as to the decrepit state of Vader in Rogue One. Plus, given that Luceno is actively involved in the new universe with his new novel Catalyst, we may get some more canonical details like this to embroider the tragic tale of Anakin Skywalker.
“Lord Vader...we are honoured by your presence.”
It’s safe to say that this brief moment is part of what makes Darth Vader work so well in the movie. From the Bacta tank, his verbal put-downs and then the vengeful battle all escalate and rebuilds him from the ground upwards. These small doses are very reminiscent of his portrayal in the original trilogy, which is what Edwards was aiming for:
“I'm jealous of moments like in Empire Strikes Back where you see the back of [Vader’s] head and you just go, "oh my God, that is so cool," and wanted to try and find something like that in our film…"
Glimpsing the tortured existence of Darth Vader for those precious few seconds definitely adds so much more texture to the character and the Star Wars saga.
Bacta seems set reappear in Episode VIII, but with all of the detail and precision that has gone into the design of Vader’s fortress on Mustafar, and the applause that Disney and Lucas Film have received for Rogue One, could Vader return again in another standalone movie?
Whether or not this project materializes to broaden the Star Wars galaxy even more, Rogue One has nevertheless demonstrated just how potent of a villain Darth Vader is. He truly is still a powerful and enigmatic, ahem, force to be reckoned with, both in the galaxy far, far away and at the box-office!
About the author
A fanatical film-watcher, hill-walker, aspiring author, freelance writer and biscuit connoisseur.
These articles first appeared on Movie Pilot between Jan 2016 and Dec 2017. Follow me on Twitter @Farrow91