Even though Han never leaps through a donut-shaped pulsating portal, Luke doesn’t twirl a cool hourglass necklace around, and Leia never hits 88 mph in a Delorean; time travel might still exist in one specific way in the Star Wars galaxy. Clairvoyance—that wonderful ability to see or sense the future—totally does exist, and in three specific incidents impacts the plots of the films. And if you can send messages into the past from the future, then clairvoyance (or precognition) in Star Wars suddenly becomes a timey-wimey plot device that (kind of?) brings balance to the Force.
As cool as Star Wars generally is, no one really could accuse any of the characters of being meticulous, organized planners. From the sloppy machinations of the Jedi, to the catch-as-catch-can of the Rebellion, to the coming-out-of-hyperspace-too-early-like-a-chump strategies of the Empire; every group in Star Wars perpetrate a series of blunders just short of a Buster Keaton routine. This all seems little silly when you consider the idea that Force-users can sometimes “see” the future. Why are so many people making mistakes?
To be fair, we’re told back in 1980 how hard it is to accurately predict the future even when you can sorta feel it. In The Empires Strikes Back, Yoda says “always in motion is the future,” which is why he and Luke can know Han and Leia are in trouble sometime, somewhere, but not the specifics. As a quick refresher: while studying to become a Jedi on the planet Dagobah, Luke accidentally accesses a crystal ball in his head which lets him know his best friends are being tortured and held captive by Darth Vader. This future knowledge is what prompts him to leave his teacher Yoda, and go confront Darth Vader, which eventually leads to all sort of terrible things for Luke, including but not limited to, a loss of dignity, loss of his right hand, and a terrifying brush with being photographed while wearing beige against a white background.
As opposed to specific communication across time, like in Doctor Who, a “vision” tends to be shorthand for receiving only a vague glimpse of the future. And yet, Luke is eventually able to translate his feelings about from having seen “A city in the clouds,” to bonafide coordinates. More importantly, Vader specifically hinges his entire plan to capture Luke on the idea that Luke will sense Han being tortured, and act accordingly. (We know this torture was specifically for this reason, because Han says, “they didn’t even ask me any questions.”) This isn’t like Skyfall where James Bond happens to see a CNN report that his old boss is in trouble, so he rushes back into the fray, and since there really aren’t good journalistic outlets of any kind in Star Wars, the best way to distribute information—even the misleading kind—seems to be through the magic of pseudo time-travel. If Darth Vader didn’t believe in the pragmatic logistics of sending a message into the past from the future, then his plan would have fallen apart. And, save for the part where Luke doesn’t join him, the hard part— luring Luke to Cloud City, really did work super well.
Vader’s use of precognitive pain as bait for Luke is straight-up the most cynical thing he’s ever done. If it weren’t for terrible visions of the future, and the suffering that they created in his own life, Vader would not be Vader. In Attack of the Clones, Pre-Vader Anakin specifically goes to Tatooine to “rescue” his mother from Tusken Raiders, because he keeps having visions that bad things are happening to her. He’s too late and famously goes on a murderous rampage (which his girlfriend creepily forgives.) Then, in Revenge of the Sith, his dreams of Padme’s impending death are the ONLY motivation Anakin has for doing literally everything that results in him become Darth Vader. If Anakin didn’t believe that visions of the future weren’t concrete, real things, he seemingly would never make decisions.
One could say that Anakin’s two visions of the future aren’t visions of the future at all, just self-fulfilling prophecies which are really the result of massive amounts of depression. In Chuck Klosterman’s fantastic essay on time travel called “Tomorrow Rarely Knows,” he asserts throughout that time-traveling characters are often depressed and offers this specific definition of a time traveler:
“People who want to travel through time are both (a) unhappy and (b) unwilling to compromise anything about who they are. They would rather change every element of society except themselves.”
Wow. How much does that sound like Anakin Skywalker?
Now, I’m not saying that just because the character of Anakin/Darth Vader fits Klosterman’s criterion for being an egomaniacal time traveler that he just is—I mean moonwalking on a table and wearing a fedora do not make you Michael Jackson, trust me, I know—it’s just that when you add in his personality with his experience with future-visions (specifically his actions in Cloud City), that the technical utility of sending messages through time in Star Wars starts to seem like something viable.
It’s heavily implied that Palpatine gets a lot of what he wants through his ability to “foresee” the future. Again, we might think Palpatine’s just a good bullshitter: if you brag to lot of people you can see the future and you have the real-life ability to shoot lightning from your fingers, they’ll believe in the former power, because they’ve seen the latter. Still, by giving Palps the benefit of the doubt we could, maybe, believe that he planted some of these Padme-might-die visions in Anakin’s head to get what he wants. The Force can have a power on the “weak-minded” but what about the depressed or desperate? Both Luke and Anakin are confused, desperate people when they get information about the future. Obviously, neither Anakin (when he’s still Anakin) nor Luke actually are able to change the future they’ve witnessed, but the people who sent the message in the first place are creating a predestination paradox.
The analogy between Palpatine maybe planting visions in Anakin’s brain and Vader torturing Han in the future aren’t equal. Palps didn’t kill Padme in the future. But, it does demonstrate a unique ability Anakin seems to have (both as his younger self and as Vader) to be time sensitive. Darth Vader/Anakin Skywalker undeniably manipulates time because Luke receives a vision from the future in the past. This is not an accident. Even if all the stuff that happened in the prequels were accidental visions and Palps didn’t make fake visions, Anakin still learned his lesson from a self-fulfilling prophecy. Self-fulfilling prophecy in Anakin’s past=useful predestination paradox trick when he’s Vader. Further, Vader’s ability to eventually see the future stems from the fact that he’s just better at using the Force than literally everybody. You could even make an argument that Vader’s time sensitivity is why Palpatine doesn’t see the betrayal of Vader coming at the end of Return of the Jedi. We even get a little hint that Vader is clouding his “foreseeing” ablities. When Luke lands on Endor, Palps doesn’t know about it, but Vader does. Maybe Vader doesn’t have fully developed future-knowledge, but, at this point, his skills are way better than Palps.
In Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith, Yoda and Mace Windu talk about how the Dark Side “clouds everything” and that their ability to use the Force is diminished. Really, what they’re saying is their ability to see into the future is worse and even shoddier than normal. Clairvoyance, precognition, future telegraphs, whatever you want to call them, was an imperfect science, almost accidental, science for the majority of the Jedi with one exception: Anakin Skywalker.
In the years he’s going by Darth Vader, Anakin is deep into perfecting the ways he can manipulate time with the Force. The Han Solo/Luke Skywalker predestination paradox might have been just the beginning for him. Had he lived, there’s every reason to believe Anakin/Vader would have really used his manipulation of time to get everything he wanted. Maybe this is the real reason why Anakin Skywalker’s use of the Force is so special; his specific ability to manipulate time is his totally unrealized super-power.
And though it never really ended up happening, just prior to his death, Darth Vader was close to being the first great Dark Time Lord of the Sith. Now imagine Vader in a time machine, that he invented. I totally know you can.
Ryan Britt is a longtime contributor to Tor.com.