Friday, December 18, 2015

Star Wars Week: Attack of the Clones (2002)

Attack of the Clones (2002) -- the second episode in the seven-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 (Natalie Portman) 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 terrorist attack.

Jedi Master Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) and his young apprentice Anakin Skywalker (now played by Hayden Christensen), are assigned to protect Senator Amidala, and the quest to do so takes them on separate paths.

On his own, Obi Wan must solve the mystery of a clone army on Kamino. And Anakin returns to Naboo, and then to his home world of Tatooine where he experiences nightmares about his mother's fate.

All the while, Anakin 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 (Christopher Lee).

Meanwhile, in the Galactic Senate, Chancellor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) orchestrates "emergency powers" to create a Grand Army of the Republic in which to fight the Separatists: the Kamino clones.

While Mace Windu (Samuel L. Jackson) races to Geonosis to rescue the imperiled Anakin, Padme Amidala and Obi-Wan from a gladiatorial spectacle, Yoda (Frank Oz) wrangles the Clone Army for its first test in warfare.

Begun this Clone War has...

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 now an adult (kind of...) and Palpatine remains chancellor of the Republic. Amidala is a Senator instead of Queen, and even Jar-Jar is still around as "Representative Binks," but his presence in the adventure is greatly diminished.

If one idea underlining Episode I was a "phantom menace," an "elusive" and "elsewhere" sort-of menace that could threaten a government that has stood for 2,000 years, then the theme of Attack of the Clones involves the next step in the downfall of the Republic.

That next step involves one thing, arrogance in a universe in which people are not encouraged to care for one another.  Arrogance is a character trait and thematic thread that runs throughout this film, in a number of unique ways, actually.

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.  He is arrogant in his belief that he is right, and knows how to solve problems, as we shall see.

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." 

The Jedi -- although involved in a symbiont circle with their midichlorians -- do not seem to look outward from their bubble of self-righteous superiority.

And what is the result of all this rampant Jedi arrogance?

It is precisely as Yoda and Mace Windu discuss in one critical, and under-analyzed scene: their power and ability to "use the Force" is ..."diminished."

This is the one truly fascinating subtext in Attack of the Clones.  

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 in the world we see depicted here since there are only two Sith (master and apprentice) representing the Dark Side, but literally hundreds of Jed representing the light side.

Then go a step further. Why is the Force out of balance? Is it...arrogance? Some combination of over-recruitment and over-confidence?

Regardless, the “light 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.  The Jedi are so arrogant, they can't even see that.  They can't see how the Light Side and the Dark Side form a symbiont circle.

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 rather -- at long last -- humbled. 

.Arrogance is also critical to an understanding of Anakin, in particular, because his political views get some air time in the film. 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, essentially, 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 anxious, vulnerable Anakin...who has been a slave and watched his mother die in the anarchic and – yes --  multi-cultural (Jawa, Sandpeople, Hutts, Toydarian, humans...) deserts of Tatooine.

Like so many people, apparently, what Anakin yearns for is a strong man to take control and get the misbehaving people in line.

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. Again, he doesn't trust others to do what is right.  He values only his own judgment.  That's a textbook definition of arrogance.

So Anakin is frustrated, one senses, because he is surrounded by bureaucracy. The Galactic Senate is awash in rules; and the Jedi possess 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 takes 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, given his journey, but one that ultimately seduces him to the dark side.

In my The Phantom Menace review, 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 provides audiences a scene in an alien coliseum that is reminiscent of Ridley Scott's Gladiator (2000), and a scene in a 1950s-style diner that evokes his own classic: American Graffiti (1973). 

The latter scene, most clearly, 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 named Flo and 1950s-style bar stools?). The Pod Race/Chariot Race allusion worked well in Phantom Menace because it still felt “alien’ to audience experience in 1999, but this?

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 that must of us know quite well. I don't understand the currency of these images in the universe of Star Wars, of a place in a "galaxy far, far away."  At least not on first blush.

However, again, there may be a method to Lucas’s madness. 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 demagoguery at the hands of Senator McCarthy. Perhaps more trenchantly, by the end of the decade, President Eisenhower left office and warned the country in his last address about the power of the military-industrial complex in America.

Attack of the Clones specifically involves the raising of an army; a clone army. That Clone Army is the last piece of the puzzle that Palpatine requires to seize power and control the government and its people. By harnessing this "military-industrial complex," one man makes a Republic an Empire.  See the connection?

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, can argue -- especially if visuals reflect narrative theme—that Lucas is showing us a last age of innocence before military 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 substitutes loyalty for wisdom. Loyalty is a virtue, no doubt, but carried to extremes is itself a terrible form of blindness. Loyalty taken to its extreme -- unthinking patriotism -- has led to some of the greatest tragedies in human history (see: Nazi Germany). 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. They love the Republic, but they love it blindly.

For some reason, I find this moment in Attack of the Clones incredibly sad, and touching. Jar Jar tries to do right, and that desire is exploited. He isn't smart enough to know that his "patriotism" has led him to a terrible error.

Next, speaking in terms of both style and story, I've discovered that I don't enjoy Attack of the Clones as much as I do The Phantom Menace or Revenge of the Sith. It’s my least favorite Star Wars film.

That may be simply be the result of 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 Colosseum that involving or exciting; Even the light saber duel with Count Dooku and Yoda is not much of a climax, especially given the extraordinary choreography and pace of the Darth Maul battle in Phantom Menace. And I still get a little giggle out of Yoda flying around like a crazed mosquito.

But the flying speeder set-piece really steams me. Anakin and Obi Wan exhibit split-second awareness and timing here, falling hundreds -- thousands -- of feet in seconds and landing on the backs of speeding cars 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 speeder 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 hard on the slippery dashboards of speeders! Right?

This is the biggest inconsistency I detect in the prequels, and I don't like it. Either gravity matters to the Jedi or it doesn’t. And if it doesn’t, three animals in an arena aren’t going to pose a threat to them.

And the love scenes? Yes, they are awkward. I don't overtly hate the Anakin/Padme romantic scenes because -- for one thing -- they're necessary. (Hey, come on, we need Luke and Leia to come from somewhere, right?)

And for another, these characters are young and they've never been in love before, so it's kind of natural that they'd be sappy and say stupid ass 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. It would have been much weirder for them to take an adult approach to their affair, or attempt to mirror the Han/Leia love/hate relationship.

Besides, there's a formality about the way that all the characters speak in this prequel trilogy, so it's natural that Padme and Anakin's "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 is hardly unexpected.  This is Opera.

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 fellow 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.  The details of this plot-line make my head hurt.

Finally, it's always bothered me 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 as I wrote above, arrogance is the word of the day.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous10:45 PM

    Sifo Dyas was a Jedi that was manipulated by Plagueis and Palpatine.The story was covered in some of the novels.