Star Wars: The Force Unleashed – A Canon Divided

Star Wars Force Unleashed Stormtrooper

As Star Wars The Force Awakens bursts the Big Screen, a look at one of Star Wars greatest moments that’s been force pushed out of history… The Force Unleashed.

* Includes spoilers for The Force Unleashed, not so much The Force Awakens *

IT WAS JUST BEFORE HALLOWEEN 2012 THAT STAR WARS PHASE TWO STARTED. Disney had seized control of the Senate, undermined the Jedi order and taken control of Lucasfilm and Star Wars. With the ominous suggestion that the franchise was underexploited, plans were sown for a future that few had suspected. And frankly, many who had, dreaded.

But when George Lucas said at the time, “It’s now time for me to pass Star Wars on to a new generation of film-makers,” he really meant it. Three years on, the first Star Wars film in ten years ready and poised to break records as it kicks off a new trilogy sparked by three different hot property directors. And filming is already under way on the first Star Wars anthology film, Rogue One, taking a punt at providing a proper prequel to the original Episode 4. But it wasn’t all positive for creativity as far reaching surgical cuts were made to give the future of the franchise absolute freedom. It took just over a year for Disney to issue their own Order 66 against Star War’s expanded universe and wipe the canon clean.

The search for canonicity

The strained emergence of what one of entertainment’s largest brands led to confusion from the outset…

Canonicity is a hotly disputed topic in fan bases, especially around genre properties. Even under strict control, the issue can get murky across divergent media. The rule of all official material being canonical quickly gives way to caveats that it’s only canonical if it doesn’t contradict a more important and compelling part of the canon.

As it stands, the current core of canonical Star Wars is formed by the six film sequence, with the notable addition of the well regarded Clone Wars cartoon series joining new animated series Rebels as part of lore. The expanded universe of novels comics, videogames and animated series is now branded (relegated) under Star Wars Legends. The decks cleared, all future created content across multi-media will be officially canonical forming Disney’s next great shared universe. And on the basis of Star Wars The Force Awakens, signs are very good indeed.

But now there’s no room on the timeline for Star Wars Holiday Special or Droids. No imperial cargo decks reserved for Knights of the Old Republic or shooting galleries where Shadows of the Empire or Dark Forces can hang out.

Disney’s move was a shrewd, ruthless and necessary one. After all, the strained emergence of what would become one of entertainment’s largest brands led to confusion from the outset. Alan Dean Foster’s 1978 Star Wars: Splinter of the Mind’s Eye was a prose sequel to the original Star Wars film, intended to be filmed as a low budget follow-on should the original film’s box office not have come up to scratch. History records that Star Wars set the box office alight, instantly enabling a high budget sequel in The Empire Strikes Back and the writing off of Mind’s Eye. But still, it lingered until it met Disney’s scythe. While not contradictory, there’s an uneasy link between those duelling sequels, even considering Mind Eye’s distinctive and iconic front cover. Disney has now shredded this very early tension, along with the vast majority of expanded universe stories that followed. Those books and storylines that followed the original trilogy, many of which spun out to explain the events that took place after Return of the Jedi were complicated and mainly the preserve of completists rather than the ticket buying mainstream that inspired Disney’s purchase. Although all were signed off by Lucasfilm, that didn’t guarantee their canonicity for what will always primarily be a film based franchise and Disney have proved it. The instant impact of this decision has been thousands of column inches dredging the irony that some elements of the ever-tweaked film run remain canon. Yes, gungans, Darth Vader being called “Ani”… But aside from reducing the many volumes of Star Wars universe encyclopaedia, the real cost has been the relegation of some of the franchise’s greatest moments. In particular The Force Unleashed – quite possibly the highlight of 21st century Star Wars.

The Force Unleashed

Multimedia

If there’s a drawback to that time in Star Wars’ life, it was the reliance on Darth Vader…

The Force Unleashed Project was a mini event of the Star Wars universe. Star Wars Force Unleashed DeathstarDrawing together Dark Horse Comics, Lego, Hasbro, Del Rey Books, a range of action figures, Lego sets, a tie-in novel, comic series and matching novels, it formed a bridge between Episodes 3 and 4 – and Episode 3.5 rooted in a high concept videogame that for all its simplicity was utterly compelling.
It wasn’t the highlight of the decade, that must surely fall to the close of the Star Wars prequel trilogy. But it was the franchise’s biggest assault on culture outside its main movie bloodline since the previous decade’s Shadows of the Empire event.

That multimedia project crossed books, comics, toy lines and a significant videogame release early in the life of the Nintendo 64 console. But while Shadows paved the way for the release of the Special Edition films for the 1997 anniversary, The Force Unleashed was an ambitious epilogue to the prequel trilogy.

The secret was in the name. It was about letting the force off the hook in ways that the films, particularly the original trilogy, couldn’t do. And that’s it: force powering and lightsaber-wielding through familiar locales, steeped in Star Wars design, music and colour.

But somehow, they even managed to bolt on an intriguing plot.

If there’s a drawback to that early 21st century Star Wars era, it’s the reliance on Darth Vader. The decision to focus on Anakin Skywalker in the prequel trilogy made sense in the familial construct of the series, but brought with it an awkward antihero slant as the franchise looked to the dark side. Thatt’s a difficult angle that The Force Awakens is quick to correct with its strength of light sided characters. The initial teaser trailer made it very clear, “The Dark side” intones Andy Serkis’ against the iconic first impression of Kylo Ren, but reserves the headline for the Millennium Falcon: “And the light”. Also, it smacked of placing the whole emphasis on the popular character, rather than taking the risks of the earlier films.

The Force Unleashed sought to have its bantha juice and drink it, as we followed the young and manipulated protagonist Galen Marek, slyly nicknamed Starkiller after the early scripts that named Luke Skykiller, again picked up in The Force Awakens. So far, so Anakin. He’s the character who ably steps into the familial structure of the franchise while tussling with the powers of dark and light. But he’s not alone in the force, simply unknown.

Filling in the blank space between Episode 3 and Episode 4, that plot picked up from the Revenge of the Sith, at the tail end of the Great Jedi Purge. And in a universe where the force was surely utterly imbalanced it threw up huge Force battles between the most powerful Force wielders in the universe, including Darth Vader and Old Lightning, the Emperor himself.

Gameplay

Fortunately, they didn’t make The Force Gently Nudged…

Starting with Vader’s steady stomp through the Wookie home world of Kashyyyk – the Force is front and central. That’s a canny first level, giving players instant access to the big guy who we all know can let the Force off the hook – even if we’ve never really seen it on screen.

That opening establishes the story where, having dispatched a rogue Jedi survivor, Vader takes on the Jedi’s powerfully Forceful son as his apprentice. Crucially, this is a secret apprentice, as Vader’s slaying of the Stormtrooper witnesses bluntly proves. Growing into the Porce, the powerful but unpolished Starkiller gives players access to customisation, including enhanced force skills and attire and lightsabre crystals as he winds through both sides of the force. In terms of the console, he’s a gamefied Luke Skywalker.

At one point the apprentice Starkiller states that Vader really doesn’t care about Imperial, Rebel or non-partisan lives – and that’s very much the instinct, as a twisting and turning story sees his apprentice battle forces from both sides in his pursuit of clear or unfaithful goals. In fact, in the sheer bombast of force on display, there’s little hope of controlling collateral damage when it pops up even if you want to. But then, in the midst of this evocative universe Starkiller is the man that everyone’s meant to hate.

There’s little subtlety in The Force Unleashed as it falls back on the strengths of furious action and short sharp twists of story line. Fortunately, they didn’t make The Force Gently Nudged. Those twists start delivering from the bucket load halfway through as Starkiller jets between planets in the Star Wars universe.

Levels, amounting to narrow paths running through hundreds of opponents punctuated by mid- and end-of-level bosses, are repetitive in its seven to nine hour run-time. But force throwing stormtroopers while running through the distinctive corridors of the Deathstar will never get old. Those big battles themselves make generous use of QTEs, not difficult to master and triggering impressively designed sequences. Successfully finishing a AT-ST for instance, allows you to take a saber poke around the cockpit before leaping up and force imploding it in an invisible crusher of your own will. It’s very satisfying. Although, in its ambitious scope, even on perpetual rails, the camera can be a beast and chose some bizarre and awkward angles and a speedy death, particularly in the midst of huge numbers of Stormtroopers when making some noise aboard the Deathstar late in the game.

The engine, customised Havok software, is well employed to put physics – or the Force-propelled rejection of them – front and centre. Moveable objects are everywhere, among foes who can be lifted, choked, thrown and lightsabre impaled. Force pushes and Force manipulation turn any object illuminated by the Force aura into a weapon. And that’s when you don’t want to use internalised, upgradable force powers.

On the Wii, the only way to get the right kind of ‘Lightsaber elbow’, the game is gripping and visceral. In its most underpowered form, it’s all power and colour with little frame-rate issue. In fact, running around the verdant planet of Felucia, the system’s pop-up adds a disconcerting life to plant life that seems to sprout in front of Starkiller.

Passport

“Meesa prepared. Yousa gonna die.” Utterly bizarre.

The adventure takes you through classic locations, with chances to wreck the Jedi Council chamber, the corridors alongside the Carbonite chamber in Cloud City and an arena alongside a Sarlacc pit, dodging tentacles. In between are strange trips to the Jedi Temple now ruined on Coruscant, and strangely full of a hanging guard of Stormtroopers, where Starkiller takes on the spectres of infamous previous Sith Lords and at one point his father. It’s another exploration of the draws between the light and dark sides that the prequel trilogy handled worse than any other.

While Jedis, Sith, Force troopers and form the majority. There are some legendary and more humorous foes to vanquish alongside classic monsters. Rancors need to be taken down more than once, as do AT-ST walkers. And particular tribute must go to the duel with cycloptic, gnarled Gungan Kleef. “Meesa prepared. Yousa gonna die.” Utterly bizarre.

But then a main strength of The Force Unleashed is its sense of humour, so refreshing after the recent film outings. At the centre, Starkiller is a Sith/Jedi as bland as the prequel trilogy convinced us they were. But around him are playful droid – with a shapeshifting ability that chillingly allows him to be used as a solid hologram and lays the way for an unbelievable came. There’s also a subversion of the British Imperial officer in Starkiller’s ambitious pilot Juno. And there’s the trick, it’s slight and simple, but Starkiller assembles an inverted gang that could match the original film’s crew. Instead of the cocky smuggler is the imperial officer. And instead of Obi-Wan, is the drunk, blind and wholly more charismatic general Kota. A Jedi Starkiller earlier blinds and leaves for dead, he’s more referential than the comic relief suggests.

And that somehow makes up for sparse and portentous script replete with much mention of “destiny”. It’s no worse than the prequel scripts, that’s for sure – and certainly steps up a gear when it moves away from sober Jedi. Highlights include Palpatine endlessly screaming “unlimited power” mid Force-gasm and Vader’s rather sketchy understanding of destiny:

“Kazdan Paratus is far more powerful than you. I do not expect you to survive. But if you destroy him, you will be one step closer to your destiny.”

Competing origins

It’s certainly nearer the original trilogy then the prequels…

Before the Great Canon Purge, The Force Unleashed was already confronting the issue straight on. An interesting side note is the appearance of Master Shaak Ti, last seen escaping Order 66 in Revenge of the Sith. Hiding with her padawan on the vibrant world of Felucia, where canon Star Wars had earlier had Jedi Master Aayla Secura purged, she’s an overt tie to the recent films. However, also an awkward appearance considering the non-canon deleted scene in Revenge… when she is slain by General Grievous. That credits Shaak Ti with the rather impressive feat of having perished twice in non-canonical ways. There’s a nicer fate in store for Bail organa, giving the woefully underused Jimmy Smits a far better run at the character than he achieved in the prequel trilogy.

And come the end, key figures from the rise of the Empire and the Rebellion are witness to a huge Sith smack down in the Death Star throne room where splitting the canon falls to player choice – between two endings, should you choose to finish off Vader (non-canonical, but oddly the springboard for expansions) or take on the irritatingly powerful Emperor Palpatine himself. Starkiller doesn’t make it of course, that would ruin the original trilogy, but we’ve already seen him cheat death once and he would return for the sequel…

In a game all about bombast and reliving the original films, in a kind of heightened remix, there are many links between The Force Unleashed and The Force Awakens – beyond the words their titles share. And for all the fact its oddly delicate attempts to fit into the canon, it’s a shame that more important considerations have removed it.

There’s something delightful about seeing Mon Mothma, Bail Organa and of course, his daughter Leia in their random appearances and then come together. And there’s the real twist that elevates The Force Unleashed. The poor manipulated Starkiller, and his various masters all play an unexpected role in the creation of the rebellion that bears his sigil. It’s certainly nearer the original trilogy then the prequels, and that’s praise in itself.

Jokerside will return to the Star Wars Legends of video gaming with Shadows of the Empire (1996) and a little more on The Force Unleashed II (2010)

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