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Monday, May 20, 2002

Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones -- an Exercise in Structure, Part II.

(Read Part I here)


How does structure work in Attack of the Clones? The film begins with a fairly visceral event -- the assassination attempt on Senator Amidala -- and then proceeds into a mixture of mystery and political intrigue. Nearly every event along the film's main storyline exposes new levels of plotting and scheming. Obi Wan and Anakin identify Amidala's would-be assassin, but fail to learn exactly why she has been targeted. Obi Wan succeeds in identifying the weapon used to kill the assassin, and follows that trail to a planet called Kamino -- but not before he learns that all records of Kamino have been erased from the Jedi library archives, thus revealing a further facet of scheming and conspiracy. What started as a simple political assassination attempt is now taking on deeper and darker overtones, and this becomes even more pronounced when Obi Wan learns that the Kaminoans are constructing an army of clones at what they believe to be the behest of the Republic itself -- only, no one in the Republic knows anything about it. Here Obi Wan locates the bounty hunter responsible for the death of Amidala's would-be assassin, Jango Fett, but Fett escapes (with his son, Boba). Obi Wan tracks Fett to the planet Geonosis, where he discovers a gathering of the Republic's breakaway factions -- the Trade Federation, the Banking Clan, and others -- at the beck and call of Count Dooku, a renegade former Jedi. The puzzle is apparently solved.

All this is fairly straight-forward -- except that we know from The Phantom Menace that there is another Dark Lord behind the scenes, manipulating events. So it is that at nearly every key juncture in the story, we find the hand of Chancellor Palpatine -- who will eventually be the Emperor -- nudging things along. It is he who suggests that Obi Wan and Anakin be assigned to Amidala's security detail. He is aware, well aware, of Anakin's crush on Amidala. The suggestion is that he wishes to use his feelings to some end, although we don't know what. It could be that he is already planning to tempt Anakin toward the Dark Side of the Force, or it could be that he is trying to keep the Jedi off balance. It could be that he sees Anakin as a potential threat, as he even says that he sees Anakin becoming "the greatest of all the Jedi". Is he moving Anakin into position for his fall from grace, or is that merely a fortunate happenstance that arises later on? We don't know. But the structure of the film -- the scenes of Palpatine's clever manipulations juxtaposed with Obi Wan's investigations -- implies that even as the Jedi work to learn who is behind the dark events that are transpiring, they are being maneuvered unthinkingly into a position to be destroyed.

The film's main subplot is, of course, the blossoming love between Anakin Skywalker and Senator Amidala. (ASIDE: I need some clarification here. Is her first name "Padme", or "Amidala"? The film seems to imply "Padme", but I like "Amidala" better. Ah well....) This is the aspect of Attack of the Clones that has received the strongest attacks from the critics, mainly on the basis of dialogue. And if dialogue is all that we should expect from a screenplay, then perhaps they are right: Hayden Christensen has some very awkward lines to deliver, such as "I don't like sand; it's coarse and rough and irritating....not like you; you're everything smooth and soft." Or, "You are in my very soul, tormenting me." It is easy to hear lines like that and conclude that George Lucas has lost any skill as a screenwriter that he may have once had (and Lucas himself has admitted that dialogue has never been his strong suit). But when the love story is examined in the light of structure, the dialogue is easier to understand -- or at least, the reason for that dialogue becomes more clear. The key is that all of those overwrought, awkward lines are given to Anakin. These lines make the audience uncomfortable, but judging by Padme's reaction to having these things said to her, I can only assume that the discomfort of these lines is intentional.

Here is where Harry Knowles, in his AICN review of AOTC, calls the film's romance "teen love". And that is precisely what it is. Anakin is a teenager who has fallen desperately, hopelessly, in love with Padme. At the film's beginning, it is more like a schoolboy crush -- note how he awkwardly tries to praise her beauty, how he humbly approaches her when she finally recognizes him standing there behind Obi Wan -- but soon it grows, and it does so very quickly. (I'm wondering if Palpatine has a hand in this, partially engineering the fact that Anakin is sent off alone with her.) Anakin, in his immaturity, says things that he hopes and prays are poetic and beautiful, but they keep coming off as stiff and awkward and overwrought. He is at that point in life where love isn't a deep and delicate and beautiful thing; rather, it is a scary and terrifying and overwhelming force that can totally dominate every other emotion. This, I think, is what Lucas is trying to convey here. This is why the "love story" scenes seem awkward, and why they are not as emotionally involving as what comes later. It is no accident at all that the most emotional love scene in the film comes when Padme finally professes her love for Anakin, just before they are wheeled into the arena on Geonosis for their executions. It is then that she can finally express her love, because it isn't until then that she can be sure of her feelings. She is an adult, while Anakin is in many ways still a child, and as such her love needs to grow, to be nourished by the weight of shared experiences. She cannot truly love Anakin until she has been through harsh times with him -- and on Tatooine, she goes through a very harsh time indeed. The ride to the execution is the film's emotional high point, and here even John Williams's wonderful score gets into the act as his Love Theme -- the saddest, most poignant Love Theme in the entire Star Wars series -- swells while the camera pans across the crowds that have gathered to witness the Jedi and his love being put to death.

So the awkward and stiff dialogue in the early love scenes is explained by the structure they are assigned to serve. However, I must note that the love story is still the biggest weakness in Attack of the Clones precisely because of structure. Simply put, Lucas missed an opportunity to really put Anakin and Padme through an emotional wringer -- even moreso than what transpires with Anakin's mother. Anakin is being sent alone to provide for Padme's protection; surely the people who want her dead would rejoice at this -- instead of having to deal with a Jedi master and his capable Padawan, they would only have to overcome the Padawan alone. There should have been a brazen attack on Padme, which Anakin have to fight off alone. The attack could come on Naboo, revealing that Padme is really not safe there at all. Then, Anakin could seize the initiative and take her someplace where he thinks she could be safe: Tatooine. In so doing, though, he would be able to deceive Padme: his real reason for choosing Tatooine would be to investigate his increasing dreams of his mother's distress. As it is, in the film now, Anakin seems almost willing to abandon Padme utterly to go to his mother's side. This seems very contrived, and to my mind was the only truly false moment in Attack of the Clones. Here Lucas's structure partially failed him, and he attempted to cover it over by constructing the deus ex machina to resemble Luke's quandary in The Empire Strikes Back, when he too chooses to abandon duty in favor of an attempt to save his friends from a dark Force-vision he has experienced.

The rest of the film plays out fairly straight-forwardly, as the story gains momentum and plotlines come together for the climax. Lucas's skills as an editor are still with him, and he puts together a massive battle scene that genuinely ebbs and flows. The entire last half-hour of Attack of the Clones is exhilarating as first we see a riveting Gladiator-style fight in the arena, followed by something I have wished for ever since I saw Braveheart: a line of lightsaber-wielding Jedi charging into battle. All hell breaks loose, but then there is a momentary lapse into silence as Count Dooku offers to spare the lives of the remaining Jedi. There are a number of such silent moments sprinkled throughout the gigantic battle scene, which separate the action, allow the audience to momentarily relax, and keep the entire battle from becoming an overwhelming morass of over-the-top ILM-generated action. And the battle that starts small -- as two Jedi and a woman against three horrible monsters -- and grows to a massive assault then shrinks back to small again, as the Jedi confront the evil Count Dooku. This change of focus -- from narrow to wide and back to narrow -- is deftly and wonderfully handled, and the gigantic battle in the middle of it all is unlike anything ever seen in a Star Wars film before, dwarfing the Battle of Hoth from The Empire Strikes Back and possibly even the Battle of Endor in Return of the Jedi. The film's climax is a triumph of structure. Even when things are at their most frenetic, the story is still perfectly clear. (Of course, as Steven Denbeste shows here, it probably helps if you're not something of an expert on military tactics....)

The film ends, as we might (and should, if we are intelligent viewers in any sense of the word) expect, with a non-resolution. The battle is won and the separatists who would divide the Republic are defeated -- but the Jedi have been greatly reduced in number and have been forced to adopt artificial means of keeping the peace. And it is then revealed that Count Dooku is actually in league with Darth Sidious (who is probably Chancellor Palpatine). The events of Attack of the Clones turn out to have been orchestrated from behind the scenes. Lucas has stated his belief that complacent democracies will eventually slide into totalitarianism by their own choices, and that is certainly what is happening here. A threat is created which devastates the Jedi and necessitates the creation of the clone army. The Republic is gradually deciding to become the Empire, and Lucas's structure confirms and reinforces the point.

Finally, a note on the film's "metastructure". By this I mean the fact that the current trilogy is clearly being conceived by Lucas as a single story told in three parts; these films (The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones are less meant to be viewed as stand-alone stories than their antecedents, the original classic trilogy). Harry Knowles made the comment that AOTC makes TPM a better film, by illuminating aspects of that film's story and making the reasons for certain events and storytelling decisions more clear. I can only assume that the same will be true once Episode III arrives, when everything should be explained and clarified. I, for one, look forward to watching TPM, AOTC, and Episode III consecutively. It's all about the structure. (Lightsabers and neat spaceships don't hurt, though.)

Thank you, George Lucas, and see you in 2005.

(I will have some more things to say about Attack of the Clones tomorrow, in what will probably be a "random thoughts" type of article.)

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