Attack of the Clones
In many ways, I am like McBain, someone who grew up with Star Wars
, some of my earliest and most cherished memories consisted of my family and I seeing The Empire Strikes Back
at the Rivoli Theater and The Return of the Jedi
at the Hollywood Theater (both of which, where old school theaters, picture palaces that closed down when I was young, only to open again when I was in high school). In high school, my friends and I were, for the lack of a better term, “fan boy geeks,” who waited in breathless anticipation when we finally heard that Lucas was going to produce the three-part prequel charting the fall of Anakin Skywalker. Sure, there were plenty of signs that Lucas was going to screw-up my beloved series; the release of the original series was a case in point. Lucas’s love affair with the digital world, while yielding some impressive special effects, also removed some of the low-budget charm of the original series. More disastrous was the addition of several scenes, all of which were a portent of things to come: badly written, badly acted, and badly paced (for example, in The Empire Strikes Back
, the needlessly inter cut scenes of Darth Vader returning to his shuttle at Cloud City disrupted the tension and pacing of a much better director’s work; and who can forget the meeting of Luke and Biggs in the hangar, ugh!) So I guess I shouldn’t have been shocked by the listless thud that was The Phantom Menace
. It was a bad film, per se, but it was sorely disappointing, for the most part badly paced, badly written, and badly acted. I think it is a bad thing when your production design and costumes were the high point of the movie, and whatever your personal feelings of Lucas’s new work, you have to admire the guys attention to detail. Oh yeah, there was a three-way lightsaber duel at the end which was pretty good too. Even with that disappointment behind me, I still trudged faithfully to the Orpheum Theater (I guess I should be proud of never seeing a Star Wars
movie at a theater that wasn’t at least 50 years old) to see Episode II: Attack of the Clones
Well, I was pleasantly surprised. It wasn’t as bad as I was dreading, but again, it wasn’t as good as I would have wished for. For starters, the annoying Jar Jar’s role has been “reduced,” but every critic who was raising hell by making comparisons (which in my opinion, were questionable) between Jar Jar and cinematic stereotypes of African-Americans will not be pleased that Senator Jar Jar is the patsy who allows Supreme Chancellor Palpatine to assume emergency powers, leading to the establishment of the Empire and the rise of the Dark Side of the force.
Again, like The Phantom Menace
, the most impressive things about The Attack of the Clones
is it’s attention to detail in it’s production and costume design. At times, well most of the time, for me, I had the impression that Lucas was more into designing the world that these people inhabit, than the actual people that inhabit this world. Many of the digital creations are impressive vistas, with palpable depth and volume, an almost real sense of space, which I guess is some sort of achievement. They are pictorially beautiful, but I think they lacked the sense of the sublime grandeur that they were supposed to evoke. And I miss the use of real locations for alien worlds. To me, the most impressive “locations” in the film were not the towering, digital cityscapes of Corsucant, the watery home world of the cloners, or the canyons of Geonosis, but the Tunisian deserts of Tattooine, or the Italian locations used to stand in for Naboo. Perhaps it because you get a real sense of the actors interacting with an actual environment instead of a green-screen.
In my opinion, there were also major problems with pacing, especially in the film’s first two-thirds, which is mainly exposition punctuated here and there by action scenes, or supposedly romantic scenes between Anakin and Amadala; I’m sorry, but Natalie Portman has all the presence (and apparently acting ability; though she does look good in her costumes and doesn’t look ridiculous holding a blaster) of a block of wood, and I think they lacked any romantic chemistry (save one exception, BTW, I liked Hayden Christensen’s performance in the film). The are several plot thread inter cut throughout this section, and while everything moves, it all seems rather plodding. The dialogue was pretty banal, the line-reading where pretty weak; oh, how I wish that Leigh Brackett was still alive, to help Lucas again with his screenplay, like she did with The Empire Strikes Back
, the Star Wars
film with the best, funniest, and most romantic dialogue (oh, how the scribe of The Big Sleep
and Rio Bravo
could have added some sparkling wit and repartee.) I was getting restless in my seat, and I quickly became bored with looking at all of the details that Lucas manages to pack in the frame. It doesn’t help that his direction is not all that inspired; for the most part, it’s strictly functional, continuity, with little personality (though in the lightsaber duel between Anakin and Christopher Lee’s Count Dooku, Lucas gleefully violates the 180-degree axis). Still, even in these rather plodding sequences, there is one (well two) exemplary scene(s). Anakin, having tracked his beloved, long lost mother to a camp of Tusken Raiders, only to watch her die, emerges from a tent, lightsaber ablaze and proceeds to furiously cut down any alien who gets in his way; at this moment, the camera pushes into a close-up of Anakin’s face twisted in hatred, there is an iris into blackness, the transition to the next scene becoming a metaphor for the encroaching darkside. The next we see of Anakin, he is tearfully confessing his powerlessness in the face of his mother’s death, and his butchery of the Tusken Raider tribe. It’s a pretty good scene, and even Natalie Portman manages to emote in close-up.
Actually, considering all the buildup I’ve heard, the final battle sequence was kind of anti-climatic. It’s all broad-brushstrokes instead of finesse or brutality. The level of combat and special effects, the vision of a hellish, futuristic war, is impressive, but lacks power. Paradoxically, it’s exciting without being particularly thrilling. The much vaunted duel between Yoda and Count Dooku is more giggle-inducing than genuinely, awe-inspiring, probably because I was watching a totally digital figment battling a stuntman with Christopher Lee’s face digitally superimposed upon him.
What saves this film for me, what stops it from being the out and out failure I have been describing so far? Well, if any film has been saved by it’s ending, it is this film. The final moments are stunning. Palpatine’s plan is a success, he is given absolute power, war has been declared, many Jedi are already dead. Millions of clone soldiers march in unison, like the Stormtroopers of the later series, into a new armada of Star Destroyers. A terrible sight of a war machine out of control, the infamous sounds of the Imperial March begins to swell on the soundtrack. From a balcony, Ian McDiarmid’s Palpatine watches with a slight smile, the camera circles around; while the Chancellor and the other Senator’s survey the Army of the Republic, Jimmie Smit’s Senator Bail Organa (Leia’s adopted father) looks down, askance at the war machine, his hand clenched into a slight fist, he gently taps it against the stone balcony in the first signs of silent trepidation and regret. A bit a acting subtly in a film that lacks much in any subtly. Then there is a bright light, and a transition to the lakeside retreat on Naboo (or Italy); the sun glints brilliantly off the water, Anakin and Padame and wed on a balcony overlooking the lake. They share a passioniate kiss in close-up, the only real signs of real romantic chemistry between them. The end. In my opinion, a few moments of great filmmaking.