Star Wars Episode 2: Attack of the Clones

Starring:
  • Industrial Light, but not much Magic
  • Bad Dialogue
  • Yoda Taking Care of Business

 

 
Directed by Lord Lucas

"Seriously, Hayden, if you think it's weird going from no-name to international superstar overnight, think of how creepy it feels to know that computer nerds and trekkies all over the world will go to bed tonight masturbating to a jpg of you.

Very Industrial, But Not Very Magical

As wise as these Jedi are in the ways of The Force, they may be the most naive parents.  The Jedi Council sends their stud apprentice, Anakin Skywalker, by himself to act as private guard dog for the young and beautiful Queen Amidala.  The hills of Naboo are alive as Anakin and Padme roll in the greenest grass ever filmed; love blossoms like wild flowers; it cascades like silvery waterfalls—they're in paradise, which in Lucas World resembles a Monet painting with the contrast turned up way too high.  Seeing that Anakin sprang forth from his mother's womb via a unique configuration of midi-chlorines, you might say that he is First Man, and with the gorgeous senator, they are Adam and Eve in Eden.  Fair enough, but when Anakin is running with the boys, we see the germinating seeds of hatred and rebellion against the holy code of the Jedi.  Apparently, Lucas cribbed the prequel trilogy from the Cliff's Notes of Paradise Lost, but Anakin Skywalker has to shoulder the burden of being both Adam and Satan—a tall order for the young Padawan apprentice.

With this much expository weight, you would think that Lucas might not reduce Anakin to an archetypally irascible teenager, but this is Star Wars, after all, so every archetype is in play. And since nostalgia has already sold the parents' dollar, the second mission is to sell the children, whom I guess are supposed to identify directly with a swordsman wearing a rattail straight out of a Lynyrd Skynaard concert. If Joseph Campbell were still with us, perhaps he could have reminded Lucas that the very reason we admire Satan in the first two books of Paradise Lost is his heroic energy, his stature as a glamorous underdog. If that is supposed to be contained by little Jake Lloyd yelling, "Yoo Hoo!" from the cockpit of his space cruiser, then consider me underwhelmed. To its credit, though, Attack of the Clones attempts to atone for this in the opening:  Anakin senses some dastardly caterpillars burrowing their way toward a slumbering Senator Amidala, so he barges in and slices them with his light saber. Then he and defacto father figure OB-Wan Kenobi jump out the window and chase bad guys by hanging and swinging from space cruisers. I kept thinking about how quickly Spider-Man would have tracked down Jango Fett by jettisoning his webs all over the space city, but I get the point: Anakin is the young hot shot and OB-Wan is his fussy mentor, and eventually the generation gap will be bridged by battle.

So Lucas defines original sin as a pettish teenager.  Hmph. To Boomer parents, this may not be news, but I was expecting a little more: After all, this is Darth Vader in question here, but I guess this is as much evil as Lucas is willing to risk to keep this a "kid's film." I knew Lucas had lost his nerve when, in a fit of incestuous anger after the passing of Shmi, Anakin skulls a couple of Sand People, but then relays the news verbally to Padme: "I killed the women. I killed the children." Hayden Christensen sulks it up pretty good, but wouldn't it have been more effective to actually show the killing of the women, the killing of the children, especially in the bloodles way Star Wars is so famous for? They are the Sand People after all, and nobody likes those swarthy bastards anyway.

Plot aside, as almighty as Industrial Light and Magic may be, Lucas has claimed that the biggest struggle in making the prequels is promoting the acceptance of digital moviemaking—though the rest of us know that George's most ardent struggle has always been with the English language. However, he was wise enough to put the script's finishing touches in the hands of (), whose only previous credit is The Scorpion King. Before you laugh, I will say that as far as campy action goes, The Scorpion King delivers in spades, and it's this sort of spirit that should have propelled Attack of the Clones through its volumes of tedious exposition. Some of the esoteric referencing is fun: My favorite line is Ewan McGregor announcing, "It's very good to see you, Jar Jar," when, clearly, he's the only being in the universe of the sentiment. This time out Jar Jar is promoted from bizarre comic relief to Senator Binks (G-Naboo), and the comic relief falls to C-3PO, who is his whiniest ever. Of the over six million languages he's programmed to speak, for Attack of the Clones I think he was set on "Pun." For instance, when he's decapitated, he picks up his head and says, "Oh my, I'm beside myself."

As for the rest of the cast, I think that everyone forgot that they were in Star Wars. This is supposed to be fun! How can such famously bad lines be spoken so solemnly? Samuel L. Jackson acts like he's in a Shyamalan movie and hides behind his light saber. Hayden Christensen plays the sullen teenager like he's hiding jock itch in his Jedi robe. He's sullen alright, but he flirts with Amidala like he's negotiating cease fires on the Gaza Strip. Instead of sexy, he's scary, and I could never figure out why such a regal figure like Queen Amidala would be attracted to this psycho, especially after he "slaughters the women and the children." On one level, that should have just creeped her out, but on a second, are we to believe that such a figure of such uncommon integrity and maturity would pity-fuck such a capricious dude, nonetheless marry him on a whim—especially with all the uproar over trade sanctions and armies of the republic and what-have-you?

As for Natalie Portman's performance, I think she dealt with the Wal-Mart tornado better. She brings zero allure to Amidala, as if relying solely on her resplendently outlandish hairdos for character development, reciting her lines as if she's auditioning as a tour guide of Naboo, rather than its former queen. She seems to have miscalculated her character in the same way Joan Allen did in The Contender: We understand that she's supposed to have unflappable character that requires austerity in the face of adversity, but to gain such a lofty position, she also needs some charisma—in other words, Senator Amidala lacks the star power for her apparent importance. We only see her a few times delivering speeches in the Intergalactic Senate or being debriefed by her advisors, and I'd almost say that Paul Tsongas was a more riveting legislator. As for Senator Binks, I'd take his oration on the necessity of an army of the republic over a Strom Thurmond State of the Union, but barely. The only actual person that seems to be enjoying himself, thus creating an actual character, is Ewan McGregor as OB-Wan. I think it's significant that at this time last year, we saw Ewan in Moulin Rouge!, which was shot on the same Australian sound stage as Attack of the Clones. Thankfully for Lucas, the Luhrmann party seems to have hung with McGregor a bit, because he's the only who gets that he's in Star Wars.

But what about the special effects, you may ask. After all, isn't that why we're here? Isn't that why it takes more security clearance to access The Skywalker Ranch than it does an Al-Qaeda training facility? Of course, Lucas has to be credited with creating some breathtaking landscapes. To steal a line from Frank DeCaro, though Episode 2 is ostensibly a love story between Anakin and Padme, the real love story is between George and his computers. He focuses on the landscapes first, the actors second. He wants to show off his creations panoramically, for us to see it all at once. But this strategy diminishes the actors—reading their expressions sometimes require binoculars. He's not skilled enough with the camera to give us an idea of the landscape while staying with the actors, and he seems to afraid to end a scene in any way but with a quick cut right after the final line. Perhaps if he would trust the audience and his actors, he could pull back from a scene after the talking has stopped. We promise, George, we won't be any more bored than when Anakin is struggling through negotiations with that giant blue flying Jew.

Like Watto the Flying Blue Jew, Lucas' crew has created several very interesting blue and purple creatures, but they don't really come alive as they did in the first films. One of the strengths of the first film is that Lucas persuades us that the Star Wars universe, though in a galaxy far far away, is undoubtedly real. There's a genuine sense that we're being taken to another world when Luke and OB-Wan enter the bar on Tatooine, in part because the creature seem so real. And that's because they are. They are giant puppets and machines; the spaceships are tiny models—they're really with the rest of us in the third dimension, actually interacting with the cast, rather than forcing the actors to conjure them from a blue screen. Sure, they're more crude than the artistically refined computer graphics of this film, but these creatures are recessed onto a blue screen, and this second dimension physical distance creates an emotional distance. CGI attempts to fool the audience into thinking something is there that's not, and sometimes a filmmaker gets away with it, but when CGI is juxtaposed with real figures, it makes a difference. One of the biggest complaints against Spider-Man is the fact that you can really tell when the animated Spidey takes over for Tobey Maguire, and this aesthetic difference indeed undercuts the fantasy. Our belief has to suspended at all times if the transport is to be complete, and though the computer figures are impressive, the rudimentary brutes of the first work better as fantasy. It's the same reason E.T. would never have worked as an animated figure.

To give Lucas his proper credit, though, the the clones themselves are most impressive. There's genuine horror in the incubating, blank, lifeless masses of flesh hanging from racks, suspended in placental sacs. When they take life, the clones are obviously Storm Troopers Version 1.0. They march in equilateral formations, executing orders like teenagers assembling quarter-pounders—essentially, Count Dooku and Darth Sidious are Lenin and Stalin overlooking their Marxist battalions. Of course we know that the most "insidious" must be saved for the sequel, for the same reason that the Galician routs of World War I occupy much less airtime on The History Channel than the The Battle of Stalingrad in World War II. It's an awe-inspiring creation, showing us the menacing potential of the Dark Side, almost justifying an endeavor clearly outside Lucas' storytelling abilities: With his talk of politicians, separatists, and the republic, Lucas tries to wrap the fall of Satan around the battle for democracy.

Despite all this technical analysis, which is probably contrary to the whole spirit of Star Wars anyway, the final question is: Are the light saber fights cool enough to lay down eight bucks for? Yes, they are. They're preceded by a couple of cool sequences cribbed from other movies: a factory scene that reminded me of the pot pie machine in Chicken Run—seemingly an add choice as an action template, but it worked well in stop-go claymation, so there's little chance of Lucas screwing it up. The second is a mighty imbroglio in a coliseum that might have been inspired by Gladiator. The Jedi are certainly a multicultural bunch, and various blue, green, and black and white human beings engage in a mishmash of beheadings and deflected lasers, but the scene does nothing if not reveal the fatal obstinance of The Dark Side: If awkward, wobbly-legged lizards emerging from caves were not victories in Episode II, then why do they insist upon them in the sieges of Hoth and Endor?

Regardless, in the fight scenes, Lucas does a good job showing how much mastery of The Force Jedi's possess. For instance, OB-Wan has considerable trouble with Jango Fett, but Jedi Master Mace Windu—well, just see what Mace comes up with. But even beyond them, the final fight scene between the venerable, eighty-year-old Corman veteran Christopher Lee and Yoda is a sight to behold. The audience comes alive with the film—it's no surprise, I think, that the most animated character in the movie is an animated character. Yoda, well, we always knew he had it in him. His Greeness puts on a show worthy of the previous four hours of prequel, one that may inspire a revival of The Force, or in the very least, sell a couple more bags of Yoda-endorsed Sour Cream and Onion Ruffles.

The Pitch:
 
1 The Empire Strikes Back
Plus
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1 Michael Bay
Equals
2 Star Wars Episode 2: Attack of the Clones
See It For:
Shaft whipping it out on some bad muthafuckin' battle droids.