Personal note: This one's been a long time coming. Life got in the way of finishing these Machete reviews back in the summer, and I got distracted by newer, shinier topics. But recently I realized that people have actually been reading these articles, and I feel more obliged to finish them. So, without further ado, please allow me to continue, as I tackle Machete Order's big innovation: the flashback...At last, we arrive in foreign territory. Not that I haven't seen Attack of the Clones before; this was at least my third viewing. But it's the first time I've watched it so close to the original films, and that really does put it in a different context. Luke's story still seems the central one, which I think is the point of Machete Order. We've seen his rise as a Jedi, found out that Darth Vader's his father, and now it's time to find out why Yoda and Ben lied about that. And we'll get there. But first... Flashing back at this precise moment in Luke's story is fascinating. If the films had actually been released in this order, I might consider it a storytelling masterstroke. Why? Because of my favorite Star Wars character: Han Solo. From a simple “working your audience” perspective, the Han cliffhanger at the end of Empire gives us an unresolved plotline, something we care about that we can hold onto while we settle into the more slowly-paced flashback films. But more importantly, following Han's removal from the story with our first real look at the Old Republic makes you realize immediately what's missing from from that society: guys like Han Solo. Because there are no rogues in the prequels, no scoundrels. No regular guys or loveable cynics. In the Old Republic, it seems, nobody is cool. Anakin wants to be cool, of course, but let's face it... ...he just isn't. This is not necessarily a flaw in the film itself, you understand. The lack of cool seems entirely intentional to me, and is symptomatic of what's wrong with the Old Republic in the first place. The society we're introduced to here is a fine and noble one. But it's also a place where love is forbidden, and a megalomaniac can wrest control of the galaxy simply by being a really good bureaucrat. Even the film's much-maligned acting speaks to the sterility of the Republic. I've spoken before about how stilted some of the performances in the first two films are, but my god. It's painful to hear Hayden Christensen say just about anything in this movie. There's something weird and awkward about the way the dialogue comes out of his mouth, like his lips and tongue can't quite seem to work together properly.
But as I said, even that performance serves to highlight the artificiality of the Republic. It makes the formal language seem that much more restraining and lifeless, and my frustration with the line delivery eventually rises to match Anakin’s frustration with the world he finds himself living in. This is not to defend the performances, understand. They’re pretty much indefensible. Only the actors with classical training sound remotely like actual human beings rather than acting robots, and that’s bad film making. But I figure I’ll just make some lemonade out of it in this case, because Lucas obviously did intend for us to find the Old Republic sterile and hide-bound.
You don’t have to look any further than the Jedi to see that. Faced with a mysterious disappearing planet, renowned Jedi Masters like Obi-Wan Kenobi and even Yoda are flummoxed for a solution. It takes a precocious Jedi toddler to point out the obvious to them: somebody’s just deleted the planet from their library records. And they haven’t even done a good job of it, for god’s sake! They just left a big hole in the galactic maps where the planet used to be! Simple physics (or is that common sense?) tells us that the big empty starless hole Obi-Wan’s staring at is a clumsy cut-and-paste job. It’s so very obvious that, on first viewing, I was confused as to what the mystery was even supposed to be.
So why can’t Our Wise and Glorious Heroes see it? Well, it’s not because they’re stupid. No, it’s because that map comes from the Jedi archives, which are accessible only by members of the Jedi Order. And no member of the Jedi Order would be so ignoble as to erase something from an official map! They’re blinded by their own nobility. Or, to put it less kindly… They’re blinded by pride. They’re arrogant enough to think themselves above corruption, and that arrogance has let the rats into the hen house.
The rats aren’t a bad thing for the audience, though. In fact, they’re pretty key to my enjoyment of the prequels. It’s difficult to keep Machete Purity when it comes to Palpatine, I’ll admit. He’s one of more vivid villains of my childhood, after all, and it’s difficult to get the image of him gleefully Force-zapping Luke out of my head. But once I put all that aside, I realized that in Machete Order, all we’ve got about him at this point is a name (Emperor Palpatine), the information that he’s also a Sith Lord, and a brief look at his face in a twitchy hologram. So if you do manage to keep Machete Purity, part of the appeal of the flashback is in finding out exactly who and what he is.
We’re faced with a Senator Palpatine in Clones, and a mysterious Sith Lord named Darth Sidious who looks an awful lot like Emperor Palpatine did in Empire. It’s not terribly difficult to put two and two together with that evidence, and so you’re left to watch this guy who doesn’t appear to be a master villain weaving a huge dark net around the galaxy, instigating a rebellion within the Republic and playing both sides against the middle.
This is the aspect of the prequels I enjoy most, though I realize I’m mostly alone in that. Following Sidious’ scheme means paying close attention to all the political talk, and that’s just not something most people are willing to do. I love that shit, though. It’s refreshing to hear a character say one thing and realize that he means something else entirely. Especially in a film you’re not really expecting a whole lot of subtlety from. Plus, it’s fun watching Ian McDiarmid pretend to be a good guy while giving the occasional subtle hint at what was lurking behind the facade.
(Machete Purity Aside: I do understand the audience disconnect with this aspect of the prequels. Lucas expects future generations to watch Star Wars in order from Episode One to Episode Six, and so he put the prequel films together in such a way that Darth Sidious’ identity is supposed to be the central mystery of the trilogy, with no concessions to people who watched the films in order of release. As far as Attack of the Clones is concerned, Darth Sidious is a shadowy figure of mystery, and you’re supposed to be burning to find out who he really is.
For new viewers, I’m sure it works great. But for everybody else, that plotline’s a damp squib. All that obfuscation of the main villain just seems pointless to an audience whose brains are screaming “EVIL!” every time kindly old Senator Palpatine drips words of advice into Amidala’s ear. Which isn’t the only reason that shit like this happened…
…but it must loom large.)
At any rate. Sidious. Machiavellian evil. On a grand scale. This guy’s been putting his plans into place for a long time, and he’s striking right at the heart of the Jedi leadership to do it. First, he seduces Yoda’s own student to the Dark Side (the unfortunately-named Count Dooku). Then he uses him to set up a scheme for the secret creation of a clone army that he knows he’ll be able to make his own once his more public plans come to fruition. And he hides the cloning scheme behind the name of a dead Jedi, someone whose actions the Jedi Council won’t look too deeply into because of their previously-discussed naïve arrogance. Manipulative genius!
And alongside those goals, he’s also employing bounty hunters and assassins, and manipulating events to drive the Jedi’s Chosen One over to his side. Speaking of whom… Jedi arrogance is also behind Anakin Skywalker’s troubles. Presented with an angry, impatient child who’d been born into slavery, they rip him away from his mother, make no attempt to free her from bondage, and proceed to tell him that he’s gotta suck it up and stop caring about all that because he’s Jedi Jesus. Yeah, that’s not gonna mess the kid up at all.
If nothing else, of course, this example tells us that Albus Dumbledore was way smarter than Yoda when faced with a similar decision about his own bad-ass new god of a baby:
Granted, Yoda learned his lesson, and did something similar with Luke. But not before trusting far too much in the Jedi’s ability to turn Anakin into something other than a monster. Geez. Maybe 20 years of exile in the swamp wasn’t such a harsh punishment after all…
The Jedi’s failure with Anakin leads to the most disturbing sequence in the series thus far: his return to Tatooine, and the slaughter of the Sandpeople. It’s chilling stuff, and makes me wonder why Amidala didn’t get as far the hell away from that kid as possible. I guess it really must be lurv.
More pertinent to Machete Order, though, getting that scene in the movie immediately following Empire makes it reflect back on Luke’s failure at the Dark Side tree on Dagobah. He’s seeking vengeance in that scene, too, and with all the warnings Yoda gave him about his trip to Cloud City being a mistake, it’s hard not to see the parallel. Of course, Luke has the luxury of experiencing his brush with Dark Side vengeance as an educational illusion rather than the actual spilling of innocent blood, so… he’ll probably turn out okay. But he was still sinning in his heart, and Anakin’s actions serve to underline that fact.
Moving on past all this analysis and fancy talk, though, there’s still action to discuss. And, much as Attack of the Clones gets blasted for not having any, I think it’s got some pretty choice stuff. I mean, there’s a flying car chase! It’s like Blade Runner meets The French Connection or something! Though… Actually, it’s not as good as either of those films, so never mind.
But, still! Flying car chase!
I like Obi-Wan’s fight with Jango Fett on the Cloning planet, too, and that weird-ass alien thing he rides while he’s spying on Count Dooku. Even the arena fight with the three monsters is fun to watch, in spite of Lucas’ best attempts to make Threepio as annoying as Jar-Jar Binks.
So there you have it. Attack of the Clones, Machete style. I like the flashback, in spite of the obvious aesthetic problems with special effects and general filmmaking styles. The prequels, aside from the intentional stiffness, just don’t feel as… real as the original films. There are too many cartoon characters among the supporting cast, and not enough scoundrels. But I like that we’re finding out the truth about Vader so soon after the big reveal of him as Luke’s dad. He’s been a distant figure thus far, but now that we’re getting into his head, he seems more tragic. And that (just to toss the Machete aside for a second) is great preparation for the complete change in demeanor we see in Return of the Jedi.
Of course, I’m still not sure why Ben and Yoda lied to Luke about him. But there’s a whole other movie to go before we return to Luke’s story, so maybe I’ll figure it out then…