Wednesday, May 18, 2005

The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones

Yesterday, I rewatched the first two Star Wars films, in preparation for seeing the final Star Wars movie tonight. As I said yesterday, I've been waiting for this film for a long time. While I was very excited about the other prequels, this is the one that really matters, this is the story they were designed to tell. Those two are basically groundwork for Revenge of the Sith, and that probably explains why they were cracked on so much. There's also the fact that they're flawed films. But, it's a six film story, so to really understand the first two films, you need to see everything, which means that I can't completely appreciate them yet.

Just in assesing the prequel trilogy generally, I would call both films flawed masterpieces. While the films are far from perfect, they aim so high and have such massive scope, in terms of themes and character arcs, these films are doing more than any other popular entertainment made in recent years. That's why I have a problem with people completely dismissing the films, I'd rather see a film that aims so high and doesn't quite make it than a film that plays it safe and doesn't even have anything more going on that what is on the surface. These films are completley unique, and for that alone, they deserve respect. So, while they can be viewed simply as action blockbusters, there's also a lot of intersting stuff going on beneath the surface, much like in Batman Returns, a film that people do not consider the depths of, because they are not used to heavy thematic development in their popular entertaiment.

My favorite thing about the prequels is Palpatine's arc. It's something that's generally below the surface, and very easy to miss if you focus on the action and other things that are going on. Basically everything that's happened so far is the result of what Palpatine has done. The reason that Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan end up on Naboo in TPM is because Palpatine has manipulated the Trade Federation into setting up the blockade. The genius of Palpatine's plan is that he can't lose. He creates the problems in the Republic, in the guise of Darth Sidious, and as a result of these problems, he gains power in the senate. The most important event in Episode I is when Amidala agrees to make a vote of no confidence in Chancellor Valorum, which allows Palpatine to take power.

At the end of Episode I, there's a big celebration and we hear joyous music, but this music cue is actually a speeded up version of the Emperor's theme from Return of the Jedi. This is appropriate because the only person who's really won as a result of what happened in the film is Palpatine. He gets more power, and the credit for breaking up the blockade on his home planet.

In Episode II, his plan has evolved, and he has now created not a temporary distraction, like that on Naboo, but a galactic wide problem, the separatist movement. He has Dooku start this movement, as an excuse to get the Senate to vote for the creation of a 'Grand Army of the Republic.' This army will become the stormtroopers that serve the Empire in the original trilogy. There's something really foreboding about seeing Yoda fly in with an army that looks so close to the stormtroopers in the original film. So, at the end of the film, Palpatine 'reluctantly' oversees the creation of this army, an army that was created to fight a menace that he in fact was responsible for. It's a genius plan, because he can't lose. The more the seperatists win, the more power he can take, 'in defense of freedom,' and when they defeat the seperatists, he gets the prestige of having won a major war, which will lead to more public approval for his role in government. So, the 'phantom menace' of the title is in fact Palpatine, who has been manipulating everything from the beginning, and probably will continue to do so in III.

Watching it this time, I think I got a lot more of what Lucas was trying to do with the relationship between Anakin and Padme in Attack of the Clones. The film was widely criticized for the awkwardness of the romantic moments, but I think that was appropriate. This is a guy who's been living with the jedi for ten years, and has never been put in a romantic context, he's just been carrying the memory of Padme around with him for all those years. So, when he finally does meet her again, he doesn't know what do, and brings out a whole bunch of cheesy lines, because he doesn't know how else to behave around her, he can't find a way to express his feelings, so he brings out classic lines like the sand one that don't sound good to us, but are the only way he would know how to behave.

Which brings up the question, why does Padme go with this guy who clearly has a slightly unhealthy obsession with her? This is something I hope III will address, since it's sort of unclear. If I had to guess, it would be that he is the only person who's approached her as a person, not as a queen/senator. Like Anakin, she lives a life that doesn't allow for romance, which means that it would have a sort of forbidden air, and I guess she's attracted to that. I don't think their relationship is ever meant to be healthy or even romantic really, Anakin is someone who is used to being able to do what he wants, and if he wants to be with her, he will.

Anakin gets this attitude from the first father figure in his life, Qui-Gon Jin. In TPM, you see him going along, using his force powers to get whatever he wants from people. He doesn't care about the council, he just does what he wants, and always seems to end up getting his way. When he winds up wtih Obi-Wan, I get the sense that it's almost a stepfather relationship, like Qui-Gon is his real father, and Obi-Wan is just filling it, and that's part of why Anakin resents him so much. Parent issues are at the core of the whole series, and for Anakin, a lot of it has to do with idealizing his mother. What happens to him as a result of his mother's death is not really addressed in II, and I'd imagine it'll figure heavily in III.
That said, while there's so much great stuff in these films, it's not like there aren't flaws. The first 40 minutes or so of Phantom Menace are pretty weak, and Jar Jar just doesn't work there. He's fine once you get to Tatooine, but when it's just him and the two Jedi, it's not good. Similarly, the people do behave in a strange way. It's not realistic, and certain people seem to have trouble with performing in these films. I think Christopher Lee and Ewan McGregor are great, but Natalie Portman just doesn't work in the film. I love her in other stuff, but this is not her finest hour. Watching it this time, I really got Hayden Christensen's performance, and I can understand what he was doing. Samuel L. Jackson is another person who really seems to get what's going on here, and is great.

I think a bigger problem is that the action scenes here don't have the strong emotional drive of the original trilogy. While they are huge and cool, nothing can match the emotional intensity of either of the Luke/Vader fights, I'm hoping this'll change in the next episode. I think part of it is that there aren't pauses. In those fights, the stops are as important as the action itself, and by holding things off, it makes the action that there is so much more intense. While thousands of people fighting may look cool, I'd much rather see two people I care about fighting, the stakes are so much higher, as exemplified by the end of House of Flying Daggers. Also, particularly at the end of Clones, there's two many scenes that seem to be about showing off effects, with no character stakes.

So, I'm really psyched for Revenge of the Sith. The best way to see a Star Wars movie is at a screening full of fans who have been waiting for this for as long as I have. The Episode II midnight showing might be the best moviegoing experience I've ever had, but it could very well be topped tonight. In twelve hours, I will have seen Episode III.

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