The cool (in)Vader

Mike Snider

In the summer of 1977, when Darth Vader stepped out of a haze of smoke five minutes into a magical film called ‘Star Wars’, viewers knew that a new brand of bad guy had arrived.

Tall, dark and ... menacing. Darth Vader’s breathing, raspy and mechanical, resonated through theatres. Then he spoke, almost in Sensurround, “What have you done with those plans?” Next, he crushed the neck of the rebel officer he had been holding at arm’s length and tossed him into a stanchion. Cool. And corrupted. Nearly three decades after Vader first appeared on screen, moviegoers on May 19 will finally see in ‘Star Wars, Episode III: Revenge of the Sith’ what led Anakin Skywalker to succumb to the dark side and become Darth Vader. Vader is the antagonist of creator George Lucas’ six-film series, which has made about $3.5 billion in theatres worldwide. Nearly three times that has been spent on ‘Star Wars’ merchandise, including scores of Vader action figures.

Perhaps the most popular attraction of any ‘Star Wars’ episode, beyond Lucas himself, is David Prowse, who first donned the black quilted leather and fiberglass Vader costume in 1977 to stalk Lucas’ first three ‘Star Wars’ films. Prowse, six-foot-seven and a former bodybuilder and English weightlifting champion, chose the dark side when Lucas asked whether he’d rather play Chewbacca or Vader. “If you think back on all the movies you’ve ever seen, you always remember the bad guys — Goldfinger, Oddjob, Blofeld and Jaws, all those terrible villains,” Prowse says. “They are easier to remember than who played James Bond in the movie.” Prowse says Lucas told him: “Dave, I think you are making a very wise decision. Nobody will ever forget Darth Vader.”

Vader is still the villain moviegoers love to hate. Maybe it is the chilling admission in ‘The Empire Strikes Back’, when Vader faces Luke Skywalker in battle and says: “Luke, I am your father.” Or maybe it’s Vader’s three-movie descent into the abyss. Whatever the attraction, once again — as in the late ‘70s — stores are filled with T-shirts emblazoned with Vader’s visage. ‘A good bad guy’. There is something seductive about Vader, much like villains such as Dracula, Michael Corleone and ‘Scarface’s’ Tony Montana — each of whom killed off his own planet’s worth of adversaries. Vader is “a good bad guy,” film critic Roger Ebert says.

“He was so cool to look at and listen to. How could you hate him when he brightened up every scene he was in? The black costume and the shiny black helmet would have been approved of by Coco Chanel or Diana Vreeland — a supervillain can go anywhere with a little black cape. And the voice by James Earl Jones had warmth beneath the forbidding tones.

“You could sense there was a story in there.” And that story, unfolding over the past three decades and six films — half of 60-year-old Lucas’ life — continues to entrance viewers.

When “Star Wars” first arrived, it seemed like a simple sci-fi flick. But now, as his saga is nearly complete, it’s clear that Lucas has created a myth for modern times.

In ‘Star Wars: A New Hope’, ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ and ‘Return of the Jedi’, Lucas appeared to be telling a hero’s tale of how Luke Skywalker rises from obscurity to help defeat an evil empire. But taken as a whole, Lucas says, the six-chapter space opera “is really about Darth Vader. It’s about Anakin’s descent and the redemption of Vader.” — USA Today