Monday, January 30, 2012

Father of the Hunt

“I’m just a simple man trying to make
my way in the universe.”
- Jango Fett

     In Attack of the Clones, audiences first meet the most skilled and resourceful bounty hunter in the galaxy on the edge of a skyscraper, high above the towering, planet-wide metropolis of Coruscant. It is a secret meeting between himself and Zam Wesell, the shape-shifting Clawdite who has already made one attempt on the life of Senator Padme Amidala. Farming out his assignment so the line back to him will be that much harder to follow, he awards a pair of deadly poisonous, centipede-like creatures to his employee, arguing “more subtlety” is required this time. In classic noir fashion, he slips away again, his hand in the plot only revealed in the recall of a lethal rifle shot when he has to kill a captured Zam himself.
     When he first steps from the shadows, Jango Fett already brings with him a rich legacy, one born not only from the internal saga of Star Wars, but from all the epic stories and myths that inspired it. His formidable, armor-clad form is forever bound to the role of hunter and father in the single episode that he appears in, and such roles carry within them millennia of mythic weight and symbolic implication.
     Perhaps the biggest influence on the philosophical and psychological undertones of the saga, the late scholar Joseph Campbell constantly conjured up images of the hunt in his writings. He referenced the vast, Paleolithic caves again and again in his work. Initiations for early hunters were once undertaken beneath jagged, domed ceilings decorated by great stags, mighty bulls, and herds of long-extinct bison, all doomed to gallop across the rocks forever. This was not simply art but magic, a kind of mystic participation between man and animal, hunter and hunted.
     In Primitive Mythology, the first book in the Masks of God series, Campbell outlined the importance of the hunt, citing ritual itself as one way of assuaging guilt when a tribesmen was forced to kill an animal that for them was half-divine. “The hunt itself, therefore, is a rite of sacrifice, sacred,” he explained, adding, “And not a rawly secular affair.” As opposed to a planting society, where the accent is on the group, a community of hunters and gatherers likewise focuses on the individual, one often nursed on equal doses of danger and solitude.
     Such elements obviously play consist roles in the life of a galactic bounty hunter, even as the original emphasis has drastically shifted. In stark contrast to the reverence and kinship between predator and prey in early times, this type of hunter works for the highest bidder, operating in the jungles of capitalism and commerce. And those stalked and hunted down are not birds and animals, but rather sentient beings that have run astray of moneyed groups or individuals.
     This is certainly the case with Jango Fett.[1] While navigating the Byzantine maze of Attack of the Clones’ plot, Jango works for two powerful clients that are practically at cross purposes. His short-term job revolves around the assassination of Senator Amidala of Naboo, who has angered the Neimodians of the Trade Federation by repelling their invasion in the last film. It is no small irony that Jango’s task is to take the former Queen out of the picture, given her opposition to building a Grand Army of the Republic. Especially when Jango’s second clients are taken into account, the very cloners who are using him as the genetic template for their army.
     Of course, the smoke-and-mirrors of the plot is really being controlled and orchestrated by a nefarious Sith Lord, so both sides actually bow to the same master. Nonetheless, the cloners of Kamino unhesitatingly refer to Jango’s pay as “considerable” and, given Nute Gunray’s fury at Amidala, audiences can be sure his price for delivering “her head on my desk” isn’t bad either. Make no mistake; it all comes down to the cold hard credits lining the bounty hunter’s bank account.
     Complete with his legendary Mandalorian armor and helmeted visor, one glance at Jango Fett makes it clear why his services are highly sought after by any and all sides. That he is usually masked and covered in segmented silver plating speaks of a hard, implacable personality, a cold and impersonal figure who can get the job, any job, done. Surrounded by armor, Jango, like his son after him, is more crustacean than his foes, with bone surrounding flesh rather than the other way around.[2]
     In his Dictionary of Symbolism, Hans Biedermann remarks how “Garments capable of enclosing the entire body lend optical unity to the human form and give it the appearance of power.” This clearly rings true for Jango Fett who, like all the masked and armored characters in Star Wars, emanates formidability from his single antenna down to his spiked boots. There is also an old mythic notion that something of the “aura” of the wearer is transmitted to their garments, says Biedermann, which is why the robes and capes of religious figures have always been important. It is only fitting then, that our last shot of young Boba Fett is in the Geonosian arena after his father has been cut down, cradling his fallen helmet and pressing it against his own head.[3]
     Yet not only is his outfit self-enclosed and striking, Jango Fett has the gadgetry to back it up, a deadly array of gear that has transformed him into a living weapon. In A Short History of Myth, religious historian Karen Armstrong makes an observation ripe with significance here. “Humans were ill-equipped for hunting, because they were weaker and smaller than most of their prey,” Armstrong writes, serendipitously adding, “They had to compensate for this by developing new weapons and techniques.” The battle in the Geonosian arena offers a fine example of this, space opera-style. Jango holds his own against a charging Reek, only to fell the great beast with a single, well-aimed shot from one of his blaster pistols.
     But as audiences know, that was nothing compared to the built-in weaponry seen in full display on a rainy platform on the water world of Kamino. Having traced the mysterious saberdart used to end Zam Wesell’s life and career, Obi-Wan Kenobi arrives at Tipoca City. During his tour with the pale, long-limbed Kaminoans, Obi-Wan learns that for the past ten years, Jango Fett has been the DNA template for 2,000 clone troopers, with another million still in development. In a tense, pitch-perfect scene, the Jedi confronts Jango in his apartment, exchanging clipped, terse bits of dialogue.[4] As the two size each other up, the polite words betray a building mistrust laced with everything that isn’t being said.
     A fight seems inevitable and, after Obi-Wan is ordered to capture the bounty hunter by the Jedi Council, one explodes in spectacular form.
     With young Boba behind the guns of the infamous Slave I, the two warriors attack, lightsaber flashing and twin pistols blazing. Despite a burst from his flame throwers in the Geonosian arena, this is the scene during which Jango Fett unleashes his full hunting arsenal.
     Obi-Wan quickly finds himself under assault from Jango’s jet-pack missile, not to mention wrist-mounted whipcord throwers. During the first half of the fight, the bounty hunter is likewise shooting back and forth across the rain-streaked sky in a deadly, aerial ballet, sometimes even dragging his opponent behind him. After a surprising exchange of low-tech kicks, punches, and head-butts, the two topple over the side of the platform. Still not out of tricks, Jango uses a set of retractable claws built into the forearm of his outfit to stop his descent, while Obi-Wan nearly falls into the dark waves below.
     While his escape is impeded by a homing beacon planted on his ship, Jango nonetheless gains ground over Obi-Wan, one of the few beings in the galaxy who could disarm a Jedi and keep his lightsaber away from him for a few minutes.
     It is no surprise why the Kaminoans chose him as their template, which leads into the next mythic archetype Jango holds, that of father. Yet he is no ordinary father. As far as the culture of clones is concerned, he is like the All-Father of myth, the god who goes on to sire an entire race.
     His legacy echoes back to the Babylonian Apsu, the Egyptian Osiris, the Greek Zeus, the Indian Indra, and the Norse Odin, as well as any father-deity whose children go on to shape the destiny of the world. The history of the clone army is a pivotal one in that far away galaxy, their military prowess first valiantly serving the Republic, then becoming the iron fist consolidating the rule of the Empire.[5] Long after his demise at the saber of Mace Windu, Jango’s swarthy features continue to be seen throughout the stars, his face an inadvertent bid for something approaching genetic immortality.
     Yet it is the faceless visage of Jango’s armored mask that is also inherited by legions of clone troopers, all who will be known for their striking white helmets, all of them eerily reminiscent of that greatest of bounty hunters. Joseph Campbell pointed out in Primitive Mythology the importance of masks, especially when used to invoke a particular deity. In ancient festivals, he notes how a mask was revered and experienced as a “veritable apparition of the mythical being that it represents.” One can almost imagine hints of Jango’s legend filtering down through the similar armor of the clones. Campbell explains that, through the use of masks, gods can be in more than one place at a time and, “wherever he comes, the impact of his presence is the same: it is not reduced through multiplication.” Jango’s isn’t either, at least not until the time when the stormtroopers take over and his genetic samples are exhausted.[6]
     Yet despite the countless children that bear his likeness, the solitary hunter awards only one the title of “son,” and it is only for this clone that he likewise willingly takes up the mantle of “father.”
     As the Prime Minister of Kamino explains to Obi-Wan Kenobi, part of Jango’s price was “an unaltered clone for himself.” Unlike the other clones, there was no genetic tampering to speed up the aging process, as well as no engineering to render him less independent and more obedient. This clone was to be an exact replica of Jango Fett, with the rogue’s personality whole and intact.
     For the first time, audiences begin to see a surprising sentimentality lurking beneath all the weapons and armor. Jango clearly shares an affinity with his son Boba, one obviously reciprocated. While part of Jango’s motives are to raise a son the way he wanted to be raised, to sharpen his skills from the beginning, and thus mold him into a hunter even greater than himself, there is a real relationship between the two.
     One of their key scenes together involves Obi-Wan giving chase to Slave I in his nimble Jedi starfighter. Not only does the sequence highlight another parallel with The Empire Strikes Back’s classic asteroid field chase, it also offers a glimpse into how this interesting father-son dynamic operates. Some fathers play catch with their sons; Jango takes his on perilous flights through asteroids, now hunting his prey with cannons, torpedoes, and sonic charges.[7]
     To his credit, Boba acquits himself well. Amid all the daring maneuvers up, under, and even through the asteroid belt surrounding Geonosis, he only loses his cool in the passenger seat a couple of times. For the rest of the sequence, the young Boba cheers his old man on, taking pleasure in the dangerous game of cat-and-mouse, even chuckling impishly when it seems their Jedi target has been beaten.[8]
     For his part, the elder Jango takes pleasure in showing his offspring how his work is done, commenting and explaining to what would otherwise have been a cold, solitary cockpit. Like countless fathers before him, he wants not only the best for his son, but for his son to be the best. And given his legacy as the bounty hunter who finally captures Han Solo, Boba Fett certainly does his father proud.
     Despite his defeat to Mace Windu’s famous purple saber, Jango Fett is a near perfect addition to the pantheon of Star Wars characters. Continuing the legend of that epic saga, Jango is at once recognizable but alien; familiar yet exotic; man but also myth. The rich archetypes of hunter and father are once again ignited and brought to life for the millionth time, only now finding expression behind a masked visor and a forbidding set of Mandalorian armor.

[1] As R.A. Salvatore memorably puts it in the Attack of the Clones novelization: “When Jango Fett wanted you caught, you were caught. When Jango Fett wanted you dead, you were dead.”

[2] In Bob Clark’s excellent thesis/film review of Attack of the Clones, he interestingly points out, “As played by capable New Zealand actor Temuera Morrison, Jango stands as a classic movie tough guy, a blunt mouthed thug-for-hire who’d be just as intimidating in a fedora and trench coat as he is in battle-ready armor.” Fair and astute observation, though he wouldn’t be as mythic. 

[3] The same could be said for his taking to the controls of Slave I later.

[4] Including Fett’s classic, “I’m just a simple man trying to make my way in the universe.” Despite complaints about wooden dialogue, this is arguably the most versatile line in all of Star Wars, guaranteed to work in an endless number of personal, professional, and social situations. 

[5] As Jango prophetically intones on behalf of his progeny: “They’ll do their job well. I guarantee that.”

[6] Likewise explaining why the troopers in the original trilogy can’t shoot straight.
[7] Though according to Salvatore’s novelization, the two do spend some quality time with more traditional fare, such as fishing, Kamino-style.

[8] As pointed out on the DVD commentary, Boba doesn’t fall for Han’s trick with the Falcon because he learned from his father’s mistakes, believing his quarry Obi-Wan to be dead when he had only shut his systems down and taken refuge on an asteroid.