Thoughts on ‘Attack of the Clones’

The general view among fans seems to be that Attack of the Clones is the worst of the prequels. Upon rewatching it, I’m going to have to dissent from the majority opinion. It is in no way a good film, in fact it’s arguably worse on a purely structural level than Phantom Menace, but for my part I enjoyed it considerably more than I did the previous film. Or at least, I found there to be more good parts to Attack of the Clones than I did Phantom Menace, though at the same time the lows of this film are worse than anything in its predecessor.

Hopefully this will become clearer as we go on.

The film opens with a title crawl informing us that the Republic is being torn by separatist movements, before we witness an assassination attempt on now-senator Amidala (Lucas appears to have gotten a bad case of anti-monarchism in the intervening years and studiously avoids anything threatening to make her ‘Queenship’ anything but titular, raising even more questions about just how Leia is a princess. Along with the question of what kind of society elects a fourteen-year-old girl as sovereign?). The attempt only takes out her decoy, which only works because of the specific method chosen (the real Senator’s flying an escort fighter: lucky they weren’t actually attacked in space, or she’d have been toast). Anyway, this leads to the decision that Anakin Skywalker should be assigned to guard her because she knows and trusts him (unlike, I guess, every other Jedi who isn’t a hormonal teenager with self-control issues). Meanwhile, his master Obi-Wan Kenobi undertakes to follow the trail of her assassin to find out who is trying to kill her and why.

That description skips a fair amount of overlong discussion of political subjects that we don’t understand or care about, not to mention a lot of painfully bad dialogue. In any case, following a car-chase that ends the first act, Attack of the Clones adopts the two-path structure from Empire Strikes Back, with Anakin and Padme going off to Naboo while Obi-Wan engages in a planet-hopping conspiracy investigation. Only, where Empire was tonally consistent and engaging across its double plotline, here it feels more like it’s split into two completely different films: one directed by Stephen Sommers, the other by Tommy Wiseau.

There are two glaringly huge problems with this film which sink it in many viewers’ eyes to the absolute bottom of the heap: one is that the plot is an incomprehensible mess. The other is the truly cringe-inducing romance plot that takes up much of the film. The former we’ll deal with later. There are so, so many problems with the romance, even passing over the terrible dialogue and abysmal acting (both of which I am blaming completely on George Lucas, since Hayden Chistensen and Natalie Portman have shown they can act in other projects).

The biggest problem is simply that there is no reason for these characters to fall in love. Or rather, there is no reason for her to fall in love with him (his infatuation is more understandable, given the endless parade of overelaborate and bizarrely slinky outfits Natalie Portman wears). Anakin is more or less everything you would think a girl would not like; he’s creepy, pushy, dismissive of her interests, whiny, and self-absorbed. He spends half his time complaining to her about how the Jedi don’t give him the appreciation he feels he deserves, and the other half giving leering and inappropriate compliments. That’s before he slaughters a bunch of sand people and screams about how he hates them before ranting about how much his best friend is holding him back. Anakin is both the self-absorbed bad-boy that any girl’s father would send packing the moment he set eyes on him and the sniveling, insecure loser that she wouldn’t look twice at to begin with.

That’s a problem with the film as a whole, and frankly with the entire prequel trilogy; Anakin is never the “good man” or great Jedi that he is supposed to have been. He’s a cocksure brat with an ego as inflated as the Hindenburg and half as stable, and that’s when he isn’t a psychopath in the making. Luke was chewed out for becoming mildly frustrated when Yoda was jerking him around: why did the Jedi even let this narcissistic rage machine in the door? Nor are his powers, so crowed about in the dialogue of both this film and previous one ever much on display. Anakin just seems like a fairly bog-standard Jedi, never showing much in the way of extraordinary powers and ending the film by being thoroughly humiliated by the villain of the week.

It’s bad enough for the plot as a whole, but it absolutely kills any chance at a believable romance, which is a problem because the love story is one the key factors to the story they’re trying to tell.

Now, in the original films, we could believe that Leia and Han would fall for each other, because though Han could be smarmy and self-aggrandizing, he’d long since shown the self-sacrificing and heroic side to his character. The two had already earned each other’s respect both in the original and the earlier stages of Empire by constantly pushing against one another, while simultaneously fighting on one another’s behalf.

They ought to have done something similar here; had them go in off on an adventure where each could be seen to the best advantage, rather than just having them sit around Naboo talking about whether they’re in love or not. But no, we have scene after scene of them on dates, exchanging vapid dialogue while Anakin leers all over her and the result is supposed to be a love that transcends all other concerns.

As I say, the lows in this film are worse than anything in Phantom Menace. Even Jar Jar’s antics are more bearable than the romance plot, because at least Jar Jar wasn’t the only thing on screen for minutes at a time. Also, Jar Jar wasn’t essential the film’s plot.

All that said, when the film isn’t watching these two rehearsing for a part in The Room and instead focuses on the other plot of Obi-Wan’s cross-galaxy investigation, I actually found it to be very entertaining. Ewan McGregor does a fine job of channeling Sir Alec Guinness even with the clunky dialogue, and he has a well-developed character of a highly competent, though kindly man of vast experience and savoir-faire. Unlike Anakin, he makes for good company, and his adventure across several planets is pretty cool to watch.

I really like the whole sequence at the cloning facility. Everything about it from the towering, spindly alien masters to the soft yet eerie lighting creates the feeling that there’s definitely something wrong here, yet everyone is so polite and so accommodating that there doesn’t seem cause for alarm. You’re just waiting for the other shoe to drop the whole time. It’s visually fantastic and a really well-done sequence.

It also culminates in one of my favorite action scenes in the prequels, perhaps in the whole series: Obi-Wan’s battle with Jango Fett (father of Boba). It’s one of the few, if not only times that we see a Jedi going up against someone who is equally as dangerous, but in a completely different way, and seeing these two skilled and deadly opponents squaring off is really cool (granted, the motivation for the fight isn’t very clear, but we’ll come back to that). The fight is followed by an equally cool battle in space, with Fett’s ship deploying a series of mines that set off a visually and audibly striking display.

On that subject, I like the kid they got to play young Boba Fett: he conveys just the perfect air of being a nasty piece of work who worships his no-good father.

And you know what? I even liked the flying car chase that ended the first act. It’s silly as hell, and the cars look terrible (like those kiddie rides outside of convenience stores), but it’s energized and creative, more so than most anything in the previous film. Also, for all the terrible dialogue in this film, I admit I laughed out loud when Anakin casually throws himself out of the car and Obi-Wan wearily comments, “I hate when he does that.”

So, when the film focuses on the sci-fi adventure aspect, it’s not bad and can even be hugely entertaining, though it definitely drags towards the end and could have stood to be at least half an hour shorter.

The climax is a big problem. Yes, it’s cool to see all these Jedi show up and fight en mass, and that sequence was okay (the earlier one with the monsters, not so much. I really like my monsters, but the whole set up just seemed silly to me), but then it just goes on and on, with the clones showing up to save the day (they never really ‘attack’ so much as ride to the rescue), then a battle sequence of clones versus robots, then a chase sequence, then a final lightsaber battle, and arguably the worst of the whole series at that (despite featuring the always-fabulous Christopher Lee as the opponent). It really drags, especially as the film lumbers to nearly two-and-a-half hours of running time, yet never manages to convey just what the heck they’re fighting about. Which means that now is maybe time to address the plot. Good Lord, where to begin?

This first thing to point out is that the story should have started about here, with the Republic being threatened and the war beginning. Wasting a whole film on a pointless prologue set ten years before the story proper was a huge mistake. But more than that, we never find out just what the ‘separatists’ are trying to do, except that they want to leave the Republic. Why? What is their goal? What do they hope to achieve? And, most importantly, why are we rooting against them? Apart from the fact that they try to kill some of the good guys, but again why are they doing that? Compared to the straightforward faction goals of the original, or even the slightly more convoluted ones of the previous film, we have nothing to work with.

To make matters worse, the film (and its predecessor) fail to convey to us why either the Republic or the Jedi are worth preserving. From what we see of the Republic, I don’t blame anyone for wanting out. If the whole trilogy is about the fall of the Republic and the Jedi Order, we need to have a reason to feel why that was bad and why they ought to be restored (which, of course, is also the problem with Anakin. I will say the storytelling is at least consistent: it fails in exactly the same way across all the parallel plotlines).

But it gets worse. Lee plays a fallen Jedi named Count Dooku (a stupid name, but never mind). At different points in the film he is presented as A). the man who ordered the creation of the Clone Army, B). the head of the separatist movement who warns Obi Wan that the senate is under control of a Sith Lord, and C). the apprentice and servant of said Sith Lord, Palpatine. Why would he do ‘A’ if he is ‘B,’ and why would he give the warning in ‘B’ is he is ‘C’? And why is he the one who has the Death Star plans? If he’s working with Palpatine, what is their end goal? To rule the Republic? Then why does he try to warn Obi-Wan about Palpatine? And why, in any case, is he trying to kill Amidala? Ostensibly it’s so she can’t vote against the creation of the army, but the army already exists. And any way, does the galactic senate of tens of thousands of worlds really come down to a single vote on this issue?

So, to sum up, we have no idea what’s going on and we have no real reason to care about it in any case. When they raced after Count Dooku in the climax, I was still confused as to why he’s a bad guy.

Also, in this ‘Star Wars’ series, we spend almost two whole films on the political background to the war, and yet somehow fail to end up with a clear notion just what they’re fighting about in the first place. The plot in this film is simply awful.

Before I leave off the subject of Christopher Lee, I do have to say that this film reiterates just what a good actor the man was. Even under Lucas’s direction and reading this terrible dialogue, he still absolutely owns the part and his character actually comes across like a real person rather than a walking cutout. The scene where he talks to the imprisoned Obi-Wan is great, at least from a pure acting perspective, and I also love the way he just stands there calmly when one of the Jedi rushes him with a lightsaber, as though contemptuous of the very idea that he might be in danger. Really, Lee is so darn good that I can’t help wondering why they didn’t focus the whole trilogy on him as the main villain, with Palpatine in the background. As it is, his frustratingly small screen time (he doesn’t even show up until an hour and a quarter in) only adds to the film’s myriad other problems.

I should probably say something about the Yoda fight as well. A lot of people don’t like the very idea of Yoda fighting, but I’m okay with it as a concept. It is satisfying to watch little old Yoda hobbling into the room and know at once that the bad guy doesn’t stand a chance. But, like so many of the ideas in this trilogy, the execution of the fight is awful, partly because Dooku is so poorly set up as a villain (again, he has minimal screen time), but more so because of the terrible choreography that has Yoda zipping around like a Loony Tunes character or else slowly waving his hands around to engage in a bit of Force push-pull (the wizard duel in Fellowship of the Ring – also featuring Lee – was infinitely better done than this).

Actually, my main problem with Yoda in the prequels is that he almost completely lacks the playful personality he had in the original films. One would think he’d be far more relaxed, more cheery and good-natured here among his friends and doing what he loves, but apart from one scene with him training children (actually kind of a nice scene, despite the terrible acting and worse CGI on the kids), he’s almost completely humorless. Why give such a great character so much screen time if you’re not even going to let him be himself?

All that and still so much I haven’t mentioned, both of good and bad. There are some genuinely funny moments (the “death sticks” gag for instance) and ones that make you cringe (having a great comedic character like C3-PO reduced to the “I’m beside myself” pun is painful to watch). There are long stretches of skin-peeling boredom interspersed sequences of thrilling high adventure. There is a lot of great creativity, all in the service of a script that is the storytelling equivalent of pulling teeth. The most important aspect of the film – the romance – is an utter failure, but we also have some of the best action scenes in the prequel trilogy. The good parts of this film are mostly better than those of its predecessor (with the exception of the final lightsaber fight), and the bad parts worse. This film is like someone spilled one box of diamonds and another of broken glass: half of it is great, half is painful, and it’s all a mess.

In the end, though, I’m going to rate it higher than Phantom Menace just because there is much more of point to it all. Phantom Menace was completely extraneous, even to the prequels. Attack of the Clones at least moves the plot along toward the original films and feels much more like a necessary piece to the puzzle. It is, at least, a half step in the right direction.

Thoughts on ‘The Phantom Menace’

I called the original Star Wars a textbook example of storytelling. Well, if Star Wars was a textbook, The Phantom Menace is more of a case study: what happens when you give a vividly imaginative, but uneven writer unchecked control after years of being out of practice?

Let’s try to be fair here.

The film opens with the news that the Republic’s taxation policy has driven the Trade Federation to blockade the planet of Naboo, causing the senate to dispatch two Jedi knights, Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi, to negotiate a settlement.

Okay, maybe you can see the problem there just from that description.

Granted we know this world better than in the first film, where it was simply “the Empire has constructed a weapon that blows up planets, the Rebellion has plans that might show a weakness,” but this is the sort of thing no one cares about in the real world, let alone in our fantasy space epic: an organization we don’t know is angry about tax policy, so they blockade a place we never heard of. Most people wouldn’t watch a news show about that.

Now, I will say that the plot, once you figure it out, is actually not bad, at least in conception. What’s really going on is that Senator Palpatine (more on him later) is manufacturing a crisis that will cause the Senate to elect him Councilor. It’s a multi-layer chess game where everyone is looking at the wrong thing. That’s a good idea for a story, especially as the prequel trilogy is structuring itself around Anakin’s rise and fall as a Jedi, while the whole series is being structured around Palpatine’s rise to and fall from power. Granting all that, though, they needed something that mattered a lot more than a stupid trade dispute.

Okay, okay; I’m getting ahead of myself. But that’s kind of indicative of the problem of this film. It has some decent ideas, or the bones of decent ideas, but the execution is almost universally terrible, and the core ideas are surrounded by an impenetrable boundary of unfathomably poor decisions on the part of the writer, who of course is none other than George Lucas himself.

I’m not going to pick on Lucas much, because God knows he’s been put through the wringer enough for his terrible writing choices. He badly needed a co-writer or a script doctor on this film: the plot is confusing and painfully contrived, the dialogue is often horrendous, and that’s not even getting to the acting or staging.

On the subject of staging, consider this: we meet the Jedi Council in this film, something that’s been hovering over us as an unseen image of peace, justice, and wisdom for three films. It’s a huge moment for the story, whether you want to see this film as the beginning of the series or a continuation for it. But all we get is a single exterior establishing shot of a bland building, the cut to the Jedi Council just sitting around glowering. Why? Why no build up, why no sense of grandeur, no sense of respect, nothing? Even allowing that the film is supposed to show a decayed Republic and Jedi Council that has lost its way, that should be for later: the first shot should be showing something of their grandeur and nobility, even if tarnished.

And there is some of that earlier in the film, with the Trade Federation’s reaction to the two Jedi and their tearing through the ship’s security with ease. We do fee this is the Jedi at the height of their powers as Obi Wan alluded to back in the original, but we should have had something like that for the whole council.

The Harry Potter books did this very well: the first half of the series is all about Harry discovering the wonder of the Wizarding World, and it’s only later that its rot becomes apparent. That’s the sort of approach this series should have had, but instead it just seems lazy.

Okay, so the Jedi go down to the Naboo to ‘warn them’ (by travelling with the invading army and apparently landing on the opposite side of the planet. Why didn’t they just say they needed to go down to rescue the Queen so she could tell the Senate what happened? That’s what they actually do in any case, so why the unnecessary nonsense about ‘warning’ someone of the army you are travelling with?). During their escape the ship is damaged and they have to ditch on Tatooine to try to get parts to repair it, where they meet Anakin Skywalker, who is a slave working for a junk dealer. Qui-Gon senses he’s strong in the Force and decides to take him with them.

You know, there are bigger problems with the film. I don’t even know if I can call it an objective flaw, but personally my biggest beef with this movie has always been why the heck did they cast Anakin as a ten year old?

The way the film progresses, especially with his semi-romance with the Queen (sort of: more on that in a bit. God, there are just so many things wrong with this film!), his flying a warship into battle, his being described as ‘too old’ to be trained, all of it feels like it was originally designed for a character about Luke’s age in the original film. That would make sense, that would have felt natural, that would have created a sense of a recurring pattern. But instead, it’s as if near the end of the writing process Lucas just decided he’d rather have a little kid on the idea that kids would want to see someone like themselves in the movie (by the way, has any kid actually preferred seeing a child hero on screen? I don’t think I ever did), so he went back and altered the description and a few of the lines.

See, the biggest problem with this (apart from making him irritating and raising questions about why the adults are putting him in these dangerous situations) is that it largely removes any sense of agency from what is ostensibly the film’s protagonist. He doesn’t make decisions with consequences, he doesn’t accept moral responsibilities (like Luke does), things just happen to him. Even his presence in the final space battle is sheer accident, as is his victory in it. He doesn’t achieve anything; he is simply given things. And you can’t really expect anything else because he’s a kid. It also prevents him and Obi Wan from having any relationship at all in this film, much less the close friendship they’re supposed to have.

In summary, Anakin ought to be the film’s protagonist; the equivalent to Luke in the original. But because they decided to make him a ten year old surrounded by adults (also because he doesn’t even appear until about forty minutes in), they removed that possibility. That kind of leaves the film without a real protagonist. Qui-Gon is the closest as he directs most of the story, but we don’t really know anything about him apart from the fact that he’s wise and good. He structured like a mentor character, but has to carry the whole plot himself.

Another problem: their conception of Anakin’s origin basically removes Owen entirely. You know, his brother. The implications of the first film of a falling out, of the brother who went to war and the one who stayed at home, the subsequent implications that Owen was trying to keep Luke from becoming his father, all that is out the window now. Yes, it’s a little odd to be hung up on the fact that they didn’t make space to account for what, after all, was a minor character, but it would have been so easy to do and seems so obvious (there’s even a random kid who just hangs around with Anakin during his time on Tatooine: why not make him his brother?) that you just have to wonder why they didn’t. Why construct this over complicated, contrived origin story about a virgin birth (really) that raises a million questions instead of following the backstory you yourself created?

Okay, I’m going to limit myself to addressing three more major problems: the pod-race, the Queen, and a slightly more abstract idea of script contrivances.

The pod-race kind of exemplifies the film as a whole: visually it’s great, but on a writing level it’s awful. There’s probably no better way to explain why it’s so bad than to compare it to the race in Ben Hur, which Lucas is very clearly trying to imitate (yes, it’s unfair to compare The Phantom Menace to Ben Hur, just as it’s unfair to compare, say, Bill Nye to St. Bellarmino, but, hey, if they’re asking for it…).

In Ben Hur, the race was the culmination of the enmity between Judah Ben Hur and Messala. Judah has already sworn to kill Messala, and the circus is one of the few places he can do that legally. Messala, for his part, is equally ready to kill Judah, something he already tried and failed to do. The question, therefore, is whether either or both will succeed before the end of the race. This is further linked to the idea that Judah is racing for the honor of his own people on their own homeland against their occupiers, connecting the hero’s personal goals with those of his community (symbolized by the Sheik’s high-stakes bet with the Roman officers – “Ten to one: what a Roman is to a Jew. Or an Arab” – and further reinforced by Messala’s loud prayer to Jupiter, done deliberately so that Judah can hear it).

In The Phantom Menace, on the other hand, the race is simply a way to solve an already contrived plot thread designed solely to have the Jedi meet Anakin, a problem that could have been solved about a dozen other ways even given the provided scenario. The sole question is who is going to win, and as Anakin is the only actual character in the race, that is never really in question. Sebulba is not a character; he simply exists to be the jerk that Anakin beats. There is no emotional weight to what happens, no larger issues at stake, nothing but the fate of this one character: if he wins, he succeeds, if he loses, he doesn’t. Combine that with the fact that it goes on for about ten minutes straight, plus a lengthy introduction with flags and listing characters we’ve never seen before and never will again, and the whole thing is just an absolute train wreck in terms of storytelling.

(All that said, I do love the gag of Jabba the Hutt falling asleep during the race. Who would have ever thought he would be the audience identification character?)

Now about the Queen. If you’ve seen the film, you know that the Queen we spend most of the movie with (Keira Knightley) is actually a decoy, and the real Queen is her handmaid, Padme, played by Natalie Portman.

This raises so many questions, even beyond “who the heck thought the Queen’s dead-white makeup and ultra-elaborate costumes were in any way a good idea?” First of all, considering the real Queen is right next to her, as is captured along with her, what was the point of any of this? Isn’t someone more likely to kill her like this, when she’s off alone, less protected (even her bodyguards the Jedi aren’t told of the deception. That’s probably something you want to tell the people specifically tasked to protect you)? Isn’t it more likely that, in an emergency, her guards will end up leaving her behind or letting her get shot while they guard the fake Queen?

Also, the fake Queen does things like sending her off to clean a droid while she sits in council with the Jedi. Or the fake Queen is apparently the one doing all these important jobs and making all these crucial decisions while the real Queen just sits around in the background. Or the real Queen is the one who goes off into the dangerous city with the Jedi while the fake one sits safe on the ship.

She’s also apparently elected. Why? And how does that square with her daughter being a princess?

So, the whole Queen deception thing is unnecessary and stupid. Now let’s tackle the final matter: contrivance.

This basically is a catch-all term for the script handing characters things without them have to earn it. The infamous midichlorines are a good example of this (yes, there are also thematic problems with making the Force bacteria). This whole development has one purpose and one purpose only: so that they can take Anakin’s blood test and find out that he’s an ultra powerful force user who even surpasses Yoda. It’s a means of telling so that we don’t have to show. No need to convey this through action, through following him in his training and the Jedi and us slowly realizing they’re dealing with something they haven’t seen before; just declare he’s got lots of these things that give him Force.

The whole idiotic ‘Prophecy’ and ‘chosen one’ plotline is another example: a way to tell us that Anakin is special without actually having to make him be special. It raises so many questions (who prophesied? What’s he’s supposed to do? Why does it matter?) and, again, is just a lazy way to tell the audience that we should care (again, Harry Potter handled a similar plotline much better, where the prophecy isn’t revealed until late in the series and they discuss how it only matters because the bad guy thought it mattered and fulfilled the terms himself. It isn’t used to make the hero special, but to motivate the villain).

Again, this all comes down to the script giving things to Anakin rather than having him work for them, partly because he’s a kid. He’s not exactly a Gary Stu, because he doesn’t really do anything. He’s kind of like Mowgli in the animated Jungle Book: less of a character than a living prop for the characters to pass around and comment on. Not an auspicious start to the origin of Darth Vader.

(By the way, the same pattern plays out for Jar Jar during the final battle, where his ‘comic’ bumbling reeks havoc on the droid army. Again, not earned, not proceeding from any skill or insight that the film set up: it all works out in his favor because the writer says so).

Okay, so I could go on and on about how bad this film is. Is there anything to like about it?

Well, others have said it before now, but the sets and some of the visuals in this movie are often really, really good. Naboo is fantastically designed; the most paradisiacal, civilized world imaginable. So is the underwater city of the Gungans, so are the cool monsters inhabiting the depths, so, to a lesser degree, is Coruscant, the capital world, where the city covers the entire planet (yeah, some of the shots look ugly as hell, but others are very cool).

To his credit, Lucas actually did think through some of the sci-fi concepts. Like, for instance, we see the underwater city is protected by permeable energy fields. Then when these creatures go into battle, these same shields for a major part of their strategy. That sort of thing shows some thought, applying a piece of tech in multiple, though consistent ways. On a similar note I like how establish that Anakin is freezing in space because the temperature on the ship is so much less than he’s used to. I also like how they burn Qui-Gon’s body in the end, mirroring the burning of Vader’s corpse in Return of the Jedi and making it feel like a real cultural practice.

And though the acting and writing are bad, they take time out now and then to have quiet moments, to try to let the characters breathe a little. There are a few scenes emphasizing how much Anakin misses his mother after he leaves home, for instance. Anakin’s actual good-bye to his mother is also fairly well done, especially with her telling him to not look back as he leaves. And though it precedes the infamous midichlorian reveal, it is a nice moment where Anakin asks Qui-Gon about the stars and expresses his desire to visit them all, echoing Luke from the first film (though much more on the nose).

Similarly, though the dialogue is mostly terrible, there is a good line here and there. Like when Anakin insists “No one can kill a Jedi,” and Qui-Gon softly answers “How I wish that were true.” Or Palpatine’s comment that in the Senate “there is no civility: only politics,” which is kind of perfect.

Speaking of which, if there is one undiluted positive about this film, it’s Ian McDiarmid’s reprisal of his role as Palpatine. In a cast that predominantly reads their lines in a flat monotone, he actually injects some life in the role: I love his incredibly smug smile when he shows up at the end, or the subtle expressions on his face when he first appears. You can absolutely believe this is the same character we met in Return of the Jedi, only younger and obliged to hide his malevolence behind a mask of urbanity and kindness. Yet he still has the same satanic, spider-like machinations that made the character so intimidating in the first place.

As for the new characters, Qui-Gon is mildly memorable, just because Liam Neesan manages to convey a sense of actual wisdom and kindness through him. Watto the junk dealer isn’t bad; you certainly remember him and he’s not extremely irritating like Jar Jar. And though it’s an uncomfortable caricature, I do kind of like how the Trade Federation Viceroy is played as this gutless mandarin type: something different in terms of ‘Star Wars’ villains. And Maul, of course, continues the tradition of vivid ‘Star Wars’ bad guys. He doesn’t say much, but you sure remember him.

Speaking of which, yes, that final lightsaber duel is really good. One thing that struck me about it this time was how brutal it is; Maul and the Jedi are punching and kicking each other left and right, while Maul leaps and dances about like a wild cat. Add in that fantastic music, and it’s an honestly great sequence (if only we didn’t have to keep cutting away to the other three events going on around it).

So, on the whole, the film is pretty bad. Though I will say, it’s bad in a way that still lets you see flashes of talent. George Lucas, whatever his failures as a writer, is a fantastically creative person, and that creativity does come across on screen, with the creatures, the new worlds, and so on. He just needed someone to process his ideas into something workable, and to elicit decent performances out of his actors, and to tell him no when he has a terrible idea. The Phantom Menace is one of those fascinating failures: a movie that is more interesting to take apart and examine why it doesn’t work than it is to actually watch, yet not without some highlights of its own.

Nevertheless, having a film this bad as the opening act is an ominous sign for any trilogy.

 

Thoughts on ‘Return of the Jedi’

What started out as a simple fantasy adventure in space with Star Wars was turned into an epic by The Empire Strikes Back. Return of the Jedi faced the daunting task of bringing the whole thing to a satisfying conclusion. For my money, they succeeded spectacularly, though not without a small, but noticeable dip in quality from the previous film.

The movie picks up where the last one left off; with Luke and his friends trying to rescue Han from the monstrous Jabba the Hutt. This opening almost feels like a full film in itself, especially as it both goes on for far too long and is rather severely disconnected from the rest of the film. In essence, it’s a self-contained story that takes up full the first half-hour of screen time.

That said, it’s not at all a bad sequence; there’s the fast-paced high adventure we knew from the earlier films, done with the same creativity and anchored by the same great characters. I’m not really sure what Luke’s original plan was, but the adventure serves to showcase how far he’s come. Despite his failure against Darth Vader, he’s grown from a naïve farm boy to a formidable warrior in his own right.

Characterization wise, the dynamic here reverses that of the previous films: in both the end of the original and beginning of Empire, Han had to save Luke. Then at the end of Empire Luke tried to save Han and failed. Here Luke succeeds, showing that he’s taken his place as the real leader and hero of their little band.

This jump in power and confidence from the previous film is a little jarring, it must be said, especially as we don’t know how much time has past. And that points to probably the biggest problem with the film as a whole: that despite the leisurely opening act, the film feels rushed. Plot threads set up in the first and second films are knocked down one after another in quick succession: Luke returns to continue his training with Yoda, only for Yoda to die after saying he needs no more training. Yoda’s cryptic words about “another Skywalker” are answered almost instantly with the reveal that Leia is Luke’s sister (which is probably the weakest story development in the trilogy: nothing about their interactions indicated this and it raises big questions about the dynamics of their birth and early life). The Empire has built another Death Star and the Rebels have a chance-in-a-million to end the war once and for all.

Now, none of these plot threads are really bad or poorly done (well, the reveal about Leia is debatable), but having them all occur so quickly does feel contrived. This is another reason why it’s frustrating the Jabba the Hutt sequence is allowed to go on as long as it does: with so much story to tell, it’s strange to spend such a huge chunk of the film on what amounts to wholly different plot. But we’re clearly moving into the endgame here, and this does create a sense that things are marching to a conclusion one way or another.

There; I’ve basically covered the main points where the film falls short (well, save a debatable case which we’ll come to), and they do drag it down a bit, but they can’t really overcome the full weight of great storytelling that has been built up over the past two films, nor counteract the very real positives of this one.

In the first place, we finally have our reveal of the Emperor himself, always present as an almost-unseen force lurking in the background of the past two films. This (along with the reveal of Jabba the Hutt) is an almost perfect example of how to bring a shadowy character onstage without diminishing his mystique. Indeed, the Emperor manages the difficult task of being very nearly as vivid and intimidating as Vader himself, just from the first time he appears. We first have the opening scene of Vader arriving on the new Death Star to rebuke the commander for slow progress, then as the man tries to weasel his way out of it with one excuse after another Vader drops the information that the Emperor himself is coming, which causes the commander to look as though he’s about ready to wet himself. The message (reinforced with Vader’s darkly hilarious line “The Emperor is not as forgiving as I am”) is clear: scary as Darth Vader is, the Emperor is even worse. Then when the Emperor finally appears, he’s this withered, deathlike figure covered in a black robe, directing events with a satanic chuckle. We can well believe that this is the man who controls and directs the vast, evil armada of the Empire.

The character development of the previous film continues and reaches its conclusion in this one. Han and Lando, the two former scoundrels, have fully committed to the rebellion, as well as recommitting to their damaged friendship (exemplified when Han let’s Lando take the Falcon for the final battle). The reveal of just how far Han has gone respectable is done fantastically, with him first teasing Lando about being made a general just in time for a dangerous mission before it’s revealed that he’s one too, with an even more dangerous assignment. On that note, the film takes care to give everyone a major role in the climax; every character has a moment to shine and there’s a real sense that it could not have succeeded without all their contributions, which is exactly what we want from this group of characters we’ve grown and struggled with for so long.

Most importantly, the film spends a lot of time dealing with the consequences of Darth Vader’s reveal that he is Luke’s father. This is the main theme and driving force of the story: the huge, raging space battle ultimately doesn’t matter as much as what it means that these characters are father and son.

The dynamic here is frankly nothing short of fantastic. Luke and Vader aren’t just the ones that everything depends on, but they’re the only ones who fully realize what the relationship means.

Yoda and Obi Wan both want Luke to understand that it’s now more important than ever for him to confront and defeat Vader. Now that Luke knows Vader is his father, the question of whether he will follow in his father’s footsteps, present from the beginning of the series (recall Uncle Owen’s “That’s what I’m afraid of” comment, which, like so much else, takes on new meaning in retrospect), has become an active and urgent question. He has to face him to settle that issue once and for all.

On the other side, the Emperor is confused by the fact that Vader can sense Luke’s presence while he can’t, which raises his suspicions (for perhaps the first time in who knows how long) of just where Vader’s loyalties lie. Like the Jedi, he too needs this confrontation to take place to determine just what the relationship will ultimately mean to his plans. The difference is that the Emperor fully expects to win no matter what happens: either Vader will kill Luke, or Luke will kill Vader and take his place. Yoda and Obi Wan fear the exact same outcome, though they clearly think there’s a chance for Luke to kill Vader without succumbing to the Dark Side.

Meanwhile, both Luke and Vader have their own ideas. Vader, as he expressed to his son in the previous film, wants to overthrow the Emperor and rule in his stead, with his son at his side. Luke, on the other hand, believes that Vader isn’t wholly lost; he’s felt the sincere longing in his father’s attempt to convince him to turn and believes that this tiny spark of love can restore the good man he once was.

The interesting point is that both Vader and Luke, despite the fact that each carries the weight of their respective war efforts on their shoulders, each has the other as their first priority. Each wants his side to triumph, but not at the expense of the other. It’s a brilliant bit of writing: this galactic war that we’ve been following for three films ultimately comes down to the connection of a father and son, something universal, instantly understandable, and packed with emotion.

That’s not to say the war is underwhelming. This film takes the ship battles to a new level, with some of the best effects in the series, culminating in an epic battle about the new Death Star. The Millennium Falcon, with Lando at the helm, leads the united rebel force in space (commanded by the instantly-memorable Admiral Ackbar). At the same time, Han, Leia, and Chewie conduct a commando raid against the Death Star’s shield generator in order to render the unfinished battle station vulnerable to attack.

And that raid brings us to one of the main things people tend to hate about this film: the Ewoks. On the one hand, yes, they are the most cartoony, childish element in the film, and perhaps the entire trilogy, and they don’t really fit into this otherwise-grounded world. They’re just too cutesy to completely work, and I especially don’t buy that they’re a legitimate threat to our heroes in the silly scene where they prepare to roast and eat them.

That said, I will raise a defense for the Ewoks. For one thing, their role in the story as the one concrete thing the Emperor didn’t take into account requires them to be somewhat silly creatures. There really wouldn’t be any excuse for him to ignore the Wookies, for instance, as they’re too obviously dangerous. But a bunch of little teddy bears with stone-age tech? That I can buy the Emperor shrugging off. Also, their very child-friendly nature fits with the idea that these are exactly the kind of humble, unpretentious people the Empire regularly stomp on, but who prove its downfall precisely because they were ignored.

Also, despite some slapstick, the film stages their battle with the stormtroopers in a fairly believable way. It’s made clear the Ewoks are only able to hold their own for two reasons: one they know the terrain and are able to perform hit-and-run tactics and set traps, and the other is their sheer numbers. These two factors, along with hi-tech support from Han, Leia, and the rebel forces, allow them just barely to squeak a win (watching the battle this time, I realized that a lot of the time they serve to distract and confuse the Imperial troops while the rebels hit them with blaster fire).

That, and the film goes out of its way to show that they are taking casualties; they are paying a steep price for their help. The bit where the one Ewok tries to get his friend to wake up and then just sits back and hangs his head in grief is genuinely affecting. Besides which, thanks to C3-P0’s abridged recap of the past two films, the Ewoks are shown to have an idea of what they’re fighting for; they’re not just serving as cannon fodder, they’re legitimately part of the Rebellion at this point.

Basically, my position on the Ewoks is that they’re very poorly conceived, but very well executed, especially once the shooting starts.

But all that serves as a side story to Luke and Vader, leading up to that fantastic final moment where Vader has to choose between power and his family, followed by that heartfelt last exchange between father and son.

In short, though it comes weighed down with heavier flaws than either of its predecessors, the high points of Return of the Jedi are among the highest in the trilogy, just as the climax ought to be. For me, that sense of finality and accomplishment is best shown (visual storytelling again) when we watch that miles-long Super Star Destroyer going down in flames, symbolizing that the seemingly-invincible Empire has fallen at last. The whole final act is like that; a thrilling and cathartic sense of having come a long way through all kinds of adventures, but having ultimately won the day in the end. After three densely packed films, it leaves us just where we want to be: Luke is a Jedi, Han and Leia are together, and the Rebellion has defeated the Empire against all odds, largely due to the fact that Darth Vader’s love for his son unexpectedly proved stronger than his loyalty to the Emperor.

That penultimate image of Luke seeing his father’s ghost joining those of his two teachers says it all; he’s redeemed his father’s legacy and can now feel as proud of him as he ever felt of his mentors.

Return of the Jedi isn’t quite a textbook example of how to conclude a trilogy, but it is very close, and, like the heroes, we are able to celebrate and come away feeling all is right with the universe.

 

Thoughts on ‘The Empire Strikes Back’

Empire Strikes Back is generally regarded as the best of the ‘Star Wars’ films, and for good reason. This is where the fun space adventure of the original film becomes something grander: something epic, yet without losing the adventure and excitement of the original.

The film, as the title indicates, shows the Empire hunting the Rebels (something I noticed this time around is that the title scroll’s account of the Empire “driving the Rebels from their base” in the wake of the Death Star’s destruction makes perfect sense, since even though the Death Star was destroyed, the Empire still knows where the Rebels are now. Just the first example of the care that went into the film’s script). We open with the Empire dispatching ‘probe droids’ throughout the galaxy, followed soon by Luke, on the barren ice world of Hoth, being ambushed and dragged off by a huge yeti-like monster. This opening, though not as immediately striking as the original’s, sets the stage at once: we’re now in uncertain territory, with powerful forces lying in wait to prey upon our heroes, who have to rely on each other and, in Luke’s case, his emerging knowledge of the Force.

The cast we met in the first film are back, and their relationships have grown. The characterization here is really fantastic, especially with Han Solo. When we met him in the first film, he was essentially selfish and kind of a prick. Here, he clearly cares about the rebels, but is now seeking to return to his old life to try to square the debts he left behind (he briefly alludes to their having run into a bounty hunter in between films, showing that the as-yet-unseen Jabba is closing in on him). Basically, Han still wants to be able to save his own skin. But he’s grown to the point where he’s willing to risk his life for his friends (as when he rushes out into the blizzard to save Luke, foreshadowing how Luke will later rush to Bespin to save Han). Then from the point where they leave Hoth, his entire motivation is essentially trying to protect Leia and find a way to get her back to the main Rebel force (who have fled to a safe location). This further strips away his remaining selfishness until, even when it looks like he’s about to die, his first thought is still her.

Han really shines as a hero during the long middle section of the film, where, with his ship’s hypderdrive on the fritz, he has to rely on his wits and skill to escape the Empire at sublight speed. This part of the movie creates a real sense of being constantly on the ropes as one by one his gambits manage to only buy a little time for frantic repair attempts before the Empire closes in (by the way, this time around I realized the asteroid field is foreshadowed when the rebellion general comments on how much meteor activity there is in the area).

Meanwhile, Luke is going on his own journey, delving deeper into the Force with his new master Yoda (rightly celebrated not only for his unforgettable personality, but also for the wonderful puppetry that makes him seem little less alive than anyone else). In so doing, Luke learns not only more about the Force, but just how far he might be vulnerable to the influence of the Dark Side.

All the while, we spend much more time with Darth Vader, seeing him pursue the heroes across the galaxy, but always first and foremost after Luke. His almost fanatical pursuit of the Millennium Falcon is, at the end of the day, as a means to lure Luke into a trap.

Like in the first film, all this works fine on a surface level, but when you start to think about it, and especially after you learn the infamous ‘reveal’ at the end, it all takes on a new and stronger significance.

The main thrust of the film is the overwhelming power of the Empire, assuring us right away that, despite the destruction of the Death Star, the villains are still oppressively dangerous. Like in the first film, we have some excellent visual storytelling: early on we see a fleet of Star Destroyers, those same huge, terrifying ships we met in the opening of the first film. Then we see that one of them is being eclipsed by the shadow of something even larger, whereon we cut to a Super Star Destroyer some ten-times the size of the others. Even without the Death Star, the Empire is incredibly powerful.

On the subject of visual storytelling, consider the famous Battle of Hoth that ends the first act: we have the Empire coming out to fight in these huge, lumbering walkers like mechanical elephants. They’re monstrous and seemingly unstoppable, like something out of a kaiju film. Meanwhile, the rebels are just men in trenches, or in aircraft; not that far removed from wars we’re familiar with. Once again, the visuals alone tell us all we need to know about the situation (a side note; this is one reason the stormtroopers wear masks: to convey the faceless conformity of the Empire).

This fight also continues the surprisingly grounded nature of the world; there was care taken in thinking how these ships work, and making them look battered and used. The Rebel base, like the ones in the first film, is crowded and busy, and throughout the film we have plenty of scenes of Han, Leia, and Chewie fiddling with the guts of the Falcon, trying to jury-rig the battered ship into working. We have no idea what they’re doing, but it looks like the sort of thing someone would have to do to fix a real spaceship. There’s one bit where Leia tries to force a stiff part of the ship back into place, then winces as she sucks a pinched finger. It happens incidentally, while she’s talking to Han, but it feels so real because we’ve all had moments like that. It’s just another little detail that makes this world feel so much more alive than most fantasy films (or most non-fantasy films for that matter).

Then, of course, there’s that twist. I don’t think I need to caution you on it; rare is the adult who doesn’t know it. This reveal may rather raise some questions about the earlier film (though I don’t think any that can’t be smoothed over), but that really doesn’t matter compared to just how much it benefits not only this movie but the series as a whole. Luke’s vision in the cave, Yoda’s sad likening him to his father, Vader’s fanatical pursuit of Luke, his arguing to turn him rather than kill him, and the way he holds back during their fight, all of these work fine the first time; you don’t question them, but they then rise to new levels of significance when we learn the truth.

Not only that, but they hint at something else; even as Darth Vader is being one of the most intimidating villains in all of cinema, murdering his subordinates with nothing but wry comments and pursuing and torturing our heroes with cold implacability, this reveal hints that his motives were not wholly malevolent. That, perhaps, there is something else still in there.

All that will be built on in the next film, but for now perhaps an even bigger twist is that the film doesn’t have a happy ending. Most of the heroes escape to fight another day, but they do so wounded in body and spirit, and the future is very much in question. You could have stopped at the end of the first film and people would have been satisfied with the story (though Vader’s escaping would have been a dangling thread people would wonder about). Not so here; here there is clearly an ending still to come.

So, in summary, yes, this is a fantastic movie and one of the best sequels of all time. It takes the original film and builds on it in ways the audience probably didn’t expect, deepening the relationships and themes while giving us more of the same action, adventure, and humor we loved in the first film, but in different ways and different doses. There’s less ship combat and more Force powers, for instance; more monsters and less alien communities. If the first film was a textbook in general storytelling, this one is a textbook in how to do a sequel.

Thoughts on ‘The Star Wars Holiday Special’

I wasn’t sure whether I’d including the Holiday Special in my Star Wars rewatch, for the obvious reason that it’s not really part of the series proper. But, in the end, I decided that, since I had it (in the Rifftrax version), I might as well take another look in context of the rest of the series.

I’ve written about this one before, so there will be some repetition, but basically…yeah, it’s incredibly bad. Not just bad in terms of writing and execution, but bad in some really strange ways. Like, one of the first things that happens is that Chewie’s son, Lumpy, and father, Itchy stand around watching a hologram of a circus act for three minutes straight. Who would think that was good idea for any show, let alone a ‘Star Wars’ entry? Kind of a step down from the attack on Princess Leia’s ship.

Of course, that stems from the fact the special is structured as a standard variety show, only set within the ‘Star Wars’ universe. That itself is just such a strange idea; it’s as if, between Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers, they did a special where Frodo and Sam ended up on a game show en-route to Mordor: why would anyone even think to do this, let alone take the time and spend the money to bring it to life?

Apparently, George Lucas meant this as a way to keep the brand in the public mind and continue to sell merchandise in between films, though it seems he wasn’t directly involved in either the writing or directing of this one, beyond the initial concept. The actual writers, I can only imagine (and at least one has confirmed), were all higher than satellites, to judge by the results. Among other things, we have about a quarter of an hour of Chewbacca’s family, done entirely in Wookie language. So, those growling noises Chewie makes? About half the special is done in that, without subtitles (this, apparently, was entirely Lucas’s idea). Then there’s the softcore porn film starring Diahann Carrol that Itchy gets from Art Carney. Believe me, I wish I could make up something as crazy as that.

Again, why is Chewbacca’s father watching a porno film? Who would even consider filming something like that? Not only in a ‘Star Wars’ entry, but in a ‘holiday special’? Also, that’s not an interpretation: the producers are on record saying that’s exactly what the scene is supposed to represent.

The plot (involving Chewbacca trying to get home to spend ‘Life Day’ with his family) is paper thin, and serves only to provide an extremely flimsy pretext for the skits. Though, even then the skits just sort of come out of nowhere, only occasionally with any justification whatsoever. Like, the Jefferson Starship musical number (no, not making that up) is Art Carney trying to distract an Imperial patrol…only, nothing comes of it; there’s no purpose to the distraction. It just eats up time.

Then there’s the cartoon short, showing a side-adventure of Luke, Han, and the droids, wherein they meet Boba Fett for the first time. This comes about simply from Lumpy watching a video player. Why is he doing that while there are Imperial troops sweeping his house? And why does he even have a cartoon of his father and his friends on an adventure in the first place? Why would such a thing even exist in this universe? You see, even as a framing device, the story is terrible.

As for the cartoon itself, it’s…pretty lame. The animation is terrible (Han in particular looks downright grotesque). The plot, involving a magical talisman that contains an Imperial bioweapon causing a form of sleeping sickness in humans, is at once too complicated and too silly to work even in a cartoon. Boba Fett doesn’t really do anything cool and his plan is foiled in a painfully lazy way, though admittedly it is kind of interesting to see him here before his official introduction in Empire Strikes Back.

Speaking of the main cast, they’re barely in the special at all. They just show up now and again for a couple minutes to remind us that ‘oh yeah, this is related to something we liked.’ Not only that, but they’re all kind of…strange. Mark Hamill is buried in very visible makeup meant to hide the effects of a recent car crash. Carrie Fisher, clearly at the height of her drug addiction, is visibly unsteady on her feet and stumbles over her lines. Harrison Ford, meanwhile, is clearly growing more and more bored as the show goes on, until he seems barely able to muster the energy to get his dialogue out. As for James Earl Jones as Darth Vader (who gets a special “and” credit in the opening), he has two scenes, one of which is in the cartoon and the other a dubbed scene from the first film.

Of course, saying the Holiday Special is bad is like saying the original Star Wars is good: it’s pretty much established fact at this point. So, is there anything positive to say about the special?

Actually, there is.

First of all, I really like the fact that the special actually shows the Empire from the point of view of the ordinary people of the galaxy. In the films, we see them doing terrible things, but mostly in the form of broad, specific outrages, mostly directed against the rebels themselves. Here, we get to see Imperial tyranny in the form of small, day-to-day injustices. For instance, there’s an early scene where Art Carney’s character (a trader) shows his wares to an Imperial officer, who, deciding he likes one of the items, simply declares, “I’ll take it” and walks off without paying. That’s a perfectly well-conceived (if not especially well-written) scenario, demonstrating just what the Empire means to ordinary people.

Likewise, a large part of the special is taken up by the Imperial Troops searching Chewie’s house for signs of rebel activity, threatening and abusing his family the whole time. The way Chewie’s family, with Art Carney’s help, have to tread carefully even as they’re tying to get the troops out before Chewbacca comes home is fairly well conceived and again captures that sense of powerlessness that comes from being under a tyrannical government in a way that’s not really seen in the films proper. There was some coherent thought put into this scenario.

Then there’s a late scene where the Empire imposes a curfew that forces the cantina on Tatooine to shut down. This creates a real headache for the owner (Bea Arthur), who finds herself forced to find a way to throw all her low-life customers out without offending them. But, again, there’s nothing she can do about it except to grumble resentfully and try her best.

On that subject, Arthur’s segment in the cantina is easily the best part of the special. Unlike just about everyone else (which includes some fantastically talented people, like Art Carney and Diahann Carrol), she actually puts in a legitimate performance, has some decent material to work with, and is honestly entertaining. There’s a particularly good line where, after being obliged to bribe her customers out with another round of drinks, she complains “I’m running a tab for the Empire.” She even elicits some honest emotions in the scene where she bids her staff goodnight before turning back into the now-empty bar. The whole segment feels refreshingly honest and human, not to mention it’s possibly the only piece of the whole special that actually seems like it fits in the ‘Star Wars’ universe. I can absolutely see Bea Arthur being the owner of the Cantina from original film, and that this is the sort of thing she deals with on a regular basis.

And I will say that the final shots, of Chewie and his family sitting quietly and enjoying ‘Life Day,’ are rather sweet. The preceding scene of Wookies marching through space in robes and Carrie Fisher singing, not so much.

So, yeah, in summary, this is an incredibly, mind-bogglingly stupid piece of work, the kind of thing where you really wish you could see the making of, just because you want to know what kind of thought process could have led to some of these scenes. I really hope someone, somewhere does a full-blown research project on this so that one day we can get a full documentary on just what they heck happened to bring this thing to life.

REPOST: Why I Love ‘Independence Day’

Posted this last year, but since I watch the film every year, I might as well post this every year as well.

x538            When Independence Day came out, it was a huge hit, but ever since then it’s kind of become the poster-child for the big, dumb, CGI-fueled blockbusters of the late 90s. And, yes, in a way it is, but…well, that’s kind of beside the point.

The Story: On July 2nd, a massive alien craft appears in orbit around the earth and sends out an armada of city-sized flying saucers that take up position above several of the world’s major cities, including Los Angeles, New York, and Washington D.C. We then see the unfolding war of the worlds through the eyes of four American men and their families: underachieving New York cable company technician David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum), Los Angeles-based Marine pilot Steven Hiller (Will Smith), drunken Californian crop duster pilot Russell Casse (Randy Quaid), and the youthful President Whitmore (Bill Pullman).

So, is this movie pretty stupid? Sure. This is light science-fiction pulp, of the kind you might find in Amazing Stories, or in a drive-in theater in the late 1950s, only given a massive budget and an all-star cast. Granted, a lot of those classic films were better than this one (The War of the Worlds in particular does many of the same things while being an overall superior film), but none achieved the same sense of scale and grandeur as this one.

As for me, I’m glad we have it.

This is the movie that Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, or Invasion of the Saucer Men, or those 1940s serials dreamed of being. It’s cheesy pulp sci-fi done as epic: national and world-spanning in scope, drenched in apocalyptic dread and patriotic defiance, with implacably hostile collectivist aliens pitted against scrappy, courageous, freedom-loving humans. This may or may not sound appealing to you, but to the film’s credit is unambiguously knows what it’s trying to be and doesn’t make any apologies for it.

There are a lot of things to like about this movie. In the first place, it’s huge. Four main characters, each one carrying a small cast of supporting characters, a world-spanning plot involving a large-scale alien invasion targeting the major cities of the globe, huge airborne battles…it’s just a grand, glorious spectacle. Yet, amazingly enough, the film still manages to keep the focus largely on the people involved: we see these events through their eyes, and the real story of the film is how it affects them. It’s not done brilliantly, but it works. We very rarely leave the perspective of one of our leads, and then only briefly to illustrate things that they are talking or thinkings about. For instance, late in the film we have a brief glimpse of various armies around the world receiving and responding to the President’s call for a united counter-attack, but we quickly cut back to where the President and his military aids are receiving the answers.

At the same time, though, the four interconnected storylines make the film seem anything but constrained. On the contrary, the multiple-perspective format gives the story an epic feel that few subsequent blockbusters (Armageddon, Transformers, etc.) have successfully imitated. This is in stark contrast with Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds, which though in some ways a better film was rendered all-but unbearable by the fact that we spent the whole thing welded to three boring and unpleasant characters.

The leads here, by contrast, are all charismatic and likable (though some might find Jeff Goldblum’s stammering speaking style annoying), as are most of the supporting characters. They’re not especially original, but they all have personality and serve as pleasant enough company. I particularly like Robert Loggia as the President’s right-hand general and Judd Hirsch as Goldblum’s father.

More than that, though, it’s just a really good story and well-done adventure. It’s grand and epic, but also keeps focused. Appropriate for a film about the Fourth of July, the theme is pitting freedom and the American way of life against the encroaching forces of collectivist aliens backed with all-powerful technology. When, after the opening salvos, we see the Statue of Liberty lying broken in New York harbor we understand what the battle is really about.

The film’s theme plays out in the lives of its characters, who all start off having forgotten what’s really important, which they rediscover throughout the film, even as they have to fight against the implacable hostility of the alien menace. Levinson and his wife have divorced due to their divergent career paths, with her working on the White House staff while he wastes his talents at a dead-end cable job. Whitmore’s caught up in politics and has lost his authority. Hiller dithers about marrying his girlfriend for fear of how it will affect his military career. And Casse is a drunken wreck who can barely take care of his family. All the characters are then forced to reexamine their lives and ‘re-center’ on what really matters: family, faith, and country.

The four leads provide an interesting cross-section of American society about the mid-nineties: blue collar, white collar, military, politics; Black, White, Jewish; married, unmarried, widowed, divorced. The film is thus about as representative of the American way of life of the time as could be asked for. We see that the characters in the opening don’t appreciate what they have in that way of life, being lost amid their petty concerns and self-destructive behavior. It’s only when their world is threatened that they begin to re-orientate their lives around the things they’ve neglected for so long, and it is this that gives them the power to strike back.

On the other hand, the aliens prove to be the reverse of American values; they’re a kind of hive-mind, with little or no individual personality, each subject to the collective. They have no home and no land of their own: they simply move from planet to planet taking whatever they need like locusts and moving on when they’re done. When asked if there’s any possibility of the two species co-existing, they bluntly respond that there isn’t.

In this context, it’s significant that the film explicitly describes the aliens as having bodies ‘just as frail as ours.’ All men, and aliens, are created equal; the aliens just have better technology that allows them to impose their will upon the earth. Once mankind figures out a way around that technology, the fight becomes more even.

The specifics of that method have justly been called out as ridiculous, but, again, that’s not really the point. All they needed was a semi-plausible excuse to bring down the alien shields, and a computer virus works as well as any other (the fact that the aliens were previously established to have been using the Earth’s satellites in their attack lends it just enough pseudo-validity to work in context). The important thing was how the idea was given (amid a heart-to-heart between Levinson and his father about the need to go on hoping) and what it leads to (a last-ditch battle for freedom).

I could go on about it, but suffice to say, I think it’s a really good movie. Yes, it’s kinda stupid, yes it’s cheesy and overblown, but at the end of the day it succeeds in being exactly what it sets out to be, which is a big-budget, large-scale version of a classic sci-fi b-movie. It has pleasant characters, great visuals, and tells a simple, but solid story. All in all, it’s one of my favorites.

WALL-E at the Federalist

For the ten-year anniversary of one of my favorite films.

The film is often described as an environmental parable, or a caution against consumerism. Those things are present, but they are subordinate themes. The main thesis of the film is something much more universal, interesting, and timely. Fyodor Dostoyevsky famously said in “The Idiot” that “beauty will save the world.” In its own quirky little way, that is the central idea of “WALL-E.”

Little WALL-E has a great appreciation for beauty, as demonstrated in his introductory scenes, and when EVE appears on Earth he almost immediately falls in love with her. Beauty inspires love. His love for her leads him to try to care for her when she shuts down, then to follow when her spaceship returns to take her back. Love carries a sense of obligation and duty, and the courage and senseless determination to carry it out. Because he loves, he will do and face anything for the sake of his beloved.

This same pattern plays out with the captain of the Axiom, the ship where the human race “enjoys” endless leisure in an almost comatose indifference. He is at first merely curious about the strange substance called “dirt” that WALL-E brought into his chambers, and has the computer analyze it. Then, on seeing images of the Earth in its heyday, he is awed by its beauty and falls in love with the planet.

When he discovers what it has become, he realizes that he has a responsibility to his home. This sense of duty gives him the courage to stand up to the autopilot and at last take control of his own destiny. So, beauty saves the world because it inspires love, which in turn inspires duty, and with it the courage to carry it out.

Read the rest here