Thursday, January 15, 2009

REVIEW: Star Wars, Episode II: Attack of the Clones

Wait a minute. This is almost right, but not quite. Here, I think I know what it is.

There we go. Much better.

While Star Wars, Episode I: The Phantom Menace was the cinematic equivalent of a big, wet, point-blank sneeze directly into your face, it made gazillions of dollars in theaters and home video (way back when that sometimes meant tapes; [shiver]). It’s hard to warrant the criticism that your film is “childish” when the classic films you’re following up on featured space pirates, mystical elf-puppets, and characters named Boba, Chewie, and Jabba. But George Lucas somehow managed to pull it off, making a film that showed off his top-of-the-line computer-generated special effects very well, but somehow managed to be less suspenseful and original than those tech demos that show a CGI spokeswoman telling you all about her advanced bitmap rendering.

When you think Star Wars, you think one thing: meetings.

But it was, of course, Star Wars, and so three years later, the inevitable Episode II arrived, sporting a perfectly appropriate title for a series that had convinced itself that people loved it for its homages to crappy ‘30s adventure serials: Attack of the Clones. Despite its goofy title and the fact that it was following the shaky Return of the Jedi and the hyperventilating Phantom Menace, I had decent hopes that Attack of the Clowns would rally. After all, Jake Lloyd was gone, Jar-Jar was nowhere in the trailers, and this time around, George Lucas wasn’t alone as having a screenplay credit. I imagined the studio executives deploying a screenplay “fixer” to the Skywalker Ranch, armed with a suitcase full of red pens.

"Woooo! Yeah! Man, I love going down with you! Oh wait, that came out wrong."

The movie begins with the standard text crawl, during which we learn that since the giddily happy ending of the last movie, the universe has gone down the toilet. The Galactic Republic, which never seemed particularly unified to begin with, is now dealing with a bunch of separatists, led by the traitorous ex-Jedi Count Dooku. Together with his cohorts, Archduke Bloopa and Don Yipyip, he has unleashed a terrifying scheme which, if successful, would form a separate coalition of mostly-self-governing nations! Doesn’t sound so terrible? Well, maybe that’s the point, because as will become increasingly obvious as the movie goes along, the good guys are really the bad guys. Yep, less than a year and a half into George W. Bush’s presidency, George Lucas had clearly prognosticated his objection to Bush’s governance, and so he’s playing Animal Farm with the farm animals replaced by computer-generated plush toys named Yoda and Jango. The Senate of the Galactic Republic, under the rule of Chancellor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid), is about to vote on a bill that would order the creation of the Republic’s first-ever standing army to go fight the separatists. And a real army too, not a bunch of stoners running around in blue helmets. Once again, Lucas has decided that since we’re going to enjoy all the cool aspects of 18th century Earth (pirates, druidic societies, princesses) in his fantasy universe, we’ve also got to delve into the turgid political issues, like whether or not a society can remain free while maintaining a permanent standing army. If this is supposed to be some crack at his home country for the sin of having a strong military and occasionally using it, I think George Lucas should be grateful to live in a society where he is free to get rich by making godawful movies.

The Clone Wars: The Game. Coming soon to Virtual Boy.

Queen Padme Amidala (Natalie Portman) has apparently been “promoted” to Senator, and objects to the standing army measure, of course, because in the Star Wars universe, making war just makes you corrupt. Someone’s trying to assassinate her for standing against the army. It’s a big mystery as to who’s behind this, although considering that we already knew from Episodes V and VI that Palpatine is evil, and that there are NO OTHER SUSPECTS (other than Jimmy Smits, who appears just long enough for us to not know who he‘s supposed to be), we might posit that this will eventually lead back to him. In the opening scene, we see Amidala’s ship fly through space and land on a platform on Coruscant. A guy gets out of an escort ship says something like, “Wow, I guess there was no assassination attempt after all!” I guess it’s inconceivable that an attempt would be made now that she’s coming, you know, outside. And sure enough, just as the Queen comes down the ramp out of the ship, the ship explodes from within, killing her and her guards. Fortunately, the Queen was actually a decoy, so Padme’s actually all right, but hang on a second. The ship exploded from within after it landed? Wouldn’t it have been a slightly better idea to set the bomb to go off when the ship was in outer space and the bad guys had the vaccuum and all that working for them?

Anakin suspected that the DA had gotten to her. But he didn't know where she could possibly be hiding the wire.

To protect Amidala, the Jedi Counsel send Obi-Wan Kenobi (either Ewan MacGregor or Ted Neeley, I‘m not sure which) and his apprentice, Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) to act as bodyguards. While nobody else in the movie looks more than a few years older, Anakin’s blasted all the way through puberty since the last movie, evidently experiencing some kind of accelerated growth process that will allow the eventual plot twist that he is, in fact, Yoda’s father. But for now, he’s played by yet another George Lucas-hand-picked acting juggernaut, Hayden Christensen, who expresses emotion by occasionally raising the volume of his voice. Amidala’s very surprised to see how much he’s grown… uh, up, and not at all displeased at the thought of him hanging out at her apartment high in the cityscape of Coruscant.

“Ladies, my island if you leave, recruit training if you survive, be a weapon you will! Be a minister of death praying for war you will. But that day until, pukes you are! The lowest form of life on Earth you are! Not even human f***ing beings you are! Nothing but unorganized grabasstic pieces of amphibian s*** you are! Because hard I am, not like me you will. But the more me you hate the more learn you will. Hard I am, but fair I am. No racial bigotry here there is. Look down on ******s, ****s, ***s or *******s I don‘t. Here, equally worthless all you are!”

Oh, and Jar-Jar is there, but apparently his stark realism was just too much for the audience to process in the first movie, so he’s mostly unimportant. Until later.

To a normal person, this is an alien. To an anime fan, this is Natalie Portman's hotter sister.

While Amidala sleeps, and Obi-Wan and Anakin bicker (which apparently constitutes male bonding for monastic types, in George Lucas’s estimation), people outside are up to no good. We see an assassin giving the task of killing the Senator to another assassin. Who in turn sends a droid to do the killing. I think the villains could have cut out the middle men and saved themselves a few dollars or credits or whatever the hell long time ago, galaxy far away money is. The droid flies up outside Padme’s window, quietly cuts a hole in the glass, and slips in a couple of poisonous slug-type things. Now, considering that the droid has already gained access to her room, you might think that it would be better off just shooting her or exploding or something. But using poisonous animals to assassinate important people is archaic and beyond nonsensical in a futuristic environment, so in it goes. The Jedi, of course, hack the little bugs to pieces in time, and Obi-Wan leaps out the window to grab hold of the droid just as it’s flying away. Thus begins a big, long chase scene, as Obi-Wan and Anakin board flying cars and pursue the assassin droid and its remote control operator through the city, bickering with each other the whole way. Obi-Wan is always lecturing Anakin about being reckless, and Anakin’s too dumb to reply, “Well, you’re the one who jumped out a 40,000-foot high window, you ASS!”

The Imperial Army mobilizes troops for Operation: Hit Stationary Target.

They corner the assassin in a bar, but in typical “bad political intrigue movie” style, a second assassin shows up to kill the assassin before she can talk, then speeds off. The killer-killer is Jango Fett (Temeura Morrison), a jet-packing bounty hunter, whose son, Boba, will follow in his footsteps by the time of the original trilogy: looking cool, gaining massive fan adoration, then dying inconsequentially. As the movie splits into two stories, Obi-Wan shows the poisoned dart that killed the assassin to a slobbery short order cook alien friend of his, who immediately identifies that it’s from Kimino, a planet so obscure that someone’s been able to erase it from the Jedi Counsel’s space maps and no one‘s the wiser. It’s a good thing Obi-Wan has friends working minimum wage jobs who can identify obscure planets’ primitive weaponry. Using a little detective work, he finds Kimino, and arrives there to find that it’s an ocean world with a Seattle-like persistence of rain (but no sign of Kevin Costner). The Kiminans (Kimonians? Kimoans? Kimis?) are lanky aliens who live in giant iPod-inspired buildings and are dumber than rocks. They think that Obi-Wan was sent to check up on the progress of the clone army they’re building for the Republic, even though Shaggy would do a better job of hiding his ignorance. Turns out that a long time ago, a Jedi Master named Sifo-Dyas (thank you, Wikipedia) approached the Kiminans and asked them to clone (and apparently equip) a ton of soldiers for the Republic. Only problem is that the Republic never did any such thing; apparently, the Republic entered its credit card number on the wrong website, and became the victim of the most dreaded crime in the universe: Jedi identity theft. Sifo-Dyas died a long time ago, but somebody posing as him has kept in touch with the Kiminans, saying, “Oh, sure, sure, I definitely represent the government of the entire galaxy. Yup. Hey, you’ll take an out-of-state check for that gigantic, imperial army of super soldiers, right?” Either the Kiminans are advertising, “No money down! No payments for 400 years!“ or Jedi masters have one heck of a Republic slush fund to work with.

"Pujols will be sitting on the 3-1 fastball. Here's the wind-up..."

Of course, I don’t think the Kiminans were the toughest aliens to trick. They’ve apparently developed the ability to generate a gargantuan slave army, complete with battleships and tanks, without benefit of significant trade with other worlds, and can do so as a special order from some idiot in a robe who wandered on by 20 years ago. Yet, they never thought that instead of selling their armies, they might make a little noise themselves. Maybe they just assumed that the rest of the alien races would have nukes by now, and so a bunch of incompetent foot soldiers would be kind of trivial for the purposes of intergalactic total war.

You know, throughout the first movie, I always said to myself, "You know, he'd be pretty good looking if only he had the right hat."

The soldiers were apparently all cloned from Jango Fett (Stormtroopers? Yeah, maybe the Kiminans got cheap and mixed some lemming DNA in there.), who’s still hanging around Kimino with his son for some reason, even though the Kiminans already have his DNA. Maybe he just loooves their poison darts, and wanted to be there when the next shipment came out. So as Jango attempts to reach his ship and fly off the planet, he and Obi-Wan duke it out on the landing pad in the pouring rain. It’s actually not a bad fight, with the Fett family finally showing some fighting prowess to warrant its bottomless well of arrogance. After failing to stop them from escaping Kimino in their giant clothes iron of a starship, Obi-Wan jumps in his ship and follows them into an asteroid field, where the Fetts wind up chasing him, shooting at him with missiles that explode and release a huge shockwave, but have a delayed explosion sound effect. I’m not really sure what that’s supposed to represent, since there’s not really any sound to begin with in outer space, but the conceit does add something to the movie, ever so briefly, that is not completely what you’d expect, so I’m all for it. As usual, the chase doesn’t really amount to much, although it kind of leads Obi-Wan to discovering the Separatists’ military staging base on the Planet Geonosis (which is essentially Mars). He’s taken captive by Count Dooku (the great Christopher Lee, making some quick cash between installments of a certain other trilogy), who makes the terrible mistake of making fun of his prisoner’s name. Dooku’s Sith name is Darth Tyrannus, although if they wanted to be honest about the character and the role, it would have been Darth Paycheck.

Might want to get your emissions checked.

But let’s back up to Anakin and Padme’s story. It’s Anakin’s job to get her back to her home planet of Naboo safely, lest someone make a slightly less incompetent assassination attempt one of these days. So they decide the best thing to do is go undercover, which means dressing in cheap clothes with hoods (not a problem for Anakin) and sitting around in crowded transport ships. At least the producers decided against having them transported by Lil’ Han Solo and Baby Chewie. Back on Naboo, stuff continues to not happen, save for the budding forbidden affair between the Senator Queen and the rapidly-aging Jedi, who has the same mood swings and questionable devotion to his work as the high-school dropout who takes my order whenever I go to Einstein Bagels.

"I am a great actor! Lucas is holding me back! I can be the most powerful actor in the galaxy!"

Of course, thinking of getting into one of Padme’s forty different sets of pants makes him think of his mother. Whoops, they left her back on Tatooine in slavery all those years ago, and forgot to ever go back and get her out, didn’t they? Awk-ward. So because protecting the Senator’s life isn’t really that big a deal, they venture off to Tatooine (and the whole one city that seems to exist on it), where they learn that the Sand People have recently kidnapped Ma Skywalker, and are holding her hostage. Anakin jets off to rescue her, but arrives too late, sneaking into the hut where she’s held just in time to see her die. Being a moody teenager, he does what any troubled adolescent would do: slaughter every man(-type thing), woman(-type thing), and child in the camp, before coming home to brag about it to Padme. She acknowledges that it was probably wrong to murder dozens of people out of revenge, but it doesn’t really change whatever it is that she finds attractive about him, so nothing much more is really made of this.

"Crappy seats have we gotten! Hardly see court, I can! A**hole that scalper is!"

They receive Obi-Wan’s distress signal, and again, since protecting her was really more of a guideline than an objective, they both fly off to rescue him, along with R2-D2 and C-3PO. In her absence, they leave responsibility for voting down the bill to create a Republican army--Oh yeah, that whole thing she was trying to oppose in the first place!--to the most responsible surrogate available: Jar-Jar Binks. Who, after a little cajoling from Chancellor Palpatine, promptly votes in favor of the army. In his memoirs, former acting-Senator Binks would describe the vote as his most disappointing legislative failure, seeing as how it led to the rise of despotic evil in the galaxy, but he thought it unfairly overshadowed his successes on galactic redistricting and galactic capital gains tax reform.

Noobpwner the Level 72 Night Elf Druid and Fidel Castro hold a joint news conference to announce their new video game collaboration, World of Laborcraft.

At Geonosis, where the Separatists could really use some way of stopping saboteurs before they land safely on the planet’s surface, Anakin and Padme work to rescue Obi-Wan by blasting their way through a big weapons factory, which of course means plenty of exciting action watching people running along conveyor belts while avoiding industrial presses. While Anakin fights off flying bug-like soldiers and Padme considers how she’s neither protected, nor doing her job as a Senator, R2-D2 helps out by flying around, and, er… well, he flies. An ability that will never have any value in the future.

I think this class is new to the Westminster Dog Show.

They’re all captured, and since Count Dooku’s entertaining Jango and Boba Fett as his house guests, he decides to execute Obi-Wan, Anakin, and Padme by tying them up in a big arena and unleashing a trio of giant animals to eat them. You know, kind of like the Christians and the lions, except that here, the Christians climb up poles and use Force powers to kick the lions’ asses. And before Dr. Evil… erm, Count Dooku can get around to his alternate method of execution, a bunch of Jedi, then clone trooper ships arrive and start smashing up the place, with Yoda barking orders that the clone troopers eagerly obey as soon as they unable his incomprehensible syntax; you know, Yoda really should be making faster progress in learning English. Samuel L. Jackson finally gets to do something, yelling the F-word (“Force! May it be with you!”) as he lops off Jango Fett’s head with his light saber. What began as a completely boring fight between a few good guys and a bunch of uninspired computer-rendered monsters turns into an excuse for George Lucas to show off all the goofy battle-action toy ships and robots and guns that the film’s primary audience (and by that, I mean both children and the 38-year-olds who, God willing, will never have any) absolutely must have for Christmas. The whole Battle of Geonosis unfolds, with soulless clones of a bad guy driving around in tanks and shooting at other nominally bad guys and their robots. But it definitely looks expensive. Where one generation of kids imagined being Luke Skywalker, blasting through TIE fighters on his way to pulling the impossible shot and blowing up the Death Star, I can definitely imagine younger kids imagining themselves as Clone Trooper #84862A, soldier for a corrupt government, shooting up Separatists.

That's some intense action. And the top half of the screen is pretty exciting too.

But because it always has to come down to the bloody Jedi, the really important fight comes when Obi-Wan and Anakin track down Count Dooku in a hangar, trying to take him into custody. Dooku quickly cuts the lights to make his 40-years-younger stunt double less obvious, then proceeds to knock out Obi-Wan and chop Anakin’s arm off. Preparing to kill them, he’s stopped by the arrival of little old Yoda, who waddles in on his usual cane before tossing it off, pulling out his own light saber, and turning into a spinning dervish of unholy death. Yoda’s acrobatics in his light saber fight are genuinely hilarious in the spirit they were intended, even if they’re only nominally more implausible than 174-year-old Christopher Lee defeating anything more dangerous than a crossword puzzle. Sadly, kill something we actually get to see Yoda don’t, as yet another fight ends in a stalemate with the villain escaping. Anakin and Padme get secretly married, Dooku and Palpatine meet to gloat over the war they’ve secretly manufactured, and Yoda proclaims, “Begun the Clone Wars have.” Then Jar-Jar proclaims, “Oooh, meesa no want bad boss man Dooku come scare Jar-Jar!” It’s very poignant.

Anthony Daniels is Bender in "Futurama: The Reckoning."

If it seems like I’m rushing through this review, it’s because for all the stuff that appears on the screen, not much in this movie actually happens. Never before has it seemed like the main characters did so little, for good or evil, in influencing the actual main conflict of a Star Wars movie. Most of the time, Obi-Wan’s investigating a mystery he doesn’t solve or even come close to comprehending, and Padme and Anakin are contemplating a love affair that we know is going to go forward and result in Luke and Leia. Anonymous clone troopers do most of the fighting on the good guys’ behalf, and even with their face-covering helmets and lack of emotions (and the fact that for whatever inexplicable reason, they’re all computer-rendered figures instead of guys in suits) they’re more expressive than the people at the top of the cast list. I know that Natalie Portman can at least act somewhat, even if I’ve never been really impressed with her, but she plays off Hayden Christensen about as well as she plays off the tennis ball they use to represent a CGI character’s eyeline. But maybe that’s not entirely fair to her, since Hayden Christensen might well be the worst actor in the history of acting. Perhaps even the worst doer in the history of people doing things. Seriously. I didn’t think they could get anyone worse than Jake Lloyd for this part, but at least Hayden stays remarkably true to the role he inherited. If he had appeared on-screen in an AC/DC T-shirt and said, “I’m Hayden Christiansen; who wants to talk about how awesome I am?” he would have been only nominally less convincing as Darth Vader. Now, I hate being too insulting to someone who, for all I know, is very humble and hard-working, but I expect I’d be ridiculed too if George Lucas picked me out of a GQ magazine and hired me to run the CERN particle accelerator or something. I’d make a lot of money for something I’m going to screw up beyond repair. At least Ewan MacGregor looks like he’s interested in what he’s doing, which… well, actually that might make him the worst actor in the film.

Tell you what. How about instead of renting this movie, you spend two hours watching Starcraft multiplayer videos on YouTube. Pretty much indistinguishable.

But all was not lost for the Star Wars prequel trilogy, since there was still another movie around the corner. The one to bridge the gap between the prequel trilogy and the trilogy of actual movies that we remember from way back when. The one that would explain how the emo kid with the bad hair would turn into Darth Vader, why the galaxy’s computer technology would devolve to 1970s-quality, and what convinced Jabba the Hutt to stop exercising. Tune in next time.

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