Star Wars – Attack of the Clones

by Wartank

One thing I can say is that I was certainly quite surprised coming out of Star Wars Episode 2: Attack of the Clones.

I was surprised that the title, shunned for years by nerds worldwide, was actually quite fitting in describing this confused, high-tech A/V hack job, frankensteined from 10 vastly superior films, and carrying no sign of independent thought or individuality. I was surprised that there was actually an interesting plot obscured beneath the sea of deadpan acting, laughable dialogue, and pointless plot twists. And I was surprised that the bitter distaste which came out of the movie with me could, with a little bit of thought as kindling, ignite into a raging conflagration of hatred at what this last installment had inflicted upon the Star Wars legacy.

Let me set the scene. This episode continues the saga of a maturing Anakin Skywalker, portrayed in this installment by Hayden Christensen, soon to become the infamous Darth Vader. Star Wars has always used character interaction to spur the development of the characters, and this trilogy is no different. Episode one focused on Anakin’s childhood and his relationship with his mother, while introducing him to the Jedi in Obi-Wan Kenobi, played by Ewan McGregor, and to love in the form of Padme Amidala, played by Natalie Portman. In AOTC, his mother, whom he’s been separated from for 10 years, is missing and believed dead, his attitude is causing major conflicts with the rigid order and structure of the Jedi system, and his love interest is hot. I mean, she’s really, really cute. That is to say, she’s a career woman and he’s a man of the cloth. So, all three aspects of his life – his family, his profession, and his love – are in a downward spiral, driving towards a dramatic conclusion in the third episode. All of this takes place in the midst of a violent political situation, with the council of the Jedi being manipulated into the schemes of the nefarious emperor, poised to overthrow the republic with military and political precision. Like I said, an interesting plot.

Now, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly where this movie begins to break down, because it’s sort of like quicksand. As a quicksand expert, I feel comfortable using this analogy. You often don’t realize you’re in quicksand because you rationalize to yourself that it’s just soft ground or maybe mud. By the time you understand that it’s all around you, you panic and thrash around and kick; you try to deny what’s happening but before you can think again you realize that it’s seeping into your ears and filling your eyeballs and pouring down your throat. This is what this movie felt like to me, a sudden, blindsided attack from all angles – sand in my ears to disorient me and make me nauseous, sand in my eyes to confuse me and make me frantic, and sand in the throat to choke me and make me long for the tender release of death. As Christensen explains to Portman in the film, “I don’t like sand, it’s coarse and rough and irritating. It gets everywhere”. And just when you think he might be supporting my point, you realize he’s somehow turning this into a pickup line. “It’s not like you,” he muses, “you’re soft and smooth.” And with flashbacks of her stunning breakthrough performance in The Professional (Léon), Portman blows audiences away with her thespian talent when she does not gag or laugh or kick him in the nads.

Unfortunately, this is the extent of her performance. Clearly spending all of her preparation time in wardrobe, Portman dials in the role with the impact of a semi-congealed muffin and the chemistry of the easy-bake oven it was made in. She was, however, quite attractive, but compare her to Leia, and Amidala has nowhere near the same depth of character or on-screen presence. Of course, she seemed perfectly serviceable when placed beside Christensen, who was only capable of playing his character on one of four settings – very angry, very pouty, very cocky, or OFF. He was either over-the-top or devoid of emotion, and, through some bizarre, freakish manipulation of physics and all that is Good in the world, actually vacuumed the charisma and energy out of every scene he was in. To top it all off, there was absolutely no chemistry to speak of between the two. An integral part of the character and the film as a whole was lost because there was no sense of connection; there was nothing to carry the romance and make it believable. Oh wait, sometimes Amidala was consoling him for being a big baby.

Meanwhile, Ewen McGregor was reliably and refreshingly strong, but his part was reduced to playing tour guide for necessary plot development, and filling some scenes with a modicum of believability so that Christensen could invariably pull the plug and drain it out.

To be fair, the cast had no help from the script, which was absolutely horrendous, only barely servicing to further the plot and to show the most superficial characteristics and development of the cast. When Lucas couldn’t conceive of any moments which were head-shakingly idiotic or unintentionally hilarious in their inappropriateness, he lifted scenes and ideas straight out of other movies.

In one particularly painful sequence near the beginning of the film, there is a speeder chase through the infinitely sprawling metropolis of Coruscant. While it was technically commendable, I couldn’t help but be reminded of “The Fifth Element”, which had very similar looking buildings, traffic designs, and vehicles; AOTC even robs it of a scene where a character free-falls through the maze of high-rises and interweaving traffic. It was a shame Lucas stopped there, and didn’t decide to imitate any of the style, interesting music, likeable characters and overall intensity from the inspirational work. Instead, they wisely substituted in “watch out for the p-p-p-power couplings!” as the two Jedi get electrocuted (I don’t get this at all – there is no suspense because we don’t see it coming, and there’s no payoff because they get jolted but are perfectly fine afterwards anyway). Just when I thought things couldn’t be worse, McGregor reacts to Anakin’s sudden jump from the car by saying “I hate it when he does that” – a painful echo of Commissioner Gordon’s oft-repeated reaction to Batman’s sudden disappearances. Perhaps I should have expected extreme ridiculousness because Anakin, in a drastic departure from standard Jedi garb, is wearing a leather vest inspired by The Fonz. Finally, at the conclusion of the chase, Obi-Wan finds the perpetrator in a crowded, seedy bar, and “disarms” her with one swift move in a clear reference to ANH’s Mos Eisley scene. Apparently, it is an integral part of Obi-Wan’s character that he frequents shady watering holes to deprive evil aliens of their hands.

In fact, the most common target of cinematic reference (pronounced “thievery”, not “homage”) was the original trilogy. How many times can they foreshadow Anakin becoming Darth Vader? The only reason his character wears a ridiculous ponytail is so that his cast shadow can look like Vader’s helmet. His outbursts are sudden and disturbing, and have little thought behind them. His character is supposed to be an evolution, not a constant barrage of testosterone-y sound bytes and transparent references to the original Star Wars. He’s not supposed to be patently evil, just confused, conflicted, and, eventually, tempted. If I had seen these movies first, I would have puked out me ears at the unlikeliness of his eventual return to the light side at the end of ROTJ.

In the first trilogy, we discover that Luke’s father is Darth Vader, both having been taught by Obi-Wan. This was a huge twist and tremendously dramatic, introducing a new depth of both the characters and the relationship. Now, these relations are bounced around like so much silicone at a Baywatch reunion. Obi-Wan was Anakin’s mentor, we knew that and we’re seeing it now. But this isn’t enough. Qui-Gon was Obi-Wan’s master, significant when we discover that Dooku was Qui-Gon’s master. AH! Enough! No wait, Yoda was Dooku’s master! It’s so contrived! Make it stop!! Sadly, I don’t even think we’ve seen the end of this yet.

Speaking of which, I think I have had quite enough of C-3P0 and R2-D2 wandering ass-backwards into intense firefights, exchanging bad puns and trademark beeps. In one such example, in the droid manufacturing plant (one of the most confusing and frivolous action sequences of the film), we discover that R2-D2 is capable of jet propulsion. As a dutiful audience, we’re supposed to ooh and ahh, but this is precisely the type of nudge, nudge, wink, wink “tribute” to longtime fans that makes no sense and makes me want to find Lucas and punch him in the face. How exactly does this make sense? In his old age, I guess R2 got grounded along with his sinking robotic testicles. Later, Yoda strikes a martial pose and awaits cheers after his disciplined use of Superbouncyball-Fu. They even culled from Phantom Menace, bringing back Jar-Jar in the most inexplicable appearance ever. While I do not understand it, I accept that there are a few misguided souls and stupid, stupid children that enjoyed Jar-Jar’s antics in EP1. Why, then, was he brought back with none of that “endearing” slapstick behaviour? Instead, his role consists purely of making the actors look foolish when trying to look at where his face should be, and, somewhat less consequential, committing the republic of thousands of planets to an army and a war they never wanted. Thankfully, his stupidity was overshadowed by the magnificently disorienting idiocy Amidala displayed in putting him in charge in the first place.

Another popular part of the Phantom Menace was its portrayal of the Jedi. Again, it is a mystery as to why Lucas chose to deviate from that particular success. The Jedi in EP2 are inexplicably arrogant, when they are supposed to models of warrior monks or paladins. The Jedi librarian and Obi-Wan steadfastly maintain that the clone planet can’t exist because the records aren’t there (A child solves the “riddle” – oh boy). They allow Anakin to be petulant and undisciplined, and simultaneously preach about his supposed power and role within the universe while simply entrusting a positive outcome to fate. To top it all off, a Dark Lord of the Sith is the Chancellor of the republic’s senate, and they somehow spend too much time with him every day to take notice of his diseased aura, or his extreme close-ups accompanied by mysterious and foreboding musical overtures. It surprises me now that before Lando’s betrayal in ESB, we didn’t hear his voice stuttering while seeing repeated shots of shifty eyes. I almost wish Darth Vader had a “Galaxy’s Greatest Dad” coffee mug.

Now, in terms of action sequences, there was a startling lack of tension; the poor Jedi showing was a significant cause. First, there was the problem of having serene-even-in-death Jedi fighting expressionless robots. Also, in an effort to show off the complexity and chaos of the battle sequences, we had no clear idea of who was winning in any case, because armies were streaming in from all over. The audience had no chance to identify or even focus on any of the participants, and it ends up coming across like a series of senseless explosions, nothing more. In some of the Star Wars novels, they made mention of how the emperor coordinated battles using the force. With the entire Jedi high counsel there, including Yoda, all they could seem to do was to vaguely direct troops in a forwardly direction. A minor point, though, because good action would have been good action, regardless of the context.

The Jedi ambush scene in the Coliseum was also disappointing. There were so many Jedi, but all they could do against the robots was to use their lightsabres? Couldn’t they have done some sort of a massive collective force push? Care Bear stare? Anything?? In any case, the fact that the Jedi didn’t know they were walking into a trap is pretty ridiculous, especially when they knew the planet was a big manufacturing plant for a robot army.

Again, back in EP1, the entire justification of Darth Maul was that they wanted to show Jedi fighting in their prime. The old series showed feeble and less proficient fighters, nearly dead or green as they come, and the new episode wanted to contrast sharply against that. This was one of the aspects of the first film that I enjoyed the most – the first 10 minutes and the last 10 minutes showing off how magnificent Jedi are supposed to be. Even in the first series, there was tension and creative use of story and direction, and a clear demonstration that you don’t need all martial arts experts to pull off engaging combat scenes. Even setting the Matrix and the Princess Bride aside, both Liam Neeson and McGregor pulled off the “swashbuckling” swordfighting a lot better in the first movie. In the original series, the swordplay itself was not as dynamic, but the cinematography was – use of shadows and silhouettes brought forth powerful imagery, combined with the trademark fluorescent lightsabre shimmer. Most importantly, the scenes were bolstered by the contrast of the stony, artificial, but menacing Darth Vader close-ups against Luke’s struggling determination.

In EP2, all of this fell apart. The camera irritatingly assumed the standard North American technique for filming poor action actors, especially in the fight with Anakin, by primarily showing their faces or quick cuts of lightsabres waved back and forth. McGregor was solid again, as he was throughout the movie, but his fight was much too short. Instead, screen time was wasted on things like Anakin riding giant ass-beasts in the rolling countryside. Dooku was more than capable in doing one thing at a time, but unimpressive as he refrained from doing anything simultaneously, or even quickly. The climactic fight sequence was a simple mathematical process, with Dooku overpowering Anakin, then overpowering Obi-Wan, then Anakin again, and then getting his ass kicked by Yoda – at no point did they show a decent, prolonged swordfight. Traditionally, movies have a climactic battle that is drawn out, where each side trades the upper hand, in a complex cinematic technique called generating tension and excitement. Here, you could cut the tension with a knife. A hot knife. Through butter.

But enough about the plot, Lucasfilm spawned both ILM and THX, so you can go into the movie expecting cool effects and a good soundtrack, right? Well, yeah, you can expect it. Unfortunately, especially after the reasonable success of even EP1 along these lines, I was sorely disappointed at the result here.

Let me first quickly comment on the music. A film’s musical score is best appreciated when it goes unnoticed, subconsciously building upon the emotion of the moment. Here, it was uncharacteristically weak for John Williams, swelling at odd times and changing moods histrionically along with extreme and awkward close-ups to ensure that even the most embryonic viewer could distinguish Good from Evil. The music itself went the way of the script, a messy regurgitation of the previous films.

The CG in this movie was used exclusively to keep the audience’s attention during slow scenes, and mistakenly attempted to compel the audience with technical ability more so than creative direction and storytelling. There were also a number of times when the film seemed very grainy or even pixilated, but apparently the film was much more crisp and colorful under digital projection. Needless to say, I’m not going to pay to find out.

The environments were not particularly imaginative or interesting or epic as compared to, for example, AI, or even The Phantom Menace. In one of the scenes when Shaft is talking to Yoda, they are walking down a very long and very high ceilinged corridor. The characters seem out of place, and there should be no excuse with such a simple background; again, perhaps there was an improper color displacement because it wasn’t digitally projected. The coliseum was complex, especially so because it was populated by innumerous flying creatures, but it felt too derivative of Gladiator, a film which was more engaging, exciting, and magnificent. The beasts in the gladiatorial scene were, again, technically superb, but uninspired from a conceptual standpoint. There was a preying mantis creature that didn’t quite make the cut for Starship Troopers, a garden-variety rhinoceros, and a misplaced woolly lion from “Where the Wild Things Are”.

With regards to aliens, the clone makers were a lazy manipulation of the alien models from A.I., but this time they were certainly tangible beings, and there was no evidence of a lower weight or atmospheric pressure on the planet. I’m not speaking here of physics specifically or necessarily, rather, to grant otherworldly creatures believability and solidity to the creative and rational mind, there must be reason or purpose behind their design. It looks extremely awkward when some characters look like they are moving through water while others are not. Gungans also have a flow and swagger that is too bouncy and surreal, and don’t give me the “it’s for fun” argument, it’s a cop out. You can have animated characters that are exaggerated in proportion and movement, while still obeying the laws of gravity and momentum, moving at a pace that is befitting of their sizes.

Finally, Yoda looks less convincing than he did 20 years ago. There is no question that he is more expressive and capable of movement and action, but he seems too smooth and too fluid, his skin looks like an expired gel cap, and he simply isn’t as tangible. Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within proved that we could be wowed by how realistic characters can get, but under the spotlight, placed beside live actors, CG still doesn’t hold up.

The one big lesson from Final Fantasy was that CG cannot hold up a movie on it’s own, no matter how progressive or complex it is. To sum up, because I’m far too spent to do much of anything else, the acting and dialogue were dreadful, the music was confused or exaggerated, the reliance on old plot devices and inside references was tired and painful, the environments lacked creativity and impact, and the action sequences suffered from uninspired and derivative direction. So, in the end, I’d have to agree with a particular canine critic I’ve come to respect – the movie was pretty good…

…for me to poop on.

  • Star Wars – Attack of the Clones
  • by Wartank
  • Published on July 1st, 2002
Star Wars - Attack of the Clones
Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman, Hayden Christensen
May 2002

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