Of Death and Darth Vader: Thematic Mismatch and the Mathematics of Empathy
From a thematic standpoint, the massacre that concludes 2016's Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is at once profound and problematic.
For many critics, Darth Vader's hallway killing spree undermines the film's ostensible goal of valorizing the anonymous, rag-tag, no-name heroes of the galaxy. After all, from the start, with its insistence on the anonymity of the rebels referenced in the opening scrawl, Rogue One signals its commitment to telling a different kind of Star Wars story: one that honors the many nobodies of the galaxy, the forgotten casualties of the operatic dynastic conflict that defines the Star Wars trilogies. This is an epic about the little guys. To them we pledge our emotional loyalty, and their struggles power the dramatic engine of the film. To conclude the film with Vader's rampage, rather than with the untimely deaths of our protagonists on Scarif, is to redirect our attention away from the margins back to the dynastic mythology at the center of franchise. The way the critics see it, the film labors for more than two hours of runtime to democratize the reigns of heroism in Star Wars before abruptly reasserting the narrative primacy of the big name legacy characters. In the end, Star Wars simply can't beat the Skywalkers.
The literary-minded Star Wars fan, the one who enjoys his thematic cohesion as much his indulgent fanservice, can easily refute this argument by positing an equally, if not more, sensible reading of the scene. Darth Vader's brutal slaughter of the helpless rebels, he might argue, actually encapsulates the film's democratic themes in microcosm. Each and every single one of the nameless Rebel soldiers who fight Darth Vader are heroes. They have no Force powers, they face overwhelming odds, and none of their names will be remembered by history, and yet it is because of those things that they are heroes. Like the members of Rogue One dead and dying on the planet below, these rebels are doomed, but their mission is not. Their deaths at the hands of Vader, then, serve as the ultimate ode to the heroism, sacrifice, and stubborn hope of the Resistance. it is the anonymous freedom-fighters of the Resistance, as much as Luke Skywalker and Han Solo, who ensured the eventual collapse of the Empire, often with their deaths as much as with their lives.
This is a sound redemptive reading, one that harmonizes the Darth Vader's massacre with the thematic arc of the film in which it appears. It is also sophistry. That this interpretation is so thematically plausible, yet so emotionally unintelligible, reveals something critically important about how we engage our stories. It reveals the hollowness of even the most meticulously constructed thematic vision when unmoored from the emotional logic of the narrative.
Let's break this down. To understand why the aforementioned (and indeed shrewd) defense of Vader's carnage doesn't work, we need to understand why cheering genocide is a basic feature of contemporary action-adventure cinema. Yes, it is. Everybody knows this, but most can't be too bothered about it. Our many superheroes, from Bruce Willis to the Avengers, usually kill hordes of mindless, characterless, and (sometimes literally) faceless beings, human or otherwise. Few films dramatize this mass slaughter as cause for anything but fist-pumping excitement.
Still, the aforementioned phenomenon has been sufficiently bothersome that a few recent films have at least gestured at it, most notably Captain America: Civil War, but even there the filmmakers simply didn't have the appetite to substantively engage with the moral implications of our cultural heroes' acts of violence--and our willingness to excuse them. But considering the enduring popularity of action-adventure and especially superhero films, filmmakers don't actually need to subject themselves to such distressing introspection. Spider-Man can activate "instant kill mode" and embark on a bloodthirsty rampage in Avengers: Endgame with nary an eye blinked and many a cheer sounded.
Our collective indifference to our imagined heroes' more murderous tendencies doesn't necessarily reflect any moral deficiency on our part. It simply testifies to the cold mathematics of empathy inherent to most forms of storytelling--inherent, in fact, to human nature. Our emotional and empathetic bandwidth is limited, so we can hardly bring ourselves to care about the deaths of bad guys we know as well as the strangers we pass on the street. This is the reason that storytellers of all stripes--an author writing a novel, a journalist reporting an article, a director composing a film--ground even the most grandly sweeping narratives in just a handful of characters, if even that. Our stories, to mean something to us, must be as personalized as our perspective. It was to account for this observable reality that British anthropologist Robin Dunbar proposed his famous number.
Hence why our common humanity isn't usually enough to trigger our empathy, though it often does our sympathy. The latter is incalculably less effective than the former. As Film Crit Hulk put it, sympathy is what we feel when a friend's grandmother is sick; empathy is what we suffer when our best friend is ill. The former can be evoked fairly easy by textural means (melancholy music, crying characters, etc.), but the latter must be earned through hard, acute narrative labor. It is not easily obtained, and therefore can never be assumed.
Many filmmakers in Hollywood still don't understand this basic point, hence why so many still believe they are raising the stakes when they threaten the destruction of the Earth, or the galaxy, or the universe, or reality itself, when in reality putting a single beloved character in even moderate peril generates far greater emotional engagement and dramatic tension. To give a conflict cosmic stakes is to abstract the conflict beyond the viewer's ability to care. Hence we feel so little when the Death Star destroys Alderaan. How could we? Alderaan is just a name and special effects. We cannot even begin to comprehend the emotional reality of an entire city's destruction, let alone that of a planet. Alerdaan's citizens are as real to us as the victims of Spider-Man's instant kill mode, and our response just as flippant.
But had we spent an entire film with a character on Alderaan? Well, now its destruction would mean something. Now the tragedy would be of a scope that the human mind can grasp. Now it would hurt, and hurt viscerally. The photograph of a Syrian child's corpse on Turkey's shores moves us far more than an unceasing parade of statistics about refugees drowning as they cross the Mediterranean--and our best friend sobbing because they botched a dream job interview would move us even more. To paraphrase Hulk, any problem, no matter how trivial, can feel like the biggest problem in the world if appropriately dramatized.
Empathy is the storyteller's holy grail. Drama is most devastating when you can no longer distinguish between your best friend and the collection of pixels on the screen, or the arrangement of letters on the page. The task of the storyteller is to lure you into this emotionally compromised position, from where you will be defenseless against the cruelest of their narrative machinations. Once you have fallen into this trap, you can be made to weep for even the most random of Spider-Man's victims, exactly because said victim will no longer be random.
It's worth quoting "Hulk" more fully:
"Sure, you could meet a tertiary character and it could be sad when they die on screen. In other words, you could have sympathy for them. But when it happens to a character you have truly come to love? And it happens in a particularly tragic way? Oh gosh oh golly does that hit us so much harder. The truth is that you have to get to know people on screen the same way you do people in real life. You have to understand them. You have to see their stories and relationships unfold with your very own eyes."
This is why the democratic story does not exist. The very idea is a category error. Storytelling is inherently aristocratic, defined by the conservative values of hierarchy and exclusion. It arbitrarily bestows the privilege of humanity upon a handful of people and dismisses the rest as expendable narrative props. There is nothing wrong with this. It's just the way fiction works, because fiction's dramatic possibilities are circumscribed by our empathic selectivity.
But because this is the way fiction works, we have to understand that Rogue One can only democratize the Stars Wars mythos not by merely focusing on minor characters, but by promoting them to the office of protagonist. The film still selectively allocates our emotional attention, designating some Rebels as more deserving of our grief than others. Again, this is practically inherent to telling a character-based story. We're told the story of Rogue One because its members are special, more special than the other Rebels whom we never get to know.
Which brings us back to Darth Vader's butchery. The simple reality is that our empathy for the Rebels in that hallway, in contrast to that of Rogue One's crew, is limited. It remains limited no matter how innocent or virtuous or helpless the Rebels seem in the face of an unstoppable force of nature, because those qualities are merely textural. Hulk talks a lot about the dangers of assumed empathy, and rarely is that danger more evident than here. We don't know who these nameless and basically faceless Rebels are. They are literal cannon fodder. But we do know Vader, seeing as he is the most iconic villain of mainstream American cinema. We are even emotionally invested in Vader, as on his ebony-plated shoulders sits the baggage of four decades' worth of pop culture. He is the only character we care about in this scene, because he is the only character we know.
Defenders of the scene can rightly point out that it is shot, framed, staged, and directed in a manner that stresses the monstrosity of Vader. Everything, from the claustrophobic cinematography to the chaotic sound direction, indicates that we are meant to recoil from rather than relish the slaughter, meant to cringe rather than clap. This is horror, not hagiography. Our sympathies should be with the Rebels desperately trying to flee with their lives, not with the pitiless villain mowing them down.
But if this is the scene's intent, why was the audience's response to the Vader scene so overwhelmingly...upbeat? Not just positive, but upbeat. It basically amounted to, "That was frickin awesome!" Look at the most highly upvoted comments under any of the highly-viewed YouTube videos replaying the scene, or watch the various recorded reactions to it. People loved watching Vader massacre these random, faceless people. It was awe-inspiring. It was "fan-service done right." The Star Wars fandom doesn't agree on much, but it appears quite unified in its assessment of the scene: sheer awesomenesss. Many fans would say, and have said, that the Vader massacre is the best scene in Rogue One. Some would say, and have said, that it single-handedly justifies the film's existence.
These reactions, when viewed in context of our filmic diet of superhero-orchestrated bloodletting, should not surprise us. A similar dynamic is at play. People who defend the scene based on its malevolent cinematic language err by constructing a false dichotomy between horror and entertainment. The more complex reality is that the scene glorifies Vader by making a monster out of him, fetishizes his legend by underlining its terror. That we are horrified by the carnage does not mean that we aren't enjoying it. Quite the contrary: the more thoroughly the filmmaking monstorizes Vader, the more thoroughly we enjoy his killing.
The result is a scene that is emotionally confused. Vader's appearance should fill us with a visceral dread. We should be sweating from anxiety, barely breathing, our hands clutching the arms of our seats. Our awareness that Vader will not allow our beloved heroes to escape with their lives should have us reaching toward the screen in futile desperation. Yet when Vader appears, our instinctive response is not dread but anticipation. We cannot wait to see Vader let loose. We sympathize with the Rebels' plight yet cheer their deaths, because we do not empathize with them.
We thus find ourselves in a bizarre position: concluding a film that commemorates the heroism of anonymous freedom-fighters by cheering the slaughter of anonymous freedom-fighters, and by the embodiment of the freedom-crushing force they're fighting no less. The film could not have landed the viewer in a more emotionally garbled place if it had tried.
This, then, is why the Vader scene is ultimately a thematic failure: it doesn't understand the hierarchal nature of how human beings emotionally engage stories. It may well be read as the film in microcosm, as a succinct illustration of the interplay between the despair and hope that defines the Resistance, as an unflinching gaze at the sacrifice necessary for victory--but the film doesn't prime viewers to emotionally experience the scene this way. Few people will, while watching the scene, be compelled to arrive at the aforementioned reflections, consciously or unconsciously, because most people aren't hoping that the Rebels make it out alive, they're hoping that Vader puts on a show. The filmmaking does nothing to discourage this, as the camera's framing of Vader, no matter how deliberately terrifying, cannot help but titilate us because here he is the sole locus of our emotional investment. Since he is cutting down nobodies, narratively speaking, we can easily dissociate from the violence.
The film, ultimately, does not supply the storytelling nutrients to sustain any thematic reading that posits Vader as the antagonist of the scene. He is in fact its protagonist, almost its hero. He is Spider-Man.
Lacking narrative roots and deprived of emotional waters, the redemptive interpretation of the massacre can only wither and die. Theme, ultimately, is more than intellectual argumentation, more than a calculated schematic of narrative connections. It must track with the emotional arc of the film. Otherwise, it is less than the shadow of a possibility.
Now, imagine we replace the strangers in the hallway with the crew of Rogue One. Instantly the scene becomes as horrific as it purports to be. The peril is suddenly real, least of all because the audience can no longer distance itself from the violence. Vader, no longer the only familiar face in the room, can not be so easily excused. In this scenario, the very prospect of cheering Vader's rampage, even if alluring, would strike the average viewer as troubling. Cheer for the pop culture icon, or support the crew of underdogs we'd spent the entire film following and getting to know? The viewer would need to choose, whether voluntarily or otherwise.
With this simple change, the scene would do more than pay thematic lip service to the idea of anonymous heroic sacrifice. It would dare to challenge the audience in a manner so profound that any talk of "fan-service" would be rendered moot, much as Anakin's cold-blooded murder of the Jedi children did in Revenge of the Sith. The emotional intent of the scene would be clear, and its thematic resonance would be unassailable. But since this does not happen, the scene remains emotionally muddled, which in turn renders it thematically incoherent.
Of course, it's possible that even if the random Rebels were switched out for Rogue One's crew, audiences would still instinctively cheer for Vader. Less likely, but still a definite possibility, and one that shouldn't surprise us. How could the crew, even after a whole film of screentime, compete with a character who not only has the weight of six films behind him, but that of several generations of pop culture?
Ultimately, Darth Vader's narrative gravity is such that he inevitably warps the film's thematic and emotional fabric. Our ability to grieve our dead protagonists, and their dying allies, cannot withstand the black hole of Vader's cultural, aesthetic, and cinematic charisma. Instinctively we find ourselves pulled to the Dark Side, enthralled and intoxicated by the promise of its avatar. We cannot hope to invest ourselves in the rebels' plight under such adverse narrative conditions. Vader emotionally traps us the moment he physically traps the rebels, and in so doing isolates us from their humanity. His arrival in that hallway is a death knell not just for the rebels, but for any sympathy, never mind empathy, that we might feel for them.
Rogue One, then, falls at the final hurdle. It fails to resist the hegemonic magnetism of mainline Star Wars, and as such betrays the franchise's lone heretic. Like the crew of the same name, Rogue One cannot ultimately escape the Empire. The force of Vader's presence is but a microcosm of the original trilogy's cultural dominion--a dominion that, ultimately, defeats Rogue One's democratic aspirations.