The Empire Builder
Most important information first: The West Indian-accented hysteric Jar Jar Binks of Phantom Menace appears for a cosmic blink of the eye in what I stubbornly continue to view as the fifth Star Wars. Jar Jar's shrunken presence is good news whether you were irritated by the high-pitched buffoonery itself or by the barely masked resemblance to Hollywood's canon of buffoonish black characters. Attack of the Clones also mutes the chop-suey-talkin' Trade Federation villains considerably. Ditto the vaguely European-Jewish slave owner on Tatooine. It's enough to make me think George Lucas is listening to his critics. (Either that or he ran out of easy ethnic stereotypes...okay, no. But we'll get to that later.)
Calls of racism can be deflected, of course (heck, any number of fans will do it for you). For its makers, the scariest criticism of Phantom Menace came from many Star Wars die-hards, who responded thus: Annoying. Boring. Flat. Star Wars: Episode II--Attack of the Clones sets out to please its aging core audience much more deliberately than Menace did. There are in-jokes. There is sustained action (and not of the little-snot-gets-lost-and-accidentally-blows-up-the-enemy-starship variety). There is charming R2-D2/C-3PO byplay, ripe with bad puns and squeaky farts. Obi-Wan Kenobi and his apprentice Anakin Skywalker trade insults like Han Solo and Luke Skywalker in the days of future past. Wise old Yoda gets busy on the light saber. Hee haw! Back on track.
Lucas's perennial dialogue deafness has been remedied a bit here by co-writer Jonathan Hales. His movie is also buoyed by the rising waves of the series' fated storm: The decaying Galactic Republic democracy must be conquered by an Evil Empire by Episode IV, so people gotta move. Armies, too. Ten years after the events of Menace, Queen Padmé Amidala (Natalie Portman) has become Naboo's senator to the Galactic Congress. She flies to Coruscant to voice her opposition to the creation of a Galactic army. The "greedy" Trade Federation folks, led by a former Jedi Knight named Count Dooku (Christopher Lee), now head a strong separatist movement. In a topical jab, Chancellor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) wants Congress to grant him special emergency powers. The peacekeeping Jedis are overwhelmed (you hear that phrase more than once--are they worried we'll think them wimpish for not taking care of business?).
As the senator arrives, she's nearly assassinated (ACTION!). Jedi Obi-Wan (Ewan McGregor, bearded) and his padawan Anakin (Hayden Christensen, in that punishment of an apprentice hairdo) are ordered to watch out for Amidala by the Jedi Council. Another assassination attempt ensues (ACTION! ACTION! COOL CAR CHASE!). Then Obi-Wan follows a clue to a planet far, far, far away. The uppity but ardent Anakin escorts Amidala home to her planet, where he woos her (tedious Sound of Music-style twirling and picnicking, little chemistry). What Obi-Wan discovers (ACTION!) sends him (ACTION!) to yet another planet, where almost all the players converge to fight (ACTION! ACTION! GLADIATOR MEETS JURASSIC PARK, AND, THANK CHRIST, NOT ANOTHER ROTE SPACE BATTLE ACTION!).
Somewhere in the middle there, Anakin and Amidala spend a snail-paced couple of days on his home planet, Tatooine--which must also be the home of a large, energy-sucking black hole. Attack of the Clones could be 20 minutes shorter, and Menace more than that: Most of those long minutes live on Tatooine. Momentous events occur here, though. Anakin starts his slide toward the "dark side," as Yoda foretold. This failure concerns his mother but, happily enough, is not presented as her fault or that of females everywhere. In fact, the forced parting of Anakin from his mother in Menace is shown to have been a bad choice by the Jedi men. (And, excuse me, in ten years couldn't he have written?)
Attack of the Clones is packed delightfully full of bad choices by the Jedi men. Lucas has to choreograph the downfall of the Jedi, and to his credit he muddies the water of blame. Anakin isn't an anomaly here. The Jedi do not fall at sword point; they stroll cheerfully off all sorts of gangplanks. So wise in the ways of the Force, they are also easily manipulated, and arrogantly ignorant. Their well-meaning actions backfire--or they will in time. (My favorite scene is not Yoda in full-on martial-arts payback mode; it's Yoda leading a platoon of white-suited Stormtrooper clones into battle.) The Jedi look hapless and out-of-balance. They are overwhelmed--from the inside out.
For my money, the two best episodes thus far are what Lucas calls II and V--the middles of their respective trilogies--precisely because they muck up what has been a universe that is far too black and white, evil versus good, and Prez Bush childish. What if your cherished enemy turned out to be your father? Is there a more appropriate end for the hero who refuses to grow up than to be frozen in metal? Can an organization that controls people's minds and sees the future avoid breeding arrogance and the lust for power?
Whether or not he's aware of it, Lucas is fashioning an epic that allows us to watch rebels becoming empire builders and empire builders becoming rebels (or perhaps you'd prefer "terrorists"). The difference between the sides isn't as clear as might be expected. Both are highly hierarchical systems, with "masters" and "generals" and "viceroys." Both attempt to gain or regain power and territory. Both kill a bunch of people, more or less deliberately. Both are ruled by men, with a single female exception in each generation.
But one side is evil, we're told; one is good. (You can tell which is which because one emits dastardly laughter and blue lightning bolts.) One wants to bring war; the other, peace. But is there a clear delineation between offensive and defensive violence? And how can Lucas argue for peace when the engine that runs his franchise is war? (ACTION! ACTION!) Can you even imagine a peaceful Star Wars movie? Or just half of one?
According to the series, Anakin is the Chosen One who will bring about a storied "balancing" of the Force. Given his known fate as Darth Vader, what means "balance"? Good seesawing with evil? Evil redeemed by love? I'm trying to imagine how Lucas will represent a balanced Force. Vader's children--twin boy and girl--a symbolic gendering of the male Jedi council? The return of all the lost mothers? (True to form, this movie's cloning starts and ends with a father.) The discovery of a peace to balance the violence? (Full disclosure: I love action.) Perhaps the Jedi must learn to understand fear, anger, and pain as human and real, and not only the province of a "dark side."
Or might the new balance entail a changing of the protagonists' all-white color guard? Lucas can alter that rule only when he stops traveling backward and faces a future not black and white but many shades of brown. To some extent, Lucas is fighting the trap he set for himself 20-plus years ago, when few people questioned a group of white heroes facing off against a "dark" lord with the voice of a black man. Yet Lucas's continuing habit of squeezing people of color (and their accents) into small parts may continue to seem offensive to some. Of course, the filmmaker is no deliberate evildoer. He's hapless. He's overwhelmed.
Oh, on that note: The human (Temuera Morrison) cloned to create the armies of Stormtroopers is a brown man, a Maori. Ethnic stereotype number whatever: They're breeding and "we" will be overwhelmed.
To which I say: Bring 'em on.
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