In “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story,” Lucasfilm brings together George Lucas’ often-maligned prequel trilogy and his original film, closing a gap somewhat between how the Republic fell and how the Rebellion was born. But it’s not the coolest story to bridge the two sets of films. That honor belongs to a video game.
“Star Wars: The Force Unleashed” isn’t considered “Star Wars” canon in any way now that Disney has taken the helm on the franchise and rebooted the decades of continuity that was built outside the films, but it still turns out some great ideas that flesh out some key characters. And it focuses on something we hadn’t yet seen committed to film: what Darth Vader was doing between trilogies. “Star Wars” fans know that the answer is, vaguely: he was hunting down the last of the Jedi.
“The Force Awakens” starts with that premise, then uses it to explore Vader’s mental state after turning to the Dark Side of the Force cost him everything. On one Jedi extermination mission, when Vader tracks down a Force user, he discovers their child, who is also extremely strong in the Force. Rather than kill the kid, Vader secretly abducts him and begins to train him to be his Sith apprentice. The plan is simple: Together, they’ll kill the Emperor.
This is one of the most interesting tidbits “The Force Unleashed” adds to Vader as we know him from the films. Sith Lords in “Star Wars” are notorious for working together as master and apprentice for a while, before the apprentice, seeking ever more power, overwhelms and kills the master. Then the new master takes on a new apprentice, and the cycle continues. Evil dudes are bad at working well with others, apparently.
That goes double for Darth Vader, who has been so twisted and corrupted by the Emperor — as detailed specifically in “Revenge of the Sith” — that on some level he must hate the guy. So while Vader is exceedingly loyal most of the time, it makes sense he’d be hatching his own plans. We see a little bit of this in “The Empire Strikes Back,” when Vader tries to entice Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) to join him, take down the Emperor, and “rule the galaxy as father and son.”
Starkiller, then, is Evil Luke, but he’s also a slave. Vader sends him out on errands in the years before “A New Hope,” specifically to hunt down and kill others of the last few remaining Jedi. About half of the game is about these missions, in which Starkiller zips around with his Imperial pilot friend Juno.
Here’s where it starts to get convoluted in the best, “Star Wars”-iest way. When Starkiller returns from killing his third fugitive Jedi, proving he’s strong enough to help take on the Emperor, Vader betrays him. It seems the Emperor knew about Starkiller all along, and forces Vader to prove his loyalty by killing the apprentice. Vader stabs Starkiller, but he doesn’t die, and winds up in a coma after an Imperial medical droid saves him.
Afterward, when Starkiller awakes, Vader tells him the whole thing was a ruse to throw off the Emperor. He doesn’t even apologize about the coma. Then he orders Starkiller to defect from the Empire and start gathering up the Emperor’s enemies to create an insurrection. That’ll hopefully be distraction enough to create an opening Vader and Starkiller can use.
Starkiller starts to like these folks he’s using for Vader’s purposes, though, and develops something of a moral compass. Just like Vader hates the Emperor, Starkiller hates Vader for torturing him his whole life, and the whole “stabbed with a lightsaber, six-month coma” thing.
Then the twist comes: As Starkiller attends a meeting between the people he’s sought out to discuss actually having a rebellion, who shows up but Darth Vader — and the Emperor. Again!
Turns out, the entire “kill the Emperor” plan by Vader wasn’t Vader’s plan at all — it was the Emperor’s. Vader has been training Starkiller as an ace in the hole, but not to take over. Instead, Emperor Palpatine needed a useful agent who could get all his enemies together in one place. That includes Bail Organa, played by Jimmy Smits in the films, Mon Mothma, Princess Leia, and a fugitive Jedi and brilliant commander called Rahm Kota. Starkiller wasn’t creating a rebellion, he was baiting a trap without knowing it.
Starkiller escapes death again, and travels to the original Death Star, still under construction, where his friends are being held. There, players confront Vader in an awesome battle, and then can either choose to kill him, or leave him and take on the Emperor. Killing Vader means Starkiller becomes the Emperor’s new cyborg apprentice (the “bad” ending). But confronting the Emperor is enough to allow the rebels to escape, with Starkiller sacrificing himself to save his friends.
The people Starkiller brings together are the founders of the Rebel Alliance as seen in the prequels — specifically, Organa and Mon Mothma. (The game adds the defector Juno, plus Kota, who has the military training to help them raise and train an army.) Inspired by his sacrifice, they formally create the Alliance to Restore the Republic.
That’s the best part: Emperor Palpatine’s convoluted plan to gather up and stamp out any resistance to his Empire actually winds up forming the Rebel Alliance. The guy whose idea was to create a Rebellion is the guy the Rebellion ultimately destroys.
It’s a perfect fit in the post-Prequel “Star Wars” franchise, utilizing Palpatine’s penchant for scheming — that’s all he does in the prequels and it’s how he tries to destroy the Rebel Alliance with his giant Death Star trap in “Return of the Jedi” — to create a fascinating plot.
And it fleshes out Darth Vader in a way that little other than “Return of the Jedi” had before that. “The Force Unleashed” bridges the gap between who Vader was before he turned to the Dark Side and who he was after. Seeing him through Starkiller’s experiences, and the horrible stuff Vader does to him, helps solidify him as a terrifying villain, even if Palpatine is ultimately the brains.
We’ll likely never see any more of Starkiller (especially since that name, well-known as Luke Skywalker’s original last name in early drafts of “Star Wars,” has been repurposed as the Starkiller Base of “The Force Awakens”). Darth Vader, meanwhile, is having his story told in comics and novels. And with spin-offs like “Rogue One” and a Han Solo movie in the works, a Vader-centric post-prequels film doesn’t seem out of the realm of possibility either.
But for a while there, the formation of the Rebellion could be chalked up to the galaxy’s worst dude’s big Machiavellian plan backfiring spectacularly. And we had a complex, but still super-evil, look at his most loyal servant. After a prequel series showing a conflicted, sometimes whiny Anakin Skywalker, coming up against peak-evil Darth Vader was one of the best “Star Wars” experiences anyone had created.
Of course, it’s fully possible the Disney era will come up with something just as good with the galaxy’s most fearsome heavy breathing bad guy. But it’s a bit of a shame the story of Starkiller has been reduced to a “Star Wars” legend, and it’s still worth checking out.