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Star Wars Episode 2: Attack of the Clones

reviewed by Dan Heaton

The original Star Wars films have always occupied a magical place for me in generating my love of cinema. Viewing the first entry on home video in the early '80s is one of my earliest memories of seeing any movie. I witnessed both The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi on the big screen, and my adulation of this galaxy reached new heights. What boy couldn't imagine himself as Han Solo piloting the Millennium Falcon or Luke Skywalker battling Darth Vader with the fate of the world hanging in the balance. During my growth into adulthood, my excitement for the series has barely dissipated. I still can quote directly from the horde of classic lines, and the story remains firmly ingrained in my brain. When creator George Lucas announced the release of three new prequels several years ago, I waited expectantly for a return to the mystique of Star Wars.

Unfortunately, Episode I - The Phantom Menace is a major disappointment on almost every level. The characters are extremely wooden and lack the vitality of the original stars. The visual effects are astounding, but so many exist that the story loses any relevance. Lucas handles both the writing and directorial duties, and he employs little skill or inventiveness with either task. The dialogue is terrible and even makes a young kid (Jake Lloyd) seem even less intelligent than he should be. With the glaring exceptions of the pod race, lightsaber battle, and a few emotive moments from Liam Neeson, the bloated film falls well short of expectations.

The buzz circulated by devout Star Wars fans following the release of Episode 2: Attack of the Clones exclaimed the idea that this film was a return to the top form of the original trilogy. Jar Jar Binks only makes a brief appearance, Jake Lloyd is nowhere to be found, and the story corresponds more closely with Anakin Skywalker's movement towards the dark side. The roots of the Empire also begin to sprout, and even Boba Fett has a minor role. Plus, this entry promised more kinetic action and unbelievable effects. I entered the theater with the positive idea that Lucas would certainly not produce another clunker.

Once again, my expectations were much higher than the ultimate result. While the story jumped from one unemotional set piece to the next, my heart sunk further to the floor, and I basically lost interest in the final outcome. Yes, this film is a decent improvement over its predecessor, but it still harbors numerous problems that create a less-than-fascinating viewing experience. Lucas has shifted his primary focus from relating a tale to pushing the most ambitious digital effects. The scenery is amazing, but it often looks so fake that it's impossible to suspend disbelief and actually enter this atmosphere. Instead, we become spectators reduced to murmuring in awe at the impressive digital creations. I have no problems with Lucas aiming for the stars with his visual effects. Unfortunately, he must balance the flashy shots with believable characters with whom the audience can identify.

Two prime examples of recent films that deftly combine impressive eye-candy with a touching story are Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone and The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring. Both movies stem from well-written literary pieces, which bolster the depth of each character by providing plenty of background. When Frodo (Elijah Wood) and Arwen (Liv Tyler) flee on horseback from the deadly Black Riders, we're mesmerized by Peter Jackson's breathtaking direction and our interest in their welfare. A contrasting moment in Attack of the Clones has Anakin (Hayden Christensen) and Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewen McGregor) chasing a hired assassin through the skies of Coruscant. While they perform unbelievable feats of dexterity, their moves are so ridiculous that it removes any suspense about their chances for success. By the conclusion of this tiring and overly long chase, my lone emotion was relief that it was over. Harry Potter definitely aims toward children, but it contains enough subtle jokes and wondrous moments to please adult viewers. Supporters may claim that Star Wars can be emotionally weak because it's a children's film, but that reasoning does not excuse sloppy plotting and wooden characters. Luke Skywalker may not be a complex figure, but humanity exists within him that does not appear in Christensen's Anakin.

Attack of the Clones begins 10 years after its predecessor with several assassination attempts on Senator Padmé Amidala (Natalie Portman) - formally the queen of Naboo. Jedi trainee Anakin and his mentor Obi-Wan must protect her while trying to discover the origins of these attacks. Meanwhile, a new threat has arisen in the form of Count Dooku (Christopher Lee), a powerful Jedi pulling the strings of a group of Separatists. However, someone within the Senate is also controlling the events behind the scenes for his own devious aims. This "phantom menace" must be strong in the dark side of the Force because powerful Jedi like Yoda and Mace Windu (Samuel Jackson) cannot discover his identity. The troubles with Dooku culminate in the creation of an Army of the Republic to crush the separatist factions. This group of super-power clones appears to fight on the side of good, but they also bear an eerie resemblance to the forces of the Empire in the later films.

Following several close calls with Amidala, Obi-Wan travels to a remote planet to hopefully discover the source of the threat. Meanwhile, Annakin joins the attractive senator at her home planet for the required romantic moments. Obviously, they must get together sometime so Luke and Leia can exist. Considering the importance of this relationship, it is surprising that Lucas recycles so many tired cliches during their courtship. Portman is a solid actress, but she can do nothing with dreadful lines that induce more groans that emotions from the audience. Any momentum generated by the early scenes grinds to a halt and reveals Lucas' disinterest in crafting a clever script. Christensen lacks a strong presence, but he could have sneaked by with more interesting dialogue. Obviously, few Star Wars fans enjoy the films because of the complex love stories, so these problems are not a shock. They want to know if the action scenes and effects are amazing. Well, the answer is more complicated than just a simple "yes" or "no." The visual shots are unbelievable and display remarkable worlds of striking colors. Especially interesting is the foggy clone lab visited by Obi-Wan. It features strange beings looking oddly similar to the aliens in Spielberg's A.I and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Also, the skies of Coruscant are filled with strange ships piloted by all types of foreign creatures. The battle scenes contain several new inventions, including the amazing delayed-explosion missiles shot from the mercenary ship of Jango Fett (Temuera Morrison). The lightsaber finale contains some nasty attacks from the 79-year-old Lee, who shows his younger enemies who really knows how to fight. Plus, this battle also showcases the agile, crowd-pleasing moves of everyone's favorite little green Jedi.

Even though it includes some fine moments, this story ultimately falls because it relies too much on flashy effects. Lucas ambitiously tackles complex political schemes, but he forgets to inject any human energy to the proceedings. The script is not technically simple, but it remains too basic emotionally. The mechanics of the plot tug the characters to numerous locales, but their motivations do not spring from any substantive core. Plus, the visual effects are so numerous that they eventually become distracting. The original trilogy did not rely on cartoonish tricks to keep us entertained. The recent films move so far in the unreal direction that our suspension of disbelief nearly dissipates completely. It works as a collection of impressive scenes, but does not succeed as a memorable complete product.

Issue 10, July 2002 | next article

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