Friday, September 30, 2011

Shadow Warrior Review

Meesa hope yousa enjoy deesa review of Shadow Warrior! ...but seriously the fourth episode of Clone Wars Season 4 was certainly the deepest exploration of Gungan culture since 1999. Those fans who favor the darker themes of Revenge of the Sith, or the drier, wittier humor of the Original Trilogy, probably won't find this episode to be very entertaining or compelling. But aside from the wackiness, there were many aspects of Shadow Warrior that were of a high level of quality. And as a consolation for the fans who can't stand anything related to Jar Jar, we did see a few Gungans get impaled.

I'm going to start off by letting everyone know that I didn't find this episode compelling, epic, suspenseful, or engaging on either an emotional or intellectual level. However it did strike me as entertaining, humorous, and interesting. Thus I'm not going fill this review with loads of criticisms that negatively compare Shadow Warrior to Landing At Point Rain or the Empire Strikes Back, because that would be unfair. Instead I'll focus more on the positive achievements of this episode, and reserve my criticism for incongruous plot elements.

Through the first 3 seasons, the Clone Wars has shown us a few Gungans outside of Mr. Binks here and there, most notably in the Blue Shadow Virus duology and the episode Children of the Force. But it wasn't until the second episode of the current season, Gungan Attack, that the full scale of the species was unleashed. Shadow Warrior both built on the character models and improved underwater animation of the previous Mon Cal trilogy, to bring us an in-depth depiction of the Gungan way of life.

Starting with land elements, Naboo's swampy forests have never looked more alive, as they bared the detail of the jungle on Count Dooku's planet in last season's episode Nightsisters. Seeing the Gungan army and its weaponry assembled on the plains was very reminiscent of The Phantom Menace. The giant head carved into the cliff was another visually interesting element.

But even more impressive, was the animation of Otah Gunga and the surrounding watery depths. We saw a glimpse of the submarine city in Gungan Attack, but the expanded shots of the spherical metropolis rivaled its depiction in the Phantom Menace. I also really enjoyed seeing the Bongo sub design in the Clone Wars, being one of my favorite vehicle designs from the prequels. The shot of the sub emerging from the swamp went a long way to establish realism in the environment.

Moving on from structures to character models, I thought the team did an excellent job animating Padme's royal warrior outfit. This model allowed for more facial expression than any previous incarnation of the senator. They also captured Captain Tarpals flawlessly. Not only were his physical attributes and voice spot on, but his unique mannerisms were reproduced well. It's interesting that they chose to kill off his character in this episode, but the way they did it put his sacrifice right up there with Hevy, Ima-Gun Di, and 99's in my book.

I'm sure for most fans, though, the return of General Grievous was the highlight of Shadow Warrior. And he was his usual intimidating self, killing Gungans left and right. But aside from his presence, Grievous' depiction in this particular episode didn't really impress me. His animation doesn't seem to have been improved since the beginning of Season 3, and we didn't really learn anything new or interesting about his character.

Another Separatist addition to this episode was Count Dooku, who rushed in to save the day for Darth Sidious by overpowering Anakin and capturing the Jedi. This whole sequence seemed extremely odd to me for three reasons. Firstly with every additional time Dooku and Anakin duel, the meaning behind their battle in Revenge of the Sith decreases, secondly, if it's so easy for Count Dooku to capture Anakin, why hasn't Dooku tried this before, and finally, why would Anakin risk putting himself in such a compromising situation? Is he really that bold at this point in the Clone Wars? This turn of events would have made more sense if it was another Jedi who was captured, like Aayla Secura.

Ultimately, after looking beyond this weird plot element and the overall goofiness of the episode, Shadow Warrior still holds up as a solid addition to the Clone Wars series. The humor and depictions of characters like Jar Jar, Padme, and Captain Tarpals were decent, the animation was fantastic, and the exploration of the Gungan culture was interesting. Neither as epic as Water War, nor as deep as Overlords, this episode exists as a sole fun episode in a long series of fast paced, action-heavy stories. I enjoyed it for what it was, but look forward to more compelling and detailed knock-your-socks-off adventures to come as Season 4 rolls along.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Prisoners Review

After the visually stunning duo of submarine episodes that premiered the 4th Clone Wars season, I awaited this episode with great anticipation. And for me it delivered with everything that the third episode of a trilogy should have. Prisoners contained a more detailed plot, better character development, great contrast between the light and dark elements of the characters and situations, and a fantastic action sequence to put a stamp on a strong trilogy.

The first thing that struck me about this episode, was how much darker it was than the previous two. There were torture scenes, imminent peril for our heroes, moments where many characters started to lose hope, and increased violence in the final dual between Prince Char and Ambassador Tamson. Riff planting exploding daggers on unfortunate victims was something that stretched the limits of the PG rating, and his demise by the same token was equally if not more terrifying because you were led to anticipate it. The touch of Tamson's teeth-filled skull floating away completed the violent sequence.

In addition to the visual maturity of Prisoners, the plot also weighed more heavily into the mix. The motivations of characters like Tamson, Lee Char, and Nossor Ri were all explored, tying the events of the previous episodes together nicely. It was made clear that Nossor Ri didn't share the blind allegiance to Count Dooku and the Seperatists that another Quarren leader in the EU, Tikkes, did. However Riff Tamson was able to use the Quarren and Mon Cals' incompatibility with each other to create a civil war and steal a planet from the Republic.

Throughout the previous two episodes, there were subtle hints dropped that Nossor Ri was beginning to disapprove of Tamson's handling of the situation, and the psychological tide finally turned when Tamson got ahead of himself and started abusing and intimidating the Quarren leader instead of filling his head with lies and impossible ideals. This caused the Republic's victory to come in a different way than it did in the Microseries episode that this story was based on. Instead of Kit Fisto and the Republic forces overpowering the Quarrens and Separatists, the Quarren realized that the war between the CIS and Republic was manipulating their planet for the worst and rebelled against the same invaders that they let in to end their dispute with the Mon Cals.

Effectively this turn of events thoroughly renders all previous depictions of the civil war on Mon Calamari non-canon. Unless you want to retcon it to death and say that the Microseries episode and other materials took place after the start of Water Wars, yet before the end of Prisoners, with Tikkes acting as a military commander under Nossor Ri.

Regardless of the inconsistencies, this plot shake-up allowed for an interesting and compelling coming-of-age story with Prince Lee Char, as he slowly gained confidence and ultimately brought the two species of his planet together just like his father had. Even though I thought that the Prince's voice was a bit too cartoony and his character development wasn't complex enough in Water War and somewhat in Gungan Attack, I was pleased with the direction they took with him in Prisoners. In fact, I even detected shades of Aragorn from the Lord of the Rings finale Return of the King.

Like the one before it, this episode also included the most devicive character in the Star Wars universe. But I thought that Jar Jar was again used effectively. You have to give him a bit of credit for the idea to plug up Padme's draining helmet with Gungan slime (Unless of course you are a Padme hater too). There were also some cool fight sequences involving Gungans toward the end of the episode, as they zapped everything in their path with electro-staffs.

This brings me to a quick point. Now we all know that Star Wars isn't exactly well known for scientific accuracy, with sounds in space and other inconsistencies with the real world, but I thought the use of electricity in this episode was odd. Firstly, shouldn't any of the various electric shocks in the duration of Prisoners have extended into the surrounding water and zap those emitting the pulse? And even if all the shocks were contained and focused, shouldn't the pulses from the eels have knocked out the prisoners life support systems?

Aside from this minor quibble, I thought anything that lit up like neon underwater was stunning to watch even if it was difficult to intellectually grasp. The eels were a fantastic addition to the array of hazards thrown at our heroes. The visuals of the dungeon facilities were well conceived and executed. And the perspectives of the camera angles were used well to evoke a sense of magnitude in many of the environments.

One of several issues I had with the first couple episodes, was the underwhelming music score. It was neither epic nor contained enough noticeable motifs. But we finally got a payoff in Prisoners with a great use of the Force Theme during the final battle. Overall, however, I still think that the score of these episodes did them a disfavor and failed to escalate or even echo the epicness of the visuals.

The pacing of Prisoners was well choreographed, with a tense dungeon scene at the beginning, great plot and character development throughout the episode, a climactic battle towards the end, and a fittingly regal conclusion that hearkened back to the ending of the Phantom Menace. As always, I thought there could have been more tidbits with other characters like Ahsoka, Kit Fisto, and Captain Ackbar, but the core of the story held up and finished satisfyingly.

In conclusion, I think the trilogy of Mon Calamari episodes were a perfect start to Season 4. In hindsight, the layout really does remind me of the Phantom Menace. Hopefully that means Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith-like episodes are to come! As I was last week, I am just as --if not even more excited about the remainder of Season 4, and I can't wait to move on to even more visually stunning and emotionally compelling stories!

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Water War and Gungan Attack Review

Well it's that time again, Star Wars fans! Another season of the Clone Wars and another series of my reviews. I want to start by thanking you all so much for reading my reviews from the previous seasons and giving awesome feedback. I enjoy writing about the episodes almost as much as watching them. So without further ado, let's kick off another season!

I decided to review both of these episodes together because they are not independent of each other in any significant ways. The locales, characters, and plots are the same, and the first one was simply set-up for the second one. Even though the visuals and action in the first part, Water War, was some of the best the series has seen to date, I felt it lacked a good climax and the pacing was slightly off. Perhaps the reason it didn't completely hold my interest at first, was because I had already seen a few clips from the episode, and had a good idea of where the plot was going. There was no suspense for me and it didn't have any really intense moments.

The plot itself is nothing new, as it is based on an episode of the 2003 Clone Wars Microseries that depicted Kit Fisto leading scuba troopers against the separatists amid a civil war between the Quarren and Mon Calamari. Interestingly, when the Clone Wars CGI series was first announced several years later, I thought back to that particular episode as one I would like to see done again in the new medium. It took until the fourth season for the capabilities of the animation team to develop enough to pull this off, but I am really glad they waited, because the animation in these episodes was vastly superior to the previous seasons.

Throughout the episodes, I was only taken out of the story by shortcomings in the CGI a few times. One thing that particularly bothered me was Padme's face. The Clone Wars' wooden or plastic style relies on texture and lighting to give a sense of realism to models, but her smooth pale skin lit by the monotone glow of the watery world and only accented by a bright light inside her helmet took away from the realism. Additionally I found her eyes and facial expressions to be a bit less dynamic than that of other characters, especially Anakin and Ahsoka.

But aside from that minor issue, everything else that flashed before my eyes constituted art in motion. The Clone Wars team took on the challenge of capturing the organic and subtle gravity of a submarine environment and resoundingly accomplished this feat. The stoic buildings themselves lent little to achieve the effect of an underwater metropolis, however the fish, bursting sheets of bubbles, and swaying coral made up for this fact. The sound design also played a huge role in liquefying the atmosphere. Additionally the few scenes that depicted the action above the surface, animated water perfectly, from individual splashes that followed characters leaping into the depths to amazing explosion sequences that deftly interwove smoke, fire, and liquid.

The movement of the characters themselves underwater was very well choreographed. The motion of the robotic aqua droids gave them a rare organic feel, and the darting and plunging dance of the Jedi with their luminous blades echoed and built on the exploration of zero-gravity combat in previous seasons. These individual achievements were breathtakingly multiplied in Water War as hundreds of droids and aquatic species converged in one of the largest scale battles the series has seen.

Adding to the mechanics, all of the character designs were striking. The Quarren and Mon Calamari were both depicted well, including the simplified Captain Ackbar who translated well to the CGI medium. Anakin, Ahsoka, and Padme's scuba gear gave a fresh look to the characters and constitute some of my favorite incarnations of the models. Stunning due to both amazing artistry and uniqueness, Kit Fisto and separatist ambassador Riff Tamson's designs also stood out, highlighted by Fisto's ever-moving head tales and Tamson's menacing menagerie of sharp teeth.

But one of the most surprisingly cool designs belonged to the giant cybernetic jelly-fish. When these ingenious monstrosities entered the fray at the end of the first episode, Season 4 officially began for me. They presented a seemingly impossible challenge to our heroes and provided amazing visuals as their ominous tentacles engulfed everything in their path. Furthermore, the electric shock that pulsated through their bodies as they were destroyed presented delightful contrast to the murky waters that surrounded them.

As the heroes were isolated after the city fell in the second episode, Gungan Attack, the plot and pacing went further to garner my attention. A small band of rebels fighting against seemingly insurmountable odds hearkens back to the original Star Wars trilogy and did well to increase the stakes, suspense, and intensity. The building choruses of action sequences were artistically interspersed with verses of great character scenes between the Mon Cala prince and Ahsoka and other military leaders.

The use of the Gungans in the episode was one of the best uses of the species since 1999, if not the best ever, and I was very excited to see Otoh Gunga finally depicted in the Clone Wars. The sequence with the Republic Cruiser emerging from the clouds and the Gungans jumping out of the hanger into the sea was breathtakingly climactic. It also goes a long way to illustrate the good-hearted nature of the species. On Naboo they fought to defend their home, but this time they fought to defend the survival and liberty of another fellow aquatic people.

And finally this brings me to what I thought was the best part of these episodes. When the trident droids started to spin their tentacles I knew we were in for an amazing action sequence, and the Clone Wars crew blew away all of my expectations. The battle amid the liquid cyclones was the most intense sequence in the series to date in my opinion. The combination of whirling water and flashing explosions provided the perfect backdrop to a great fight scene between the Prince, Ahsoka, Fisto, and Tamson. At that moment, all of the hard work that the crew has spent developing the animation finally came together in a fantastic way, leaving me envious of anyone who has seen these episodes screened in theaters.

Moving on from the effects, I thought the voice acting and music in the Season 4 premiere were adequate, but they didn't blow me away. There were a few good scores that included chorals and one that used Ahsoka's theme, but the rest seemed filler and secondary to everything else going on. I though Riff Tamson's voice could have been more menacing and the there was something slightly off about the portrayal of the Prince. But these things were certainly drowned amid other aspects of the episodes.

To name several more things that caught my attention in these episodes, it was great to see that patented Kit Fisto smile a few times. Any of the camera shots that tracked along with vehicles or swimming characters vastly intensified the visual experience, and I wished their were even more of them. It was humorous to see the Mon Cala and Gungan embracing at the end of the second episode as they were being surrounded, a nice touch to give the story more depth. And the scuba clones and submarine speeders were cool designs.

In conclusion I believe Water War was a solid episode that rivals any of the previous season openers, and I think Gungan Attack was one of the best episodes of the series to date, right up there with the amazing episodes of the latter half of Season 3. The sign of a good episode, is that I can't stop talking about it, and that certainly fits the description for the premiere. And what is even more exciting, is the fact that there is still one more episode to go in this arc. If it is as good as the first two, it will definitely make for the best arc yet of the Clone Wars series. This episode was a classic depiction of the Clone Wars, a battle of epic proportions coupled with political undercurrents (literally) and character development.

I can't wait for the next episode, I can't wait for the rest of the season, and I can't wait to continue reviewing these amazing episodes. The season has kicked off with a resounding bang, and this is only the beginning! Thank you so much for reading my review! Feel free to comment with your thoughts on the premiere. Until next time, may the Force be with you!