Unlike the venerable Mr. Humphries, I am a Star Wars fan. But I think he’s wrong when he claims that most SW fans were disappointed with the first prequel and would equally criticize this one. The majority of diehard SW fans I’ve spoken to have been willing to overlook all flaws of both the first prequel and this one, even, in some cases, trumpeting what I saw as some of the worst faults. I, however, do not think Lucas has given us his best work.
When I first sat down to see Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace on opening day three years ago, I could hardly contain my giddy excitement. I knew hardly anything about the film, having deliberately stayed away from the websites, but from the trailers it looked as if I were in for a wonderful, mythic prelude to some of my favorite films. As the film opened with John Williams’s blazing, familiar score, and that gigantic yellow scrawl began at the bottom of the screen, I felt as if I had gone home again after sixteen years. The film began. Liam Neeson as a Jedi, Ewan McGregor doing his best Alec Guinness impression – all good. Then Nute Gunray opened his big, ugly frog-like mouth. The minute I heard that vaudevillian mock-Chinese accent, my jaw dropped. It was so blatantly stereotyped that my mind instantly tried to rationalize it – was Lucas doing this to make the pre-Empire universe more diversified? Somehow that argument didn’t fly.
Things only got worse. Jake Lloyd, the 10-year-old who played Anakin, wasn’t quite up to his monumental task. The two-headed announcer at the pod race, with his Bob Costas-style commentary, made me cringe. Jar Jar Binks was just annoying – and not funny at all. We’ve already got C3PO in this movie (for whatever reason), why do we need more comic relief? Besides, everyone knows that stuffy British accents are much funnier than goofy patois ones.
It’s now three years later and here comes the Attack of the Clones. I won’t comment on the title except to say it sounds lame and is counterintuitively related to what happens in the film. Is Attack of the Clones better than The Phantom Menace? Yes, but not by much.
I went into Clones with a skeptical and, I’ll admit, even negatively-biased disposition. Lucas had botched the first film badly and had set up a framework that I didn’t think was viable. After the confusing mess that serves as a plot in Clones, I see I was correct. At its most basic level, the plot is identical to that of the previous film: Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) secretly stages an elaborate power play to consolidate his control of the Galactic Senate. That’s it in a nutshell, for both films. Lucas may pull the ol’ switcheroo by making the Darth Sidious character (also played by McDiarmid and clearly meant to be the Emperor of Return of the Jedi) a clone of Palpatine, but I’m not going to let him use that to weasel out of the fact that he basically recycled the plot of the previous film. There is apparently “unrest in the Senate” and some planets are trying to separate – the “Separatists” mentioned ever-so-briefly in the opening scrawl. But the evil Count Dooku (Christopher Lee, playing his worst-named character ever) is apparently working with the separatists (who will presumably form the core of the Rebellion), while the Jedi are secretly developing an army of clones to crush the separatists (or are they? So Dooku or Sidious or whoever poses as this long-dead Jedi to order an army of clones, and when the Jedi, led by Yoda, find out about this, they decide to just use the clones in a manner that turns out to benefit Palpatine perfectly? I mean…honestly). I have to admit, this whole Jedi-as-Gestapo thing bothered me. By the end of the film the Jedi are aware, or at least suspicious, that a Dark Jedi has control of much of the Senate. Yet they brutally defeat the separatists and “preserve the peace,” and apparently, since “Begun the Clone Wars are,” as Yoda says, many more separatist worlds will feel the heat of Jedi lightsabers and Jedi-commanded clones.
Perhaps most annoying of all is the fact that this highly confusing plot (which forces almost every line of dialogue to be one of exposition) is really only a backboard for five or six videogame-like action sequences. Watching the film I just knew that this or that scene would soon be found on your friendly neighborhood Playstation 2.
The acting is spotty. Ewan McGregor does a fine job as always playing Obi-Wan Kenobi. Lee, fresh off his role as an evil wizard in The Fellowship of the Ring, is fine as the evil wizard Count Dooku, or Darth Tyranus, whichever you prefer. Despite the script, McDiarmid manages to play Palpatine as a suave bureaucrat obviously plotting everyone’s downfall. Jimmy Smits plays Bail Organa, Senator from Alderaan, future foster father of Leia and future victim of the Death Star. But no one ever identifies him as Organa, so he’s just Jimmy Smits doing a cameo in a Star Wars movie. I’m serious – I just checked the script and no one ever says his name.
But the biggest problems are with Hayden Christensen and Natalie Portman. First of all, I’m ending my silence – Portman is not a good actress. She’s cold and unemotional and plays every role that way. I know she had horrible dialogue to work with. But so did Kirsten Dunst in Spider-Man – and she still managed to imbue her role with warmth and sexuality. Portman is frosty and her character is fairly boring. That’s part of what makes Christensen’s task as Anakin so thankless; he’s stuck delivering lines of burning passion to a character that wouldn’t start a brush fire in most men’s hearts. The result is a forced, rushed romance that requires more suspension of disbelief than all the computer-generated mayhem. In one scene, Anakin pours his heart out in front of a fireplace while Padme listens to him, immobile and emotionless. The scene is unquestionably dreadful, and I suspect you’d find most viewers would agree it was the worst in the film. I’ve spoken with some other SW fans who claim the romance in AOTC is better than that of Han and Leia in The Empire Strikes Back. To those people I say: you really need to try falling in love.
There are a few redeeming things about AOTC. Visually, of course, it can’t be beat. Lucas’s digital effects empire, Industrial Light & Magic, is where all the money goes in these films. The battles are all well-done and fairly cool – particularly when a certain diminutive Jedi Master opens up a can of whoop-ass on Count Dooku. That was, by far, my favorite moment in the film, and the one point in the whole prequel saga so far that matched the heart and small-scope grandeur of the original films. Also, Anakin’s slaughter of the sandpeople that enslaved his mother was a good bit of character development, even if Anakin then told Padm about it and she didn’t seem to care. Finally, I’ve never found C3PO that funny, but in the last half-hour of the film he not only provides some desperately-needed comic relief, but they’re genuine laughs. British accents=comedy.
AOTC fails because of its script. The whole film seems rushed and the romance is forced; Lucas is desperately trying to make his saga fit properly with the original films, yet each prequel adds a whole host of new loose ends. I suspect the problem lies in the way that the SW saga has been fundamentally changed since the first films came out. Author Kevin J. Anderson once pointed out that writing novels based on the SW universe was hard because, unlike Star Trek “when Star Wars was developed, modeled on a mythic cycle, it wasn’t designed to have many many other adventures tacked onto the end afterward. In true mythic cycles, the main characters are allowed to die heroic deaths, etc., and we are under tougher constraints in producing spin-off fiction.”
This didn’t stop Anderson from writing dozens of SW novels, of course. The confusing mess of plot in the prequels may be a result of this rapid expansion of the SW universe. One of the main locations in the prequels, the capital planet of Coruscant, was invented by sci-fi author Timothy Zahn in a trilogy of books that came out in the early 1990s. The Sith and the Fetts have volumes of material written about them in both books and comics. The name “Darth” was almost certainly not a title until the ancillary media made it one. Lucas actually has continuity editors on staff who are supposed to make sure all the novels, comics and movies hang together.
But all of this extra material has only made Lucas’s task with the prequels even more difficult one. He has forgotten how much success the original films had with using a smaller scope. In the modern world, epics only work when they have strong internal consistency, such as Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Even Tolkien’s character names were derived from Tolkien’s complete fictional languages or real-world historical ones. The SW universe is randomly-constructed and contradictory, even within the films themselves. The average reader or audience is much more amenable to fantasy when it is solidly grounded in realistic characters – characters that, most importantly, the viewer can identify with.
This is where Lucas has failed. A friend once remarked to me that Lucas doesn’t really understand the original SW saga. He thinks it’s about his precious avatar, Luke. But it isn’t. Star Wars is about Han Solo – the human character we viewers can identify with. Han has complex morals and a sardonic cynicism about the universe that serves as a necessary balance to the goodie-goodie nobility and idealism of Luke and his Jedi mentors. Luke is a freak – he has weird powers that normal people don’t have. Han Solo anchored the fantastic plot of SW and gave us a way to look at the incredible events and characters as we would see it ourselves, just as the quotidian and practical Hobbits do in The Lord of the Rings.
Han has no corresponding character in the prequels, and I believe it is this that turns me off from them so much. I can’t identify with all these politicians and Zen Jedi. I can’t even identify with whiny Anakin – is any young man so incapable of understanding responsibility, or of employing subtlety in his behavior? It’s clear that Darth Vader is going to turn out to be the biggest dupe in the galaxy, passively succumbing to Palpatine/Sidious’s influence. No wonder Peter Cushing could boss him around so much in Star Wars. He’s a wimp.