As 2018 closes and we come upon one year since the release of Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi, and just under one year until the release of Star Wars Episode IX, many in the media and the world at large are currently reflecting on what it means to be a Star Wars fan. For some, it meant unquestionably embracing everything that Disney has given us and being overjoyed with anything we are getting. For a small but vocal group of others, it meant going on tirades of anger and toxicity that ran up against others including innocent bystanders. For the rest of us, it was somewhere more in the middle – thrilled to have Star Wars as a real, live going concern in 2018, but clearly disappointed with much of what is being put out in the “main” stories and not sure if there’s any alternative, while also being exhausted with the negativity out there and the seemingly never-ending coverage devoted to it.
Most of the commentary about the “state of the fandom” has treated this latter group of the fanbase as an afterthought. But believe it or not, this past year has shown new possibilities in animation, books and in comics for those who just want something different. With Dave Filoni’s work on the final episodes of Star Wars: Rebels, Timothy Zahn’s novel Thrawn: Alliances, and the concluding issues of Charles Soule’s Darth Vader comic, I would argue that Star Wars did indeed get taken to amazing, surreal new heights outside the “main narrative.” But where does that leave the cinematic front? Solo: A Star Wars story, was a great new Star Wars spinoff, but somehow it has been labeled as a disappointment and has resulted in Disney doing the unthinkable and slowing down their film franchise. What does this mean for the format in which Star Wars is meant to be experienced in – live action? Just as the year closes, we may have an answer, and it comes from the unlikeliest of places – the fans.
Before Disney acquired the franchise, before the prequels came out in the 2000s, for nearly 20 years Star Wars subsisted purely on interpretations from fans to keep the franchise going. Some of them were in officially authorized video games, novels or comics, but many more were in unofficial fan films, for which Lucasfilm became much appreciated for not only allowing, but sometimes even promoting at various Celebration events over the years. It is a grand tradition that has continued to this day, and the latest example is in the brand-new release of Episode I of a fan film series entitled Vader: A Star Wars Theory Fan Film – Shards of the Past.
For the uninitiated, Star Wars Theory is the biggest unofficial Star Wars channel on YouTube. Since the channel first launched in 2016, it’s quickly amassed 1.2 million subscribers. The channel’s owner, who goes by “Darth Toos,” appealed to many fans because of his focus on exploring the vast quantity of canon and Legends lore, his entertaining “What If” and April Fools fanfiction series, and his general positivity and energetic passion for the franchise conveyed in a style that never took itself too seriously or felt snooty/elitist, as unfortunately many YouTubers tend to do. In 2017, as his subscriber base continued to grow, he got the idea to leverage his subscriber base to do something he had always dreamed of. In his own words, from one of his videos:
“Star Wars, for me, started off as a pure escape. It’s gotten me through some tough times, and there’s an estimated 1.4 billion fans on earth. I started this channel just over 2 years ago, and it’s been the most amazing thing I’ve ever done. The channel has always been a one man show…and over the last [year], I’ve worked hard [on something] behind the scenes.” Toos was approached by director Danny Ramirez who got wind of his interest in doing a film, and eventually they also teamed up with writer Nikolaj Wejp-Olsen to turn Toos’ vision: “I want to create the most amazing, touching and heart-pounding Vader fan film that you have ever seen. This fan film will shock the world, and I hold my channel’s reputation to that. This film will take place eight months after Revenge of the Sith. It will cover Vader like we’ve never seen him before. It will be extremely dark, gritty, and everything you want from a Vader fan film. We’ve seen Vader as the big bad guy in Star Wars, but there’s a different side to him that I want to discover. There’s such an incredible journey from the Darth Vader that we sympathize with in Episode III to the Darth Vader that we fear in 4, 5 and 6. I want to explore that Vader in this fan film. This won’t be canon and won’t restrict my vision. That said, it won’t stray far in terms of the timeline or story itself.”
That is not to say that it would be as easy as simply coming up with a vision. There were legal elements to deal with as well. In May 2018, Toos announced his intention and hopes to do the film and appealed to his fans with a Kickstarter campaign to try and raise the funds. But when things moved slower than he expected, in a bit of a Hail Mary he reached out to Lucasfilm. “Being the biggest channel on YouTube, I needed to make sure I did everything without angering Lucasfilm. Lucasfilm supports the fan film, the channel, and they accept it. But they won’t allow crowdfunding. It must come from a private investor or from myself. The fan film cannot be monetized…this film was never meant to make money. I’m doing this solely as a fan tribute.” For that reason, the original vision of having a two hour film was then slimmed back to six episodes, each about 15-20 minutes.
There was also the matter of doing the work to actually create the film. He went through a series of auditions for his cast and had to find crew members. There was the set, props, costumes, music, makeup and special effects to worry about. On top of that, this was all being done in a matter of months as Toos had promised he would release something in December. All these challenges aside, the film came out as promised yesterday, and for that alone, Toos deserves a ton of credit. How is the end product itself though?
There is no gimmicky pandering at the beginning with the traditional opening crawl or the Star Wars theme. We get a few sentences setting the stage, and then it’s right into Vader kicking ass, in a great homage to what we saw in Rogue One. It needs to be emphasized that in the original trilogy, we only saw tantalizing glimpses of how terrifying Vader was, and it wasn’t until Rogue One that we got to see him at his scariest. But the opening scene goes even further by throwing in Vader’s early struggles to suppress his past into the mix. This is only eight months after Revenge of the Sith, and we basically pick up where we left off with Vader’s painful realization that Padme is dead, he is Palpatine’s slave, and it’s his fault.
As Vader takes a momentary break from fighting his internal demons, Palpatine informs him that clone troopers (still around at this point) have detected a Jedi on Naboo, who has deliberately placed himself there because he knows who Vader “really is” and wants to draw him out. The identity of this Jedi is a secret that was already been “spoiled” during development, but in the actual film Palpatine doesn’t refer to him by name and says that he wields an “amethyst blade.” Vader then heads to Naboo and arrives at what appears to be Theed, and as the episode winds down we are left on a great cliffhanger with the rematch of the ages ahead of us.
The best way to describe the overall vibe of the story is like seeing Charles Soule’s Vader comic brought to life. Toos is a huge fan of Soule’s run, and it shows, with dream sequences and ghosts, Vader’s massive internal conflict being the primary focus, and passive aggressive interaction between Vader and Palpatine, all of which have been hallmarks of the recently-concluded series. There are a few callbacks to other films and creations in their conversations that could be argued to be one-liners of a sort, but these are skillfully used by Palpatine to throw back in Vader’s face, which is fascinating. That is not to say that Toos doesn’t bring in his own elements either, though. We see Vader use the Force in ways we have never seen before. We also get to see just how tortured “rest time” is for him when he is not hard at work being a Sith. Finally, we get to see the famous Eta-2 Actis-class light interceptor being used by Vader for the first time in live-action, with the gray update!
Speaking of visuals, the look and feel of this film, visually and audibly, is what truly elevates it to something special. It is mind-blowing to think that this is “just” a fan film that was literally put together in a matter of months. It feels very professionally done, with a lot of time and care put into it. The scene where Vader wakes up from his nightmare and is hanging in suspension rivals the moment in Empire Strikes Back where Piett walks in on Vader without his helmet on, inside his pod. Vader’s hyperspace journey to Naboo and the drop out of lightspeed is gorgeous and perfectly executed. The new interpretation of “Across the Stars” is a tearjerker especially paired with Padme’s cries for Anakin. Most importantly, I’d argue, the voice of Vader himself by Jesse Gomez is a very good substitute for James Earl Jones. It’s as good as anything Matt Sloan, aka Chad Vader, has ever done. The clone trooper voice is also a win for me as it leans more Dee Bradley Baker (The Clone Wars) rather than Temeura Morrison (the prequel trilogy), and the usage of “brother” is a nice nod in that direction. There are tons of other little things that are just brilliant, but I would probably go on for too long.
As David likes to say though, it can’t be perfect, can it? That is true, and at the end of the day this is still a fan film. For one, the script has a bit too much dialogue and explanation, especially during the action scenes and the Vader-Palpatine discussions, I think that showing rather than telling may have been the better option. Hopefully, Vader’s showdown in the next episode will be more focused on action and facial expressions, rather than just more conversation. Palpatine’s dialogue in particular is a bit excessive. In both Revenge of the Sith and Return of the Jedi, Palpatine was brilliant because he balanced his dialogue with long pauses and space to let his words sink in. Here, it seems as though we don’t get much of a chance to think about what he’s saying (and it is pretty interesting, after all).
The other problem with Palpatine is that his voice acting also feels a bit off. Toos himself actually does a pretty good Palpatine in some of his fan fictions, and I would suggest that he go for it himself in the next installment. Lastly, I think using the scene from Episode III where Anakin, in his physical prime, sees Padme wearing the necklace he gave her would have been a better look than the actual callback to the slightly cheesier Episode I moment that is re-enacted, which unfortunately is no less cheesy here. These are not major nits for now, but if they aren’t addressed in future episodes, along with some world-building, it could become more of an issue.
Even though this is a great accomplishment in the “original” medium of Star Wars, live-action film, it’s tempting to say that it ultimately doesn’t matter because it’s not “official.” But at least 1.2 million fans (the number of subscribers for Star Wars Theory’s channel) and an overwhelmingly positive reaction in less than 24 hours (#2 trending on YouTube!) should compel us to seriously consider its importance and impact. In the grand scheme of things, maybe for most people, this is yet another fan film, and indeed, it might be just that. But for me, it’s something more than that. It’s symbolic of a franchise that is on the cusp of changing into something different. Not worse, not better just…different! This film puts the icing on the cake of the argument that after everything that has happened in the last year, when you put aside the darker elements and look at everything else, Star Wars fans may never be “united” again, and that’s okay.
On paper Star Wars is “officially” owned by Disney, which has a boatload of money and has the greatest ability to realize and advance the original vision, and sure, it’ll be impossible to see anyone else play the role of Luke, Han and Leia other than Mark, Harrison and Carrie. But the truth is, Star Wars is no longer under the control of its creator, George Lucas, and the original heroes will never be on the screen together again. So why should we get worked up one way or another or rigidly attached to anything else after that? Instead, as we look back on 2018, we should consider and even take joy in the fact that now, more than ever, Star Wars doesn’t belong to any one entity or fit in any one medium or era anymore, and this fan film is an emphatic celebration of that fact.