Lost in the Movies: Star Wars: The Clone Wars prequel prologue - Attack of the Clones

Star Wars: The Clone Wars prequel prologue - Attack of the Clones

This is an entry in the Star Wars: The Clone Wars series, covering both versions of the animated show alongside the prequel films. (as a general update - the YouTube version of my public podcast episode was finally published yesterday)

Here is where the story of The Clone Wars really kicks off; by comparison, it's questionable whether I even needed to review The Phantom Menace for this series, though it did make a good personal prologue. This feature film was released a year and a half before the first TV series (whose 3-15 minute episodes I will be reviewing all together tomorrow, before beginning to cover its longer-running incarnation). And it takes place immediately before the events of the show, climaxing with the first battle of the Clone Wars. The clone army is introduced, mysteriously farmed on the ocean planet of Kamino at the behest of a long-dead Jedi. Count Dooku (Christopher Lee) is established as the primary villain, a rogue Jedi who believes that the corrupt Republic is under the sway of Sith Lord Darth Sidious (he isn't wrong although he is a liar, since he too obeys Sidious). Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) transforms from a cheerful little kid into a brooding adolescent, extremely skilled and powerful but also entitled and resentful, and Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor), no longer the solemn padawan of Phantom Menace, is depicted as a seasoned warrior and diplomat. Mace Windu (Samuel L. Jackson) is also given his first opportunity to play the man of action. Hell, we even learn that feeble old Yoda (Frank Oz) is no slouch with a lightsaber.

In some ways, Attack of the Clones provides the most satisfying prequel rewatch. It is much more consequential than Phantom Menace, but not as consequential as Revenge of the Sith, which also means its flaws feel less damning. The biggest narrative stumbling block is the awkward Anakin-Padme (Natalie Portman) romance, which should be the heart and soul of the film but is stuffed with embarrassing misfires in dialogue and image (think Anakin surfing a Naboo creature). The only silver linings in this storyline are the lush and stately locations, and the fact that Lucas is playing it all so straight it's almost endearing; you end up feeling a bit sorry for him, the characters, and the actors. The only thing worse than the wooden, artificial aspects of this courtship would be if the film tried to pass them off with a condescending wink; it's at least a minor relief that it doesn't - it's bad, but not smug. The failure is a pity because in theory I really like the idea of the Anakin-Padme relationship, a classic courtly romance complicated by Anakin's inferiority complex (when he met her, she was a queen and he was a child slave). I hope the series touches on this dynamic although with Anakin focused on combat it presumably won't be center-stage.

My favorite parts of the film involve intrigue and world-building, as Obi-Wan attempts to discover who tried to assassinate Padme and stumbles across ever-bigger conspiracies, including the clone army and the insurrection of Count Dooku. Star Wars never borrowed from the noir universe before (aside from some suggestively shadowy intrigue - and set design - in Empire Strikes Back's Cloud City) but the detective motif makes an absolutely splendid addition to the saga's collection of genres. At times, Obi-Wan's and Anakin's hunt through Coruscant seems to be consciously nodding to Blade Runner, another sci-fi noir (a connection that a great many of the Ridley Scott film's fans would probably find abhorrent) but with a bouncy, joyful energy all its own. It's also fun to see the characters explore the nooks and crannies of this vast metropolis, peeking into nightclubs and diners that provide a dazzling display of intergalactic culture (think the sporting events - or are they video games? - playing above the bar where the Jedi search for a bounty hunter). I have to imagine that the first act of Clones serves as a template for various Clone Wars adventures, as the heroes hunt down one particular opponent while attempting to solve a bigger mystery. That the film fires on all cylinders in this spot bodes well for the series.

Worth noting is Attack of the Clones' dramatic visual difference from The Phantom Menace. It was shot digitally (the first Hollywood feature to be photographed entirely on video) and also seems to incorporate much more CGI and digital compositing than the previous films. If Episode I, despite all the cartoonish flourishes on the margin of the screen and the occasional CGI backdrop (the Gunguns' city or Coruscant), generally maintains the celluloid/live-action weight of the original trilogy, Episodes II and III begin to feel like straight-up animation, with only the actors anchoring the film in any semblance of physical reality. This provides a good segue into the cartoon shows, not only in terms of texture but - quite possibly - technique. After all, the format liberates Lucas' camera, allowing it to dart around in fluid maneuvers unimagined by the previous four Star Wars films. Will we experience a similarly dynamic perspective in the CGI Clone Wars series? (I suspect we won't in Genndy Tartakovsky's earlier show; as far as I know, he employs a more classical aesthetic.)

I'm able to go with the flow for a good deal of the movie, but the oft-praised final act is where it is harder for me to feel engaged. The droid assembly line, the arena event, and even to a certain extent the lightsaber duels feel tedious, caught in that no-man's land between recognizable animation and tangible live-action. None of the machines or creatures seem to have any weight, yet at the same time they strain so hard to look "realistic" they miss the attractive stylization of animated cinema. I'm hoping the CGI series, since it is unapologetically a cartoon, can sidestep this trap. My favorite part of the film's climax is the actual battle sequence: its dynamic energy and grand scale captivate me. That too is promising, since such battles will presumably be mainstays of the show. For fans of the original trilogy, there is an additional appeal here: the clone soldiers look remarkably like enemy Stormtroopers and their transport ships are designed as proto-Star Destroyers. Knowing that Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) leads the Republic and that one of its most heroic soldiers and pilots will be the future Darth Vader lends additional subversive bite to the good guys vs. bad guys struggle and promises to be one of The Clone Wars' richest undercurrents.

The very best part of Attack of the Clones, the most visually and thematically powerful section, takes place on Tatooine. It calls back to The Phantom Menace by incorporating the not-much-loved Watto in a surprisingly resonant fashion and anticipates A New Hope by introducing the Lars homestead, further establishing this marginal planet as the psychodramatic heart of the Star Wars universe. The image of Anakin sitting in his son's seat, sharing the table with people whose deaths he would indirectly facilitate decades later, achieves a melancholy nostalgic frisson as palpable and resonant as anything in The Force Awakens. There is also some humor here; C-3PO's (Anthony Daniels') ecstatic reaction to Anakin is hilarious (when we realize his humorous "Thank the maker!" line in the original film actually refers to Darth Vader, the gag singlehandedly near-justifies Lucas' goofy decision to tie these two characters together). Of course the main purpose of this visit isn't comedy. Quite consciously recalling John Ford's The Searchers, Anakin discovers that his mother Shmi (Pernilla August) has been kidnapped and assaulted by the ferocious Sand People. She dies in his arms and he avenges her death by hacking men, women, and children apart. Thus the Anakin Skywalker we will follow on the cartoon series has already been established as a genocidal murderer. How deeply will the series delve into his Dark Side?

With this, I am ready to initiate my journey into unknown Star Wars. Begun, The Clone Wars has.

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