One year. That’s how long the fury over Star Wars: The Last Jedi has been going on for. Frankly I’m not surprised; in the internet age, its now easier than ever to complain ad nausea about movies, and YouTube is filled with such critiques over Episode 8. I’m not saying they aren’t warranted. Honestly, I also thought the majority of The Last Jedi amounted to a bizarre dumpster fire and set a horrible example to kids, although I won’t do a write up on why as there are plenty of videos and articles out there that detail my thoughts. But late last December, something happened that changed the tide of the Star Wars geekdom: of all things, a 12 minute fan film. If Disney isn’t taking this fan flick seriously, they absolutely need to.
I first heard about this project around six months ago. It is the brainchild of the insanely popular “Star Wars Theory” YouTube channel, mostly known for making videos pontificating about “very likely rumors” regarding upcoming Star Wars projects. I was extremely skeptical: the guy had already gained infamy for accentuating interesting theories based on “inside sources” for Episode 8 that turned out to be completely wrong, and had little means for financing his fan film due to legal restrictions preventing crowd funding. I was shocked to find out my skepticism was unwarranted. Vader: Shards of the Past is a pretty good fan film, but more importantly, it illustrates the direction Disney needs to follow in order to regain trust from the Star Wars franchise’s now largely fractured fan base.
The plot is simple: approximately 8 months after Revenge of the Sith, Darth Vader struggles to deal with the loss of his wife Padme and surrender to the Dark Side, while Emperor Palpatine assigns him to kill a particularly powerful Jedi. The production value on this short is pretty awesome, certainly better than most fan projects. The film is well shot, decently cut, and boasts an impressive amount of amateur CGI that passes as visually appealing. What I found most exceptional was the subject matter. I had always wanted to see this kind of story portrayed in film, given how tortuous the transition must have been for Anakin Skywalker to become caged in a metal suit and simultaneously deal with his destined downward spiral into evil. We never really saw that transition between Episode III and IV, and I felt as though it would be an interesting journey for his character to explore. Disney/Marvel felt the same, as the currently running Vader comic series covers a lot of the same material, but finally, Star Wars Theory has brought a widely accessible cinematic touch to Vader’s story. Of course the film has some faults: some of the CGI is (understandably) lacking, the script a bit hammy, and features some typical “Star Wars Superfan” melodramatic cringe, but all in all I was very satisfied with the vid.
What matters far more than my opinion though is the vast public reaction. This video amazingly somehow garnered over 1 million views in about 48 hours, and earned about 5 million views in a week. It ended up as #1 on trending on YouTube (although their algorithm is clearly botched, this is unprecedented for fan fiction). The feedback has been almost entirely positive, at the very least, largely in part due to the actual storytelling (as opposed to some of the more cringe worthy fan films such as Darth Maul: Apprentice, whose only redeeming factors were swooshy-swooshy lightsaber fights).
Shards of the Past has clearly demonstrated that it’s not hard to make a Star Wars film that people enjoy. It employs nostalgia to its most effective use: further explore character arcs that fell flat as a result of missing continuity between trilogies. You don’t need to have Paul Thomas Anderson caliber writers to make your Star Wars movies, just don’t be afraid to focus on exploring characters more than building cool fight scenes. This is why I think Solo and Rogue One’s plots suffered: the highlights were the action sequences and set pieces. This is clearly because the filmmakers focused on how things happened instead of the why, resulting in a boring portrayal of Han Solo, and less than memorable characters set to steal the Death Star plans. Shards of the Past also makes solid use of throw away references that give nice Easter Eggs to the fans without throwing the viewer base into confusion; you could easily understand this movie just by watching the main films. Despite being packed with somewhat gratuitous action, Vader as a concept could easily be a very unique feature film, despite not bringing many new aesthetic changes to the Star Wars Universe. By properly connecting the original and prequel trilogies, featuring good characterization and storytelling, and judiciously employing nostalgia without saying (Hey Audience, Remember THIS??), I think Lucasfilm execs should pay closer attention to what insights this small project has to offer for the big screen. Hopefully, as implied by the end of the short film, we’ll see more examples of how this kind of storytelling can best be implemented in the Star Wars Universe.
If you haven’t seen Vader: Shards of the Past, please check it out!