The year of 1995 is my favorite year in film giving us so many beloved favorites of mine such as Lord of Illusions, The Usual Suspects, Seven, In The Mouth of Madness, GoldenEye, The Prophecy, Strange Days, and more. This year also gave us a brilliant union of powerhouse talents when Michael Mann brought together screen legends Al Pacino and Robert De Niro in Heat. While I consider Manhunter my favorite, and The Insider to be Mann’s best film, I cannot deny that Heat is a crime saga masterpiece. It is finally Michael Mann refined and matured to a breath-taking level developing his signature concepts to perfection. I can think of no more appropriate film to hold the honor of the 200th review on Forever Cinematic than Heat.
Neil McCauley (Robert De Niro) is a master thief who lives by the simple discipline of “have nothing in your life you are not willing to walk out on in 30 seconds flat if you feel the “heat” around the corner.” His crew of career criminals is a high-tech outfit pulling off professional jobs that impress even the likes of Detective Vincent Hanna (Al Pacino). But Hanna, a man driven through life only by his work, becomes obsessed, at the expense of his private life, with bringing McCauley down. As McCauley’s crew prepare for the score of a lifetime, and Hanna’s team tries to bring him in, the two find that they are similar in many ways, including their troubled personal lives. Ultimately, they find themselves challenged by the greatest minds on the opposite side of the law that either one has ever encountered. With this much heat, the streets of Los Angeles are ready to sizzle and explode!
Heat is filled with excellent performances from everyone involved that it’s hard not to touch upon most of them. Firstly, I am engrossed by the dynamic between Vincent Hanna and Neil McCauley. Hanna is a man whose life is wholly dedicated to his job, and thus, his home life is a disaster with multiple divorces to show for it. Meanwhile, McCauley has his life in control as he takes precision high line scores, but lives a disparate life of bare necessities allowing himself no attachments he cannot walk out on in thirty seconds flat if circumstances require it. Thus, despite these men being on opposite sides of the law, they find themselves in a near symbiotic relationship which fuels the compulsions of their lives. They are both driven by their jobs being out there on the streets in the middle of danger, and everything else in their lives is sacrificed for that. All they are is what they’re going after. That’s what fuels their existences, and Heat is all about that electrifying synergy.
Al Pacino has always been known as a passionate, charismatic actor, and Vincent Hanna surely has that energetic, sharp edge which makes him immensely entertaining here. However, it is the more subtle aspects of the performance that are where the real juice is. You see the razor sharp mind of Hanna when he arrives on the armored car robbery scene. He sees it, absorbs it, and hits all the marks deconstructing every detail of the crime. He doesn’t miss a beat, doesn’t overlook or dismiss anything. You see the proficiency of Neil McCauley and how his crew operates, and then, you see Hanna and his team operate on that same exact level only on the opposite side of that coin. Yet, the depth of Hanna comes to the surface when Vincent converses with his wife, Justine. The weariness and ugliness of his job forces an emotional rift between them, and Pacino’s performance reflects the inner angst and emotional toll that it wreaks on Hanna. These things do affect him, but he never becomes a jaded, pessimistic, desensitized person. Al Pacino absorbs all of that into a subtle and complex performance that energizes the screen.
And delivering a performance on an equal level of weight and intelligence is Robert De Niro. He’s entirely formidable making Neil McCauley a very serious and definitive threat to everyone who opposes him. De Niro has a serious, hard edged presence that dominates the screen, and every move, every word, every course of action he makes is efficient. There’s a full immersion into the character in all his nuances and textures. Sometimes, a great performance is seen in raw emotion, but other times, it’s all in the subtle complexities. That is what De Niro give us here showing the versatile diversity of this character from cold, hard criminal to the loyal, caring friend and lover. Despite being the antagonist in the story, we see a real heart when Neil becomes involved with Eady. It’s takes a masterful actor and filmmaker to take a character like McCauley who will sanction and be entirely sociopathic about the murder of innocent people, and do something so human with him to where you genuinely feel his depth of heart. Surely, that’s nothing you would want translated into reality, but in a fictional narrative, it provides a captivating dimensionality that Robert De Niro captures with pitch perfect substance.
Val Kilmer was really in his peak at this time after his stunning turn as Doc Holliday in Tombstone. Thus, he was filming Heat concurrently with Batman Forever, really capitalizing on two excellent opportunities. Here, his role might be overlooked by the presence of Pacino and De Niro, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t top notch. Chris Shiherlis proves to be a really intense character with his gambling addiction and marital strives, and Kilmer really absorbs the weary heart of Chris deeply into his performance. Despite infidelities on the part of Chris and his wife Charlene, portrayed tremendously by Ashley Judd, their final shared moment strikes deep within the heart to show just how much they both truly loved one another, but their marriage was never built to last. Kilmer hits all the marks to make this character standout solidly alongside De Niro, and to a lesser extent, Tom Sizemore does the same as the more action junkie sociopath Michael Cheritto. There’s a real strong brotherhood between Neil and Chris that shows through shiningly, and that relationship brings a lot of dimension to both characters.
I’m fascinated by the chain reaction of events here which create numerous exciting plot turns. Essentially, Waingro is the key cog who sets everything in motion. Without him going off the handle and facilitating the triple homicide, Vincent Hanna likely would not have been as dogged to track down McCauley and his crew. He’d be intrigued by the precision professionals, but it would just be another robbery. Then, Waingro betrays McCauley to his enemies, forcing the bank heist to turn into a violent, deadly shootout and propelling McCauley to make the irrational decision to go after him instead of escaping free and clear. Waingro turns the tide of the story at pivotal moments because he is a wild card with no loyalty to anyone but his own base, primal impulses. Furthermore, Kevin Gage is perfect in this role making for a wholly convincing hardened ex-convict sociopath who is dreadfully frightening and intimidating. It’s sadly poetic that less than a decade later he would become a federal convict for cultivating medicinal marijuana.
The other intriguing quality of Heat are the women. Michael Mann always makes the affectionate, strong women of his films vitally important to the arcs and stories of the male leads, and never objectifies them. The significant others of Hanna, McCauley, and Shiherlis are all passionate, loving women who desire a stable life. Justine Hanna grapples with Vincent’s internalized angst from the horrors he sees out on those streets, and just wants a husband who opens up to her instead of being distant, closed off, and vacant in their marriage. She wants a marriage with love not ragged leftovers of a man who drifts through their lives empty. Eady, portrayed by Amy Brenneman, is the most innocent of them all existing entirely outside the world of cops and criminals. She’s a simple, honest, warm person that unexpectedly opens up Neil’s world and gives him something to be affectionate about. For a man who lives with no attachments of any kind, it’s finally someone in his life that makes him care to have a life. Charlene, however, is the real gold for me as Ashley Judd is confident, heartbreaking and truly empathic as Chris’ wife. As I said, there is a deep down, genuine love between Chris and Charlene, but there’s so much addictive and combative garbage in the way that it was destined to crumble. For me, the Shiherlis dynamic is the most complex and substantive one of the film because of that real quality of conflict and adoration between them.
Without a doubt, Danté Spinotti is a remarkable cinematographer, and he does an excellent, stunning job with Heat. He composes so many carefully selected shots which tell a very visual story that holds weight. Just as Mann had fully refined and developed his artistic sensibilities so had Spinotti making this a very sophisticated looking and composed picture. There are pure moments of inspired artistry creating a masterful canvas that this story is told upon. This is also a film that feels very engrained and engrossed in the fiber of Los Angeles because of the visual vibe. Shots of the skyline in hazy daylight or glowing nighttime neo noir create that great backdrop that has substance and life.
Upon this watch of the movie, I picked up far more on Elliott Goldenthal’s amazingly original and pulsating score. A lot of what he does are subtle textures and melodies that nicely underscore various scenes. His score doesn’t fight for dominance in the audio mix. It complements everything that Mann is doing with the emotion, characters, and story. At times, Goldenthal’s score can be very powerful and striking such as the moment where Chris and Charlene are forced to abandon each other because of the police stakeout. The emotional pain swells into the score in a haunting swirl. Then, there’s the parting phone call between Neil and Nate that reflects the sorrowful feeling of two people, best of friends, saying goodbye for the final time, and Goldenthal’s score hits that mark so beautifully. Every single moment is so perfectly punctuated, and should be considered amongst his best work. Additionally, the two tracks by Moby are beautiful, superb, innovative tracks that saturate the power of their respective scenes, most notably being the ending with “God Moving Over The Face of The Waters.”
Of course, the big, electrifying selling point of this film was having two of America’s most celebrated actors, Al Pacino and Robert De Niro, collide in all their glory. That would not be complete without the excellent diner scene where Vincent Hanna and Neil McCauley have a very probing conversation. The very interesting quality of that scene is that this is the only point in time where these two men are able to be entirely open, honest, and reveal their inner workings. They are more intimately connected with each other than with anyone else in their lives. Again, the subtle performances of depth and honesty make this the absolute nexus of this entire film. Heat was previously made as a TV movie called L.A. Takedown by Michael Mann, and when you watch this scene performed by very second rate, stiff or hollow actors with almost identical dialogue, you realize the gold standard quality of Pacino and De Niro. In their hands, Vincent Hanna and Neil McCauley are brilliantly fleshed out and fascinating characters, and this is the scene that shows them stripped down. They show what haunts them and what drives them. There is no pretense between these men, and they realize that they are very similar despite being the flip side of each other. These are the only two people alike in this world of Michael Mann’s film that truly, undeniably understand one another. Furthermore, this scene is entirely integral to how the film’s climax unfolds.
Firstly, that shootout in the streets of downtown Los Angeles is one of the most ear-blistering sonic experiences ever, and that’s coming from a heavy metal fan. Michael Mann had considered using post-production sound effects for this, but realized that the realistic production audio created the true power and impact he wanted. It conveys the violent magnitude of real life gunfire and enhanced the danger of this sequence exponentially. The precision of every tactic is true to how Michael Mann approached his films. He made sure that every detail was accurate to life, and that mentality makes his films far more interesting to witness than the more over-the-top action sequences we get in the big, fun blockbusters.
The climax of Heat narrows everything down to what the whole film has been about at its core – Vincent Hanna and Neil McCauley. These two men, who exist in a world separated from the mainstream of society and defined by its own rules, are now pitted against one another in an electrifying, tense, and suspenseful cat and mouse sequence that is absolutely pitch perfect, and showcases the unequivocal skill of Michael Mann. The moment where McCauley sees Hanna just as he is to ride off with Eady is beautiful, painful, and eloquent. Neil invokes his “thirty seconds flat” rule turning away from Eady for his own survival, and the ensuing chase towards LAX is wonderfully and smartly plotted. The climactic moment is excellent and poetic. Then, after it’s all over, these two men are bonded together in a strikingly profound moment that ends the film on an astonishing stroke of pure brilliance.
I had always taken Heat for granted as that great crime saga pinnacle for Michael Mann, but until now, I never peered deeply enough into it to see the subtle brilliance of it. Many of his films are easier to see the inspired breadth and depth, but Heat has so many fine brush strokes of detail, interwoven threads, and subtext that only a real immersion into it made me absorb it all. This is truly a brilliantly written, directed, and acted film that did not get the recognition it deserved during awards season. Michael Mann himself received no nominations for his screenplay or directing, and Pacino, De Niro, or Kilmer received no acting award nominations either. It’s amazing to me that so many incredible, mold breaking, and standard setting films were released this year, and those I hold in highest regard barely got any recognition from any major awards organizations. This is why I find it hard to put much weight into these organizations because they’d rather nominate a movie about a talking animatronic pig over brilliant masterpieces like Heat, Strange Days, The Usual Suspects, or Seven for Best Picture or Best Director. Today, nobody talks about Babe, but people still endlessly praise those others films because they launched careers, took stunning risks, set new standards, and blew peoples’ minds. And when Michael Mann finally got his just nominations, he didn’t win a single one for what no one will ever be able to tell me wasn’t the best movie released in the year 1999 – The Insider. However, for the next review, I go back to the beginning of Michael Mann’s feature film career with Thief.
So, it all came down to this. Both previous prequels were met with mixed reactions, at best, but the advocates for the negative seemed to shout much louder than the positive side. As I have covered in my own reviews here, there were some improvements from the first to second film, but many glaring problems existed with lapses in logic and intelligence, to be brief. Coming to Revenge of the Sith, it is difficult to be entirely objective as I have fond memories surrounding the release of this film. I thought that might impact my review a good amount, but after some refreshers and a deep analysis of the film, I’m going at it just as hard as the last two. Again, it’s not a stubborn stance of hate against something new or different, it’s an objective point of view of seeing what is good and what is wrong about the film. One thing that irritates me with sequels is when the filmmakers don’t have enough objectivity to actually fix the obvious problems from one film to another. So, you know I have a few axes to grind down even further, and there is some summation needed for the overall prequel trilogy. So, get real comfortable because this is gonna be a lot longer than I expected it to be.
After waging the Clone Wars for three years now, the evil Separatist cybernetic commander General Grievous has boldly kidnapped Supreme Chancellor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) from the capital of the Republic. Quickly sent into action on a rescue mission are Jedi Master Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) and Jedi Knight Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) as a space battle is waged above Coruscant. However, despite their ultimate success in this mission and the death of Count Dooku (Christopher Lee), more foreboding threats lurk ahead for the Jedi and the Republic. Anakin reunites with his secretly wed wife Senator Padmé Amidala (Natalie Portman) who reveals she is pregnant. This sparks repeated visions for Anakin of her death during child birth, and he becomes consumed with finding a way to avert this event. As Obi-Wan is sent on a mission to track down and dispose of General Grievous on the planet Utapau, Chancellor Palpatine further manipulates Skywalker towards a dark path which is meant to see the fall of the Jedi and the Republic, and the rise of the Sith Lord’s Galactic Empire.
Let’s just get the bad out of the way first. The film’s pivotal faltering crux is that Anakin’s turn to the Dark Side is exceptionally weak. It stems from the foundation of a romantic relationship that made no sense to exist in the previous film, and never felt truly believable to begin with. It came off more like teenagers in some glorified storybook romance with both having some delusion of what love really was instead of a naturally and organically developed relationship. Anakin never matures, or really changes as a character at all. I can take dark, troubled, and brooding, but the reasons behind it are just very one dimensional. Yes, anyone who had a vision of their loved one that Anakin does here would have a flood of emotional reactions, but what Anakin does because of it and why he believes it will save Padmé comes off as naïve. All of Anakin’s suspicions are unfounded. He is disillusioned by his own built-in paranoia and distrust because he isn’t the all-powerful Jedi he was prophesized to become. A prophecy that no one ever explains where it came from, or who created it. A prophecy that causes a lot of damage to the conceptualization of the prequels. Yes, Palpatine constantly puts ideas in his head, but remember what Ben Kenobi said in both A New Hope and Return of the Jedi. “Vader was seduced by the Dark Side of the Force.” Nowhere in this film does it seem as if Anakin is “seduced” into turning evil. He’s a desperate man searching for a long shot desperate solution, and as always, is selfish enough to not care if hundreds or thousands of Jedi have to die for what he wants. It doesn’t feel like he’s truly tempted or lured there by way of its power tapping into his darkest impulses. While the opera scene surely tries to support that idea, Anakin clearly states that the only reason he’s joining the Sith is to save Padmé’s life. That is all that matters to him. If the Jedi could do the same as Palpatine claims he can do, he’d stick with the Jedi. There is no seduction involved.
My personal belief is that Anakin should have been a mature, honorable, and confident man who is swayed and consumed by power. A man who seeks the means to restore order in the galaxy, which aligns with Vader’s statements to Luke in The Empire Strikes Back. I would expect that his motives are broader, encompassing a larger landscape instead of being manipulated into believing everything he does. I surely have no qualms about the Emperor being manipulative as that’s always been part of who he is, but Anakin’s fall to the Dark Side is more a result of Palpatine molding him there through lies and deception instead of Anakin making these choices of his own free will. Darth Vader was a confident, intimidating individual with a sense of self-control. I would’ve expected to see those qualities reflected in a young Anakin Skywalker. A man mature beyond his years, and amazingly proficient in the ways of the Force. Someone to be admired, not tolerated. His fall is meant to be tragic, but instead, it only comes off as selfish. It’s difficult to care about a character when he is not likeable in the least, and that is a failing which extends to nearly every aspect of these prequel films.
Thankfully, Anakin’s growing paranoia and suspicions leave us with very few scenes of him and Padmé gushing over one another, but we do get one scene too many. Personally, said scene is cringe inducing. The dialogue is horrendous, and the acting from Portman and Christensen do nothing to make it more bearable. Outside of said scene, Natalie Portman comes off a little more mature than her performance in the previous movie. This is likely due to her not being forced into a poorly conceived romantic storyline. However, I do wish the “Seeds of Rebellion” scenes were kept in the film because they actually give Amidala an active storyline to personally involve herself with. In the film as it is, she essentially sits around her apartment waiting for people to inform her of the latest plot developments and get emotional over them. Again, Natalie Portman is one of the most talented and diverse actresses around today, but you wouldn’t be able to tell from her performances in these films. There is some improvement from the flat, hollow Queen Amidala back in The Phantom Menace, but even with strong emotions injected into her character, it still lacks depth. The relationship between Anakin and Padmé only ever feels fabricated. It’s presented to us with a minimum of effort put into making it feel earned. What makes it worse is that Natalie and Hayden have no chemistry whatsoever. A really good actor can take something not so good and turn it into something worthwhile, but everyone has their limits. You can’t do it all on your own, and George Lucas seems to have a tough time conveying his ideas to actors. That is all I can chalk this up to because, outside of these Star Wars prequels, I have yet to see anything less than great performances from Natalie Portman. She really can do it all, and she always does it exceptionally well. So, while it sounds redundant, it seems necessary to say that I have to attribute the sub-standard acting qualities in these films to Lucas’ inability to communicate the depth and detail of his characters to his actors. Of course, the poorly written dialogue doesn’t help matters, either.
With Samuel L. Jackson, I can understand the marketing appeal of casting him in these films, but he wasn’t made for a role like Mace Windu. The wise, seasoned Jedi Master role would be better filled by a Morgan Freeman, Forrest Whittaker, or even a Laurence Fishburne type. Jackson does have plenty of talent, but he seems to shine in more passionate roles. Characters that aren’t conservative with their emotions, but that’s exactly who Mace Windu is. Windu could have been the elder Ben Kenobi allegory for the prequel trilogy, if written with more perceptive wisdom and cast with a more appropriate actor. Alas, he comes off just as one dimensional and clueless as all the other Jedi. Many of his line deliveries are as flat and hollow as they get, especially when confronting Palpatine. Samuel L. Jackson can be a marvelous actor. Probably my favorite performance of his is in Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown, a film I love very much, and his Ordell Robbie is a performance filled with a lot of charisma, wit, and dramatic weight. That’s the sort of role Jackson shines in, and shows what kind of talent he has to offer. Mace Windu never offered that for Jackson because, unfortunately, it was never a role designed for him.
Fortunately, Ewan McGregor seems to pull through fine. This is probably because he has full context of where Kenobi has been and where he will go to draw on. He knows where to take his performance to sync the character up with Alec Guinness’ portrayal in the original films. His heart wrenching performance at the start and conclusion of the final duel is everything it should have been. It’s only too bad that the rest of the prequel films never earned those deep moments of character and emotion. McGregor makes this younger, yet still wise Kenobi charming, compassionate, and overall a pleasure to spend time with. He truly had a dimensional handle on the character, and filled it with personality and emotion to spare. Ewan really gave it his all, and it shows through in every second he’s on screen. The character might not have been written too greatly in these three films, but Ewan was able to rise above that more than anyone else.
Moving onto fresher ground, some of the lightsaber duels here are rather mixed. The good ones are the opening duel with Dooku and the climactic Anakin versus Obi-Wan battle. My main gripe is the sequence where the Jedi go to arrest Chancellor Palpatine. Lightweight choreography between Samuel L. Jackson and Ian McDiarmid along with some bad editing to terrible close-up shots of cringable facial expressions make it tough to sit through. Neither actor is convincing as a master swordsman. Even before that, the editing of Palpatine slaying the other Jedi Masters is clumsy, shoddy. It makes the movie feel like cheap B-movie schlock that couldn’t hire a competent choreographer or editor to make the sequence look decent. Then, there’s the horrible line deliveries of bland dialogue at the latter end of the scene which makes the entire thing worse. At times, it seems like Jackson, McDiarmid, and Christensen aren’t even trying as if the script drained the talent right out of them. And this is the scene which directly leads to Anakin’s turn to the Dark Side. I couldn’t ask for a worse build up to the saga’s most pivotal moment. It encapsulates everything that is primarily wrong with the prequels – bad writing, bad acting, uninspired editing, and poor plotting. Again, Anakin doesn’t strike out and join the Sith because of a sense of injustice at hand, it’s because Palpatine can maybe save the woman he loves. He even shows regret and remorse over what he just did to Mace Windu, but still goes along with joining forces with Palpatine because of what he claims he might be able to do to save his wife. Again, a desperate guy looking for a long shot solution.
Since I jut touched upon it, I do need to address the technical aspects of these three films, in retrospect. What really strikes me is how dull the cinematography is. There’s hardly ever any camera movement to punctuate emotional or dramatic moments, and scenes are blocked and plotted out with no originality. While the action sequences are dynamically quite well handled, the dialogue scenes are very point-and-shoot, by-the-numbers work. Very little effort is put into making them visually interesting aside from the CGI blue screened backgrounds. I think not working on practical sets or locations greatly affected how these films were shot. There are no environments to envelope the film in, to really move the camera around in to take advantage of what’s actually there. Shooting in a tangible environment inspires a filmmaker to interact with it, and play with camera angles and movement. Instead, everything is shot against a flat blue screen which inspires nothing for both the filmmakers and actors. And as I said before, the editing is also very uninspired. With the original Star Wars, George Lucas went for a less conventional method of editing the film by having the cuts drive the rhythm of the scene instead of it being dictating by the actors. It created energy, pace, and urgency in the way scenes unfolded and how the story was told. With the prequels, Ben Burtt approaches everything very conventionally, very clinically. It’s just like the cinematography. There’s nothing original about it, nothing creative in how anything is presented. It’s all just there.
Another lackluster lightsaber duel is the overly long battle between Kenobi and General Grievous. There’s some dramatic license taken at the beginning as Obi-Wan just stands there waiting for Grievous to throw off his cape, talk trash, and unfurl four lightsabers before even getting into a fighting stance. Then, the scene goes on and on from a duel to a ridiculous chase to a more straight up fight. There is something to be commended for a short, straight to the point action sequence. Long and elaborate can work when it leads to a point, but the end result is the same here no matter the length. The Yoda / Emperor duel is entirely pointless, and just sucks up time that could’ve been used to better story-driven effect. It’s more of that ridiculous action hero posturing from Yoda which is entirely out of character. Removing this fight sequence from the film would have no effect on the story or characters, and that is the very definition of a frivolous action sequence.
While the Anakin versus Obi-Wan battle is well choreographed, and I enjoy the action quite a lot, the dialogue exchanges within it also terribly lack passion and depth. One would think it would be the most impassionate confrontation in the entire saga, but it just lacks that visceral emotional intensity. The entire sequence could have benefited from being a shorter fight with more substantive interactions like the original trilogy duels. The biggest difference with lightsaber duels in the prequel trilogy versus the original trilogy is the over reliance on high speed fight choreography instead of character-based conflicts. You can only maintain interest in a high speed fight for so long before it has to boil down to substantive moments with the characters. This is an impressive sequence, but Anakin and Obi-Wan are so evenly matched that there’s barely any back-and-forth peril. While Anakin might be more powerful, Obi-Wan has the experience and discipline to compensate, and that’s what ultimately allows for him to defeat Anakin. The sequence has plenty of merit with the magnificent digital effects, the changing location of the battle, and the slow descent into a hellish environment. John Williams’ music reaches a major apex here with “Battle of the Heroes,” one of my favorite prequel trilogy cues. Ewan and Hayden showcase immense physical ability and discipline making this an action highlight of the entire saga. Despite any flaws, this confrontation has added so much more depth to the Ben Kenobi / Darth Vader duel in A New Hope for me. It does feel like “the circle is now complete.” The context now given offers up a more epic atmosphere to it like two old Samurai from an era long past battling for the last time. Both men have been through this personal history that no one else in the film is really aware of, and so, that adds to the personal strength of it all.
The opening space battle sequence has always impressed me. I know there are those out there that have their gripes with the entire rescue mission section of the film, and I can understand their issues with it. There’s some extraneous humor that really isn’t needed with R2-D2, and a few bits and pieces in the space battle that could have been trimmed up or cutout for a tighter sequence. Plus, it is extremely difficult to discern what ships are fighting on what side of the battle. There’s no visual context to apply to it, and the scene is very jam packed with all kinds of crossfire and visual depth. That’s how a space battle should be, but it really just becomes random background to the main action with Skywalker and Kenobi. I can entirely advocate for all of that criticism, but with the sentimentality I have for the film, it does not bother me. I enjoy nearly every moment of it because it does feel very Star Wars to me, and I think it’s a welcomed change to start one of these films out with an action sequence like the original film. For a few of the films in the saga, a slow start works nicely by establishing an appropriate dramatic tone, but others like The Phantom Menace or Return of the Jedi just seem to drag along before anything exciting or interesting occurs. For Revenge of the Sith, it definitely needed an energetic, dark, and dangerous tone set from the start, and I truly love that aspect of the movie. Of course, the tone does become rather inconsistent with the humorous bits intercut with the darker or more perilous moments here, and tone has gotten more inconsistent with each subsequent prequel film.
Also, one has to beg the question of what the purpose was of abducting Chancellor Palpatine. If this was a plot devised by Palpatine and Dooku, I can’t see how that particularly benefits Palpatine’s overall master plan. Him being abducted removes him from his seat of power in the Republic to manipulate events towards his agenda, and gives the leverage of power to the Separatists in the war. It’s kind of a long way to go to assume that it was an elaborate scheme meant to result in Anakin killing Dooku. No guarantees that it would be Anakin being part of the rescue since he and Obi-Wan only just returned from assignments in the outer rim of the galaxy, and no definite guarantee that Obi-Wan would get knocked out for Anakin to potentially give in to killing Dooku. If it was Grievous’ plan, that makes more sense since he doesn’t seem to know that Sidious is Palpatine, but then again, Grievous is depicted as being fully subservient to Darth Sidious and Dooku. So, it’s highly unlikely he’d launch an offensive without their approval especially since Dooku is on board the ship. Of course, as usual, these prequels hardly adhere to any sort of storytelling logic. Characters do what they do because that’s what the script needs them to do. This really harkens back to the nonsensical story of The Phantom Menace where the surface plot does not align with the behind the scenes machinations of Palpatine. If Palpatine is not manipulating events to his benefit, all of this makes good sense, but George Lucas seems to not think beneath the surface of what he’s writing. He approaches the story from the wrong perspective, and thus, it results in these different elements at play not aligning with one another.
George Lucas leaves a lot to be desired in this film because of many hanging plot threads, character motivations that are not explained, the lack of character development, and the stupidity of certain characters. For instance, while I am a very knowledgeable Star Wars fan, and even own the Star Wars Encyclopedia, the average movie-goer never has a single thing explained to them about who the Sith are and why they are seeking revenge. Everything about them is taken for granted as if you just happen to know this, or worse yet, don’t need to know this. Because I am a knowledgeable fan of this franchise, I generally know that the Sith were driven to near extinction by the Jedi a thousand years ago. Also, they have had only had a single master and a single apprentice since then because the Dark Lords of the Sith were too power hungry and deceitful to co-exist as a large organization. They would all backstab one another for their own personal agendas to be furthered, and that contributed to their extinction as well. However, none of this is ever mentioned or hinted at, let alone explained in these films. In the original trilogy, the term “Dark Lord of the Sith” is never mentioned either. So, even the term is brand new to those who’ve followed nothing but the films. It is a gross oversight that the history of the Sith is never explored or implied in these films to give context to their motivations, and those motivations are the real crux of the entire prequel trilogy storyline. In The Phantom Menace, the Jedi Council mentions that the Sith had been extinct for a millennia, but go into no detail as to why or how. It’s a revenge movie that never says what the person is getting revenge for. Quite frankly, that’s utterly ridiculous.
And of course, several characters go grossly undeveloped. Count Dooku used to be a Jedi and Qui-Gon Jinn’s mentor, but no one ever gives any background on why he left the Jedi Order. Just implying that he might’ve had contrasting opinions isn’t enough. What kind of man was he really before he became a deceitful Sith Lord? What we see of him is generally an act put on to fool everyone into following him to secretly benefit the agendas of the Sith. Possibly the only honest scene we see of him is when he has Obi-Wan imprisoned in Attack of the Clones, and he is truly a fascinating character in that scene. However, we are never given any further true insight into the man. He’s just another pawn of Palpatine, and with such a talented actor in Christopher Lee, it was a deeply wasted opportunity to not flesh out his character more.
Also, Padmé Amidala might seem to have character development, but in reality, she’s a hollow vessel made to be whatever the plot needs her to be at any moment. In Attack of the Clones, she consoles Anakin after his Tusken Raider mass murder confession, saying “to be angry is to be human,” and then, later marries him despite this cold blooded act of violence. In Revenge of the Sith, she learns he killed Jedi Younglings, is shocked and dismayed at hearing this because she can’t believe that he’d do something like that, and then, says she can’t follow Anakin to the dark places he is going. These are entirely contradictory behaviors and reactions that cannot be reconciled in my mind. Padmé should be one of the most level headed, clear minded, and intelligent people in these films, but instead, she is written with so many incompatible and contradictory character traits that she should have canceled out her own existence. Also, her dying of a broken heart or having “lost the will to live” comes off as terrible in this because of this. Not to mention, she can’t find the will to live so she can raise and love her newborn twins? Seriously, Lucas could’ve had her dying of a crushed windpipe or hemorrhaging or any number of medical complications from Anakin’s Force choke, but he chose “she’s lost the will to live.” That puts an ugly nail into a so-called romance that was contrived and ridiculous to begin with.
Back to Anakin himself, it is hard to actually say he has “fallen to the Dark Side” when he’s still the whiny, selfish, impulsive, bratty person he always was. He’s no different a character when he was a Padawan to when he becomes a Sith Lord. All his turn to the Dark Side really does is free him up to not have to apologize for being the arrogant jerk he’s always been. And of course, he contradicts himself as well. His entire reason for joining the Sith is to find a way to save Padmé from dying in child birth, but once his megalomaniacal streak kicks in on Mustafar, he goes right ahead and tries to kill her himself while jumping to another unfounded conclusion. There’s just no motivational consistency with these characters. In many films, I’ve seen someone striking someone they love, but then, they quickly snap out of it when they realize the horrible thing they just did. They come back to their senses. Here, Anakin just keeps being an disillusioned arrogant jackass. Again, this is not the Darth Vader we know from the original trilogy who is confident, intimidating, and in control. Anakin is the direct opposite of that.
Fortunately, I can give a lot of praise to the Order 66 sequence. From the newly dubbed Darth Vader assaulting the Jedi Temple to the Clone Troopers turning on their Jedi Generals, the sequence is rich with sorrow, dread, and ominous imagery. The moment of Jimmy Smits’ Bail Organa witnessing a young Padawan being gunning down on the landing platform is tragic and unsettling. Right from the start of Anakin marching the troops into the temple to the final shot of smoke billowing out of it the next morning, the whole sequence is really well done. It’s only a shame that, one, some bad child actor has to have a line of dialogue in it, and two, we don’t get to know any of these Jedi that are murdered. There was an opportunity in these films to do something with a few of these characters so that an audience could come to care about them to some extent. While the sequence itself earns my general praise, these are just interchangeable background characters being killed off who never had any emotional resonance on the story or audience. It’s ultimately less about those who are killed, and more about those either doing the killing or who have to deal with the repercussions of these events. That’s not necessarily bad or wrong, but it’s just a missed opportunity to have the sequence hit the audience harder on an emotional level.
A rather pointless character comes in the form of General Grievous. He makes no independent decisions like a General would. He demonstrates no tactical proficiency or command authority. He just mindlessly carries out the orders of Dooku or Sidious, and is really just around as a plot convenience. He’s also a comedic “mustache twirling” type of villain giddily laughing when he cowardly sneaks off to escape, or likes to strut around boasting his unearned ego. It probably would have been better to have Dooku hang around for a while, and give more weight and purpose to his death instead of burning run time on this CGI waste of a villain.
The Jedi themselves consistently display an almost willful ignorance to what’s going on around them. Maybe Lucas was trying to present them as having become overly confident in their perception of the absolute clarity and power of the Force, but so much blatantly unfolds right in their face that one would have to be willfully ignorant to not take action. Every major negative event that impacts the Republic strategically comes to greatly and solely benefit Chancellor Palpatine, and none of the Jedi seem to find it all that suspicious until the war is over and Anakin actually tells them that Palpatine is a Sith Lord. And of course, by this point Palpatine has almost indomitable control over the entire galaxy. It’s even worse that it takes them well over a decade to perceive that there is a plot to destroy them at work. I understand Palpatine is using his Sith powers to cloud peoples’ minds, but I doubt he’s so powerful that he can cloud the minds of every single Jedi throughout the galaxy every hour of every day. Even then, they hardly need to use the Force to perceive this threat as the obvious evidence right there in front of them. It never seems like anyone followed up on the investigation into Darth Maul’s origins after his death, or discover any allies he had that could further threaten the Jedi. Even Obi-Wan’s investigation into the Clone Army is never resolved. The Jedi never truly discover the hard facts on how or why Jedi Master Syphadias ordered the army, if it actually was him, how Jango Fett got tied up into it, who erased Kamino from the Jedi Archives, or anything else that weaves into and out of that mystery. The Jedi remain willfully blind to these unanswered mysteries which are clearly ominous signs of a conspiracy that could threaten them and the Republic. Fett himself says he was hired by a man named Tyranus, who is later revealed to the audience to be Count Dooku. It’s likely to speculate that Dooku impersonated Syphadias after he was killed, and ordered the Clone Army himself in conjunction with hiring Jango Fett. So, if the Jedi actually followed the investigation to full conclusion, they would’ve uncovered an elaborate conspiracy against them. Instead, the plot requires them to be stupid so that these obvious hanging plot threads can come back to bite them in their collective posteriors.
Going both ways on the issue of character is Palpatine. He is given a good amount of depth and a hint of back story to give him some dimension. Ian McDiarmid has generally done a good job in the role, but there can be too many instances of disingenuous emotion that just make the character’s façade horribly transparent. It’s only by way of everyone else being dumb as a post that no one ever notices how obvious Palpatine is every time he opens his mouth. Also, when he unveils himself as Darth Sidious, McDiarmid starts hamming it up like crazy. I don’t view that as a good thing. How he portrayed the Emperor in Return of the Jedi is vastly different in tone than how he is in the prequels. In Jedi, he was a deeply serious and intimidating villain who was creepy and ominous. McDiarmid’s chilling portrayal penetrated deep into an audience’s consciousness, and deeply into the heart and soul of Luke Skywalker. He had a grim, imposing aura to him that was more dreadful than Darth Vader which elevated the psychological threat in the situation. He was over confident but subtle, and that’s what is missing here – subtlety. McDiarmid’s performance in this movie is far too obvious and overt. While he has solid low key, compelling scenes, such as his telling of the story of Darth Plagueis, he simply allows Palpatine’s ego to increasingly overflow throughout the movie. Instead of transitioning into that fearsome character we experienced in Return of the Jedi, he becomes a cackling, over the top madman. McDiarmid’s performance in The Phantom Menace was actually far superior and more consistent with his original portrayal. It was a more serious, dramatic approach to the character with subtlety and intelligence. Unfortunately, it only went downhill after that. Also, it’s never explained why Palpatine becomes deformed from the Force lightning. Nothing of the sort happened when the Emperor unleashed it on Luke Skywalker in Return of the Jedi. With these prequels, George Lucas seemed more interested in having things cosmetically align with the original trilogy instead of conceptually. He really can’t have it both ways.
When you go ahead with a prequel you can’t change your mind on the established back story and representation of the characters. You can only flesh out what’s already there, and bring clarity to the more vague areas of these histories. George Lucas just failed at that. Everything about an honorable, noble, and admirable Anakin Skywalker that Ben Kenobi spoke about in those original three films is entirely eradicated in favor of this selfish, egotistical, and violent person that never seems like a hero. The Jedi never seem like an order of wise protectors of peace and justice. They come off like short-sighted, dumb as dirt, full of themselves fools who never follow through on any course of action they set out on. Yoda continually acknowledges a swirl of negative and even violent vibes coming from Anakin, but he continually ignores the severity of what Anakin’s going through. Considering that the Jedi had a bad feeling about Anakin from the start, one would think they would keep a close watch on him to make sure he doesn’t go off the rails. Also, after Mace Windu learns that Palpatine is a Sith Lord, he originally goes to arrest him, but then, he insists to Anakin that Palpatine must be killed on the spot. Beyond just the conceptual inconsistencies in these films, the writing itself can’t keep a character’s motivations and intentions consistent throughout a single scene. It really is atrocious on so many levels. Again, the problem is that there is no one to challenge George Lucas’ creative direction. Whatever he wants, he gets even if it doesn’t make any blasted sense.
Some people say that the anticipation and hype built up for these films could never be lived up to. I say that’s a pithy excuse for churning out substandard movies. Plenty of films have been able to live up to immense hype time after time. You can’t tell me that The Empire Strikes Back didn’t have massive hype around it leading up to its release, and that clearly exceeded all expectations. It comes down to talented, competent filmmakers putting care and intelligence into what they do to produce a high grade feature film. Over time, it seems that some filmmakers lose their focus or ambition to be as good as they once were, or in some cases, certain filmmakers lose sight of the fact that film is a collaborative process and they reject anyone’s attempt to offer an alternate point of view to potentially improve the film. I am a filmmaker myself, and my stance has always been, “I know I have not thought of every great idea in the world.” I encourage my cast and crew members to always help in the creative process so that we can make the best film possible. However, George Lucas seems intent on his word being the only one that counts, and that is the first step towards creative failure.
As I’ve alluded to, I have a lot of fond memories from the theatrical experiences I had with this movie. I saw it twice on opening night with a glorious digital projection screening the following week. I went to see this in the theatre, at least, four times in 2005, and even did a DVD marathon of the entire saga when Revenge of the Sith came to home video. I highly enjoyed this movie, and I still find good qualities in it that I continue to enjoy. However, while all of these fond memories project some sentimentality onto the film for myself, they do not excuse the critical analysis it deserves.
The original Star Wars trilogy captured the imagination and wonder of people all over the world, and for me, it still inspires and entertains me greatly. Unfortunately, these prequel films have not done the same for me. They lack the vibrant, memorable, and iconic characters that came to define Star Wars, and are plagued with amateurish screenwriting wrought with underdeveloped concepts. Lucas was trying to tell a story he didn’t have the skill to competently write. There were too many elements at play that he could not put into a cohesive whole, nor was he able to flesh these ideas out so they had some depth and relatability. I have no problems with telling a more complex Star Wars story with political aspects, but it has to make sense. All three of these films are excellent examples of terrible screenwriting, or in the least, a screenwriter’s ambition outreaching his skill.
There was no ambition behind these movies, or creative drive to make them original or innovative. More effort was put into advancing the technology of digital effects than crafting a solid, sensical, and lively screenplay. Everything just reflects a lack of passion from most everyone involved – the wooden acting, the dull dialogue, the clinical non-action sequence cinematography, the by-the-numbers editing, and the clunky plotting. There are a few positives to credit the films for such as mostly great lightsaber fight choreography, some good action sequences, John Williams’ incredible music, and a few bright spots with the casting such as Ewan McGregor, Christopher Lee, and even Jimmy Smits, for what little he was given to work with. However, these few highlights are grossly overshadowed by all the poorly executed elements of these movies. I hope that I never commit myself to reviewing films requiring this deep of an analytical deconstruction, again. However, I had to complete what I started so that I could move onto the praise heavy reviews of the original trilogy in their original theatrical versions. Those will come in time, but for now, it’s time to rest my mind. Thanks for bearing with these excessively long, in depth reviews of these disappointing movies.
With Attack of the Clones there was some improvement in the prequels, but many of the stinging problems from The Phantom Menace still exist here. The pace is generally improved with some more action sequences, some better characters, and more interesting locales to explore. However, the supposed “love story” between Anakin Skywalker and Padmé Amidala couldn’t be more contrived or agonizingly acted. Of course, there are frivolous character and story elements peppered throughout which have no bearing on anything at all. So, let’s jump into it, and deconstruct Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones.
Set ten years after the events of The Phantom Menace. Padmé Amidala (Natalie Portman) is now the Senator of the planet Naboo, and is leading the opposition to creating an army of the Republic. This is in response to a faction of political separatists, led by former Jedi Count Dooku (Christopher Lee), who want to breakaway from the Republic. After an assassination attempt on the Senator’s life, Jedi Knight Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) and his Padawan learner Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) are sent to protect her. After the assassin strikes again with the Jedi thwarting the attempt, they capture the assassin, but she is killed by a bounty hunter named Jango Fett (Temuera Morrison) before they can obtain any answers. The Jedi Council then send Obi-Wan and Anakin on separate missions with Chancellor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) fearing for Senator Amidala’s safety. Anakin is sent with Padmé to Naboo as a protector. However, their feelings for one another slowly stir to the surface causing emotional conflicts for them. Worse yet, nightmares of his mother trouble Anakin enough to return to Tatoonie in an attempt to save her from dire peril. Meanwhile, Obi-Wan’s investigation ultimately leads him to the planet Kamino where he uncovers a deeper conspiracy involving this assassination plot, the Separatist movement, and a Clone Army which could lead to all-out galactic war.
While there are various negatives I wish to point out here, let me counter-balance the review of Episode I by starting out with some positive aspects of this film. Mainly, the visual effects are far improved and much more consistent than what The Phantom Menace offered. It’s hard to believe that CGI evolved so much in such a short span of time, but the industry required it. Bigger films were being made now because filmmakers saw what could be accomplished, and the technology and artistry of these effects houses simply pushed hard to match up with the demand. Everything is generally more detailed in Episode II, and the story allowed for a more vast and diverse set of locations, vehicles, props, and alien creatures. So, there was more of a canvas to apply the improvements in digital filmmaking. Still, the movie is starved for more practical locations. Granted, many don’t exist in reality, but the constant filming against blue screens begins to wear thin. It takes away from the potential depth of the frame, and the tangibility of the environments they inhabit. So much of it just feels fake because it is fake.
On a better note, George’s decision to shoot in high definition digital video was something I was supportive of, same as with Robert Rodriguez. That evolution in video camera technology has actually allowed for my independent filmmaker career to exist. Unfortunately, I did not see Attack of the Clones in a digital projection theatre. That experience would have to wait for Revenge of the Sith.
Another positive is that there is more life with a few characters. Ewan McGregor steps into the mentor role of Obi-Wan Kenobi well injecting some nice dimension into his scenes. He feels more fleshed out and comfortable this time around. A little chuckle here, some urgency there go a long way to show the depth and personality of his matured Kenobi. He truly feels like a good leader, a fine Jedi, and an interesting character to follow now. His single scene opposite Kenobi’s alien friend Dex shows more intelligible and relatable character traits from him than most anything displayed in The Phantom Menace. It shows both a jovial, friendly side, but also, the inquisitive mind of the character. McGregor is surely an excellent actor with a wide range, and I am glad that his talent was allowed to be more in the forefront here. Of everyone in the prequels, his performances feel the most natural and dimensional. I feel he sells Anakin’s downfall more that Hayden Christensen does.
The legendary Christopher Lee gives us a villain with some substance in Count Dooku. I only find it unfortunate that he doesn’t show up until half way through the film. This would be better if he was built up more to create mystery or anticipation around him, but he’s barely mentioned in that first half of the movie. And where Darth Maul had nothing to say for himself, Dooku has plenty, and Lee works his scenes very well. There’s enough ambiguity about Dooku to build suspicion and doubt over what he claims to be truth. Lee’s performance rides the fence of a man who could either be a straight out villain or a controversial strong leader who has a valid point of view. He’s just shady enough to keep it all uncertain. His scene opposite the imprisoned Kenobi is quite rich with juicy character interactions. It is a pleasure indeed.
Unfortunately, from there, the quality of the performances start to get more one dimensional and hollow. Natalie Portman, again, is reflected as a far lesser grade acting talent than she truly is with poor characterization and awkward, ineffective emotions. While she has a generally good show of emotions, they seem to lack depth or realism. The romance, of sorts, between Padmé and Anakin never feels earned, only forced. For the life of me, I cannot rationalize why a young woman dedicated to peaceful, intelligent solutions would ultimately marry a man who confessed to a rage filled slaughter. Tusken Raiders or no, Padmé has always sought out the way of peace in all situations. She never comes off as someone in favor of blind hatred or rage, and in all other instances, appears to have a distaste towards unwarranted violence. She didn’t murder Nute Gunray at the end of the last film. She retook her throne and put him into the custody of the authorities. She believes in justice, and resolving conflicts with negotiation and rational thought. However, she marries a man who is volatile, insubordinate, emotionally unstable, immature, and supports tyrannical political ideals. There is no rational reason they would be attracted to one another side from the physical aspect.
Now, I really don’t know any of Hayden Christensen’s other work to offer a perspective on his talents. Granted, the characterization of Anakin Skywalker is not his fault at all. He played the character that was on the page. There’s nothing different he could’ve done with what he was given to make Anakin a better character. Still, there are many moments where he comes off as wooden. Much of his intended “serious” or “mature” dialogue is delivered with a drab, downtrodden empty quality. As with Portman, there’s no depth behind what is said. Anakin Skywalker should have been a rich character with many sides from the brave and honorable to the conflicted and troubled. Considering the entire saga is ultimately his story from innocent child to conflicted Jedi Knight to the evil Darth Vader to redemption through his son, Anakin Skywalker should have been the most fascinating character of all six films, but he ultimately comes off as one of the least interesting and most annoying in these prequels. So, what Lucas gives us is a very immature and flat character who has little for an audience to emotionally invest themselves in.
There are other characters which I do have things to say about, mainly the Jedi Masters, but they are best left for my summation in the Revenge of the Sith review to avoid redundant criticisms. However, to briefly touch upon those thoughts, I have to say that if Yoda has nothing intelligent or pertinent to say, he ought to keep his mouth shut. So much of his dialogue ultimately makes him seem like a short-sighted fool. He has plenty of opportunities to act upon the bad vibes coming off of Anakin, but he never takes any action in response to them. And I do believe having Yoda engage in frivolous lightsaber battles is a terrible idea. Instead of criticizing the cringe inducing visual of Yoda flying around like a video game character and acting like some dim-witted action hero parody, I want to point out the purpose of lightsaber battles in the Star Wars saga. They are a plot device used to twist the storyline into a new direction, and that is not at all a negative thing. However, that is not the case with Yoda’s duels.
For example: the climactic saber duel in The Phantom Menace results in the death of Qui-Gon Jinn which gives way to Anakin being less-than-well trained by Obi-Wan. The death of Darth Maul opens the way for Dooku to become the new Sith apprentice, and setup the circumstances for the Clone War. In Attack of the Clones, Anakin charges into battle, gets his arm chopped off, and begins to lose more of his humanity from this loss. This motivates him to kill Dooku in Revenge of the Sith, and his death makes way for the rise of Darth Vader. Then, Obi-Wan destroys Grievous, and thus, motivates the end of the Clone War, the attempted arrest of Palpatine, and Anakin’s turn to the Dark Side of the Force. Vader versus Obi-Wan in that same film results in the half-man, half-machine Sith Lord, destroying Anakin Skywalker further. Ben Kenobi’s death in A New Hope allows him to become “more powerful than you can possibly imagine” by becoming one with The Force, and helping to guide Luke anywhere at anytime. The duel in The Empire Strikes Back clearly sets up a whole host of character and plot twists to the point where in Return of the Jedi, the final duel between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader becomes the catalyst for Luke to put down his arms, and ultimately, instigate the event that turns Darth Vader back into Anakin Skywalker. So, you see, lightsaber duels are never gratuitous action scenes. They serve a very specific plot purpose. That is except for all of Yoda’s lightsaber battles.
They do absolutely nothing to further the saga along. Here, he fights Dooku, only to lose. In the following film, he fights the Emperor, only to lose. By showing that Yoda is unable to defeat a Sith Lord in battle makes it difficult to believe he’s the right one to train Luke in The Empire Strikes Back. Not to mention, in that marvelous film, Yoda talks entirely about how the physical is inconsequential to one’s power with the Force, but in Attack of the Clones, he does nothing but resort to physical means of combat when a few minor Force tricks do nothing against Dooku. And once he has lost, he is apparently so worn out from the battle that he has to strain his Force abilities to lift a piece of machinery from crashing down on Obi-Wan and Anakin. In Empire, Yoda lifts the whole X-Wing fighter from the swamp and onto land with amazing grace and ease. There, all that mattered was the will and confidence to achieve such a feat. This is another obvious example of George Lucas’ change in philosophy that occurred between the creation of the two trilogies. Yoda’s physical strength should not have an effect on his power with the Force. If Yoda can only call on his Force powers in short bursts and it exhausts him to do so, that only shows that his power is very limited. This is in direct contrast to Yoda’s teachings in Empire that, because the Force is his ally, he is powerful beyond physical strength. By failing to defeat any Sith he opposes, and straining to do what should be easy for him with his purported Jedi mastery, it only proves that he’s no more capable than any other Jedi. Yoda is supposed to be the most accomplished and powerful Jedi around, but if this is the extent of their power and wisdom, it is no wonder the Empire was able to wipe them out.
Another thing that is eradicated, again, is intelligence. I mentioned in The Phantom Menace the absurdity of how the Senate was run in that one outspoken statement from any one representative immediately causes sweeping change in the Senate. That returns here, and in cringe inducing fashion. As Senator Amidala returns to Naboo to hide from her assassin she leaves Jar Jar Binks to act in her place with her Senatorial power. Representative Binks is then manipulated into going before the Senate and propositioning the Senate to vote emergency powers to the Chancellor so he can authorize the creation of a Clone Army. This one vote from one STAND-IN for a Senator immediately allows for it to happen. Meanwhile, throughout the rest of the film, the Senate is entrenched in conflict over whether to create an army or not, and Amidala has been the leader of the opposition to this. I find it highly improbable that the majority of the Senate and Amidala’s supporters would suddenly roll over because this dim-witted fool speaks up. I mean, it’s not like they didn’t just have Padmé on a holonet transmission where she could speak on her own behalf in front of the Senate. Not to mention, why is everyone talking about going to war the whole film when, until Obi-Wan uncovers the Separatist’s plans, no hostile action had been taken against the Republic? As far as the Republic knows these people simply want to become a separate autonomous alliance of worlds. Sure, the Republic being split in two would cause some controversy and unease, but immediately jumping to the prospect of war is a little rash when they have no evidence of violent intentions from the Separatists.
I also have issue with what was done to Boba Fett in Attack of the Clones. I’m a general fan of the character, and I find him interesting and exciting. However, Lucas does another frivolous, pointless change to a character. Making Boba Fett a young clone of Jango Fett is inane as it serves no purpose towards the plot or the characters of Jango or Boba. There is no reason Boba Fett couldn’t have been a regular offspring of Jango, and be given his own unique identity instead of being just another clone out of thousands or millions. I also find it quite creepy that Jango is raising a clone of himself. It almost sounds like the strange machinations of a mad scientist to being doing such a thing. Speaking of pointless things, the assassin Zam Wessel had no purpose to being a shape shifter. Again, it serves no purpose to the character or plot. It actually could have been used intelligently with Zam changing form and escaping into the crowd, and creating an actual challenge for Obi-Wan and Anakin. Instead, it’s just there to make her more “alien” and to show off another little visual effects gag.
Digging into Jango Fett a little more, I did enjoy what Temuera Morrison brought to this role. He’s both a cunning, dangerous bounty hunter and a smooth gentleman. Morrison has some restrained charisma in this role allowing Jango to come off as a smart and savvy villain that is confident without being arrogant. He has a very nicely played scene opposite McGregor as Fett and Kenobi size each other up in a stand-offish exchange of words. It’s a strong first true impression of Jango that really sparks an interest, and Morrison handles the overall demands of the role exceptionally well.
On the technical side of things, Ben Burtt should be ashamed of some of the editing in this film. The one part that stands out is the saber duel between Anakin and Dooku. The close-up shots of the two swinging their blades around actually have no continuity to them at all from one shot to another, and hardly look like they’re clashing blades. It looks more like an interpretive dance than an aggressive battle. It’s shoddy work. There are other instances where editing should’ve been tightened up to maintain immediacy in character reactions, or maintain rhythm in certain action sequences. However, the sound design in the film is excellent. The sonic charges deployed by Jango Fett in the asteroid field create one of the most awesome speaker blasting sound effects I’ve ever heard. The city sounds on Coruscant are excellently crafted to create a nicely enveloping world, and the end battle scenes are well balanced for fine clarity where the sound effects don’t simply become an indiscernible onslaught.
What I also do like about this film is the added atmosphere tying in with the mystery elements of the story. The various night scenes create a neo noir visual aesthetic that really appeal to my tastes greatly. The stormy environment of Kamino was an excellent choice that further heightened the mood of the film. As Kenobi gets deeper into the mystery, the more treacherous his surroundings become, and it culminates in a stellar fight between Obi-Wan and Jango. The slippery aspect of the landing platform added a different dynamic which keeps the sequence exciting and unpredictable. Obi-Wan doesn’t get to rely on the lightsaber as much, and has to be more innovative and cunning to survive. This is more akin to classic Star Wars were characters were made intelligent to figure their way out of tight situations.
Of course, pulling directly from the original trilogy is not entirely the most successful approach as the end duel between Anakin and Dooku demonstrates. It tries to recreate some of the smoky light and shadow effect of the climactic duel in Empire, but it comes off as forgettable and mild. It really comes down to a buildup of characters, emotions, and plot points. In Empire, the visual of the carbon freezing chamber with its smoke and orange and blue lighting enhanced the tone of the story being told. It is dark, mysterious, foreboding, and ominous. Everything built up to this, and it sends a chill down the spine of many viewers. Here, it’s just a nice visual. There’s nothing inherently bad about it, but it’s just another hollow throwback to a better film. The duel itself is not that impressive, either. Conversely, I’ve never had an issue with the asteroid field battle in this film. It’s entertaining and exciting. While it is a throwback to Empire, it works for me as it is a logical progression of the plot, and showcases some of Obi-Wan’s cunning combat skills.
While the plot is more sensical than The Phantom Menace, there is both padding to make up for a lack of plot developments and hanging plot threads that never get tied up, ever. Obi-Wan’s investigation into the poison dart should really end with the scene where he meets Dex who tells him its from Kamino. Instead, it goes on for another two scenes where he investigates the planet in the library, and then, since he can’t find it there, he goes to Yoda for answers. Yoda has none, but the little kids he’s training do. This not only unnecessarily pads out the film, but also makes Obi-Wan Kenobi look stupid because he can’t figure out something a five year old who can’t act could. It’s never explained who deleted Kamino from the Jedi Archives, or how they did it. Also, everything about Jedi Master Sifo Dyas ordering the Clone Army despite having died around the same time is never cleared up or resolved. I could speculate on the truth, but that is all that can be done. Lucas lays no clues to come to a confident answer, and no one in the film tries to figure it out. It’s entirely forgotten by the next action sequence. It is also curious that the Sandpeople would hold Shmi Skywalker captive when they’ve always been murderous scavengers, and there is fan conjecture over this saying it was orchestrated by a third party. However, there is hardly anything within the context of the films to perceive it as anything more than it appears to be.
Again, the romance storyline between Anakin and Padmé really doesn’t hold together. The dialogue is stilted, the performances are wooden, and the entire interaction is more like a screenwriter’s naive perception of love. The Han Solo and Princess Leia relationship worked because these were two well developed characters with strong personalities and honest, realistic emotions. It felt like a natural, organic relationship that evolved and grew between them. Plus, they didn’t fall in love and get married within the course of a few days. Anakin and Padmé feel like an immature teenage high school couple who over dramatize their so-called romance because they have no genuine grasp on what real love truly is. They think that what they have is love, but they would be wrong. What they have, at best, is the illusion of love built upon teenage style angst and physical attraction. And again, Padmé is subjected to Anakin whining about Obi-Wan, blaming him for everything that’s wrong in his life, being insubordinate to his superiors, bitching her out in front of the current Queen of Naboo, and confessing to the mass murder of not just the Tusken Raider men, but the women and children, too. Quite frankly, in any other film, Anakin Skywalker would be the psychotic villain, and Padmé would be running away from him screaming in horror. I can’t imagine that she is meant to be a moronic idiot, but that’s exactly how she continually comes off considering all of this nonsensical madness. No woman in her right mind would be so eager to love and marry a man like this. It also makes no sense to me why Padmé is so vehemently opposed to just being involved with a man. She keeps saying she loves Anakin, but then, says she can’t love him because she’s a Senator. That doesn’t compute in my brain. No other reason is ever given. She’s a Senator, and so, she can’t go out on a date. That’s her entire reason. No expansion on that at all. It’s ridiculous.
Never minding all of that, Attack of the Clones has plenty of good action sequences. While not all come off as rational, like Obi-Wan uncharacteristically jumping out the window to grab the assassin droid (couldn’t he have just used the Force to disable it and bring it to him?), the scenes are well structured and choreographed. They are all different and maintain good momentum, to a point. The previous movie had a serious lack of compelling action scenes, and traded them off with long, drab dialogue scenes. Here, it seems like they have to milk the action scenes for as much as they’re worth because the plot lacks enough threads to weave throughout the 120+ minute run time. While the droid factory sequence is decent, it is ultimately another piece of run time padding. It could be a much tighter sequence, if you had to have it, but it needs to be long to stretch the story out. This is the case with most of the action scenes especially the speeder chase through the nighttime of Coruscant. It’s not a bad action sequence, but an action scene is best when it’s tightly paced and gets straight to the point. If you’re going to have a chase scene, make it count with a solid pay-off.
Again, there are some cringable attempts at humor here, but this time, it falls on R2-D2 and C-3PO. I won’t get into it. It’s brain dead idiotic slapstick gags that would even be bad in some television program for kindergarteners. This crap has nothing to do with anything in story, action, or character development. It’s gratuitous garbage filled with horrible puns, and that’s all I’m going to waste my time mentioning it because this review is too long as it is already.
I really hoped to say more positive things about this movie, but the more I dug into it, the more flaws I saw. It’s frustrating to me that I want to enjoy more about this movie, but it’s designed to backfire on me. I’m not going into these films with the intent of tearing them down, and I hope the praise I have offered up reflects that mentality. I don’t have any memories that stick out about my theatrical experiences with this movie, unlike the other two prequels, and so, I can’t recall my early feelings on it. I did purchase the John Williams score CD the same day, and so, that says something. Of course, regardless of the quality of the films, I do own all of the soundtrack CD sets. Anyway, while Episode II makes some improvements from Episode I, some problems are exchanged for others, and some of the biggest ones are never fixed. Again, I don’t want to hate on George Lucas, but the man is not helping me to avoid doing so. I can forgive certain underdeveloped aspects of a film depending on various factors, but the rampant stupidity of some characters and the horribly contrived love story are too much to forgive. Thankfully, I do have very fond memories of Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith, and so, I have more sentimental leeway to offer it. But that’s another review for another time. As Attack of the Clones stands, it’s a long way from greatness, but at least, I can sit through it. I can’t say the same for The Phantom Menace.
I grew up on Star Wars. Being born a matter of months before the theatrical release of The Empire Strikes Back made that inevitable. The first of the films I saw theatrically was Return of the Jedi, and I have vague recollections of the experience with loud noises and the unsettling image of the unmasked Darth Vader (for a three year old, it was like A Nightmare on Elm Street to me). These films have been part of who I am for as long as I can remember, and I feel it’s about time I share my thorough thoughts on the entire saga. With the 3D theatrical re-releases on the horizon, it seems timely. I don’t plan on seeing them in 3D, and I do not own the Blu Rays at this point. When reviewing the prequels, it will be their original DVD versions. When reviewing the original trilogy, it will be the original theatrical versions. I have many editions of the original trilogy on VHS & DVD, but this is about what I grew up on.
For The Phantom Menace, I was part of the madness in 1999. I stood in line with a lawn chair, a brand new CD Walkman, and a sunburn to get advance tickets for opening night. I ended up sitting next to a guy dressed as Darth Maul that first night, and I did see the film multiple times in theatres. However, with time comes perspective and maturity. I know everything that needs to be said about this film has been said, but this is a forum to share my thoughts. It also an opportunity to express what these films mean to me. So, this is not me trying to add to a worn out battle cry against this film. I’m just here to offer my point of view. All eight pages worth.
Two ambassadors from the Jedi Order, Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Nesson) and his apprentice Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor), are sent to the planet of Naboo to resolve a trade taxation dispute. The politically powerful Trade Federation has setup a blockade of battleships around the planet to force their position, but they are actually working with someone of ulterior motives named Darth Sidious. Viceroy Nute Gunray works on his behalf to manipulate the young Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman) to give into their treaty, but the Jedi soon learn of the Federation’s invasion army. After surviving a battle droid attack, Qui-Gon & Obi-Wan escape to the planet’s surface where they are joined by the bumbling Gungan outcast Jar Jar Binks (Ahmed Best), and rescue the Queen and her contingent to escape the planet. With their ship damaged, they land on the outer rim desert planet of Tatoonie where they try to barter for replacement parts, but they are soon hunted by Sidious’ apprentice Darth Maul. On this planet, Qui-Gon discovers Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd), a young slave of the junk dealer Watto who has unusually strong Force abilities. Qui-Gon believes Anakin could be the one prophesized to “bring balance to the Force,” and later champions him to be trained as a Jedi. However, the Jedi Council is apprehensive about the boy’s future sensing danger and fear in him. Meanwhile, Naboo Senator Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) tries to coach the young Queen in the political matters of the Senate, and manipulates her into forcing Supreme Chancellor Valorum (Terence Stamp) from the head of the Galactic Senate. Eventually, all things converge back on Naboo where Queen Padmé Amidala attempts an assault to end the invasion and captivity of her people, and for the Jedi to learn the truth of whether or not the Dark Lords of the Sith have returned from a millennia of extinction.
What really strikes me about this story, beyond plot holes born out of illogical actions, is that there is no central main character. With the original Star Wars, it was crystal clear that Luke Skywalker was our hero that would guide us on this journey through a galaxy far, far away. It was his arc that was mainly at play as he goes through emotional trials that would forge him into a heroic figure. I have never seen any character arcs in The Phantom Menace. No one ends up any differently from when the film began to when it ended. They don’t evolve and grow into something more than they were before. The film has no prominent focus on any one character. Looking at the saga as a whole, perhaps it should have been Obi-Wan Kenobi’s arc. The film would show an eager, young Padawan who matures from student to mentor, truly earning his stature as a Jedi by the end by facing the breadth of this adventure alone. Unfortunately, he’s left out of the meat of the story and action so much that he ultimately has little to say for himself. Ewan McGregor is an exceptional actor with a wide range of talent who could’ve carried this film quite well, as he demonstrated in the following two films. He does have flourishes of endearing charm that create some bright moments, but his potential is sadly suppressed to a minor supporting character. Earlier drafts had it where Obi-Wan actually was the one mainly involved in the story on Tatoonie, and he forms a bond with Anakin championing his path to becoming trained. That would actually follow what was stated in Return of the Jedi¸ but for whatever reason, George Lucas decided to overhaul continuity in the prequels. It is clear that the way Lucas potentially envisioned the prequels in the early 1980s was very different from how he saw them in the late 1990s.
Anakin is an even less likely main character since he doesn’t enter the story until forty minutes in, and once they’ve left Tatoonie, he becomes mostly a background character. Jake Lloyd certainly didn’t have the spark of great talent that Lucas’ friend Steven Spielberg is usually able to find in his child actors. Lloyd makes Anakin almost a nuisance in the film. He can become quite annoying acting like some kid on a rollercoaster ride instead of someone of mythic potential. I would’ve anticipated a slightly more matured Anakin, despite his youth. Someone that showed not just strength with the Force, but someone with the character traits to be the “great Jedi” Obi-Wan speaks of in the original trilogy. Ultimately, Anakin never stops being the whiny annoyance he started out as until he is voiced by James Earl Jones as Darth Vader. Here, not having Obi-Wan or Anakin as a main character works to the detriment of the prequels since their relationship is the linchpin of the saga.
This leads us over to Qui-Gon Jinn. I really have a generous amount of respect for Liam Neeson. He always does admirable work, and I have enjoyed his wave of action thriller successes in recent years. With Qui-Gon, it’s hard to say much about him. He’s stoic and little else. There are brief, light touches of heart, but they lack substantial depth to be impactful. Knowing Lucas’ direction style, I would definitely have to say that Neeson wasn’t given the proper direction to breathe appropriate life into the character. Given the right context and perspective on Qui-Gon, I believe Neeson could have brought more depth to him. Qui-Gon is the mentor, and I suppose he is meant to act as some form of main protagonist, but there’s not enough bold dimension in the characterization for him to standout amongst the blandness of the film.
Another amazing actor that occasionally comes off like a dull wooden board is Natalie Portman. Anyone who has seen Léon (aka The Professional) knows that Natalie has had a wealth of stunning acting ability from an early age, and that talent has continued to flourish to this day. She is one of the finest actresses around, and has been so for a long time. She could’ve done so many impressive things with Amidala had she just been given something of substance to work with. Instead, it’s all dry political ramblings that never give Portman an opportunity to break out and show some character depth. There’s a little of that in her scenes with Anakin where the humanity of the character surfaces, but that’s not in the forefront of the picture. It’s definitely there to lay the groundwork for the following two films where Anakin and Padmé develop a relationship, but outside of that, she seems almost robotic. As the Queen, her line deliveries are entirely monotone, reflecting no humanity, concern, worry, or urgency. I believe some of her dialogue was overdubbed by another actress due to Lucas’ intention to maintain the ruse of the bodyguard decoy scenario. As Padmé, Portman does have more natural warmth, but I know she’s capable of much more than what I saw here.
George Lucas is not an actor’s director, and that tends to be his biggest failing. I think he’s a great producer. He manages all aspects of production with confidence, decisiveness, and skill, but he just doesn’t know how to bring greatness out his actors. An actor brings their own talent to the table, but it is the director’s job to focus and filter that talent into a unique performance. Without that, an actor has no guidance to know what to put into their character. George’s writing also leaves something to be desired. Sometimes, you get a Harrison Ford who just gets it right from the start because the character practically wrote itself, but for potentially more complex roles, it needs more on the page. You can’t expect every actor to simply see more than what’s written. It requires the director’s input to make it more than that, but Lucas simply doesn’t know how to approach those interactions.
However, the one actor who really shows something of substance and nuance is Ian McDiarmid. While the story follows no reason or logic with the schemes of Palpatine / Sidious, McDiarmid captures a subtle subversive quality that makes him intriguing. While the film never blatantly states it, the two are one in the same, and McDiarmid clearly integrates that into how he plays Palpatine. He’s a man with sinister motives playing out in the back of his mind while keeping up the friendly personae of Senator, observing and manipulating people and events to achieve his goals. McDiarmid brings Palpatine’s ominous perspective into his performance adding the right touches of restraint and foreboding malevolence to draw in an audience’s attention. You can see in McDiarmid’s subtle expressions the moments where Palpatine’s plan is coming together, and he relishes it with silent restraint. Conversely, as Darth Sidious, McDiarmid captures a straight up villainous and intelligent performance that is quite unsettling. As the prequels went on, Ian surely delved wholly into the character playing up the feigned sincerity nicely, and having a broader canvas to work with than others were given latitude to do.
Now, the original trilogy were groundbreaking films in special effects that revolutionized the industry. That’s a big reputation to live up to, and the success here is a little mixed. This was 1999, the same year The Matrix was released, and while I’m no major fan of that film, it’s achievements in digital effects were more consistent and eye opening than The Phantom Menace. It’s difficult to be entirely fair since the DVD transfer of Episode I is not the best. The film comes off a little too grainy to grasp the clarity of the visual effects, and it has this odd pinkish hue. Generally, the visual effects are quite good for 1999, but the leaps and bounds taken in CGI evolution would allow the following two prequels to be vastly superior in that area. So, in comparison, The Phantom Menace looks a little undercooked in the visual effects realm. It’s not a constant, but as I said, it is a mixed bag. Most stuff is great, but some things just lack detail and depth. Many of the hover tanks in the Gungan-Droid battle often look like an animatic or something from an old video game. I would hope that these issues would be resolved with the Blu Ray and 3D releases, but Lucas doesn’t always fix what you think he will. On the positive side, many of the computer generated characters are impressively detailed, creating very finely textured creations. While Jar Jar is an insufferable character that grates on my nerves incessantly, visually, he is an amazing achievement. If he had been as good of a character as Gollum from The Lord of the Rings, maybe people could give more credit to the CGI work put into him.
Production design here is quite impressive. Naboo is certainly a world with a lot of culture and sophistication, and that comes out in the architecture and their design of technology. The capital city of Theed is exceptionally picturesque partly due to the location shooting in Caserta, Italy. Coruscant entirely captures the intended scope and scale that Lucas always wanted for Star Wars. There is an inevitable Blade Runner influence here, but instead of smog, rain, and industrialism bearing down upon the environment, Coruscant is a perfectly wondrous planet that stands as a beacon for the entire Republic. However, I can’t say I care much for anything surrounding the Gungans. Every element of them just seems to pander to the child audience. It is sufficiently alien, but there’s just too much of a cartoonish element to all of it to accept it as anything but child oriented. There is nothing about them that I can take seriously in their culture, characterizations, or dialogue.
Focusing more on the story itself, I find it quite dull and illogical. I could probably write, at least, ten pages worth of criticism about the plot holes in this film, but let me dig into what’s most annoying to my intellect. The actions that different characters take have no sense to them. Darth Sidious orders his minions along a certain course of action that should lead to the opposite outcome for himself, but because all the characters apparently just read the script so that they can follow along an illogical course of action, it all works out right in the end. Sidious wants the Trade Federation to force Queen Amidala to sign a treaty making their blockade legal to the point of invading the planet, but if they had succeeded in doing so, Palpatine could not have achieved placing himself as the head of the Galactic Senate. Palpatine could not have foreseen all these plans going awry where the Jedi Ambassadors survive the Federation’s assassination attempt, escape to the planet, run into Jar Jar, make a deal with the Gungans for passage through the planet core to arrive in Theed just in time to rescue the Queen, and escape the planet through the blockade of battleships so that Amidala could reach Coruscant to ask for a vote of no confidence in Chancellor Valorum. That is an impossible series of events to foresee or predict when your plan is clearly setup to kill the Jedi and keep Amidala locked up in a prison camp while keeping the Senate blind to what’s really happening on Naboo. My only conclusion that allows this to make any sense is that Palpatine and Sidious are split personalities with conflicting motives intent on screwing each other over like a pair of warring siblings. Obviously, that’s not the truth of the matter, but I can’t find a rational stream of consciousness to resolve this issue. If Palpatine was playing both sides, pretending to help the Trade Federation as Sidious while actually focusing his success on Queen Amidala’s side so that he can ultimately seize control of the Senate, that would’ve worked brilliantly. He would really use the Trade Federation as ignorant pawns who were always meant to fail for Palpatine’s further success. He would get them to setup the blockade, but then, sabotage their plans from the inside out so that Amidala can easily escape to Coruscant and set the political stage for Palpatine to ascend to Supreme Chancellor. Instead, every action Palpatine initiates is towards the ends of supporting the success of the blockade. Sending Darth Maul to hunt down and attempt to kill the Jedi and drag the Queen back to Naboo to get the treaty signed is entirely counteractive to Palpatine’s endgame. And this is the entire plot of the movie!
Other plot holes arise from the need of Lucas to make the characters dumb as a post so they make moronic decisions that move the so-called plot forward. A single vote of no confidence from one representative of one planet out of thousands of governments, star systems, and planets immediately usurps Chancellor Valorum from office, and forces a new Supreme Chancellor to be voted into service. I always say that the system works, it’s just the people within it that make it suck. Here, the system sucks, and the people within it are stupid. I can’t imagine how a government body like this could actually function if all it takes is for one person to voice their loss of confidence in its leadership. You’d be voting in a new Chancellor every week. Worse yet, this is not the last time this ridiculous plot device will rear its ugly head.
Further ridiculousness comes on Tatoonie as Qui-Gon goes to one dealer to find the parts they need, and then, since that dealer, Watto, won’t accept Republic currency, Qui-Gon simply gives up trying to locate the parts elsewhere. Just because Watto says no one else would have these parts doesn’t make it true. I wouldn’t trust Watto to be an honest businessman for a nanosecond, especially when he has a young boy and his mother as slaves with explosive devices implanted in them. He’s clearly not moral or ethical. So, why trust him to be an altruistic salesman? Qui-Gon could’ve attempted to charter passage off Tatoonie like the elder Obi-Wan and Luke did in the original Star Wars, but again, the script requires the characters to be intellectually stunted so that the incoherent plotline can be furthered. Because of this, all cunning and ingenuity that could’ve been injected into these characters to make them smart and innovative in tight situations is discarded. These brain dead moments happen again and again and again in nearly every scene. I have seen hundreds of films, and many bad, horrible piles of cinematic trash. However, I can’t recall experiencing a film with such a shoddy script with dozens upon dozens of plot holes that mutilate all common sense from its pages. It’s not like the plot is that interesting to really sacrifice intelligence for it.
I also have to say that Anakin Skywalker being the creator of C-3PO was ridiculous. It adds nothing to anything in the saga, and is a pure fan service addition that, again, has no intelligent thought behind it. A protocol droid is good for language translation and little else. Shmi Skywalker has no practical use for such a droid, and I don’t know how anyone could believe otherwise. And the fact that he builds the exact same droid that is mass produced throughout the galaxy seems stupid. A real world allegory is that when people build their own custom personal computers, they don’t go constructing exact replicas of something they could’ve bought at Best Buy. They customize it to their needs so it is a optimal tool for the work they need to do. If Anakin had any ingenuity, he would’ve built something entirely original that could assist his mother with daily chores. A protocol droid is not designed for manual labor.
Of course, I also have to address the sad attempt at humor in this film. You see, in the original trilogy, the humor really arose from conflicting personalities and witty banter in heightened situations. It could be a little immature, but Han Solo was a little immature at times and Luke was on a journey to maturity. So, it fit the personalities of the characters. Here, the supposed humor is so blatant and in your face, it’s not funny. It’s like a bad stand-up comic trying too hard for a laugh through cheap physical comedy. Jar Jar is here only for stupid comedic antics. Yes, he is a conduit for certain plot developments, but this film already demonstrated that logic holds no substance here, so, I’m a little surprised he has any plot related function at all. Everything he does is clumsy slapstick humor which couldn’t be more out of place for this saga. Star Wars was originally created with the idea of bringing mythology into the modern era as adventurous films for the whole family. I’m sure poop and fart jokes were not part of Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With A Thousand Faces, a book of mythological archetypes that heavily inspired Lucas. It really is sad how far George had degraded his standards for entertainment here. He went from creating a fantastical world of colorful, iconic characters and thematic mythology-inspired stories to a world of flat, dull, lifeless characters that are devoid of intelligence and humanity in ass-backwards stories that follow no reason or logic.
Despite all this, people still thought there was something cool and awesome to be had in this movie in the form of Darth Maul. I respect Ray Park’s athletic talents immensely, but it is only that mixed with a very stunning character design that makes Maul cool. He has no character. He’s a plot device to make a few action sequences dynamic. He’s a henchmen with nothing to say for himself, and nothing of substance to add to the story. Maul exists because Sidious needs a competent ally to go out into the field and do his dirty work him. Yes, he makes himself intriguing through an air of mystique, but frankly, as soon as he departs the film, none of it matters. He’s a disposable villain whose loss makes no impact on the story because he never added anything to it. This is different from Boba Fett who had a cunning role in The Empire Strikes Back by outsmarting Captain Solo’s escape plan, and actually had something to say for himself that reflected a sense of character, personality, and attitude.
The action sequences are a little mixed, but mostly excellent. All the lightsaber battles are amazing! The choreography of these segments show what fully trained Jedi could do, and what a fully capable Dark Lord of the Sith could accomplish. They are dynamic and exciting, but they can seem a little too choreographed at times. I see many behind the scenes featurettes on action movies where they strive to maintain a spontaneity to their fight choreography. While it is all well rehearsed, the choreographers, stunt performers, and actors focus on keeping it real in the moment. They inject character and emotion into those moments so it never looks to be so ‘by the numbers.’ The lightsaber battles can tend to come off like a dance instead of a physically intense series of actions and counteractions where a single error could cause doom. It lacks emotion and danger. It also lacks a psychological aspect due to the absence of dialogue. Before, there would be Darth Vader or later Dooku trying to play mind games through cunning dialogue and strategic intimidation. They would try to put their Jedi opponents off-guard this way, and it made for a more multi-dimensional fight.
Meanwhile, the space battles are okay. There are very few of them, and none of them really capture that urgent speed and suspense that most others in the saga have offered. The climax ultimately gets sliced up too thin between four interconnected action sequences to really give enough coherent importance to more than one. That being the Jedi versus Sith lightsaber duel, and it’s the least consequential fight of the film since there’s nothing at stake between Qui-Gon, Obi-Wan, and Maul. Regardless, its speed and physical intensity give it the rousing action sensation that was needed in more abundance here. The film starts so slowly and flatly laying out plot elements and briefly introducing a few characters while pouring out redundant dialogue that there’s not enough momentum to keep the film going. It has a consistent pace, but that pace is a bit too sluggish here without anything of importance happening. A methodical pace is workable when, like in The Empire Strikes Back, you are getting character development. The Phantom Menace has no substantive character development. Anything you learn of them is really surface stuff, very one dimensional insights.
The Gungan-Droid battle is uninteresting to me since I don’t care about the Gungans or the Droid Army. It also comes off highly cartoonish and pathetically unfunny. I wish like hell there was a way to excise this from the film, but Lucas himself realized that plot elements were too interwoven to do such a thing. Another frivolous action sequence is the pod race. It’s gratuitous in my eyes. Theatrical or DVD cut, it’s far too long for such a minor element in the story. This is not some sports movie where the entire film builds up to this critical sequence where everything is laid on the line, and all character, story, and emotional threads tie into it to make it pivotal and crucial. Yes, it determines whether Anakin goes free or not, but Qui-Gon had already well demonstrated how much he was willing to cheat and manipulate events to get what he wanted. I have no doubt that he would’ve done something unethical to free Anakin even if he had lost the race. Simply said, the pod race overstays its welcome, and once it is done, it has no further relevance to the film. Never has such a fast paced sequence slowed down a film so much.
On the brighter side, as is always a highlight that elevates the quality of any movie is John Williams’ score. “Duel of the Fates” still is a brilliant, operatic piece that gives the climax a sweeping, epic majesty. It was a perfect composition that has always marked what I call, “where the movie really begins.” The only thing the score lacks is due to the lack of it in the picture is rousing adventure. The action sequences are few and far between, and so, it requires the score to be more in the background instead of crashing into the surround sound with heart soaring excitement. Regardless, I own two versions of the CD soundtrack including the two disc ultimate edition, and it is a fantastic listen. So, I give it high marks all around.
The only other thing to address are the midichlorians. You see, the Force used to be something entirely spiritual where it required great commitment and discipline to master. It’s a power anyone can tap into it if they are willing to open their minds and trust in it fully. Yoda spoke to this perfectly in The Empire Strikes Back in that the Force doesn’t rely on the physical. It’s all about the character of the person which determines how great of a Jedi they could become. Now, George Lucas tells us that everyone’s ability to use the Force is based on how many of these microscopic organisms are present in your bloodstream. This means you are biologically limited to how potent of a Force user you can be, and you can never become anything greater than that. No amount of spiritual strength or Jedi training you go through will make you as good as someone with more midichlorians in their body. That entirely crushes the sensibility the Force was originally built upon, and that is another terrible idea injected into a film already ripe with terrible ideas. Before, it was an inspiring idea and philosophy that added a fantastical quality to Star Wars that captured and enthralled peoples’ imaginations. Now, it’s cold science. Just like how I don’t need to know where immortals came from in Highlander, I don’t need to know the clinical origins of the Force. Magic is magic, and that’s all I need to know. And the fact that Lucas uses these midichlorians to say that Anakin Skywalker is the result of a virgin birth created by the midichlorians themselves is just a smack in the face to me. There was never any need to inject such an idea into the saga, and it has extremely little relevance to anything. It is only ever mentioned again in Revenge of the Sith by Palpatine, and it’s practically glossed over entirely by Anakin in that same scene. I suppose it’s meant to give Anakin a more mythic or prophetic aura around him that neither Jake Lloyd or Hayden Christiansen ever remotely live up to. While I’ve never had an overt issue with the whole “prophecy” aspect, it is another idea that Lucas developed exclusively for the prequels. This revisionist mentality is no surprise to anyone now, but frankly, it gets to being a bit aggravating in the prequels as George keeps altering the original trilogy to accommodate it.
That’s really the perils of making prequels. How do you introduce something new to the story that hasn’t already been said without betraying what has already been established? It is not impossible, especially considering Ben Kenobi’s line about “a certain point of view.” There are many things Lucas could’ve altered that could still be true if looked at from a different perspective, but nothing about prophecies, midichlorians, Qui-Gon (not Obi-Wan) discovering Anakin, or anything else can be taken in that way.
As I said, I could go on and on about the flaws and failures of this film that bother me, but this has already been an obscenely long review as it is. Still, it feels like I’ve only barely scratched the surface of it all. There are people who think we just don’t “get” the prequels as if we’re unable to accept them for what they are, and that’s why we rag on them. The truth is that we are fans who just expect a product with a little thought, care, and integrity be put into it. A plot that makes sense with smart, entertaining characters. Frankly, that is not difficult to deliver, but somehow, George Lucas failed on all fronts. Again, I enjoyed the film upon release in 1999 because I was just in awe of the spectacle, but as I have matured, I can see beyond that to focus on how poorly conceived this film was at its most base level. I’ve said for a while now that if this was the original first Star Wars movie, it would not have sparked the same phenomena that we have enjoyed for the last 35 years. It just doesn’t have the rousing adventure aspect or lively, iconic character qualities that made Star Wars so successful in the first place. I don’t enjoy watching this movie, and I don’t believe seeing it in 3D would give it any more actual dimension or entertainment value. My reviews on the entire saga will continue as the prequels do improve beyond this point, but flaws still exist. In one case, my fondness for one prequel film will allow for some forgiveness. In the least, I believe my following reviews will be no more than half as long as this one, thankfully.
The marketing for Thor was real iffy. Including a very uninspired poster campaign, it was very hard to tell from trailers and TV spots if the film worked balancing out drama, humor, and action along with the stark contrasts of our world and the fantastical realm of Asgard. For me, I feel most films today are not marketed well or appropriately. It seems more like the film has to adhere to what they want to market instead of the marketing adhering to what the film is. Either that, or the advertising firm is a bunch of hacks who don’t know how to capture what’s special about the property. Regardless, the trailers and TV spots didn’t sell me enough on the film to run out to theatres. Later in the summer, Captain America: The First Avenger came along, I ran out to see it, and highly enjoy it. However, some major plot points harkened back to the mythology of Thor,and so, I got the urge to see it if only to fill in any gaps that I was not aware of. It was too late to catch it in theatres, and so, the DVD has arrived to help me out. Simply said, I very much like this movie, and was highly satisfied at the end. Of course, for those unaware, here is the obligatory synopsis.
Amongst the nine realms, the forces of Asgard, led by their king Odin (Sir Anthony Hopkins), and the icy realm of Jotunheim (pronounced Yodenheim) populated by the Frost Giants, led by Laufey (Colm Feore) have been enemies for countless ages. After a great battle in Norway, 965 A.D., Odin and his courageous warriors defeat the Frost Giants and seize the source of their power, the Casket of Ancient Winters. Many years later, Odin’s sons Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Loki (Tom Hiddleston) grow to manhood, and while Thor is the great warrior ready to be granted the throne of Asgard, Loki is a mischievous practioners of magic and illusion. However, the Frost Giants infiltrate the palace and attempt to retrieve the Casket. They fail, but subsequent actions in retaliation of this by the impulsive and battle-hungry Thor and his warrior friends leave Odin in contempt of his oldest son. As punishment, he banishes Thor to the realm of Earth, and relieves him of his greatest weapon and source of his power, the hammer Mjolnir. From here on, the hammer and its power can only be wielded by one who is worthy of the power of Thor. Thus, Thor must go through an evolution of character to prove himself worthy of being the man he needs to become. On Earth, he comes into the graces of the young and passionate Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) and her astrophysicist team. Jane gradually forms a caring relationship with the wayward son of Odin. Meanwhile, Loki uncovers long held secrets, and plots his own rule over Asgard. Amidst this, agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. arrive to examine and quarantine the downed Mjolnir which is embedded in stone like Excalibur waiting for its future king to wield it.
There is so much I could talk about here, but perhaps the best, most apprehensive aspect, is how all these different realms of existence are handled and balanced out. Frankly, I think Kenneth Branagh succeeded in doing what very few probably could have done. The scenes in Asgard and Jotunheim are wonderful. They establish the grandeur of the society that Thor comes from. He is used to a world of honor and glory. A place ruled by gods that is magnificent in its visual spectacle. The production design is fantastic here, and the realization of it all in CGI and set design is quite remarkable. In Asgard, people speak with large, proud voices and passionate words of an extraordinary culture, and it all fits, it all works in this realm of gods. When Thor is dropped to Earth, literally, he still acts this way, but to Hemsworth’s credit, I think it’s his charm that makes it all endearing to me. It does comes off comically, but I feel Branagh and Hemsworth make it work because of that charm. They handle Thor with gallant heart and compassion instead of some dumb brute who just doesn’t get it. I, personally, did not find one joke misplaced, mistimed, or out of character. Unlike in Green Lantern where all the Earth scenes were mishandled, poorly executed dead weight, and all the CGI’d otherworldly sequences were the real juice, Thor strikes the balance correctly. This is also due to the plot being tightly crafted to keep the pace up, the emotional threads alive, and the plotline or character relationships developing throughout. Branagh and his editor kept this a lean film from beginning to end.
The only detracting element of the film, for me, and what could’ve been used to make the Earth and Asgard realms stylistically different was the camera work. The biggest gripe is the obscene, excessive use of Dutch angles throughout the film. Usually, a Dutch angle is used to give a scene or the filmed subject an off-kilter feeling. Here, it is used without an intended effect. Branagh’s audio commentary on the DVD gives insight into this choice. These are angles and compositions that were frequently used in the comics he saw and read. So, he intended to translate that onto the screen. He says that there was a concern that he may have been overdoing it, and I believe that concern was warranted. The simple fact is that it’s annoying, and has no positive effect on the shots or scenes it’s used in. There are Dutch angles used on crane shots, dolly shots, steadi-cam shots, static shots, and so on. It was very distracting to me since I am more aware of it than most people likely are due to me being a filmmaker. If Branagh used this style for just the Asgard sequences, and stuck to a more natural style of framing and composition for the Earth scenes, I think that would have enhanced the stylistic differences between the different worlds. As it is, I think it’s exceptionally distracting because it is used with no real storytelling purpose in mind.
Now, where these Marvel Studios films have mostly excelled is in the casting. Attracting some higher grade talents to fill these modern mythological roles is something that Richard Donner started with Superman: The Movie over thirty years ago. Hemsworth is a slight exception to Robert Downey, Jr. and Edward Norton in terms of high profile talent, but he inhabits the dimensional role of Thor impressively well. Again, his compassionate charm carries much of the character through, and allows an audience to connect with his personality. He starts out as a temperamental, hot headed young warrior in search of battle over wisdom, but as the film progresses, more of his heart develops to show his depth. None of us can really relate to the situation he’s in or the cosmic forces he’s battling against, and so, making the man and his emotional conflict relatable is the key. When he turns on the action hero mojo, he continues to impress. Hemsworth clearly worked out for many long months to create the physique of a god, worthy of myth and legend. Furthermore, it is not easy to hold up your end of a scene opposite Sir Anthony Hopkins, but Chris Hemsworth did so with great success. I think that says a good deal about how Branagh handles his actors, and helps them to balance their drama out. However, I will take no credit away from Hemsworth because he greatly displays his wide range, powerful screen presence, and passionate commitment to his role. And of course, Sir Anthony Hopkins really delivers well as Odin. Who else do you get to play a role filled with this breadth of wisdom, power, compassion, and fatherly weight? Hopkins brings a definite sense of history and wisdom with him. He exudes strength, commands respect, but also demonstrates the moments of Odin’s weary age well. He is also a hero of legend that does what he does because he is a good father, and knows what his son must go through to become the man he wishes to be.
The darker side of the spectrum is occupied by Tom Hiddleston as Loki. What could’ve easily been a whiny character is handled with a fine breadth of dimension and intelligence. Deceit and bitterness are what forge his character, and they live and breathe in an actor able to turn those elements back around as a weapon for Loki. As others have deceived and used him, so he does to others in order to gain the power and authority he feels entitled to. Hiddleston handles Loki’s devious nature quite well like a puppet master manipulating his pawns across a chess board to service his ultimate goals. There is also the leader of the Frost Giants, Laufey, portrayed by Colm Feore. Granted, the man is covered by a great deal of make-up and prosthetics, and his voice gets some post-production treatment. However, Feore plays the darkly evil role subtlety. A sullen, methodical villain that is not easily intimidated, and being a giant, does not back down from a challenger. He achieves a lot by doing so little. He uses the make-up to sell the character, but even without it, there would still be a chilling, memorable performance.
Natalie Portman has more than proven her worth as an exceptional acting talent over the last 15-20 years. Sometimes, it’s hard to articulate what makes a great performance. People get wrapped up in the grandiose awards show displays of performances, but great acting can be defined in many different aspects. Here, Natalie portrays a role that is more subtle and graceful to win over an audience’s heart. Maybe it’s just me being struck by how much more beautiful she has become over time, but I was very engaged by her in this movie. Likely, it’s because she can project so much genuine, honest emotion on screen that it easily ensnares me. Portman holds her ground well opposite Hemsworth, and their chemistry is very, very good. As Jane Foster, Natalie projects passion, conviction, heart, and warmth here. Jane is very enthusiastic about what she does, and the mystery around Thor is something she finds charmingly compelling. She slowly involves herself more and more in his well being, and desires to know more about this peculiar stranger. Their relationship slowly develops to a very honest and heartfelt romantic connection. Jane’s associates allow for some good dynamics to bounce off of to give the character some context. Portman really sells everything well, and at the end of the film, I truly feel hopeful for Thor and Jane Foster to reunite.
Again, I feel the production design of Thor is really great. I was in real awe of the innovation and grandeur of Asgard. There are no limits to this realm. It is fantastical beyond known logic. Branagh and his team really create a unique, colorful world worthy of legend, and the costuming reflects that creativity and detail. The film doesn’t burn any unnecessary time away showing it off either. On the flip side, there’s not much to say about the Earth scenes. It’s a small town in New Mexico, and that feeling is captured well.
The visual effects, for the most part, are very well done. There are moments or elements that don’t sell quite as well as others. When the Destroyer (a fire spewing mechanical monster from Asgard) comes to Earth, the CGI construct does feel a little too artificial at times, but it’s mostly during its interaction with its live action counterparts. I was glad that the Asgard scenes did not feel cheap. They took a lot of time and attention to detail to make them hold up strongly throughout the film. They are marvelous to behold. The effects, like the production design, service the story and characters instead of overwhelming them. That’s what visual effects are meant to do, and far too many filmmakers have forgotten that. I’m glad to know that Kenneth Branagh is not counted among those filmmakers. I’m not a supporter of 3D, and seeing this firstly on DVD, doesn’t even give me the option to watch it as such. So, all my impressions of the film’s visuals are based on the traditional 2D viewing.
I’m also glad to be reassured that Branagh never degrades the film down to shaky cam action sequences. They are shot with a good sense of geography and composition so that an audience can follow the scene competently. Really, aside from those aforementioned Dutch angles, the film is shot with a great deal of emotion and epic stature. The cinematography does have character. The shots don’t just capture the personality of the performers, but they enhance them with how they captures them. Much of the same compliments can be translated to the vibrant, powerful score by Patrick Doyle.
I feel the brightest praise I can give this film is the fact that when Thor finally reclaims his power, the thunder roars, and the lightning strikes, I was as choked up with momentous enthusiasm as I am during the helicopter rescue scene in Superman: The Movie. The ascension of Thor’s greatness has reached a level equal to that rousing moment in the first blockbuster superhero film for me. Perhaps that is only me, but I was so very entertained and engaged with this film to have that sort of emotional reaction. What that really means is that the film was successful in every storytelling aspect from direction to acting to cinematography to music and beyond. It made me feel for this hero, his journey, and his triumphs.
While the marketing left something to be desired in convincing me of the film’s quality, the actual film itself leaves no doubt behind. It’s been laborious writing this review because there’s so much to praise that I didn’t want to leave anything significant out, but I had to limit myself to not scouring every single performer or detail. Simply said, in this especially long review, is that Thor is another big win for Marvel Studios. I’ve enjoyed all these films leading up to The Avenger including Captain America: The First Avenger and The Incredible Hulk. Iron Man lit the torch, and while not every entry has been perfect, there has not been enough of a misstep to derail the cinematic plan that Marvel Studios has been carefully planning. So, with a man I have a lot of confidence in directing the picture, Joss Whedon, I feel that climactic movie will be a great achievement. I also highly look forward to what might be crafted for a direct sequel to Thor.