Posts Tagged ‘Ian McDiarmid’

From the Hootoo archive. Originally published May 30th 2002:

It’s always dangerous to turn up to a movie with expectations of a life-changing experience, doubly so when the movie in question is an American-made blockbuster. And yet that’s what I (and I suspect many others) did, when Attack of the Clones, the latest instalment in George Lucas’ cultural juggernaut Star Wars, opened a week or two back.

My excuse is that, well, I couldn’t help it because I love Star Wars. Seeing the original movie on the big screen in early 1978 is not only one of my earliest memories but also probably one of the formative moments of my life. I have a Pavlovian reaction to the exuberant bombast of John Williams’ score. I even really liked The Phantom Menace, despite its flaws.

Yet I came out of the theatre with oddly mixed emotions. The initial euphoria due to simply seeing a new Star Wars movie faded and I was left feeling neither shaken or particularly stirred (sorry, wrong franchise). And I couldn’t work out why. This seemed to be an adventure in the classic style: the further escapades of our heroes Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor), Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen), and Padme Amidala (Natalie Portman), three people united by their love of freedom and democracy and their very dodgy hairstyles. I won’t trouble you with the traditional teaser of plot at this point, as a) if you’re remotely interested in this film you’ve probably already seen it at least twice and b) its terribly, terribly complicated. Suffice to say there are chases galore, much wielding of fluorescent tubes, and some of the most spectacular battle scenes in cinema history.

Having gone back for a second viewing my considered judgement is that this is an immaculately made, highly entertaining blockbuster, packed with cortex-frying visuals and memorable moments. It benefits enormously from a full-throttle performance from Christopher Lee, who perfected the role of ‘villainous Count with supernatural powers’ in about 1966, and who’s as powerful a screen presence as ever.

I suspect my initial ambivalence was partly due to going in with such high expectations, because while Attack of the Clones is good, it’s not great. There are serious problems with the script: the central love story is so flatly written and perfunctorily handled that it would take considerably better actors to make it remotely convincing. Natalie Portman’s delivery of the line ‘I truly, deeply love you‘ is almost bad enough to make you start cheering for the Trade Federation.

There’s also the lengthy sequence set on Tatooine. While this is one of the most effective and impressive parts of the movie, allowing Christensen to show how good he can be, it could also be excised almost completely at no harm to the main storyline. As in The Phantom Menace, setting up the plot of the ‘future’ films seems to take priority over telling the story of this one.

I think I was also taken unawares by the sheer darkness of parts of the storyline. This film is even darker, in places, than The Empire Strikes Back, with a real sense of pain and despair and impending doom – partly generated through clever use of characters, imagery and music from the Classic Trilogy. Episode III looks like it will be very bleak indeed.

Actually, I think I detect a certain lack of decision on Lucas’ part as to what level to pitch this Prequel Trilogy at. We all know how this story ends, after all, and I would have thought the sensible response would have been to play the dramatic irony of the situation for all its worth. But there are very few allusions to what lies ahead, and Lucas stubbornly sticks to his guns by pretending the true identity of Darth Sidious will come as a huge shock when it’s revealed. It won’t; even my mum figured out who it was and she keeps asking which one of the characters was Captain Kirk.

On the other hand, the film seems to assume the audience is already familiar with the Classic Trilogy when it comes to elements like the Sandpeople and Yoda (his big scene works because it plays against the audience’s expectations of the character). Going entirely for dramatic irony would have worked fine, as would playing it all ‘as new’. The mixture of the two in the finished movie smacks of confusion and a missed opportunity.

Expectations have never rested easily upon the Star Wars films and Attack of the Clones is no exception. It’s not up to the same standard as The Fellowship of the Ring, but it is packed with thrills, spectacle, fun and humour. It may be only a movie, but at least it’s a good one.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published April 25th 2002:

The making of prequels is a practice fraught with difficulty – the only really successful ones I can think of, off the top of my head, are Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and possibly Davy Crockett and the River Pirates. Certainly one such effort which fell a long way short of expectations was 1999’s Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, written and directed by George Lucas.

It stills feels odd to realise that the next Star Wars movie is only weeks away from release: compared with the build-up three years ago, there’s a virtual media blackout in place. Now this is probably partly due to the enormous impact on fantasy cinema of Lord of the Rings and also the fact that this is a bumper year for SF and fantasy blockbusters, but the general perception of The Phantom Menace as a failure – one celebrity fan routinely refers to it as The Phantom Sh*tbox – must also play a part.

Like The Scorpion King, this movie deals with the formative years of a character destined to be the big bad guy in the earlier, which is to say later, movies. In this case the lad in question is Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd), a young slave on the desert planet of Tatooine. Distinguished only by his supernaturally quick reflexes and vague precognitive powers, Anakin’s life is turned upside down when he’s dragged into a great adventure involving two Jedi Knights (beardy Liam Neeson and hasidic Ewen McGregor), the Queen of the planet Naboo (tranquillised Natalie Portman), a strange guppy rastafarian (he’ll-be-trying-to-live-this-down-for-the-rest-of-his-career Ahmed Best) and R2-D2 (lives-down-the-road-from-me Kenny Baker). It’s all to do with Trade Federations and the Galactic Senate with a bit of podracing and some sword fights slung in for good measure. You already know the plot, after all…

Now my routine defence to criticisms of The Phantom Menace at the time it came out was that this is a different style of film – rather than ‘plucky rebels fight evil empire’  this is a story of the rise of darkness and the loss of innocence, and so it’s of necessity got a different mood and tone to it. But the problem is, it hasn’t – the film succeeds best when in territory not really covered by the first, which is to say middle, trilogy (I’m beginning to wish Lucas’d made these films in the right order after all), such as that of the political thriller and the faux religious epic, but struggles to accommodate the action sequences and chases which the audience expects from a Star Wars film. Part of this problem is the opening, which is of the same in media res ilk as its predecessors, but is really a mistake in what’s supposed to be Episode I and the absolute beginning of the story. As a result the new-style material looks incongruous and disappointing. The crass and obvious comic relief would still have felt hugely out of place, though, no matter what.

Beyond the main problem of approach, there are plenty of minor flaws in the way it’s scripted. Of course, I’m not the first to point out that the Jedi aren’t nearly as likeable or charismatic as leads as their predecessors, which is to say their – oh, never mind. There isn’t the same level of energy in any of the performances and you do realise how much the originals relied on Harrison Ford’s slyly comic performances for their success. The film doesn’t even hint at the darkness within Anakin that will ultimately consume him. There’s also Lucas’ total fumbling of Portman’s dual role, both in script and direction, and it’s not made clear exactly why main villain Darth Sidious is helping the Trade Federation in the first place (he seems to benefit more when his schemes go belly up). The Federation are rather craven bad guys, too, perhaps the main evidence that this film is more interested in setting up future plotlines than in telling a good story of its own.

But I still think this film isn’t anything like as bad as it’s often held to be. Darth Maul (Ray Park and Peter Serafinowicz) is a memorable bad guy, even though he only seems to be in the film as a plot device to ensure a couple of good saber battles. The final duel is the best to date in the series. The special effects are, of course, immaculate, although with the rate at which modern special effects advance, the vistas of CGI armies on the march already look a bit dated.

In the end though, it comes down to this: the original Star Wars succeeded so amazingly because it retold a primal familiar myth in a visually unprecedented way. The Phantom Menace, if it fails at all, does so because it tells an unfamiliar kind of story in a visual style the audience has become very familiar with down the years (interesting, given that both films clearly owe a debt to Kurosawa’s Hidden Fortress). It’s too Star Wars-y when it doesn’t need to be, but not Star Wars-y enough where it counts. There’s still potential left in the saga, though, and hopefully the producers will have learned from The Phantom Menace‘s mistakes. We’ll find out soon enough.

(…and when, nearly 10 years after writing this, The Phantom Menace was re-released in 3D, I had this to say about it.)

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