In anticipation of seeing STAR WARS: EPISODE III--REVENGE OF THE SITH tonight, here's a blast from the past.
STAR WARS: EPISODE II--ATTACK OF THE CLONES (George Lucas, 2002)
STAR WARS: EPISODE II--ATTACK OF THE CLONES picks up ten years after THE PHANTOM MENACE. Padmé Amidala’s (Natalie Portman) time as queen has come to an end. Although now merely a senator, she remains a high profile target during these tumultuous days for the Republic. Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) and Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) are assigned to protect her after a failed assassination attempt. Anakin is no longer the little boy Padmé last saw, and his desire for her has grown beyond sisterly affection.
Anakin and Padmé leave for a safe haven while Obi-Wan searches for the assassin. The potential lovers become reacquainted. Anakin’s impetuousness charms her, but a deep rage seethes underneath that boyish rebelliousness. Meanwhile, Obi-Wan learns that the Republic ordered the construction of a clone army, which has been assembled potentially to do battle with the forces of former Jedi and separatist Count Dooku (Christopher Lee).
Some of THE PHANTOM MENACE'S problems are corrected in ATTACK OF THE CLONES. Although still present in doses, the cutesy kid-oriented material has been dialed down considerably. There’s nothing like the infamous Jake Lloyd “yippee” exclamation or joke where a character steps in poop. The generally despised Jar Jar Binks is in short supply, and even in those few scenes, he is more subdued.
Larger issues overshadow these minor improvements, though. The dense expositional dialogue is taxing to process and devours too much of the film’s first hour. Making heads or tails of the various political machinations and subplots is nearly impossible without an outline. There’s too much story or at least too much being told instead of being shown. Lucas most notably errs in favoring dialogue over depiction when Anakin’s gives in to his darker impulses. Rather than presenting a powerful scene of how the future Darth Vader indulges his hatred, Lucas provides just a glimpse and then cuts away so Anakin can tell Padmé (and the audience) what he did. Lucas doesn’t shy away from violence in the film’s latter scenes, so why do so here? Since this is the pivotal moment in ATTACK OF THE CLONES when Anakin’s character changes, it makes little directorial sense to handle it indirectly.
Calling ATTACK OF THE CLONES' romantic arc adolescent is an insult to teenagers. The budding love between Anakin and Padmé is unconvincing and passively attended. Padmé still treats Anakin as if he is a child and often refers to him by the more familiar, and emasculating, Ani. Anakin possesses a creepy fixation on her, and at one point I briefly wondered if Luke and Leia’s conception might have a disturbing origin. That Anakin and Padmé become a couple at the end of the film owes more to prequel constraints than any relationship we’ve seen form.
As in THE PHANTOM MENACE, the performances leave a lot to be desired, but I think Lucas is to blame more than the actors. Some fine actors populate the cast, but all of the performers, whether proven or unproven, are as stiff as the corresponding action figures. The flat, imperial tones with which they deliver their lines drain the performances of any joy. Rarely do the actors appear to be having much fun, but presumably this is what Lucas wants. Perhaps he’s aiming to duplicate the stoic warriors of Akira Kurosawa’s films. Portman, McGregor, and Samuel L. Jackson are capable of displaying layered emotion, so it’s a shame to see them reduced to speaking unenergetically. STAR WARS fans will probably hammer Christensen for his whiny Anakin, but before the popular culture jury hangs him, let’s see what he does in a few other non-STAR WARS films. Plus, lest we forget, Mark Hamill’s Luke could throw some good fits, so maybe whininess runs in the Skywalker family.
In spite of all its faults, though, ATTACK OF THE CLONES works more often than not. Obi-Wan’s journey to Kamino, a planet perpetually pounded with rain, is an early highlight, especially when the Jedi fights Jango Fett. Kamino’s reedy, elegant natives are imaginative examples of the freedom digital technology offers Lucas and his special effects artists. In the last forty minutes to an hour, ATTACK OF THE CLONES really hits its stride. This section may not match the giddy fun of the original trilogy, but it comes closer than anything else in the prequels. After Anakin lashes out, the film shakes off its chains. The main characters’ lives are in danger. Watching how they will get out of this peril is infinitely more interesting than trying to decipher what is happening in the Republic. A knockout scene in an execution arena kicks the action up, and the start of the Clone Wars delivers a barrage of thrills. C-3PO manages to sneak in during the battles and steal some scenes with the welcome humor he injects. The climactic duel is destined to be the film’s signature moment, the magical scene that should delight hardcore fans and the casual moviegoers in the audience.
With ATTACK OF THE CLONES Lucas may not have righted the franchise completely, but whether it’s early in flashes or later in extended sequences, he succeeds in building upon the series’ mythology and taking us to new, dazzling places. The final forty to sixty minutes are frequently as satisfying as these escapist-type films can get. ATTACK OF THE CLONES is far from perfect, but when it clicks, it revives the old spirit that made a generation become so obsessed with all things STAR WARS in the first place.
(Review originally published on DVDMon.com)