Apocalypse Now editor Walter Murch helms another gritty battlefield epic. But with more clones and less Brando

By Christian Blauvelt
November 05, 2011 at 04:30 PM EDT
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Apocalypse wow.

I know that feeling that’s probably nagging at the back of your fandom right about now. Why hasn’t The Clone Wars given us episodes with the level of mature storytelling and visual complexity we’ve seen in “Darkness on Umbara” and “The General” before now? The answer is pretty simple. These are installments that are clearly the culmination of everything the Lucasfilm animation team has learned over the previous 72 episodes. In fact, one of the greatest pleasures of The Clone Wars over its four seasons has been witnessing its progressive stylistic growth. Last year’s breakthrough was the lush jungle environment of Wasskah, a visual rebuttal to the rocky planets that had been the series’ go-to landscapes. This season it seemed to be the water world of Mon Calamari. Now, it’s the crepuscular shadows and fog of Umbara, the perfect hellscape for an assumption-upending arc that debunks a few nagging myths of Star Wars lore: that the Jedi are always noble, that the Clone Wars are merely the arena for fun displays of heroism and bloodless action, and, most importantly, that it’s difficult to emotionally invest in a conflict that’s, you know, mostly about clones fighting droids.

And the perfect man to direct all this into an aesthetic whole? None other than the man who gave a coherent shape to Apocalypse Now, Walter Murch, the legendary Oscar-winning film and sound editor who revolutionized the cutting of action scenes with his work on Francis Ford Coppola’s Vietnam War epic. (He also served as George Lucas’s sound editor on American Graffiti.) “The General” was Murch’s directorial debut in animation, and what a debut! No, it didn’t feature Anakin Skywalker sprawled out in a drunken stupor in an Umbaran hotel room or Ziro the Hutt as a Brando stand-in, as I had predicted last week, but it did have a startling subjectivity.

Tom Kane stressed the “disastrous defeat” General Pong Krell’s clones suffered last week due to the harsh demands of their four-armed commander. Krell’s not just determined to gain victory; he’s adamant that he secure — and, if possible, enhance — his reputation as a battlefield leader. When Obi-Wan holocommed him with orders to take an Umbaran airbase, you could bet that Krell was going to do whatever it took to achieve that objective.

NEXT: Is General Krell secretly consumed by the Dark Side?

It’s interesting to note that Obi-Wan wasn’t recalled to Coruscant with Anakin. All the more reason to think that Palpatine knows this mission is doomed to failure. He’s probably hoping that this will be where Obi-Wan becomes one with the Force. In the Timothy Zahn novel Outbound Flight, Palpatine recalled Anakin and Obi-Wan from an extragalactic survey mission led by mad Jedi Master Jorus C’Baoth that he knew was going to be destroyed. Actually, that he’d ordered to be destroyed (by the future Grand Admiral Thrawn, no less). At that point, he still needed Obi-Wan to train his future apprentice. Now, with Anakin a fully-grown Jedi Knight, he has no such interest in The Negotiator’s welfare.

Outbound Flight has one other key similarity with the Clone Wars’ Umbaran arc. I mentioned the mad Jedi Jorus C’Baoth, a harsh taskmaster. He bears more than a little temperamental similarity to General Krell. C’Baoth brushed closely to the Dark Side. Krell may already be there. His people, the Besalisks, may have yellow eyes naturally, but I’m wondering if they aren’t yellow because he’s also consumed by the Dark Side. What else was that final zoom-in to his buggy eyeball reflecting the fires of the inferno he’d unleashed really supposed to signify?

No matter his current placement on the Light-Dark spectrum, Krell’s a breakthrough Jedi character. Finally, a member of that ancient order who isn’t perfect, who isn’t a hero to root for. Sure, there’ve been Jedi before like Dooku or Darth Malak who turned to the Dark Side and became villains. But it was easy to then say they were no longer Jedi — the Order itself remained untarnished. More difficult to place is someone like Krell, who still seems squarely within the Order but lacks those hallmarks of Jedi-hood: respect for all life, compassion, selflessness. The Clone Wars has usually had it both ways: it wants to show the Jedi losing their way as they become Generals while still portraying them as heroes. But with Krell, there’s nothing heroic to speak of. Unlike General Skywalker — or really, any other Jedi we’ve seen on the show — he doesn’t even lead his troops into battle himself. He stays in the rear, acting the part of strategist more than warrior. So when he came up with a hasty plan to launch a frontal assault on the Umbaran’s heavily fortified airbase, it seemed as callously foolhardy as George Macready’s crazy General in Paths of Glory who wants to sacrifice his men just to take “The Anthill.”

Only unlike the Anthill, this airbase was indeed a meaningful target. Obi-Wan even told Krell that the entire invasion rested on capturing it. But the troops weren’t having it. One clone with the Republic insignia hilariously tattooed across his face seemed so astonished by Krell’s plan to launch a frontal assault that he kept hitting his helmet against his head — as if his noggin’ needed more marks than that ridiculous ink. Fives thought this meant Krell just hates clones and called out Captain Rex for his unwavering loyalty when Rex said that sometimes it’s necessary to lay down lives for victory. “You believe that?” Fives said. “Or is that what you were engineered to think?”

NEXT: Feel the terror of the Umbaran centipede!

They began their march to the airbase. But a terrifying creature stood in their way. Last week it was a sarlacc. This time it was some kind of mechanical centipede, like an insectoid AT-AT walker that can burrow into the ground. It was divided into segments, with each sporting a pair of legs and a blaster cannon, and a head where an Umbaran would serve as driver. When Riff Tamson called his hydroid medusas in the Mon Calamari arc “half machine, half…monster” he clearly hadn’t seen these, which live up to that billing ever so much more.

Clearly these centipedes worked as psychological weapons every bit as much as conventional ones, because people hate bugs and especially hate centipedes — even people in that galaxy far, far away have heard of The Human Centipede and are grossed out by it. These buggies were ray shielded too, so only rocket launchers or thermal detonators could take them out. Rex had a great plan where he led several of the centipedes into a ravine where he’d left a few detonators, and up in smoke they went. When an Umbaran came stumbling out of one, Fives put that reb out of his misery with his cool steel blaster.

That was a moment that underscored the visceral impact of these episodes. Much of The Clone Wars has been about clones bloodlessly fighting droids. Here we’ve got a flesh and blood enemy, but we really see the clones vulnerability too, with injured troopers being dragged out of combat by their comrades. Prick them, do they not bleed? Yes, the clones definitely do.

Because the Umbarans have an entirely insect-patterned military, they next threw powerful spider-shaped tanks at our troopers. There was no way a frontal assault was going to get beyond them, so Fives and Hard Case volunteered to sneak into the airbase by themselves — easier to slip a couple past than dozens — steal a couple fighters and use them to provide aerial cover. It was crazy enough that it just might work, though trigger happy Hard Case made us doubt for a moment that he had the mental fortitude to see it through. “My commander on Kamino said my growth acceleration chamber had a leak,” he said. “Made me hyperactive, I guess.” Anyway, they indeed did sneak in to the base, steal a couple fighters with a unique ray-shielded cockpit, like some kind of floating gyroscope that seems way more advanced than anything the Republic has — how come the Empire never went with this design? — then clumsily blasted their way out of the base, and cleared the way for their comrades.

NEXT: A hint of Order 66?

Once the airbase had been taken, Rex emphasized to Krell how many men had been lost to achieve his objective. Krell was unmoved and replied that someday Rex would realize that casualties are the price for victory. Once he’d left, Fives muttered, “He’s the one who’ll never realize.” Damn. I mean that could just be Fives calling out Krell’s inhumanity…or it could be a threat of what’s to come in Order 66, with Fives looking forward to the day he can gun down this arrogant Jedi.

Last week I discussed how George Lucas has mastered the objective presentation of battle scenes first pioneered by D.W. Griffith. Individual combatants always maintain consistent screen direction and all that. “The General” threw out that playbook. This time, it was a subjective view of combat — all low-angle close-ups and reaction shots with the “camera” placing you in the thick of it. Again, this is like the Battle of Geonosis in Attack of the Clones. One of the most impressive aspects of that battle is how it starts out as a very ordered, graphically-contained D.W. Griffith-style conflict. Then, all of a sudden, when the Republic gunships are entering a cloud of smoke, there’s a snap-zoom to the one carrying Obi-Wan and Anakin. (Actually, that may have been the first ever snap-zoom against an entirely greenscreen background.) Suddenly we’re in a Vietnam war movie!

I think that’s a quality Walter Murch was able to inject into “The General.” In his great book In the Blink of an Eye (a film school staple), he likens cutting between shots in a movie to blinking, that editing engages us on an almost autonomic level. With animation, Murch doesn’t even have to worry about piecing together previously shot pieces of film. Every sequence could be animated to maximize the impact of the “cuts,” because there aren’t really any cuts. Like Jason Alexander’s Acting Without Acting, this is editing without editing.

Anyway, “The General” was another winner for me. I’m dying to see now how this arc is going to wrap up, aren’t you? And we’re only halfway through it! Do you think this whole mission is doomed to failure? Or did Palpatine take Anakin out of harm’s way for another reason? Is General Krell going to find himself with a full clone rebellion on his hands? And how come the inhabitants of every galaxy find centipedes terrifying?

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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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