Clone Wars & Context

Not too long ago, I mentioned that George Lucas’ involvement in a project usually does not bode well for that project. I admit to a certain amount of bandwagon-jumping there, but at the same time, I think it’s justified. Jeff Jenson at EW thinks otherwise:

But the haters got it wrong — about The Clone Wars, about Lucas (”Sellout”? What does that even mean these days?), and about the current state of Star Wars in general. Missing from much of the overheated bashing of The Clone Wars was the crucial point that it was made for kids, not the grown-ups for whom the original trilogy remains (ridiculously) sacred. Several reviews simply revisited and rehashed the bitter disdain many adult Star Wars fans have for the prequel trilogy. I get that bitterness. But my young Star Wars-loving children don’t, nor do the kids who were raised on the prequels and (heresy!) actually liked them.

Now, I was one of the few who plunked down their $10 to see the latest Clone Wars movie, and I do think that hyperbolic response of movie critics was unjustified. The movie is nothing special, but it does not deserve to be among the worst movies of the year. For all its failings, it’s still well made and it contains a coherent story (albeit, not much of one). So why the disproportionate response? I think the answer is context.

First, everyone heard the story behind the release of this film. Namely that Lucasfilm was putting together a TV series for Cartoon Network, and that after producing the Pilot episode, they decided to put it in the theaters to see if they could rake in some more cash from mopes like myself. Jenson wonders in his article what “sellout” even means these days, and it’s a fair point I guess, but it’s pretty obvious that this is a pure money grab on Lucasfilms’ part. I’m reminded once again of David Foster Wallace’s1 brilliant essay, F/X Porn, where he discusses some of the business decisions that drove the plot of T2:

The studio backing for “T2”’s wildly sophisticated and digital F/X therefore depends on Mr. Arnold Schwarzenegger agreeing to reprise his Terminator role. Now the ironies start to stack, though, because it turns out that Schwarzenegger — or perhaps more accurately “Schwarzenegger, Inc.,” or “Ahnodyne” — has decided that playing any more malevolent cyborgs would compromise the Leading Man image his elite and bankable record of ROI entails. He will do the film only if “T2″‘s script is somehow engineered to make the Terminator the Good Guy. Not only is this vain and stupid and shockingly ungrateful [12], it is also common popular knowledge, duly reported in both the trade and the popular entertainment media before “T2” even goes into production. There’s consequently a weird postmodern tension to the way we watch the film; we’re aware of what the bankable star’s demands were, and we’re also aware of how much the movie cost and how important bankable stars are to a big-budget movie; and so one of the few things that keeps us on the edge of our seats during the movie is our suspense about whether James Cameron can possibly weave a plausible, non-cheesy narrative that meets Schwarzenegger’s career needs without betraying “T1″‘s precedent.

(emphasis mine) Like T2, the production and financial situation of The Clone Wars was duly reported and common knowledge among the public before the film’s release. We know what we’re watching is simply an episode in a TV series, which automatically knocks it down a peg due to the negative connotations of TV. Add on the perceived greed of releasing it in theaters and marketing it to the traditional Star Wars fanbase (while it may certainly be more suitable for children, as Jenson notes, I don’t remember it being marketed that way), and it goes down another peg or two.

Second, the stakes of the film are rather low. This is most likely the result of its TV heritage, as it would have been fine as a pilot episode for a series that will most likely continue to develop the various strands that were introduced in the movie. But when you put it in the theaters, you’re begging to compare it to the other 6 films. While the prequels tend to be a bit muddled in terms of plot, the stakes are clearly high. And the original trilogy has even higher stakes. Furthermore, the movie can’t even approach the stakes of the first Clone Wars series (more on this later).

Third, the tension is non-existent because the film takes place between Episode II and Episode III. In addition, the grand majority of the characters in the movie are also in Episode III, so, for instance, we know that the duel between Anakin and Count Dooku will result in a draw. Ah, but how can I say that when I also like the original Clone Wars series? It’s easy. That series came out before Episode III. Furthermore, while that series featured many of the same characters as the movies, it also featured a whole slew of Jedi who were not main characters in the movies. So when these normally peripheral Jedi are placed in the spotlight and cornered by General Grievous, there is a genuine feeling of suspense (incidentally, Grievous was a great, menacing character in the series – making him a total letdown in Episode III, where he turned out to be an incompetent, cowardly weenie).

Yes, many of these complaints have very little to do with the craft or skill that went into the movie, but context matters. Whether it’s expectations, innovation or the crowd you saw a film with, it’s clear that context makes a big difference. For a movie that takes place in a beloved SF universe with a grand tradition, context matters even more, which is why I think you can see a lot of exaggerated complaints in reviews. To be sure, it’s not a great film, but it’s not one of the year’s worst either.

1 – Surprisingly, it seems that David Foster Wallace was found dead recently. I guess I should dust off my unread copy of Infinite Jest and give it a read sometime. Perhaps after I finish Anathem.