Star Wars: Episode II -- Attack of the Clones

Attack of the Clones

USA, 2002. Rated PG. 142 minutes.

Cast: Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman, Hayden Christensen, Christopher Lee, Samuel L. Jackson, Ian McDiarmid, Temuera Morrison, Frank Oz (voice), Anthony Daniels (voice), Jack Thompson, Jimmy Smits, Ahmed Best (voice), Kenny Baker
Writers: George Lucas (story & screenplay), Jonathan Hales (screenplay)
Music: John Williams
Cinematographer: David Tattersall
Producers: Rick McCallum, George Lucas (executive)
Director: George Lucas


Grade: C+ Review by Carlo Cavagna

George Lucas has repeatedly answered critics of his Star Wars prequels by noting that they are movies made for children. Therefore, we should forgive simplistic conflicts and farcical elements in the newer films. After all, such things were also present in the older films, Lucas is saying.

It is strange that a movie for children would feature a plot as complex as that of Star Wars: Episode II--Attack of the Clones. Like Julius Caesar's transition in ancient Rome, it involves the changeover from a republic to an empire. If you are a powerful politician desiring to declare yourself emperor, what you need is an enemy. An enemy so powerful that it motivates a fearful Senate to grant you emergency powers, as well as an army all your own. What do you do if you have no such enemy? You create one, of course.

Such is the scheme of Chancellor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) in Attack of the Clones. His plan leads to an odd result, however: the forces of evil expend vast resources to build an army of droids for the separatist Trade Federation, which they effectively control, so that the Senate will in turn build them a larger, supposedly more effective army of clones--never mind that Stormtroopers turn out to be unable to shoot straight. Palpatine, by the way, is not yet revealed as the future Emperor in this installment, but since we've already seen the future, we all know he's the mastermind.

Can we really expect children to understand all this? Obviously not. Children do understand action, however, and special effects, and such merry shenanigans as C-3PO's head getting knocked off his body and attached to that of a droid soldier while the droid's own head gets attached to C-3PO's body, with C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) squawking and complaining all the while.

Attack of the Clones has all of these things, and more. Much more. It has a preposterous love story between Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) and Senator Amidala (Natalie Portman), the former Queen of Naboo. (On Naboo, Queens are elected to finite terms in office, demonstrating that Lucas doesn't know the meaning of the word "queen.") Portman manages not to embarrass herself despite her clunky lines, but Christensen does. It's not just his rat-tail haircut, which is more indicative of "Pet Shop Boy" than of "Future Jedi Master." (Of course, without the rat-tail he'd look like a member of NSync, so Pet Shop Boy may be an improvement.) It's his acting.Christensen, Portman, and McGregor

Christensen embarrasses himself big time. Certainly, it's not his fault that the petulant Anakin is almost as unlikeable as Jar-Jar Binks or that the writing sucks. (In a Lucas screenplay, a character who is impatient because he believes his mentor is holding him back is likely to declare many times, "My mentor is holding me back! I am impatient!"). Nevertheless, Christensen's line reading is horrible. His acting consists mostly of him whining, huffing, and glowering. Having seen Christensen's excellent work in Life as a House, where he played another angry teenager with a dark side but also the capacity to love, one can only conclude that either a) Life as a House was a fluke, or b) Lucas is terrible at working with actors. Based on Lucas's record with previous films, the latter is probably the case.

The scenes between Christensen and Portman have no spark. Anakin tells Amidala he's been thinking of her ever since he was Jake Lloyd; Amidala warns Anakin that his advances are most inappropriate, and a little later they just sort of decide they're in love. Why Amidala would fall for Anakin, who is still basically just a snot-nosed kid, albeit a powerful one, is an utter mystery. It would make more sense for her to fall for Obi-Wan (Ewan McGregor), but it was decided long ago that the story doesn't go that way.

Love story aside, fortunately, Clones is really not that bad. It's better than not bad, in fact. It is a vast improvement over The Phantom Menace, and perhaps as good as Return of the Jedi--not that Return of the Jedi itself compared favorably to Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back. Whereas Menace was narratively disjointed, Clones flows much more smoothly. It's as talky initially as Menace, but becomes much more of an action romp in the last hour. More importantly, it's almost completely Jar-Jar-free. He makes a handful of appearances, once to do something truly boneheaded that alters the course of history, and at one point he is deservedly shushed. [APPLAUSE! Exit Jar-Jar Binks.]

Projected digitally, the computer-generated effects look good--not as good as Lucas probably thinks they do, but they've come a long way since Menace and are a damn sight better than the effects in The Mummy Returns or Spider-Man. Do they look real? No, not really, although the monsters in the arena fight are convincing. The effects tend still to resemble cartoon drawings when they're used to generate entire cities or landscapes, and the spaceships lack the solidity that the models in the original movies had. Still, the effects look as close to real as digital effects ever have when used to such a high degree. (Note: People who have seen Clones projected the old-fashioned way have observed that the effects don't look nearly as good as in a digital theater.)

Perhaps the reason Lucas has devoted so much effort to digital effects and digital projection is that these are the only novelties he can still offer. The legacy of the original films is both a blessing and a curse. As seminal and enormously popular movies, the original trilogy guarantees a boffo box office for all additional Star Wars installments. Everyone who sat in a movie theater in 1977 and remembers how they felt when the camera first panned through space and the imperial cruiser cut through the screen in Star Wars will forgive an awful lot. Just to see something new set in the same universe is exhilirating. Expect to cheer, for example, when the Jedi Knights ride into battle, and later when Yoda (Frank Oz) himself draws a light-saber and duels with Darth Tyranus. (Speaking of Yoda, perhaps his sentence structures were also inspired by ancient Rome. In Latin, sentences usually end with the verb.)

At the same time, Lucas has enormous expectations to live up to. A next-to-impossible task, given how commonplace futuristic action/adventures have become. In terms of story and content, it's difficult to present anything fresh. The Matrix succeeded, but Lucas already has a universe in which he must work--he can't just redesign it top to bottom. People are expecting--and getting--familiarity, and that cannot co-exist with revolutionary filmmaking. Therefore, the new Star Wars movies cannot possibly have the same impact as the originals. Lucas's obsession with digital filmmaking is his attempt to offer something groundbreaking while still working within the confines of his pre-established milieu.

That dog don't hunt too far, though. Lucas's inability to direct actors is unforgivable. The dialogue is sometimes catastrophically clumsy and clichéd. Christopher LeeThe presence of R2D2 (Kenny Baker) and C-3PO is too contrived (as it was in Menace) and too much of a reworking of things we have already seen.

What Clones needs most of all is not a pair of familiar droids, but a Han Solo--a swashbuckler with charisma. Apart from Yoda, there's almost no one in the film with any personality. Certainly, Lucas tries to give Anakin a personality, but it's so broad strokes that it makes Luke's whining about power converters in the original movie seem refreshing. Obi Wan and Amidala don't seem to have any discernible character traits, unless you consider Amidala's wacky hairdos a character trait. Though still channeling Alec Guinness effectively, McGregor gives one of his dullest performances ever.

The film lacks charisma of any kind, charisma that not even Samuel L. Jackson as Jedi knight Mace Windu can provide. You begin to wonder whether Lucas limited the computer generated effects to the scenery and the non-humans… whether perhaps he took a few snapshots of the actors, fed them into his big mainframe, and digitally generated the performances.

Thank goodness Christopher Lee shows up to give the movie some juice! Once he appears as the mysterious Count Dooku, the whole movie experiences a lift, though of course, his entrance does coincide with the beginning of all the action. There isn't a single scene that isn't better for having Lee in it, who is given more screen time and used more effectively than Darth Maul in Menace. He's not Darth Vader, but since Vader isn't around yet, Christopher Lee will do nicely.

Clones redeems a franchise that seemed rudderless after Menace, but it still lacks many elements that helped make Star Wars and Empire Strikes Back cultural phenomena. Clones is a fun movie, but doesn't have the same novelty or flair. The first two movies struck a balance, appealing as much to adults as they did to kids, and embracing a touch of darkness and ambiguity. Byzantine plot aside, Lucas seems more kid-focused now. Can he make a movie as dark as Empire Strikes Back again, or will his aversion to anything particularly disturbing continue to govern his creative drive? The question is worrisome, because as we know, Episode III cannot end well. The Jedis will be virtually exterminated, Anakin will embrace the Dark Side, and the Empire will triumph. The Lucas of the 1970s would have handled such a story very well. Can the Lucas of today?

Review © May 2002 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Images © 2002 20th Century Fox. All Rights Reserved.

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