Hey, everyone. "Moriarty" here with some Rumblings From The Lab.
It’s 5:00 in the morning. I’ve just finally gotten comfortable enough to sit down and actually write about seeing STAR WARS EPISODE II ATTACK OF THE CLONES.
I’ll give you the short version first, completely spoiler-free: I think it’s a great STAR WARS movie, a hell of a good ride, and well worth your time. See it in a digital house if at all possible. And, yes, it’s true... Yoda owns your weak ass.
But, hey... I’ve never really been about the short version, have I?
Let me back up a few days. A friend of mine died.
It was just that sudden. I’m still a little numb at the idea of it. This was a guy who I owe a pretty sizable bit of gratitude. Last year, he took a chance on my writing partner and myself and hired us to do a job. One of the reasons we first hit it off was because of how big a film geek he was. Our first meeting was at the Norm’s in Santa Monica, just around the corner from his office. Our long lunch started out about business, with him talking to me about a sample script he’d read and us talking about what properties his company was working on, and we did the typical sort of square dance you do in those types of meetings, and then because we had a full lunch to kill, our conversation... drifted. Drifted to films we loved. Mutual geek favorites. And inevitably, our conversation drifted to STAR WARS.
I’ve never made any bones about this. The only reason you have ever read a single word I’ve written was because of STAR WARS. That is what led me, by whatever path, here. It was... formative. There’s no other word for it. The first film is burned into me chemically. The second film is one of my very favorite things ever. Not just movies, but things. I’m including stuff like fire and penecillin on that list. EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, electricity, the fork, Doc Martens. I mean deep abiding love.
JEDI... not so much. It’s got its moments. Don’t get me wrong. When it works, it works, but it’s a little schizo. PHANTOM MENACE... I’m still where I was when I first saw it. I think it’s got things to like, and things to not. There are things that drive me crazy when rewatching them. Of course, I’m rewatching them, so that says something.
And whenever I meet another STAR WARS fan, we do the same thing. We compare standings for the films. “EMPIRE, A NEW HOPE, JEDI, MENACE.” “EMPIRE, A NEW HOPE, MENACE, JEDI.” “Oh, you’re crazy.” And just like that, we’ve got a whole vocabulary that opens up between us. For guys my age, it’s pretty much a given that STAR WARS is where you started. I literally don’t remember seeing films before STAR WARS. I did. I know which ones they were (some of them, anyway), but I don’t remember seeing them.
And as he and I had that first STAR WARS conversation, we clicked. The lunch wrapped up slowly, and when I talked to my managers afterwards, I told them that I thought it went well. He must have thought so, too. We kept in touch after that, and when the right project came up, we pitched it a few times, and he took us in to his boss, where we pitched again. He was incredibly supportive, and helped us prep for the meetings by really talking with us. In the end, we got hired.
The whole time we were working with him, STAR WARS would come up frequently. We used it to refer to the ways certain characters behaved or the way a situation unfolded. “This is his “Old Ben Kenobi” scene. We don’t know who he is yet. He’s playing with us.” “I don’t know, dude... smells like Ewoks to me.” And he was well aware of my day gig, of the constant stream of spoiler information that would cross my desk as Moriarty, and he was shameless about asking for info. He was a spoiler junkie, and he would go cold turkey for weeks at a time before calling to ask me to spill whatever I knew. I love being the underground STAR WARS dealer for my close friends. It’s fun. And when someone gets as excited as he did, it only fuelled my own desire to see the new film.
And then last week, from out of the blue, my manager calls me to tell me that our friend had died.
And I can hear it in his voice, how shocked he is. And when I tell my writing partner, I hear it in my own voice. Shock. Disbelief.
He’s my age. He was my age. He just got married. This is a great guy we’re talking about, young, with nothing but future. I know about accidents, sure, but this is different. This feels random in a different way. It’s not supposed to happen like this. I had my friend on my call list for STAR WARS tickets, to see if he wanted to join us, and where he wanted to see the midnight show first night. He was supposed to see EPISODE II. The anticipation was cautiously building in him the more he heard.
And as I sat in the theater today and the 20th Century Fox logo came up, it was my friend I was thinking of. I can’t explain it. It was an emotional reaction that kicked in, totally unexpected. I was thinking of how strange fate is. I was thinking about how far I’ve come with STAR WARS films marking milestones along the way. And I thought, “There’s no way I’m going to be able to focus on this film. There’s no way I’m going to be able to pay attention.”
It is a testament to the accomplishment of George Lucas and all of his artistic collaborators on AOTC that the next 2 hours and 21 minutes simply flew by, and I found myself transported almost entirely. This is a remarkable piece of visual imagination, not like anything I’ve seen before. It is unique to the series, even as it manages to feel like STAR WARS, heart and soul.
And it’s nowhere near perfect. Flaws the size of glaciers. Just so’s you know.
But I don’t care. I really don’t. How much you care is going to be up to you. In my opinion, the good outweighs the bad like Harry Knowles versus Warwick Davis. There’s a lot to like here, and if you want to get hung up on things, that’s cool. I’ll just shove past you on my way in to see the film for the fourth time.
I don’t know anyway to do this without giving away spoilers, and I don’t really feel like being cautious. If you don’t want to know anything, then now’s the time to go ahead and quit reading.
You’re still here? I guess that means you don’t spoilers. I can tell you this... I wish I’d know less about the film going into it. I wish I’d had more surprises. I’m still serious when I saw “Spoiler-Free for EPISODE III,” and even moreso after decompressing with a friend following the film. “I knew every single thing that was going to happen in that movie,” he said to me, positively downcast. “That was... disappointing.”
So let me say this again... there are spoilers coming. Big giant hairy ones. Run. RUN, DAMN YOU, RUN!!
Okay. You’re on your own, hoss.
This film, much more than THE PHANTOM MENACE, is a blast to watch unfold. The joy of the film is the rather circuitous way the story unfolds. There are some narrative beats that are quite nice, especially since not everything has been wrapped up by the end of the film. For example, I have one big question, and I think it will HAVE to be addressed in EPISODE III:
Why did the Tuskens take Shmi Skywalker, and more importantly, why did they keep her alive?
When that question is answered in the next film, I suspect some people will have to die. I suspect there will be great wellsprings of rage unleashed by a certain future Man In Black. Someone is going to pay. There is a moment here where Anakin unleashes his anger, and it’s a terrible thing. When he talks about it later, it’s chilling:
”I killed them. I killed all of them. Not just men. Women. Children. They’re animals. And I slaughtered them... like animals.”
One thing’s for sure... this one’s not just for the eight year olds in the audience.
The film gets off to a great start with a long, beautiful sequence of a ship approaching Coruscant, skimming along the cloud layer, the very tops of various gigantic structures erupting from the cover, almost like a schooner navigating a chain of tiny islands. It lands, and as people start to disembark, Captain Typho (Jay Laga’aia) says something to the effect of, “Thank god nothing happened...” and then a bomb goes off.
It’s a startling, effective way to start the film, and it’s a reminder that there are more ways to fight a war than face to face. ATTACK OF THE CLONES deals with two major offensives, one fought on Geonosis, and the other fought in the shadows of the Galaxy. The sad part is, the Republic isn’t ready for either conflict, and they pay the price. The film gets moving quickly, with Mace Windu (Samuel L. Jackson) and Yoda (Frank Oz and Rob Coleman’s digital animation team) going to consult with Supreme Chancellor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) about the attempt on Senator Padme (Natalie Portman) Amidala’s life. These scenes are mainly exposition, a sort of slow immersion into the world of STAR WARS. I know that, for me, there’s always a few minutes of euphoria at the start of a STAR WARS film just because it’s a freakin’ STAR WARS film. It takes me a little time to settle in, and the film itself is a little spastic up front.
For me, things started to click just before the first big action sequence got underway. The soundtrack cut “Zam The Assassin and the Chase Through Coruscant” is 11:07, and it plays long. Not in a bad way... it’s just that so often, we’re used to seeing a film get to a big FX moment and then rush through it. This takes its time, and the glimpse we’ve gotten before of Coruscant turns into a nice long leisurely stare. Impossibly vertical, a bright and shining version of Ridley Scott’s oft-imitated BLADE RUNNER cityscapes or Besson’s candy-colored Moebius metropolis in THE FIFTH ELEMENT, this is alive in a way that only George Lucas could ever afford. ILM doesn’t just raise the bar in this film; they have graduated to a different game than anyone else is playing. I love WETA and the effects work in LORD OF THE RINGS, but one of the reasons for that is the almost handmade quality of it. It feels like the ultimate marriage of low-tech and high-tech trickery. Lucas, on the other hand, doesn’t have any interest in low-tech anymore. When you see this film, get ready; this is your first look at the Hollywood of the future.
I saw the film at the Loew’s Century City Cineplex, the one at the ABC Entertainment Center, and it was presented digitally. I know there’s been a lot of debate about whether or not digitial project is “as good as” film or even better, and many people have dismissed the technology, saying it’s still too young. Hogwash, I say. Unmitigated balderdash. Digital projection and digital photography come of age on May 16th, and to steal a phrase from another outer space franchise, “Resistance is futile.” There is a clarity of image, and a depth of field to the environmental work done by ILM, that is almost 3-D in intensity. When Anakin takes a swoop and heads out into the late-evening sunlight of Tattooine, there is an epic quality to the imagery that suggests a truly alien landscape. This is not Earth. This is not Monument Valley. This is not some Spanish plain we’ve seen in a dozen other films. It’s a completely “other” place, and the actors are integrated seamlessly. Shooting every element digitally seems to have actually made compositing more consistent. There’s a sense that everything we’re seeing is of the same world. The robots, the CG aliens, the spaceships overhead, the magnificent vistas, and even the rooms themselves. The actors vanish into this world that Lucas has constructed in a way that reminds me of the reason we go to movies. It’s like time travel and teleportation and the portal from BEING JOHN MALKOVICH all rolled into one when it works best.
The romantic story thread is going to take the most fire, and deservedly. It’s like pretty much all Hollywood romance: all shortcuts and soulful looks, with tortured confessions of all-consuming emotion as both young lovers pout and preen in equal measure. It’s really not much deeper as a romance than your average Freddie Prinze Jr. film to start. But something changes midway through the film, and in the second half, things pay off. Padme sees Anakin through the darkest moment of his life. She’s the one person who knows the truth about him, and her reaching out to him is a gesture that falls in line with what we’ve seen about her nature. She wants to save this little boy she met so long ago, save him from his own pain and anger. She falls in love with the young man who protects her, who saves her life, but the entire time, it’s as if she already knows that they’re doomed, like she’s seen episodes 4-6, and she’s just trying to stave off the inevitable.
I’m sorry... I know I’m sort of bobbing and weaving my way through this one. It’s just there’s so much to discuss about this film, and sitting and listening to the Williams score, all sorts of impressions of the movie come rushing back. Which, of course, brings up the score itself. This is the second finest overall composition for the STAR WARS series, I’d say. It’s a tremendously evocative score, the soul of the film. Williams is in a playful mood here, like the moment with the interrupted kiss on Naboo, when the score itself hesitates, surprised. He’s woven in themes from the original trilogy, drawing us towards what we know is coming. The Emperor’s theme, Yoda’s theme, the Imperial March... they all show up here as well as Duel of the Fates, the strongest piece from EPISODE I’s otherwise limp score, and there’s the sweeping, lovely “Across The Stars,” the love theme from this film, standing tall alongside all those other pieces. It’s as if Williams was busy quoting his earlier, seminal STAR WARS work, and he simply clicked back into the mindset in a very, very particular way. He’s always been a major part of the allure of the films, and he’s done some of the best work of his career here, inspired and fresh even after all this time.
One of the things Williams does that’s so important is give inner life to Anakin Skywalker, and he’s as key to the success of the performance as Hayden Christensen is. I thought Hayden’s performance in LIFE AS A HOUSE was mannered, but interesting, and I could understand why Lucas chose him. He gives good sullen. More than that, though, his smile is a secret weapon. This kid can be petulant, arrogant, irritating, and then he flashes that smile, and everything’s forgiven. One of the revelations of the movie for me is that Anakin Skywalker never turned into Darth Vader; he simply always is Vader. It’s not a process where suddenly one person becomes someone else. His values are set very early on. There’s a great scene between Hayden and Portman in front of a beautiful vista of waterfalls, where he reveals the drive to dominate people “for their own good,” a deeply rooted belief that someone has to tell people what to do. When he’s talking to her, it’s easy to picture Vader’s Super Star Destroyers surrounding a planet, enforcing some whim of the Emperor. Later, he see how willing he is to let emotion get the better of him, how nothing is important to him when he is in the grips of some powerful feeling, whether it’s anger or love or fear. He is a slave to how he feels. It’s no wonder he was the perfect vessel for the Dark Side.
Lucas has often been accused of fingerpainting the emotional complexities of his films in simple blacks and whites, but this is a film where the whole world is carved in shades of grey. There is one truly “bad guy” in the film, a master manipulator with the political reach of an octopus, his hand behind pretty much everything that happens in the film. But the so-called “good guys” in this film aren’t spotless and pure and bland. The Jedi Order itself, one of the flagbearers of “good” in the films, is shown to be sluggish, arrogant, too sure of itself. They are manipulated precisely because they’re so sure they can’t be manipulated. After all, the Jedi Mind Trick only works on weak minds. Only someone weak could be manipulated, right? Jocasta Nu (Althea McGrath) scolds Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor), a smile fixed on her face as she does so. “If a planet isn’t in the Jedi Archives, then it doesn’t exist.” The fact that she’s wrong is later figured out by children, a particularly telling comment, I thought. Yoda seems delighted when the “younglings,” as he calls them, are able to see through the mystery that stumped the Keeper of the Archives, but he later observes that arrogance has become a problem for more and more of the Jedi ranks. He knows the end is coming, and knows that they may well be powerless to stop it.
Ahhhhh... Yoda. Speaking of. I’m going to propose something radical here, but before I do, you have to realize that my two favorite characters from the Original Trilogy are Chewbacca and Yoda. In particular, the Yoda of THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK. He was creepy and moody and pissy and cantankerous and not remotely cute or Muppetty. The work that Stuart Freeborn and Frank Oz did in bringing him to life was remarkable, and there are few things in film that make me happy the way the scene where Yoda raises Luke’s X-Wing from the swamps of Dagobah made me happy. He is an actor in that film, not an effect, and I was praying for at least a glimpse of that this time out.
I got a hell of a lot more than a glimpse.
Yoda is one of the stars of this movie. He is in most of this movie, with a fairly active role. He is important to the plot, a key player. He is an action hero and a spiritual leader as the Republic crumbles around him. He is everything I could have hoped for from the character as a fan.
And I propose the Academy nominate Rob Coleman and Frank Oz for Best Supporting Actor next year to reward the effort.
This is that day where we have to ask the question: who is the performer in the case of a CGI character? Is it the person who does the voice? Because that’s only part of it, to my way of thinking. Animators have always been performers. They have to understand the subtle nuances that make up great performance if they are going to illustrate it. They must appreciate the value of every raised eyebrow, every wan half-smile, the body language of a moment. Rob Coleman’s work on Yoda is spectacular. He gets the little things right, like the way Yoda’s rubber ears would wiggle as Frank Oz moved him. There’s a great sort of sour face that Yoda makes when he’s using The Force or when he’s irritated that Coleman gets perfectly right. His hands, his face, his whole carriage... set free now. He’s so much more expressive, yet somehow he retains the spirit of the actual puppeteering that defined the character in the first place. I thought the Yoda puppet looked stoned in the first film, and found him to be one of the biggest disappointments of the whole movie. Now, not only has he been redeemed, but he’s been elevated. We understand why he is called “Master” finally.
And the scene... the big scene that everyone’s already bookmarked as “the” scene of the movie... well, it lives up to the hype. Yoda versus Count Dooku may well be my favorite image from any STAR WARS film, something I can honestly say I never imagined. Dooku is a figure of genuine menace, his powers established firmly by the time Yoda arrives, but he is nothing next to the might of the little green giant. What could have been funny or silly or absurd is intead moving and powerful and hysterically cool all at once. It’s the summer’s kick to beat, and no one’s got the ammunition to do it. I’m going to have to see this film about a dozen times just to get this particular Scooby Snack. Everything else is just bonus as far as I’m concerned.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that this is like PHANTOM MENACE, where Darth Maul was a great last-act presence who was basically just waiting around for the rest of the movie. This film makes the most of Yoda throughout, and puts the rest of the cast to equally good work.
McGregor is reliable and solid and witty, and he definitely plays it like a guy who is getting genuinely tired of the responsibility of training Anakin. He’s not just an Padawan, and Obi-Wan’s not just any master. The shadow of Qui-Gon Jinn hangs over both of them, always present, always reminding the both of them of a promise made over a dying man’s body. Anakin bristles constantly under Obi-Wan’s attention, and in private, he curses his master even as he calls him “my father.” Obi-Wan obviously feels great affection for his apprentice, but he is also exasperated, even exhausted. He complains constantly to Mace Windu and Yoda about Anakin and his temperament, to no avail. And in the heat of battle, he often has to babysit Anakin, making sure he doesn’t spin wildly out of control.
Christopher Lee is magnificent as the mysterious Count Dooku, a resigned Jedi, Qui-Gon’s one-time master. He has a scene with Obi-Wan that is wonderful, a testament to how much menace can be built simply by performance, without any other tricks to help out. Lee radiates power, barely kept in check, ready to strike at the slightest provocation. When he unleashes the full range of his abilities, he’s Dracula and Saruman rolled into one, and Lucas and Robin Gurland deserve credit for having had the inspiration to cast him at all.
I’m not as sure what Jimmy Smits is doing in the film. He’s a placemarker, a visual cue that Bail Organa is probably going to have a bigger role next time out. He’s not in enough of the film to really judge, one way or another. One thing’s for sure... in space, no one looks cool in a turtleneck. Jar-Jar Binks (voiced again by Ahmed Best) is back, also in a very brief role, and I actually found him less annoying than C-3PO (the omnipresent Anthony Daniels) in the overall movie. Jar-Jar plays a crucial role here, one that he doesn’t realize he played. Manipulating the Jedi is a process that takes years and years of careful positioning and planning, while manipulating one poor confused Gungan can be done quickly, in the course of one fateful conversation. And once he plays his role, things are set into motion that cannot be stopped. He’s a tragic figure here, while C-3PO is supposed to be this film’s comic relief.
Let me be quite clear: George is not a funny man.
In particular, there are two jokes in this film, back to back, both delivered by C-3PO in the battle arena, that are so monstrously awful that I wish I could personally supervise their removal before the release of the film. I’d like to make sure that the footage is destroyed, so it can’t be put back into the film to retroactively crap up the movie later. It’s shamefully bad stuff.
Of course, to put it in perspective, it’s two lines. It’s less than 10 seconds of total screen time. And the larger sequence that it’s part of, the Battle Of Geonosis, is so spectacular that only a total moron would harbor any sort of larger grudge. I’d much rather focus on that spectacular conflict, and on the way the film’s last act is built. I’d much rather marvel at something that comes as close as possible to rekindling my initial marvel at the world that Lucas created as is possible, I think.
When I said in my script review for ATTACK OF THE CLONES that the title would seem like the only possible title after seeing the film, I had no idea how accurate that was. Reading that final battle and seeing it don’t compare in any way. This is BLACK HAWK DOWN with droids and Jedi and Clonetroopers and lasers and lightsabers and missles and transports and... and there’s just so much stuff! And it’s so amazing, so overwhelming in scale, and the moments like the big round ship crashing back to the surface or the hazy sort of hand-held moment where there’s so much dust that everything is red, they’re all so amazing, so convincing, that it makes you want to run outside afterwards and just get in line to see it again. This is a war, face to face, that we’ve never seen played out like this in these films. And it’s still just a warm-up for the real Clone War ahead. Yoda says as much in the film’s final moments. As bad and as crazy and as out of control as this seems, this is just the prelude to the coming Purge of the Jedi, and the official birth of the Empire. Those events, still to come in EPISODE III, seems so ripe with potential that I get giddy even contemplating the wait from now until 2005. I’m full of questions now... right this moment... like, for example...
Whose voice yells out “No, Anakin, no!” after Yoda’s vision of the Tusken slaughter? Is it Qui-Gon? Obi-Wan? Is it a voice from the past, the future, or from another plane?
I feel like I could just go on and on. I haven’t even mentioned Jango Fett (Temeura Morrison) and his son Boba (Daniel Logan), or how good I think Morrison is in the film, or how nice the chemistry between them seems, or how Boba plays almost like a variation on Butch from the old LITTLE RASCALS films, a sneering punk just begging for someone to bloody his nose. The way he laughs as his father tries to kill Obi-Wan, the way he operates a weapon system he can’t even see to fire, he’s just trouble. The final image of him in the movie is beautiful, the best of the proposed versions I read and heard.
I haven’t talked about all the sequences that we know were filmed that simply aren’t in the movie, implying that we’ll probably see some great DVD extras later this year. I didn’t miss anything that was cut. I knew it was gone, but many of the edits seem to have really helped accelerate the film. I’ve said before that THE PHANTOM MENACE plays like a series of meetings, and the beginning of this film seems like it could be more of the same. Many meetings are taken here, no doubt. But Lucas remembered to open it up, to give us real experiences this time. It’s not just going and coming and flying and landing and walking and talking and leaving again.
I love the way Lucas seems to really enjoy his own set pieces this time out. The droid factory on Geonosis, added late in production, is a perfect example. Like some lunatic live-action version of the pot-pie machine from CHICKEN RUN, this sequence seems designed just to let Lucas play with environment. There’s a dozen different things going on, and he has fun with all of them. In the battle arena itself, each of the different creatures is a distinct type of beast, and Padme, Obi-Wan, and Anakin all come up with different approaches to their problems. The cross-cutting is fun here. Everything’s worth paying attention to, so you don’t have sequences where you’re just waiting to get back to the Darth Maul fight, where the cross-cutting draws you out of some key bit of momentum. Instead, Lucas gives you too much to look at. You end up feeling overloaded on first viewing. You hardly know where to look at any given moment. I can’t wait to see what sort of easter-eggs sharp-eyed viewers start picking out of the film as it plays out its run. I know I’ll be seeing it many times, trying to soak it all in.
I haven’t talked about how incredibly poised Samuel L. Jackson is as Windu. I haven’t talked about the incredible seismic charges in the asteroid sequence and that sound they make. I haven’t talked about the always outstanding work of Ian McDiarmid, once again talking out of both sides of his mouth, lying with the greatest sincerity possible. I didn’t get to mention how great Watto is in his one scene, how heartbreakingly scuzzy he’s become. I didn’t bring up Dexter Jettster and the delightful animation of his character, right down to the hitching up the pants before tucking his gut into a booth across from Obi-Wan. I didn’t even hint at how cool the Kaminoans are as they seem to glide in slow-motion through ever scene, or how intense the battle is on the landing platform between Obi-Wan and Jango.
But that’s the great thing, isn’t it? I’m this far into the review, and I’m hard-pressed to talk about what I didn’t like. I could talk about how weak some of the dialogue is, or how I think Natalie Portman gives a boring and, at times, wholly unbelievable performance. I could, but all this great stuff keeps crowding it out, and I feel like the Grinch, like my little black heart is just so full of rediscovered STAR WARS love that it’s growing, swelling, and I’m practically evangelical. I want to see this film over and over opening weekend with all of my friends. My birthday is the 26th, and it looks like we’re going to try to see WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT? at the El Capitan to celebrate, but otherwise, it looks like I’ve got a new habit to support, a junkie itch I thought I’d licked years ago. STAR WARS is back in all its glory, and all true fans are going to feel the warm thrill of an almost existential sigh of relief when they crowd theaters for that opening weekend rush. I’ll be there, and I can’t wait to share the feeling with all of you.
Oh... and just for the record... I think Leon would have fucking loved this movie. Godspeed, buddy.