Stars: Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman, Hayden Christensen, Frank Oz, Samuel L Jackson and Christopher Lee
Taking the place of Monday Night Roundup for this week only, here's the second entry in my Star Wars I-VII Runthrough, which aims to look at the entire series of feature films with three things in mind: quality, progression and the fan theory of Jar Jar Binks as ultimate villain. Hello, Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones!
Ten years after The Phantom Menace, the integrity of the Galactic Republic is threatened by the secession of thousands of solar systems. The Jedi Council, who help to keep the peace, are few in number and would be unable to prevent civil war. Their powers are also questioned by their inability to detect the creation of a secret clone army for the Republic on Kamino until it is too late. The Senate greet the crisis by granting the Supreme Chancellor emergency powers, paving the way for a dictatorship.
The primary players are Amidala, now the senator for Naboo in the Galactic Senate and the leader of the opposition to Count Dooku, a former jedi master who leads the separatist movement; Obi-Wan Kenobi, now a jedi master, whose investigations into an attempt on Amidala's life expose the creation of the clone army and the powers behind it; his apprentice, Anakin Skywalker, who is tasked with protecting Amidala but embarks on an affair with her instead and begins his journey towards the dark side of the force; Jango Fett, a Mandalorian bounty hunter who is the template for the clone army; and Palpatine, who has become Supreme Chancellor of the Galactic Senate. Other characters from The Phantom Menace return, including C-3PO and R2-D2, as well as jedi masters such as Yoda and Mace Windu, who get more to do here. A future character, Boba Fett, is introduced as a child.
Clearly my memories of the Star Wars prequels are fundamentally flawed. I remembered The Phantom Menace as frankly irredeemable but, watching afresh, I see that it's unfair to dismiss it out of hand. I remember liking Attack of the Clones a lot more and a fresh viewing reenforces that, but I also remember it being a bundle of fun and, frankly, it isn't. I enjoyed it a lot but more as a serious drama than a sci-fi popcorn flick. The slapstick is gone, with mild exceptions for C3PO's battle shenanigans, and it's replaced by a much darker and more intense tone. Sure, the battle in the Geonosis arena is an absolute blast, but it takes death and torment to get there.
The second thing that was immediately obvious was the unceasing shininess of the film. I remembered the entire prequel trilogy as overly shiny but was surprised to find on a fresh viewing that The Phantom Menace really isn't. There are a few odd exceptions, like Queen Amidala's ship which is shiny to the point of reflection but she's a queen and it makes sense for her to have the cleanest vessel on the planet for ambassadorial purposes. Most of the rest of the gadgets and ships are varying degrees of believable dirtiness, but that's utterly not the case here.
The final obvious point is that George Lucas must have listened to the many complaints about The Phantom Menace because he fixed most of the problems that film this time out had without breaking any of the things that it did right.
We still have fabulous locations, fantastic alien designs and awesome gadgets. In fact, they get better still. The tall thin aliens on Kamino, Taun We and Lama Su, are glorious. The taxi on Tatooine has such an awesome balance that I want to leap onto it to see if I can knock it over. The big wheeled war wagons they have on Geonosis are gorgeous and Count Dooku's solar sailed space yacht is the epitome of Star Wars cool.
The only exception is Hayden Christensen, who is consistently and intensely annoying as the young Anakin Skywalker. To be fair, the blame surely belongs much more to Lucas as the writer than to Christensen as the actor and the combination of mini-ponytail and side rattail doesn't help, even if it's the uniform of a jedi padawan. I'm sure I'm not the only viewer who wanted to reach inside the screen and slap him. I really don't care if he's going to bring balance to the force; he needed a slap. In fact, Yoda should have used the force to make him slap himself, over and over until he got over his pity party and rejoined the human race. We're supposed to watch him descend gradually into the dark side not leap there because he thinks his master is a poo poo head.
Also on the negative side is the way that some scenes are so dedicated to providing eye candy that reality has to take a bathroom break. The chase through the skies of Coruscant is ridiculous and I don't even want to think about the G-forces involved or whether what Anakin does is believable even for Superman. The distances are insane too; I'm sure someone has calculated how high some of these buildings must be and how that's not remotely sustainable for a city that covers an entire planet. Are there apartments here for everyone in the entire Republic? If anything, Obi-Wan chasing Jango Fett through the inevitable asteroid field is even worse; it shatters every law of physics I could think of but it's still glorious eye candy and, for scenes like this, that's really all that counts.
The most obvious progression here is in tone because Lucas got serious and wrote a mostly solid script. I remembered this film as merely the one in between the one that started everyone's stories and the one that had to transition those stories into the movie that everyone knew from 1977. Yet, after the first film wasted so many opportunities and set up so many one note cartoon characters, this one really knuckled down and injected depth into everyone that matters.
It also looks at the big picture a lot better than the first episode did. We don't just set up Anakin for his imminent turn to the dark side, we set up other characters too. We meet Boba Fett as a kid shadowing his father, bounty hunter Jango Fett, but he's given a beginning to the future story that begins in The Star Wars Holiday Special, of all places. Count Dooku has the plans for the Death Star here, even though it's just 'what we're planning to build' at this point. R2-D2 and C-3PO finally get their first real bickering scenes, given that they're the bedrock of the entire series, as borrowed from Kurosawa's The Hidden Fortress. R2-D2 can fly, by the way. I need to keep that in mind when I get to Episodes IV to VI.
Beyond all the annoying childishness, Anakin also gets a real scene of power with his mother and he delivers a few lines that are very telling. 'I don't think the system works,' he tells Senator Amidala, proposing a benevolent dictatorship instead. That's a much better way to establish his future mindset than all the foot stamping. 'I'm good at fixing things; I always was!' resonates too, even delivered in different context.
I liked how his mother's dangerous situation brings him back to Tatooine, where she has been sold to a homesteader who freed and married her. It's how we're introduced to the Lars homestead and Owen Lars, who will inherit it and bring up Luke in Episode IV.
Jar Jar Binks
There's less of Jar Jar in this second episode than there was in the first, but he's a lot more serious and he's moved up in the ranks too. He's the first one to greet Anakin when the padawan arrives on Coruscant with Obi-Wan, tasked to protect Senator Amidala. He watches thoughtfully while the two jedi bicker in public, appropriate for a secret evil genius.
And, after an attempt on her life, Amidala goes back to Naboo and Jar Jar gets to speak for her in the Senate. How's that for a pip of a promotion? It's also at exactly the right moment to propose the transfer of emergency powers to Supreme Chancellor Palpatine, who accepts them with a pointed, 'The power you give me'. Thanks, Jar Jar! You just created the Empire.
Finally, maybe the reduced presence of Jar Jar in this second episode isn't an attempt to remove slapstick inanity and the fan complaints it generated. Maybe it just underlines his gradual movement into the shadows, where he'll hide during Episodes IV to VI.
So, the theory is holding thus far. Let's see how it fares in Revenge of the Sith tomorrow!