Wednesday, November 16, 2005

STAR WARS BLOGGING: Episode II: Attack of the Clones

The second episode in the six-part Star Wars saga opens in a time of "unrest" for the Galactic Senate. A separatist movement - encompassing thousands of solar systems - has begun to stir. Senator Padme Amidala returns to the Senate to debate the creation of a Republic Army, but on the landing pad at the capitol, is nearly killed in a vicious terrorist attack. Jedi Master Obi-Wan Kenobi and his young padewan learner, Anakin Skywalker (now played by Hayden Christensen), are assigned to protect Senator Amidala, and the quest to do so takes them on separate paths.

For Obi Wan, the mystery of a clone army on Kamino he must solve (I'm writing like Master Yoda!). For Anakin, the apprentice returns to Naboo, and then to his home world of Tatooine when he experiences nightmares about his mother's fate. All the while, he falls more deeply in love with Padme, a love that's forbidden by the Jedi code....

The Jedi partners re-team (inadvertently...) in the earthen coliseum on Geonosis, the headquarters for the Separatist movement and its leader, a former Jedi Knight named Count Dooku. Meanwhile, in the Galactic Senate, Chancellor Palpatine orchestrates "emergency powers" to create a grand army of the Republic in which to fight the Separatists...and so it turns out those clones on Kamino will prove quite useful! While Mace Windu races to Geonosis to rescue the imperiled Anakin, Padme Amidala and Obi-Wan from a gladitorial spectacle, Yoda wrangles the Clone Army for its first test in warfare. Begun this Clone War has...

Released in 2002, Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones, returns to the story commenced in The Phantom Menace...but picks up ten years later. Anakin is an adult (kind of...) and Palpatine is still chancellor of the Republic. Amidala is a Senator instead of Queen, and Jar-Jar is still around as "Representative Binks," but his presence in the adventure has been greatly diminished.

If the theme of the first episode in the series was a "phantom menace," an "elusive" and "elsewhere" sort-of menace that could threaten a government that has stood for 2,000 years, than the theme of Attack of the Clones involves the next step in the downfall of the Republic. That next step involves one thing, not the unrest of the first film, but arrogance.

Arrogance is a character trait and thematic thread that runs throughout this film, in a number of unique ways. Young Anakin has grown arrogant in his Jedi powers, claiming that "in some ways - a lot of ways..." he is actually ahead of Obi-Wan, his mentor. And when Obi-Wan notes Anakin's arrogance to Master Yoda, Yoda replies only that it is a flaw "more and more" common among the Jedi...suggesting, perhaps, that Obi-Wan suffers from the malady as well. As viewers, we witness this arrogance for ourselves in the Jedi Archive. "If an item doesn't appear in our records," scoffs a librarian, "it doesn't exist." So certain are you, hmmm? So blind?

And what is the result of all this rampant Jedi arrogance? I think it is exactly as Yoda and Mace Windu discuss in one critical, and under-analyzed scene: their power and ability to "use the Force" is ..."diminished."

I find this a really fascinating subtext in Attack of the Clones. Why? Well, consider that it is Anakin's role as "The Chosen One" to "bring balance to the Force." Then consider that the Force must necessarily be out of balance since there are only two Sith (master and apprentice) representing the Dark Side, but literally hundreds of Jed representing the light side. Why is it out of balance? Is it...arrogance?

Anyway, the good side exists in numbers far in excess of the "dark side" of the Force, right? This means that for Anakin to bring the Force into balance, he must indeed (as we see in Part III) be responsible for the death of the vast majority of the Jedi. Consider that when Revenge of the Sith ends, there is indeed a new balance: two Jedi in hiding (Yoda and Obi-Wan), and two Sith in power (Palpatine and Vader). Importantly, neither Yoda nor Obi-Wan is arrogant anymore, but humbled. It is the Emperor who grows arrogant, confident he can turn Luke, as he did Vader. So I believe that the Jedi constantly misread the "Chosen One" prophecy in the early films. They think it is the destiny of Anakin to bring balance to the Force and destroy the Sith...but if the Sith is destroyed, will there truly be balance of any kind? There can't be! I think both sides must always exist at equal strength, sans arrogance. I think that this would be the story of Parts VII, VIII, and IX, if we were ever to see them.

Arrogance is critical to an understanding of Anakin, in particular, I think, because his political views get some air time here. He tells Padme that he doesn't think the "system works" and that a strong leader is necessary to control the partisanship and bickering. "Someone wise," he suggests. What he's saying is that he would like to see a dictatorship. And in a sense, why shouldn't he? Anakin and his mother were slaves on Tatooine, and what did that great democracy, the Galactic Republic do about their plight? As a youngster, Anakin asked Qui Gonn if he had come to Tatooine to free the slaves, and let's face it, that was the furthest thing from Qui Gonn's mind. Living in such an unfair system, one where government doesn't help, one can see why Anakin would wish to cut through the bureaucracy and install a leader who gets results. Ultimately, in some twisted fashion, Palpatine offers safety and security for a chaotic galaxy, and there must be some aspect of that promise that appeals to Anakin...who has been a slave and watched his mother die in the anarchic, even multi-cultural (Jawa, Sandpeople, Hutts, humans...) deserts of Tatooine.

Anakin's turn to the dark side is begun in earnest by his murder of the Sand People in the desert, his need to exact retribution rather than wait for justice to be meted by an inefficient, uncaring government. Anakin is frustrated, one senses, because he is surrounded by bureaucracy. The Galactic Senate is awash in rules; and the Jedi have rules governing behavior too, but they both claim to be "good" and operating in the cause of "justice." Yet what have these "good" forces done to save a slave woman abducted by the Tusken Raiders? Absolutely nothing! In taking matters into his own hands and meting out eye-for-an-eye, horrible justice against the Sandpeople, Anakin has taken the first steps towards deciding that he should be the one to make the decisions for others. That his personal moral compass is superior. It's an understandable choice, but one that ultimately seduces him to the dark side.

In The Phantom Menace blog, I wrote about George Lucas as a cinematic classicist who recreates in fantasy settings such classic movie moments and scenes as the Ben-Hur chariot race. In Attack of the Clones, the director gives us a scene in a coliseum that is reminiscent of Ridley Scott's Gladiator, and a scene in a 1950s-style diner that evokes his own classic, American Graffiti. The latter scene, I think, could be interpreted as a stylistic mistake. Why would there be a greasy spoon diner on Coruscant (one with a fat cook, a waitress droid on a wheel and 1950s-style stools?) I hate to be a nitpicker, but this sequence involving Obi-Wan's informant "Dex" would have been much better set somewhere else. The Pod Race/Chariot Race allusion worked well in Phantom Menace, but let's face it, the art and architecture of 1950s Americana arises from a specific set of circumstances and context unique to the United States on Earth. I don't understand the currency of these images in the universe of Star Wars, of a place in a "galaxy far, far away."

Unless, of course, George Lucas is trying to make a subtle point about America in the 1950s and comparing that epoch to the world of Star Wars in Attack of the Clones. In my Phantom Menace blog, I noted how that film's spaceship design and futura/art-deco look reflected the world of the 1930s. Is it Lucas's intention here to tell us something important about America in the 1950s? In the 1950s, America was locked in a Cold War with the Soviet Union, living through the "Red Scare" and facing repression at the hands of Senator McCarthy. Perhaps more trenchantly, by the end of the decade, President Eisenhower left office and warned the country about the power of the military-industrial complex. I realize this is no-doubt reaching, but Attack of the Clones involves the raising of an army; a clone army. That Clone Army is the last piece of the puzzle that Palpatine needs to seize power and control the government and its people. By harnessing this "military-industrial complex," one man makes a Republic an Empire. Again, that's a stretch, but this is the only possible way I can read the diner scene and not believe that Lucas has made a mistake, or just picked a setting because he feels nostalgia towards it. Instead, he's showing us a last age of innocence before corruption and totalitarianism.

There's a great moment in Attack of the Clones when Palpatine declares that he "loves democracy" and then promptly seeks the power to overturn it. He is aided, by of all creatures, Jar-Jar Binks. Jar-Jar has been left at the Senate to fill in for Amidala, and the poor wretch thinks Amidala would want for him to vote for the Emergency Powers Act granting Palpatine the authority to raise an Army. Why? Loyalty. Jar-Jar mistakes loyalty for wisdom, and personally, I think that has happened a great deal throughout history. Loyalty is a virtue, no doubt, but carried to extremes is itself a terrible form of blindness. The Republic falls, in a sense, because people like Jar-Jar are loyal to Palpatine and believe that he has their best interest at heart. And of course, he does not.

Some comments left on the Phantom Menace blog have discussed how I tied Valorum to Clinton, and the ascent of Palpatine/Bush to the need for a "strong leader" who could restore honor and dignity to a perceived corrupt government. I understand it is hairy to get involved in politics these days, because we all have our "sides." So even if you disagree with the politics I ascribe to these films, see if the metaphor describeds holds true/consistent. In other words, you may have your opinion of things that differ from this blog's (and hey, I'm all for that!), but ask yourself: is the metaphor a fair one, accurately read? In Attack of The Clones I see much more of the same "line." The Separatist Threat is clearly a "War on Terror" brand menace, one that can be used by the government to push a secret and long-lasting agenda. The Emergency Powers of Palpatine are not unlike the civil-rights curbing Patriot Act, and this film even begins with a terrorist-like strike on a landing pad. Palpatine claims to love and foster democracy, but he's actually furthering his own power base. He's manipulating a war (Count Dooku is his secret ally) that is not being fought for the reasons he claims. He is misleading the Republic about its very nature.

Speaking stylistically, I've discovered that I don't actually enjoy Attack of the Clones quite as much now as The Phantom Menace or Revenge of the Sith. That may be simply a structural flaw: the middle-part of the trilogy is always difficult to navigate (though Empire Strikes Back is extraordinary). My ennui with this installment of the saga has much to do with the action sequences, in particular. I hate to say it, but I don't find the flying speeder chase over Coruscant's capitol, or even the battle in the Colisseum that involving or exciting; Even the light saber duel with Count Dooku and Yoda is not much of a climax, given the extraordinary choreography and pace of the Darth Maul battle in Phantom Menace. I still get a little giggle out of Yoda flying around like a crazed mosquito.

The flying speeder bit gets me too. Anakin and Obi Wan exhibit split-second awareness and timing here, falling hundreds of feet in seconds and landing on the backs of speeding cars, etcetera, throughout this early action sequence. Gravity doesn't seem to be a factor for them, nor do the random movements/behaviors of all the other drivers in the sky. The characters reveal no signs of fear about these death-defying falls and leaps, and I get it - they're Jedi. But after seeing these two Jedi survive this incredible, hectic car-chase in the sky, how are we to take seriously the other threats of the film? A battle on a landing platform on Kamino with Jango Fett? Why, that's not even as high-up off the ground as the car chase! And the three monsters in the gladiator games at the finale? Easy stuff, especially after hurtling through the sky without a parachute and landing on the slippery dashboards of speeders! Right? This is the inconsistency I detect in the prequels, and I don't like it. Maybe somebody out there has a way of fitting this in with the movies? I'd love to read a theory...

Finally - and unlike many reviewers - I don't hate the Anakin/Padme romantic scenes. For one thing, they're necessary. And for another, these characters are young and they've never been in love before, so it's kinda natural that they'd be sappy and say stupid things (like comparing Padme's skin to sand). We've all been the "victims" of young, obsessive love, so I'm cutting Padme and Anakin a break here. Besides, there's a formality about the way that all the characters speak in this prequel trilogy, so it's natural that their "love"/"courtship" talk would sound formal and strange too, right? I've always thought of the Jedi Order as equivalent to some medieval order of Knights; one with a unique code (like chivalry). So really, the fact that these sequences feel cliched and stilted doesn't bother me in the slightest.

One element of Attack of the Clones which I wish I understood with more certainty is the role of a dead Jedi named Sifo Dyas. He is the fella who put in the order for the Clone Army ten years before the film (right around the time of The Phantom Menace). By Attack of the Clones, this character is deceased. So, my question is this: Did Palpatine go to Kamino pretending to be Sifo Dyas, a jedi, and put in an order for the Army? Or was Sifo Dyas actually a Sith Apprentice working for Palpatine, which would have put him in succession somewhere between Maul and Dooku? I just wish there was a little more information in the film about who this guy was, and how his mission to Kamino played out.

Also, it's always bothered me a little that the wise (but arrogant!) Jedi just take possession of a Clone Army, no questions asked. It seems like they should all be just a shade more suspicious that a Clone Army would appear precisely at the exact time it is needed most by the Republic. But then again, their arrogance has apparently blinded them to such contradictions...and arrogance is the word of the day.

What do you think of Attack of the Clones? Have I missed any interesting facets of it? Let me know! Next up for Star Wars blogging: Revenge of the Sith (next week!)

6 comments:

  1. Anonymous12:31 PM

    I love Attack of the Clones. I have no way to explain in rational terms why it appeals to me so strongly but, nevertheless, it does. It just has a really strong cool factor to it. I love Jango Fett, the Clone Army, Geonosis, Kamino, Count Dooku, the fact that Mace Windu gets to kick some serious ass, Seperatist Leader Wat Tambor, and a host of other cool things. I also love the way the Battle of Geonosis is shot. The way the camera goes from toe Gunships to the action and back is just awesome. Attack of the Clones is the Star Wars movie I always wanted to see when I was a kid. I really am not capable of watching it with a crisitcal eye.

    -Chris Johnson

    ReplyDelete
  2. Hey Chris -

    We all have movies that just absolutely hit us in that special *nerve*-- it doesn't always make sense, but there it is! I go back and forth on Attack of the Clones. I liked it when I saw it in the theatre. I didn't like it when I watched it on DVD. Then I liked it the second time I watched it on DVD; then I didn't like it so much. Now, in this experiment I'm trying to keep a fresh and objective critical eye and see what the movie has to offer. There's a lot there, but I like Revenge of Sith the better.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Anonymous1:30 PM

    I loved ATTACK OF THE CLONES when I saw it in the theaters. I think that last scene which featured Palpatine facing the new Clone Army really hit home on what he had actually accomplished in this installment of the saga. And after seeing AOTC on VHS and DVD (I just finished watching it last week), I love it more than ever. I found it to be an excellent story. Not only did it continued Palpatine's rise to power, it began both Anakin and the Jedi Order's foray into darkness.

    By the way, I fully understood why Yoda had decided to use the Clone Army. He did it to save his fellow Jedi Knights on Geonosis. Saving the Order and his fellow Knights were more important to Yoda than considering the consequences of using the Clone Army.

    In all, I consider ATTACK OF THE CLONES, REVENGE OF THE SITH, and THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK as the gems of the STAR WARS saga.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Anonymous10:42 AM

    I dislike the entire story arc of the prequels.

    I would have found it much more interesting if the Clone Wars had been Jedi (+ droids) vs. Clones.

    Individuality vs. conformity.

    One wonders as they were filmed how the Jedi can support the idea of cloning. What does cloning do to The Force?

    ReplyDelete
  5. I thought the Diner was classic Lucas and one of my favorite scenes, but story-wise I guess there's no reason it had to be specifically a diner. It just had to prove that the greasy cook knew more about the galaxy than the Jedi Order. "I should think that you Jedi would know the difference between knowledge and...heh heh...wisdom."

    ReplyDelete
  6. Michael Giammarino10:33 AM

    You know, John, the vehicle Anakin is driving in the sky chase was made to look like a car right of American Graffiti, so your speculation for 1950s Americana and Dex's Diner does hold up.

    ReplyDelete