Attack of the moans: STAR WARS EPISODE II review

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(Originally published in Cinescape Magazine in May 2002)

STAR WARS EPISODE II: ATTACK OF THE CLONES delivers on every cinematic promise George Lucas has made… and is somehow lacking. Such is the fate of a transforming genius.

In a career spanning decades in directing and producing, Lucas has put his spin on nearly every genre in Hollywood’s pantheon. He reordered the way a generation of filmmakers created stories through the abstract THX-1138 and hot-rod flick scored by ambient rock ’n’ roll with AMERICAN GRAFFITI. He helped revive the lusterless B-movie with RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, and in TUCKER: A MAN AND HIS DREAM (along with his pal Francis Ford Coppola), unleashed on us a surprisingly blunt creator-in-America tragedy, a dark mirror of his own success.

From his sanctuary of ambitions, Skywalker Ranch, he’s spearheaded the transformation of movie exhibition, inventing new sound systems and higher standards for image projection, as well as stoking two decades of special effects wonders until we now find ourselves in a world where we can never really believe what we see.

He’s constantly been striving for two nearly mutually exclusive things: innovative, cutting edge technology and editing techniques which serve to tell the oldest, most basic kinds of stories. He has promised our eyes, ears, heads and hearts new and dazzling experiences with the daring of a braggart jumping off a cliff without knowing if the lake below is deep enough to catch him safely. And when the culmination of his efforts, STAR WARS EPISODE I: THE PHANTOM MENACE, debuted in 1999, we were presented with one clammy question: What have all the years to struggle been for?

With its passionless acting, disjointed screenplay and mutations of things we loved about the original STAR WARS trilogy, it seemed as though Lucas had been waiting for the technology of filmmaking to catch up to his capacity to disappoint.

So with this as prologue, what do we find in the second installment of his prequel trilogy STAR WARS EPISODE II: ATTACK OF THE CLONES? What do we, his longest-time fans, fearful on his recent work, still basking in the glow of his earlier brilliance, see in the second film of his prequel trilogy?

Glimpses of wonder, fun, spectacular showmanship, and a sophistication of emotion touched on briefly in EPISODE V: THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK. We see all his bets threatening to pay off.

Like his best work, the plot outline for ATTACK OF THE CLONES is deceptively simple. Ten years after the events of EPISODE I, which saw Naboo’s Queen Padme Amidala fight back a droid invasion and witnessed young slave Anakin Skywalker liberated from bondage by Jedi Qui-Gon Jinn, Anakin is now all grown up and wielding a light saber of his own in the defense of Senator Amidala. His Jedi Master Obi-Wan Kenobi, meanwhile, is trying to track down the assassin bent on killing Amidala before she can halt the Chancellor Palpatine’s efforts to create an Army of the Republic and halt a separatist movement lead by onetime Jedi Count Dooku.

The table set by the opening titles, CLONES kicks into high gear with its first full action sequence, Obi-Wan and Anakin in a speeder chase for an assassin through the cityscape of Coruscant. Far from being a car chase transferred to a city-of-the-future setting, the sequence is the best speed-demon tendencies of Lucas melded with the kind of computerized special effects that lends amazing reality to the most fantastic images. With the action, the audience corkscrews, pinwheels, skydives and cartwheels with Anakin’s pursuit, going from miles in the sky to a skidding crash in the deepest recesses of the planet city. What Lucas’ years of effort have produced is an artificial world as believable almost as our own. The crystal clarity of the imagined world and the free movement of his camera made possible only through massive computing power, allow us to suspend disbelief more freely than ever. It is a thrilling run of something literally never seen on screen before. And after 100 years of film, how often can you say that anymore?

And yes, Lucas did something very similar at the end of EPISODE I, with the CGI Gungans fighting the CGI droids. But considered beside EPISODE II, EPISODE I seems like the tentative test run of a hotrod, a nervous trip around the block after its owner spent his savings just to get the bucket back together. EPISODE II is the first Saturday night at the drag strip, and it wins every race it runs.

Lucas has regained his joy of filmmaking, and for the first time is truly liberated by his technology. Along with an ease of effort not seen since from him since GRAFFITI, Lucas is as playful as ever, cribbing images not only to cowboy movies (in a battle in a GLADIATOR-like arena) and THE MATRIX (when Yoda finally pulls the gloves off), but even referencing an AUSTIN POWERS: THE SPY WHO SHAGGED ME joke which itself was a referenced joke to the EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (watch the leader of the Techno Unions in the meeting with Count Dooku, and you’ll see what I mean). And the final stages of this film are the most lush visual rocket ride through the STAR WARS universe we’re likely to see. We get to see Yoda act as Patton and Bruce Lee in the space of ten minutes, and we’re treated to Samuel L. Jackson’s Mace Windu being as bad an ass as we had hoped.

But the most important improvements and strengths go deeper. While Lucas vacillates in interviews between dismissing the saga as Saturday afternoon fare and building them up as mythic capsules of wisdom passed to new generations of kids who have stepped away from religion, we know they can be a perfect blend of both. Like his mentor Francis Ford Coppola’s highest achievement, THE GODFATHER series, Lucas’ best work has been produced by a belief that high ambition, high art and high entertainment are not mutually exclusive, but mutually necessary. You can find any ten arty pinheads to laud a smear of paint on a museum wall, but to connect real, normal people, that is truly succeed as an artist, a creator has to enliven the senses, the mind and the heart with the same piece of work.

This is what Lucas attempts and succeeds in with CLONES. Like all the WARS before it, the dialogue is bland in spots. Yes, the characters are simple, though there are enough sharp exchanges here to revive the vivid blend of visual and auditory thrills these films can hold. Something his harshest critics have never understood is Lucas works in broad, bold strokes. We’re not going to get minutely pitched and finely calibrated character studies, with Robert DeNiro style acrobatics required to pull them off.

Lucas has found that fine line between thrill and myth, and with every action here by Anakin, Padme and Obi-Wan, there are reverberations of fate and destiny that lace through their actions to the events of Luke and Leia which come later.

The precursors to the original trilogy come fast and thick. There are more than a few echoes of Luke’s adolescent torment of A NEW HOPE. For every note of hope and destiny for Anakin’s boy, there is a counter note in CLONES of tragedy and pain. In fact, in probably Lucas’ best moments in the film, Anakin finds his fate turning on the same dune on the Lars homestead where Luke watched the twin suns set in A NEW HOPE. Hayden Christensen as Anakin produces perhaps the most revelatory performance in any WARS film, allowing us into the wrenching transformation of Anakin from a boy with a future to a man with a grim fate. And there is more and more that can’t be fit in here.

The rough points, and they are here, fall well within the imperfections of the original trilogy. While not every moment hits on all emotional cylinders, the misfires don’t hit the sour, clanging notes of MENACE. For first generation STAR WARS fans, MENACE hit the senses like a fever-fueled nightmare: familiar, close to the heart, but strange and horribly foreign in so many important ways. CLONES hits like something close to the second coming of THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK.

The biggest blemish is technical. The digital images captured by Sony’s High Definition video cameras are not ready for the big time. While I’m sure it helps cut out technical steps in the melding of actors and special effects, I believe Lucas when he says all those levels of work with film degrade the image from the original pristine 35 mm film image, the HD image is so pixilated (especially in Amidala’s apartment, and several other dark settings) it is the worse of the two choices on balance. Perhaps things will be worked out for EPISODE III. Another sore spot, unfortunately, is Natalie Portman’s performance as Amidala. It veers from a listless flat reading to a trembling, fragile that makes he haiku speed romance with Anakin believable… but only just. We’ve seen Portman’s acting abilities are far beyond her years, but like MENACE, her best work does not make it to the screen here. And while there’s so much to love, there are a few moments of tin-ear acting which jar at the eyes like anything from MENACE. When… and if you haven’t seen the film and don’t want a big spoiler, skip over the next paragraphs… Anakin finds his mother only to watch her die in his arms moments later, her death is the worst kind of gasping, GENERAL HOSPITAL departure yet seen in the STAR WARS saga. She literally throws her head back and exhales like a child play dying on a schoolyard.

But the wonders outdistance the imperfections with ease. Yoda’s CGI incarnation is a revelation. While we’ve known his character since EMPIRE, it is only here where we can read his expressions with the subtle wit that his words always carried. Yoda’s role returns from the bland President of the Jedi from MENACE to the cipher of wisdom and cagey teacher of EMPIRE. After MENACE, one could almost forget Yoda’s persona is, by and large, that of the magical frog in fairy tales. Like the methodology of the frog in those tales, he’s not small and frail because he’s weak and vulnerable, he’s small and frail because it’s the best camouflage for his immense powers, and it draws out the true character in those around him. Here, we find out just how thorough and confounding the camouflage is.

Following his blistering fight with Dooku, he returns to his familiar cane and crouch, but he does not return to his small stature in our minds.

And here’s the biggest shock. I can’t believe these words even as I’m writing them, but here they are: I liked Jar Jar Binks. Where in EPISODE I he pounded our hopes with the worst kind of Stepin Fetchit fumbling (the voice is still in evidence here, but the damage has already been done to the series) his appearance in CLONES actually uses the basics of his character to humorous and chilling effect. Palpatine’s manipulation of the water-brained Gungan comes off like a twisted and very funny joke. In EPISODE I he was a reincarnation of a Hollywood tradition best left in the past. Here he’s the stand-in for apathy in a democracy (if you can believe it) and the consequences of his uninformed exercise of power are as instructive as they are warped.

So with that final amazement, I’ll simply say drop what you’re doing and go see this film. The series, the closest to my heart in all the film world, has regained its footing and promises to do what Lucas has threatened all along… entertain the child within us while revealing the wisdom of the world in a Saturday afternoon lark.

Score: 6/10

Feel like arguing about this? Come over to my Letterboxd page and let’s fight. Or, if you only have time for 140 characters, find me on Twitter at @JettJergens

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