Monday, September 28, 2009

“I want to go home and…rethink my life.”

2002 rolled around and Star Wars: Episode II: Attack of the Clones arrived. By now, fans had been burned by the underwhelming Phantom Menace but many were still optimistic that maybe George Lucas was just rusty and needed a movie to shake it off. Well….

The Republic is in a real pickle. Thousands of planets (this is in the title scroll) have seceded and have joined a separatist movement. Signs point to civil war and the Senate is facing a dilemma as to whether or not they should raise an army. Wait. The government of the largest political body in the galaxy doesn’t have a standing army?? Its established that its not the only government in the galaxy, just the biggest, and while its peaceful generally, there have to be flare ups on planets, ambitious pirates and crime lords chipping away at the innocent civilians. Apparently the Jedi take care of all that messy stuff, but that doesn’t sound like a trustworthy investment for the Republic. The Jedi don’t answer to the Senate. The Jedi don’t answer to anybody except themselves. They have no check to balance them. What if the Republic asked them to step in to stop a planet’s civil war and they say “No. Don’t feel like it.”? But I digress.

Former Queen/current Senator Padme Amidala (Queen’s do not work that way!) arrives at Coruscant and survives an assassination attempt. She gets two Jedi assigned as bodyguards, Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker. After another attempt gets thwarted, Amidala goes underground with Anakin to protect her and Obi-Wan investigates the assassin. Anakin and Padme get into a really awkward romance and Obi-Wan tracks down the assassin and discovers a clone army being grown for the Republic in the name of the Jedi. Anakin goes home and finds his mother, who dies in his arms. He takes the death badly and slaughters some aliens. Obi-Wan tracks the assassin to Geonosis where the bounty hunter/would-be-killer meets with the Separatist Leader, a former Jedi Knight. Obi-Wan gets captured but gets a message out to Anakin, who gets the message out to the Council and heads in with Padme to rescue his mentor. They get captured, are forced to fight some GCI beasties in a Harryhausen-esque fight scene and then the Jedi show up and shit gets blown up. Cue the beginning of the Clone Wars, a galactic civil war.

Right off the bat, the pacing of the plot is greatly improved. Things keep moving at a really brisk pace and scenes don’t linger nearly as long as they did in the last movie. This is a good thing.

Obi-Wan Kenobi: Ewan McGregor is the film’s unquestioned badass. Now a full Jedi Knight with his own apprentice and an authoritative beard, he’s competent, witty, decisive and charismatic. He’s a leader and a great choice for the main character. The strongest scenes all involve him and he just delivers a rock solid performance and can handle acting with CGI all around him incredibly well. It is no exaggeration to say that he carries the entire movie on his shoulders, and for that, I salute him.

Senator Padme Amidala: Natalie Portman returns and her performance is improved, though still not great. I’m not sure what went wrong because I’ve seen her act well in other movies. Anyway, her term as Queen ended (wait, Queens definitely DO NOT work that way) she is now a Senator and fiercely opposed to the formation of a Grand Army of the Republic, despite the opening title crawl stating that THOUSANDS of dissatisfied planets have left the Republic. Clearly, diplomacy has already failed and the Republic would be stupid not to start mustering an army for its own defense if the Separatists start getting ideas. Also, her unilateral opposition to an army completely ignores the lessons the character has learned in the previous movie: There, she ended up completely disregarding prudence and diplomacy after a few days at the capital in favor of storming her planet like a cowboy to reassert her powerbase while a large army of allied aliens fought and died so she could accomplish this. This “dedication” to peace is clearly untrue, but then again, she’s a politician. Anyway, for reasons never ever made truly clear as to why she’s such an important target, someone’s trying to assassinate her, which ham fistedly sends Anakin to be her bodyguard and they have a terribly developed romance together because the plot demands they get it on so we can get Luke and Leia. Oh, and where the character fails utterly is on Tatooine when Anakin comes back from finding his mother. He killed the Tusken Raiders responsible for her death and confesses to killing an entire camp: men, women, children. All Padme does is essentially say “Well, we all get mad sometimes.” A wellspring of compassion, she is. She’s much more action capable this time around, but the character is still a flat and ultimately unsympathetic aristocrat.

Anakin Skywalker: Hayden Christensen glowers and sulks his way through this movie (can‘t really blame him since so many people still call him Ani to his adult face), but everybody already knew that. The romance between Anakin and Padme is unwatchable in its lack of chemistry, but everybody already knew that. Let’s talk about the character himself. Anakin is Obi-Wan’s Padawan apprentice (with standard issue stupid haircut). He’s got a reputation for impulsiveness, recklessness and unreliability. Obviously he’s the perfect bodyguard for a senator. He’s also disturbingly obsessed with Padme. He says that he’s been thinking about her non-stop for the ten years after they first met (she of course, barely recognizes him). That’s really not a heartwarming trait, considering he was ten when he met her. Of course, the Jedi are not permitted to marry, which has been completely pulled out of nowhere just so there can be extra drama and so the lovers can be star-crossed. Worse, Anakin is clearly a mentally unbalanced individual. He is having vivid nightmares about his mother dying that grate on him so much that despite his forced and awkward love for Padme, he clearly expresses that he will abandon his post as her bodyguard so he can travel to Tatooine on the off chance that he might find his mother. There is no negotiation involved, he’s just polite enough to say that he’s leaving her, whether the assassins know where Padme is or not. Of course, she agrees to go with him because of the almighty plot. Throughout the film he’s moody, selfish, unreliable and defensive to the point of hostility, all good traits for the villain he will become, but the movie insists on painting him in a heroic light. It doesn’t work because instead it paints all the characters surrounding him as incompetents who persist in giving him crucial missions that will only drive him further over the edge into insanity. And speaking of insanity, the Jedi Council knew where his mother was this entire time: Tatooine. You would think that the mother of the “Chosen One” would be a person of interest for them to find and bring in for a nice chat. It would take like one Jedi with a wallet to buy her freedom. Its not like they couldn’t pony up the money.

Mace Windu: Samuel L. Jackson returns as the mean looking Jedi Master. I normally really like Jackson, but here the lines he’s given just make the character echo Yoda most of the time still. He also gets a lot of lines where he expresses absolute incredulity that the Jedi might possibly not have everything under control.

Yoda: Oh man, this is gonna be weird. For the first time in the franchise, Yoda is completely CGI. The model is detailed and a lot of work went into it, but there’s something off about the character visually. Frank Oz’ voice is still great, but Yoda just doesn’t look right, especially considering that in puppet form he was a triumphant success. Then again, a puppet wouldn’t be able to get into a lightsaber duel at the end. I honestly don’t have words for how much I hate the concept of a Fightin’ Yoda. Visually, sure its kind of cool, but on a philosophical level, Yoda was presented as a Zen like master of the Force, the Star Wars equivalent of Buddha in the original trilogy. A figure so powerful and so connected to the Force that he could accomplish more with the wave of a hand than an army of Jedi could. I realize this is drifting into a rant, but personally, the idea of Yoda fighting was as abhorrent to the perception of the character as Ghandi firing a rocket launcher. It made no sense.

C-3PO: Anthony Daniels returns, and so does the protocol droid’s body, a battered, silver casing that at least looks like him. He’s there and what he does is okay, but he serves absolutely no purpose whatsoever for the story. None.

Senator Jar Jar Binks: Oh God, the bastard’s a Senator. Did they hate him so much on Naboo that they figured the only way to get him off-planet was to send him to the Capital? You know, like bumping him up to a desk job? The role of the character is drastically diminished, but he’s still there, and when he speaks the sound grates on the ears with the fury of a thousand fingernails on a thousand chalkboards. Padme gives him a simple directive while she leaves Coruscant: make sure her stance on the army is represented. Instead, Jar Jar directly endorses the creation of the army. Now, I’m all for a standing army for a Republic the size of this one, but we all know how well this is going to end, and it makes Jar Jar a backstabbing douche for betraying the ideals of a friend. Moreover, Jar Jar fulfills a Neville Chamberlain-like role, proudly doing a Neville Chamberlain “Peace in our time” kind of thing before all hell breaks loose. While this amuses me to no end, it does not bode well that a character designed to appeal toward kids becomes an example of political unreliability and appeasement. You know, for the kids.

Count Dooku/Darth Tyrannus: The always awesome Christopher Lee plays the leader of the Separatists, a classy cape wearing nobleman and smooth talker who used to be a Jedi Knight. Sadly, the character doesn’t get any more developed than that and spends most of the movie as a name lurking in the background.

Jango Fett: Temuera Morrison plays a bounty hunter wearing very familiar looking armor. Turns out he’s both the guy behind the assassination plot AND the genetic template for the Clone Army of the Republic, though he’s working for Dooku. Clearly he’s playing both sides in the conflict, but the way it comes off is just confusing and never fully explained. Jango is a type of character that has been showing up a lot in Star Wars. I shall call him a Glass Badass: a character with a really eye-catching design, mysterious background, and interesting (if gimmicky) weapons and/or skills. The character will do something incredibly awesome and badass during his first encounter with a hero, but after that, he gets sidelined because of the goals of the Plot and then gets unceremoniously killed in a punk-ass manner that completely negates any badass achievements. Jango, who can capably fend off Obi-Wan on a landing platform in the rain, is just such a glass badass. His grown up (in the original movies) clone-baby Boba Fett is another example and so is Darth Maul from The Phantom Menace.

Supreme Chancellor Palpatine: Now the boss of the Republic, Ian McDiarmid turns in a great performance as the duplicitous, lying mastermind who is behind a large and extremely complicated plot to usurp control of the Republic. As far as the prequels go, he’s really been the most interesting villain, without question.

On paper (and I’m sure the storyboards as well) George Lucas’ visual ambitions make sense. Vistas are stunning, action is impressive and the CGI work has an incredible level of craftsmanship behind it. However, there was always something that bothered me about this movie, and I’ve finally figured it out. There is a concept called the “Uncanny Valley” which in brief states that (originally it was robots, but movie effects can also apply) the more something looks human, the more favorably people will receive it, but only up to a certain point. Thus, the polygonal video game characters of the late 90s are more likable than the chunky pixels of the Atari systems of the 80s. However, there reaches a point where human imitation becomes so uncanny that it becomes unsettling because if its not a 1:1 match for human behavior, it becomes really, really disturbing. Example: The Droid Army of the Separatists are clearly meant to be obviously mechanical, but also humanoid in basic appearance (arms, legs, heads). They look fine in the movie, looking like how they are intended: mechanical, slightly comical goons. The clone troopers are meant to be cloned humans, but they are also entirely CGI and encased in white armor that foreshadows the Stormtroopers. The modeling on them is extremely detailed, but they are also disturbingly off. The way they move is jerky and puppet-like, the rendering on their armor is just a little too clean and slick for a universe famous for its weathered look. The visors are wayyyyyy too shiny. In short, they exist in the uncanny valley. This is a shame, because it could’ve been helped a little bit by actually making up some armor for extras to wear. It would help a lot of scenes (and probably would’ve been cheaper).

Actually I'm going to go out on a limb and say the entire movie takes place in a place like the Uncanny Valley. There’s something off about Yoda. The clones don’t move like natural humans. But what really messes up the visual effect of the movie is how the lighting of scenes goes into the valley. Scenes shot on normal sets or exteriors have natural, reasonable lighting that looks perfectly fine. Most of the movie however was shot on blue/green screen soundstages with minimal props and backgrounds. The obvious problem with this is that not all actors are equally adept at handling an entirely blue screen set (MacGregor can though). The more subtle issue is the lighting. The characters are lit one way, and the CGI details/backgrounds/etc. are lit another and the twain shall not synch up. The end result is usually a really bright aura or corona of light surrounding the actors that is completely unnatural in an otherwise plausible scenario. I’m not saying the lighting is bad for the entire movie (sometimes the lighting is fantastic, like in the duel between Anakin and Dooku), but it pops up so damn much that its impossible to let it slide.

Jonathan Hales helped Lucas on the script this time around, and while the overall pace of the movie is a tremendous improvement over the last, the writing is not. Characters that are supposedly competent play a game of “catch the idiot ball” for the sake of fitting the plot into the established trilogy and then the romance. Ugh. The romance between Anakin and Padme is filled with so much purple prose that you’d think it was bad fan fiction. Dialog is usually stilted and characters often start blabbing off how they feel and the political discussions are painful to listen to.

John Williams on the score and Ben Burtt on sound editing. Oh if only the rest of the movie was as reliable and solid as these two heroes. Still, I actually do have to fault the sound editing on one small point. Oh, and spoilers, I suppose. Anyway, there’s a point where Yoda is meditating and hear’s Qui-Gon Jinn’s voice call out “Anakin! Anakin! Noooo!” The “Anakin” parts are fine and in Liam Neeson’s voice, but the Noooo is a pained and garbled sound that doesn’t match up with Neeson’s voice in the least. Its…a botched moment and jars you out of the tension of the scene. Oh God, even the sound editing has something off

If it sounds like I’m being harsher on Episode II than Episode I, its because I am. Being harsher. While the plot pacing has been noticeably remedied, the rest of the movie suffers from generally worse dialog and generally terrible character development. The plot holes in the first movie, while abundant, aren’t as offensive to the continuity of the saga as the ones in this film, which are just digging deeper holes. We are told that this is supposed to be Anakin at the beginning of his heroic prime and he comes off as a petulant loose cannon who’s only real love is the power to do what he wants and is just waiting for an excuse to explode. The visual effects of the movie may be the biggest selling point of the film, but that’s a lateral move at best compared to the last film. The over-reliance on (admittedly very well done) CGI sterilizes the feel of the Star Wars universe, giving it a polished unreality that is directly at odds with its vaunted “lived-in galaxy” feel. I can’t even say that the eye candy is improved because of the prevalence of the uncanny valley. Only “recommended” for the truly hardcore fans, and even then it’s still a disappointment.

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