Rogue One: A Star Wars Movie is a very good blockbuster—does it provide an apt commentary on the modern state of warfare or secure every loose end George Lucas left untethered in his two runs at the helm? No. The plot is fine, I cared about the characters I was supposed to care about, the robot is Good, and the non-human visual effects are once again so great, you’ll think you’re smacked. I didn’t go looking for a Best Picture nominee; I went for 45 seconds in a dark hallway with Darth Vader.
Vader’s work in this movie is pretty easy to detail because he’s on screen for all of four minutes. Director Krennic gets mad at Grand Moff Tarkin for stealing his shine and goes to Vader’s castle on what I think is Mustafar to tattle (there’s no location indicator). Mustafar is kind of a fucked-up location for his castle, but Vader’s a fucked-up guy. As it turns out, “Don’t choke on your own aspirations,” was a line better left with 1977 audiences, but whatever. Vader could have spouted out nothing but bad puns and knock-knock jokes for the initial two hours; his scene at the conclusion of the film made the entire movie worth the price of admission both times, and I entirely mean it. Since Lucasfilm seems to be snatching up all the grainy YouTube versions of the scene, here’s how it plays out:
[Everything just went to shit. Scarif go boom, Rebel fleet gets wrecked. Everyone we loved on the ground is dead, but the plans got out. Yay?]
“Oh shit, they killed everyone!!!”
[Darth Vader prepares a landing party.]
“Alright, there’s the obvious New Hope lead-in. Time for a nice closing at the Rebel base or an end crawl or some kind of relaxant.”
[Scrambled Rebels download Death Star plans, but a door is jammed on their way to evacuate. Complete darkness. Faint footsteps and Vader’s breathing fill the space.]
“Wait is Darth Vader about to....”
[A red lightsaber illuminates Vader’s body. Rebel fighters, trapped in a hallway with the Sith Lord, proceed to lose their shit.]
“Oh my God he is!”
Vader sends the adorable Rebels’ laser fire screaming back into their own torsos, pins a poor soul against the ceiling and guts him with a casual backhand, force chokes and discards another Alliance fighter, and finally slices the rest down with several strokes after disarming them. It’s a vicious, one-sided wonder of a fight that reminds you why that armed party of 20 from Phantom Menace said, “Fuck. That,” when they ran into Darth Maul. Shadow Hands do not play games.
Watching the hallway scene unfold was like watching the Death Star blast on Scarif envelop Jyn and Cassian—helplessness does not equate to hopelessness, but damn, this movie blurred that line come closing time. There is no help to be found in the pitch-black hallway, only unanswered screams, deflected laser fire, and finally, acceptance. “Take it!” screams the last doomed Rebel, as he thrusts the Death Star plans through the crack in the jammed door. A second later, the same Rebel, and the same door, are jammed with the iconic saber. A latch is pulled and Tantive IV escapes, giving way to CG Leia, which, fine.
The entire scene lasts but a brief moment—a minute and 40 seconds in full. Considering I held my breath the whole time while simultaneously dribbling remnants of Cherry Coke down my leg, it felt like the nerdy equivalent of the Normandy opening of Saving Private Ryan. Nothing in the previous two-plus hours prepared me for the final scene, not even K-2SO getting dropped or Jyn getting nuked. After the emotional toll of watching all the film’s protagonists get blown to bits by grenades or Death Star blasts, I was expecting a smooth, commemorative ending, not a massacre. The weight of the scene (and the movie) could have been undercut by the fact it’s public knowledge that Leia and the Rebels escape Vader’s grasp with the plans, but even that logical thought of comfort pissed itself and fled when Vader’s crimson lightsaber lit up the room.
If the scene felt like a fan-service apology for the prequels and Return of the Jedi, it’s because it probably was. Considering how neutered the Vader villain has become over the past 16 (or 33) years, it was much-deserved and, in my case, accepted.
When Lucas and Co. elected to show us the boy behind the mask in the prequels, suffice to say Vader’s unmatched command of the Force and menacing theme music all drifted from memory the moment lil’ Annie hopped in his pod racer. Those memories of him terrorizing Luke and at the end of Empire Strikes Back were dragged through a cheese grater when Anakin’s rat-tail-rocking ass got worked by Count Dooku and continued brooding because Yoda and Mace didn’t like him back.
Yeah, yeah, he slaughtered the Tusken village and the Jedi kiddies—those were Bad Things, but they didn’t make you scared of Anakin, because no matter how many innocents he was shown mowing down, there was still, “I don’t like sand.” His depiction made him an easily manipulated punk, not a tragic villain; even when he showered Obi Wan Kenobi with what seemed like genuine hatred, the menace the audience is supposed to feel was instead replaced with petulance and general teen crankiness. (Here’s to hoping Kylo Ren doesn’t follow that path.)
The haunting illusion that the original trilogy, specifically Empire Strikes Back, crafted was that of Darth Vader’s intentions. For nearly two full movies, Vader had little to no emotional connection with the band of heroes tasked with stopping the Empire’s efforts—in other words, he didn’t give a fuck, boy! Imprison Leia? Naturally. Explode Alderaan? Boom, gone. Choke out Empire officers? Did it on fucking FaceTime. Kill Old Ben? Chop, chop. Torture Han Solo then pawn off his frozen body? Why of course.
If Vader wanted something done, he handled it; when he was told no, he chopped off Luke’s hand and dropped the Papa bomb on him. All the way up until he became a babbling, suddenly regretful father and washed, crispy white dude in Return of the Jedi, Vader was the greatest villain I had witnessed in film for the very reason captured perfectly in 45 seconds by Gareth Edwards: when properly recognized, Vader is an unstoppable cyborg monster.
Now, scrap that stupid Boba Fett one-off and gimme Young Vader Murders A Lot Of People: A Star Wars Story.