[15 August 2008]
Any new Star Wars movie immediately prompts the question: “Where does it fit?” Star Wars: The Clone Wars comes after Revenge of the Sith, when Anakin Skywalker was hero of the universe. As a way of perpetually deferring the moment when Anakin goes bad, this tactic has creative merit. But it is only dramatically intriguing if it foreshadows those latent vulnerabilities in Skywalker that precipitate his descent into darkness, a concept which never seems to have crossed the minds of director David Filoni and lead writers Henry Gilroy and George Lucas.
This feature-length installment, clearly conceived as a 98-minute trailer for the Clone Wars Cartoon Network series debuting in the Fall, offers nothing more than a series of spectacular animated battles, linked by the slender story of the Jedi knights’ quest to save the kidnapped son of Jabba the Hutt and thus secure his allegiance to the Republic (at least for this episode of the saga). In this superficial rites of passage story, Obi-Wan Kanobi (James Arnold Taylor) and Yoda (Tom Kane) seek to discipline Skywalker into maturity by ordering him to train a padewan (a trainee Jedi knight), Ahsoka Tano (Ashley Eckstein).
Ahsoka is visibly not human, which potentially opens up space for the story to explore genuine difference. But her alienness is only superficial: she is indubitably a young female, condemned to suffer Skywalker’s jocular contempt and pant gratefully at any crumbs of praise. Although Ahsoka is allowed minor retaliation when she starts calling her trainer “Sky Guy,” her rewards for showing initiative are slim indeed. For example, she saves Skywalker’s life twice with aplomb, yet must accept in response only a grudging promise from Skywalker of future excellence if she trains and works hard. On the evidence of this movie, it’s Skywalker who needs the training and the work.
As in so many movies targeted at younger viewers, Clone Wars cloaks its indoctrination into conventional behaviors under superficially liberating images. In the early ‘70s, an active role for Princess Leia, however subsidiary to the male story-drivers, seemed a victory. More than 30 years later, the same secondary role assigned to both Ahsoka and Galactic senator Padme Amidala (Catherine Taber), focused on saving of Skywalker or refining his behavior, offers no inspiration at all to young female viewers. Padme is one of the apparently powerful adult female characters, the other being Separatist assassin, Asaji Ventress (Nika Futterman); both women begin the movie swathed in long dresses and end it stripped down to figure-hugging spandex (decisive women are turned into semi-naked spectacles).
The animation underscores this retro tone, mixing old-school looks (say, puppets), stylistic quirks (Skywalker and Ahsoka recall the Bambi-eyed, perpetual adolescents of anime), and the hyper-reality of the best immersive shoot ‘me up video games. With the virtually unlimited options available to the animators, the decision to ape such a narrow emotional and physical palette is inexplicable, and often unintentionally funny. Unconvincing dialogue is another problem, as the characters (not only Yoda) must contend with silly mouthfuls. When Obi-Wan Kanobi is negotiating with the field commander of the android army, he looks and sounds more like one of the campier mediaeval knights resurrected from Monty Python’s Holy Grail than an intergalactic commander.
Only the battle animations provide compensation. Here the range of camera angles, detailed movement, and quick editing suck the audience so thoroughly into the center of the action that it seems, for a moment, as if Lucas, Filoni, and co. have achieved a seamless immersion of the actor/player at the core of 360 degree action. While this smart move should transport its target audience of kids and fans into a familiar environment, immersion in a game that offers zero agency quickly palls, even for hardened aesthetic thrill-seekers. One battle seems exactly like the last (and the next): the ‘droids shoot like amateurs and the Republican troops always prevail, whatever the odds. The only solution then is to wait for the end, and hope perhaps that the young viewers targeted by the TV series will find being the passive spectators to adrenalin-pumping action and old-fashioned stereotypes equally dull.