Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Can't we all just enjoy 'Attack of the Clones'?

Note: This is the first of two contributions to Edward Copeland's Star Wars Blog-a-thon.

When I first heard about the concept of three Star Wars prequels, my first thought was "man I can't wait for the third one!" I'm sure this wasn't too different from a lot of fans, as the third prequel would no doubt fill us in on how Darth Vader came to be (cape, voice, name and all), and give audiences a glimpse at how the Empire routed the Jedi -- an event that is eluded to throughout the saga. No matter what other gaffes were made with the story or characters, the third one would have to deliver because it had built-in gold. This suspicion largely came true, but during a recent run through all six episodes, I kept coming back to this thought: "Episode II kind of, well, rocks."

You might say it was damaged goods coming into the theater because it was riding the bloody coattails of Episode I: The Phantom Menace, or that it gets pushed aside in our memory by Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, but whatever the reason, Attack of the Clones did not (and does not) deserve the mud thrown at it. I remember seeing it on opening day with my expectations mostly riding on the long-awaited Yoda light saber action, but I wasn't counting on the best non-New Zealand-produced CGI battle sequences, the opening of strange new doors in the Star Wars universe or an air of mystery and intrigue that is truly unmatched by the other five episodes.

AOTC feels like a direct response from George Lucas to the angry masses that stormed out of The Phantom Menace. Too much talking and meetings? Why don't I just double the number of large-scale action sequences. JarJar? Gone (mostly). You don't like CGI effects? Well what if I told you CGI could make Yoda do upside-down bicycle kicks and bounce around with a mini-light saber like some kind of drunk spider monkey? Lucas doesn't hold back on any level, and that's also part of the movie's undoing in many viewer's eyes. Lucas seems intent on proving without a reasonable doubt that Padme and Anakin are in love. None of that 'you need a scoundrel in your life -- let's kiss' bullshit, no this will be real -- as in about five scenes and half an hour real. The Padme-Anakin scenes are unfortunate in many respects, mostly the fact that they weight down a relatively large-but-lean film and are almost always unnecessary. If Padme and Anakin are in love -- great, we have another whole movie to help sell this concept so no need to go overkill with rolling around in grass fields and feeding each other fruit.

While Padme and Anakin are frolicking, we're treated to scenes that lend genuine intrigue and urgency to the movie, something that was completely missing in The Phantom Menace. Who the hell is behind this legion of clone soldiers? What is Count Dooku's role? How the hell are Obi-Wan, Anakin and Padme going to survive this insect arena spectacle? Where The Phantom Menace goes to great lengths to establish excitement (the pod race, the three-pronged final battle), in AOTC the action sequences feel more naturally conceived and genuinely earn your interest without any false drama (do we care if Qui-Gon dies? the Gunguns?). And when the excitement comes, AOTC is able to tease you (Jango Fett's pistols, Mace Windu's badassittude) and summarily smash whatever high expectations you dreamed up.

Even AOTC's shortcomings are entertaining. You can think up a dozen honest questions about the Camino business, such as: wouldn't they have at least called this Sifodyas fella after the first eight years passed after he placed an order for 300,000 clone soldiers? What is the time table for Yoda going to Kamino, deploying a quarter million troops and amassing them on Geonosis -- more than the implied 12 or so hours? And just how many things had to fall exactly into place for Darth Sidious' ultimate plan to work -- 15? 25? 200? Not to mention those crafty "ultimo transport ships" that are revealed in the last act -- they seem to have enough firepower to win a war singlehandedly, yet apparently contain about as much mechanics and electronics as a Volkswagen Beetle (the original, not the new one). They're all genuine questions, and some of them may even have answers, but none of them are in the confounding head-slapping arena of The Phantom Menace's (why so much effort to convince us Padme has a good body double? Who is taxing who, and why don't they just pay it if they have enough money to buy a glitzy army? ... etc.).

The other two prequels seem to exist as a way to answer perceived questions raised in the original trilogy -- providing backstories on characters, and needlessly explaining technicalities of the Force -- but AOTC actually has more questions than solutions. Most of these questions thankfully go unanswered, enabling the movie to broaden the Star Wars universe as the other two prequels narrow it. Just as The Empire Strikes Back serves as the unofficial standard of the original saga, the middle child of the prequels showed that in between all the whine about a needless CGI money machine, you got some actual bang for your buck.


Ted Pigeon said...

I have never expressed shame for enjoying all three of the "Star Wars" prequels. I definitely have my criticisms of them, but I think the overwhelming negative response to them is more of an empty trend which many follow perhaps due to the warm smell of the herd.

I think these films are not only interesting experiments in the digital age of cinema, but they are enjoyable. At times, they capture the spirit of the original trilogy, but more in the small moments. In Attack of the Clones, there are some quietly dazzling scenes such as Obi-Wan's arrival on Kamino and his meeting at that retro diner. The scene in the night club was a nice addition as well.

Sure, the performances suffered, the script faltered in the love scenes (I agree with you very much about them being a tad rushed an unnecessary, especially given the forthcoming film), and some of the digital backgrounds seemed animated near the end of the film. But I think you raise a lot of really good points, Adam, in that the mystery angle of the film is new territory for Star Wars, and a unique addition to the series.

I will likely be writing my own "in defense of" article regarding all three prequels at some point, highlighting issues of trends, cinematic pleasure, digital cinema, and classical style and narrative structure. This article has reminded me of how much I want to dive into it.

Adam Ross said...

I look forward to that article, Ted. Obi-Wan is really the highlight of the prequels for me, and it is fun following him to Kamino without Anakin at his side (who knew the dude could jump-kick so well?).

PIPER said...

I don't care for the prequels and I don't feel I'm following a herd in believing that. I love the stories of all of them and Adam you are right, the story of Attack Of The Clones is a great one and I like the sleuth type aspect that Obi-Wan takes on in this. And the idea of cloning an army is fantastic. But the problem is is that the first three are just not good films. The writing is bad and the direction is awful. It is very hard for me to forgive Lucas for undoing everything he did so right in the original three.

To me the best part of the prequels (aside from The Clone Wars which I just wrote about) is the last 15 minutes of Attack of the Clones.

This is classic Star Wars. The action is all there and for those 15 minutes I felt I was watching the Lucas of old and it was movie magic all over again.

Adam Ross said...

I meant to include this in one of my posts, but alot of the acting and writing in the prequels remind me of a terrible stage version of "The Outsiders that I was a part of in high school. It was student-directed and a lot of times we found ourselves simply standing in a line reciting our dialogue. Many parts of Episode 1 (it gets rarer in II and III) feels like this, with perfunctory exposition of characters stating "I'm going here, then I'm going to do this" often while standing in a semi-circule.

Edward Copeland said...

I have to agree. I actually think I liked Attack of the Clones (aside from the awful title) a little bit more than Revenge of the Sith. Interestingly though, the only of the second trilogy I watched more than once was Phantom Menace, which I saw a second time just to confirm that it was indeed as bad as I thought it was.


eddie --that's funny. I did the same. i saw it a second time even though i was in total hate with it.

i just couldn't get over the drop in quality.

and it wasn't a herd thing at all. I WANTED to love it. 6 years of my formative years were spent enraptured by the mythology.

i'm actually of the opinion that the prequels were doomed from the get go without a great writer. Because in concept we know too much about the events. I've always felt that the only way they could have been as successful and interesting as the original films is if Darth Vader and Luke & Leia's mother and ObiWan were supporting characters in a larger mosaic (rather than the leads) and we were following whole new characters within the mythology.

then and only then we could get swept up in the joy that you feel in watching a story unfold that you don't truly know the ending to.

sophomorecritic said...

My thoughts exactly. I'm glad someone else likes ATOC. I've always been an unabashed advocate for it, but not for the same reason. I don't think George Lucas turned around a disaster into a success in two movies, making two awful films before finally getting it right. I think he did it in just one film and I do like Star Wars II and gave it 4 stars.

I also think the unwillingness to recognize the overall quality of the film, is a testament to the fact that once people have their minds made up about something, they're sticking with it.