Thursday, September 8, 2011

Attack Of The Clones (Star Wars Week!!!)

We're back for Day 4 of Star Wars Week. To find out more, head back to Monday's review of The Empire Strikes Back.

Genre: Sci-fi/Fantasy
Premise: (from IMDB) Anakin Skywalker shares a forbidden romance with Padmé Amidala while his teacher, Obi-Wan Kenobi, makes an investigation of a separatist assassination attempt on Padmé which leads to the discovery of a secret Republican clone army.
About: Lucas was a little shaken by the response to his screenplay for The Phantom Menace, so was reluctant to write Attack Of The Clones. He ended up writing a couple of drafts and then gave off the final draft to Jonathan Hales, a writer on Young Indiana Jones, who had little experience writing theatrical films. Hales finished his draft a week before production began.
Writers: George Lucas and Jonathan Hales (story by George Lucas)

Of the three prequels, Attack Of The Clones probably had the best chance of becoming a real movie. There's definitely a lot more going on here than in Menace. You have an assassination attempt. You have a much more interesting dynamic in your Jedi pairing. The set pieces are more interesting. But much like The Phantom Menace, there's too much junk you have to sift through to find the gems. By far, the biggest fault of the screenplay is its treatment of its love story. If you ever plan to write a love story, watch this movie to see how not to do it. Lucas has referenced numerous times how this storyline was his "Titanic." And that's a great place to start because I want to show you just how inferior this love story is to Titanic.

Probably more important than what happens during the love story, is how you set up that love story. Your job as a screenwriter is to set up a situation that mines the most drama out of the relationship. In Titanic, we have a poor drifter falling for one of the richest women on the ship, who also happens to be engaged - and oh, they're on a ship that will eventually sink and kill most of the people on it. I can safely say that's a situation that will bring out a lot of drama. Now let's look at Attack Of The Clones. Anakin and Amidala are told to go hide out on her planet.

I want you to think about that for a second. Hiding out on a planet. There is no goal here. There's no engine driving the story thread. There’s nobody after these two. There is no urgency. There are no stakes. You're simply putting two characters in an isolated location and asking them to sit and wait. Is there any drama to mine from that situation? No. This means that before our characters have a single conversation, their love story is doomed. There is no way for it to be interesting. Contrast this with The Empire Strikes Back, where the entire love story takes place on the run with our characters constantly in danger. That's how you want your love story unraveling.

Next up is the dialogue. This is a huge mistake that a lot of amateur screenwriters make. They believe that if the characters are telling each other that they love each other, that the audience will by association feel that love. Wrong. Actually, the opposite is true. We feel love through actions. We feel love through subtext. The time when we least feel love is when two characters are professing it to each other (unless we’re at the end of the movie and you've earned that moment).

One of the best ways to convey love is through subtext. Characters are saying one thing but they really mean something else. The best example of this is in The Empire Strikes Back. During that movie, Han and Leia are arguing with each other nonstop. Yet we can feel the desire each has for the other in every argument. Even when Han is directly trying to make a move on Leia, he does it by challenging her. He's constantly telling her that she likes him, which is far more interesting than if he would've sat her down and professed his love for her, which is exactly how all of the love scenes happen in Clones.

Another thing you need with any good love story is conflict. You need things constantly trying to tear your leads apart. Whether it be something between them, an outside force, a battle from within the individual. The more things you can use to tear your lovers away from each other, the more those characters have to fight to be with each other, and those actions will translate over to the audience as love. So look at all the things keeping Jack and Rose apart on Titanic. First they're from different classes. A poor kid like Jack just can't be with a rich woman like Rose. It doesn't happen today and it definitely never happened back then. Also, Rose is engaged. Even if the class thing weren't an issue, she's getting married. Also important to note is how much is at stake with that marriage. Rose's mom needs her to marry to save their financially crumbling family. The two are also constantly being chased by her fiancé's Henchman. And on top of all that, they're on a doomed ship, a ship that will sink and likely kill one of the people in the relationship. I mean if you want to talk about things that are trying to rip a couple apart, all you have to do is watch this movie.

Let's compare that to all the things keeping Anakin and Amidala apart in Attack Of The Clones.

(insert long silence here).

I mean I guess if you were to push me on it, I could argue that there's something about how Jedi's are not allowed to love. That, to me, is the only element of conflict keeping these two apart. But the thing is, there are no explained consequences to this conflict. It's never explored in anything other than words. And Lucas never commits to it. As we'll see in the next film, their "secret romance" has Anakin sleeping over at her apartment every night. Yeah, they're trying really hard to keep this a secret. This leaves us with absolutely zero conflict in any of their scenes, putting all the heavy lifting on the dialogue, and since the dialogue is mostly Anakin professing his love for Amidala, this storyline turns out to be one of the worst love stories ever put to film.

This also highlights something I brought up yesterday – the scene of death. Every single scene on Naboo between these two characters is a scene of death. The characters are either talking about their feelings or talking about politics. You will never be able to make those scenes interesting because, again, there's nothing else going on in the scene and none of these scenes are pushing the story forward.

These scenes of death are everywhere if you look for them. Remember, when you're writing a story and trying to convey any sort of character development, you want to show and not tell. Now George does a pretty poor job of this in an early scene with Obi-Wan and Anakin, but he does do it. After Obi-Wan and Anakin chase an alien into a bar, the two get into a series of disagreements on how to handle the matter. It's sloppy and it's on the nose, but at least we’re showing their problems and not telling the audience their problems.

However, a few scenes later, we’re up with Amidala in her apartment and the entire scene is dedicated to Anakin telling Amidala how he feels about Obi-Wan. This scene of death (two people talking about another person) is violating three screenwriting rules at the same time. First of all, it's not pushing the story forward at all and therefore is unnecessary. Second, it's telling us and not showing us. And third, it's repeating information we already know. Lucas has given us a few scenes now that have shown us that Anakin has a problem with Obi-Wan's authority. This is the kind of mistake a screenwriter who is writing their first screenplay would make. It's that bad.

As for the structure of the screenplay, all you need to do is compare it to Empire to see why it fails so spectacularly. Remember how in that movie, we were cutting back and forth between Han being chased and Luke training to become a Jedi? In this movie, the two threads we’re cutting back and forth between are a love story on a planet where there's no urgency whatsoever, and a procedural where Obi-Wan plays detective, a sequence that also has little urgency. That means instead of two threads with high horsepower story engines, we have one thread with just a tiny bit of horsepower. No wonder the movie feels so slow.

The funny thing is, there's only a single interesting scene from a screenwriting perspective in the entire movie. And the reason for this is probably that Lucas ran into it by accident. Good screenwriters deliberately structure their screenplays to create these scenes. Bad screenwriters stumble upon them luckily every once in a while, wondering why they're the only scenes that feel right in their script. The scene in question is when Obi-Wan meets Jango Fett in his apartment. This scene is a good one because there's so much subtext at play – one of the few times in the prequels that we actually have subtext. Obi-Wan suspects that Jango Fett is the one who tried to assassinate Amidala. Jango Fett knows that Obi-Wan is on to him but must act aloof. This is what creates the subtext. The two are having a somewhat normal conversation, but both are hiding some critical pieces of information that they know about the other.

The only things that actually work in the film are things that were born out of the original films. We’re excited to see Yoda fight for the first time. We’re excited to see a bunch of Jedi's take on another Army. We’re excited to see Obi-Wan battle Jango Fett. But none of those things are generated through the dramatic components of this particular story. We enjoy them based on nostalgia. Attack Of The Clones is a little better than The Phantom Menace but not enough to garner a better rating.

[x] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: What I'm realizing with these prequels, especially after yesterday, is that there's no urgency to them whatsoever. I mean look at this stretch of four scenes early in the movie. We have a scene of the Jedi Council telling our characters what to do. We have a scene where Sam Jackson and Obi-Wan and Yoda discuss how Jedi's have become arrogant (scene of death). We have that scene where Anakin and Amidala talk about how Obi-Wan is mean (scene of death). And we have a goodbye scene at the ship station with Obi-Wan and Amidala (scene of death). That's four scenes in a row where the only thing that happens is the Jedis order Anakin to protect Amidala. There are no story engines driving these scenes whatsoever. Everything just sits there. Go watch the first act of Empire. After the 15 minute “Luke kidnapped by Wampa” sequence, we get a fun little scene where the crew jokes around about what happened, and then the very next scene they find out the Empire has spotted them, beginning the next sequence where they have to escape the planet. If Lucas would've wrote that sequence? He probably would have added three or four scenes with Han and Leia talking to each other, with Han and Luke talking to each other, and God knows who else talking to each other. When people say to keep your story moving, this is what they mean. They mean don't write all these unnecessary scenes that you don't need.