Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones
Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman, Hayden Christensen, Ian McDiarmid, Samuel L. Jackson, Christopher Lee
(20th Century Fox)
US theatrical: 16 May 2002
In 1977, when I was eight years old, my father took the whole family to see Star Wars. That film, as legend has it, changed not only the way in which movies were made (in terms of technological sophistication), but how audiences received film as well. Star Wars was a marketing juggernaut and all-around cultural event, replete with never-before-seen hype. And I bought in. Although dad didn’t pack us all into the family car for the next two installments of the franchise, I made sure I was in line each subsequent opening weekend, to see the further adventures of Luke, Leia, and Han as they fought to save the galaxy from the machinations of the evil Empire. This is to say I, like so many others, have a lengthy history with the Star Wars series, and in many ways am precisely the sort of viewer director George Lucas is banking on.
Well, maybe not precisely. For me, Star Wars occupies a specific place in idealized memories of my own childhood, and I like to keep it that way. Okay, we all knew, even back then, that the first three films were Episodes 4, 5, and 6, and that inevitably Lucas would return to tell the first half of the story. But we also knew, even then, that there was no real need. Any attempt to represent the backstory was destined to fail in comparison to fans’ enthusiastic imaginings of same.
Such doubts were, of course, shown to be well-founded, on the release of The Phantom Menace in 1999. The film was largely panned by critics and casual viewers alike—even if many fans were a bit more forgiving. While visually stunning, Episode I‘s characters were flat, the story labored, and Jake Lloyd’s Anakin Skywalker cloying.
While Lucas is a technical genius, he’s never been the most innovative director. And though he wisely handed the helm over to others for The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi (Irvin Kershner and Richard Marquand, respectively), he decided to stick with it himself for the prequels. Considering the shortcomings of Episode I, the question on everyone’s mind is whether Episode II will be marked by similar failures of plot and characterization.
It is. And I for one actually think it’s worse than The Phantom Menace. The major problems with Attack of the Clones are its repetition of previous Star Wars tropes, needlessly long action and romance sequences, and an incessant overstating of the obvious. Part of this might be due to the fact that, as Lucas acknowledged in Vanity Fair, the film is targeted specifically to 12-year-olds. Even if this is the case, Lucas apparently presumes pre-teens to be somewhat dense. Young viewers have pretty sophisticated reading abilities, and could easily follow the rather complicated plot without the verbal cues and reminders Lucas and co-scriptwriter Jonathan Hales provide throughout.
Early in the film, for example, Obi-Wan (Ewan McGregor) and Anakin (Hayden Christensen) chase down a would-be assassin of Senator Amidala (Natalie Portman). They catch the bad girl, but before she can fess up to who hired her, she is killed by a toxic dart. Obi-Wan observes: “It’s a toxic dart.” Ooof! This insight comes at the end of a chase that is about ten minutes too long and sets the tone for the rest of the movie.
As if clunky and repetitive dialogue weren’t bad enough, Attack of the Clones is further diminished by the central role played by the Jedi-Master Yoda (voiced by Frank Oz). He is this film’s Jar Jar Binks, whose own role is cut mercifully short. Yoda has always been a little annoying in his sanctimonious piety, and very bothersome for his trademark backwards Yoda-speak. Tiresome, it gets. He’s best when he shuts up altogether, as in a scene in Clones where the little green one wields The Force and his light-saber in battle. While you may feel some dread when this scene begins, Lucas and the ILM crew actually do an impressive job. Yoda flips around like some demonic gyroscope. It’s pretty cool.
Special effects have never been the problem for the franchise, and Attack of the Clones follows suit. The film is absolutely beautiful to look at. The settings have a realistic feeling, especially the capital of the Republic, the urban planet Coruscant, of which we see a good deal in the beginning of the film. The rendering of battles, droids, alien creatures, and technological gadgetry easily dazzle and show Lucas at his creative best. If only he would lavish such care on pace and narrative coherence.
To be fair, Lucas is working against his own storytelling here. There are so very many characters playing central roles in the second half of the series, and accounting for all of their geneses (while introducing new, mass-marketable figures) is tricky indeed. The most tortured character development in Clones is the bounty hunter Boba Fett (Daniel Logan). Boba has a central role in the last two episodes, but his story, as told here, is just a little too convenient. It’s as if in all the vastness of the Star Wars galaxy, the same figures and families keep running into each other. As it is the genesis of Boba and his relationship to his bounty hunter father Jango (Temuera Morrison) is just one more dysfunctional father-son dynamic in an already overburdened family drama.
Lucas seems to recognize the complications of his sprawling epic and does try to account for some of the inconsistencies that arose in the last film. One of the things that most befuddled me about The Phantom Menace were the droid armies used by the dastardly Trade Federation. While they showcased ILM’s f/x wizardry, they made little sense in narrative terms. Why would the villains of Episode I use these technologically advanced robot soldiers while in the future of Episode IV, the Empire’s armies are manned by real live people inside Stormtrooper armor? Attack of the Clones answers this question rather convincingly by offering up the clone army alluded to in the title and that will ultimately exterminate the Rebel Alliance under the direction of Darth Vader. It is also made perfectly clear that the vaguely sinister Supreme Chancellor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) will shortly become the ruler of the galactic Empire.
Yet even these gestures toward making the long-term story cohere can’t save this newest Star Wars feature. Of course none of this will really matter to SW fanatics or summer moviegoers. Like its predecessor, Episode II is sure to be a big, in-theaters-all-summer-long blockbuster. Nevertheless, if, by most accounts, The Phantom Menace was too darn cute, Attack of the Clones will likely be remembered as cluttered with inconsequential character and plot details and excessive special effects.