The first look at Emperor Palpatine in Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker is certainly not what many were expecting, looking more like an animated cartoon than the Dark Lord of the Sith that has terrified fans of a galaxy far, far away since 1983. Is this indicative of the movie or simply a product of marketing?
Palpatine's presence in Star Wars 9 was confirmed at Star Wars Celebration when The Rise of Skywalker trailer ended with his unmistakable evil laugh and actor Ian McDiarmid (who's played the character since Return of the Jedi) appearing on stage. In the months since, speculation about Star Wars 9 has centered on the return of the assumed dead character, with theories linking the Emperor to Darth Plagueis, Snoke, Rey's origin and more.
Now, at D23 Expo 2019, Lucasfilm has provided the first look at the character. The first official poster for Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker sees Rey and Kylo Ren about to battle on what appears to be the wreckage of the Death Star, while the specter of Palpatine looms above them, smirking and staring at the viewer with his piercing yellow eyes. At first glance, this Palpatine is very much in the spirit of how he looked before his death, pointing towards McDiarmid fully reprising the role in makeup and challenging rumors of possession. But doesn't he look a bit weird?
Star Wars fans should be used to varying looks to the Emperor. When he was first introduced in The Empire Strikes Back, the cloaked figure was played by actress Marjorie Eaton with superimposed chimp eyes and voiced by Clive Revill. Ian McDiarmid took on the role in Return of the Jedi, with makeup applied to make the then-young actor appear old and warped. When McDiarmid reprised the dual role of Senator Palpatine and Darth Sidious in the prequel trilogy, he had his natural look, before being warped to his wrinkled version by deflected Force Lightning (this wizened version was also swapped into Empire for the 2004 re-release).
But, nevertheless, this Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker interpretation still looks odd, to the point some tweeting out of D23 weren't sure who the character was (some even claimed it was Luke Skywalker). Indeed, as much as it evokes Return of the Jedi, there's something cartoony about the poster, with this Emperor almost sitting alongside the version of the character seen in Star Wars Rebels. It could be a hint towards a spiritual apparition of the Emperor, struggling to find physical form, although even then it's distinct to all the various forms of Force immortality seen before.
A lot of the blame can fall on the lighting, with the blue glow from Rey and Kylo's fight (either Force lightning or a reference to the massive explosion from when the Emperor was killed) giving his face unnatural highlights. This, coupled with the mostly transparent ghost, removes him heavily from reality. Beyond that, there's no avoiding that the poster - the style of which is unique from what's been done for previous sequel trilogy entries - is going for a more vibrant, heightened style that works against the more classical, realistic Drew Struzan posters we've become accustomed to. As such, this may not be indicative of how Palpatine will look in the finished movie.
Of course, there is the chance that in doing an interpretation of a 1980s effect with modern technology that J.J. Abrams and his team have adjusted some of the Emperor's nuance. Yoda in Star Wars: The Last Jedi used traditional puppetry, yet stood out against the more polished CGI of the sequels. Only time - and the full Star Wars 9 trailer likely in October - will tell.
- Star Wars 9 / Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (2019) release date: Dec 20, 2019