Saturday, November 14, 2015

"Star Wars Saga" Retrospective - #2: Attack of the Clones.

To this day, no movie’s release remains as disappointing as The Phantom Menace in 1999. Dividing both critics and audiences, even the most forgiving Star Wars fans had some trouble calling it a good movie. However, was it all just a fluke? That seemed to be the consensus in the wake of its aftermath. Maybe George Lucas had bigger, better things in mind, and this stepping stone was a necessary evil on the way to the meatier material of the prequel trilogy. Needless to say, the film performed gangbusters at the box office (even getting a 3D re-release in 2012), so a sequel was to be expected.

In the next chapter, Attack of the Clones, Lucas would be further expanding on the Star Wars lore by showing us the origin of The Clone Wars, an admittedly glanced over moment in history only briefly referenced by Obi-Wan in A New Hope. There would also be more focus on the love between Anakin and Padme, the future parents of Luke and Leia. It also featured the origin of Star Wars favorite Boba Fett, and looked to be an epic event.

However, it appeared that Phantom Menace was no fluke, with Attack of the Clones receiving a similarly mixed reception, although the word was more positive this time around. And I’ll be honest… I don’t get it. Phantom Menace may have been a dud with redeeming qualities, but this follow-up is an utter failure.

Ten years after dismantling the Trade Federation’s grip on Naboo, former queen Padme Amidala (Natalie Portman) becomes the target of an attempted assassination, likely placed from the growing Separatist threat commanded by Count Dooku (Christopher Lee). Placed under the protection of Jedi Knights Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker (Ewan McGregor and Hayden Christensen, respectively), escalating tensions lead Padme to return to her home planet of Naboo under Anakin’s protection, with the two beginning to fall in love with one another, while Obi-Wan sets off to investigate an unknown planet whose curators are forming a mysterious new army, an army which will singlehandedly change the fate of the Galactic Republic.

Attack of the Clones has often been held in higher respect than Phantom Menace, though admittedly not by too much, with many of its most common defenses being how it feels more like a Star Wars film than its predecessor, and downsizing the character of Jar Jar Binks. I myself have never agreed with this, finding it to be the biggest slog in the saga, feeling overlong and bloated, possessing little genuine joy, and aside from the most superficial cosmetics, couldn’t feel like any less of a Star Wars film.

As far as I’m concerned, it’s also the most dated Star Wars film by far, and I feel like I need to do a bit of explaining in that regard. The original Star Wars trilogy was a masterclass in effects artistry, with the original film making extensive use of seamless miniature and blue screen work from VFX supervisor John Dykstra, and thanks to its level of practicality has stood the test of time with ageless effects design. In the years following the original trilogy, Lucas became incredibly fascinated by CGI, which The Phantom Menace made extensive use of, but also had just as many practical effects to ensure that many of its shots would look as realistic as possible.

However, with Attack of the Clones, that same amount of practicality and miniatures are all but extinct, with Lucas relying almost entirely on heavy blue screen and cluttered CGI. One thing you’ll notice (Notice, yeah right, it’ll be shoved in your face) is how nearly every single shot in the film has a digital effect, even when the scene has no need for it. This eventually becomes a running theme throughout the film, with Lucas throwing so much garish and in your face tidbits that it makes it hard to focus on the main storyline, constantly distracting you for no other reason than to show off. This wouldn’t be so much of a problem if the effects themselves still looked convincing, but almost none of the digital effects have held up in the years since. It completely saps away the lived in atmosphere of Star Wars, always appearing much too clean and sanitized, and even appearing utterly cartoonish. At least when the Yoda puppet looked bad in Phantom Menace, it was actually real and tangible. Like I said before as well, there is A LOT of it in this movie, including the entire thousands-plus army of Clones going up against the heavy droid forces in the climax that’s every bit as aged as the Gungan war. Worse still, Lucas likes showing them off so much that he deliberately stretches out already lengthy sequences just to show off. We get it, George. You can make grandiose asteroid battles at your beck and call, but maybe that’s not what your priorities should be. When you go so far as to make CGI pears and sand, that’s when you’ve officially worn out any and all novelty. To think that these effects were once considered good enough to earn an Oscar nomination is beyond me.

And believe me, this is only the beginning of the film’s problems, because even if all of these fantastical effects weren’t constantly taking you out of the experience, why would you even want to focus on the story anyway? It’s every bit - if not more so - awful as The Phantom Menace’s script was. While we have no overlong sequences where Lucas casually switched the channel to watch CNN debates, we’re still treated to some complicated political mumbo jumbo, with the Separatist regime garnering many star systems to its cause, an ordeal involving a deceased member of the Jedi Council having gone rogue and proposed the idea of a Clone army to the scientists of Kamino, the fact that the senate is subtly being manipulated by the dark lord of the Sith (who has conveniently clouded the minds of the Jedi, and yet after the final war sequence, let’s that shroud lift), and the notorious Jar Jar giving Ian McDiarmid’s Chancellor Palpatine emergency powers to commission the Clone army, singlehandedly giving him the power to eradicate the Jedi and form the Empire. Way to go, Binksy!

Speaking of the Jedi, their treatment in this movie is deplorable. Lucas has always relied on Japanese culture and heritage as an inspiration to the series, and here he likens them to Samurai. Guided by a very specific code forbidding feelings like love and marriage, and the purging of emotions like anger and fear, the film tries to paint them as stoic religious followers whose feelings of superiority over the dark side paints their line between good and evil in self-serving and blurred ways. I get the intention here, but these guidelines are so unrealistic that even the Jedi have to know they can’t live up to them. They seem to subscribe to the After Earth School of thinking that no fear or anger means having no emotions at all. You have to remember, Luke was constantly afraid and even lost his temper in the original trilogy plenty of times, and I believed him much more as a Jedi than anyone on this council. Fear and anger are natural emotions to have, as is the desire to fall in love. Things like those alone aren’t enough to bring out the worst in people, and from a screenwriting perspective, the lack of it makes it much harder to empathize with them. At the end of the day, the Jedi are human like all of us, but if anything, this need to purge one’s emotions and fear borders on the sociopathic, hypocritically making them more like the Sith than they themselves admit. Nothing about this code makes any sense.

As far as characters go, they aren’t any better. Ewan McGregor is still solid as Obi-Wan, and even has one hilarious exchange with an alien trying to sell him “death sticks” that feels straight out of Episode IV’s Cantina scene. However, that still isn’t enough to make up for the character’s occasional brashness (like jumping out of a window in an early chase), and the fact that he quite obviously looks bored wandering around the blue-screen Kamino facilities. At least with Jar Jar, he had someone on set to actually interact with, but McGregor looks completely lost having to talk to imaginary CGI creatures for such lengthy stretches, and by the time he has his first encounter with bounty hunter Jango Fett, played by Temuera Morrison, he looks shocked to be talking to an actual human being. All of this wouldn’t be a problem if he was properly directed, but like I said before, Lucas isn’t much of an actor’s director, so that’s all just a pipe dream.

Even worse, his friendship with Anakin, you know, that noble and selfless starpilot he always spoke highly of in A New Hope, feels badly tainted by its treatment here. We’re constantly told about what good friends they are, but their actions speak differently, with the two of them always appearing acidic and disrespectful to each other. Now I think of that scene in IV, and I snicker.

So with that said, let’s talk about Anakin in this movie. Anakin is awful! Yes, even though Jake Lloyd is nowhere to be seen, somehow this older incarnation of the character is *even more* annoying. From the very beginning, he comes off as an easily temperamental and spoiled brat, but that gets even worse as the movie goes on, with him repeatedly bad-mouthing Obi-Wan behind his back and talking about what a powerful Jedi he is (even without the Emperor’s seduction, might I add), is a supposedly intelligent character making exclusively stupid decisions, throwing laughable tantrums, and is given some of the most unbearable dialogue this side of an M. Night Shyamalan film. All the while barely having any of the noble qualities he was described within A New Hope. To those who said Jar Jar Binks killed Star Wars, NO! This message needs to be spread loud and clearly. This whiny, stalker-face, empty *parody* of Darth Vader’s younger self is the worst thing that has ever happened to the saga, and I will hear no arguments otherwise.

The thing that makes him even more unbearable is the ridiculous Romeo & Juliet forbidden romance with Padme that he gets placed in. I love Natalie Portman, but she must feel embarrassed to be attached to material like this. As a couple, Padme and Anakin don’t appear to have much in common with each other, with the two consistently talking about how they feel about each other rather than actually expressing them, and the two look visibly uncomfortable with each other. They have absolutely no chemistry with each other. Even if they did, there are so many fatal warning signs that Padme always conveniently ignores because… he’s handsome, maybe. I can think of no other reason why. Anakin is a guy who constantly makes creepy and uncomfortable comments, gives her the creepiest stalker smiles, makes awful sand analogies, constantly bolsters his own ego talking about his abilities, badmouths his teacher, admits to supporting fascist political practices, makes inappropriate advances on her that he subtly blames her for, throws childish fits, and admits to murdering an entire village of alien creatures in rage. Any sane woman would immediately see the red flags and flee for the hills, and yet, for whatever reasons, she still ends up falling in love with and marrying him anyway?!

Oh... Wait. I guess it was the will of the Force. I guess the midi-chlorians told them so they could give birth to Luke and Leia. Yeah, that’s probably it.

Even in the action department, usually a highlight of any piece of Star Wars media, the film is sorely lacking, with many of them extending far beyond the breaking point, padding the film with needless effects exercises, holding no tension because of our lack of care for the characters, and have a laughably over the top nature. An early chase through the skyways of Coruscant (which resembles Blade Runner more than Star Wars) is an eye sore with nonsensical geography, and feels like the video game tie-in developers took over for half the time. An aforementioned chase between Obi-Wan’s starfighter and Fett’s Slave 1 starship has absolutely no reason to exist, and a sequence where Padme and Anakin are escaping from a hazardous conveyor belt is ridiculous and disenchanting. At least a small fight between Jango and Ob-Wan on Kamino is some fun to watch, but that’s not enough to cut it for me. The most boring of them all is the Geonosis arena, which begins with the trio of leads facing off against giant creatures Gladiator-style, but eventually devolves into an overlong and tensionless cacophony of crap flying at the screen, and even manages to forever ruin the novelty of the lightsaber by sheer multitude of them.

I think the one that irritates me the most is the final confrontation with Dooku. Now, is it awesome to see the then 80 year old Christopher Lee wielding a lightsaber? Yes, but absolutely nothing here does that sight justice, with an early, personal infuriation being when he just randomly uses force lightning. This is of course referencing the Emperor’s same ability to do so in Return of the Jedi, which I always thought made him unique in that he was so evil and toxic that he poisoned the force itself to make such unnatural elements. Now that Dooku is able to do it, that uniqueness is completely thrown down the trash chute. This was MY midi-chlorians.

The sequence continues with Obi-wan facing the Count one on one, getting injured and having Anakin fight him, with the film all of a sudden adopting an “art-house” style fight in the dark with blue and red shades of light, before Anakin leaves himself exposed for the Count to cut off his arm. Yoda then enters the scene, with the two testing their abilities with the Force, and then engaging in an epic lightsaber duel. This entire duel is stupid for two reasons. One, Yoda jumping around like Speedy Gonzalez is one of the most unintentionally funny moments in Sci-Fi action history. Two, it completely goes against Yoda’s entire character, as throughout the saga (including the prequels) he has preached about the importance of being at peace with the force, and yet here he’s jumping around trying to chop Christopher Lee – clearly struggling to fight with the CGI character – to tiny pieces. God, this movie is terrible.

Are there any saving graces? Not many. The only thing about Attack of the Clones that I can say is unanimously good is its sonic elements. Some of Ben Burtt’s finest work in the saga is present in this film, and the man leaves no stone unturned in helping the viewers be easily able to follow the complicated set ups of the film. While the early chase through Coruscant is an eye sore, if you watch that scene again, just close your eyes and listen to the sounds of the movie. It’s incredible stuff. Burtt contributes equally stunning new alien calls, robot sounds, heavy machinery, and weapon sound effects. I think my favorite sound effect in the entire prequel trilogy is the sonic bomb that Jango fires at Obi-Wan. Just listen to that thing! The heavy bass and vibrations, the volume and magnitude, the intimidating reverberations, GAH!!! It’s unbelievable! Give the man another Oscar for that alone!

Also giving the film better sound than it deserves is John Williams, who adds in new themes to continually interact with his older classics, including the majestic “Across the Stars” love theme that makes Padme and Anakin’s romance feel much more powerful than it actually is. There’s also some great new action material, a new eerie theme for Kamino, an action motif for Jango, and even Yoda’s theme gets a suitably grand arrangement during his battle with Dooku. His closing tracks leading into the ending credits are especially beautiful. I could listen to it over and over again.

Now it feels awkward to all of a sudden be raving about a movie I was just ripping to shreds a couple minutes ago.

So that concludes my analysis of Attack of the Clones, which I can comfortably call the worst episode of Star Wars. It may not be as heavy on racial stereotypes as Phantom Menace was, and Jar Jar plays a much smaller role, but I still maintain that it was neither as grating nor personality-free as this overstuffed, blandly acted snoozefest. It doesn’t deserve to exist in the Star Wars universe, contradicting much of the central lore, wasting its talented cast (including then newcomers Rose Byrne and Joel Edgerton) on one-note shells, and even as popcorn entertainment has absolutely no sense of genuine fun. It certainly proved that The Phantom Menace was no fluke for Lucas after all, clearly having lost all of the attachment he once had with these characters, using his actors as tools to advance from one set-piece to another, and has only gotten worse with age. Even the effects don’t hold up in this disaster the scale of Jurassic Park III.

Needless to say, everyone was justified in expecting the worst out of the future third prequel, with all of us ready to put this trilogy to rest once and for all. Was it as bad as we thought it would be?

For the answer, join me next week.

*1/2 / *****

No comments:

Post a Comment