Friday, March 16, 2012

Clone Wars Review: "Darkness On Umbara"

By Chris Seekell

FINALLY! The difference between Darkness on Umbara and the preceding droids duology was like the difference between Lord of the Rings and Teletubbies. It had all of the things that have been missing over the past few weeks. From the animation, to the action, to the music, to the plot, to the dialog, this episode was superb and easily the best episode of Season 4 and one of the best episodes of the entire series, in my opinion.

With the past few episodes, we weren’t seeing anything relevant or exciting. The lack of action was causing fans to long for another episode like Landing at Point Rain. Additionally we hadn’t seen a relevant plot since the Mon Calamari arc and a clone-centric episode since the Kamino arc, with the exception of a few Clone story lines dropped into the Citadel trilogy. But while watching Darkness on Umbara, the resemblance to Landing at Point Rain was immediate. The briefing scene and assault from space with the gunships was very reminiscent of the start of the Season 2 episode, down to a clone shooting off a cocky remark and then a gunship exploding. The only difference was that there wasn’t a crash landing.

Season 4 has been excellently animated, and this episode was no exception. The planet of Umbara was one of the coolest environments I have scene in Star Wars. The Clone Wars team can pull off realistic locales like Naboo decently, but it excels at more fantasy-like surroundings like Mortis and Wasskah. The key to realism in CGI can be surrealism, and the contrast between the dark ambiance and bright plants, as well as the misty atmosphere masterfully achieved that effect. The look of the characters was also well executed. All of the phase II clone models looked great down to the sheen on their helmets. General Krell and the Umbaran soldiers were also nice designs. And the continuous barrage of cross-fire and explosions served to make the viewing experience very immersive and stimulating.

In addition to the perfect execution, the creativity behind the environment and models was phenomenal. The inclusion of Sarlacc monsters into the ecology of Umbara was ingenious, the luminescent flying reptiles were great additions, and the electric scorpions were really cool. All of these things added hazards for the heroes and greatly amped up the suspense. They seemed to be fighting the planet as much as its people.

Bringing up the Umbarans themselves, I thought this was one of the best villain armies to date. Their odd speech added to the creepy feel they already had due to their morbid appearance. The scene where one of the Umbarans’ helmets shattered and he started rapidly begging for mercy was a nice touch. It gave these soldiers an edge that neither battle droids nor Geonosian warriors had.

Another element that was included in this episode that we have been missing lately was a good music score. It included a great piece that we first heard in Alter of Mortis and a battle-like motif that was reminiscent of the first few bars of the Imperial March. The rest of the score flowed nicely from these memorable themes. Hopefully we continue to get similar music, with further Williams-like nuances as this arc continues.

All of the things that I have mentioned so far were merely scene-setters for an elegant mixture of dialog and action. The focus on the clones in this episode was very refreshing. We saw many familiar troopers like Rex and Fives. The story was already compelling as the Anakin-lead clones rushed onto the battle lines at the beginning of the episode. And there seemed to be an endless stream of great one-liners throughout. But once General Krell stepped in, the story stepped up to the next level. Suddenly this group 501st troopers found themselves fighting a third force, along with the environment and the Umbarans.

Under Anakin, we have seen Captain Rex and his clones fall into a casual rhythm. This allows them to be more individual and execute Anakin’s out of the box strategies. But when Krell took command, it became apparent how different these clones were to many others. The ensuing struggle between the General and the clones made for great character exposition with Rex. His willingness to bend orders like Anakin saved the clones from what seemed to be a suicide mission, but caught the ire of Krell. This culminated in a fantastic moment in which Rex took off his helmet and proclaimed that the he and his troopers were not batches of expendable war machines, but human beings. I consider this scene to be exemplary of what should be the heart of the Clone Wars series, the Clones themselves, and the ethical dilemma that surrounds their existence. I can’t wait to see how this plot point will continue to develop as this arc moves forward.

And that brings me to one of the best things about this episode. It had an excellent cliff-hanger ending. Unlike the many previous multi-part story lines that ended in a calm between storms, Darkness on Umbara concluded as the clones were being surrounded by enemy forces. This only added to my excitement for seeing the next episode, and that’s how serialized story telling should be.

In conclusion, this episode saved Season 4, and gives me confidence that the show will continue to get better. Because this series is rendered with custom software that is being continually improved by Lucasfilm, it has now reached the point where we can see epic battles like nothing else on TV. When the Clone Wars plays to its strengths like this, its prominence is not in doubt. If this arc continues the pace set in this episode, I have no doubt that most people will be calling this the best arc to date. I personally can’t wait to see how this plays out, and that’s something that I haven’t said since the middle of Season 3. The Clone Wars is back and I’m loving every minute of it!