Cloning Around

 

May 14th:        Note that Bristol Odeon is doing a special late night showing of Attack of the Clones on Thursday morning, the earliest possible point that they can show the movie. Decide that, realistically, I am not going to wait until the 25th to see it with friends in London, and that seeing the late show would be an amusing thing to do. Discover that Odeon's on-line booking service is doesn't work.

May 15th, morning:    Buy ticket the old fashioned way at box office.

May 15th, 11.40:PM:  Arrive in cinema. Take seat in back row, to make doubly sure no-one can sit behind me telling me what is going to happen next. To my surprise, the cinema is full, mainly with people who I suspect of being students.

May 16th, 12.05 AM: Film due to start. (No trailers.)

May 16th, 12.06 AM: Audience riot.

May 16th, 12.08:         Film starts

May 16th, 2.30AM:     Film finishes. I walk home, taking care to attach myself to other groups of revellers to avoid being mugged. (Remind me to tell you about the murder that was committed outside my old flat sometime when it wouldn't be a digression.)

May 16th, 3.00 AM:    Decide that this will be the only opportunity I have to write my first impressions while they are still first impressions Write:

 

WARNING

SPOILERS

MASSIVE SPOILERS.

MASSIVE, MASSIVE SPOILERS.

GREAT ARMIES OF CGI CLONED SPOILERS THAT RAMPAGE ACROSS THE SCREEN AND GIVE AWAY ALL THE PLOT POINTS.

DO NOT READ FURTHER UNTIL YOU HAVE SEEN THE FILM.

UNLESS, OF COURSE, YOU ARE ONE OF THOSE WIERDOS WHO HAS ALREADY BEEN TO WATERSTONES AND BOUGHT THE COMIC BOOK, THE NOVEL, THE SCRIPT, THE ARTBOOK, THE AUDIO BOOK.

 

Attack of the Clones is a lumbering, diffuse, out of control muddle of a movie.

It feels like a session of a Star Wars RPG. We can tell that it is Star Wars because there are characters called Obi Wan and Anakin Skywalker, but they seem to be getting on to coaches; discussing the funding of political campaigns and meeting contacts in 1950s coffee bars, as if someone didn't quite understand the brief.

It feels like someone connected a hook-up direct to Lucas's brain; so that droid factories, clone armies, arenas, asteroid fields and lots and lots of lightsabres come tumbling out in no particular sequence.

It feels like the wreckage that was left of the collision of four other movies, any two of which would have made a satisfying film. (1: The "Foundations Edge" fall of the Galactic Republic political intrigue movie. 2: The romance 3: The Wild West Indian captivity story translated to Tatooine  4: The evil Jedi / trade empire / clone war movie that explodes from no-where in the last twenty minutes.)

It has some of the silliest, most OTT action sequences ever filmed; especially the entirely gratuitous robot-factory production line, which is so obviously a set up for the Playstation platform game that it hurts, and Yoda's brief Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon pastiche.

In short, I enjoyed it very much indeed.

 

Phantom Menace had a fairly traditional narrative structure. It felt very like one of the original Star Wars movies albeit re-orchestrated into a slightly Disneyeque key, with an Asimov galactic empire hovering in the background. Characters met up, formed a group, acquired objectives, fulfilled them, and even occasionally talked to each other. The film did nearly everything right, but them shot itself in the foot by giving you a set of characters who were lackluster or irritating; and a series of battles which were never as well choreographed as they should have been.

Attack of the Clones goes down an opposite path. The characters largely work. Obi-wan and Anakin are a convincing and engaging double act, with rapport and banter, very much what Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan entirely failed to be in Episode I. Having created this pair of characters, Lucas proceeds to split them up for two thirds of the movie, leaving Ewan McGregor wandering around the universe collecting plot coupons, and explaining the script in one-side dialogue with his R2 unit; while Anakin goes off to enact his pre-ordained slushy love story with Amidala. A nice surprise is that Yoda and Mace Windu emerge as an enjoyable subsidiary double act: Yoda even gets some laughs.

The battles are still, compared with the original trilogy, not very well choreographed, but they are just so enormous that one doesn't mind too much. Most of the time, I was able to follow what was going on the screen. Phantom Menace kept giving me sensory overload (slow down! Where am I meant to be looking here?) The flying football match in that movie about the kid with the funny scar was another instance of the same problem. That rarely happened in Attack of the Clones. Maybe Lucas has learned how to direct CGI armies rather better in the last 3 years; or maybe I'm just more used to this kind of movie making.  

The battles, particularly the climactic clones vs. robots sequence suffer from a sense of cinematic diffuseness, a rot which set in in Return of the Jedi and has plagued this type of movie ever since. There are lots of brilliantly done cameos -- look, there goes an exploding space ship that looks like a water tower; whiz, here comes a fast moving low flying vehicle; duck, incoming moral dilemma for Anakin -- but no overall sense of what the battlefield looks like or what is going on overall. (Compare this with the AT-AT sequence in Empire Strikes Back, where you know what the enemy is trying to achieve, how close they are to achieving it, and roughly where the various forces are in relation to each other.)

What the film lacks, compared with Phantom Menace is anything remotely resembling a dramatic structure or even a plot. Like Empire Strikes Back, it splits the characters up and jumps between two more-or-less separate narrative threads; but unlike Empire Strikes Back, it lacks a strong thematic center to give it a sense of unity. Empire Strikes Back can be understood as "How Luke studied under Yoda to become a Jedi, and how Han and Leia were used as bait to draw him away from his training.".  Attack of the Clones can only be understood as "Anakin and Obi-Wan do stuff." Luke's vision of the suffering Han Solo draws him away from Yoda and back to the point at which the two parallel storylines will coalesce; Anakin's vision of his mother draws him away from the ongoing slushy love story and into a completely different subplot on Tatooine.

The love story is the one point at which the film slows down enough for the main characters to speak consecutive sentences; and actually works surprisingly well. Both Amidala and Anakin manage to deliver lines of the "I have died each day since we were re-united" variety with a surprising amount of straight-faced conviction. Anakin is one of those actors who can produce tears to order. He can also pout, snarl, wisecrack and giggle, but what he can't do is shake off the feeling that Lucas really wrote this part of Leo Decapprio. The trouble is not that the romance is slushy; it's that we know more or less where it is going; Annie has to produce kids by the end of part III, or part IV isn't going to get started, so any talk about Jedi not being supposed to know love is obviously just playing hard to get.

The bit that we are not necessarily expecting is the death of Anakin's mother; which should therefore have had a big emotional punch. (Anakin's farewell to his mother in Phantom Menace was one of the more engaging sequences in that film.) However it is over so quickly that we don't really have time to care. It's probably a bad sign if an audience who have remained dutifully silent during the picnic-in-the-long-grass sequence titter during what is supposed to be the emotional climax of the movie. The whole Tatooine thing felt sketched in; undeveloped. I saw a publicity still of Anakin talking to the Jawas, and thought "Cool! We are going to see more of the Jawas. " I always regretted that the Jawa-market pre-production art for the original movie was never realized in the film. But it turns out that, er, the publicity still represents the entire scene: one tableau of Anakin and a sand crawler; 30 seconds of a Tusken camp. Really, "Anakin's quest across Tatooine to rescue his Mum" could and should have carried a movie by itself.

(There is also the suspicion that there could be a "directors cut" to come; that there might be more of this movie than we have been allowed to see. Maybe Lucas never intended us to see Anakin's massacre of the Tuskens; maybe he planned for us to only hear about it second hand. Or maybe there was a last minute censor's chop. I have never before seen a high profile British movie advertised as "Certificate: T.B.A" only days before it is due for release. And weren't there scenes in the trailer that didn't make it to the finished film?)

Over and over again one felt that the film was too short for its subject matter; that what we were watching was set-up and establishing scenes for other movies that are never going to get made. You want more of Annie and Obie, but all you really get is 10-minute car chase. It's like the film was meant to be a 26 part TV series in it, not one poxie two-hour movie.

I suppose that foreshadowing is an occupational hazard with prequels. Owners of the DVD heaved a sign of relief on discovery that the line "Some day, Greedo you'll come to a bad end" was cut from Phantom Menace; would that "I sometimes think you'll be the death of me, Anakin" could have found its way to the floor of the same cutting room. Random characters from the other four movies jump up all over Attack of the Clones, just for the sake of being there, really: even 3PO and R2, though  they get some of the best lines, are really little more than nostalgic cameos. Jar-Jar is harmless and even quite amusing; Watto, has acquired a silly hat, making him look even more like a caricature Shylock than he did before. Most bizarre was the brief appearance of not-yet-Uncle-Beru, living with his father (Great Uncle Bulgaria, or somesuch) in the homestead where Luke grew up. It has not changed a jot since we last saw it, 20 years in the future. This causes Anakin to strike some Lukish poses and John Williams to reprise a few of our favourite themes. We are not so much developing or expanding an established sci-fi setting as wandering through old haunts. 

The last 20 minutes or so of the film are totally over the top; with climax piled on climax to the point where one becomes bored with it all. I really thought that the battle in the arena was going to be the end of the movie…but that leads into the arrival of Yoda and the Clones; which leads into the full-scale infantry battle. The latter part of this, I started to find a little wearing: I guess my overall sense in all the battle sequences was "Hey…cool!…Just remind me, what are they fighting about, again?"; but it totally redeemed itself in the four way Lightsabre dual, and Yoda's relatively unexpected entrance. This was the only part of the film, (apart from a  couple of one-liners), where the audience was reacting, cheering, laughing and applauding in the way that they should be in this kind of picture.

In short: an engaging set of characters who are not allowed to settle down and relate to each other; half a dozen different settings and almost as many storylines; no coherent plot; and not even that much advancement of the back-story. Bigger and sillier battles, and more ridiculous space ships than have ever been exhibited in captivity before. Sensory bombardment on a cosmic scale.  

It's magnificent, but it's not Star Wars.

 

May 16th: 4AM: Up the apples and pears and into Uncle Ned. (Metaphorically, since I live in a flat.)

May 16th: 11AM: Get up. Do a single edit of first impression review written last night.

May 16: 1PM: Complete edit. Decide to upload the thing straight away, on the assumption that my extensive readership will be so impressed with the speed at which I got the review out that they will be forgiving that it is not as polished and well structured as my writing is wont to be.

May 16 2PM: Into Bristol. I wonder if they have tickets for the 4PM showing available?

 

 

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