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Monday, 4 January 2016

Attack of the Clones (2002)

Director: George Lucas
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!


Brief Synopsis


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.

Quality


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 darker tone was one of three things that leapt out quickly and were reenforced often on my fresh viewing. While there's nothing that's technically unsuitable for children, there are plenty of scenes that contain material that adults will notice and I'm not just talking about the flightsuit Amidala puts on late in the movie that highlights her nipples. There's an early scene in a bar so Obi-Wan Kenobi and his teenage padawan, Anakin Skywalker, can track down whoever tried to assassinate Amidala and, beyond being a bar, it also contains some rather scantily clad females as background decoration. When Anakin finds his mother, she's tied up, so used and abused by the Tusken raiders who kidnapped her that she dies in his arms when he frees her. When this happens, he gives way to his hate and massacres the lot of them: men, women and children. Sure, we're only told about this but still. There's even a creepy crawling wall on Geonosis that feels like a nod to Bedlam.
Only some of this is really warranted by the story. Those of us who have seen the original trilogy know that Anakin is going to turn to the dark side eventually and surely he has to go through trauma to get to that point. It makes a lot more sense for him to carry his dead mother home from the month of abuse that killed her than just having him pout, stamp his foot and bitch about how jealous his master is of his fabulous powers. That's just embarrassing. 'It's not fair!' he actually shouts during his first time alone with Amidala. And yet she still falls in love with him?

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.
Almost everything in this film is shiny to insane degrees, like it was all made by Apple and then polished by a droid with OCD until it squeaks when we look at it. It's so shiny that the whole thing looks artificial, like we're watching a video game rather than a movie. There's no dirt in the bus depot and there's no dirt in the diner. Sure, Dex Jettster, the CGI alien who runs the latter, has grease stains on his torn vest but they never transfer to anything he touches or sits on.
It isn't only Coruscant either, which as the capital city of the Republic looks like Blade Runner with every element of film noir polished entirely away; they've apparently conquered dirt on Naboo too, where one love scene is like The Sound of Music coated in gleaming pixiedust, and especially on Kamino, which is as sanitised a city as the clone manufacturing rooms it contains. At least it rains on Kamino, even if that rain doesn't make anything dirty. Again, I can buy rooms where they build clones being clean because that's technologically needed, but when we get to the arena on Geonosis, even things made of dirt aren't dirty! You can chop a man's head off, then pick up the helmet it's in and it won't even drip blood. That's how magically clean this place is!
Dirt only shows up in the desert of Tatooine where the Lars homestead is obviously aged and the landspeeder Anakin uses to ride out into the desert is beaten up from years of service. C-3PO has a skin now but it's not shiny brass yet. It's like Tatooine is the last bastion of reality in the entire Republic and that's not good. I wanted to lie down in that desert and make dirt angels, just to wipe away the sheen.

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.
But now the actors are allowed to act too. Ewan McGregor almost sounds like a young Alec Guinness at points and he doesn't look as embarrassing as he did in the first film. Natalie Portman isn't on autopilot any more and demonstrates how she can both kick ass and deliver nuance, often in the same scene. Samuel L Jackson gets the chance to actually do something this time around and we're gifted with no less a talent than Christopher Lee to add some real gravitas to proceedings as the chief villain, Count Dooku. Frankly, Leeanna Walsman, playing the first bad guy in the film, a shapeshifter assassin called Zam Wesell, does more with her brief appearance than anyone did in the entire first movie and everyone else promptly follows her lead.

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.
It's a shame that those eye candy scenes are so long and drawn out because they're nothing but distraction from the first real substance to be found in the prequels and that pervades most of the rest of the movie. It would have been better had the eye candy been ratcheted way down.

Progression


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.
What didn't feel well fashioned was Amidala's rise in influence. Sure, she's a tough and talented lady and it's entirely fair to see her moving up from Queen to Senator, now representing her entire planet instead of merely her race. However, it's only been ten years since the first film but she's still gone from someone the Senate frankly ignores to being the leader of the opposition. Given that she's standing against Count Dooku's rebellion of thousands of solar systems, that highlights just how meteoric a rise that is. But hey, more of that below.

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.
Of course, if he's the mastermind of the Sith, he meant to do exactly that and, in fact, he probably orchestrated the whole thing from the assassination attempt onwards and so got just what he wanted. Nice job, hidden mastermind!

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!

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