Star Wars: Episode II—Attack of the Clones
Screenplay : George Lucas and Jonathan Hales
MPAA Rating : PG
Year of Release : 2002
Stars : Ewan McGregor (Obi-Wan Kenobi), Natalie Portman (Senator Padmé Amidala), Hayden Christensen (Anakin Skywalker), Ian McDiarmid (Supreme Chancellor Palpatine / Darth Sidious), Samuel L. Jackson (Mace Windu), Pernilla August (Shmi Skywalker), Jack Thompson (Cliegg Lars), Christopher Lee (Count Dooku / Darth Tyranus), Anthony Daniels (C-3PO / Lt. Dannl Faytonni), Frank Oz (Yoda), Andrew Secombe (Watto)
Three years ago, when The Phantom Menace, the first installment of George Lucas' prequels to his original Star Wars trilogy, was set to be released, the hype was so far in the stratosphere that it was impossible to imagine that the movie could fulfill everyone's desires of what it should be. As is well known, The Phantom Menace raked in the bucks in both theaters and on home video, but there was a loud, persistent grumble that it hadn't met expectations, that Lucas had lost his touch after being out of filmmaking for so long, that the casting was all wrong, that the dialogue was bad, that the computer-generated effects were too much ... and that's not even mentioning a certain Jar Jar Binks.
Now, three years later, Lucas has emerged with the second of the new trilogy, Star Wars: Episode II—Attack of the Clones, and, while the expectations are different, they are no less overwhelming. Now the buzz is not whether Lucas can continue his roll, but whether he can redeem himself, if he can reach inside and reclaim the magic that elevated the original Star Wars trilogy to the level of Homeric myth at the multiplex. Most mainstream print critics have already weighed in, leaning heavily toward the negative, although it is hard to shake the feeling that earning one's dignified critical stripes these days requires the dismissal of anything bearing the Star Wars label.
If that's the case, so be it, but I have no qualms saying that I enjoyed myself immensely during Attack of the Clones. Of course, I am politically incorrect enough to proclaim that I enjoyed The Phantom Menace despite its clear failures, which is one of the reasons why Clones was that much more enjoyable. It improves on the mistakes of the previous movie-there's less Jar Jar, no discussion of taxes and trade blockades, and more Jedis, violence, and sex appeal-while also orchestrating a careful move toward the darker tone that we all know will infuse the events of Episode III.
But, more than anything, Attack of the Clones shows clearly how these movies have to be watched and understood: as individual parts of a much larger whole. It is too easy to separate the movies and compare their merits as discreet entities, but they can only be truly enjoyed in their rightful place as episodes of the mythic saga they are meant to create together. In retrospect, The Phantom Menace works much better than many would like to admit because it laid the groundwork, setting up the characters and situations that would play out in Episodes II and III.
But, more than that, true pleasure derives from seeing how these new movies work together with the movies of the original trilogy, broadening and deepening their historical and mythical aspirations. When you have in mind the image of Obi-Wan Kenobi and Darth Vader dueling it out in Star Wars (1977), the interactions between Kenobi and Anakin (who will become Vader) in Attack of the Clones take on a whole new meaning that transcends the movie by itself. The beauty of the Star Wars movies is the way they work together, the way scenes and characters and lines of dialogue shadow and mirror counterparts in different movies made years apart. Lucas has a genuine vision, one that has been gestating for decades, and, like it or not, that is a rare thing in today's world of high-concept, low-delivery blockbusters.
But, even taken on its own merits, Attack of the Clones is an exhilarating ride if you give yourself over to Lucas' popcorn vision of the complex interweavings of good and evil in a galaxy far, far away. Taking place 10 years after the events in Episode I, Attack of the Clones focuses primarily on 18-year-old Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen), who is now a rising young Jedi under the tutelage of Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor). Anakin, however, is arrogant and brash, and his teenage hot-headedness foreshadows how his own son, Luke Skywalker, will behave in Star Wars. Anakin is also in love with Padmé Amidala (Natalie Portman), the former queen of Naboo who is now a Senator in the Republic. Romance, of course, is strictly prohibited by the Jedi code, so their budding relationship takes on the sensuality of the forbidden.
Like Episode I, the narrative revolves around political unrest and behind-the-scenes Machiavellian machinations involving galaxies wanting to separate from the Republic at the behest of Count Dooku (the legendary Christopher Lee), a fallen Jedi who has gone over to the Dark Side of the Force. A significant new development is the discovery (and eventual use) of a clone army based on a bounty hunter named Jango Fett, who pure-cloned son is Boba Fett. Numerous familiar faces return, including Samuel L. Jackson's Mace Windu, a member of the Jedi High Council, and Yoda, who has been known primarily for his words of wisdom, but will henceforth also be known for his wicked light-saber dueling skills courtesy of Industrial Light & Magic. Rather than being played as a puppet by Frank Oz (who still supplies the voice), Yoda has gone fully CGI this time around, which works at times and doesn't at others (sometimes he looks a little too painterly).
Yoda, of course, is hardly the only CGI creation around. Attack of the Clones is again heavy on the digital special effects, as Lucas and company create entire worlds and characters with their computers, not all of which are as photo-realistic as they probably should be. The reliance on digital effects (not to mention that it was shot entirely on high-end digital video) gives the movie a visual flatness, an almost cartoonish look that works for the material, but marks it as starkly different in visual terms from the original trilogy.
The tone of Attack of the Clones is consistently bleaker that in The Phantom Menace, as this movie has the task of setting in motion the chain of events that will destroy the Republic and lead Anakin to become Darth Vader. As the Star Wars movies have always been heavy on pop-Freudianism, it should come as little surprise that the crucial incident in Anakin's life that forever alters his worldview is the death of his mother, which leads him to go on a brutal killing spree that loses only a little of its narrative power for having been mostly left off-screen.
Lucas selected the generally unknown Hayden Christensen to fill the crucial role of Anakin, and his casting paid off, as Christensen is a gifted young actor with a great glower. When he lowers his head and furrows his brow, he might be at home in a Stanley Kubrick film. Ewan McGregor has found his footing as Obi-Wan; while his performance in Episode I seemed a bit stiff at times (perhaps due to the fact that he really didn't have much to do), he injects some much-needed humor into the role this time around, while still not losing sight of the fact that Obi-Wan is, in many ways, the central character of the entire saga. Natalie Portman also seems to have loosened up a bit, and despite the claims of some naysayers, the romantic interludes between her and Anakin work quite nicely, particularly in the moment when she finally confesses her love for him as they are about to be led out to a huge gladiatorial arena and surely face their deaths.
The script, cowritten by Lucas and Jonathan Hales (The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles), has its weaknesses, but on the whole it moves smoothly through quite a bit of material, altering between lengthy sections of expository dialogue and break-neck action sequences. While there are sections that could have benefited from some tighter cutting, the pace picks up rapidly toward the end, culminating in an enormous battle between the Republic's clone army and the Federation's droid army that is simply breathtaking in its scope and impact.
Attack of the Clones answers many of the doubts raised in people's minds by The Phantom Menace, and does an excellent job of not only setting up narratively for the events to come in Episode III, but adding depth and resonance to what those events will ultimately mean.
Copyright © 2002 James Kendrick