Oscar continues our retrospective from a galaxy far, far away with the second outing in George Lucas’ Prequel Trilogy. Has it aged well?
Who made it?: George Lucas (Director/Co-Writer), Jonathan Hales (Co-Writer), Rick McCallum (Producer), LucasFilm Ltd., 20th Century Fox.
Who’s in it?: Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman, Hayden Christensen, Christopher Lee, Samuel L. Jackson, Frank Oz, Ian McDiarmid.
Tagline: “A Jedi Shall Not Know Anger. Nor Hatred. Nor Love.”
IMDb rating: 6.7/10.
Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones is my least favourite of the Prequel Trilogy, being the most emotionally-empty and commercially-driven of the Star Wars movies. It’s a story that simply doesn’t work because of the thin narrative and terrible characterisation. While The Phantom Menace is generally the most panned, I feel that the filmmakers were trying their best with part one; there was pretty cinematography, a lot of great sets and art design, and a memorable three-way lightsabre duel. This movie, though, pandered to fans in order to appease them, coming off even less like a Star Wars chapter. It shows just how much Lucas had lost sight of what his creation really is.
Ten years after the Invasion of Naboo, the Galactic Republic is threatened by a Separatist movement organised by former Jedi Master Count Dooku (Christopher Lee). Senator Padmé Amidala (Natalie Portman) comes to Coruscant to vote on a plan to create an army of the Republic to assist the beleaguered Jedi. Chancellor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) places Padmé under the protection of Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) and Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen). The two Jedi thwart another attempt on her life and pursue the assassin, who is killed by her bounty hunter client with a toxic dart to prevent her from identifying him. The Jedi Council assigns Obi-Wan to track down the bounty hunter, whilst Anakin is assigned to escort Padmé back to Naboo, where the two reconnect and eventually fall in love. Obi-Wan’s investigations bring him to the water-world of Kamino where a Clone Army is being created, allegedly by the authorisation of the Jedi Council and with a bounty hunter named Jango Fett (Temuera Morrison) as the clones’ genetic template. Obi-Wan tracks Jango to the planet of Geonosis and finds another droid army is being created for full-scale war on the Republic. Meanwhile, Anakin is plagued by dreams of his mother suffering and dying, and flies with Padmé to Tatooine to save her.
Most of the acting is either wooden and lifeless or just inconsistent. McGregor is clearly trying to make Obi-Wan a moral and likeable character, but he’s often very distant due to his depiction as a reserved monk figure, making it hard for the audience to connect with him despite his occasional moments of levity, sarcasm or anger. Due to bad direction and a weak performance, Christensen is unable to fashion Anakin into anything other than an asinine, emotionally-stunted psychopath, flip-flopping between being ambitious to envious, from heroic to whiny, from romantic to creepy, from respectful to arrogant, and so on. It ruins any attempt to establish him as a truly heroic character. Portman has nothing to work with as Padmé, and even as a “badass” female character, she still doesn’t hold a candle to Leia. Morrison plays Fett as just a generic hard man with little character evident despite having a cool voice. Anthony Daniels tries to shine as C-3PO, same with R2-D2, but he suffers from having forced comedic dialogue. The once fiery and magnetic Samuel L. Jackson feels out-of-place and miscast as Mace Windu, in addition to looking bored and depressed. Only McDiarmid and Lee were able to have an ounce of charisma and villainous charm onscreen. Even Frank Oz as Yoda sounds bored and removed from his true character.
Lucas’ attempts to show Anakin’s fall to the Dark Side and his relationship with Obi-Wan are hampered by all the horrible flaws he displays. It’s not enough to simply say that they are good friends with a father-son bond, only to show that bond splintering before getting accustomed to them. If anything, Anakin’s already fallen. All of his moments of heroism and nobility feel shoehorned in because all of his faults are presented upfront, and we never actually see him be noble or particularly talented because he’s no more powerful or brave-hearted than the rest of the Jedi. Attack of the Clones should have been a story about a good man’s transition to the Dark Side, but the fact is that Anakin appeared as a horrible character from the first minute he’s onscreen. At least little “Ani” had sincere moments and intentions in Phantom Menace.
There is no friendship between Obi-Wan and Anakin since they demean each other from their very first introduction, and it’s bloody difficult to root for them. It contradicts what we’re told about them from old Ben Kenobi in the Original Trilogy. On the subject of the many plotholes: why doesn’t Jango Fett just shoot Padmé instead of hiring an underling with bugs to do it for him? Why is R2-D2 sleeping on the job despite Padmé being in constant danger? Why does Jango give up the chase after Padmé moves to Naboo where she is literally more exposed? Why don’t the Jedi realise that Palpatine is up to something? Why didn’t Anakin go back to save his mother earlier? If Count Dooku “was once a Jedi,” what gives you the impression that he doesn’t have it in him to assassinate a Senator since he is no longer a Jedi?!
There are Pixar movies past and present that look way more real than the CGI in Attack of the Clones. Most of the visuals appear bland, cheap and rushed, even by 2002 standards. The actors are surrounded by it so it means that their performances come off as stilted and uninvolved. The lack of sets also removes the tangibility of the OT. The action is inconsistent, ranging from serviceable to bland and boring. The hand-to-hand battle between Obi-Wan and Jango is intense and atmospheric, putting Obi-Wan to the test. However, our two Jedi heroes appear invincible due to the lack of physical stress or emotion on the actors’ faces, and the lack of direction from Lucas. We have eight minutes of Anakin and Padmé running around a droid factory escaping all sorts of obstacles and it gets boring quickly. The final duel between Dooku and the Jedi is badly-choreographed and lacks emotional weight, simply because we don’t know Doouku as a villain. Towards the end, the “Battle of the Geonosis” cheapens the presence of the Jedi and their abilities, and the clones and droids battling in the climax is entirely CGI. We have no investment in either side, therefore it’s just visual diarrhea.
The dialogue is atrocious and arguably worse than in Episode I, which at least had the excuse of being Lucas’ first film in twenty-two years. The romantic dialogue is sloppy, unrealistic and hopelessly clichéd, and tries to be exciting by being “forbidden.” Padmé’s reaction to Anakin’s supposedly romantic advances is ludicrous; in addition to having no chemistry, Anakin behaves like a lustful stalker with dubious values concerning dictatorship, which is doubly odd seeing as the Jedi would never condone such a world view, especially one who would admit favouring autocracy in front of a Senator. The fact Padmé accepts that Anakin killed an entire tribe of Tusken Raiders just so Lucas could continue their dalliance puts her in a questionable light.
The sound design is legitimately excellent, with plenty of iconic, familiar sounds and well-designed new content. At times, the film successfully establishes a consistent atmosphere. John Williams’ score is definitely consistent in its space opera flavour, although most of the background cues are often jarring or forgettable, not always suiting the mood. Even the actually nice-sounding love melody is ruined by being superimposed over a superficial romance. Occasionally, there are some cool digital backgrounds such as the Geonosis arena, Coruscant at night, and the arena monsters look pretty cool. And I admit that I do enjoy the first three-minutes of the “Arena Battle” between the captive heroes and monsters, as the Jedi aren’t able to use their lightsabres. It’s also pretty neat to see the Republic start to morph into the Galactic Empire with select visual and musical cues, such as the “Imperial March,” that are reminiscent of Imperial Rome or Nazi Germany.
The lack of tension in the second act also strips away the sense of danger the Separatists pose, unlike in the Original Trilogy where the threat of the Empire never truly left the story. While Padmé and Anakin are fooling around on Naboo, it doesn’t coalesce with the fact that they’re supposed to be hiding from the bounty hunter; when I first saw this movie, I expected another assassin to show up, only to be disappointed. The evident lack of tension due to bending the laws of physics to create dazzling action scenes harms the movie. From characters racing at high speeds through crowded or dangerous places, to surviving terrible heights and encounters with ships possessing rapid laser-fire and targeting systems, Episode II frequently takes the audience out of the story.
Thematically, the film cheapens many things that were deemed sacred within Star Wars. The lightsabre duels are still overly-choreographed and don’t match up with the supposedly serious tone. The majesty of the lightsabre and the Force is completely diminished as well, and no scene demonstrates this better than the duel between Yoda and Count Dooku, which can only be described as “Crouching Muppet Hidden Dragon.” What made Yoda special wasn’t his fighting capabilities or necessarily his ability to use the Force, but his wisdom, patience and foresight. Giving him a lightsabre makes him no different to any other Jedi shown in the film. The Masters themselves are still stripped of their mysticism and virtue, coming across as even more cold and detached than before, even shunning the concept of romantic or even platonic love. This is a highly demoralising prospect, especially if we are to believe this is what causes Anakin’s descent into evil – his love for Padmé. This flies in the face of everything Luke stood for; when he got angry, sad or felt affection for his friends, it didn’t mean he was destined to be a Sith, but that he was a human being.
In the end, the lack of developed characters or a realistic story leaves the Prequel Trilogy in shambles. There’s no sense of hope or adventure like the OT – it just feels awkward and soulless. Ultimately, there’s less effort in telling a well-written narrative and more with turning a profit thanks to flashy effects and familiar Star Wars iconography. This film is a patchwork of scenes and storytelling ideas that don’t form a cohesive piece, let alone a halfway decent Star Wars movie.
Excitement? Adventure? This film craves both those things…
- When Jango Fett gets into his ship after his fight with Obi-Wan, he bangs his head on the partially open door. This was intentional, and is a reference to a famous goof from A New Hope (1977), where a stormtrooper accidentally bangs his head on a door.
- Samuel L. Jackson has said that the words “Bad motherfucker” are engraved on the hilt of of his lightsabre.
- Just before Anakin goes to search for his mother on Tatooine, he has a conversation with Senator Amidala. The camera pans to their shadows as they talk, and Anakin’s resembles that of Darth Vader. According to the DVD commentary, the Vader-like shadow that Anakin casts was not a special effect but a coincidence.
- The only Star Wars film that was not the top box-office earner the year of its release.