Star Wars: Episode II — Attack of the Clones
Directed by George Lucas
Starring Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman, Hayden Christensen, Ian McDiarmid
When George Lucas’s film Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace was released in 1999, it was, with very little hyperbole, one of the most anticipated films of all time. A generation had grown up with the Star Wars trilogy, and even during “the wilderness years” when Lucas first stopped making movies that anyone cared about (did you know he co-produced Leprechaun?) and then stopped making movies; a part of us always hungered for more. The announcement that he was returning to his most successful creation was hailed with hosannas.
And then the movie opened.
I sincerely hope very few people can still rationalize themselves into thinking it was any good; most seem to have come to terms with the fact that it is a collection of very pretty pictures with a creaky plot and cardboard characterization. Nevertheless, the anticipation made it one of the top-grossing films of all time, which was only to be expected.
So three years later, we come to Star Wars: Episode II — Attack of the Clones. Interest is still high, even if expectations are more muted thanks to the disappointment of the last. But would you believe me if I said that while the new film may not equal the original trilogy, compared to Episode One… it’s absolutely terrific? That’s right, terrific, dazzling to the eye and engaging to the spirit as well. It has its flaws, lord knows, but it is so much better than I feared (if not as good as I hoped, in my heart) that I am willing to allow for them.
First, let’s deal with the special effects, because these films are, first and foremost, showcases for groundbreaking technology in that field. These have improved by great leaps and bounds. A chase scene in a Blade Runner-influenced cityscape, with characters leaping from sky speeder to sky speeder, thrills and impresses. Creating realistic-looking human figures in action with CGI still hasn’t been perfected, but this film makes the problem seem a lot closer to being resolved. This not only points up that Phantom Menace was three years ago, it makes Spider-Man look as though it was, as well The “bouncy” quality that marred some of the web-slinging in that movie is much lesser here, though still noticeable. However, arguably the most crowd-pleasing scene in this sequel is a lightsaber duel between a computer-generated character and a human actor. And no, it’s not the much-hoped-for scene in which Anakin lops off Jar-Jar’s head. Sorry.
The story crosscuts between handfuls of interrelated plots. Ten years after Phantom Menace, Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) and Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) are assigned by the Jedi Council to protect the life of Amidala (Natalie Portman), now no longer a Queen (apparently in the Star Wars universe this is an elected, not hereditary title) who is being hunted by an assassin. This eventually leads to a revelation that someone is preparing an army of clones for a coming war, and the fatherly Supreme Chancellor Palpatine reluctantly accepts greater powers granted by the Senate…as reluctantly as George W. Bush. Against this is set the early darkening (or should I say Darthening… no, perhaps not) of Anakin and the growing love between he and Amidala. Obi-Wan investigate the cloners and encounters the bounty hunter Jango Fett… and his “son,” Boba, with whom the film draws a parallel with Anakin.
The telltale marks of a sequel (elements of the parent films that were a hit the first time around, often in greater quantities) are here. References to events both forward and backward in the Star Wars timeline to warm the hearts of fans and some things to give pleasure to those who enjoy nitpicking. For example, if C-3PO really was owned by the person he is in this film, wouldn’t he have said something in Star Wars when… you get the idea.
Lucas undeniably has many weaknesses as a filmmaker. Still, it must honestly be said that over his career he has shown at least as many strengths. However the two things he absolutely cannot do are romance and dialogue (and anyone who thinks differently should get hold of the Han-Leia scenes in Empire before Lawrence Kasdan got to them). Having seen him quoted describing the new film as basically a romance, my heart sank at the idea of a movie filled with Lucas-written romantic dialogue. And indeed, most of the “courting” scenes between Anakin and Amidala are eye-rollingly bad, up to and including a “lyrical interlude” that suggests Lucas hasn’t any better idea how to present a love scene than than might have used in 1967 (I mean, they actually start rolling around in a field…). Those who disliked Spider-Man‘s angst-filled dialogue scenes are liable to start contemplating hara-kiri here. But these moments are at least mercifully brief and perfunctory, whether by co-writer Jonathan Hales’s influence, editor Ben Burtt’s skill, or Lucas’s recognition of his own limitations.
The optimist in me would like to think that Lucas, who set himself a pretty overwhelming task for his first writing/directing job in 20 years with Phantom Menace, was more comfortable in the saddle this time. The cynic in me feels compelled to point the significant addition to Lucas’s team in Hales. The greatest flaws in Phantom Menace were in the writing, for which Lucas was solely credited, and this is so much better this time around that it seems natural to award the new writer some praise. Actors traditionally have a hard time of it in Lucas movies. Harrison Ford once famously said of his dialogue, “You can type this stuff, but you sure can’t say it!” and threatened to tie Lucas down and make him read aloud from his own script. Lucas wisely sought the collaboration of another writer on the first two sequels, and not just any writer, but Lawrence Kasdan, now a popular filmmaker in his own right. Hales’s record has not been particularly noteworthy up until now, but Lucas’s realization of the fact that he needs help (a lot of help) in this area bodes well. The results show up on screen.
Lucas still needs help making his plots less cloudy (you probably need to have read dozens of books and comics to work out exactly who the good guys are and who the bad guys are by the end of the story), but the characterization is, at least, improved here. In this, his lead actors, particularly Ewan McGregor, Hayden Christensen and Ian McDiarmid, aid him. Making flat dialogue work is a particular challenge for actors, and these are mostly up to the task, though no one could make all of it work. McGregor really begins to come into his own as Kenobi here, and frankly I was much more interested in his plot than that of Anakin. Christensen of course has the task of portraying the good man whom we know will eventually turn to great evil. He does all right, but he’s not helped by a coincidence-ridden plot (one character dying exactly when they do is just a touch too neat) or by the fact that we know what is going to happen to him. On a related note, McDiarmid does the subtlest acting in the film, considering those who read the cast lists (and novels) of the original films know exactly who his character is. And who he will become. Yet Lucas has chosen to treat this in the new movies as though it were going to be a surprise, presumably for “revelation” in Episode III. McDiarmid never overplays to this duality, but since we know it’s there it’s fun to see behind his eyeballs. Portman never finds anything major to do with her character, but that’s not her fault. She’s a woman in a George Lucas-written film, and that means there’s not much in the way of a well-rounded or strong part for her to work with. Carrie Fisher feels her pain, but she is most memorable here doing the Sigourney Weaver/Linda Hamilton workout.
To go off on a brief tangent: I admit intense curiosity as to how Episode III can possibly be expected to provide the rousing happy ending Lucas presumably wants to cap off his work on the series. We know the fates of virtually all the major characters, and to put it mildly… they ain’t good. The script attempts to have fun with that knowledge through such things as having Kenobi reprimand Anakin by saying “You’re going to be the death of me,” but my question remains.
These films are, now, little more than excuses to hype toys and video games and make George Lucas richer so he can keep expanding his ranch and send his kids to college. Despite my greater enjoyment of this picture, I remain convinced of that. The giveaway is the scenes that could have been cut for time were it not for the fact that they will make good video games; I’m thinking especially of a sequence in which four of the characters find themselves on a droid assembly line. And in general the use of clones and droids, apart from the leads, for most of the battle sequences allows Lucas to present these as the video-game/toy fodder they are.
That isn’t necessarily a problem, whether you believe that’s what they always were (I don’t) or not. There’s nothing wrong with a good “popcorn movie,” that professionally delivers what it promises. The original Star Wars trilogy, especially the first two, did this. Phantom Menace didn’t. Attack of the Clones does, and thank goodness for that. It is what it is, but at least it’s a lot better at it.
Near the top of this review, I said that my expectations for this movie had been lowered. True, but they were met… and even exceeded.