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"Star Wars: The Clone Wars" Season 3 Clones Lots of War Movies

Clones can hit what they aim at, Stormtroopers can't, and the first episode hints whyStar Wars: The Clone Wars still drives me nuts.

Attempting to review Star Wars: The Clone Wars soon becomes an exercise in contradictions, and the beginning of season 3 is no exception. It’s hard not to feel a bit schizophrenic when I find that the first two episodes are both thoroughly well-done and enjoyable, but also reinforce my belief that the entire series is essentially a self-justifying, self-gratifying vanity project by George Lucas. The first two episodes of Star Wars: The Clone Wars are undoubtedly entertaining and entirely satisfying, and they continue to improve on the series’ shaky and inconsistent start, but ultimately they still don’t have the same emotional resonance of the original movies.

While season 2 of The Clone Wars was billed initially as “Rise of the Bounty Hunters,” that theme only seemed relevant for its first and last episodes. Much of the middle was dedicated to more mayhem and an odd set of homages to other films, including Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious and Akira Kurosawa’s Stray Dog, and the Western and kaiju genres in general. At least judging by the first two episodes of season 3, this season will be dedicated to homages to the war movie genre. The first, “Clone Cadets,” is set on Kamino, the planet that houses the clone birthing and training facility. The story centers on Domino Squad, a team of five new clone troopers that spend more time fighting with each other rather than the enemy during their training exercises. Plenty of hoary old chestnuts from war movie training sequences are recycled and repackaged as the hard-ass drill sergeant does his best to break his squad, composed of archetypes like the earnest but square would-be leader, the smart aleck, and the tough guy. No prizes will be awarded for guessing how this episode will play out, but while the episode doesn’t break any new ground in war movie storytelling, it’s certainly very well executed. It’s easy to find yourself rooting for Domino Squad, feeling the same disappointment at their failures and elation at their successes. It also happens to nicely illustrate how the genetically identical clones can still have wide variances in personality, and seems to drop a broad hint on how the efficient, professional fighting force of the prequel movies turned into the soldiers who got their asses kicked by a bunch of pre-industrial teddy bears in the original trilogy.

I will kill him with my spear and magic HEL-met!“ARC Troopers” follows some of Domino Squad’s troopers as they return to Kamino to repel an invasion led by General Grievous and fallen Sith Asajj Ventress. If the previous episode represented the boot camp segment of Full Metal Jacket, “ARC Troopers” represents the wartime segment in all its horribly thrilling splendor. Again, though, this is another episode that compensates for its lack of originality with excellence in execution. The brief setup soon gives way to an intense non-stop barrage of blaster fire and clashing lightsabers, as waves of attack droids assault the Kamino base and clone troopers begin falling with increasing speed. “ARC Troopers” is also remarkably effective at intercutting between multiple narratives, as we follow multiple clone/droid battles across the cloning facility, two different Jedi/Sith duels, and Domino Squad teaming up with both veterans and the youngest clone recruits to hold down a last line of defense. It’s also worth noting the fast and kinetic lightsaber fight choreography that’s among the best the series has ever produced.

Lucasfilm has been touting advances in their production process to deliver a mini-movie each week, but I have to confess that the differences don’t seem to be quite as marked as the publicity suggests. The characters still have the same appearance as before, with many still looking like they were carved out of very hard wood, but the backgrounds seem a bit more detailed. There is certainly more ambition in the set pieces for these two episodes, but nothing hugely more impressive than the bigger set pieces at the end of season 2. This is not to suggest that these episodes are badly done, of course, especially since production values have been consistently high for almost the entire run of the series. Special notice must be paid to Dee Bradley Baker, who voices all the clones in the series and does a marvelous job of making the individual clones distinct from each other despite ensuring that they all have the same speaking voice. He is assisted by a script that ensures all the clones have a nice, definable characteristic, but Baker’s performance lends a great deal of nuance and texture to the words.

Squid subs == more cool looking but completely impractical tech from Star WarsDespite my generally positive impression of these episodes, they still don’t change my feeling that the series is intent on meticulously documenting actions that seem to have no relevance to anything that happens in the prequel movies, and certainly don’t seem to contribute to the tragic outcome that we know is coming. If anything, the heroism and decency of the clone troopers makes it harder to believe that they would turn on their Jedi generals. The fact that we know the Emperor-to-be is goading both sides also makes less and less sense as the series and the war grinds on. Perhaps all this is intended as some kind of commentary on the futility of war in general, but I can’t really see George Lucas going that meta on us. Star Wars: The Clone Wars is only telling the same war stories we’ve seen before with centurions, doughboys, dogfaces, and grunts, and to be honest, I don’t find that re-telling them with clone troopers and Jedi Knights improves on those formulas appreciably.

That the Star Wars faithful will enjoy this new season is a foregone conclusion; if you can genuinely justify Jar-Jar Binks, I suspect you will justify anything that has that classic opening theme attached to it. The severely disenchanted Star Wars fan might find their patience rewarded if they revisit this series now, since many of its more juvenile excesses in earlier episodes are greatly subdued or eliminated in favor of tight and enjoyable stories. Star Wars: The Clone Wars Season 3 continues to improve on its earlier episodes, but no matter how good these episodes happen to be, they still don’t quite manage to fully justify their existence.

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