The first time I watched Revenge of the Sith, sitting in the darkened theater surrounded by other excited Star Wars fans at the midnight showing, I was left momentarily unsettled by Vader’s immolation. Fire consuming his broken body, the hair on his head burnt away, skin melting and charred, the scene left me feeling uneasy, uncomfortable, and slightly nauseated. Panic stormed through me, a desire to flee from the confines of the theater so I could escape the grotesque image. I was able to hold it together, able to continue sitting in my seat and finish watching the film, but my mind continued replaying the scene, reminding me of what I had witnessed.
Today, I am able to watch Vader burn. I remain bothered by it but I no longer have an impulse to run away when the moment arrives. My anxiety riddled brain can handle it, but I would not call myself desensitized to the horror of seeing someone burn alive. For me, it will always be hard to watch, as it should be.
Stating my unease with the scene is not a criticism of it, though. Rather, I have always appreciated the moment. Disturbing as it may be it is also profoundly important, radiating with meaning. Earlier in the film, for example, Anakin underwent his religious conversion from Jedi to Sith, assuming the title “Darth” and name “Vader” which are bestowed upon him by his new Master, Darth Sidious. Now, the defeated man laying on this small ashen hill side undergoes his baptism. The heat from the river of lava washes over him, igniting fires that consume him. His body is transformed, the physical appearance of the Jedi Knight Anakin Skywalker stripped, charred, and melted away. He is now unrecognizable, a broken shell of the man and Jedi he once was. His old self burnt away, he will be reborn in a new shell, encased in a suit of armor that sustains his life and represents who he has become.
This outward destruction is symbolic of his inner, spiritual transformation. But the fire, too, radiates with meaning. Just before he catches fire, Vader declares his hatred for Obi-Wan Kenobi, his former Jedi Master and friend. Laying there on the ashen hillside the dismembered Sith Lord screams “I hate you!” His words are piercing and sulfuric, his eyes bloodshot and the look on his face distorted by the boiling emotion within him. Kenobi responds by declaring his brotherly love for Anakin but the young man is too far gone. It is now, after declaring his hatred, that the flames erupt, the fire raging across Vader’s body a perfect symbol for the hatred raging within him.
It is the hatred swirling within him, consuming him, which also enables Vader to cheat death in this horrifying moment.
In my piece Cheating Death: The Dark, I explain how Darth Maul survived his injury in The Phantom Menace, cut in half at the waist by Obi-Wan Kenobi. In The Clone Wars episode “Revenge”, Maul explains how his intense hatred sustained his life force, enabling him to descend into the abyss of the dark side to cheat bodily death. But this journey into darkness also came with a price, exacting a tole on Maul’s psyche and driving the young Sith Lord mad, turning him into a feral animal until he was discovered and his wounds, in mind and body, were healed.
“The dark side of the Force is a pathway to many abilities some consider to be unnatural,” Darth Sidious in the guise of Chancellor Palpatine explains to Anakin Skywalker in Revenge of the Sith. That Darth Maul cheats death is a clear example of this unnatural ability, his narrative return in The Clone Wars confirming the authenticity of Sidious’ dark insights. We can likewise apply Maul’s story of hate-filled survival to Vader as well. Laying upon the ashen hillside, when the heat from the lava ignites the fires on his body it is Vader’s hatred – a hatred we see on his face and hear from his mouth – which takes him into the depths of darkness, enabling him to cheat death.
The fire only consumes him for a few moments but the horrific and disturbing damage is done. Laying there, left for dead by his former Jedi Master, the young Sith Lord uses his mechanical arm to grasp the soil and slowly pull himself up the slope, a visual sign that Vader is barely clinging to life. His new Master will discover him there, traveling to Mustafar when he senses far away on Coruscant that “Lord Vader is in danger.” In film, the time between Sidious sensing Vader’s imminent danger and discovering Darth Vader on Mustafar, “still alive,” is relatively short, a narrative necessity to keep the plot moving forward. In-universe, however, the time it takes for Sidious to travel from Coruscant to Mustafar is significant, which makes Vader’s survival all the more impressive. The Dark Lord must not only survive his agonizing immolation, his body externally and internally decimated by fire, but must also continue laying there on the hillside, by the lava, with the intense heat still washing over him.
That the intense heat continues to flow across his body seems appropriate, another apt metaphor for the hatred flowing within him. Like Maul, Vader will use this hatred to tap into the dark side, enduring agonizing pain and torment to keep his body alive. Yet, his mind does not plunge into madness. While Darth Maul succumbed to the torment of his dark descent, his mind ravaged over the course of years as he continued to rely on his hatred to sustain him, Darth Vader avoids this frightful fate. He must survive for a shorter period of time than Maul, hours or perhaps a day, before Sidious arrives. Once his new Master discovers him, he will no longer need to rely on hatred alone, relieved of the necessity by the medical droids which work to preserve his devastated body within a cybernetic suit of armor and mask.
Then again, the iconic black armor and mask also serve as a representation of Vader’s hatred, a terrifying expression of the dark monster residing within. While he no longer needs to actively use his hatred to tap into the depths of the dark side to maintain his body, his armor and mask never-the-less serve as a reminder, to Darth Vader and to us, that it is his hatred which enables him to continue to cheat death.