Palpatine may have been revealed as still alive in Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, but that doesn’t mean he was in the best of shape. When Kylo Ren discovers him in his Sith temple on Exegol, the former emperor is little more than a corpse, with his decrepit form being hoisted about the place by a gigantic life-support system. His appearance is pretty “bleurgh”-worthy as it is, then, but things could have been even more gruesome given the initial plans for his design.
Creature and make-up supervisor Neal Scanlan has given an in-depth interview with Collider in which he revealed a lot of fascinating details about how certain concepts and characters evolved over the filmmaking process. In the case of Darth Sidious, Scanlan explained that initial sketches depicted Palpatine in a greater extent of deathly decay, even comparing him to the monstrous vampire from Nosferatu.
“Luke Fisher, who is one of the concept designers that works with us, did a lot of sketches of Palpatine being on a kind of life support system,” Scanlan said. “Something that is keeping him alive and keeping him in one piece. And then some parts of his physicality are almost independently being fed the necessary nutrients of life-giving entities. So the idea of him being held on a rig which allowed him to move around and almost the Nosferatu aspect of that sequence, all of those things were part of trying to come to understand how much we would show with that.”
As the Rise of Skywalker novelization has made clear, Palpatine’s deteriorating form is a clone body, with the villain’s evil spirit having survived his fall in Return of the Jedi. It’s not a completely compatible receptacle for his essence, though, which is why he conspires to possess his granddaughter Rey by the end of the film.
Scanlan went on to explain that the clone body could’ve been even worse, with parts of him being dismembered. However, just as the explanation for his resurrection was cut back in the theatrical release, so was this darker depiction of Palpatine.
“In the early concept days they were quite extreme,” Scanlan pointed out. “We explored a dismembered version of him. We explored more abstract versions of what he might be. You slowly get to the point where in [director] J.J’s [Abrams] world, that [Palpatine clone] story is still being told, but to an audience that maybe is not so familiar with Star Wars, you don’t have to know the backstory so much. You can understand and be part of that story without necessarily having too much history. It’s that combination of being able to tell the story but at the same time have some depth to it, which is referring back to a larger meaning or a greater explanation.”
Just like many fans wish we’d gotten more clarity over how he wasn’t blown to bits with the Death Star in the film, no doubt many would also wish they’d pushed the gross-out factor with how Palpatine was portrayed, too. In time, hopefully a few of those concept pieces that Scanlan talks about appear online and we can get a glimpse of what was originally planned.
In the meantime, you can rewatch the Emperor’s return at your leisure now, as Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker is available to purchase on Digital HD.