When George Lucas replaced Sebastian Shaw with Hayden Christensen in the Force ghost scene for the 2004 DVD of “Return of the Jedi” (and therefore the 2011 Blu-ray release), many people criticized it as overkill: just another way to get prequel stuff into the original trilogy, like adding the Dug in Jabba’s palace.
But what if it was more than that? What if Lucas was clarifying a story point that was unclear in the original 1983 incarnation? As it turns out, when one analyzes the films’ treatment Force ghosts, the light and dark sides and the arcs of Anakin Skywalker and Darth Vader, it’s more logical that Anakin would appear as his younger self than as his older self – because there was no “older self” of Anakin. Anakin died in his 20s, in “Revenge of the Sith,” when he became Darth Vader. The man we see in “Return of the Jedi” is actually Vader. Vader is dying because he’s becoming Anakin – who is already dead.
OBI-WAN’S POINT OF VIEW WAS RIGHT ALL ALONG
When Obi-Wan tells Luke in “A New Hope” that “Darth Vader betrayed and murdered your father,” it was a bit metaphorical or hyperbolic, but it wasn’t a lie.
And in “Return of the Jedi,” Obi-Wan gives Luke a fuller picture of what happened: “Your father was seduced by the dark side of the Force. He ceased to be Anakin Skywalker and became Darth Vader. When that happened, the good man who was your father was destroyed. So what I told you was true.”
DARTH VADER WAS BORN FROM CUTTING-EDGE TECHNOLOGY, ANAKIN’S ANGER, PADME’S LIFE FORCE AND DARTH SIDIOUS’ DARK MAGIC
In terms of receiving his Sith title, Anakin becomes Darth Vader when Darth Sidious does the knighting ceremony in his office in “Revenge of the Sith.” But he fully transitions to the new entity at the end of the film, when Sidious says “Lord Vader … rise!” Between the knighting scene and the “Frankenstein”-inspired birth scene, Anakin/Vader is in transition – sort of like a house that’s in escrow while the sale goes through.
As outlined in Jospeh Tavano’s groundbreaking RetroZap! essay “Padme Didn’t Die of a Broken Heart,” Sidious creates Vader from a variety of sources. In terms of his physical self, he’s a machine body combined with a human body that would otherwise be dead. At this point in the analysis, he’s functionally the same as General Grievous. Indeed, Anakin’s face in the “Jedi” unmasking scene is not that of a 50-something man; it’s that of a corpse that has been artificially kept alive. When Obi-Wan says, “He’s more machine now than man,” he’s absolutely on point.
But Sidious needs more than just the machine to assure Vader survives the painful medical procedure that makes him into a cyborg. That’s why Sidious uses the dark side to siphon the Living Force from Padme and infuse it into this pain-wracked, dying body. At this point, Anakin is dead and his spirit (but not his body) enters the Force. Meanwhile, the amalgam known as Darth Vader is born.
BUT LUKE WASN’T WRONG, EITHER: ANAKIN STILL EXISTED IN SOME FORM
While Darth Vader lives, Anakin’s spirit – unlike Obi-Wan’s – doesn’t make an appearance in the films, leading to the widespread assumption that Anakin exists inside Darth Vader, albeit buried somewhere in the back. Luke espouses this belief, and he is ultimately proven right. Anakin is a tormented, formless spirit (imagine that he’s in Force purgatory), but he also is about one-fourth of the being known as Darth Vader.
As a Force spirit, Anakin learns the procedure for becoming a Force ghost that can interact with living beings (how he learns this is a story that hasn’t been told; maybe Qui-Gon teaches him) – but he can’t actually pull off the trick until his body is also free.
Lucas’ idea of a link between the body and the soul is not unusual; it is a feature of many religions and philosophies. And he has said that the Force is an amalgam of many religions and philosophies.
While Yoda and Obi-Wan both learn the skill of becoming a luminous being while they are still corporeal beings (this is why their bodies disappear upon death), Qui-Gon learned how to do it after death. His body burns on a funeral pyre, but he appears about 12 years later in “The Clone Wars” as a Force ghost, calling Yoda to Dagobah.
Mere hours after his death at the foot of the Imperial Shuttle ramp, Vader’s body burns on a funeral pyre on Endor. Minutes later, while the fire still burns, Anakin appears as a Force ghost. Did he learn this skill in mere hours, without any training? No. Anakin’s spirit already knew how to become a luminous being; he was waiting for his body to be free also.
When Vader’s body dies, it doesn’t disappear into the Force, because – while Anakin does briefly re-enter the body to kill the Emperor and look upon Luke — it’s still Darth Vader’s body. Anakin is already dead; he doesn’t have much interest in entering a dying shell that he doesn’t relate to. The body – Vader’s – burns on the funeral pyre, setting it free. And then Anakin appears as a Force ghost because body and soul have been reunited. He’s his younger self, because that’s what he looked like when he died 23 years earlier.
THE SHOUTS OF ‘NO!’ ARE THE BOOKENDS OF DARTH VADER’S LIFE
As noted above, Vader (a co-creation of Anakin and Sidious, with Padme as an unwitting contributor) takes over Anakin’s body at the end of “Revenge of the Sith.” Vader’s first word (as a being distinct from Anakin) is “No!” In a poetic parallel, Anakin takes over Vader’s dying body at the end of the 2011 Blu-ray edition of “Return of the Jedi” and shouts “No!” as the Emperor tortures Luke.
One could argue that Anakin’s spirit fights to the forefront of Vader’s body before then. Vader’s quest to find Luke in “The Empire Strikes Back” seems personal. However, let’s not forget that it’s personal to Vader, too, since Vader was born from Anakin, just as Luke was born at almost the exact same time. Luke isn’t Vader’s son – he’s Anakin’s – but Luke and Vader ARE related, just as Luke and Anakin are. So the question of whether Vader or Anakin – or both – desire to reunite with Luke remains ambiguous. But that’s not a bad thing, artistically.
SO DID LUCAS JUST CHANGE HIS MIND? IN THIS CASE, NO
Lucas has changed his mind many times through the years. In this case, though, while he changed his mind about how to present the story, he didn’t change his mind about the nature of Force ghosts, the idea that the dark side can be used to create a new persona, or the arcs of Anakin and Vader.
Finally given the opportunity to put the younger Anakin (Christensen) in the scene, he took it. In 1983, he had not yet cast the young Anakin, and this was still the case in 1997, when the Special Editions came out. An argument could be made that Lucas should’ve cast a young actor for the ghost scene in 1983, but he probably didn’t want to confuse audiences. Digital de-aging technology also wasn’t available at the time. In 1983, using Shaw for that scene was not a perfect option, but it was the easiest option.
“Jedi” – in all its incarnations – has always featured major clues that Lucas didn’t intend for the older body to be the truest representation of Anakin. If Lucas always intended for Vader and Anakin to be one entity, he would’ve had Shaw’s “Anakin” (or more precisely, Vader’s dying body possessed by Anakin’s spirit) disappear upon death, just as Obi-Wan and Yoda did. Instead, Vader’s corporeal body exists long enough to be burned on a funeral pyre – this is because Darth Vader (a soulless evil being) did not become one with the Force, he ceased to exist in any form.
A second clue to Lucas’ story intention about Force ghost mythology is that Anakin does not appear in his scarred, deformed visage in the 1983 version. Likewise, this is confirmation that Force ghosts don’t appear as Luke knows them; they create their own appearances. He appears as Anakin would’ve looked in an alternate reality where he didn’t fall into a lake of lava. Lucas’ intention was always to have Anakin appear in his purest form, when he was a good Jedi.
When that body burns on the funeral pyre, it marks the end of Darth Vader in physical form, and Anakin’s soul is now at peace, because he is reunited with his body. He can now appear to Luke as a Force ghost, looking like he did back in the days when he was still Anakin, before Darth Vader banished his soul and stole his body.