Saturday, August 23, 2008

Movie Review: The Clone Wars

Reviewer's notice: There are some minor spoilers in this review if you've not seen the new film; some major spoilers if you've never seen a Star Wars film in your life.

I went into this movie with pretty low expectations, mostly because I really despise Episodes I through III of George Lucas' Star Wars epic. I'll try to minimize my discussions of the six-movie cycle so I can focus on this particular film, but something must be said about how The Clone Wars fits into the big picture. Episodes IV-VI, the first Star Wars films made, cover the story of the redemption of a villain, Anakin Skywalker (a.k.a. Darth Vader). Episodes I-III, made ~20 years later, depict the making of Skywalker into a villain, with Episode I depicting him as an innocent, Episode II showing him conflicted, and Episode III showing his final fall into evil. The Clone Wars takes place between Episodes II and III.

I'll explain a couple of things up front: First, The Clone Wars is a cartoon, of the Japanese animé variety, which features fantastic environments, characters with over-large eyes, and extended, near-rubbery limbs. Second, as far as I can tell, none of the voices of the original actors were used. This is probably a blessing. Hayden Christensen and Natalie Portman are bad enough actors in person. I don't need to hear them act badly, though the kid standing in for Christensen comes close. Next, this movie is not directly related to the cartoon series that appeared on Cartoon Network a few years ago. It Is, however, a big-screen attempt to debut yet another cartoon series covering Anakin Skywalker's and Obi-wan Kenobi's adventures during the Clone Wars.

Here's the good news: this film is not nearly as bad as the episodes that surround it in the "live-action" movies. By minimizing dialogue, maximizing battles, and not using George Lucas as writer or director, the director of The Clone Wars managed to put together a decent adventure story. They even manage to introduce a new character--a padawan (trainee) for Anakin to train--that, had she existed in the series, might have offered some hope of humanizing Hayden Christensen. There are some other cute bits. For instance, instead of the usual screen-crawl story opener, the director jumped right into the middle of the action, showing battles going on as a breathless narrator, sounding like he just left a Flash Gordon or Captain Proton episode, gives a quick explanation of what's going on. Also, the story introduces some more of Jabba the Hutt's relatives, including his son and Uncle Zero (a priceless reincarnation of--no kidding--Truman Capote). So if you'd like to watch a movie with plenty of spacecraft, laser battles, explosions, and lightsaber duels, this is the movie for you. The violence, while slightly cartoony, is probably safe for kids 10+.

But. But but but but but!!!

There are so many little issues that bug me about this film that I simply cannot restrain myself.

Let's consider the Clone Army, introduced in Episode II. In Episode II the Clones, the original templates for the Stormtroopers, are revealed to all be derived from a single man, Jango Fett, father of Boba Fett, a bounty hunter who captured Han Solo in Episode V. They all look alike, as clones should, and are uniformly obedient soldiers.

We were led to believe, at the end of Episode II, that the advent of these white-helmeted troops was troubling and foretold evil, in the form of increasing government power and centralization. After all, these are the predecessors of the Imperial Stormtroopers that would be such a menace in Episodes IV-VI. In those films, the Stormtroopers are faceless, marching in lockstep, wearing masks that have frowns embedded into them. They are the friggin' bad guys, and there's little love lost between audience and villain when said villains are lasered or exploded en masse. The Clone Wars gives us a different picture. Now, the soldiers making up this cloned army have striven to become individuals. Helmets off, they wear different names, hairstyles, and hair colors to give themselves some sense of identity. This makes sense, if you think about it. Wouldn't YOU want to be seen as unique, if you were surrounded by a million buddies who all looked and sounded just like you? But here's the point that bugs me: we aren't supposed to like or care about these troops as individuals. Remember that part again about how they would eventually turn evil and become the Stormtroopers of lore?

Next, we have Anakin's new padawan, a somewhat reckless pre-teen girl named Asoka. As I said before, she could have humanized Anakin Skywalker, and she does in this film. But we don't want Anakin humanized. He's on the verge of becoming Darth Vader! In the midst of his fall toward destruction, why are we treated to this warmer, heroic Anakin Skywalker? Could it be that Lucas really likes anti-heroes like Anakin and just couldn't bear to have people think of him as a villain?

Well, jeez. Darth Vader was and is one of the greatest screen villains ever created. His redemption at the end of Episode VI is a surprise and cinematic triumph. The series could've ended with Return of the Jedi. We could've gone to our graves speculating about what happened in Episodes I-III, and been perfectly happy with that. But no: Lucas felt the need to show us the innocent child who didn't talk like a child, the whining, creepy, out-of-control youth, and the truly over-the-edge young adult that led to the guy wearing the big black helmet, cape, and scuba gear. Asoka is a narrative anomaly; one can only presume that she will meet her demise sometime between this movie and Episode III.

Next, we have Jabba the Hutt's little offspring and over-the-top uncle. They're interesting. They're cute. They give Jabba heart and depth. We don't want him to have either. He's a frickin' BAD GUY! One of the reasons Star Wars was so popular when it came out--and it's a reason Lucas seems to have forgotten--is that it was a simple morality tale of good versus evil. And the point of good was to destroy evil. Not sympathize with it. Not "understand" it. Blow it up. Fire lasers at it. Blow up its spaceships. Shoot its troops. Evil was not to be surrendered to except as a tactical maneuver/temporary retreat, and we weren't supposed to feel bad when its practitioners died. We were supposed to cheer! Star Wars was the great war story of its time, at a time when more movies were morally ambiguous, nihilistic, or actively evil. Star Wars uplifted, as it showed the triumph of good, friendship, freedom, and all the other things good is supposed to stand for.

Consider the following blurbs from the opening crawls of Episode IV (the original Star Wars) and Episode III (Revenge of the Sith, made last):

It is a period of civil war. Rebel spacecraft, striking from a hidden base, have won their first victory against the evil Galactic Empire.

War! The Republic is crumbling under attacks by the ruthless Sith Lord, Count Dooku. There are heroes on both sides. Evil is everywhere.

We can argue the literary value of the prose at some other point. Right now I'd like to ask: what are impressionable young kids supposed to make of "There are heroes on both sides"? I was 8 when Star Wars came out. I got the first message. Would I have understood the notion of both sides being good? Would I have had a clue about adult and murky concepts like moral equivalence? Would I have wanted to? You go to an adventure movie hoping to root for one side or the other because you expect one side, preferably the bad guys, to be defeated.

The Clone Wars is especially problematic, then, because we find ourselves rooting for the restoration of Jabba's family (the kidnapping of his son is what sets the action into motion). We find ourselves feeling sympathy for the Clones as they fall in battle and cry "Medic!" as their comrades fall in battle. We find ourselves liking Anakin Skywalker, who is one movie away from going completely off his nut and becoming Darth Vader. We find ourselves getting attached to a new character who is improving a character we know to be dangerously flawed; we can guess that she probably gets offed some way between now and Episode III. In short, we're rooting for the wrong people for the wrong reasons. You've got to jump through some real emotional hoops to appreciate this movie on its own merits, especially if you care about and understand the histories of these characters.

Okay, I get a little pedantic about these things, partially because I do care about good and evil, and partially because I really liked Episodes IV-VI, which is why I was so disappointed by the prequels. The Clone Wars is a product of the prequels and Lucas' now-ambiguous moral universe, and so cannot be taken out of context. If it were the only movie of its kind, it would probably win awards all over the place for its technical virtuosity, interesting characters, and dazzling space-opera environments. However, this is a Star Wars movie, and that means it must enjoy and suffer the inevitable comparisons to the other films in the series. It carries baggage from the other films, and that baggage does not match.

We also have the plot. Again, it's pretty much a standard space opera adventure. However, like Episodes II and III, it involves unnecessarily complicated plans and counter-plans employed by the Jedi, Count Dooku, and Chancellor Palpatine, the man who would soon become Emperor. Some characters drop in from nowhere and are not explained. We are given no clue that Palpatine is anything other than a benevolent Chancellor.

Perhaps it's just as well that I've run out of things to say. It's too aggravating to delve into deeper. The force is no longer with Lucas. I hope someone eventually has the sense to stop him from further muddying and milking this franchise.

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