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Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones

Well, what can I say? It came, it went, it made less money than any previous Star Wars flick in spite of its significantly impressive visuals, and left little impression. Attack of the Clones? More like Attack of Me Not Giving Much of a Damn.

I feel genuinely bad about not liking a Star Wars film. Star Wars was the very thing that made me love film and filmmaking alike, way back when. I should come out of a Star Wars film exhilarated, and not such that I sit around afterwards trying to think of reasons why I liked it in spite of the emotional deadness I feel from it. This is wrong. It almost feels disloyal. On some level I feel I owe it to George Lucas to like his movies after all they did for me as a kid and beyond. It's analogous to finding out your favorite uncle is really a drunk or a wife-beater. You feel let down, but inside, your fond memories make you want to like the guy anyway. What happened here?

Some trepidation might've been prudent after 1999's The Phantom Menace had demonstrated that Lucas' creative prowess was perhaps dimmed a bit, but dammit, I was even willing to overlook those lapses of judgement, the ones that led to fart jokes and Scientology-esque attempts at explaining the Force. To quote Douglas Adams, Phantom's fundamental design flaws were completely obscured by its superficial design flaws. With Clones, the fundamental flaws were more than an army of Jar Jars could hide. Yet the previews had looked so awesome! The advance buzz had been so positive! Initial reviews were comparing the film favorably with The Empire Strikes Back, the longtime fan and critical favorite (and lowest grossing of the original trilogy...explain THAT, will ya?) And superficially, yes, there were similarities. There was a scene in an asteroid field. There was a land battle involving walkers. The characters were split up and went on separate adventures. There was a romance. There was a saber fight wherein the good guy lost his hand. There was..some rain...little flying critters...Yoda was in it. A chase scene. Aliens. Shit exploded. But this film felt nothing like Empire. That film was grand and dark and glorious. This was like, well, like Star Wars fanfic more than anything else. Some recognizable Star Warsian set pieces, a bit with Boba Fett, 'cause everybody inordinately loves the space-age Fedex man, Yoda kicking some ass the way every fan wanted to see, and an amazingly clumsy love story written as if by one who has never spoken to a real girl. Phantom Menace had at least felt like Star Wars with too many dumb jokes. This scarcely feels like Star Wars at all. Why?

It would seem that everyone's favorite quickie explanation is "Lucas spends too much time on special effects." This is patently nonsensical. Lucas does not hand-craft the effects himself. He draws up some storyboards, gives those and a fat-ass check to the effects guys, and says, "Do this." They take the check and the boards and go do that, none of which has a damn thing to do with how much time or care George took with the script. And it's the script that must shoulder the brunt of the blame here. It's supposed to be about the beginnings of a hero's fall from grace. So where is the hero? Anakin is an almost instantly grating character. Luke's whining was at least kind of amusing, and besides, Luke had better reason to whine. His life was boring, his friends had all left, he lived in a goddamn sand pit. Anakin is doing exactly what he wants with his life, and comes off as the poor little rich boy who gets testy when he isn't getting enough toys. To care when Anakin is taken by the Dark Side involves us seeing him truly embracing the good side at the outset; otherwise, it means nothing. As for whether or not Hayden Christensen can act, I can't honestly say. Some of the dialogue the poor lad has to choke through I wouldn't wish on anyone. He gets the three worst lines in the film, and they all come in a row. As Lucas has openly admitted he knows the dialogue in the love scenes to be corny, we can't say he's blind, but he's obviously convinced himself that the context of his work makes that corniness acceptable without managing to convince anyone else of the same. That aspect aside, the film is terribly languid in the middle act, as Anakin and Padme's romance develops without any other plot points being served in the process-at least Han and Leia fell in love whilst running for their lives from half the Imperial fleet. And while we can see Anakin's reasons clearly (she's a childhood crush, plus she looks just like Natalie Portman,) it's anyone's guess as to why Padme would ever fall in love with him. He's bratty and whiny and mouths off to her in front of her advisors; where exactly does he manange to make a good impression? For that matter, why does Obi-Wan recall Anakin as a "good friend" in the original trilogy? It seems that all the pair ever do is argue over just about everything.

If I absolved the special effects department of any wrongdoing earlier, I will say that Lucas' approach to effects work probably doesn't help on many occasions. His newfound technique of shooting mostly on bluescreen and comping the sets in later doubtlessly hurts the performances, as the actors have nothing tangible to go on. Director Peter Jackson noted that while shooting for The Two Towers, the takes involving the actors interacting with Gollum player Andy Serkis were invariably better than the "clean" takes wherein they played the same scene without him. The more an actor has to fake, the less convincing it's going to end up being. Half the time in Clones, people are acting in sets that don't exist to characters that aren't there. Small wonder that nobody raves about the acting quality.

Anyway, I saw the film again, and it seemed less of a letdown, probably because my expectations were lower. There are good scenes, notably the first meeting between Obi-Wan and Jango, a nice bit of "I know the other guy isn't buying my act, but we'll just smile and go through the motions of pretending nothing's wrong." The saber fight between Anakin and Dooku is beautifully shot (one wonders why it took them so long to come up with the notion that lightsabers cast light,) and it really is fun seeing Yoda kicking ass. The documentary-style photography in the final battle was a nice touch, and made the scenes feel less CG-ish. But the most pivotal scene in the film is never shown, and Anakin's first real descent into darkness is merely related after-the-fact. Surely Lucas could have found a way to depict the Tusken massacre without showing blood and gore, if that was his concern. It would've given the film some much-needed substance. Ultimately, Attack of the Clones wasn't a spectacular failure like Roland Emmerich's Godzilla, it was just a quiet failure. While he may have caved in to fan pressure by (mostly) removing Jar Jar and eliminating talk of midi-chlorians and poop, he's not gotten around to creating compelling characters. The best new personality to come about in the new trilogy was Qui-Gon Jinn, and he was the first to go.

As it stands, Lucas has only one more chance to recapture what he once seemed master of. I won't blame special effects, Hayden Christensen, or the fact that I'm no longer ten years old for the fact that his newer work doesn't move me. Only George can take that blame, and only he can fix it. So get fixing, man.

-review by Matt Murray

Addendum-In the DVD commentary track, Lucas mentions that the mystery behind Jedi Master Sifo Dyas, the purging of planet Kamino from the Jedi archives, and the significance of Qui-Gon Jinn's ability to return from beyond death will all come out in the next film. As you probably know by now, none of these things were ever really mentioned again. Oops.

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