Jan 28, 2016

Watch & Learn - 6 Writing Mistakes to Avoid in Star Wars: Attack of the Clones

Last time we looked at the first of the Star Wars prequels, The Phantom Menace, and the mistakes it can help us avoid. Today we move on to the second installment, Episode II - Attack of the Clones. And believe me, we've only scratched the surface of how mistakes such as these can damage your work.

That's a lot of lens flare, considering Abrams wasn't involved.
Class is in session
Now, I'm going to catch some flak for this, but I prefer Attack of the Clones to The Phantom Menace. It's still a bad movie, with bad acting, bad pacing, etc. But at least the events in the movie actually matter to the overall story of Star Wars, even if the actions of the characters are largely irrelevant (I'll address this below).

Mistake 1: Lack of Central Character
Mistake 2: Poor Representation of Characters and Events
Mistake 3: Padding
Mistake 4: Poor Dialogue and Character Development
Mistake 5: Lack of Emotional Engagement
Mistake 6: Poorly-Executed Tragic Fall

Mistake 1: Lack of Central Character
The same issue we saw in The Phantom Menace rears its head; who is the main character? Obi Wan or Anakin? Since the prequels are supposed to tell the story of Anakin Skywalker's fall to the Dark Side, we would expect that he would be the central character of the movie. However once he travels with Padmé to Naboo, it's Obi Wan who becomes the focal character for the actual plot. Anakin is relegated to the romantic subplot. And I say subplot here, not because his relationship with Padmé isn't important - it is - but because it is given absolutely no importance to the movie's storyline. I'll return to this point later.

Most of their screentime is spent sitting across from each other, ignoring the plot

Mistake 2: Poor Representation of Characters and Events 
Writers are repeatedly advised to show, not tell, the reader what's happening in the story. What this means is, simply, if a character is feeling a certain emotion, or possesses certain characteristics, you need to portray that emotion or characteristic in action. If a character is sad, show the reasons for the sadness, and how it affects the character's life. Don't simply have the character say "I am sad."

A key scene in Attack of the Clones is after Anakin has killed the Tusken Raiders who took his mother, and he confesses what he did to Padmé. He angrily declares that Obi Wan is holding him back, keeping him from achieving his true power.

But where do we see this? Anakin and Obi Wan have perhaps two or three very short moments of dialogue between one another that aren't in the middle of an action sequence. None of their scenes together address Anakin's training, except for one line about Anakin needing to be more careful about losing his lightsaber. If anything, the implication is that Obi Wan expects Anakin to perform better than he is, not that he's holding Anakin back.

It's also worth noting here that in A New Hope, Obi Wan called Anakin "the best star pilot in the galaxy." And yet he's never shown flying a ship in battle. He pilots a speeder while chasing Padmé's would-be assassin, but there's very little he does that Obi Wan can't match. And in fact, when there is a space combat scene, it's Obi Wan, not Anakin, who's involved. This puts us two films through a trilogy about Anakin Skywalker, and we've not yet seen him live up to his reputation as a skilled pilot.

The revelation that the Kaminoans have been breeding a clone army for the Republic is an example of a plot twist that is handled without any sense of logic or internal consistency. Not only has this army been in development for a decade, but we learn it was commissioned by a Jedi Master who has been long dead. Did this master commission the army before his death? If so, why? Under whose orders? Was his name used by someone else? Where did the money come from? It's certainly convenient that the Republic found a ready-to-go army right when they were on the brink of war, so who could have set this up, and what was their motivation? Why was the bounty hunter who supplied the genetic material for the clones working for Count Dooku?

None of these questions are asked by the Jedi. They simply comply with Palpatine's wishes that the clones be deployed into battle immediately. This strains credulity and undermines the authority and agency the Jedi should have. How can the audience believe that the Jedi are worthy protectors if they don't ask basic questions? We should at least see some suspicion that Palpatine is involved, or a desire to find the truth, instead of everyone falling into line.

Presumably they had a fleet of battleships just lying around...

This is also the place to mention Artoo's jet boosters. They appear for the first time in this movie, and instantly create a discontinuity with the rest of the series. If he has them in Attack of the Clones, then surely, unless there's a reason to the contrary, he should have them during the original trilogy? There are certainly points in the original trilogy when the heroes would have benefited from Artoo being able to fly.

Of course, I'd be remiss if I left out the worst example of poor characterisation in the whole movie...

Yoda is a Jedi Master. Head of the Jedi Council. He has trained Jedi for 800 years. His introduction in The Empire Strikes Back was explicitly intended to show that appearances can be deceiving. He says himself, "Judge me by my size, do you?"

He also has another line, when Luke says he's searching for a great warrior.

"War not make one great."

He counsels Luke against using the Force to attack. He warns him not to rely on weapons to overcome his trials. Everything about Yoda says that violence is not always the answer, that there is more to wisdom, and to the Force, than physical might.

When I first saw Attack of the Clones, and saw Yoda enter the hangar after Count Dooku had defeated both Anakin and Obi Wan, I actually got excited. He remained calm. He showed us his strength with the Force, easily matching Count Dooku's power, but instead of being aggressive, he defended, and reflected Dooku's own strength back against him. Just like the Jedi Master I grew up with would do.

The moment Yoda produced his own lightsaber, that aspect of the character died. Instead of a wise master, one who could overcome violent desires and prove the power of the mind over the power of the body, Yoda, the most powerful of all the Jedi, is reduced to a flashy CGI fight scene. As if the tonal change of seeing the hobbling old Yoda flipping and tumbling through the air wasn't bad enough, it also changes a major element of his character, by having him resort to violence.

Mistake 3: Padding
This movie is full of unnecessary scenes. Having Obi Wan and Jango Fett engage in two fight scenes (one on the Kamino landing platform and the starfighter battle above Geonosis) is pointless. The scenes are both quite long, considering their lack of narrative importance, and either one could have been removed completely.

The droid factory sequence is likewise badly placed and serves no purpose beyond extending the movie's running time. There's no sense of danger or purpose to it.

Another problem scene is the arena sequence. Instead of simply executing Anakin, Obi Wan, and Padmé, the Seperatists decide to let three large beasts eat them in an arena. Setting up a straightforward execution would cut the unnecessary beast fight, and still allow Mace Windu and the other Jedi a chance to rescue the captives. And of course, this rescue attempt leads to a second rescue, when Yoda arrives with the clone troopers.

The worst offender in terms of padding, though, is the love story between Anakin and Padmé. And since it's supposed to be a central part of the movie, that's a major flaw.

If you remove the love story, nothing changes. That's poor storytelling. If the love story isn't having an impact on events, why is it given screen time? It's clear that the intent is for the audience to buy into their romance and care about them, but between the dreadful dialogue, poor performances, and the fact that the romance itself is treated as something so separate to the rest of the movie, it's difficult to accept that it has a real purpose.

Mistake 4: Poor Dialogue and Character Development
Of course, that brings me to mistake number 4.

Your reader buy-in depends heavily on engagement with the characters, and two of the most important factors in this are dialogue and character development.

If you can, watch this video of the dialogue between Anakin and Padmé.

The language is stiff, overblown, artificial. It doesn't feel like a real conversation. There's no emotion or depth to the lines. While dialogue in a novel can't afford to be completely true to life (real conversations tend to make for awkward reading), it must at least feel real. The reader needs to believe the emotion you're trying to convey.

In terms of character development, what this basically means is that your characters need to have changed somehow over the course of the novel. At minimum, your readers should be able to see that your protagonist is not the same person at the end of the novel that they were at the start.

In Attack of the Clones, the only real character change is that Anakin and Padmé have entered into a secret marriage. While this should be a powerful and emotionally-charged sequence of events, when taken along with the poor portrayal of their relationship and the lack of other characterisation, it falls flat. Every other character starts and ends the movie the same way, in terms of their personalities, levels of power, and knowledge about the threat posed by Darth Sidious/Palpatine.

Essentially what the movie serves to do, aside from establishing Anakin and Padmé's marriage, is to show that Palpatine is successfully manipulating every person and event to his own ends. This should have the effect of showing how capable Palpatine is. After all, the audience knows he's really Darth Sidious, so there's nothing to be gained from trying to convince the audience that the heroes are winning at any point.

Unfortunately, this is just what the movie tries to do. Palpatine is still treated as a separate entity from Darth Sidious, and the heroes are shown to be quite inadequate in terms of solving the mystery of the clones.

It feels mostly that the characters are forced to make poor choices simply to keep the plot going, and again, it feels unnatural and forced.

Mistake 5: Lack of Emotional Engagement
Emotional engagement is sorely lacking in this movie. We have the unnecessary action sequences. Stiff dialogue. No sense of the heroes being active agents within the story.

And yet, there's more.

When I reviewed the original Star Wars movies, I pointed out that the use of close-up shots in battle sequences allowed the audience to connect on an emotional level. Even though we were seeing epic conflict, the movies kept reminding us of the personal stakes.

The final battle in Attack of the Clones is fought between an army of CGI clones and an army of CGI droids. There is no emotional connection. Both sides are treated, by their commanders and by the narrative, as fully expendable. So we have no reason to care.

Yes, this is something addressed in the Clone Wars tv show, which does an excellent job of humanising the clones and telling solid war stories about them as characters. However it should not require a secondary medium, released 6 years later, to correct the mistakes of a story.

Because of how the droid armies of the Separatists and the clone troopers of the Republic are handled, there is no reason to feel anything during the final battle sequence. No matter how vivid your descriptions and how much effort you put into those big set pieces, if your reader has no reason to connect with the events, they'll start glossing over it.

Mistake 6: Poorly-Executed Tragic Fall
It bears repeating, the prequel trilogy was marketed as the story of Anakin Skywalker's fall to the Dark Side. So it stands to reason that if the first movie introduced him, the second would set up the character flaws that would lead to his fall, and the third would finally give the payoff of his transformation into Darth Vader.

In fact, if you Google "When did Anakin Skywalker turn to the Dark Side," the first page of results focuses entirely on Revenge of the Sith.

But what about the Sand People?

After he tracks his mother to their camp and she dies in his arms, Anakin slaughters the whole tribe of Tusken Raiders. Now you might say that these were savage raiders, who tortured his mother to death. But remember what he tells Padmé.

"And not just the men, but the women and the children too."

And their little dog, too

That right there is the moment Anakin stopped being a good person with some flaws and became a monster. He killed children. At this point, if there were any consistency or logic in the characterisation and narrative, Anakin would be considered to have turned to the Dark Side, and Padmé would have wanted nothing to do with him ever again. But because George Lucas needed to get to three movies, this fact is overlooked.

I'll go into more detail about the problems of how Anakin's fall is portrayed, but for now, it's enough to learn that if you're planning a tragic fall, or any major character development or plot twist, you have to pace it properly. If you give away too much too soon, you rob the eventual revelation of its power. It doesn't really matter what Anakin does in the final movie, because we already know he'll kill children if he's angry enough. And worse, we know that the character we're supposed to be rooting for as his love interest has little reaction to it.

We've come a long way, but we still have one more prequel movie to get through. We'll soon see how close George Lucas came to producing a good origin for Darth Vader, and how many mistakes still crept in at the end.

Class dismissed.

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