Wednesday, August 20, 2008

#52, #53: Star Wars: The Clone Wars vs. The Empire Strikes Back


Star Wars: The Clone Wars
Directed by Dave Filoni
Written by Henry Gilroy, Steven Melching, and Scott Murphy (story, characters by George Lucas)
Released August 15, 2008

Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back
Directed by Irvin Kershner
Written by Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan (story by George Lucas)
Released May 21, 1980

For the second time this summer, George Lucas's complete ineptitude has sent me retreating backwards twenty years into my life in attempt to reassure myself that I'm not a complete idiot.

The first time came after witnessing the cinematic abortion that was Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. The level of anger and betrayal I felt coming out of that movie (fucking aliens, a wedding scene, the goddamn TARZAN SEQUENCE?!) was like nothing I'd ever felt as a moviegoer... and I sat through Lucas's three horrible Star Wars prequels!

The level of inept creativity in that movie made me doubt the entire franchise, and I immediately went home and plopped the Raiders of the Lost Ark DVD into my player to make sure I hadn't misrepresented the quality of that movie in my mind.

I hadn't. Raiders is really a fantastic film that raises the bar on genre filmmaking by treating what would usually be a campy kind of nod to old serial adventure movies with utter seriousness and believability. The same thing goes for Star Wars, and especially the second film in that original trilogy, The Empire Strikes Back.

Empire is not just a great Sci-Fi/Fantasy film; it's a great movie, period. Lucas's defense of his ridiculous second trilogy has always included some sort of reliance on his belief that "These movies are for children." Lucas's terrible error with those movies is making the assumption that just because something is for children means it can get away with being stupid. Empire, in a way, defies that notion, or at least allows for the fact that children can and will deal with mature material. It has a love story. It has themes of brutal betrayal, with a father cutting off the hand of his own son and a friend selling out another friend to near fatal results. There's even a training sequence where Luke Skywalker essentially beheads Darth Vader and sees his own face behind the mask. In the first ten minutes alone you have Luke cutting an animal to pieces and Han stuffing Luke into the stinking fresh corpse of an animal to keep him warm.

Kids may like it, but this is not kid's stuff.

After struggling through the most recent Star Wars trilogy, I did not have high hopes for The Clone Wars. Honestly, I had no hope at all; with no intention of ever giving George Lucas another dime of my money, I snuck into a showing after a viewing of Tropic Thunder. The only plus I could see was that, much like Empire's use of a different director (which frankly made all the difference in the world), Lucas had given the reigns to film his ideas over to someone else. Unfortunately, it's his ideas that ain't what they used to be.

The Clone Wars takes place between the second and third of Lucas's new prequels, and tells a story that is completely unnecessary and quite boring. It bores me just to think about typing it out right here, so I'm going to make this short: amidst a series of mind numbing battle scenes, Anakin Skywalker (the young man who will become Darth Vader) and his newly assigned padawan ("trainee") Ahsoka Tano must rescue the kidnapped child of Jabba the Hutt to ensure use of Jabba's trade routes. So, yeah... it's the epic story of getting this asshole's baby back so they can use his interstate.

When I say "mind numbing battle scenes," I don't think you can really appreciate just how pummeling and constant these scenes are in the movie. Plus, these battles are primarily being fought by machines, robots and clones, so there is no dramatic heft to any of them. Since you know there is another movie following this that features almost all of the primary characters presented here, there is virtually no dramatic tension.

In the interest of full disclosure, I have to admit to leaving The Clone Wars a little over an hour into the movie (actually, it was just as one character shouted, "We've got to get out of here!"). To put it bluntly, it was un-fucking-bearable. Put up against Empire, it turns to complete dogshit. There is more emotion in Chewbacca's cries, and so much more at stake, as Han is being frozen in carbonite than there is in the entirety of The Clone Wars. The animation is a mixture of computer animation that looks like scenes taken directly from the new trilogy and wood carvings that look exactly like the action figures I'm sure Lucas is salivating to put into stores.

The voice acting is almost uniformly irritating. Not only that, but there is no dialogue in The Clone Wars that can even come close to this 5 word exchange from Empire, one of the greatest dialogue exchanges in the history of film (Harrison Ford's line was ad-libbed, making it that much cooler):

(Just before Han is to be frozen and handed over to bounty hunter Boba Fett)

Princess Leia: "I love you."
Han Solo: "I know."

Hot damn! That's Casablanca-level Hollywood, baby, and that's the kind of subtlety that Lucas could never duplicate, "clones" or not. If you haven't seen it in a while, check out Empire again and take note of what a classic kind of movie it is, and how different it is from all the other Star Wars flicks. It's so much darker and more dramatic, with really good acting from Ford and Carrie Fischer, and even from Mark Hamill, who wasn't exceptional in the first film. There's virtually no space battles, especially compared to the constant shit you have to put up with in The Clone Wars and Lucas's other prequels. No Jar Jar Binks, no baby Jabbas, nothing cute at all, and it ends on an incredibly depressing couple of notes. Even when I saw it in the theater as a child, I could sense the complexity and appreciated the fact that I wasn't being pandered to.

Pretty remarkable, especially for a kid's movie.

George Lucas, you're a jackass.

For more on The Empire Strikes Back and The Clone Wars:
- TONS of information on the former at IMDB and Wikipedia. Learn more about the latter at the official site and
- Episode V at Star

- If you're looking to find Empire on DVD, I higly suggest picking it up used on Ebay or George Lucas does not need your cash. Look for the 2 DVD edition that came out for a limited time in 2006, because it's the only way you'll ever get to own the original, un-tinkered with version that came out in theaters. Ironically, it's included as "bonus material" on the second disc of the Special Edition version.

Luke vs. Darth Vader, from The Empire Strikes Bake:


sh said...

Mightn't it have been a little less lopsided had you compared this iteration of the animated Clone Wars to the animated version produced by Cartoon Network and directed by (the brilliant) Gendy Tartakovsky (Samurai Jack, Dexter's Laboratory)? In a way, what you've done here is like comparing Citizen Kane to Welles' commercial work in the 70s ("We'll sell no wine before its time.").

Empire is a classic, yes, but it's also an anomaly. Of the six movies, it is the only good one. A New Hope is only "good" because it was surprising and new in terms of genre and effects. The acting (aside from, again, Ford and Fischer) was tired (Guinness), or whiny (Hamill). The story was flimsy at best. The comic relief (C-3PO and R2-D2) were only slightly less cheesy and childish than (oh my God, I can't believe I'm about to say this) Jar Jar Binks. And direction, or directing, can really only be seen in the scenes without humans. Oh, art direction, costumes, and makeup were quite good, but "pretty" can't entirely account for the idolatry, nor does "pretty" a good movie make.

Even if one could subtract the Ewoks from Return, it would still suffer from the same problems as all the other movies.

And so, considering Empire as anomalous, perhaps Lucas' "children's fare" defense is viable after all.

Dylan Gaughan said...

Oh, without a doubt, the comparison is unfair. I mean, it's no accident that I'm stacking the deck against this guy.

Empire isn't just an anomaly in the series: it's one of the few great exceptions to the rule that sequels are typically worse than the original. So, Lucas has pretty much been doomed to failure from the start. That's why I go back to Empire, and why I think that is the sole movie that rises above the series as not only a great sequel, but an all out great movie.

I compared it to The Clone Wars because of what I explained in the review: it, like TCW, is the most far removed from Lucas's controlling, fat fingers. Therefore, it had an opportunity to succeed in the same way. I'm guessing that Lucas's fat fingers were still pretty deep into this pudding, though, and the results suffer for it, not only for the reasons I mention, but also because of one you mentioned: the Clone Wars animated series of shorts that already aired years ago. Those were excellent, and the closest thing we've gotten to the original Star Wars "universe" since Empire.

I dislike Jedi so much I never even mentioned it in this review. Beyond the first half hour (once they escape the Sarlac pit), it's pretty much all downhill and virtually unwatchable beyond a few scattered scenes. I still have a fondness for A New Hope, but definitely recognize it to be good, not great.

Still, I don't think the "children's fare" defense holds too much water. I think Lucas confuses "children's fare" with "childish," and handles his directing and writing in regard to the latter. Some serious shit goes down in that last new trilogy movie, from Anakin slaughtering all of the Jedi (including a pack of little kids, one of whom gives the movie's best performance when he stumbles backwards at the sight of Skywalker activating his lightsaber... damn if that little kid's reaction doesn't break my heart) to Obi Wan lopping off appendages like Anakin is a human pinata.

Lucas asks children to handle a lot in these scenes, but I think the real irony is that HE can't handle them. The kids will be fine; it's this childish toad-necked lump of excess that can't deal with human emotion.