Saturday, April 25, 2009

RPS Essay

This is my submission for the contest at Rock Paper Shotgun.

I think that the best science fiction film was Star Wars Episode 2: Attack of the Clones. I wanted to pick a Star Wars film, as I believe the series is the most influential sci-fi series in changing film and fiction in general. However, I feel that the original films are not indicative of the rich and deep political climate that is present throughout George Lucas' Star Wars universe. Episodes 4-6 are very classic examples of good versus evil, and while they are rife with interesting and shocking plot twists, they do not move us to change our outlooks on life or what is right and wrong.

Episode 2 is by far the best at making us think about the actions of each of the characters in the movie and ask ourselves whether they are right or wrong. Each of the main characters has their own particular moral compass, and this causes them to make many interesting choices throughout the film. Each time this happens, we are presented with a delightful dilemma - was what he or she did the right choice?

For our first example, we can take Obi-Wan. He's a pretty forthright, straightforward good guy. When we see him interact with Anakin in the early scenes, he is often stern with Anakin, chastising him. To some degree, Obi-Wan even belittles Anakin, in moments such as when he is questioning Anakin for why he would use Padme as bait to lure out the assassin. Are all of his decisions right in the movie? If everything had gone as he had wished, would Jango have been captured, or was the combination of Anakin and Padme's recklessness required in order to find Zam Wessel and later, Jango Fett?

Obi-Wan's caution is seen often in The Phantom Menace as being the voice of reason, but in Attack of the Clones his caution would have left him to forego opportunities that other characters, such as Padme or Anakin would push the story into exploring.

Anakin is the character that defines the moral ambiguity of the trilogy, though. He battles constantly with things like his love for Padme and his mother, things that the Jedi code discourage. These feelings get him into trouble and contribute to his eventual fall, but his expressions are all too human. While we frown at the way he murders the Tusken Raiders in vengeance, we also understand his fury at the loss of a loved one.

When we watch Episode 2, each of us has a different view of Anakin. Maybe we see his instability and arrogance as his defining traits, and frown on him because of that. Some of us might see his passion as a strength, rather than a weakness, though. Compared to the other Jedi, Anakin is much more 'human' and expresses emotions that we ourselves are likely to feel. The murder of his mother driving him to vengeance is something many people can relate with. I think that it is too easy to look at Anakin and condemn his feelings when he really is more like us than characters such as Obi-Wan or Yoda.

I can't talk about Anakin without mentioning Padme, though. She's every bit as reckless as he is, and her recklessness is almost always seen as a good thing throughout the movie. She is motivated to do the right thing at any cost, even if it puts her or others in danger. Even her arrival at Coruscant at the start of the movie is a decision fraught with peril. Numerous characters express concern that she should not have come. The major difference is that Anakin makes 'wrong' choices that end up getting people in trouble, while Padme makes choices that generally help the good guys out. However, it's important to note that the intent of these two characters is usually the same.

Although he had a pretty minor role in the movie, the morality of Chancellor Palpatine should also be addressed. In The Phantom Menace we see that the Republic is a slow, ponderous political beast with no real power, and that there is need for change. Palpatine, as the center of this change to a more stable system of government, is not truly a bad guy. Although we know that he becomes the "evil" Emperor later, and that he is the Dark Lord of the Sith, I think labels like "Dark Lord" serve to mask the unity he is attempting to bring to the galaxy.

In Attack of the Clones, Palpatine makes his second step towards gaining control of the Republic by getting emergency executive power. He is also never clearly portrayed as both the Chancellor and Darth Sidious at the same time. If the viewer had never seen the prequels, he or she might even be fooled into thinking that they were not the same person. Palpatine is almost always shown as impeccably nice to everyone, and only Obi-Wan even speaks ill of him during the movie (in a line that mentions him as being just like all other politicians).

But the blurred moral lines are not the only things that make Episode 2 excellent. Attack of the Clones also has excellent pacing, and covers a lot of key events in sequence that makes sense and is easy to follow.

When I rewatched the movie in order to better elaborate on the morality points that would be the focus of my essay, I noticed a lot of excellent plot flow. The chase scene with the shapeshifter Zam Wessel was particularly interesting because although it had a lot of twists in the chase (Obi-Wan getting blasted off the droid, Anakin jumping off his speeder to land on Zam's, and the final 'showdown' in the bar) they do an excellent job of making the viewer feel like all these crazy occurrences are plausible and could reasonably happen together.

If summarized, the events of Episode 2 seem ridiculous. Why does Anakin go from Naboo to Tattoine to Geonosis... with Padme in tow? If one were to explain these things to anyone else, these events would sound absolutely crazy. But when actually watched, these events make total sense. The actors do a surprisingly good job of justifying where they are going and what they are going to do there. Each plot twist in the movie feels right. When we are watching, we don't ask ourselves, "How is Obi-Wan on Kamino?" When I thought about the movie before watching it, I couldn't remember how Obi-Wan got there (it seemed like such a big logic leap). But when watching it, it made total sense.

Another thing the plot does well is handle many characters in different places. In many television shows and movies we get confused about who is doing what, and where. Obi-Wan is headed after Jango to Geonosis, Anakin is on Tattoine, and so on. The information about the characters is presented in an easily digestable and memorable way so there's never any confusion. This is a pretty impressive feat and most movies that do this screw it up.

Lastly, the movie does a great job of playing homage to the movies that came before. The Lars family, little riffs of the Imperial March here and there, and lines like "Anakin, someday you'll be the death of me," serve to really bring the old memories back. I do think that knowledge of the old movies does detract a bit, since we have certain expectations in this movie because of them. However, for those of us who did see Episodes 4-6 many times before seeing Episodes 1 and 2 for the first time, the homages were a nice touch.

I feel that Attack of the Clones is highly underestimated as a film. I agree with many of the criticisms such as weak acting (especially by Hayden Christensen) and poor scriptwriting, but the actors deliver a compelling tale that keeps you entertained from start to finish. It also lets us look at real life ethical dilemmas instead of a clear-cut battle versus good and evil.

I hope that you enjoyed reading this essay. It took me quite a while to write, and required rewatching of Attack of the Clones and a few trips to Wookiepedia.

Thanks for reading. Hopefully I've motivated you to take a look at what is really a great film.

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