Tuesday, October 24, 2023

Star Wars Subjectivities: Attack of the Clones

In the first of the Star Wars prequels, The Phantom Menace,, we meet lil' Anakin Skywalker, the young, mop-topped ragamuffin who can sure fly a pod racer and who will grow up to be Darth Vader. Here, in the second of the prequels, set some ten years later, we meet a larger Anakin, the whiniest little bitch in the galaxy with the worst conceivable haircut and who will grow up to be Darth Vader.

Look, if you grew up with the prequels and like them, I don't want to take that away from you. You don't need anybody's permission to like the movies you like. My son likes this movie. He grew up with it. But if you're like him, you're probably going to want to skip this analysis. 

This is not the essay you're looking for.

This movie has played in my home many times, but I never sat down to watch it. I would pass in and out of the room, catch a moment here and there, and generally think, "Yeah, seems like I made the right call to skip this one in theaters." But now that I have actually sat down and watched the whole thing, I can say that I think the biggest problem with Attack of the Clones, really, is that every single thing about it sucks.

If the plot was dumb but it had charismatic performances, there's something. If the performances were stiff but it made a cool addition to the Star Wars mythology, ok. If the dialogue was bad and full of naked exposition but it was delivered briskly, at least we could move on from it quickly. But no. Alas.

Look. This is how the movie starts: There's the Star Wars crawl, and it talks about how a bunch of star systems want to leave the Republic, there aren't enough Jedi Knights to keep the peace, and Padme Amidala (the child princess in the last movie) is now a senator and on her way to go vote. I know. Try to contain your excitement as the crawl slips off into the nether. I mean, is she going to get an "I Voted" sticker? That would be huge for the whole galaxy. Then Padme's ship comes into frame, on its descent into Coruscant. It lands. One dipshit standing on the platform turns to his dipshit friend and says — for real — "We made it. I guess I was wrong. There was no danger at all." And then the ship blows up, with the fakest-looking CGI explosion you can possibly imagine. The dialogue does not improve from there. Padme's look-alike dies, nobody seems too broken up about it, and off they go to the next scene. We then move inside a big conference room, where a bunch of characters literally recap the information from the crawl for several minutes.

So let's talk about the dialogue.

While there is staggeringly clunky exposition sprinkled with "as you know"s and "you will remember that"s and other hallmarks of stiff writing, it goes so much deeper than that. There are sections of the script where the words simply do not make sense after one another. Take a look at this baffling exchange between Obi-Wan and the bounty hunter Jango Fett, whom Obi-Wan suspects of trying to murder Padme:

OBI-WAN: Ever made your way as far into the interior as Coruscant?
JANGO: Maybe once or twice.
OBI-WAN: Then you must know Master Sido-Dyas.
What? Like...seriously, what?!?

Sido-Dyas is some Jedi who's not even in the movie, and has been dead for years. He's certainly not in Coruscant, and even if he *were* alive, and even if he *were* in Courscant, this would be like asking somebody if they've ever been to Akron, and when they say they can't remember, responding, "Then you must know Jim. Jim's from Akron." But as it is, it's more like, "Ever been to Akron?" Can't say for sure. "Then you must know Jim. Jim's from Phoenix and died about ten years ago." It's unfathomably bad writing because there's no connective tissue between these lines. It's just plot ideas strung together in the most awkward possible sentence structures. You know, to sound lofty.

This exchange takes place shortly after Obi-Wan goes to the library to look at star field maps, and tells the librarian that there should be another star system on the map, slightly south of another one. Friends, there is no "south" in space.

But no discussion of the badness and horribility of this film's dialogue is complete without this legendary gem after Annakin accompanies Padme back to her home planet of Naboo, and she's telling him about an island visible in the distance where she spent time as a kid:
PADME: We used to come here for school retreat. See that island? We used to swim there every day. I love the water. We used to lie on the sand and let the sun dry us...and try to guess the names of the birds singing.
ANAKIN: I don't like sand. It's coarse and rough and irritating, and it gets everywhere. Not like here. Here everything's soft... and smooth...
Anakin says this last part as he starts pawing at Padme's arm. Because...she's also smooth? Unlike...sand? The cadences are the same as the dipshits from the landing pad at the beginning. Short sentences, all the same structure. All two and a half hours of the movie are like this. Not how people talk or communicate at all.

"We say dumb shit all the time. It's our job."

Which brings me to the awfulness of the performances overall.

It's not the actors' fault. I am a director and producer by trade. I've directed hundreds of projects over the last *cough cough* years, and I very much believe that it is the director's job to protect his or her actors. You have to help them by giving them tools. You work with them to fill entrances and exits — Where is the character coming from, or going to? Why now? What's the urgency? — and you develop blocking and business to give the actors something to do with their bodies. Otherwise, every scene is just two people sitting and staring at each other. Even with sterling dialogue, two accomplished actors just sitting and staring at each other will struggle to seem believable and engaging. Because human beings don't generally just sit and stare at each other. Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn couldn't make these scenes crackle. Look at real-life...even in boring-ass meetings, you've got cats doodling on their notepads, or drinking coffee, or swiveling back and forth in their desk chair. Julia Roberts did and entire scene in Charlie Wilson's War staring in a mirror and separating her eyelashes with a safety pin.

Not here, though. Almost every scene between Padme and Anakin starts and ends with them just looking at each other. Business and blocking are really, really important, and I don't care how digital the sets and backgrounds were, George Lucas owed his cast better. Sometimes the actors get to do a walk-and-talk, but mostly, each scene opens with the cast sitting there staring at each other, they say their lines, and then the scene ends. This goes for scenes with the Jedi Council, teachers and students, enemies, you name it. And in most of the scenes between Anakin and Padme, Anakin says something stupid and whiny — revealing he doesn't understand interpersonal communications or the process of governance, expressing his views on tyranny (generally pro-), or confessing to cold-blooded mass murder — and Padme gently corrects him. This is courtship, apparently, because the movie ultimately shows us the wedding between Senator Padme Amidala, one of the most powerful women in the galaxy, and Anakin Skywalker...her mopey security guard who can't behave in company.

Earlier in the movie, after Obi-Wan couldn't find the southerly star system that gravity and the Force told him should be there, he decided to seek out Yoda's counsel. So naturally, he brought his concerns about galactic security and possible intragalactic conspiracy to Yoda while he was in the middle of *teaching a bunch of pre-schoolers* how to swing light sabers. Obi-Wan literally lays out all of his concerns to Yoda in front of the kids, and then the two adults turn to the kids and say, "What do you think happened?" and then Obi-Wan takes one of the kids' advice. That is an actual scene in this movie.

Christopher Lee, Samuel L. Jackson, Natalie Portman, and Ewan MacGregor are all in this movie. These are *good actors.* But crushed beneath the abysmal dialogue and undercooked direction of George Lucas, each of them sounds robotic and dull. Francis Ford Coppola said of Lucas that, "he created something that brought joy and happiness and pleasure — and even some wisdom — to so many people. Whatever benefits he got from it, he deserved and is welcome to. If I feel sadness, it is that he didn't make the other movies he was going to make. George is truly a brilliant, talented person. Just look at 'American Graffiti' and see all the innovation. We should've had more."

In looking at the Star Wars prequels broadly, I feel Coppola's sadness. Because with these movies, not only did Lucas damage his own reputation, but he also made his fans looks stupid. I grew up when it was more common to hear somebody dismiss Star Wars out-of-hand as some dumb sci-fi nonsense (much as Alec Guinness himself did) than to stand up and be counted as a die-hard fan. And these terrible prequels give ammunition to that. Will we just gobble up whatever garbage comes out with "Star Wars" on it? Are we all rubes? Is something that was deeply meaningful to many of us as kids actually just a series cynical money grabs that are only there to sell toys?

I remember in 1995 when the original trilogy was released on VHS, and the joy I felt being able to watch those movies again, whenever I wanted and on my own schedule. No more fast-forwarding through Maxwell House commercials on a homemade copy I taped off the TV in probably 1988. The world was very different then. About a year later, I remember seeing the poster for the upcoming re-release of A New Hope when I was at the movie theater with my girlfriend. I was so excited, and she was baffled as to why. My friends and I saw each of those remastered editions in the theater, and walked out feeling...weird. Why were they so different? Why was that dumb, digital Jabba the Hut in the first movie? What...was the point?

Then, tickets went on sale for The Phantom Menace. I had friends camp out at different theaters around Austin, waiting in line for hours to get tickets to the first midnight showings of the first new Star Wars movie in 16 years. (And, as an aside, I remember kicking down a door when one of my friends accidentally locked his ticket in his bedroom!) I remember getting Subway and bringing board games and lining up for hours before that screening. People running into the theater after the theater unlocked the doors. And then, some two and a half hours later, standing in the parking lot trying to convince ourselves that the movie we just saw, with its Jar Jar and midichlorians and that ragamuffin kid, wasn't a turd.

But it was. And I think it's entirely possible that Attack of the Clones was worse. Even the title is wrong. When the clones finally show up, they're not even attacking, they're defending Anakin, Padme, and Obi-Wan, with Yoda leading them. So...Defense of the Clones? Lucas was a victim of his own success and I can't really blame him. He created a world that millions of us wanted to spend more time in, that we wanted to live in. And I guess he did, too, because once he created it, he never really left.

But the things that sounded so cool in the original films, things like the Clone Wars, which had passed into legend in that universe...we were never going to be able to see those actual stories and feel entirely satisfied. Lucas would've done well to remember the admonition in John Ford's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, "when the legend becomes fact, print the legend."

Of all the millions of stories that could exist in that galaxy far, far away, Lucas picked the wrong ones to tell in these prequels. The series The Clone Wars spanned seven seasons, opened up new vistas and introduced a sprawling cast of characters that have launched a continuously-expanding roster of other series, from Rebels to Ahsoka, and probably none of that happens without the prequels. They made a ton of money and I'm sure convinced Disney to buy Lucasfilm. So maybe they were a necessary evil in the larger Star Wars saga, but that doesn't mean I'll ever sit down and watch them again.

They're coarse, and rough, and irritating...Shit. Now I'm doing it.

Posted by Vance K — Emmy-winning producer and director and co-editor of nerds of a feather, flock together since 2012 and who, as a small child, insisted his parents call him "Han Solo."