We have two re-views this week. The first is by our newest contributor, Max DeCurtins, who by day pushes around bits and bytes for Harvard School of Public Health, and by night is a musicologist.
Something has happened in the world of cultural social currency, or at least that’s my perception. Namely, that nowadays it’s not only OK to be into Star Wars, but that it might just be even a little bit…cool. Kids who weren’t even born in the same century as the original Star Wars films, who haven’t even seen them, seem to be able to associate with Star Wars without shame, as evidenced by this recent NYT article. My eleven-year-old self is positively seething with jealousy.
I could have chosen to review My Big Fat Greek Wedding, a charming romantic comedy starring Nia Vardalos, who — after a flop TV spinoff — has apparently disappeared from public consciousness. It would also have given me an opportunity to enjoy contrasting John Corbett’s milquetoast, mullet-sporting character in Wedding with his much more conflicted, complex character in United States of Tara, a Showtime series that ended last year at least two seasons too early.
I picked Episode II: Attack of the Clones because, well, it’s time to confess: I was (and remain a little bit) a Star Wars nerd, which may or may not become apparent over the course of this review. I also picked it because I knew it would challenge me to discern, in retrospect, whether I had judged the movie too harshly. Ten years later, I can say that, in fact I have — as you will soon see — been far too kind.
Welcome to the Negev
Israel’s Dead Sea, bounded on one side by the Jordanian border and on the other by the Negev, the desert that covers virtually all of southern Israel, is among the most saline bodies of water on Earth. It lies at the lowest land elevation reported anywhere in the world. Its salinity ensures that nothing can live in the water and, famously, it makes people buoyant. You can’t really wade into the Dead Sea, because after only a few feet you’re not so much walking on sand as on solid salt crystals. Then, when you get into the water, you notice the burning. Every little scratch or scrape, every little patch of abraded skin, and every crack and crevice of your nether regions gets a hypersaline wake-up call. And, whatever you do, don’t let that shit get anywhere near your eyes.
In the land of film, Episode II is unquestionably its Dead Sea. Quite possibly, the Original Sin — not just of Episode II but of Episodes I and III as well — lies in the embarrassingly horrible script writing. Everything, from the painfully obvious dialogue to the infantile jokes, from the heavy-handed plot devices to the limp acting, bespeaks a studio exec who, we must assume, can only have been tweaked out on meth when he (or she) approved the script. For example, not five minutes into the film, we are treated to this thrillingly suspenseful morsel:
[Naboo delegation disembarking from ship]
[One-Eyed Captain, to fighter pilot]: I guess I was wrong. There was no danger at all.
No, no danger at all! Except that your ship just fucking exploded. The cast falls as flat as the action. No longer the young, sympathetic thing groveling at Nicole Kidman’s feet in Moulin Rouge!, Ewan MacGregor continues to be stodgy old Obi-Wan Kenobi, this time with an oppressively monotonous repertoire of patronizing epithets for Anakin Skywalker, which get ever more heavy-handed. One gets the feeling there’s some latent sexual frustration toward Anakin simmering below the surface of Obi-Wan’s condescension (“We will not exceed our mandate, my young padawan learner.”)
Watching Hayden Christensen flail about in this film reminds me of the adolescent antics of Henry in Dawson’s Creek, lusting after Jen and getting smacked down by his senior mentor-friend Jack McPhee. Dawson’s Creek may have had mixed reception, but I’d rather watch it until my eyes bleed than witness Christensen play Galaxy’s Most Annoying Jedi Teenager. And then there’s the matter of Anakin’s love-object, Padmé Amidala. Amidala sounds a lot like amygdala, the small areas of the brain that play a primary role in emotional sensation. And damn, do I wish she would emote something convincing; Natalie Portman’s character is as emotionless as the rest of them. I’m not sure how or if I missed this the first time, but after ten years, the Anakin-Padmé relationship strikes me as comically Oedipal (and a touch Seussian — “are you my mother?”). As for Samuel L. Jackson: you may have a purple lightsaber, but all your lines suck. Episode II ain’t Pulp Fiction. Not to be outdone in lameness by his human cohorts, Yoda gets a few sappy, warm-n’-fuzzy lines. In my mind, if Yoda was ever anything, warm-n’-fuzzy wasn’t it.
I’ve long considered Christopher Lee better heard than seen. My recording of Sergei Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf, by Yehudi Menuhin and the English String Orchestra, features Christopher Lee as the narrator, and it is there I get to wallow in the full glory of his particular English phonology. Lee’s greatest performance of the last twenty years is arguably his role as Saruman in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and I admit that since seeing those films I’ve had considerable difficulty accepting him in other roles. If in Episode II he had been cloaked in a hooded Jedi robe, face unseen but voice clearly heard, I might have found his character more compelling. Then I’d remember that his character’s name is Count Dooku, and I’d be back to snickering in my seat.
Speaking of people in hooded Jedi robes, Ian McDiarmid’s Palpatine struck me all over again as pitifully weak compared to his role in Return of the Jedi. The insidiousness just isn’t there, the manipulating, conniving, I-will-con-you-with-my-oratory kind of sinister badass-ness that you would expect the future Emperor of the galaxy to have.
The supporting retinue of familiar horribles from Episode I returns: Jar Jar Binks, who would make Henry Higgins sit down and cry, Watto the bumbling Italian-American mob boss, insufferably imbecilic droids, and the Trade Federation types, with their Pippa Middleton hats and Chinese-Restaurant-from-A Christmas Story English. If the Star Wars prequels have earned a reputation for perpetuating racist linguistic stereotypes, I can’t say it’s undeserved, and that’s only a small fraction of what makes these movies tacky.
The more details modeled on real life that we see in Episode II, the more mundane the whole Star Wars universe becomes, for the same reason that, famously, nobody needs to visit a restroom on the starship Enterprise. This counts among George Lucas’ more unforgivable crimes. This is Star Wars, for Chrissakes! We expect to see our heroes slogging through the snow of Hoth, racing through the forests of Endor, trying to escape from Cloud City, or trying to destroy a Death Star. Failing that, we’ll take shots of Darth Vader stalking around ominously and choking people to death, Han Solo doing something stupid with stormtroopers, Lando Calrissian in his pimp cape, Luke Skywalker looking worried about something, or Princess Leia strangling Jabba the Hutt with her slave-chain. Instead, Lucas litters Episode II with expository scenes that seem calculated to help six-year-olds understand the plot of the movie.
In the end, Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones is like a bedraggled Biggest Loser contestant: it might float in the Dead Sea, but it does so in a lifeless environment that makes your senses burn. Everything from the acting to the editing (did they edit this film with commercial breaks in mind?) functions like a salt rub in the open wound of our intellect and self-respect, and no amount of rinsing can get the sting of this film out of my memory.
Postscript: All Hail Wagner, Conqueror Victorious
Music is crucial to the Star Wars universe, and as a musician, I hope you’ll permit me the indulgence you’re about to read. If the orchestral soundscape of Star Wars has become iconic, we can thank, ultimately, Richard Wagner’s Ring operas, which integrated leitmotivs — themes or harmonic progressions associated with a particular action, character, object, place, or emotion — into large-scale musical works as never before. John Williams, perhaps more than any other film composer in history, has become renowned as a master at creating and reusing such leitmotivs. They are obvious, and we know them well: Darth Vader/the Empire is an arpeggiated minor triad by the brass section cast in a militaristic march rhythm; Luke Skywalker/the Good Guys is an exuberant major theme in the upper brass and strings; Princess Leia’s is a more chromatic theme, plaintively voiced by a flute or an oboe above a quiet string accompaniment; Yoda’s is full of yearning yet restrained — romanticism (that would be the solo cello) with a touch of zen. Leitmotivs in film scores are an especially efficient way of getting listeners to feel what you want them to feel, but in John Williams’ recent scores they have run amok and multiplied, like Tribbles (ooh! Star Trek reference in the world of Star Wars! Boo, hiss!).
A few notable things have changed since the days of the original Star Wars. John Williams, too tired to crib from other composers, now cribs from himself. For example, the music accompanying Anakin & Obi-Wan as they chase Amidala’s would-be assassin in a speeder is virtually identical to that which accompanies Harry Potter chasing things on his broomstick in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, which also appeared in 2002. In fact, many features of the scores for the early Harry Potter films and the Star Wars prequels suggest that they represent two versions of the same underlying score, like a proto-language with two daughter languages.
Gone is the influence of Igor Stravinsky that can be heard in the underscoring of A New Hope and even in the score of Raiders of the Lost Ark. In its place we find the influence of the more tonal Antonín Dvořák with the occasional dash of Claude Debussy and Carl Orff. You can immediately tell where these dashes occur, because suddenly the score doesn’t sound like Star Wars anymore. (For example, in Episode I, Williams steals outright from Debussy’s The Girl with the Flaxen Hair during the scene where young Anakin fires up his pod racer for the first time, as seen in the example below.)
If they hadn’t already in Episode I, leitmotivs have completely taken over the score of Episode II, turning it into a pastiche and effectively telling the audience they are too stupid to follow a developing line of musical material. Any material that is *not* a leitmotiv gets short shrift and may be interrupted by a leitmotiv ad nauseam, like a sentence words whose out are order of. Damn you, Wagner.
One positive thing I will say about the film is that it uses some of the same sounds found in the original Star Wars trilogy in a subtle way that, at least to my bat-like ears, works to connect the prequels to the originals. For example, the sirens that blare in the background following the assassination attempt that opens the film are the same sirens we hear in the beginning of Return of the Jedi as Darth Vader’s shuttle approaches the Death Star landing bay. The particular sound of the laser fire from Count Dooku’s wingmen is the same as the sound of the laser fire we hear from Imperial ships in Empire Strikes Back. I tell myself it’s because somebody cared enough about Star Wars to get those details right, even if George Lucas himself didn’t.