Comics Ate My Brain

May 20, 2007

Instant Army’s Gonna Get You: Star Wars, Episode II: Attack of the Clones

Filed under: star wars — Tom Bondurant @ 10:30 pm
Attack of the Clones starts somewhat tentatively, but it finishes well.

Actually, it’s a little strange to describe AOTC‘s opening as “tentative,” since it features the destruction of a big chrome Naboo cruiser. After that sequence, though, the movie takes what I would call a turn towards “aggressive exposition” — as you might guess, exposition with a lightsaber. Because Teen Anakin is the only character unfamiliar from Phantom Menace, the movie has to present him as both a convincing Jedi and a convincing suitor for Padme. Obviously, the Jedi side has the easier job.

It is not quite an act of faith to accept Anakin and Padme’s love, but the movie doesn’t make the best case. Anakin’s fumblings and emo tendencies can be rationalized in large part by his bizarre upbringing: child slave thrust into a seedy adult world and just as suddenly taken out of it for an adolescence filled with adventure and monastic discipline. AOTC offers viewers the first look at Jedi younglings, clearly younger than Anakin was at the start of his training, and no doubt possessed of much greater control of their emotions. With ten or so years having passed since Phantom Menace, Anakin has gone through the bulk of puberty consumed by the visions of his fantasy woman, probably waiting and hoping for the chance to see her again — but bereft of anyone else in his life who’d encourage those feelings or at least get him to work on his social skills. I daresay Anakin didn’t run the “sand” speech by Obi-Wan before putting it to the test.

Padme’s side of the relationship is harder to figure. Perhaps there’s some idealization of Anakin on her part too. He did risk his life — twice — to help her. Anakin and Obi-Wan may even represent Padme’s ideal of the Jedi role in the Republic: great power used wisely, and under the direction of the Supreme Chancellor. Padme is clearly older than Anakin, though, making it very unlikely that she would have any romantic feelings for him back then. Her physical attraction to him, together with the knowledge that as a Jedi he’s almost certainly not involved with anyone else, might have combined for the final push over the cliff.

(That’s either one of the more insightful things I have ever written, or one of the more embarrassingly clueless — U-Decide!)

In any event, they do have some chemistry, especially by the time they team up to rescue Obi-Wan. It wasn’t hard for me to believe they would be together after that point. Their secret wedding is both the movie’s logical “happy ending” and a nice cliffhanger, considering what we know about Anakin’s future. Similarly, the climactic reviewing-the-troops scene is also presented as a triumphal moment, assuming that the troops’ ultimate development is unknown to the viewer. Attack of the Clones succeeds in making its heroes’ achievements wonderful and terrible at the same time.

It also has the advantage of playing with the viewer’s reaction to Phantom Menace. The destruction of the Naboo starship is just the first step in “dirtying” TPM. Jar Jar is pushed to the background and manipulated by Palpatine, Shmi is brutalized, and Nute Gunray and Watto are tragic figures, trying to make up for their TPM failures.

The locations AOTC explores are also more rugged than Naboo: the isolated Lars farm, the lower-rent areas of Coruscant, the perpetually stormy Kamino, and the rocky wastelands of Geonosis. AOTC feels more like a Star Wars movie because Star Wars isn’t supposed to be pristine.

Most of this movie is made of action sequences, and these are all pretty entertaining. The CGI flows freely, sometimes betraying the actors’ best attempts to keep up, but on the whole the illusion is effective. In fact, the CGI camerawork occasionally seems more authentic than its human-guided counterpart. There are some impressive “handheld” CGI shots, but for the humans, the standard camera move seems to be just a slow push in on an actor’s face. This especially occurs at the beginning of the movie, and I guess it indicates “intensity.” Overall, though, the movie is put together better than Phantom Menace, and it held my interest more.

I still can’t quite accept the clonetroopers’ equipment. I can buy that an army of clones was grown over a period of ten years based on an order from an obscure Jedi whose identity was stolen, but to then have them outfitted with heretofore-unknown starships, aircraft, and ground-support vehicles, seems a bit much. I didn’t see any shipyards on Kamino, but maybe they were on the other side of the planet. Or, maybe Palpatine threw some black-budget money at one of his defense-contractor buddies ten years ago, and was just waiting for all the clones to come of age.

Doesn’t look like I’ll get to “Clone Wars,” so next up, Revenge of the Sith!

Fish Story: Star Wars, Episode I: The Phantom Menace

Filed under: star wars — Tom Bondurant @ 12:41 am
With the 30th anniversary of the premiere of Star Wars coming up on Friday, May 25, it’s incumbent on me as an old stooge to blog about the films this week. No promises about “Clone Wars”; we’ll just have to see how the week shakes out.

Today was The Phantom Menace, which as it happens premiered on this date eight years ago, and which I don’t think is entirely terrible. It labors under the necessities of a) laying out the Republic’s major players, b) setting up the falls of both the Republic and Anakin Skywalker, and c) being big, bombastic, and entertaining. Some sacrifices had to be made, and these are largely in the areas of dialogue, acting, and directing. Otherwise, it’s a handsome, nice-sounding movie, and it sets a decent stage.

A disclaimer before we get too much farther: I was interrupted in the early moments of TPM by a persistent telemarketer — and yes, watching the film was the better alternative — and I “rested my eyes” a couple of times during the big quadrophenic finish, but other than those things I watched it straight through with few distractions.

Phantom Menace‘s unofficial motto comes from Qui-Gon’s line “There’s always a bigger fish.” For eight years I have wondered what the sea-monster chase scenes had to do with the rest of the movie, beyond showing the Jedi calm under pressure. Watching the sequences today, and considering the bigger picture, the fish-on-fish violence seems to warn about life’s inherent unpredictability. (See also the Tusken Raiders taking potshots at the pod racers, and Empire‘s space slug.) The film suggests that the Republic runs on predictability, structure, and systems, chief among them the Senate and the Jedi Order. I’ve long thought that TPM‘s fascination with parliamentary procedure, midichlorians, and other minutiae was really criticism of such systems and the complacency they breed. Maybe that comes from watching too much Star Trek, but it seems to be a viable reading.

Thus, into these set systems come the film’s two movers and shakers, Qui-Gon Jinn and Senator Palpatine. Both know how to work their respective groups, and both are otherwise willing to use their power to steer outcomes their way. Unfortunately, I can’t quite figure out why Palpatine wants Naboo under Federation control so badly. Back when this was the only prequel, I thought Naboo had, or was, some unique resource that would allow the Sith to rule the galaxy. Watching the film today, the best explanation I could think of was that Palpatine simply wanted an excuse to force the Senate into a vote of no-confidence in Chancellor Valorum, and the obviously unfair balance of power between Naboo and the Federation would by itself provide that excuse. The more suffering the Naboo endured, the better, because the more sympathy it would engender in the Senate.

(Which, of course, reminds me of the Imperial commander’s line about Leia’s capture generating “sympathy for the Rebellion in the Senate,” but we’ll get to that….)

I suppose it’s therefore appropriate that Naboo is treated like a chessboard (somebody even says “we’ve captured the Queen!”) and we never actually see any of its people mistreated. There’s room in TPM for fart jokes and other shenanigans, but not for the horrors of an occupation force. Still, this isn’t The Battle of Algiers; and in keeping with the backhanded defenses, there’s not a lot of evidence of the Empire’s oppression later on either. As the “kids’ movie” of the bunch, Phantom Menace especially isn’t supposed to be bloody, saving the most graphic violence for the ends of Qui-Gon and Darth Maul.

Speaking of Qui-Gon, Liam Neeson might give a detached performance, but he ties the whole movie together. He’s perhaps the most plugged-in character next to Palpatine, but he also functions well as the viewer’s guide. It’s probably because his character is the most free to behave like a member of the audience, occasionally stepping outside of his assigned role to take matters into his own hands. He tries to ditch Jar Jar (understandable) until the latter leads him to Gunga City (also understandable); he tries to convince the Jedi Council that he’s found their messiah; and he does all the negotiating that drives the plot. (Palpatine and Amidala have their own roles in the plot too, but they’re not as prominent.) This is not to say that Qui-Gon acts entirely out of self-interest. Rather, his perception of the common good seems to be slightly different than what his peer group might indicate, so he influences events accordingly.

This is most obvious with regard to his discovery of Anakin. Another plot point which I thought cried out for future reference is the use of the Force with regard to the die-roll which determines Anakin’s fate. Qui-Gon could have freed your mother too, I imagined Palpatine murmuring. He did not, because he wanted you to join the Jedi — and the Jedi frown on children basking in their parents’ love…. Again, the Jedi Code is unapologetically spartan, but the movies only dwell on it with regard to romance. Interestingly enough, there’ s a hint of affection — but just a hint, per Lucas’ direction — between Qui-Gon and Shmi Skywalker, subtly reinforcing the notion that Qui-Gon doesn’t quite follow all of the Jedi dictates. Accordingly, Qui-Gon turns out to be Mr. Foreshadowing: his manipulative tendencies appear again in the older Obi-Wan, and of course his rebelliousness prefigures the attitudes of both Anakin and Luke.

Phantom Menace is loaded with foreshadowing and parallel references, the most obvious of which concern the Trade Federation. Their designs anticipate those of the Empire so much so that I imagined Palpatine engineering a “hostile takeover” of the TF to build his clone military. (As we’ll see, almost the opposite happened.) The treatment of droids sets up the later heroics of Artoo and Threepio. Whole sequences of this movie are intended to remind viewers of similar awards ceremonies, asteroid chases, and multi-front battles in the originals. I’ll never be able to speak to the experience of this being my first-ever Star Wars mvoie, but in terms of watching them all in “intended order,” the foreshadowing and the references can get pretty heavy-handed, which is a nice way of saying they occasionally don’t make much sense unless the movies are watched in release order.

Overall, this time The Phantom Menace reminded me of the first Harry Potter movie. It wants so much to remind viewers of its bona fides that it makes sure to point out when they should cheer, boo, and laugh. It proceeds in fits and starts, with the podrace as the centerpiece. At times it has so many plates spinning that there’s no room to connect with any one subplot. Still, just about every main character gets a good moment that resonates. I’m trying to think of Jar Jar’s … probably the “When yousa thinka wesa in trouble?” line, so yeah, he peaks early. It’s an overstuffed movie which invites fanwankery and continuity maintenance. I’m sure there are books, novels, and comics which explain all of the inconsistencies, and on some level I wonder if that wasn’t the point. Just as Qui-Gon falls victim to a “bigger fish,” Phantom Menace sets the stage for bigger and bigger developments in the still-complacent Galaxy Far, Far Away.

Next: Attack of the Clones!

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