July 01, 2010

Attack of the Clones

Yes, it's back to the future again to beat up on poor George Lucas. Hence the dated references to Malcolm in the Middle (which, if you remember the show, I think hold up well). I really did write this before listening to the enlightened opinions of "Mike from Milwaukee, Wisconsin," so I guess demented minds think alike. But I haven't seen Revenge of the Sith and it's not in my Netflix queue.

One good thing I can now say about The Phantom Menace: it was crap, but it was endurable crap. Attack of the Clones is just crap. I asked myself over and over, scrunching down in my seat in empathic chagrin for those grossly overpaid SAG members: Have worse lines been uttered before in the history of talking pictures? I suppose so, but by actors being so handsomely rewarded to behave so pretentiously in the service of such bad directing while pretending otherwise? I doubt it.

In fact, Attack of the Clones pretty much settles the question of whether good acting can overcome a really bad script. It can't, not if everybody insists on keeping a straight face.

Unless, that is, if George Lucas is actually a Vogon, the speaking of whose words physically lobotomizes skilled thespians of talent and common sense. Had I not known that actors such as Natalie Portman and Ewan McGregor and Samuel L. Jackson had previously acquitted themselves is productions that didn't totally reek, I could have imagined that a bunch of George's drinking buddies showed up at the ranch one day to appear in one of them, you know, talking pictures, with the promise of cab fare and free beer in the offing.

Only Christopher Lee, the prince of B movies, manages not to embarrass himself. Maybe because he knows he's in a B movie and acts accordingly.

Granted, things do pick up once the shooting starts (after an initial chase sequence, you've got to wait a whole bloody hour), and the camera starts bouncing around so much you can't see anything and you realize you're not missing anything. The problem is, none of the action sequences make sense in the context of, you know, common sense. In the first chase scene we're dealing with a bunch of assassins who can't hit the broad side of a barn. And notice how our lady's Praetorian Guard goes galloping off after them, leaving their charge completely exposed.

Lucky for our dumb heros, the villains are even dumber. (And why don't the bad guys just shoot the good guys, for crying out loud? What is this, a James Bond flick?)

You quickly resign yourself to the dreadful realization that every strategic decision in the story will be executed with a complexity of thinking that wouldn't stump a seven year old. Proof: when Obi Wan needs to find the hidden planet, he asks a bunch of seven year olds. No kidding. So it's no surprise that World War III starts when the entire Jedi community takes stupid pills and decides to risk their collectives asses in order save their two brain-addled colleagues, one of whom, even if we didn't already know, we'd be better off without. (And, by the way, it's not Attack of the Clones; it's The Clones Come to the Rescue, Thank God!)

Okay, Natalie Portman does look quite fetching in a half torn off lycra body suit. Almost worth the mayhem. That doesn't explain Anakin Skywalker's behavior (played by Hayden Christensen, who left me puzzling whether he was a decent actor stuck with awful material, or whether he really is that big of a jerk in real life, which I don't think; is that praising with faint damns?). Well, it would explain it if he were fourteen. That's where things start getting creepy.

Bad art, even bad art that doesn't know how bad it is, is at best laughable, at worse (as in this case) painfully monotonous. What's creepy isn't what's on the screen but trying to imagine what's in George Lucas's mind. Not anything evil, but frighteningly juvenile. True love, according to Lucas, is the kind of thing normal women take out restraining orders against. Every scene featuring our two supposed lovebirds left me pondering in what possible alternate universe any romantic tension could be construed between them, that could actually lead to somebody getting pregnant.

Okay, let's posit that Anakin is one messed up kid with a mother complex, who thinks that the best way to win a girl's heart is by stalking her. What precisely does Padme (based on the previous installment, a dozen years his senior) see in him? And she declares her undying love in the last act on what possible evidence? There are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of hack romance writers who could strike more sparks from a sponge than this. A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, the very annoying and immature jerk with no social skills gets the babe. Is that what this is all about?

In the first Star Wars series, Han Solo gets the girl, not that whiny dweeb, Luke Skywalker (it runs in the family apparently). What, is Lucas regressing back to junior high school in his late middle age?

As usual, there was a good story in there, until George Lucas got the notion he was smart enough to write another installment of Isaac Asimov's Foundation. Nope, not by half. The story that would have worked would have required resetting the time line back at least five years and casting Justin Berfield (Reese from Malcolm in the Middle) as a young Anakin who's got A) "issues," and B) hormones, and C) a whole lot of barely-controlled power. And deals with A and B by bullying people and kicking butt (Justin Berfield masterfully accomplishes this without becoming totally unsympathetic or irredeemably). Obi Wan's job, then, is to sit on his head and keep him from ending up in a juvenile correctional institution.

We'll also posit that his mom is happily married, as is suggested at the end of Attack of the Clones (Lucas does way too much telling and no showing, like giving us any reason why Anakin is such a whiner), which would passably explain why Anakin hasn't given a damn about her for, like, ever. Better: Obi Wan has deliberately kept them apart (it's some monk/Jedi/cloistered life thing), more fuel for resentment. The movie begins with her being kidnapped. While Obi Wan is off looking for clones on invisible planets, Anakin and Padme run off to save her. Why? Because they're impulsive (and horny) teenagers (we're dumping the age differences in The Phantom Menace for the sake of continuity and believability).

And to drive the Freudian point home, Mom dies while Anakin is trying to rescue her, because of the way he went about it, and because teenagers are not smarter than adults simply because they think they are. Note: talk to Joss Whedon about how to write this type of sequence, how he takes a screwed up, teenage super hero, Faith, and turns her evil. And then redeems her.

But back to the real world. George Lucas needs to return to this galaxy and not so long ago, like the Renaissance, when wealthy patrons of the arts, themselves possessed of marginal talents, hired a Mozart or Da Vinci to bring their imaginations to life. Journeyman SF writers like Dave Wolverton have made a good living writing Star Wars novels. Mr. Lucas, hire one of them to write your next movie! (They owe you, big time.)

Related posts

The Force Awakens
The Phantom Menace
McKee meets the "Menace"

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# posted by Blogger Joe
7/01/2010 8:21 PM   
I'd simply prefer Lucas buy and island in the South Pacific and retire from the movie business. ILM can take care of itself.
# posted by Anonymous Dan
7/02/2010 7:07 AM   
One of the problems Lucas encountered in his last 4 films is he attempted to justify the morality of the universe he had created and he utterly failed. The smart thing would have been to never have tried in the first place.

The morality of the first Star Wars movie was easy to understand and utterly consistent with every other tale of morality through the ages. You had the simple farm family with the heroic farm boy. The beautiful princess in despair. The evil ruler of the evil government. The wise oracle teaching wisdom and the boisterous renegade seeking his own redemption.

Movie #2 made these roles and conflicts even more personal.

But beginning with Movie #3 Lucus endeavored to expand the size of his story but flopped in providing any justification for why we should care about the characters and civilizations he created. He obviously wanted to make a BIG movie but he lacks the talent to tell a BIG story.

Does any cinematographer know how to tell a BIG story? I know it is not easy but I wonder if it is even possible.