Sunday, March 21, 2010

Star Wars marathon: Episode II

Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones (2002, George Lucas)

After the lofty expectations embedded within the minds of Star Wars fans and geeks were crushed with the oddity that was The Phantom Menace during the spring of 1999, movie goers approached 2002’s Attack of the Clones with slightly more caution. Still, the fact remained that this was a Star Wars film, and with recent memories of what little Episode 1 did to fit into the franchise’s overarching mythology (or do very much that was of genuine interest), any ideas of Episode II sweeping into theatres with low expectations was wishful thinking. After all, with one chapter having not fulfilled the dreams of fanboys already down, Episode II simply had to deliver.

This second instalment features a significant shift in the timeline, occurring a solid decade after the conclusion of the previous story. The Republic and its heartbeat, Coruscant, are experiencing political and social strife as several planets and systems have expressed disillusionment and a clear desire to gain independence. With the possibility with full out war ever growing, the Senate, still with Palpatine (McDiarmid) as its Chancellor, debates the possibility of creating a Republican army. As former Queen Amidala (Portman), now a senator, arrives on Coruscant to participate in the debate, a vicious attempt is made on her life. The Jedi Council bring in Obi-Wan Kenobi (McGregor) and his student Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) to protect her. The adventure that follows sees Obi-Wan and the Jedi witness the beginning of the great Clone War while Anakin and Padmé realize that they cannot suppress the deep feelings they have for one another...

Attack of the Clones gets many things right. I liked it back in 2002 when it was originally released, I enjoyed when it came out on DVD some time later, and I had a good time watching it earlier this week for the purpose of the current marathon. Till this day I’m surprised that such a great number of Star Wars fans think ill of it, practically lumping it into the same category as Episode 1. The movie is not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but some of the criticism it receives is particularly harsh, to the point of being uncalled for.

One of the most important elements that works well in Episode II is the tone of the film. In contrast to its immediate predecessor which was too often content with remaining childish and family friendly, this episode has a far more serious and murky feel to it. Gone is the sweet 8-9 year old Anakin, Jar Jar Binks’s screen presence is refreshingly limited, many of the locations visited by the characters have a pressing sense of mystery and danger about them, and by the movie’s conclusion one has the sense that not only are the scores between the forces of good and evil not settled, but that even greater troubles lay ahead for our heroes. It’s this sense of foreboding danger and mystery that I as a viewer required to really get into this prequel trilogy. Let’s not kid ourselves, this thing is supposed to end poorly for the antagonists, am I right? It isn’t as if there are any questions about the eventually fate of the many heroes we see go through the trials and tribulations of Attack of the Clones. Lucas sets in motion many plot points, all of which will directly lead into the creation of the Galactic Empire as well as the fall of the Jedi and I truly thought most of them were interesting. In Bill’s review of Episode 1, he explained how it was the politicking and slimy manoeuvring on the part of Senator Palpatine that interested the most, and while I wouldn’t go so far as to say that it was the politicking that retained my attention more than anything else in this chapter, I did feel that the few moments which dealt with big political decisions (such as the Senate vote for a Republican army) or the secret meetings between Count Dooku (Sir Christopher Lee) and the representatives of the independence seeking planets had greater meaning to them.

Going hand in hand with the tone is the scope. Attack of the Clones doesn’t prance around with trade disputes, no sir. Right from the get go it is made clear that the fate of the entire Republic is in considerable danger. There is a greater sense of immediacy to this film which was sorely needed from the outset. The viewer has the sense that the actions and decisions made by the characters in Episode II will carry over into future instalments from greater impact than almost anything done in Episode I. The birth of the Clone army, Anakin and Padmé meeting once again after so many years of being apart, Count Dooku and Darth Sidious conniving behind the entire galaxy’s back to start a galactic war, etc. This episode feels very much more in sync with the rest of the saga which, and I can’t really help the fact that I feel this way, it is a considerable improvement because of that.

The superior quality of Attack of the Clones can also be discovered in the presentation of the key players, most notably Anakin Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi. The Episode II Anakin is compelling and possesses far more revealing personality features that hint at what is to come, and yet if only he could control some of them, he could easily become a great hero. He is brave but also brash, passionate about many things but approaches them with too much intensity at times, skilled in the Jedi ways but demonstrates sporadic and foolish overconfidence. He is a complicated and fully realized character in Episode II, one that, if the circumstances are right, could prove to be virtuous and just, but there are many darker aspects to his personality which set him apart from the rest of the Jedi. But not all the credit can go to Lucas for finally giving us a compelling Anakin. Hayden Christensen gives a fine performance. He embodies all the fantastic ambiguity about Anakin that we should expect. Not since Han Solo in Episode IV has there been a character with such contradictory features. Protagonist or antagonist? There seems to be a little bit of both in him.

One of the central plotlines of the film is the flowering love between him and his long time dream girl Padmé Amidala. This is perhaps were Lucas loses his way somewhat. I don’t mean that nothing about their relationship is satisfying, nor that the two actors don’t work well with one another. On the contrary, the two have some nice early scenes together. In fact, in the general scheme of things, I didn’t think they were that bad. I’ll even do you one better: I thought they were decent together. I even felt that were was indeed a modicum of chemistry between the two actors. That’s correct readers, just cringe as I give passing marks to the performances of Hayden Christensen and Natalie Portman! Hold on a moment now. Did I not mention that it is in the love story element of the film where Lucas showed signs of weakness? Well, it is, but those signs are mostly relegated to the moments when the two lovers pour their hearts out. On each occasion (the Naboo palace balcony scene, the fireplace scene and during their entrance as prisoners into the Geonosis gladiator arena) everything which I liked about their relationship was given the shaft. They suddenly spewed wooden and forced dialogue which sounded as though Lucas was desperately searching for fantastic and memorable lines (memorable for the right reasons, mind you) but it all fell flat on his face. Actually, allow me to correct myself: it all fell flat on the face of the actors because the quality of their performances seemed to diminish considerably during these moments. I don’t think anybody on that set knew it is meannt to tell a love story. This is the only aspect to Episode II that truly irks me. By the end of the story, I’m always under the impression that Padmé and Anakin fall into each other’s arms because the script say so, or because they’re hot, or because they have to make Luke and Leia, or for whatever contrived reason. I just don’t fully buy their romance and most of that stems from those poor scenes when they reveal their feelings, because a lot of what happens before is just fine. It’s frustrating, but you can’t win them all I suppose.

Even though he has no love interest, the best character in Attack of the Clones is unquestionably Obi-Wan Kenobi. The same character was terribly bland in the previous chapter and Ewan McGregor’s performance was among the worst in that movie. 10 years later (the movie’s universe) and Kenobi is a more experienced and more powerful Jedi. He also has more of a personality. He too shows good range as a character. Teacher, parent, friend, warrior, Obi-Wan too is more interesting here than he was not so long ago. McGregor is really beginning to sink his teeth into the role in Attack of the Clones, giving his character the impression of being wise, brave and, interestingly enough, sometimes just as ill tempered as his student (I love the scene when he barks at Anakin to find an assassin hiding in a Coruscant bar while he walks off to buy himself a drink). Lucas was wise enough not to make this young Obi-Wan too virtuous and perfect. Anakin complains about his mentor being overly critical, and in many ways he is correct in that assessment. Obi-Wan behaves like a pain in the ass. We’ve all dealt with teachers, parents and co-workers who were above our pay grade that always found that annoying negative thing to say even when we were so sure to have things all figured out and under control. McGregor reminds the audience that Obi-Wan is not just a stuck up snob however. There are moments, albeit brief, when he expresses admiration and feelings that can only stem from a legitimate friendship. I actually really like how the Obi-Wan/Anakin relationship is shaping up in the prequel trilogy. I get the impression that the eventual downfall of Anakin Skywalker is not merely his own doing, but results from the often complex relationship between he and his mentor. I think Obi-Wan really likes Anakin, but they are not siblings. They are teacher and student. For that reason I’m under the impression that Obi-Wan feels he needs to always distance himself to a certain degree from his young learner and never really become a true friend. Because of that, Obi-Wan does not fully equip himself with the necessary tools to help Anakin when the latter begins to reveal his less compelling character traits. They have a far more complex relationship that I had expected at the outset of the prequel trilogy and I like it even more than I thought I would because of it.

In writing my Episode 1 review, I mentioned how I enjoyed the world in which that movie occurred, even though the story left to be desired. Much of that had to do with the prequel trilogy taking place at a time when the Jedi are numerous and apply the law throughout the galaxy. Attack of the Clones ups the ante in that department with a 20 minute climax (it’s longer if you count the gladiator battle which immediately precedes it)featuring more Jedi action than I think anyone could have anticipated. As someone who enjoyed the action sequences in The Phantom Menace, I was even more entertained by those featured in this film. As the climax evolves, Star Wars fans are given a double treat: e a full scale war on the plains of Geonosis and the actual beginnings of the Clone War, with battle droids, tanks and ships participating in a massive battle against the newly created Republican army of clone soldiers who...oddly look like some villains we shall discover later in the series. The final confrontation in the film pits the nefarious Count Dooku against the unlikeliest of all warriors, master Yoda. Admittedly, I think the concept of a lightsaber battle involving Yoda must have sounded great during the pre-production meetings, but I’ve always been lukewarm to the final product on film. It’s different, I’ll give Lucas and his team that much credit, but is it really a good fight? I’m not sure. It looks as if Count Dooku is swinging madly at a ball of Blubber more than anything else.

Within the framework of the series

I’ve already mentioned how part of the enjoyment I gather from the movie is in how it sets story elements in motion that will carry over into the rest of the franchise. That isn’t limited to the large scale plot points, it carries over into the smaller details, such as the human source for the Republican clone army. If you weren’t a Bobba Fett fan back in the day, then this Episode II detail doesn’t mean much to you, but for the rest of us, the history of Bobba Fett, the infamous bounty hunter, and how that ties into the overall arc of the saga was interesting. The same goes for the cameo appearance by non other than everyone’s favourite weapon of mass destruction, the Death Star.

The most ambiguous one is certainly the Jedi’s diminishing ability to use the Force, as Samuel L Jackson’s character puts it. That revelation is never really explained. Is this due to stagnation in the evolution of the Jedi? Is it because they can sense a greater force (no pun intended) than theirs gathering a storm against them but are uncertain of its source? Do they even know why? I don’t think the issue is tackled very well, although I like the notion of the Jedi, because they are so in tune with the flow of the Force, actually sensing their own decline. It’s what a people can feel when the river starts to dry up: they can still perform some tasks but they are suddenly confronted with serious limitations in their resources and with the worries of what to do once all of it is gone.

It is a shame that the critical moments of Anakin and Padmé’s tragic love don’t create sparks on screen, otherwise I’d gladly heap even more praise onto the movie. The characters are interesting, the acting is better, the plot makes more sense in the grander scheme of things, and Lucas succeeds in creating even better actions sequences than we witnessed in the previous episode. Now things are getting interesting.

Now go read the review at Bill's Movie Emporium!


Anonymous said...

Wow, you went in exactly the opposite direction I expected. It's not that I had expectations of you per se, but rather that years of being one of the few I know who actually like AOTC prepared me for you not liking the film at all. I'm quite happy that you did like it, and honestly other than a few points in your review there's not a whole lot I disagree with.

Said issues will be tackled in my rebuttal, but this time around I do believe we are even more in agreement. :)

edgarchaput said...

I always had the impression that Star Wars fans took what they didn't like about Episode II and made those problems sound bigger than they ever were, and by extension created more problems that never even existed. The cgi Yoda is a problem? Give me a break...

Anonymous said...

You hit the nail on the head buddy. I know that most of us film nerds are a nitpicky bunch, but there comes a time when you nitpick too much, or get worked up over the trivial things in a movie.

I know I personally was shocked when people complained about CG Yoda, I thought the puppet Yoda looked terrible in TPM and that the CG version of him was a huge step in the right direction in AOTC.

just linda said...

Aye - AotC is the the Star Wars film I watch most frequently although I do enjoy the beginning of the story in TPM, Qui-Gon, Shim and yes, those midichlorians. Can't watch RotS much (although I saw it the most times in the theater) due to the tragedy of it all. Seriously- after I watch RotS always takes me a day or two to set things right again. But AotC - just feels more positive even though we all know where things are heading. Love seeing the glory years of the Jedi.

edgarchaput said...

Yes, I'd say AOTC is unfairly maligned. It has far more positives than negatives, but people tend to gripe about the negatives until no end.

Unknown said...

Agreed on all counts. This is the only one of the prequels I actually like, and I'll go as far as to say the opening chase scene through the city is one of my favorite Star Wars things ever. I like Obi-Wan going on his little detective side plot, I liked the gladiator battle near the end. Really, the only thing bad about this one is the horrible dialogue in the romance scenes. Excise those and you have a fun adventure movie.

edgarchaput said...

Thanks for comments Nathan. Glad to see your on board. Poor little Episode II needs all the love it can get.