Empire Rising

by The Cat Lady

I regard "Star Wars" movies as entertaining but juvenile spectacles. I know that some people take them much more seriously. But that is just a sad indicator of the poverty of the culture that is supposed to cultivate our spiritual longings. That said, I have seen the new "Star Wars" movie "Attack of the Clones" twice now, first in Marin County then in Berkeley (which resembles the "Star Wars" cantina more and more every day).

The last "Star Wars" installment, "The Phantom Menace," was a wretched movie, and virtually anything would be an improvement, but "Attack of the Clones" is not merely relatively better, it is absolutely good.

I rank "Attack of the Clones" alongside my favorite "Star Wars" film "The Empire Strikes Back," and in many ways it is an even better film. Both films are the centerpieces of a trilogy. Both have a darker quality and a harder edge. There are other parallels too: a chase through an asteroid field, a mysterious floating city, a bounty hunter surnamed Fett, flying fixtures as weapons, a hero who loses a hand in a light-saber duel, etc., etc. These parallels are not, however, mere derivativeness, but the magical "correspondences" that knit together a mythical universe.

I must confess that I have always sided with the Empire. Given the cynicism of Lucas's portrayal of the corrupt democracy of the Galactic Republic in the last two films, I wonder about his sympathies as well. I was seduced by the Dark Side of the Force long before the first "Star Wars" movie, so Darth Vader has always been my favorite character. I like his tragic grandeur. I like his ruthlessness. I even like his clothes.

Am I the only person who would like to sweep into a room wearing a black cape to the sinister strains of John Williams's brilliant "Imperial March," telekinetically strangle some bumbling henchman, then blow up an entire planet because it obstructs my view of the next planet over? I think not.

Am I the only person who would eagerly trade our sordid democracy for a populist dictatorship of wise but ruthless men with sexy uniforms and a knack for political pageantry? I think not.

Since "Attack of the Clones" deals with the rise of the Empire and the maturation of Darth Vader, it holds many charms for authoritarian personalities like me.

I was surprised at how much I liked Hayden Christensen, the handsome ephebe with red-brown hair and blue eyes who plays Anakin Skywalker, the young Darth Vader. One of the great flaws of "The Phantom Menace" was that a prepubescent Anakin was too young for the role. The film would have been much improved if the character had been played by a sexy, edgy teenager rather than a homely, toad-faced little moppet. A teenaged Anakin would have made the dare-devil racing more plausible. He would have made the individuation struggle with his mother more plausible as well. And he would have allowed for some sexual chemistry with Queen Amidala. This, in effect, is the Anakin played by Christensen.

Christensen has a difficult role. Not only must he play a psychologically complicated and evolving character on the cusp of manhood, he has to utter the film's worst lines and play opposite Natalie Portman, who plays Amidala, Anakin's love interest. Portman is pretty, particularly for a Jewess, but she is such a wooden actress that the only explanation for her career is Jewish networking. The great irony of the film is that little rubber Yoda gives a far more human performance. Despite these handicaps and a number of scenes that simply do not work, Christensen makes Anakin a compelling character. Although he is tall and thin, his physical presence communicates strength and flexibility, like a slender blade of tempered steel. His movements in the action scenes are graceful and completely convincing. Even some of the awkward love confessions come off as the kind of thing one might expect from a brilliant, messed-up kid a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. Particularly thrilling is the scene where he tells of single-handedly slaughtering an entire enemy tribe, his blue eyes wild and flashing, homicidal and vulnerable at the same time, an exterminating angel.

There are other good performances: Christopher Lee (who played Sauruman in "The Lord of the Rings"), with his resonant voice and imposing presence is superb as the villainous Count Dooku. Ewan McGregor has gotten much more comfortable in the role of Obi-Wan Kenobi. But it is Yoda who steals the show in the end, first as Field Marshall of a hijacked clone army, then hilariously dropping his crotchety old persona and leaping like a deranged Chucky doll into a light-saber duel.

Visually, "Attack of the Clones" is stunning. It is the first major movie to be recorded entirely digitally, which accounts for the amazing detail, depth, clarity, and color. The special effects are remarkable, particularly the three computer generated monsters that appear in the arena scene. The action sequences are breathtaking, however implausible they may be. The sets and landscapes are always fantastic, beautiful, even sublime. The light-saber duels are beautifully choreographed and genuinely thrilling. (These were the most successful sequences in "The Phantom Menace.") Another remarkable feature of this film is how well it communicates palpable, gritty physical presence through details like the reflections of the light-sabers in the eyes of the combatants or the clouds of dust covering the battlefield in the climactic scene.

Like the movie as a whole, John Williams's score is far superior to his work for "The Phantom Menace." The single CD of selections does not do it justice, but eventually the complete score will appear on two CDs. The "Love Theme" is truly beautiful, and Williams masterfully uses themes from his earlier scores, such as "The Force," "The Duel of the Fates," and the "Imperial March," to give us insight into Anakin's psychological transformation.

Of all the "Star Wars" films, this one is almost free of embarrassingly juvenile moments. There are no lines about scruffy-looking nerf herders, no Wookies, no Ewoks, and mercifully little of Jar Jar Binks. In "The Phantom Menace" Jar Jar looked and acted like Roger Rabbit seen on a bad acid trip. Thankfully, in this movie he seems to have been sedated for his few brief scenes. In one scene Senator Amidala gently cuts Jar Jar off when he threatens to go on too long. This is Lucas signaling that he feels our pain. R2D2 burbles and chirps amiably, and C3PO utters a couple of groaners, but in some scenes they are genuinely funny. Perhaps the stupidest thing about the movie is the title.

It seems silly to complain of the presence of non-Whites and Jews in a cast consisting mostly of people in rubber masks representing even more disgusting races. In such a context, racial casting decisions are far less loaded with offensive messages than in films set in the present day, which cast non-Whites as implausible heroes and Whites as villains. I have already complained about the dreadful Natalie Portman. The only prominent Negro in the cast is Samuel L. Jackson as Jedi Master Windu. Perhaps a Negro would be plausible as a man of nobility and sagacity a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. But not on this planet. Queen Jamilla of Naboo may have her face painted blue, but she is obviously being played by an Indian, Ayesha Dharker, who is very attractive without the greasepaint. The bounty-hunter Jango Fett is played by a handsome, swarthy actor with a fine stage presence. At first glance, I could not determine his race. "Dago Fett?" I wondered. But as soon as I heard his New Zealand accent, I knew he was a Maori-a descendant of the tattooed, stone-age Polynesian warriors who fought the British Empire to a draw. The actor's name is Temeura Morrison. His son -- actually his clone -- Boba Fett is also played by a Maori actor, Daniel Logan. Their father-son relationship is one of the minor pleasures of the film.

One of the more interesting aspects of the reception of "The Phantom Menace" were the debates about the ethnic identities of the non-human characters. At first some homosexuals argued that Jar Jar is really gay, and that makes him a good character. Then the Negroes piped up and complained that Jar Jar is really Black, and he casts them in a bad light. Then the Orientals objected that the evil fish-faces of the Trade Guild talk like Chinese waiters and dress like Fu Manchu. Finally, Jews complained that the ugly, greedy, dishonest, hook-nosed Watto is an anti-Semitic stereotype.

Perhaps we have Negro whining to thank for Jar Jar's diminished role in "Attack of the Clones." Lucas may have reasoned that if Jar Jar does not crowd his way into every scene acting like an infantile, appetitive idiot, Negroes will not think that he is supposed to be one of them. But the evil capitalist fish-faces still talk like and dress like movie gooks from the 30s and 40s. And, as if to intentionally goad the Jews, the loathsome Watto appears this time with a wide black hat above the huge hooked proboscis, making him look not just Jewish, but Hasidic! You heard it first on VNN.

Many people are hesitant to run out and see "Attack of the Clones." This is logical, given how awful "The Phantom Menace" was. The trailers and advertisements for "Attack of the Clones" are also poorly conceived. They demonstrate that the movie is a spectacle, but nothing else, which leads naturally to the suspicion that it is nothing else. Finally, the title sounds like a parody. If you have been waiting for the reviews, then wait no longer. "Attack of the Clones" is a thoroughly entertaining spectacle. It is one of the best-if not the best-of the "Star Wars" series. See it, and maybe you too will start dreaming of an earthly Imperium.


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