Star Wars I-VI Project: Episodes I-II

It’s almost time, God help us all, for The Force Awakens. In honor – in dread? – of the upcoming film, I’m undertaking a project that I’ve wanted to complete many times in my life but never had the sand to attempt.

The goal is to watch all six films in a series of tight windows – I confess, my first thought was to watch all of them in one day, but I’m verging on legitimate adulthood now and I don’t think I have any full days like that to spend. In the interest of creating something like an immersive experience, I’ll be watching two movies back-to-back. This first session, predictably, deals with The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones.

The Phantom Menace isn’t as bad a movie as I expected it to be, though my caveat is that I remember watching this movie frequently as a child under the age of like, 12. When the film came out, I was eight years old. I had been watching the other three Star Wars movies since I was much younger. I think eight years old is probably prime Star Wars watching age; you can follow the story, get excited with the action, and you (hopefully) don’t get nightmares from the tall guy in the black helmet or the wrinkly guy. And you’re the right age -maybe the perfect age – to look at someone like Jar Jar Binks and not run away from someone whose first comprehensible line of dialogue is “Ex-SQUEEZE me!”

The people who were eight-year-olds for Return of the Jedi are forty now. When The Phantom Menace came out, they were twenty-four, the most GenXish age possible, and there was a half-evolved Hadrosaur on the screen speaking in a strange pidgin, on the wrong end of fart jokes, barely able to take ten steps without stepping in poop or accidentally loosing a wagon of biological weapons. In 1999, these same people were probably seeing Fight Club and calling that profound. It’s not surprising that they (and the people who were old enough to hate the Ewoks in 1983) found Jar Jar to be utterly tiresome, completely distracting. And like, I get it, and I think he’s a pain in the butt as much anyone, but I remember being eight and replacing my object pronouns with “meesa.”

What’s worth complaining about, per Jar Jar, is not merely that he is annoying and unfunny, but that his purpose is identical to the Ewoks’ purpose. Nature (the Gungans are described several times as “primitive” by more than one character, and all of their weaponry and cavalry are derived from nature) triumphs over a mechanized force. They do it while a space battle which is intimately linked to the ground battle, rages overhead. A lightsaber battle occurs simultaneously. The end of this movie is the same as the end of Return of the Jedi, except the stakes are so much higher in Jedi; after memorizing those sequences, the end of Menace, in which the stakes are the fate of Naboo in a trade war, just feels empty. (By the way, I’m not really hating on that lightsaber fight at the end of The Phantom Menace. I have a doublesaber. I carried it to class with me once during college. I have zero regrets.)

Science-fiction tends to treat (overwhelmingly white) humans as the norm and aliens as Other; this is not a revolutionary idea, but in this film it is so tied to real-world stereotypes that it’s more than just an academic discussion. In earlier Star Wars movies, alien sometimes means something like Chewbacca, who is simply strange, or Yoda, whose Otherness actually teaches the hero something. In the Star Wars Extended Universe, which is technically decanonized (but technically I also don’t care), “alien” is not a an immediate codeword for “racial stereotype”; the Krytos Virus from the X-Wing series comes to mind, a disease that is designed by the Empire to kill aliens but not humans, creating stress fractures along species lines in the supposedly inclusive New Republic; that remains one of the more intelligent subplots in any Star Wars book I’ve ever read.

In Menace, Darth Maul’s Otherness is a code for inscrutability, which is as close to “not racist enough for Rush Limbaugh to get offended” as we get. We get Jar Jar and the Gungans, who are not the stars of Naboo; they are the planet’s downstairs crew, the ones who die en masse in a military demonstration while smaller numbers of white people get away with it because their technology is better. (All of this says nothing about that set of “primitive” mentions, which I could detail but people like Edward Said and Howard Zinn already have.) The Neimoidians seem to speak in an odd stereotypically Asian accent. Watto, the moneygrubbing junk dealer, is as much a nasty Jewish stereotype as Zurkow in McTeague. After all, Watto’s most distinctive facial feature is his wobbling trunk. Their opposites? Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman.

The Phantom Menace, as a film, struggles most because it takes forever to start, and once it does, there’s no budding sense of secrecy; even though there’s mystery, there’s no real urgency in uncovering it. The movie doesn’t really begin to move until Amidala’s guard escapes from Theed, and at that point we’re twenty minutes in. In Star Wars, the opening (the duel between the Tantive IV and the Devastator) blew people away; even the relative slowness of our introduction to Luke, Tatooine, and Obi-Wan is laced with mystery. But the first twenty minutes of Menace is not remotely mysterious. Everyone’s cards are all out on the table (to the viewer), all the time. The Neimoidians are being run by a Sith lord; “Senator Palpatine” exists; Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan are confused and on a diplomatic mission. It’s sort of like watching the World Series of Poker on television: by knowing what everyone’s cards are, it’s much easier to follow, but it’s harder to build suspense when you know from the get-go that one guy has pocket aces. For a movie called The Phantom Menace as opposed to the The Tangible and Opaque Presence, one might expect that the two most interesting reveals would be more than “There’s a new Sith…who I saw in the commercial…and on a Mountain Dew can” and “the queen is not the queen sometimes.”

The film is not without some successes in world-building. Coruscant, the world that is a city, begins to be defined in its Old Republic context; the Old Republic’s governance is given some discussion. More interestingly, the Jedi Order is given body for the first time. Much is made of the Jedi in Star Wars, about their connection to the Force, about their weaponry and the inherent mysticism of what are thought of as “religious” beliefs. Their duties, however, are largely left alone. We find out, fairly quickly, about the supremacy of the Jedi Council, sort of a College of Cardinals (or, seeing as the Jedi are predestined to their faith, perhaps it’s more a synod.) We find out that the Jedi are, as a group, surprisingly dogmatic, and thus we see that their willingness to sit comfortably with a system that has worked for a millennium will be their undoing.

And it’s disappointing that Qui-Gon Jinn doesn’t last the film. For one thing, he’s new, one of a small handful of major characters in the prequels who is a) totally new and b) matters. (Also under this heading: Padme, Dooku, Mace Windu, and maybe Grievous; Jango Fett is new if you think that having an identical ship, armor, and surname qualifies a character as “new.”) He offers an alternative to the surprisingly rigid Jedi Order, which is perfectly happy to exist like a UN police force; Qui-Gon is utterly confident, a watered-down Han Solo; using the Christianity metaphor again, Qui-Gon is the longtime priest who also thinks gay marriage is okay. Rewatching the movie, I was surprised at the extent to which Qui-Gon is willing to leave not just his job as a diplomat and Amidala’s protector, but his belief that he’s uncovered Jedi-Jesus, to chance. He frequently reminds Obi-Wan and Anakin to live and work in the moment, which is a departure from the Jedi Council’s willingness to use precedent (“he is too old”) and predict the future. His death is a shame – he’s the most interesting original character in the prequels, and I don’t think it’s surprising that after his fingerprints were all over The Phantom Menace that Attack of the Clones often feels unmoored.

Attack of the Clones is concerned with two major characters: Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker. In The Phantom Menace, Obi-Wan really doesn’t figure all that much; much of his movie is spent acting as Qui-Gon’s prop. In Star Wars, Obi-Wan is the guy who makes sure the audience isn’t going “What?” for two hours – he is responsible for explaining the Force, the Jedi, and Darth Vader’s origin (sort of), among other things. He reprises that role in The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, but less so; at that point the audience probably knows the basic ideas. It’s in Attack of the Clones that he takes on the lead role that he reprises in Revenge of the Sith (which is not part of this article); in Attack of the Clones, when asked to take care of a plot, he doesn’t function nearly as well because he’s still being written as the guy who does a particular job: plot exposition.

While Anakin is cavorting in the fields of Naboo or slaughtering Tusken Raiders by night – in other words, doing things which change him as an individual – Obi-Wan is on a mission to determine a series of increasing mysteries which have nothing to do with him. A Kaminoan saberdart leads to the discovery of a clone army just about ready for delivery and the bounty hunter who they were cloned from; the bounty hunter, despite almost blowing Obi-Wan up in (yet another) asteroid field, leads him to the headquarters of the separatist movement that has been mentioned a few times already. From there, Anakin and Padme catch up to him; Mace Windu, Yoda, many Jedi, and the clones catch up to them. At no point has Obi-Wan changed as a person; he began the film as a “trust the Council, do your job” type, and he ends the film as a “trust the Council, do your job” type. I suppose that’s meant to imply that he’s unflappable, or that he believes in his principles, but Obi-Wan feels less stoic than static. He’s a good supporting character, but the guy up front ought to be able to fascinate us with some aspect of his personality. There’s a reason “Dad” is not usually the main character in the film.

And yet, we are given few ways to become interested in our main character, Anakin. Just like people are ready to blame Jar Jar for The Phantom Menace, people are ready to blame Hayden Christiansen for Attack of the Clones. And just as blaming Jar Jar is an example of misplaced anger, so too is blaming Hayden Christiansen. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the early meeting between the two characters, where Anakin confesses to Jar Jar that he’s always loved Padme and he’s worried that she barely remembers him, sets a really poor precedent. We’re supposed to take him seriously, and he’s telling Jar Jar Binks about it? Hayden Christiansen was always doomed. Let’s look at some of his lines:

He’s overly critical! He never listens…it’s not fair!

James Dean couldn’t have sold that. And:

From the moment I met you, all those years ago, not a day has gone by when I haven’t thought of you. And now that I’m with you again, I’m in agony. The closer I get to you, the worse it gets. The thought of not being with you…I can’t breathe.

It’s like listening to country music without any music. And then there’s The Big One, the one that all of us have been practicing since this movie came out:

I killed them…I killed them all. They’re dead. Every single one of ’em. And not just the men. But the women. And the children, too. They’re like animals. And I slaughtered them like animals. I hate them!

No one has ever believed that George Lucas could write dialogue effectively, but the reason Attack of the Clones is such a low point in the franchise, in my mind, is that characters insist on talking in this film, and that none of the dialogue is memorable for a good reason.

The word on Mad Max: Fury Road is that the action simply doesn’t stop, that it begins at pace and then amps up said pace without giving the viewer much time to relax; even when everyone leaves the cars, there is an emotional toll to be paid. Something similar is supposed to happen in Attack of the Clones; after Anakin and Padme have left Naboo, the film wants to hit that repeated height over and over again. Anakin kills a bunch of Tusken Raiders. R2-D2, C-3PO, Anakin, and Padme wheel their way through the foundries of Geonosis and are captured. Events then continue on through the last forty-odd minutes of the film in the vein described during Obi-Wan’s section up there.

It’s not like this is a failure, but it is probably a C-.  At this point in watching these movies, I was pretty darn tired of lightsaber duels – a lot of the coolness factor is mangled when you watch Younglings using them an hour or so earlier – and so I find the brief escalation of Dooku destroying Anakin and Obi-Wan in a fight before the two are saved by Yoda to be slightly dull in the aggregate. And some of the scenes in the arena would be much more gripping if we were not subjected to Endless Puns, C-3PO’s movie-within-a-movie.

What Fury Road has on Attack of the Clones – aside from action sequences that are just better, honestly – is genuine suspense, and this is where Clones‘ attempt to build suspense and tension by not taking a foot off the gas stalls. In Fury Road, the only character who doesn’t appear to be up for grabs is Max, and honestly, he was about sixth on my depth chart of characters to care about. In Attack of the Clones, we know that Obi-Wan, Anakin, Padme, Yoda, C-3PO, and R2-D2 are going to make it out of the Battle of Geonosis and the arena and the foundries because they show up in later movies, or, in Padme’s case, their spawn show up in later movies. Mace Windu, who has received maybe fifteen minutes of legitimate screen time before these scenes, is the character we care about most who we might reasonably think may die. (Unless you were really taken with Jango or Dooku, I guess, but it’s the same problem that we have with Mace Windu.) Attack of the Clones simply does not create enough shock and awe in its action sequences to justify an approach which seeks to glorify the plot over the characters – it’s hard as a viewer to watch this movie for the first time and still know the ending before it comes about.

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