Clone troopers Rex and Fives battle Separatists on Umbara...and their ruthless new Jedi general.

By Christian Blauvelt
October 29, 2011 at 09:24 AM EDT
Lucasfilm

Now this is the episode I’ve been waiting for. That we’ve all been waiting for.

Kid-friendly hijinks with R2-D2 and C-3PO are all well and good, but there comes a time when you’ve just got to stop looking at the cute side of war. The Clone Wars are a galaxy-spanning conflict trumped-up needlessly by two craven Sith Lords to bring about their ultimate vision of a galaxy under dictatorial rule. Supreme Chancellor Palpatine has sacrificed trillions of lives to facilitate his own power grab. It’s about time we put aside the Gungans and the Aleena and any other cuddly critters. And “Darkness on Umbara” did just that. If the original Star Wars trilogy has been read as a metaphor for Vietnam, “Darkness on Umbara” followed suit and, to use the parlance of ‘Nam, brought us into the s—. These are the front lines, baby.

Anakin, Obi-Wan, Saesee Tiin, and General Krell brought their forces into the Ghost Nebula in the Expansion Region to take back the shadowy world of Umbara.  The purple-tinged planet is the nexus for a critical supply route, even though it’s covered in perpetual darkness save for the natural photoluminescent glow of its flora. I know what you’re thinking. This sounds like Nam Chorios, the titular world in that all-time worst Expanded Universe novel, Barbara Hambly’s Planet of Twilight (a.k.a. the one where Princess Leia fights an exiled Hutt Jedi. Yes, you read that right…A Hutt Jedi.). No such obese Force-user was present on this dimly-lit world, though legendary Apocalypse Now film-editor Walter Murch is directing next week’s episode, so maybe Ziro the Hutt will show up to fulfill the Kurtz role.

One of my all-time favorite comments on this recap came last year when somebody wrote, “Where are the clone troopers? I watch Clone Wars for the clones!” That person should have been thrilled about “Darkness on Umbara.” Captain Rex and the ARC Trooper Fives reunited, for one. And most of the episode was then seen from their rank-and-file perspective. Their initial flight through Umbara’s violet sky, dodging Separatist flak, felt like a grim helicopter ride into the middle of hell until they could finally land and establish a beachhead—only to encounter the Umbaran militia striking from the shadows.

NEXT: A tribute to George Lucas’s knowledge of cinema history.

Much of The Clone Wars’ last season explored Star Wars’ mythological underpinnings, but I liked that right from the start “Darkness on Umbara” embraced the kinetic, battle-hardened, decidedly non-spiritual side of George Lucas’s aesthetic. In fact, this is the most reminiscent Dave Filoni’s series has been yet to Genndy Tartakovsky’s terse 2003-2005 Clone Wars series, which emphasized razor-edged B-movie thrills with only the tiniest smattering of mythmaking. For Rex and Fives, after all, the battle between the Dark Side and Light Side is irrelevant. They’re just guys doing a job and trying not to get killed.

Once they’d landed, Rex, Fives, and Anakin found themselves immediately in the crossfire. You-are-there subjectivity isn’t something animation is typically known for, but I felt these scenes in my gut. I mean, who didn’t grimace when that one walker stepped on that guy? (And why didn’t the Empire keep their walkers this agile, this fleet-of-mechanical-foot if you will? No, they just did had to embrace the idea that bigger is better, even if that meant their AT-ST’s could be felled by rolling logs.) I love that The Clone Wars can get away with that kind of violence—it respects the sophistication of its audience, young or old. I don’t know, maybe Lucas will eventually pull a Spielberg and replace all the blasters in these scenes with walkie-talkies. I kid!

For those who don’t think the Clone Wars is up to the standard of, say, the original trilogy, just look at how Filoni & Co. have staged these battle scenes. Like the Battle of Hoth in The Empire Strikes Back, the Lucasfilm animation team maintains exquisitely clear continuity. The Republic forces always move from left to right, and the Separatist forces always move from right to left. On Hoth, the rebels moved from the left, the Empire from the right. George Lucas has a profound knowledge of cinema history, and he adopted this simple method for making the spatial relationships of frenetic action scenes comprehensible from none other than that pioneer of silent cinema D.W. Griffith. If you watch the Battle of Petersburg scene in The Birth of a Nation (or any of the battles in Intolerance for that matter),Griffith stages his action in very much the same way. It’s an art that’s largely been lost in the era of Michael Bay, but Lucas is helping keep it alive—another reason why he should be celebrated as a filmmaker.

NEXT: Enter the benevolent General Krell. All hail Krell, and his glorious new regime.

I’m telling you, planets lit mainly by a bioluminescent glow are not to be trusted. Yeah, you can preach to me all you want about Eywa on Pandora, but I challenge you to survive there without getting eaten by the hammerhead rhinos. Likewise, Umbara has its share of fearsome beasts, including some strange sarlacc/dianoga hybrid that ate a clone trooper whole—though maybe like Boba Fett his armor will prevent him from being digested, and he can escape. I wasn’t too upset then when the Republic’s Y-Wing bombers carpet bombed a huge swath of the Umbaran jungle. I even half expected to hear “The End” by the Doors start playing, or General Krell to shout, “I love the smell of tibanna in the morning.”

Oh yeah, about General Krell. Palpatine wanted Anakin out of Umbara—which means he must know this mission is doomed to fail. So he replaced Anakin’s command of the clone squad headed by Fives and Rex with Krell, a four-armed Besalisk, the same alien race as Obi-Wan Kenobi’s diner-owning pal, Dexter Jettster. I don’t know what’s more intimidating about Krell: his four-handed mastery of two double-bladed lightsabers, or his casual contempt for the humanity of his clone troopers. “I find it very interesting that you are able to recognize the value of honor, for a clone,” Krell said, dismissing a compliment from Rex as mere flattery. Now this is fascinating.  On the one hand, we’re very much being encouraged to condemn Krell’s kneejerk prejudice to the clones. After all, the Clone Wars series has always encouraged us to root for Rex, Cody, Bly, Fives, etc. as nothing but heroes. But…Krell does have a good reason to be contemptuous of their existence. They are a mass-produced army onto whom the Republic’s citizens can defer responsibility for their war, thus keeping the reality of its horrors at bay. And, despite whatever autonomy they’ve achieved during the war, they’ll still turn on their generals, the Jedi, the moment Palpatine issues Order 66. Cody will still issue the order to fire on Obi-Wan on Utapau. Bly will still gun down Aayla Secura in cold blood on Felucia. Their hardwired programming indeed trumps any notion of loyalty. Krell’s attitude reminds me of General Rahm Kota from the Force Unleashed video game. He also detested the clones and fought against the Separatists using only local militia forces—and because of that, he survived Order 66 and was able to wage his own private war against the Empire.

And yet “Darkness on Umbara” only showed Krell as a villain. In fact, he was like a walking inventory of every Evil General cliché from war movie history. There’s the by-the-book rigidity of Henry Fonda in FortApache, the callousness of Adolphe Menjou in Paths of Glory, the psychotic stubbornness of Nick Nolte in The Thin Red Line. It’s hard to imagine that Krell ever was a “keeper of the peace.” Based on this portrayal, he’s representative of exactly why the Jedi are wiped out…because they mindlessly played into Palpatine’s unending cycle of violence. Unless…maybe, just maybe Krell has himself turned to the Dark Side. When he drew his lightsaber on an outspoken Fives, that seemed very, very un-Jedi-like. Maybe he’ll end up like Master Jerec, turn to the Dark Side, and serve the Empire following the end of the war—if he can get past that pesky humans-only policy of Palpatine’s government.

Anyway, I loved “Darkness on Umbara.” That cliffhanger with Rex and Fives getting ambushed actually is a cliffhanger, because we don’t know their fates in the war. I can’t think of a better point for Walter Murch to jump into that Galaxy Far, Far Away, can you?

What did you think of “Darkness on Umbara”? Do you agree that Krell may in fact have turned to the dark side? Will he be able to keep his sanity throughout the next three episodes of this arc? And do you share my fear regarding planets of perpetual twilight?

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Before the Dark Times, before the Empire, Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker fight to restore peace and justice to a galaxy far, far away…
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