‘Rogue One’ Plays it Safe. But ‘Clone Wars’ Took Chances

[Contains spoilers]

Two weeks ago, I saw Rogue One in the theater with two of my kids. The theater was packed; excitement was high. One guy brought his dog. Folks clapped and whistled when the opening credits started. Even when the projector broke down halfway through the film, causing a thirty-minute delay, people were cheerful; we all got up for more popcorn and drinks and returned for the rest of the film, and the guy next to me unwrapped a gigantic, oily, meat-filled sub sandwich he’d smuggled in from somewhere and ate it, with a wink at me like “Look what I got away with,” and the whole thing took so long that by the time it was over we all felt like we had been though something together.

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So that was all good and well. The kids and I returned home at midnight in a driving snow, and they liked the movie and they were happy. (Which is kind of weird, considering how incredibly grim parts of it were, but it ended on a well-played high note that had classic Star Wars fans lapping out of the director’s [Gareth Edwards’] hands.)

But in the days since, I’ve heard almost nothing but praise for Rogue One. And that is fine — I’m not in this business to dampen anybody’s joy. But I’m hearing people say they thought Rogue One was dark, “meta,” current in its referencing of international conflict and quasi-terrorist warfare. They’re saying they’ve never seen this side of Star Wars before. But an alternative Star Wars ethos and storyline has existed for nearly a decade, and I think whatever space-hotdish Rogue One has served up looks flabby and insipid in comparison to its much more subversive, much more moving, and far more entertaining predecessor: the Clone Wars animated series.

[Let me clear this up now: I am talking about the Clone Wars television show, not the movies: those almost-universally-despised Episodes I, II, and III, directed and written by George Lucas in an orgy of ridiculous computer-generated imagery, with Canadian Mullet Anakin and sad, weeping, dead-in-her-freaky-childbirth-cage Padme. I am talking about a cartoon — can’t believe I just wrote that — yes, a kids’ cartoon that aired on the Cartoon Network for six seasons, from 2008 to 2014. And before this knowledge alone sends you packing, please meet me halfway by acknowledging the long artistic history of embedding some of our strongest subversive messages in childrens’ literature and film, and in cartoons and drawn images.]

I am not talking about this:

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(They had Olan Mills photography on Coruscant!)

I’m talking about this!:

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Clone Wars Season 5, Ahsoka and Anakin

Now, I’ve blabbed on about the Clone Wars series for years to anyone who’ll listen, like a nut job on a wooden crate in a town square. My demographic — thirtysomething suburban women — is not really the ideal place to voice such obscure and dorky passions, though I will occasionally swing through Facebook screeching about the show’s value at some innocent virtual-bystander and then shrink back in horror at myself, as well I should.

And I should make it clear that if it were not for my own children, raised on Star Wars like it was Flintstones vitamins, I would probably never have sat down to watch Clone Wars at all. Their love for it has certainly affected me, as has the fact that my 11-year-old daughter and I watched all six seasons over one winter, one night after another, 7 nights a week, until we finished the whole series. It was a lot of fun to share that with her, so I’m sure this plays into my love for the show, too.

But I stand by my assertion that Clone Wars does something no part of the Star Wars canon has done before or since– yes, I said “since,” and I am looking at you, Rogue One. Clone Wars looks inside American culture, and the recent American wars, in particular, with a harsher judgment, a tougher sense of complicity and even guilt than Rogue One — in its sloppy mire of tropes and action scenes — can muster.

— Clone Wars Basics: When, Where, and Why

The Clone Wars series takes place in the brief span of time between Episodes II and III. For those who know Star Wars, that alone makes it interesting. This time period has a very different sense of evil than most casual viewers are accustomed to in Star Wars. Whereas the evil in the original episodes is very clear — a stomping, hyperventilating, despot-in-his-heyday evil — it is much more diffuse in the Clone Wars.

It’s an evil that is gathering in a way even the Jedi can’t predict. They do not know that their closest allies, the Clones — created to be an army willing to fight and die without a second thought for the lives of their Jedi — have been secretly corrupted. They’ve been implanted with a chip that will cause them, at a specified time, to betray their Jedi all at once — and to think it’s the Jedi who are betraying them — and follow the Sith lords, primarily Darth Sidious.

— But it’s a Cartoon; How Dark Can it Be?

 

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The bombed Jedi temple in Clone Wars

There is much to appreciate about Clone Wars, from its terrific graphics (especially in later seasons) to the way it revitalizes characters you thought you knew and had already dismissed. (Weepy, chemistry-of-a-potato Natalie-Portman-Padme has been changed into a smart, savvy Senator whose devotion to intergalactic diplomacy and alien-and-human-rights takes precedence over her marriage to needy man-child Anakin, though even he is oddly likable here.)

I would love to go into Clone Wars’ more fanciful aspects — like the whole storyline where His Royal Space-British-ness, Obi-wan Kenobi, gets to inhabit (literally!) the body of a tough-talkin,’ tattooed, incarcerated bounty hunter — a changeup so delightful no one could have seen it coming.

But I don’t have all day here, and neither do you, so let me get to the punch: If you think Rogue One is dark, you simply haven’t seen Clone Wars. And unlike Rogue One, Clone Wars won’t let you morally off the hook.

-You Will Not Be Let Off This Hook.

In Clone Wars, the Separatists (bad guys) have upped the ante. The Jedi, though struggling to maintain their code, are growing increasingly desperate. They begin to sanction forms of guerrilla warfare and aid underground fighters (such as the young, pre-cyborg Saw Gerrera — he’s one of the few Clone Wars characters who was brought into Rogue One — and his sister, Steela). The cost to civilians caught in the crossfire is clearly shown.

There are direct and timely references to terrorism, such as a fatal bombing in the Jedi temple hangar — basically a VBIED; can you get more timely than that? The attack — with fatalities — is initially blamed on a maintenance worker, whose name, Jackar Bowmani, manages to transcend your usual space-gibberish with its potentially non-western undertones.

But it’s the storyline of the Clones that I find most timely and — I’m not even embarrassed to say this — most moving about the Clone Wars. The Clones’ arc is not only superbly done, but it feels to me, at every turn, like a direct commentary on the War on Terror, the culture of warfighters, and the tragedy of the military-civilian divide.

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Captain Rex

— Yeah. What’s So Great About the Clones, Weirdo?

When writing began on the Clone Wars in 2007, the US was still heavily involved in both Iraq and Afghanistan. 2007 was the year of the “surge” and also the deadliest for American soldiers, and there was no end in sight.

While civilians remained at home facing their own not-unwarranted, but vague fears, a tiny fraction of the 1% who served in the military were riding in the bellies of cargo planes, off to face actual danger. Long before Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk brought the military-civilian divide home (and longer still before “military-civilian divide” became a household phrase) the Clones of Clone Wars lived a lifestyle of harsh chosenness.

It’s the clones who do the bulk of the fighting (and killing) that the Jedi, per their code-of-the-elect, could not always do.

clonewars_troop_transport

The clones start out as mere servants, unquestioningly obedient to their Jedi commanders. They will go anywhere they are sent; they will die willingly. Because of their programming, they endure accelerated aging that their human masters do not. This is all moving, I guess, to the extent that one could be moved by, say, a robot, or maybe Where the Red Fern Grows. (Okay, that book is pretty damn moving.)

But then the Clones begin, gradually, to develop a sort of true consciousness. They start to differentiate themselves. Instead of being called by their numbers — CT-7567 for Rex, for example — they begin, amongst themselves, calling each other by nicknames. CT-27-5555, for example, becomes “Fives.” There’s Tup, and Hevy, and Echo.

Then they begin to differentiate themselves with tattoos, and even hair. (Tup gives himself a little prison-style teardrop under one eye, and starts wearing a man-bun. Dogma tattoos a mosaic of burgundy shapes across his face, forming a large V over one eye and his forehead.) Rex even gets creative with his own armor and helmet, welding pieces of old armor to new.

They show compassion for others, even outside of battle! We see them lounge around in their red pajamas!

Clone Wars spends a lot of time with its Clones, to the point where I’d cringe every time they went into battle and become quite irate with generals who gave them reckless commands. The loss of Clones, which initially seems to serve a larger purpose, begins to feel wasteful and even tragic. Even the Clones themselves start to analyze some of the battles they’re sent into, and to realize that they are being sacrificed. “Live to fight another day, boys,” says Hardcase, because that’s all they can do.

One of the most fascinating episodes, “The Deserter” (Season 2, Episode 10) features a former Clone soldier named Cut who is discovered living on a remote planet with his “native” wife and adorable mixed-species children. Disgusted with killing for a living, he’s now a farmer. Captain Rex, troubled by this discovery, tries to convince Cut that leaving the Army was a betrayal of his brothers and his duty. The show might have decided to paint Cut as a coward, but later in the episode he saves Rex’s life in an ambush. Having seen Cut’s happiness in his new, peaceful life, Rex decides not to turn him in, though he declines Cut’s offer to stay, saying, “My family is elsewhere.”

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Who would not want to stay with this hot Twi’lek wife and charming little kids?!

Okay. So that’s kind of heavy stuff, right, for a kids’ cartoon? I mean, afterwards, I had a discussion with my children about whether or not Cut was a traitor. What if the military had asked their daddy to do something he believed was truly wrong? Would his duty be to stay in, or seek refuge with his family? [For the record I should insert here that my husband would STAY IN. This is all hypothetical, in case Uncle Sam is watching.] [That is a fantasy; three people read this blog.]

Things get even heavier when one Clone, “Slick,” not only leaves the Army but defects. “It’s the Jedi who keep my brothers enslaved,” he says. “We do your bidding. We serve at your whim. I just wanted something more.”

Wait — what?! The Jedi, keeping their army enslaved? This goes against anything from Episodes IV, V, or VI. The Jedi are the good guys, right? I mean, if they’re fighting for truth, justice, and the Jedi-American way, how can they be wrongly-using anyone?

With all this humanity given to the Clone Army, by the time some of their implanted chips (the ones that’ll cause them to betray the Jedi) start to trigger early, and you watch the Clones agonize over what is happening to them, thinking they are losing their minds, becoming paranoid — well, it’s heartbreaking. They’re not losing their minds! They’ve been used! The parallels here for post-traumatic stress, or Gulf War syndrome, could fill an entire essay. But what I know is that the Clones’ distress is so well-done, so moving, that when the most tormented and aware among them meets his sad fate, I sat and cried a big fat tear. This completely freaked out my daughter. “Mom….are you okay?” she said.

Yeah, yeah. I was fine. But I’d been rattled by a cartoon.

— Now Back to Rogue One.

In comparison to Clone Wars, Rogue One dishes up most of the same ol’ Star Wars philosophy: If you’ve lost someone you love, you can spend the rest of your life on a hellbent bender-for-justice, a la Braveheart. There is nothing more profound than to sacrifice yourself for the cause. Even though one’s tactics may be suspect, there is an essential truth and goodness that always remains the same.

This is all perfectly fine, but while Rogue One may suggest that some methods are suspect, it never insinuates that the Jedi could be suspect. It stops far, far short of that. In fact, it continues the philosophy of Republic supremacy. Nothing revolutionary to see here.

I have other quibbles, such as the extreme visual blandness of the film — it’s sort of like the horrible Matrix II and III, where they’re stuck in space but everybody’s lost their sense of humor and they can only wear earth tones and cry all the time — and its utter lack of attention to non-human species, which is a sentence I cannot believe I just wrote but, there you go: and I stand by it, too. In the original Star Wars, no matter how campy and silly it got, at least it was fun. Sometimes that fun is spot-on — think Mos Eisley Cantina –and sometimes it veers into the realm of near-torture, like Jar-Jar Binks. At its best — as with Clone Wars’ Ahsoka Tano — the non-humans are given exciting, rich storylines that cause you to forget they’re not even people. Rogue One is so thoroughly populated by humans that when some puppet does pop into the screen it’s jarring and goofy. They feel inserted.

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As Rogue One draws to a close, and [spoiler!] everybody is dead, it’s hard to know what to take from the story. That a death for one’s ideals is a noble one? Sure, I’ll go along with that, but since the notion of me, myself, blogger Andria, getting into a situation where I had to die for any cause sounds so far-fetched, I’m not really pressed to think about it.

But me, supporting a system that’s started to grow corrupt to meet its ends? Or me, cheerleading a diffuse and nebulous war out of some sense of loyalty or obligation? Or me, letting other people do mine, and my country’s, dirty work? That sounds like something that could happen, or may have happened, or may be happening. That sounds like something I might want to think about.


For a humorous and entertaining take on why Clone Wars is so great, I agree with everything The Cosmonaut Variety Hour has to say. And it’ll make you laugh. But there’s casual cursing, so it is not for young kids.

And for a more serious read, the brilliant and occasionally-infuriating Roy Scranton wrote an essay in the NY Times that inspired my train of thought on this topic in the first place. It’s definitely worth your time.

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