17 November 2013

Star Wars LEGO Review | 75021 Republic Gunship

Between 2008 and 2012, LEGO released dozens of sets inspired by the animated television series and one-off movie Star Wars: The Clone Wars, but comparatively few from the live action films sat either side of it. However, the premature demise of Dave Filoni’s hit series would leave the doors wide open for 2013’s first wave of Star Wars sets to be dominated by the often-underrated Episode II, with more than half a dozen sets taking their inspiration from that initial attack of the clones.

I’ve been in the market for a Republic gunship for some time now, and so was delighted to see it taking pride of place as the top-tier 2013 Attack of the Clones set. Save for the Venator-class attack cruisers, which from an aesthetic point of view I rate even more highly than I do the colourless star destroyers of the original trilogy, these gunships are my favourite vehicles from the Clone Wars, and they’re definitely one of the most iconic. Their presence was felt throughout the conflict, appearing in countless animated episodes as well as the decisive Revenge of the Sith, but I don’t think that they’ve ever had quite the same impact that they did when they first set the burnt orange skies of Geonosis alight in the Clone Wars’ opening battle depicted in Episode II’s final act. And, unlike its 2008 Clone Wars movie-inspired LEGO incarnation (set #7676), it is that spectacular cinematic sequence that this set strives to recreate.

With almost 1,200 pieces, this 18” gunship boasts more elements than the attack cruisers meant to house hundreds of its type. As a result, this set feels very much like a special collector’s edition set in the mould of the recently released Red Five, such is its detail, but of course here everything is minifigure scaled for maximum playability. The belly of the craft, which can be accessed via side doors that don’t quite close, is easily large enough to house a decent-sized detachment of clone troopers and their Jedi generals, and this is before we even consider the gun turrets and cockpits that can also be manned. The thoughtful design also contains five storage containers in which the minifigures’ weapons can be stored whilst they operate their various stations, as well as separate compartments to the aft and stern, one of which can be used to house Anakin’s swoop bike (which is admittedly a little out of place here, far from the Lars’ homestead on Tatooine) and the other either more minifigures or reserve flick missiles or lightsabers. Best of all though, the gunship is a dazzlingly clean white adorned with proud Republic red, and to a lesser extent, lime green liveries. It’s spectacular to behold, if not reflective of the grim realities of war.

The set’s minifigure complement is every bit as extraordinary, offering seven characters for the £109.99 RRP, including brand new Attack of the Clones iterations of Obi-Wan Kenobi; Anakin Skywalker; and Padmé Amidala. The floppy-haired and facially-hirsute Obi-Wan is the standout; he’s instantly redolent of Ewan McGregor’s dry Episode II portrayal. Similarly, the Anakin minifigure is by far his most convincing Episode II LEGO interpretation, the added detail in the outfit and hairpiece (woefully miscoloured though it is) offering a good likeness of the troubled teen Romeo. And after years in yellow and then even longer in absentia, a flesh-tone Padmé is now cropping up all over the shop in minifigure form, but never more welcomely than here. With her tight bun and even tighter outfit, duly frayed by the Patrenaki arena’s rampaging nexu, she’s every inch the gun-toting Juliet that Natalie Portman was on screen. All three stars boast reversible headpieces, as is fast becoming the LEGO standard, allowing you to alter their expressions from mildly vexed to utterly enraged. The two clone troopers aren’t by any means as exciting, though the captain is the first of his rank to enter my personal LEGO Grand Army of the Republic, and the super battle droids are wholly dull and grey – just as they are on screen, so no complaints there.

The only real problems with this set are its overreliance on stickers – I hate the damned things, and for this price LEGO could surely afford to manufacture some bespoke pieces that won’t rot or be applied cock-handedly – and its almost amusing fragility. I’m a relatively dexterous man in his early thirties, and I managed to break off several extremities just getting the thing up into my loft, so I shudder to think what damage nine to fourteen-year-olds might wreak should the craft find itself in their age-appropriate thrall. Of course, rebuilding is half the fun of LEGO – provided you can find the tiny pieces again, that is.

A final thought is that you simply can’t buy this set in isolation. Even if you’re immune to the marketing of all the associated Episode II sets released alongside this one, the set looks distressingly incomplete with its skeleton crew of just two clones. You need at least four or five battle packs’ worth of troopers to make this thing look anything like the business, so if you are considering adding it to your empire, you’ve got to be prepared to make a few expensive trips to Kamino to boot.

The Star Wars LEGO Republic Gunship is available from LEGO directly for £109.99 with free delivery. Today’s cheapest online retailer though is Smyths Toys, who are currently selling this set for £83.99 with free delivery.

03 November 2013

Blu-ray Review | Star Wars: The Clone Wars – The Complete Season Five

It was Christmas 2008 when the missus presented me with the Star Wars: The Clone Wars movie on DVD. I wasn’t impressed. I’d seen the movie’s posters that summer, of course; even caught its trailer a few times. But I wasn’t interested – the combination of the recently-released Star Wars: Droids DVD and Genndy Tartakovsky’s three seasons of vapid Star Wars: Clone Wars shorts had put paid to any interest that I might have once expressed in animated Star Wars. But I watched the film, dutifully, and I thought that it was alright. The CG animation was in a different league to Tartakovsky’s highly-stylised two-dimensional renderings, and the blend of authentic movie voice talent and convincing soundalikes conspired to present something that approached the look and feel of the Star Wars movies (particularly the CGI-heavy prequels), but that sadly lacked any of their weight. The movie told a story that didn’t really need to be told; one that focused on spectacle at the expense of substance. Fortunately Dave Filoni’s subsequent TV series would correct that mistake in its very first episode, the deep but action-packed “Ambush”, and ever since then I’ve not only been hooked, but awestruck.

Indeed, the series’ animation belies some surprisingly adult and sophisticated themes – themes that are invariably meshed delectably with what Doctor Who fans would call “fanwank” and that are always encapsulated by a bite-sized title sequence slogan. The show’s second season, for instance, caught up with Boba Fett in the wake of his father’s demise, and shed some light on how his quest for revenge against the Jedi leads him to a life spent hunting bounties. The next year showed us the beginnings of Tarkin’s ascent to power; explored Chewbecca’s pre-Solo solo adventures; it even featured a number of episodes that explored the intricacies of the prophecy that Anakin will bring balance to the Force, offering viewers a more literal interpretation than the anything-but-balanced “He’ll destroy the Sith…” one, while at the same time allowing them to see him impossibly raging against the dark future literally crystallising before him. The following season upped the ante further, reintroducing the now delectably-deranged torso that was once Darth Maul, and teaming him up with his equally-monstrous Zabrak brother, Savage Opress, to battle the odd couple of Jedi master Obi-Wan Kenobi and fallen (risen?) Sith Asajj Ventress. All the politics, all the subtext, all the myth and all the legend – it’s all here, all punctuated with stunning set piece after stunning set piece.

Whilst there are stand-alone episodes strewn across its five seasons, most of the series’ stories are told over arcs that span three or four episodes, and to the series’ credit it doesn’t concern itself with presenting them chronologically. Unusually for a spin-off series, let alone one produced for a children’s network, Star Wars: The Clone Wars is an anthology that zips back and forth in time on a whim, allowing stories to flourish backwards almost as often as they do forwards. Not only is this true to the spirit of the two inverted Star Wars trilogies, but it gives the writers and producers tremendous freedom to develop successful characters and threads without much, if any, advanced consideration.

Interestingly, one of the things that I disliked about the 2008 movie was the introduction of a Padawan learner for Anakin, Ahsoka Tano, played then and since by the dazzling Ashley Eckstein. However, from today’s perspective it’s hard to imagine the series without her as she’s its centre. This show is her story, in the same way that the original Star Wars movie is Luke’s. And, as was also the case with the farmboy turned Jedi Knight, it’s her effect on Anakin that makes things really interesting. On the silver screen, we get to see precious little of the hero conjured by Obi-Wan’s stirring précis of his “good friend” in the original trilogy; Anakin’s either an annoying kid, a moody teenager, or on the edge of a precipice. Ahsoka, however, really brings out the dashing hero in him, as well as the considerate mentor. Every ounce of virtue inside him is eked out by his snippy Padawan, whether it’s in battle; round the negotiating table; or even, as we come into the fifth season, when weighing matters of the heart against matters of duty.

In a departure from previous releases, the inconsistency of which is bound to annoy people irrespective of whether they approve of the move or not, the Blu-ray release presents the fifth season’s episodes in story order, rather than as they were aired. This means that the explosive season opener isn’t even on the first disc – instead, the Blu-ray season creeps to life with the four-part Onderon serial that sees Ahsoka tasked with turning an ailing group of freedom fighters, her last-season crush and friend in need amongst them, into a fighting force. Whilst slow to start, the story is an appealing one as it subtly sows the seeds of next year’s new Disney XD spin-off series, Star Wars Rebels, by showing us how the stretched-thin Jedi began to foment rebellions on clone-wary Separatists worlds towards the end of the Clone Wars, unwittingly putting in place the infrastructures for what would eventually become the Rebel Alliance. It’s also an intriguing story from a personal perspective as it explores the gulf between Ahsoka, the commander in the Grand Army of the Republic, and Ahsoka, the infatuated teenage girl, and how that chasm is bridged by the most unlikely of Jedi.

Rather than accompany each arc with an in-depth video commentary, such as those found on the preceding season’s Blu-rays, here we are instead presented with a short featurette for each individual episode originally produced for StarWars.com. Whether this is due to the series “winding down” or straightforward disc space restrictions (as there are fewer episodes this year, everything is crammed onto just two discs) I don’t know, but it does feel like the bonus material has been hastily cobbled together, particularly when compared with the last couple of seasons’ sterling efforts. Fortunately, the StarWars.com features are as informative as they are fleeting - the experience of watching them isn’t a million miles from watching the first season’s comprehensive but convoluted Blu-rays with their countless four-minute features.

Of more concern is the audio mastering on the episodes themselves. To say that Blu-ray is supposed to represent the zenith of audio and picture quality, I’ve been burnt twice by it in the past year or so – something that has not happened to me once with DVDs (or, for that matter, iTunes downloads). Here, rather than have to suffer the tinny distortion of much of Star Trek: The Next Generation’s first HD season, I’ve had to sit through an audio soundtrack that is frequently out of sync with the picture – particularly, as per Sod’s law, in the most significant episodes. It’s only by half a second or so, if that, and it’s not usually all the way through an episode, but if anything that makes the aural injury worse as you’re constantly doubting yourself. “Is it me?” Well, no - it isn’t. I Googled it.

Thankfully an arc as compelling as the set’s second one adequately compensates for any technical shortcomings. In fact, the four episodes that focus on the younglings and recurring antagonist Hondo is one of the series’ best. Deliberately harking back to the swords and sorcery of the original Star Wars film, the story set in motion by “The Gathering” is the one that would have been Luke’s, had his father not turned to the dark side and exterminated most of his former kinsmen just prior to his birth. It takes a disparate group of Jedi younglings, each with his or her own limitations, and guides them through the process of constructing their lightsabers. Aided by an ancient droid whose personality constantly flits between quirky and authoritative (characteristics that the actor voicing it, a certain Mr David Tennant, is well-versed in portraying), the younglings must each overcome their personal demons to discover the unique crystal that will power their weapon, and then use the sheer power of the Force to assemble it. Of course, things don’t go according to plan, as a raid from the suave Weequay buccaneer draws the younglings right into the heart of the Clone Wars. I can’t call to mind another serial that so deftly juggles the magic of the Jedi and the horror of the Clone Wars; it’s a perfect effort in every sense, driven yet deeply pensive.

Straddling the two discs is an adventure that is everything that the mid-’80s Droids spin-off should have been. Carried largely by R2-D2, a few of his fellow droids and their hilarious Napoleon complex-suffering commander, the diminutive Colonel Meebur Gascon, these four episodes really push the series’ boundaries, experimenting with nihilistic, existential themes while at the same time bringing the show right back to its core Star Wars values. Artoo may have shone throughout The Clone Wars series, but in this arc he’s given the opportunity to personally change the course of the whole conflict, as he later would the rebellion against the Empire.

Next up on the second disc are the season’s four Maul / Opress episodes, beginning with the fast and furious season-opener. Picking up precisely where the fourth season left off, “Revival” sees Obi-Wan and Adi Gallia track the Sith brothers to Hondo’s pirate planet, where an electrifying double duel costs both sides dearly. From there, we’re launched straight into what is, perhaps, the finest trilogy of the entire series, as it’s not only a technical masterpiece, but also a compelling and fan-serving saga that’s typified by set pieces so breathtaking that you’ll find yourself in need of a Vader-like iron lung if you watch them in HD. Bringing together elements as sundry as Maul and his brother’s conquest of the underworld, Pre Vizsla’s Mandalorian Death Watch sect’s ascent to power, Obi-Wan and Duchess Satine’s unrequited romance, the Hutts and a couple of the expanded universe’s most famous criminal clans, these three episodes are bursting with heartbreak and horror, not to mention a few moments that will leave you violently shaking your head in disbelief. Are Maul, Opress, the Death Watch and Black Sun really storming Jabba’s palace? Are Maul and Vizsla actually duelling, bloodshine Sith lightsaber against mythical Mandalorian darksaber? And surely Darth Sidious couldn’t be so bold as to risk revealing his true identity simply to rein in his erstwhile apprentice, who’s rapidly becoming a rival? There can only be two...

After that slobberknocker of a serial, the production team needed something really special to finish the season, and, as it would turn out, the whole series. And with “The Wrong Jedi” arc, they delivered something that’s every bit as alluring as the blockbuster Maul saga, albeit in equal and opposite ways. This time around, we don’t follow the villains, but the heroes – if they are still heroes, that is. Segueing beautifully into the greyscale world of Revenge of the Sith, the series’ finale explores the subtle shifts in the war-weary public’s opinion of the Jedi, who have demonstrably strayed from their path of peacekeeping and become unwilling warriors, and how this is carefully exploited by those such as Palpatine and Tarkin for their own nefarious ends. Caught in the middle are Ahsoka, Anakin and Ventress: the young Padawan finds herself accused of a crime that she didn’t commit, and so her master does all that he can to clear her name, but finds himself pent by his closed-minded and condemnatory superiors on the Jedi High Council, who seem more concerned with appeasing the Senate than they do Ahsoka’s guilt or innocence. Count Dooku’s former assassin, meanwhile, finds herself in the unprecedented position of sharing the unjustly-excommunicated Jedi’s cause, particularly when finds herself similarly framed. It’s a beguiling and defining tale; one that cleverly lays the foundations for Anakin’s Episode III dissent, and answers the obvious question that’s burned ever since we first met Ahsoka. The final episode’s closing scene is ruefully beautiful, on a level pegging with some of Revenge of the Sith’s most seminal scenes. Even George Lucas had to, uncharacteristically, defer to Dave Filoni’s adamant fade to black as the series’ final moment is so very emotive that the obligatory, bombastic Star Wars iris-out would have been preposterously out of place.

Of course, that blazing instant may not prove to be the end for Star Wars: The Clone Wars, as I understand that a number of episodes pencilled in for the Disney-slain sixth season are being completed by Filoni and his team for a tentative 2014 commercial release, which hopefully will continue the superlative standards of this fifth season and tie up the remaining loose threads to boot. Wherever we go from here though, Filoni’s series has already earned its defining definite article. To anyone like me who was put off by its impulsive theatrical pilot, I’d urge them to trust in the Force and check it out before the impending rebellion steals its thunder - it really is one of the most addictive and groundbreaking shows of the past five years, if not the millennium.

Until the Blu-ray release is reissued with its audio issues remedied (and in any event, if you don’t care much for bonus material), I would recommend that you download Star Wars: The Clone Wars in 1080p HD from iTunes, where you can buy a fifth season pass for £38.99 or just cherry pick individual episodes for £2.49 each.