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Becoming: Darth Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) turns to the dark side in Episode III, opening May 19.
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.
His breathing, raspy and mechanical, resonated through theaters. 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.
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 theaters worldwide. Nearly three times that has been spent on Star Wars merchandise, including scores of Vader action figures.
With fans already lined up to see the film and other Star Wars devotees gathering at the Indianapolis Convention Center this weekend for Star Wars Celebration III, Vader remains, as Jedi master Obi-Wan Kenobi calls him, a master of evil.
Perhaps the most popular attraction at the Celebration, beyond Lucas himself, is David Prowse, who first donned the black quilted leather and fiberglass Vader costume in 1976 to stalk Lucas' first three Star Wars films.
Prowse, 6-foot-7 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 declaration 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.
Two years ago, when the American Film Institute listed the century's top 50 movie heroes and villains, Vader came in at No. 3, behind only flesh-eating Hannibal Lecter of The Silence of the Lambs and Psycho's Norman Bates.
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 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.
How could this obsidian-caped character press on, prepared to kill sandy-haired Luke, knowing that Luke was his son? And how could a cherubic boy (Jake Lloyd in The Phantom Menace) metamorphose into this monster?
"You know it's not a happy ending, but you have to watch," says John Lyden, religion professor at Dana College in Blair, Neb., and author of Film as Religion Myths, Morals, and Rituals.
"There's been nothing else like this in the history of cinema that quite has this quality."
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."
Lucas drew on mythology, religion, psychology and cultural images, popular and past. Just as Lucas relied on Joseph Campbell's Hero with a Thousand Faces as the mythical underpinning for his saga, his villain had multiple purposes, too.
On the surface, Darth Vader may seem to be the successor to a villain such as Ming the Merciless from Flash Gordon, one of Lucas' beloved Saturday matinee serials. But Vader is more complex.
"He's not a mustache-twirling villain. There are layers of depth in there, and people relate to that," says Shanti Fader, a contributing essayist to the book Star Wars and Philosophy.
Vader may torture his daughter, Princess Leia, and watch as the Death Star destroys her home planet of Alderaan, but, as Luke attests, "there is still good in him." When given the opportunity, Vader refrains from killing Luke.
That combination of good and bad elevates Vader above most cookie-cutter villains.
"There is a bridging in his character between the light side and the dark side, and there's a constant shifting in his development in the story line," says Jonathan Young, a psychologist and founding curator of the Joseph Campbell Archives and teacher at the Center for Story and Symbol, both in Santa Barbara, Calif. "He started as sympathetic in that we loved him as boy and, to some degree, as a teen. There is a level of identification; we are closer to this villain than one such as Darth Maul or Darth Sidious, who just shows up."
Vader seeps into the subconscious because he embodies psychologist Carl Jung's "shadow archetype," a representation of the dark half of one's personality. Mythologist Campbell pointed out that Star Wars, like classic myths before it, makes use of Jung's archetypes - others include wise old man (Obi-Wan) and hero (Luke Skywalker) - as building blocks.
Star Wars' mythological themes have been used in stories from Beowulf to Batman. "This is the same story that's been told several thousands of times," Lucas says on the Star Wars A New Hope DVD.
In addition to the Zen-like Force that "surrounds us and penetrates us ... (and) binds the galaxy together," as Obi-Wan tells Luke, another Eastern religious element can be found in Vader's resemblance to demons that, in the Buddhist tradition, were at one time human and, through the actions of Buddha or his followers, are freed from their demonic state.
"They usually wind up dying, and through death are released from their demonic state," Fader says. "Again, that's a parallel to Vader, who is only freed at the point of his death."
Like a sinner, Vader could be redeemable. Or he could continue like Lucifer, originally an angel who, like Vader, "fell due to pride and rebelling against God and what is seen as good," Fader says.
Many critics of John Milton's Paradise Lost, she says, "felt that (Milton) made the devil too compelling and more sympathetic than the virtuous characters."
Held together and sustained by technology, Vader, too, represents the battle between man and machine that has been waged since the Industrial Revolution.
Sound designer Ben Burtt created Vader's breathing by recording himself wearing a scuba mask with a miniature microphone in the regulator. "It was that cold, mechanical breathing sound ... that became the basis for Darth Vader's breathing," he says on the DVD.
Adds Fader, "There is a very deep-seated fear of losing our humanity and becoming a machine."
Other traits are personified within Vader, too. A student of the films of Japanese director Akira Kurosawa (The Seven Samurai), Lucas evokes the ancient-warrior class with Vader's helmet and lightsaber.
Not only is Vader's look one for the ages, his theme song has become a part of popular culture. College bands play The Imperial March (Darth Vader's Theme) from The Empire Strikes Back in football stadiums across the country.
"It's very military in an ominous and aggressive sense. That is probably why they use it the way they do," says composer John Williams, who won an Oscar for his Star Wars score.
Ultimately, Vader attracts us because "we are all Anakin," Young says. "We have the possibility of trusting our inner guidance system, what some would call a spirit, or we have the temptation of yielding to the outer values, what we call the values of the machine, to impress or control other people."
Lucas agrees that moviegoers can relate to Vader. "He struggles with love, with power. He has trouble accepting things he has no control over. A lot of people understand those feelings, which is why they are able to sympathize with him despite the things he does."
In the end, Lucas, an advocate of Daniel Goleman's Emotional Intelligence, wants us to learn from Vader, to be better people.
"I hope it will make a dent at least in the young people," Lucas says. "Their minds are more open and more willing to accept the fact that maybe beating everyone else isn't the right idea. Maybe helping someone else is more important. Being (Star Wars' heroic pilot) Han Solo, coming in at the end and saying, 'Go for it, kid,' is a better way than being No. 1 or owning your own Death Star."