Attack of the Clones. Here we go again…

Hello again! Here we are picking things up again with the Star Wars saga. Today, it’s the second installment in the prequel series, the ridiculously named Attack of the Clones. As I’m sure we all remember, Clones was the stuff of mixed reviews, some critics hailing its special effects and visual style, while others emphasized its flat dialogue and wooden romance.

But even more interesting was the fact that critics were torn over whether it was better or worse than the Phantom Menace. Not a good sign, and the butt of a LOT of jokes and debate. Hard to imagine that fanboys who were united in bashing the PM would find themselves fighting each other over which they thought sucked more!

But to be fair, there were some good points in this movie. So without further preamble, let’s get into it:

Plot Synopsis:
The movie opens with the crawl once again saying that there is a crisis. This time around, it’s the threat of Separatists – led by former Jedi Count Dooku – that’s making things problematic. And once again there is deadlock in the Senate over it. In any case, now-Senator Amidala comes to Coruscant to speak her peace on behalf of those who oppose taking strong measures, and an assassination plot gets underway.

This prompts the Jedi order to send two old friends, Obi-Wan and Anakin, to provide her with added protection. Their introduction is rather painful to behold, as the hormonally raging Anakin begins relating how he hasn’t stopped dreaming of her and tries to make awkward conversation with her. He also picks a fight with his mentor, Obi-Wan, over what their mandate truly is. In the midst of all this, Jar Jar breaks the fourth wall by looking into the camera and smiling at the audience – a sort of, “I’m still here, bitches” for all the fanboys to see!

In another bit of “things to come”, we also learn that Anakin has been having dreams of another woman – his mother. He dreams that something terrible is going to happen, but in the meantime, they must focus on Padme, who’s assassin is still out there. For some reason, they decide to “use her as bait”, which consists of letting her sleep in a window-filled room with nothing but R2 as protection. Didn’t Obi-Wan say they weren’t supposed to be investigating, just protecting? Oh well…

In any case, her would-be assassin sends a probe with some poisonous slugs to attack her. Obi-Wan and Anakin kill said slugs, and Obi-Wan jumps through the window to grab the probe and ride it. Wait, didn’t he say they weren’t supposed to be investigating? Why’s he so determined to follow this probe then? Anakin grabs a speeder, they fly like mad, and chase the attacker through the city. Anakin reveals that this woman is a shape-shifter, a fact which seems superfluous, but whatever. They also performs some stunts that defy the laws of physics, but that’s also unimportant.

After reaching a bar, Obi-Wan and Anakin chase her inside and begin combing the crowd. After a quick re-enactment of the scene from A New Hope (where Obi-Wan sliced off another thugs hand), they drag the shape-shifter outside and learn she’s subcontracting. But of course, her contractor kills her before she can say her name. Obi-Wan, who for some reason was willing to chase the shapeshifter across the planet, just lets him go…

The Jedi Council decides its time to send Padme home, and that Anakin is to go with her. Meanwhile, Obi-Wan is to track down the assassin by himself, a quest which takes him to the world of Kamino. This decision to split them, far from making logical sense, seems more like an excuse to get Anakin and Padme alone. Why send a Padawan off on his own, especially when his master has such misgivings about his attitude and powers?

But anyhoo, things get kind of cool when Obi-Wan arrives on Kamino and learns that former Master Sifo Dyas ordered the creation of a clone army. This, combined with the fact that the location of the planet was removed from the Republic archives memory would seem to indicate that there is a conspiracy afoot. Obi-Wan then meets with the clone template, a bounty hunter named Jango Fett, and is convinced he’s found Padme’s would-be assassin. They fight, Jango escapes, and Obi-Wan pursues him to Geonosis.

Meanwhile, we get a string of scenes that are meant to elicit a romantic response. After following Padme around, complaining bitterly about Obi-Wan and professing his love in a series of ever creepier and wooden dialogue, Padme tells Anakin there’s no way. Why? She’s a Senator… Uh, what? Are Senators not allowed to date? Of course, Anakin can’t because he’s a Jedi, but the very fact that they’re talking about this would seem to indicate the feeling is now mutual. Seems sudden, but neither here nor there…

Arriving at Geonosis, where there’s a massive a droid-building colony, Obi-Wan gets into it with Jango and the Slave I. After thinking he’s killed him (Obi-Wan eludes death by copying Han’s hiding move from Empire), Jango proceeds to planet and Obi-Wan follows shortly behind. After wintessing a meeting between Dooku and the Separatists in which they plan their attack (using their droid and clone armies), Obi-Wan broadcasts his position and is then captured. He meets Dooku, who proceeds to tell him the truth, after a fashion…

He tells Obi-Wan there is a Sith in charge of the Senate, and that his plans are motivated to bring him down. He asks for Obi-Wan’s help, who in a move taken from Empire and Jedi, tells him he “will never join you”. Back on Naboo, Anakin continues to have bad dreams about his mom and decides he must go to Tatooine. He retraces her path, only to discover that she was taken in by some people from the movie – the Lars family, which includes the future Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru.

He learns she was taken by Sandpeople, and catches up with them just in time to watch his mother die, at which point, he and loses it! And I mean REALLY LOSES IT! In a scene we don’t get to see, Anakin takes out his lightsaber and kills the entire community of Sandpeople who kidnapped and tortured his mom, including the women and children. He returns to the Lars family dwelling and tells Padme of his mass murder, to which she replies that it’s no big deal.

I’m sorry, NO BIG DEAL?! Are you freaking kidding me? Seriously, this man just confessed to murdering women and children and all Padme can say is that “to be angry is to be human”? What kind of sociopathic, enabling bullshit is that? Is she so into bad boys that she’s willing to overlook this first-time offense? Or are they in such a hurry to get to the next scene that she’s just got to forgive and move on? And why the hell didn’t the Jedi Order even mention this on his return? We all saw Yoda sensing it? C’mon people!

Alright, moving on… Back on Coruscant, the news of a Separatist army explodes like a bombshell, with Palpatine once again exploiting it for personal gain. Thinking he’s doing the smart and noble thing, Jar Jar moves that Palpatine get emergency powers – a la Octavian – and his first act is to create an army for the Republic. Why they don’t have one already is beyond me, but who cares? Point is, Palpatine has got his way, and Yoda and Mace Windu decide its time to get involved.

Anakin and Padme also get the distress signal from Obi-Wan and decide they will go save him. They arrive on Geonosis too and after a needless scene where they are almost killed in a robot factory, they too are captured. A scene ripped off from Gladiator follows, as they are reunited in a massive Colosseum-type arena to die in a public display. They escape and begin to wreak havoc, and are rescued just in time by the arrival of Mace and the Jedi Order. They fight to a standstill and are surrounded, when Yoda arrives with the Clone army and begins kicking some ass.

A big fight scene ensues on the open plains of Geonosis between droids and Clones, while Obi-Wan and Anakin chase Dooku down. He beats them both in a rather implausible scenario, first managing to cripple Obi-Wan without actually killing him or severing any of his limbs, and then cutting off Anakin’s arm (an obvious preview of the scene from Jedi). Yoda once again shows up to save the day, and in another scene from Jedi, Dooku does his lightning trick.

The fight ends with a stalemate, Dooku runs with Padme shooting at his ship. Once more, a scene from the originals is at work here, this time from Empire when Leia was shooting at the Slave I. But Dooku escapes, makes it back to Coruscant and tells Sideous (Palpatine) that the war is happening, as anticipated. He meanwhile sends the first batch of clones on their new Star Destroyer look-alikes, and Yoda laments that the Dark Side has fallen and “The Clones Wars” have begun.

The movie ends with Padme and Anakin back on Naboo, where they’ve decided to get married after all. But since it’s a secret wedding, the droids are the only parties in attendance. THE END!

What didn’t work:
Well, where to begin? I shan’t dwell on the wooden dialogue or the horrid lack of romantic tension, since those are the popular whipping posts of most critics when it comes to this movie. Instead, I’d like to stick to some of the more obvious weaknesses, those that become more clear with hindsight.

  1. The Set-Up: Things get rolling when we learn that an assassin is trying to kill Padme, presumably because she’s the voice of moderation between the Republic and the Separatists. However, things get really implausible, really fast. For one, why the hell did Jango Fett subcontract anyway. Why not simply kill her himself? And why did this lady use poisonous bugs when a simple bomb would have killed Padme instantly? We saw how easily that probe flew to her window, so why the slow, stupid and easily thwarted approach? Then came how Jango’s involvement led Obi-Wan on his wild goose chase. The only reason he knew to find him on Kamino was because he used a dart which was manufactured there. The only reason he know to fly to Geonosis was because Jango mentioned it to him. And why was Jango pulling double duty with the whole assassination thing anyway? If the Kaminos are such good cloners, anybody’s DNA would do and they could just enhance it. Having him do that and eliminate Padme was just a way to tie the two plots together really and make sure Obi-Wan could find out all that was going on.
  2. Love-Story Contrivances: I know, I said I wouldn’t mock the terrible dialogue, which I won’t. To me, the real weakness here was just how contrived and unnatural the whole love story seemed. Aside from a brief, age-inappropriate meeting ten years before, Anakin and Padme are practically strangers. Having Anakin say that he’s loved her ever since they met was completely forced. On top of that, the way they are sent to Naboo together and all the scenes of them doing lovers things: boating, playing in open fields, eating and retiring to the hearth – are all obvious attempts to try and force a sense of romance. That’s the key word here: force (no pun intended). Between Anakin constantly announcing his feeling for her and all the idyllic scenery they take in, it’s like Lucas was behind us constantly saying “Look, they’re in love!” In the original movie, Lucas took his time to build up the romance between Han and Leia. In the beginning, they couldn’t stand each other, but this concealed some genuine tension. In time, this flourished as they got to know each other and began to start acknowledging each others strengths. In the end, it was clear that their different backgrounds and personalities is what led to their attraction. Throw in some genuine crisis, and they realized they were in love. See? That’s a love story, not this!
  3. Unsubtle Dialogue: Again, said I would avoid talking about the wooden dialogue. Which I am, sort of! My gripe here is just how unsubtle and (again) forced it all was, which is something the critics really didn’t get into. Examples: in the beginning, Anakin announces that he loves Padme when talking with Obi-Wan and Jar Jar. When talking to Padme, Anakin announces that Obi-Wan is an unfair master who’s too hard on him. When sitting around the fire, Anakin announces how much he loves her. Finally, she announces her feelings back. And in this, they are hardly alone. All throughout the movie, actors announce what’s going on as a means to convey what’s happening and to make the audience feel the requisite emotions. Never is time taken to convey feelings, mood, or establish tension the old fashioned way. And this just makes for a bad movie! As Robot Satan said in Futurama: “You can’t have characters just announce their feelings! That makes me SO ANGRY!”
  4. Way Too Much: In the documentary of the making of Phantom Menace, there is a lovely scene where Lucas and his people are watching the screening and there’s this moment of “uh-oh” at the end. They then discuss how Lucas did too much and how that brought down the ending. You’d think between movie one and two, he would have learned from this, but no! In this movie, he tried to do way more. On top of showing how romance developed between Padme and Anakin, he’s also shoved in a big ol’ preview of Anakin’s descent to the Dark Side, how the Clones Wars started, and Palpatine’s evil rise to power. A lot of critics jumped on this, saying that the movie was too long and suffered from a sense of duty. And in that, they were profoundly right! Duty is another key word when describing this movie. Having spent movie one showing where Anakin came from, they now had to preview his fall, where the twins came from, and how the Clone Wars started all at once. And it made for a sloppy feel, with too much happening and things bouncing around from one thing to the next without any of it getting enough development.
  5. Recycling: But alas, all of these faults could have been mediated had it not been for the fact that there really didn’t seem anything new about these movies. All throughout, there is material which seems to serve no purpose than to satisfy origin stories or recapture elements of the first three movies. In Clones, Boba Fett, Luke’s surrogate parents, the Death Star and Vader’s robotic arm are all previewed, and that’s on top of the Clone Wars and the romance plot. Once more it’s like Lucas is behind us saying “Look! That’s how it happened!” But like everything else, it just feels forced. Why not let new characters have their time in the spotlight? Why is it necessary to use every character from the first three movies? And another thing, this movie, more than in the first, uses scenes from the originals like never before. I mean, its one thing to rip off other movies, like the arena scene from Gladiator, but Lucas was even ripping off himself! The scene in the bar where Obi-Wan cuts off the hunters arm, the scene where Obi-Wan hides his ship on the back of an asteroid, the scene where he tells Dooku he won’t turn, the scene with the lighting bolts, the scene at the end where Padma is shooting at Dooku’s ship. All of these are clearly meant to recapture the feeling of the original Star Wars, but they fell short for the simple reason that audiences wasn’t nearly as emotionally involved. There’s paying homage to an original, and then there’s recycling, and this was the latter!
  6. Lazy Shooting: Something else which became apparent by this movie was the lazy way in which it was shot. After Phantom, It was already obvious that Lucas loved to cram as much CGI into every frame as possible. Hell, that much was obvious with the Star Wars Gold Editions! But if you watch the movies again, pay close attention to how EVERY SINGLE scene is shot. In these, you have the actors either walking slowly across the stage or sitting down. Always. Two cameras capture all of their dialogue and exchanges, Camera one, camera two. Always. If they are walking and talking, they will always stop, turn, and go back and forth between camera one and two. Meanwhile, all visual effects and background are provided by a green screen and all CGI characters are represented by colored lights. There are virtually no props, no stand ins, and a minimum of real actors. This, I have learned, reflects Lucas’ preferred way of directing. He sits in his chair at the edge of the green screen and drinks his coffee while the actors interact with each other or lights which tell them where to look. They walk through, stop, turn, or stay seated, do their lines, and his two cameras capture everything. Action shots are handled in much the same way, with only the occasional close-up or distance shot. Unless of course the entire sequence is animated by CGI, which they usually are!
  7. Strengths? Not so much: The strong points about this movie, the ones that critics hailed, mainly had to do with vision and special effects. But here’s the thing: Lucas’ vision in this movie consisted of CGI environments that all seemed to be taken from other movies or real locations. That doesn’t seem very bold or original. And what’s more, even the special effects weren’t so innovative. Clones was launched during the summer of 2002, right about the time that Spider Man, Minority Report and Men in Black 2 were released, all of which made impressive use of CGI. So really, what was so stunning and unique about this movie’s visual effects? And if action was something else about this movie that people liked, consider that it came out at the same time as The Bourne Identity and XXX as well.  So really, this movie was not a stand-out, smash-hit, summer blockbuster. If anything, it was one hit in a summer full of them.

Well, that about covers the weaknesses of this movie. I did my best to avoid the cliched, beaten-to-death talking points, and yet I still feel I hit on them quite a bit. And I really went long there too didn’t I? And yet, I haven’t even mentioned what bothered me personally about this movie. But to do so means ditching all the civilized critique stuff and going all the way back to summer of 2000.

In was back then, between the first two movies movies, that Lucas seemed to be pulling an about face. A year after the Phantom Menace debuted, reassuring rumors began to circulate that Lucas claimed its sequel would be more dark, more realistic and more gritty, kind of like the way Empire was to the first movie. However, these hopes were shot when Lucas announced that the second movie would be a romance story at that Jar Jar would remain in the picture.

When asked about the fans hopes for something more adult and dark, he casually dismissed these and other criticisms by saying that Star Wars had always been a “Saturday morning serial for kids”. This above all else seemed to annoy me, and countless other fans, since it now seemed apparent that Lucas really didn’t care what his age old fans and was going to continue to do the things that was making the new movies incompatible with the old.

However, after movie two he seemed to sit up and take notice of just how annoyed the fans and critics were getting. With one movie left in the franchise, he seemed determined to give these objections some due before the sun set on the prequel trilogy. Of that, more next time. Stay tuned!

 

The Star Wars Prequels, Duty Strikes!

Hello, welcome to my last installment on the Star Wars franchise in honor of May the 4th. Only took six days, and I still got the final three movies to cover. Not my best work. But as they say, we all have lives. Well, some of us do. For those who have nothing better to do than read what I write I can only say… you poor things!

In any case, I promised when reviewing the originals that I would dedicate at least one post to the Star Wars the prequel trilogy. But one can scarcely do that without getting into the whole Star Wars legacy and addressing questions about Lucas himself and the directions he’s taken. Love them or hate them, the prequels remain a bone of contention for original fanboys and the new generation of acolytes.

To start, I’d like to give a very quick recap of the three movies before saying what was good and bad about them.

The Phantom Menace:
This movie was without a doubt one of the most anticipated releases in the history of cinema. After years of waiting and hearing that Lucas intended to revisit his universe with some prequel pictures, fans finally got their big break in the summer of 1999. If you’ve seen some of the footage of opening night, where people were lining up around the block, in costume, kissing the floor upon entry, and waving around multicolored lightsabers inside the theater when the movie came on, then you’ve got idea of just how raw and powerful the atmosphere was.

And yet, the Phantom Menace would also go down in history as one of the biggest disappointments of all time. One could easily say that all the build-up made that inevitable. But there were clearly some other factors as well, and people would spend years speculating on them. Of that, more later. First, let’s recap the plot.

The movie opens with the declaration that there is a taxation dispute going on and that the “greedy Trade Federation” has decided to blockade a remote world named Naboo in protest. Sounds a little dry and implausible but okay. We see two Jedis, Obi-Wan and Qui Gonn, being sent to reach a settlement with said Federation.

But once they get aboard, things get hairy. The Feds destroy their ship, on the orders of some “Phantom” dude who’s clearly manipulating things back home. He orders them to begin an invasion of the planet while he covers their asses in the Galactic Senate. Meanwhile, they try to kill them using poisonous gas and some rather inept robots.

Obi-Wan and Qui Gonn manage to escape, relaying on some sweet combat moves and Jedi springing, stow away on one of the troop transports, and are taken down to the surface. Somehow, they are landed on the other side of planet and must find a way to reach the capitol to “warn the Naboo”. Uh, what good does it do to warn people in the midst of an invasion? And why are they on the other side of the planet if the robots are invading the capitol anyway? Bad navigation console?

They come across a glaring stereotype named Jar Jar, a bumbling Gungan idiot who tells them his people can help. They swim underwater to the Gungan city where the Boss Nass, through a little force persuation, gives them a pod and lets them take Jar Jar with them, mainly because he owes his life to Qui Gonn (echoes of the Wookie life-debt there). They make it to the capitol and manage to the save the princess, a monotone teenage Geisha named Amidala. Turns out, royalty is elected on this world, and she agrees to go with them to Coruscant to plead their case before the Senate.

After a daring escape, which is facilitated by R2, they make it to space. However, there hyperdrive is damaged and they must land on nearby Tatooine. Qui Gonn goes off to find a parts dealer and meets another stereotype, an alien named Watto (who might as well be called Shylock given his caricatured appearance and character). He won’t take their credits, and since they don’t have anything to barter with, Qui Gonn concocts a needlessly convoluted scheme.

Yes, instead of simply going to another dealer or hiring a ship (a la Star Wars I), he decides to back Watto’s slave (a boy named Anakin) in a pod race using his ship as collateral. If the boy wins, Watto keeps the money and Qui Gonn gets his parts. But after determining that the boy is force sensitive – via a midichlorian count, one of the biggest let downs ever! – and (according to his mother) the result of immaculate conception, he decides to up the ante. If the boy wins, he gets to take him and the parts with him. For some reason, he seems completely remorseless about seperating the boy from his mother, but whatever.

Oh, and did I mention he built 3P0 – a factory model protocol droid – from spare parts to help his mom around the house? Weird, I thought these things were designed for, you know, protocol, as opposed to doing dishes! But whatever… He meets R2 and the they have immediate chemistry 😉

After the big ass pod race, clearly inspired by Ben Hur, Anakin wins using his Force abilities and Qui Gonn has his bounty. Their departure is momentarily interrupted when a Sith named Darth Maul shows up, seeking the princess, and Qui Gonn must fight him. They make it out and head to Coruscant, which is introduced for the first time in the franchise, and begin to attend to all the dry political crap that is waiting for them.

There, Senator Palpatine, representative of Naboo (and the man posing as the “Phantom”) tells them they’re in the thick of it. The Chancellor could force the issue but can’t since he’s been marred by accusations of corruption. Palpatine recommends calling a vote of non-confidence to unseat him so that someone less weak-kneed will take over. After finding nothing but gridlock in the Senate, Amidala concedes and makes the motion. Palpatine is happy, since he (surprise, surprise!) gets nominated!

Meanwhile, the Jedi Council has a look at Anakin, and is worried. It seems his fear of losing his mother is a bad thing, at least according to Yoda. Fear, through commodius viccus, leads to the Dark Side. Seems harsh, but this combined with his age, leads to their decision not to train him. Qui Gonn goes to bat for the little kid, but they are stubborn.

However, things change when Amidala decides she must go back home and the two Jedi are ordered to go with her. For some reason, they take Anakin and his two droids too, and Jar Jar is coming too to provide more slapstick. When they arrive, they begin plotting how their going to overthrow Federation occaption. The Gungans are recruited to help, and agree to lure the droid army into a battle as a feint to leave the capitol open. They decide to make Jar Jar, the idiot they exiled for being clumsy, a General and charge him with leading their attack. …Really?

Meanwhile, Amidala, the Jedi and a handful of her security people infiltrate the capitol. After Amidala and her people take the throne room though a little decoy and switch, Qui Gonn and Obi-Wan come face to face with Maul. A brilliant duel ensues, Qui Gonn dies, and Obi-Wan defeats him by pulling a flip and slice routine that frankly, Maul should have been able to prevent. Hell, its the same thing Anakin tries in the third movie and Obi-Wan lopped both legs and one of his arms off! And Maul’s way more badass!

But the really objectionable part comes when Anakin, through sheer dumb luck, ends up commandeering a fighter and flies into orbit with the Naboo fighters to engage the Fed command ship. Those watching couldn’t help but notice that the other ships have all left for some reason, but again, WHATEVER! Anakin, despite the Feds claim that nothing can get through their shields, manages to do just that when he accidentally flies his fighter into their bay and fires some torpedoes into their main reactor. The ship blows up just as Anakin flies out.

Down below, the Gungans are having a hard time tackling the droid army, and Jar Jar’s constant slapstick and bumbling aren’t helping things much. But somehow, he manages to stay alive, and eventually the destruction of the command ship renders all the droids inoperative. The day is won and the capitol celebrates. The Jedi have a memorial and speculate on how Maul must have had an accomplice, since Sith always work in twos. The camera then pans to Palpatine to let us know, as if we hadn’t figured it out already, that he’s baaaad!

And that’s how the movie ends. With lots of fanfare that calls to mind the medal ceremony of the first movie, we see Gungans, the Princess, Obi-Wan and Anakin all standing on ceremony as people cheer and blow horns. The credits rolled, and audiences everywhere were left speechless…

The Reception:
After the movie finished on opening night, it was like the fans everywhere were going “uh, what just happened?” Seriously, if you watch the documentary footage, you can’t help but notice how underwhelming the mood was once the movie was over, nothing close to the electricity that there was going in. It was as if they’d come to witness the second coming and were forced to watch cheep parlor tricks instead. The critics weren’t too kind either, most giving it mixed reviews based on its weak scripting, the inclusion of Jar Jar, the dry political content, and the saccharine character of Anakin.

However, there were good things about this movie too which did not go unnoticed. Just about everyone acknowledged that the pod race and lightsaber duel were worth the price of admission. But overall, this movie fell far short of expectations. And with the benefit of hindsight, the weaknesses became all the more apparent.

  1. The plot stunk of duty: This is something that would become more apparent as the trilogy went on. For all three movies, the entire plot seemed like a set-up for a bunch of explanations. This is a weak basis for a story and makes the audience feel like the movie is plodding along out of a sense of duty rather than a desire to tell a story. In the Phantom Menace, the focus was overwhelmingly on explaining how Palpatine got into power, even if that was only a small part of the story. Aside from that and the introduction of Anakin, there was nothing of importance happening elsewhere. I mean seriously, a taxation dispute? A blockade of a remote world? THESE things put the Galactic Republic in turmoil? I know this was all meant to show how inefficient and corrupt the Republic had become in its dying days, but c’mon! Give us something of consequence!
  2. The plot just plain stunk!: Throughout the first half of the movie, so much happens for which there is no decent explanation. Mainly, audiences just followed it along, waiting to see where it went and only realizing with hindsight that it didn’t make any sense. For starters, why did the Trade Federation agree to this risky scheme when they didn’t even know who they were dealing with? Were they that desperate to getting out of paying their taxes? Second, why was it necessary to fly to the surface to warn the Naboo if they were already being invaded? Third, why did Qui Gonn go through all that trouble just to get some parts? Why not go to another dealer, find a smuggler, agree to pay them ten times what they wanted once they got to Coruscant? Why sponsor a pod race, plot to free a boy, use his force power to manipulate the situation, and ultimately leave the boy’s mother behind in the end? It all seemed so reckless and silly, not what you’d expect from a Jedi Master. What’s more, everybody and their brother was warning him against taking on Anakin, saying they foresaw danger in his training. So why then was he so obsessed with training him, because of that vague prophecy? If this is such an important factor, why weren’t audiences made aware of what that prophecy was? Maybe then we might understand why he was so intent on seeing Anakin become a Jedi and the Council was not. But this was never done, not in this movie or its sequels. And Qui Gonn’s death-bed request that the boy be trained was a pretty weak excuse for the Jedi Council accepting him after all.
  3. One-dimensional characters: There’s this hilarious clip over at Red Letter Media where a guy asks a bunch of people to describe characters from the Star Wars universe. The rules are, say stuff about them without mentioning what they look like or what their job is. In the case of the originals, the people selected could say volumes about Han, Luke, Leia, et al. But with the prequels, they couldn’t say jack! There’s a reason for this. Beyond their basic roles, every character in this movie had no real substance or character. Hell, it wasn’t even clear who the main character was. So many people are the focus of the film and doing things to advance the plot that it doesn’t feel like their is a protagonist at all. Ah, which brings me to point 3!
  4. Who’s the focus here? All good stories have a protagonist. A person’s who’s journey is the focal point of the story and helps the audience to identify with them and become emotionally involved. In the originals, that person was Luke Skywalker. By no means was he the only character, but he was clearly the focus of the story. His own journey of self-discovery was the main driving force of the plot, and his battle with his own demons and his past provided the resolution. In the Phantom Menace, all we get is snap shots of different people doing things to advance the plot towards a resolution, which feels too tidy in the end.
  5. Too much reliance on CGI: It’s an easy thing to criticize a director for relying on CGI, but when you consider the fact that Lucas managed to capture lightning in a bottle using nothing but stop-motion, animatronics and puppets, you have to wonder why he was so obsessed with using the latest technology. Granted, it allowed him to do things he couldn’t before, but it also limited his shoots and made the movie feel incredibly sterile. In just about every shot in this movie, you don’t have real sets and actors on location. You have actors walking in front of a green screen and looking at hanging lights instead of physically real stand-ins. And no matter how advanced the technology, people will always know what they are seeing isn’t real. And when all the backgrounds look so perfectly glossy, clean and packed to the hilt with digital effects, it all just feel fake.

Some Possible Explanations:
As all fans of the Star Wars franchise are aware of by now, Lucas was never that good at scripting or directing. In fact, it was well known that in the first movie, help needed to be brought in to complete the film. In the second movie, that help was on hand from the beginning and it showed. But by the third, Lucas was clearly back at the helm and making the big decisions. With this in mind, it’s little surprise why the Phantom Menace was the way it was. With the success of the original franchise, Lucas had grown richer and more powerful than anyone thought possible, and with companies like Lucas Arts and Industrial Light and Magic behind him, who the hell is going to question him? He’s George freaking Lucas!

Surely, the man must have thought himself immortal by the late nineties when he began writing the script. All those people who used to tell him what to do or challenge him were now gone, replaced by sycophants and suck ups who grew up idolizing him. And can you blame them? It’s George freaking Lucas! How could the creator of Star Wars be wrong?

Sure, there were plenty of cool action scenes and the new technology was pretty damn effective at letting Lucas do all the things he couldn’t do before. But this was Star Wars, dammit! Where were the classic characters, the epic storytelling, the stuff that went beyond special effects and eye-popping visuals? Part of what made the originals so damn good was the depth that went far beyond the ships, guns, and lightsaber duels.

When you look at the originals, at all the things Lucas wanted to do but got called on, you begin to understand. According to rumor, Luke Skywalker was supposed to be a half-cyborg, Han was supposed to be a green alien, and the dialogue was supposed to be a lot more wooden and cheesy than it turned out to be. But thanks to dedicated professionals who knew how to rely on Lucas’ strengths and help him with his weaknesses, something truly awesome and classic was made.

But, as with most things, this success proved to be the downfall. Like Lucas, we all seemed to think he was solely responsible for the creation of Star Wars. Granted he was, in his own words, “the creator as well as the decider” (a cheesy reference to that awful Bushism), but he was never the sole voice of the project. Literally everybody, from the co-directors, co-writers, and even the actors themselves had a role in helping him to make his movies. Without them, we are left with Lucas as he is, warts and all. And after years of success and a growing obsession with the latest special effects, that’s not a very pretty sight!

Well, that’s what I thought of Phantom Menace. Stay tuned for Attack of the Clones… This aint gonna be pretty! But in the meantime, here’s some funny news. It turns out Topher Grace, who played Eric on That 70’s Show, has made an 85 minute editors cut of the three movies. Follow this link to read more on this interesting and funny story:

http://www.bestweekever.tv/2012-03-07/topher-grace-edits-star-wars-prequels

The Star Wars Prequels (cont’d)

Isn’t it always this way? I just get finished with a long review of the Star Wars prequels, and I realize I left some stuff out. Not only that, I notice that I made some technical errors as well. Ah well, I suppose its the burden of Star Wars geekdom – anal-retentiveness and a total weakness for details. And if all these Star Wars reviews have proven nothing else to me, it’s that I’m a total geek! So here we go…

1. Anakin is NINE in the original movie: That’s right, nine. Not ten, as I originally said. Boy, I’m splitting hairs even mentioning this, but I don’t want someone noticing it and thinking I’m not up on my Star Wars trivia. Why, to a fellow geek, something like that might just stick in their craw!

2. Good acting: Looking back on my three reviews of the Phantom, Clones and Revenge I realized there was something I neglected to mention. The fact that there was actually some good acting throughout. Liam Neeson, for example. He’s always good, but as Qui Gon he was actually quite capable and had a good presence. Samuel L. Jackson, though his lines were heavy-handed as hell, nevertheless managed to bring some much needed bad-assery to this painful trilogy. And how could I have possibly forgotten Ian McDiarmid? The man who brought The Emperor to life in the originals was back again for more in this trilogy! I honestly think that his character was the only one that was faithfully executed in every one of his scenes. He was certainly the only one who had consistently decent one-liners, and that’s in spite of Lucas’ weak writing! I tell ya, it’s that voice. The man could make dish water sound cool and menacing! And the way he transitions so easily from a prissy, overly-cultured Senator to an evil blood-curdling Sith Lord… masterful!

3. Racial Caricatures: In drawing out Lucas’ use of racial stereotypes, there was one key characteristic I failed to mention. Watto, who is an obvious Jewish caricature, had several characteristics that gave him away. The ones I mentioned were his love of money, yamaka-style hat, and exploitative personality. But I forgot to mention the hooked nose! That above all else was a dead giveaway that Lucas had antiquated prejudices on the brain when he wrote this! I also could have mentioned that he combines several Italian stereotypes into his character as well: the stubbly face, the paunchy belly, the thick, raspy accent, the tank top, the hand gestures and phrases like “whaddyaknow?” In fact, that’s what I thought he was until the Shylock-like parallels were pointed out to me, then I was even more offended. Two stereotypes in one, good job Lucas! *Cough* Racist!

4. Hard-ass Jedi: In my first review, I mentioned how the Jedi were portrayed as needlessly harsh teachers for the way they told Anakin that his fear for his mother was a bad thing. I even mentioned that this would come up again later, by which I was referring to the third movie. And wouldn’t you know it, I totally spaced on it! Which is nuts because it was pretty damn intrinsic to the plot. To recap, the Jedi Council tells a nine year old Anakin (nine, not ten!) that he must forget about his mother because his fear of losing her will lead him to the Dark Side. Of course I thought that was total BS! I mean, who tells a kid this kind of stuff and expects it to go over well? Not only that, but it seems like such a stretch. “You’re afraid of losing your mom? Why, that’s the gateway to evil!” No, telling a kid he has to forget about his mom and sit back while she’s MURDERED is the gateway to evil! Not that they’d notice, these guys can’t sense evil when it’s three feet in front of them and in the form of a Sith Lord!

But as if that wasn’t enough, Yoda is at it once again in the third movie. When told that Anakin is having premonitory dreams where someone he loves dies, he simply tells him to let it go. Apparently, his love for this person and fear of losing them is also a bad thing! “Attachment leads to jealousy. The shadow of greed that is,” says Yoda. Not only that, he’s told he should be happy that this person is dying! “Rejoice for those around you who transform into the Force.” What the hell kind of advice is this?! Has Yoda forgotten what Anakin did the last time they told him to just let go? Apparently he has because it never once came up again! So not only is he not allowed to have any romantic attachments, he can’t have any attachments period! Seriously, was Lucas so desperate to make Anakin’s fall to the Dark Side seem justified that he had to pitch the Jedi as a bunch of unfeeling jagoffs? Personally, I’d be telling Yoda and the entire Council to get bent and then march straight on home to nail my wife! Them and their whole order of ascetic virgins can kiss my ass! Bunch of self-righteous fops, you ask me!

4. Selling out: Last time around, I lamented Lucas’ selling out but hoped he might take the hint and get back to his base. Alas, I was already too late! Seems that in the last few years, he’s released two more special editions of his movies! Yes, as if the original box set, the THX box set, the Gold Edition box set, and the prequel box set weren’t enough, now we have “Star Wars: the Force”, and “Star Wars: The Complete Saga”, both of which are full volumes of all six movies. Both contain all the usual bonus feature crap and behind-the-scenes documentaries, but the Force edition is apparently a directors cut that includes all the deleted scenes. Yeah, I’m kind of intrigued by the idea of bonus scenes too, but Jesus Christ Lucas, how many new versions of Star Wars do we need?! You got alimony to pay or a dozen bastard children we don’t know about? Stephen Spielberg got something on you that you gotta pay to keep under wraps? Why else would you feel the need to re-merchandize the most merchandized franchise of all time? You know, I think this might just be his way of sticking it to all those people who laughed at him when he said he wanted to retain the merchandizing rights!

Well, that about covers it for now. As usual, reflecting on the path Star Wars has taken since my younger days has left me feeling bitter and jaded. I suppose its all in how you look at it. On the one hand, I could be happy that Lucas, who started as a humble purveyor of sci-fi (like me!), became a man with the power to shape several generations worth of popular culture. Or I could be pissed that the man who created something that helped shape my and many other people’s childhood went on to rape it! Tough call man…

Star Wars Episode III: Last Chance…

Last time, I believe I left off with a passing mention of how the Clone Wars weren’t exactly given their due in Lucas’ prequels. Correct me if I’m wrong, but it was my understanding that that was what they were supposed to address, and with a name like Attack of the Clones, I don’t think that would be an unrealistic expectation. But Lucas seemed more concerned with addressing the back-story of Anakin’s fall to the dark side and the love story between him and Padme/Amidala. Everything else was pushed to the side or parceled out between obligatory scenes of (ahem) romance and Anakin bitching about how angry he was and unfair his life is. The end result was a movie that hopped all over the place, moving along with a sense of duty rather than an intriguing story that took its time to build, and with dialogue and character development that was basically info-dumping and pure exposition.

In short, it sucked! But between movies two and three, Lucas appeared to sit up and take notice. Whereas Phantom Menace and Clones were chock full of indications that Lucas held the fan’s feelings in contempt, Revenge of the Sith seemed to contain within it a feeling of humility. It was as if Lucas saw the writing on the wall and realized that if the third movie was to be a critical flop, the Star Wars franchise might forever be ruined. That, I think, was enough to get him to realize that he was still mortal.

Still, the final entry in the franchise suffered from the same weaknesses as the rest. Nobody missed Jar Jar Binks, the cheesy romantic element was toned down (somewhat), the action was a lot better and more relevant, and the motivation was a lot more believable. But the same basic problems of duty, pacing and rushing were there all around. About the best thing you could say about it was that it was salvageable. Not great, but enough to ensure that the whole trilogy didn’t totally suck. But I’m getting ahead of myself here…

Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith
Prior to the movie’s release, Lucas did his usual round of interviews and gave the fans a bit of an inside look at the plot and his process. In the course of this, he admitted that he had to force himself to commit to writing every day, eight hours at a stretch, in order to get the script banged out on time. Now that’s not something you EVER want to admit to as a writer! Automatically it makes people think that what they are about to see is a second-rate effort, done out of a sense of obligation and devoid of any heart. And yet, it was better than the first two, even if it managed to retain their weaknesses.

The War: As I said in the last review, the war happens between movies. We catch the very beginning of it in Clones and the tail end of it in this one, but that’s it. Despite the fact that they are of extreme importance to the story, the war (or wars) are really more of a backdrop against which the main story – Anakin’s fall to the Dark Side, takes place. That only drives home the point of how the prequels are dominated by a sense of duty, meant to explain rather than tell their own story. If anything, it should have been the other way around. The war happens, it is the means through which Palpatine seizes power, and in the course of it, Anakin becomes a great hero, falls in love with Padme/Amidala, and then succumbs to temptation. It’d be a lot more fun, more subtle, and more entertaining that way.

Anakin and Dooku, take two: Here was a fight scene that was due, and it was enjoyable to see Anakin take down Dooku. But it was pretty much a total rehash of the first time these two fought, sans the ridiculous walk-on by Yoda. As predicted, Dooku has to take out Obi Wan in order for him and Anakin to duke it out between themselves. And its perfectly contrived, the way he tossed him aside with the Force and uses a gangplank to pin him down. It’s also perfectly contrived that Obi Wan would thusly be unconscious and totally unaware of how Anakin kills Dooku. That was another problem I had with this fight scene. After cutting off Dooku’s hands, Anakin is told by Palpatine to execute him. This is in keeping with the whole Sith thing: “you beat my apprentice, now take his place”. But what is so stupid about it is how Anakin beheads him with barely a second thought.
It’s like “You know, I really shouldn’t…”. “Do it, Anakin! He’s too dangerous.” “Okay!” Slit! “Gee, That felt wrong.” “It’s okay Anakin, he had it coming!” And then, barely another word on the subject. As if to remind us how this has happened before, Palpatine brings up how Anakin wiped out all those Sandpeople. Once again, it seems like the Jedi have no clue and Anakin has got away with cold-blooded murder.

The Love Story: We’re fortunate not to get an earful of awful, cheesy dialogue between Anakin and Padme in this one, but there’s still enough to bring the bile to the edge of your throat. For what its worth, the two seem to have a little more chemistry in this one, but it still feels forced. “You are so beautiful” says Anakin. “That’s because I’m so much in love,” she replies. Ugh!

Grievous: Here is a character who is not bad, as far as conceptuals go. But the fact that he’s introduced in this last movie where he then dies, that’s kind of weak. You can’t expect to introduce characters who are central to the plot in the third act and expect people to develop some kind of attachment to them. What’s more, in this movie, Grievous sounded oafish and really wasn’t that threatening. In the Clone Wars cartoon (the original by Genndy Tartakovsky, not the crappy Lucas remake!) Grievous was a frightening, bad-ass mutha who took down multiple Jedis at once. His voice was deep, cold, and metallic, and he had some truly bone-chilling lines! “Run, Jedi run! You have only prolonged the inevitable. But I will give you the honor of a warrior’s death.” Did I mention he’s also a master of psychological warfare?

Yes, that’s what’s wrong here! Between the cartoon and the third movie, Grievous goes from being an unstoppable malevolent force to a veritable heel! This was the guy who cut his way through clone troopers and Jedi alike and even managed to kidnap Palpatine in his own capitol building. And yet, we’re to believe that Obi Wan is able to take him down all by himself. There’s even a joke that fans made about this: Right before their big fight, Grievous turns to Obi Wan and says “It’s a good thing this is the movie and not the cartoon version, otherwise you’d be right fucked!” Ha! It’s funny because it’s true.

Anakin kills kids: Okay, really? I mean I know Lucas is trying to establish that Anakin’s turned evil, but are we seriously to believe that he’s gone from being conflicted and afraid about joining Palpatine to murdering children? How exactly does the Force work? Do one bad thing and BOOM! You’re an evil psychopath? If it’s that easy a transition, no wonder the Jedi are so pedantic. What’s more, I loved Padme’s reaction when she finds out about his crime. “No! Not Anakin! He couldn’t…” she says. What, this surprises you? You barely batted an eye when he told you that he slaughtered women and children, now you’re surprised he murdered some Jedi younglings? A more fitting reaction would be, “Not again! Christ, that boy’s incorrigible!” Not saying I approve, but if you’re going to have such a casual attitude the first time your hubby commits mass murder, you kind of forfeit the right to be surprised when he does it again. Or is Lucas trying to say indiscriminate murder is okay when it’s Sandpeople? Dude… that’s racist!

Anakin and Obi Wan’s big fight: Now, it’s been well-established at this point that Anakin is a better swordsman than Obi Wan, right? I mean, Dooku kicked Obi Wan’s ass twice with little effort, and Anakin kicked Dooku’s ass with energy to spare. So… how is it that Obi Wan was able to stand toe-to-toe with Anakin for like ten minutes straight and then beat him? Seriously, this fight scene makes no sense! Just like with his one-on-one with Grievous, Obi Wan, who’s been a bumbling dope up until this point, seems to suddenly acquire some mad fighting skills and saves the day. What’s more, this fight scene drags on forever! The choreography is beautiful, like watching fire dancers do their thing, but there’s no real tension. Not like there was between Vader and Luke in Empire. That fight scene went on for awhile, but it was well-paced and punctuated by terror. You could see how Vader was slowly beating Luke down and you feared for him. This time around, it was just a lot of visuals with little to no emotional content. And the fact that we knew ahead of time that Obi Wan would win removed any sense of anxiety from it.

“Nooooo!”: Now I know for a fact that few among us thought Hayden Christensen could possibly fill Vader’s shoes. The whiny, bitchy stride he struck in movies two and three hardly seemed consistent with the Darth’s deep voice or malevolent nature. Still, that scene at the end, where Anakin/Vader asks the whereabouts of Padme and then emits a pained shriek when Palpatine tells him she’s dead… painful! Not to mention kind of dumb. It goes without saying that if Anakin is truly going to cross over, Palpatine needs to make him sever all ties to his past. But telling him he killed his own love, strange, but I’d think that’d have the opposite effect. The whole reason he sided with Palpatine was to save her. Now that she’s dead, there’s really nothing to hold them together. Not only that, but in light of Padme’s death, all the sacrifices he’s made to earn Palpatine’s help would seem like they were done in vain. Personally, I’d be pissed! Rather than commit wholeheartedly to Palpatine’s plan, I’d want to kill Palpatine and take his whole plan apart piece by piece! Or, in keeping with the whole Sith thing, kill Palpatine and take over the whole operation myself. That’d make way more sense than serving him like a slave, “I must obey my master,” and all that. Really, what’s he done for you Darth?

Well, that about covers it. To be fair, I’d like to point out that there were some things I actually liked in this movie. Unlike the others, it wasn’t saved merely by its action. No, this one actually had a little depth that managed to justify the expense of seeing it. The fact that Anakin’s fall was born of fear, that he did it because of the promise of powers that would make him what he wanted to be (powerful enough to prevent death) actually made sense. Knowing that Lucas had to force himself to get this script out didn’t help things much, I knew in the back of my head as I saw it that he kind of pulled it out of his ass. But like most critics, I was willing to forgive this. It seemed like we were all pulling for him because we didn’t want to see Star Wars fail. After growing up with it and spending so much time and money on the toys, books, etc, we just weren’t prepared to abandon ship!

However, I personally feel that enough time has passed so that we might finally able to put the prequel trilogy and everything else Lucas has done in perspective. Despite his weaknesses as a writer/director, Lucas has an undeniable talent for borrowing elements from different genres and combining them in just the right way with some classical mythology and history to create an enjoyable experience. The original movies called to mind all kinds of things that the audience could relate to. The Battle of Hoth was like Dunkirk, the (first) assault on the Death Star like the Doolittle raid, and I don’t think anyone wasn’t on the edge of their seat with the final battle! Luke’s journey to find himself and learn the truth of his ancestry was like the Odyssey, the redemption and sacrifice his father made like something out of Greek tragedy.

It’s ironic then that Lucas himself would succumb to the temptation and allure of money, fame and power. In the end, they led him to believe that he was the master of Star Wars and that he alone knew what it was all about and what made it great. He was wrong, of course. One of the most enduring powers of Star Wars was its mass-appeal, how it could snatch up the youth and adult vote in one swoop. By snubbing advice and letting his age-old fans know that he didn’t care what they thought, he ended up churning out two movies that were almost universally panned and nearly cost him his legacy. It was only in listening to the critics and accepting his limitations that he was able to create a passable third and thereby “redeem” the franchise before it was too late. Yeah… irony!

But alas, Lucas appears to be up to his old tricks again. No sooner had Tartakovsky’s Star Wars: Clone Wars begin to garner critical acclaim that he snatched it up and began making his own version. It seemed that he was perfectly happy to let someone else tell the story of the Clone Wars until they began to do a better job of it than him. Then, I’m guessing ego or greed got the better of him and he came out with a cartoon movie and a series! And of course, they are just like his first two prequels – kiddy, cheesy, and razor thin in terms of plot. And it seems as though he isn’t finished just yet. Word is, he’s thinking of making sequels; that is, movies that pick up where the originals left off! If so, I’d say he has an opportunity on his hands to do what all the fans want – i.e. get back to what made the originals great and stop churning out the kind of crass, commercial crap that’s been spewing from Lucasarts for so many years.

So on behalf of all fans everywhere, I’d like to make a plea to Lucas. Dear Sir, I urge you to consider the lesson of the prequels and incorporate it into your future work. First, check your ego at the door. You created Star Wars, but that doesn’t mean you’re infallible. Second, ditch the adulators who are keeping you from hearing the truth. It’s always a true friend who’ll tell you what you need to hear even if you don’t want to hear it. Those who tell you flattering things with shit-eating grins plastered on their faces will only bring you down. Third, your foresight to retain the merchandising rights may have made you filthy-fucking-rich, but it’s also what’s been polluting your mind. There are things more important than money, merchandise, spin-offs, re-releases, and digital remastered editions! In the end, it should be about the story, not the returns. Fourth, get back to your fan base and really try to connect with them. I know, who are they to question you, right? Simple, they’re the ones who grew up watching Star Wars and made it the success that it was. Had they not paid their hard-earned money to see your movies and buy your paraphernalia, you’d have spent the last thirty years writing fan fiction and paperback space opera out of a studio apartment in downtown LA. Whether you like it or not, the franchise does in part belong to them. As its creator you can make it good, but only they can make it great! Without your fans, there is no phenomenon, so take what they say seriously.

That’s all! And as cheesy finish, let me just say “May the Force be with you” and not worry about reprisals ;)!

Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith
Entertainment Value: 6/10
Plot: 5/10
Direction: 7/10
Total: 7/10