Monday, July 9, 2012

Defending the Star Wars Prequels: Attack of the Clones

OK, here's the tricky part of this series that I'm doing here. While I do think the prequels as a whole are worth defending, and yes, while I do fully intend to defend "Attack of the Clones", I also will admit fully that it is the weakest "Star Wars" film by far.

Since I want to make it clear that I'm not really a fan of this movie, before I get to defending it, I want to cite my major problems with it.

While the plot of "The Phantom Menace" lacked any real structure or motivation, it still made sense. Trade Federation sets up blockade against Naboo. Galactic Senate sends Jedi to resolve the situation. The Trade Federation, prompted by the Sith Lord, Darth Sidious, breaks Galactic law by invading Naboo and attempts to get Queen Amidala to sign a treaty to appease the Galactic Senate. The Jedi help Amidala escape but they crash land on Tatooine, where they find a boy named Anakin Skywalker, who one of the Jedi believes is a chosen one prophesied to bring balance to the Force. They all go to Coruscant where the Senate is unconvinced by Amidala's pleas, leading her to submit a vote of no confidence in the Chancellor and go fight her own battle. Ultimately, the supportive Senator Palpatine becomes the new Chancellor. Meanwhile, the Jedi Council refuses to train Anakin, leading him to be taken on as an apprentice to Qui-Gon Jin. During the battle to take back Naboo, Qui-Gon dies, leaving Anakin in the care of Obi-Wan Kenobi. Naboo is won back with the help of the native Gungans and the Trade Federation is presumably ousted from the Galactic Senate while the Gungans are given a say in Naboo's political matters.

It might not be the most INTERESTING plot, but it DOES make sense and it DOES set up the over-arching plot regarding Palpatine's master plan.

Palpatine basically had little interest in the success or failure of the Trade Federation. He just wanted to become Chancellor. He probably would have preferred the Trade Federation succeed, since losing probably set his plans back a few years, but he still got his brass ring. If Amidala hadn't been rescued by the Jedi, he probably would have still used the Trade Federation's coup as a way of inciting a vote of no confidence from SOMEONE upset with the circumstances once it went public, and my guess is that if the Trade Federation won, it would have launched straight into a war that would have given him emergency powers much sooner. However, with the victory of Naboo, it set his plans back a bit.

But in "Attack of the Clones", his plan really makes no damn sense.

So the Jedi Syfo-Dyas commissioned a clone army to be created shortly after the events of "The Phantom Menace". It's never explicitly said in the movie, but lets assume he knew what the Sith were up to and wanted to be prepared. Then Count Dooku, who had somehow been corrupted by Darth Sidious, killed Syfo-Dyas and hid the cloning planet Kamino from the archives so no one would find out about it. Darth Sidious and Count Dooku then take advantage of the fact that only they know about the clones and somehow implant Order 66 into their minds.

Meanwhile, Darth Sidious has to deal with the fact that his greatest ally, the Trade Federation, has now lost most of its power and its position within the Senate. However, with the help of Count Dooku, he turns other systems to his side under the banner of the Separatists.

His plan, it seems, is to set the Separatists against the Republic and give the Republic the clone army to fight with. Then if the Separatists win, the Republic and the Jedi Order are finished and he rules the galaxy, and if the Republic wins, he uses the clones to kill the Jedi Order and rules the galaxy. It's the Xanatos Gambit.

So far so good, right?

Now this is where it kind of stops making sense.

All he needs to do is to make the Republic aware of the clone army without showing that he or Count Dooku knew anything about it. To this end, he has an assassin go after Padme Amidala then has ANOTHER assassin kill THAT assassin, leading the Jedi to track down Jango Fett, ultimately finding the cloning operation right when they conveniently need it most.

OK... why not just send them an untraceable anonymous message pointing out that a planet is missing from the archives? Then they send a Jedi to investigate and you accomplish the same thing without depending on the Jedi being clever and trying to track down two assassins. SO MUCH could have gone wrong with this overly-complicated plan.

I DO understand why he sent an assassin after Amidala. It was his way of appeasing the Trade Federation and it also got her out of the Senate so that Jar Jar could be stupid and give Palpatine emergency powers. But he didn't have to make his "tell the Jedi about the clones" plan entirely dependent on the outcome of "get Amidala out of the way" plan. He might as well have been begging to fail.

So the plot is pretty damn contrived to make everything connect to everything else even when it makes no sense.

Next, yes, Hayden Christensen and Natalie Portman almost never have any genuine chemistry together. There's one good scene where they're frolicking in a field that I think actually works. They're having fun, they're casually talking about politics and power, and I could believe for a second that they COULD fall in love. The problem is that we never SEE them fall in love. They just ARE SUDDENLY SUPPOSED TO BE IN LOVE ACCORDING TO THE SCRIPT. It makes all of their poorly-written romantic scenes unbearable. Poorly-written romance scenes are sometimes passable (they have an entire GENRE for crying out loud) but only when the characters have believable chemistry and its understandable WHY they're in love. We never get that from these two characters.

The fight scene between Obi-Wan, Anakin, and Count Dooku fails to be as compelling as the fight from "The Phantom Menace", primarily because it's difficult to believe that Dooku is actually this good. Darth Maul had an intimidating physical presence and a nimbleness that made you believe that he could take on two Jedi at once and hold his own. Dooku is intimidating, but not physically. The way the fight plays out, it seems like Dooku is only winning because Anakin is an idiot, and that does not make a compelling fight.

Next, C-3PO is REALLY unfunny in this movie. They basically got rid of Jar Jar and then tried to have C-3PO fill the gap, hoping that maybe it would work if the stupid comic relief came out of a recognizable character rather than a new character everyone hated. Nope, didn't work. He almost single-handedly kills the pacing in the third act whenever he shows up. It's abysmal.

Lastly, the new locations they develop for this movie are FAR less interesting than in "The Phantom Menace". Kamino is basically as simple as Cloud City with the most generic-looking aliens you'll ever see. Geonosis comes off as Tatooine but with more canyons. It all felt much smaller and less richly developed.

OK, so those are my major problems with the movie out of the way.

Now for my defense.

Speaking SOLELY for myself, I think Hayden Christensen is fine as Anakin Skywalker. People say he's whiny and immature, but that's the way the character is WRITTEN. That's not Hayden's fault. Personally, I think it makes sense for the character at this stage in his life. He grew up dreaming of leaving Tatooine, seeing the stars, making a name for himself, and coming back to free the people he cared about. Then he believed his dream came true. He got to leave and he got to become a Jedi, traveling the galaxy and living up to his potential. However, he is expected to answer to his superiors and do as they say. We know that his thoughts still dwell on the life he left behind and he likely believes that he's powerful enough to go back, free his mother, and live with her again as a new man, but he knows that the Jedi would never allow it. This is frustrating to him. He feels as though he has no control and has to give up everything he cares about. It's reasonable that he would be frustrated with Obi-Wan. Most of all, when he returns to Tatooine and watches his mother die, he snaps. He feels guilty for leaving her behind. He feels guilty for never coming back sooner. He feels powerless and so he lashes out with unbridled hate. This is why I think his infamous breakdown after the death of his mother works. Yes, it's pathetic and over-emotional, but let's see how you act if you ever have to watch your mother die and then killed a whole bunch of people in anger. It feels emotionally genuine.

Just like with Jake Lloyd, the decision was for Anakin's actor to portray genuine emotion first and foremost, and I think he definitely manages that when it counts.

I'm not saying they couldn't have found a better actor, but I think Hayden gets more crap than he deserves for his performance.

I think people were just upset that Anakin wasn't a badass like Darth Vader. They felt like it undermined the character they were terrified of when they were younger.

Now let me talk briefly about falling to the Dark Side.

I have played a lot of "Star Wars" video games and watched a lot of fan-films and read a few Expanded Universe books. In almost every single one, whenever we see a Jedi fall to the Dark Side, it is always for really poorly explained reasons. One of the worst I can remember is in "Knights of the Old Republic", where the character Bastila spends the entire game lecturing you whenever you do something slightly bad. Then she gets captured and then with NO PRIOR IMPLICATIONS, she suddenly falls to the Dark Side off-screen.

What I really love about the portrayal of Anakin Skywalker in the prequels is that we understand why he falls in the end. We SEE the conflict within him. It is done believably and when he finally submits to the Dark Side in "Revenge of the Sith" it makes sense and has weight.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. We're still talking about "Attack of the Clones".

I also think that a lot of the action scenes work. The gladiator pit scene is one of my personal favorite action sequences from "Star Wars", at least until the Jedi and C-3PO show up and it becomes a clusterfuck. Yoda's fight with Dooku is amazing, but criminally short.

I do enjoy quite a bit from this movie, though admittedly I tune out a lot of it whenever I watch it.

Hey Keira Knightley's character just got killed. Too bad. Dum de dum de dum bad dialogue, dum de dum de dum OOH it's the guy who played Mouse from the Matrix! Haha, deathsticks. Dum de dum de dummmm more bad dialogue and investigating that doesn't really have a clear objective dum de dummm OOH fight with Jango Fett! Cool! Aww man, Slave One! Badass! Dum de dum de dum...

And it goes on like that. There are parts that I like, but the rest just kind of... happens. "A New Hope" and "Empire Strikes Back" have much better structure. There are no wasted moments. "Attack of the Clones" has way too much fat. Lucas either should have trimmed it or converted it into muscle. As it stands we have a whole lot of pointless scenes that accomplish very little and mostly just pad for time.

So I don't have much else to say beyond that. Like I said, definitely the weakest movie and the least defensible. Even so, I think people have a greater tendency to attack the portrayal of Anakin Skywalker just because he doesn't match what they expected. I don't think that's fair. I think Anakin works in the context of the series, but I'll deal with that head-on next time when I wrap this series up.