Looking Back to the Future
Still, that so many of Episode I‘s characters (Qui-Gon Jinn, Darth Maul, Jar-Jar, the child Anakin) are never seen again in the franchise just serves to make The Phantom Menace a distinct entry in the saga; it has an aesthetic and an arc and a pace and a joy uniquely its own.
Meanwhile, there is no joy to be found in Episode II: Attack of the Clones. Such was my antipathy towards George Lucas and his bloated space opera in 2002 that I refused to see Episode II when it was first released, but I remember the unanimous verdict among the Star Wars fans I polled: “Well, it was better than The Phantom Menace.”
At the time, this struck me as hopelessly faint praise, but seven years later, it is clear that moviegoers were deluding themselves on two fronts; firstly, The Phantom Menace is not as bad as they wanted to believe, and secondly, Attack of the Clones is not as good as they wanted to believe.
Attack of the Clones opens on the planet Coruscant, which is truly a setting worthy of the Star Wars name, with its Blade Runner-esque layers of airborne traffic weaving between ornate skyscrapers. Alas, the chase scene that plays out against this inspired backdrop is completely forgettable and unconvincing, as Jedi knights Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker are suddenly not merely mortal men with spiritual superpowers; now they are apparently invincible.
Each experiences a free-fall lasting several seconds, and each lands inside or atop a passing vehicle and suffers no harm or injury. When all physical realism and accountability is abandoned like this, the audience is denied any reason for investing in the narrative, for nothing is at stake. Even the Jedis themselves cannot be bothered to express concern; hell, Anakin brashly chooses to fall.
During the same scene, Obi-Wan makes a bemused, flippant, playfully exasperated remark to his protégé, Anakin: “Why do I get the feeling you‘re going to be the death of me?” It‘s the kind of line that seems loaded and significant and clever at first, but it quickly collapses under any real scrutiny. It‘s too contrived and self-consciously meta, with none of the subtle chill of Chancellor Palpatine‘s comment to young Anakin at the close of The Phantom Menace: “We will watch your career with great interest.”
I have noticed that Jake Lloyd has not been looked upon with favoritism by many critics for his performance as the child Anakin Skywalker in The Phanom Menace. Perhaps it didn’t help the boy‘s cause that his performance was visited upon the world during the same year that a young Haley Joel Osment put on a veritable acting clinic in The Sixth Sense. (The “boy” Jake Lloyd is 20-years-old as of this writing, incidentally.) Whatever the case, while Lloyd was perhaps somewhat less than believable at times (if no more so than most any child actor), I found him mostly endearing and credible, and 30 minutes into Attack of the Clones, Hayden Christensen‘s portrayal of the young adult Anakin had me experiencing considerable nostalgia for young Mr. Lloyd.
When Christensen‘s Anakin isn‘t simply dishwater dull, he is whiney and mopey and full of self-pity. He fares better when the time comes to express anger, for if nothing else Christensen seethes with believable fury and self-doubt. Really, much of the issue with Christensen‘s acting stems from the lackluster script; George Lucas gave Christensen precious little to work with. (Just as Christensen really gets into a good groove, rage-wise, he is forced to switch gears from shouting and crying about how much he hates the Tusken Raiders he murdered to nonsensically shouting that “It‘s all Obi-Wan‘s fault!”)
Still, other actors managed to work small wonders with what meager offerings Lucas provided. Ewan McGregor, for example, shares the same quiet dignity that made Liam Neeson so arresting as the sorely missed Qui-Gon Ginn. One of McGregor‘s standout scenes takes place in what appears to be a ‘50s diner, which is cute on the one hand and tiresome and maddening on the other; much like the podrace announcer in The Phantom Menace; this diner is so recognizable and familiar that we no longer feel that we are watching otherworldly science fiction. Still, McGregor‘s Obi-Wan is so sardonic and knowing in his conversation with Dex in the diner, and at the same time so warm (tough balancing act, that), that he elevates the entire scene.
Natalie Portman is given a largely thankless role, in that she must convince the audience that she has fallen in love with Anakin, whom it is not possible to even like. Still, she does what she can with the role and she does it well, and she looks beautiful while doing it, which seems to be the whole point, where women in Star Wars are concerned. (Unlike Carrie Fisher, Portman is at least spared the indignity of becoming a bikini-clad slave, though an inordinate amount of focus is dedicated to her bare midriff.)
Yoda, meanwhile, is no longer a Muppet. Instead, he is produced entirely through the use of CGI, much like Jar-Jar and Harry Potter’s Dobby before him. His movements are more fluid now, and his green, withered old face is more expressive. At the same time, his flesh looks flat and painted-upon, so that we are uncomfortably aware at all times that Yoda has become a mere cartoon. I for one miss the Muppet.
More so than even Yoda, the watery planet of Kamino represents everything false and off-putting and detestable about CGI. Filmmakers who come to rely too heavily on CGI can develop a blindness to even its most glaring failings, and the laughably unconvincing waves of Kamino are a perfect example. There‘s no polite way to say it: The water looks fake. Weak-graphics-in-a-dated-video-game fake.
It is difficult to overstate the crippling affect these ugly effects have on Attack of the Clones. After all, Star Wars has always been a series that depends on stunning visuals to compensate for its lackluster plotting and dialogue, and if ever an entry needed the aid of good visuals, it is this one. I shuddered when I first heard that Episode II featured a romantic subplot, and I was right to be afraid; George Lucas is not equipped to evoke love with mere words, and without the usual Star Wars imagery to support those words, nearly every bit of Anakin‘s motivation rings false. Worse still, his love for Padme Amidala develops on the planet of Naboo, which is admittedly beautiful, but which bears a discouraging, cheesy resemblance to the paintings of Thomas Kincade.
Sadly, the LucasFilm marketing department conveyed Anakin‘s plight better with a ten-word tagline than the film‘s entire 140 minutes managed to express: “A Jedi Shall Not Know Anger. Nor Hatred. Nor Love.”
There‘s a minimalist elegance and a haunting sense of foreboding at play in those three sentences, but you‘ll find no such elegance in Attack of the Clones. Nor, worse still, will you find any of the sweeping whimsy that has always been the primary trademark of the Star Wars series; even at its most intense, this film is never truly exhilarating. It feels less like a creative enterprise than a merely mechanical one.
Finally, there is Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, and it is difficult to gauge the extent to which people are mistaken about it, because it seems that many people never quite decided what to make of it in the first place.
This is interesting: when I decided to rediscover the original Star Wars trilogy, I went the cheap route and picked up whatever weary old video-cassette versions I could find at yard sales and second-hand stores, and as it happens, my VHS copy of The Empire Strikes Back includes an advertisement for a behind-the-scenes documentary in which a startlingly young George Lucas says something that seems much more significant today than it probably did when he first said it in the late ‘70s or early ‘80s: “Special effects are just a tool. A means of telling a story. A special effect without a story is a pretty boring thing.”
I leave it to you to determine the extent to which Lucas has forgotten this insight.
Episode III is dark and troubling, and often convincing in a way that the prequels rarely were. But it is not without its flaws, and I am reluctant to even concede that it is better than Episode I: The Phantom Menace. Whatever its rank in the saga, it is Emperor Palpatine‘s movie, not Anakin‘s. (If Lucas had allowed his direction to become a bit more paranoid, one could almost see Revenge of the Sith as Oliver Stone‘s Palpatine.)
Palpatine is a cunning conniver, and some of his speeches to the malleable Anakin Skywalker are creepy in their cold persuasiveness. But while the first stirrings of Anakin‘s turn to the dark side are convincing, things escalate too quickly; he essentially kills “younglings” as his opening chore for Palpatine.
Admittedly, it’s a powerful scene. When the young child Jedi asks Anakin, “What are we going to do?” and then steps backward, eyes widening in horrible understanding, it‘s easily the most chilling and terrible moment in the six-film saga. But does it ring true? Darth Vader later attempts to bring Luke to the dark side in Return of the Jedi; had he succeeded, would Luke have so quickly killed kids, just because it was asked of him? I do not believe that he would have. For that matter, I do not believe that Anakin would have; his turn to the dark side, the axis on which all six films tilt, feels false.
Now that we know that Vader murdered children, it’s clear that his redemption in Return of the Jedi comes too easily; he killed kids and oversaw the destruction of the Jedi, and yet Luke and the ghosts of Yoda and Obi-Wan are so quickly chummy with him. I am reminded of an amusing recap of The Rock‘s long-ago Wrestlemania feud with Hulk Hogan, in which Scott Keith provided imaginary dialogue for the wrestlers when they suddenly became buddies after their match: “Hogan and Rock make nice-nice, as presumably Hogan is all ‘Sorry about the attempted murder, brother’ and Rock is all, ‘It‘s cool, I didn‘t sell the injury anyway.’”
Meanwhile, Padme‘s death, which should arguably be the most devastating moment in the series, is silly and absurd. The implication that Anakin killed her is an intense and important one, but it could have been handled with more grace and subtlety, to say the least; even after all the scripting blunders in Episode II, I still cannot believe that Lucas would actually have a character say, “She died of a broken heart.”
While Hayden Christensen is no Ewan McGregor, his distinct lack of likability in Episode II was indeed the fault of the script; even at its worst, the writing is more engaging in Episode III, and as a result, Christensen soars. But his character does not, or at least not consistently; Anakin‘s most convincingly Dark moment is the furious “I hate you!” he directs at Obi-Wan. He doesn‘t mean it, of course, but he is so lost that he cannot realize for himself that he doesn‘t mean it; he says “I hate you” the way my five-year-old daughter says it when she‘s past due for a nap. It‘s a sad, heavy moment, for sure, but it also diminishes Darth Vader somewhat; was he always little more than a scared child throwing a tantrum?
Later, we hear Quigon Ginn‘s name, though never his voice. I‘d have liked to have had another glimpse of Anakin‘s former owner Watto, too. Something about his brief, tense reunion with Anakin in Episode II was strangely touching. Watto‘s bewildered, tentative whisper of “Ani…?” is one of the only emotional moments in that burdensome film.
Ultimately, Episode III mostly ties the saga together and makes it complete, but one cannot help but speculate about the order in which the films are now intended to be watched. Entertainment Weekly found a ”Star Wars virgin” whom they asked to watch all six films in chronological order. He wrote:
For me, the biggest problem with seeing these films in their intended order is that Episodes IV-VI offered little surprises. I know who Luke‘s father is; I know that the little creature is Yoda. I have to sit through that uncomfortable kiss between Luke and Leia knowing that they are indeed brother and sister. Most of the mysteries and questions that drive the plots of the later episodes are nullified by having seen the first three. (“Losin’ It” by Michael Morrison, Entertainment Weekly.com)
It will be interesting to see how new fans will respond to the series in coming years, considering what our virgin friend says above. But then, the parents of these future fans may simply opt, as I did, to have their children watch the films in what we will always consider to be the proper order: IV,V, VI, I, II, III.