Last week was a serious low-point for the United States, humanity and the world. We’ve had some terrible mass shootings (not that mass shootings are ever NOT terrible, but these seemed particularly bad; partly because of the victims involved, partly because they came in such close succession, and partly because the politicians have behaved even more amorally than usual). My family also finally got breeched, with my son testing positive for COVID-19. We had been so careful for so long, and it came at a terrible moment (again, not that any time would have been great, but…), and we’re all a little on edge for every possible reason you could imagine.
So naturally, I’m going to talk about “Obi-Wan Kenobi,” the Disney+ show about some guy from some movie series you’ve probably heard of.
I haven’t put in any research, but I’m assuming there are already hundreds of essays, reviews, think pieces and complaints about this show, for a myriad of reasons. Yet, I doubt any of them will focus so much on a single aspect of the show which, I feel, points to an overall lameness of the series, and maybe to the lameness of “Star Wars” since 1983.
I’m going to point at how Darth Vader looks dumb when he sits down.
At the time of writing, there have been three episodes released in the series, with the third delivering the most Vader action and scenes since “Rogue One.” To my surprise — and delight! — they got James Earl Jones to lend his voice again, and the old man sounds great. The filmmakers also operate with the expected amount of reverence for this iconic character. We get a proper “dressing montage” where he gets his robot hands and arms attached, and a nice shot of the helmet coming into place. There are also several intense scenes later with Vader stalking Obi-Wan by way of casually mowing down villagers, setting some rocks on fire (magic?), and generally being the kind of Supa Bad character so many fans want him to be.
There’s also a scene where he’s sitting in his castle, in a chair, talking to a hologram.
And it’s lame as hell.
(Side note: please don’t take this as the kind of ramble against things being different. It’s not that at all. I’m all for making choices and telling stories in different ways and all that stuff. This is not an essay about how “Vader could never sit for some stupid nerd reason found in some season of a TV show.” This is more about filmmaking, and the use — or misuse — of those tools in cinematically constructing a character).
This is obviously a nitpick, but we’re on the internet talking about Star Wars — what else would anyone expect? This scene could be skipped over in most people’s recounts of the episode, to say nothing of the legacy of the character, the series, all that stuff (in fact, the “Star Wars Minute” podcast — a show dedicated to studying every movie and series with incredible detail — didn’t mention the scene in their scene-by-scene breakdown). It’s not that important.
But it is when you consider iconography, and its importance in creating the version of Darth Vader that has endured all this time.
There’s an excellent YouTube video on this, because of COURSE there is, by Nerdwriter called “Darth Vader: An Icon in 34 Minutes.” At about the 2:45 mark, the writer talked about his framing in “Empire Strikes Back,” about how Irving Kirshner and his cinematographer used the visual elements of Vader to carry much of his impact. He says the filmmakers “seemed to understand that visually, Vader increased in dramatic weight the less naturalistic … he seemed.”
In other words: Vader wasn’t normal, so don’t film him like he’s normal.
Part of why this is important is that the Vader we saw in the OT was, as they say, “more machine than man.” There’s an undercurrent theme throughout these movies about the Empire being more mechanical, while the Rebels and their friends being more Earthy, less mechanical, and more spiritual. In other words, the good guys are “more human” while the Empire — and particularly Vader himself — represents the “less human.”
This is supported visually in the OT’s portrayals of Vader where he rarely does anything human. Granted, we don’t get a lot of typical human stuff from any of the characters. We don’t see them use the bathroom or shower or do all those little things which, in other movies, help us relate to them. But we do see the Rebels eat, and bicker and behave as humans might. They play space chess, make jokes, cheer, all that stuff. They are relatable in that way, and it helps us to root for them.
And we do see them sitting down. Because sitting is something relatable humans do.
Not so with Vader. In the first film, he’s almost always standing, menacing over and behind people, and often shot from a low-to-high angle. Like this:
After walking into frame for a little extra oomph, Vader stays above camera. He is a presence.
The first time we ever get him sitting is in the cockpit of his Tie Fighter, yet we never saw him get into it (an excellent choice, since there are few places you can look less intimidating than crawling into a confined space), and we only really see him from the shoulders up. The film is basically telling us he’s sitting down, but it knows that showing that bend at the waist would be less scary than filming the hell out of that helmet.
“Empire” also shows more of Vader sitting, this time in his egg chamber thing, but this is different than the way they did it in the “Obi-Wan” series; mostly because he’s not sitting in some basic chair. He’s in a strange chamber with a claw top that may or may not be for his health. When he turns, he doesn’t spin his chair with his legs or tilt it away from a desk or something. Some motor spins him — we don’t even see if he’s controlling it by joystick or the Force!
Later, Vader takes the same kinds of holographic calls as he does in the “Obi-Wan” series, but most have him standing (to his subordinates). The only time we see him lower himself (key phrasing) is when he takes the call from the Emperor, and that’s a kneel — a move made all the more striking by the fact that we haven’t seen Vader lower himself to anyone in 1.5 movies.
The point is that all of these choices were done very consciously to help present Vader as a scary guy.
And scary guys do not sit in normal chairs.
I know some people might scream back that “it’s not a normal chair! It’s a throne,” but that’s beside the point. There were available seats in the Death Star briefing room, but Vader did not use one (I believe) because he’s more intimidating standing up. The filmmakers KNEW THIS.
The filmmakers for the “Obi-Wan” series don’t. Or they forgot. Or they just didn’t care? Or something.
After he got up from his phone call (yes — GOT UP! Because there’s no better filmic method to show your villain is impossibly cool and scary than showing them push themselves out of a sitting position), two things happened:
1.) He walks over to a window for no apparent reason in a pointlessly-wide shot. As soon as I saw him sitting down, I knew we were in trouble, but to add that bit there shows that they didn’t understand what they had! Wouldn’t it have been better, cooler, and more mysterious to have stood Vader at the window during the call, not even looking at the hologram? As though he cannot keep his eyes — or his Force eyes? — away from the greater world, even when talking to the Third Sister. Then when she drops the bomb that she has Obi-Wan someplace, THEN he would turn and face her, dramatically portraying a shift.
And 2.) my wife said, “Aw, he has a telephone chair.”
And that’s the real point. By misusing or misunderstanding (or both) the cinematic tools at their disposal, the filmmakers made a critical error in their portrayal of this character. He was no longer an emotionless killing machine (much as they wanted to show in subsequent scenes). He was a guy who kills people. My parents have a telephone chair.
Darth Vader shouldn’t have a telephone chair.
Angles matter, folks. For further proof, check this out.
Goofy because it’s LEGOs, but still… shot him low and NOT SITTING DOWN IN A CHAIR!
(Added later) I just remembered another time Vader sits, and in a very basic chair: in Cloud City, as Lando delivers his friends to the Empire. Vader clearly rises, delivers his line, blocks the laser, gives a sassy line, then sits at the very end.
This is different than the “Obi-Wan” sitting. First off, it’s a total power move — two of them, actually. The first has him standing as the door opens, giving a drama to the move. The sitting at the end also demonstrates how comfortable and pleased he is with this terrible situation for our heroes.
On top of all that, the framing is essential to this moment working better than the series’ holo-call scene. When Vader stands or sits, he’s shot in a wide angle. It’s a striking image with his black outfit clashing with the white walls. His standing up motion is backed with his theme music AND is segregated with a reaction shot of Han. On top of this, he’s separated by a table with “refreshments,” which conveniently block his waist and any unsightly bends. And when he sits at the end, he’s in the background and Leia’s head blocks him (whether this was intentional or not? Doesn’t matter).
So yeah, he’s sat in chairs before. But they knew how to handle it.