ILMxLAB and Oculus, probably the name in VR, have teamed up for a new Star Wars project; Vader: Immortal. They were at this year's Star Wars Celebration in Chicago to show off Episode I of the new series and I was fortunate enough to be on hand to see what they had to offer. The trailer made its way online, along with some other info, but I'm here to do my best to relay everything we learned from the panel and do that I shall.
First off, what is Vader: Immortal? It's not a video game, and it's not quite like a regular TV show. What we can say definitively is that it's set between the events of Revenge of the Sith and A New Hope (Lucasfilm's favorite sandbox to play in). The story allows fans to step into the role of a smuggler operating near Darth Vader's little hideaway on Mustafar, the volcanic world that we've only seen brief glimpses of over the years in the movies. Viewers soon find themselves in the middle of a grand adventure as they are unexpectedly pulled out of hyperspace and eventually come face to face with the Sith Lord himself. What does Vader want with this smuggler? That isn't clear just yet, but what is clear, based on what we saw, is that this is no ordinary smuggler.
One thing, just to start off, is that the panel was held in the biggest venue at Star Wars Celebration and, strangely, wasn't very well attended. Though, it was the next panel after the Episode IX panel and I suspect that may have had something to do with it. That's not a knock, it was just bizarre. And I get the sense a lot of people who weren't there would have really enjoyed what we saw.
At the panel was Colum Slevin, Head of Media, AR/VR Experiences Group at Oculus, director Ben Snow and David S. Goyer, who movie fans may know from his work on projects such as The Dark Knight and Man of Steel, who serves as executive producer and writer, as well as several other members of the team who have shepherded this project through its development. According to what we learned, that has been roughly three years. So this has been in the works for some time.
There was a great deal of concept art shown to us (which we've included below via photos in tweets of varying quality I took during the panel). The main thing is that this series will let us explore Mustafar, a planet that has a lot of importance to Darth Vader, but one that hasn't really been explored all that much. What's particularly cool is that the look of the series was inspired by drawings from legendary Star Wars artist Ralph McQuarrie, which were never used for the movies. Another major takeaway is that this series will surprise with emotion, particularly as it relates to Vader. Goyer had this to say.
"There's a mournfulness, a sadness beneath the helmet."
The biggest takeaway for me personally is that everyone working on this cares deeply about the franchise and they're fans first. They talked a lot about the medium of VR and what that offers, specifically. They want to give fans that wish fulfillment of being able to feel like they're actually part of one of the movies. They're telling a story, but it's POV and interactive. That gives a totally different feel than the movies. To that point, there's a lightsaber "dojo" component to the series that fans can use to just go to town for hours with a lightsaber, if they so choose.
One of the biggest reveals from the panel came when it was revealed that former SNL star Maya Rudolph is voicing a new droid named ZOE3. We got a little taste of the character and it seems great. Other castings of note includes Scott Lawrence of Star Wars Resistance fame, who actually voices Darth Vader, and he sounds great! Star Wars Rebels fans will also be happy to know Steve Blum, the voice of Zeb, is on board as a new Imperial character, who is described as a "lifer" in the Empire.
Influence wise, hardcore Star Wars nuts have some stuff to be excited about. It has deep connections to Secrets of the Empire, which was a previous VR series produced by ILMxLAB for Lucasfilm. Another big influence (that has ties to the story) was Charles Soule's absolutely excellent Darth Vader comic book series for Marvel Comics, which is one of the best comics (if not things, period) that Disney has produced since purchasing Lucasfilm.
The interesting thing is that everyone talked a lot about how storytelling in VR hasn't really been solved yet. Since it's an interactive medium, everyone in Hollywood is still trying to crack that egg. It's also very important to note that this is just Episode I. According to those on the panel, this episode will focus on lightsaber combat, whereas Episode II will focus more on developing Force abilities. So it will give the viewer something new to test out each time around. Another note; I did not get any hands-on time with it. Yet. However, there is a demo on the convention floor and I will do my best to squeeze that in while I'm down here and give a little review of what it's like to actually take this thing for a test drive. Though, I should also note that I've tried VR stuff quite a few times in the past and it tends to make me queasy. But this looks too cool to pass up. I'll suck it up for the sake of journalism. Duty calls.
Nuts and bolts talk, Oculus has created an entirely new VR interface for Vader: Immortal called Oculus Quest. It's "untethered," meaning the environment isn't constrained. So viewers can truly explore the environment they've created for this story freely. It will also be coming to the Oculus Rift. Overall, this seems like a cool new thing to expand the franchise. Star Wars has always been about pushing boundaries, technologically speaking. So, in that way, this feels very much on-brand. Vader: Immortal is set to arrive later this spring. Be sure to check out all of the images we got from the panel below. And, in case you missed it, check out the trailer from the ILMxLAB YouTube channel below.