August 2001: Send in the Clones

Oh, my.

By now you've surely heard. It's all over the net, being debated in the coffee shops and bars, an acquaintance of mine who didn't even know about the Lord of the Rings adaptation asked me the other day if I'd heard about the new Star Wars title.

And so I had, as have-most certainly-you. The title of this month's column was what came immediately to mind. A particular song of a very similar title has been running through my head ever since.

But even that isn't as disconcerting as some of the reaction I've been seeing about this new title. Even though it is rather understandable.

I mean, Attack of the Clones does sound like a certain B-movie involving giant fruits that most people generally consider vegetables. It's not, surely, the sort of thing most of us like to think of when we think about Star Wars, right? We want something magical, something moving, something mysterious. Not something that sounds like an Ed Wood flick.

We want something that brings back the sense of wonder Star Wars elicited in us when we were six years old. Which was, incidentally, my age when I first saw The Empire Strikes Back. Now, there's a title for you. Just brimming with mysterious aura, don't you think?

Well, no. And in fact, back when the title for Episode V (that's Empire, in case you haven't been keeping track) was announced, people reacted rather similarly to the way they are now. Ditto with Return of the Jedi. And, more recently, with The Phantom Menace. People have been complaining, not without some justification, that Attack of the Clones sounds like something that's, well, aimed at kids.

And how old were most of us when we first saw Star Wars?

My point exactly.

George Lucas has always been very clear on this point: Star Wars is and always has been aimed at the young. Even the admittedly dark tone of Empire was only worth a PG-13, and an awful lot of kids under 13 see worse things than that on television, if you want to know the truth. And if the plot of The Phantom Menace was contrived, the script awkward, the performances wooden-yeah, so? You can say all of those things about the original trilogy, but most of us generally don't. That's because, when we watch those old movies, they bring us back to the good old days, which is really just another way of saying when we were kids and the world wasn't really less complicated, but it seemed as though it was. Now here we are, adults, and The Phantom Menace just didn't have the same effect. We can't look at it as if we were kids, because we're not.

And that's how we look at the title Attack of the Clones. We look at it and we think that it's silly, and contrived, which it is. We point out that it has no mystery, no poetry, which it doesn't. It makes us leery about what Episode II will be like, and if we expect to get the same sensawunda from Episode II that we got from Episodes IV-VI, then it probably should.

But I dislike the notion of dismissing the title of a Star Wars movie just because it's silly. When you come right down to it, all of the Star Wars movie titles are silly, including the name Star Wars itself. If Episode II sucks, that's a different story-but I don't think we can insist that the movie will suck based solely on the title. Granted, a lot of people disliked the title The Phantom Menace (including myself, mostly because it's so hard to say) and also disliked the movie (I don't, although it does have its faults), but it's possible to like the one and dislike the other. The title's just something to hang a reference on, after all.

Would I have liked a more interesting, metaphorical, poetic title? Well, sure. Who wouldn't? But you have to admit, calling a Star Wars movie Attack of the Clones is quintessentially Star Wars. This is a story, after all, that's based on old-fashioned Flash Gordon serials and ancient sci-fi movies. Most everyone knows that, but perhaps we don't stop for a moment and think about what that means.

Lucas avoids being clever so assiduously that one suspects that he does it on purpose. He's not trying to make something slick and rounded at the edges, like, say, The Matrix (which is also a very good film, better than Episode I in my opinion, but also different). He's trying to make something fun. Perhaps, on occasion, he tries too hard-like that irritating Greedo-shoots-first alteration to A New Hope, or Anakin Skywalker hollering "Yipee!" as he merrily pops droids' heads off with his garden-implement-shaped starfighter. But, as I've pointed out before, perhaps a lot of us are taking Star Wars too seriously.

Think of it this way: somebody gotten up in a Jedi costume for a showing of Star Wars in a theater is just getting into the spirit of things if he's doing it for fun. But if he's doing it because he really, seriously believes in the Way of the Jedi (whatever that is) and will be able to levitate things with his mind Any Day Now, he should probably switch to decaf.

We grow up. We get a little jaded. Maybe we acquire a bit of sophistication. We learn that things don't always go as we want them to, including Star Wars movies. Getting back all the wide-eyed wonder of childhood becomes, maybe, rather more of a stretch. The Empire Strikes Back fits in our worldview in a way that Attack of the Clones just doesn't.

But it's only a title, for heaven's sake. If you want sophistication, try Tolkien-though even he wasn't a master at coming up with catchy titles. Unless you think The Fellowship of the Ring fairly resounds with poetry. Speaking of which, have you seen the trailer for that yet? Looks like it's gonna be quite a movie.

Which might be a little off the subject, but I brought up the Lord of the Rings adaptation for a reason. Comparing Lucas and Tolkien might seem a little absurd, but it does serve to highlight their differences of purpose. There are two major ways to criticize a film (or anything else, for that matter): whether it succeeds in what it sets out to do, and whether you like it. So far, Star Wars has been successful at the former. As to the latter, well, calling Aesop's fable to mind-you know, the one about pleasing all of the people all of the time-might be useful at this point.

As to Episode II, well, we'll see if it's as successful as its predecessors. But I seriously doubt that its title will have a whole lot to do with it. Nobody's complaining about the title of The Fellowship of the Ring, because it's nicely established. What people are concerned about, if they're concerned at all, is how well the movie will succeed, both on its own merits and as an adaptation of Tolkien's novel.

That's what we should be concerned about with regard to Attack of the Clones, again, if we're going to be concerned at all. Me, I'd rather worry about something I can actually do something about, like the next mayor of Seattle, for instance. Try it. It's a lot more rewarding.