Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones (2002)

D: George Lucas
S: Natalie Portman, Ewan McGregor

Dreadful sequel to Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace which accomplishes the seemingly impossible task of making its predecessor look like a model of balanced narrative and in-depth characterisation. The events take place ten years after the previous outing, and involve the now teenage Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christansen), apprentice to the now bearded Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor). When a mysterious assassin tries to off now Senator Amidala (Natalie Portman), a twin-track narrative gets underway in which Obi-Wan tries to uncover the conspiracy which will lead the Jedi to the Sith (the evil dark Lords who have been pulling the strings of the brewing galactic conflict since Part I) and in which Anakin tries desperately to win the love of Amidala, with whom he is obsessed. Both strands eventually come together in a titanic donnybrook involving a Jedi-led army (we are here to protect you, we cannot fight a war for you... eh... yes?) and a bunch of robots led by a renegade Jedi, Count Doccu (Christopher Lee).

Howard Hawks once said that a movie needs three good scenes and no bad scenes to be successful. To its credit, Attack of the Clones has three entertaining moments. The first involves Obi-Wan's battle with the no-nonsense bounty hunter Jango Fett on a wind and rain-swept set. It is not a brilliant scene, but it is one of the few in which two human beings interact physically, and it is a pretty good punch-up. The second scene involves the same pair involved in a chase through an asteroid field, although this one does raise the age-old Saturday Matinee question of just how the baddie became so fearsome being such a lousy shot. The third scene comes near the end of what is on the whole a very painful experience for any long-time fan of the series. Having riddled and backwards-spoken his way through four of the five films, Jedi Master Yoda (voiced by Frank Oz, but no longer a puppet) finally gets to wield a lightsabre, which he does with tremendous dexterity: he leaps, spins, and somersaults around the screen like a gremlin on speed. It's a big moment for those with memories which go further back than 1996.

The problem is that these three moments are the highlights in a film otherwise comprising primarily of dull set pieces badly arranged in a narrative which has nothing to sustain interest in itself. The film on the whole presents a plot which continues to be a tease for an interesting story which is supposed to happen sometime later, manages to be weaker than its predecessor in basic characterisation, features an even worse performance by its central character, and yet again lavishes so much time and attention on creating digital creatures and landscapes that it loses touch with the human desire for adventure and imagination which is supposed to be the heart of the saga. Our imaginations are stimulated most by dreams of who we might otherwise be, not just by the landscape, flora, fauna, and technology which might surround us. There are no characters in this film that we admire, none that we fear, none that we find interesting, or funny, or that we could project our image of ourselves onto: these are digital simulacra responding to the mechanical button pushing of a man who has long ago lost touch with human values. And he will make billions of dollars for doing it. Bravo.

Attack of the Clones has three major defects. First of all the script itself is extremely episodic. The film careens furiously from mindless chases to pointless platform-leaping like a low-rent videogame adaptation of itself. It is not so much a tribute to the cliffhanger adventure as it is an attempt to connect with the entertainment experience of a target audience raised on videogames. The story is of no interest: like cut-scenes in a game, it is intended simply to bridge the gaps between the set pieces and requires no real empathy or connection with the characters. Once again a backstory thought up for research purposes when drafting the screenplay for the original trilogy has been unwisely offered up as a complete narrative. Each scene in the film seems like a flashback being had by the characters in a much more interesting movie that never got made. None of it hangs together except by contrivance, and the attempt to fashion the disconnection into suspense and portent is merely an ill-advised tease. Like its predecessor, the film is an advertisement for the next one in which we are again promised that something interesting is around the corner.

There are many who would argue that the episodic nature of the narrative is more or less par for the course, granted, but the problem is that the incidents depicted are singularly unremarkable; mostly third rate rip offs of films as recent as The Fifth Element and Gladiator (which were themselves derivative even in those movies) and embarrassingly inept ones at that. None of the set pieces involving the central character provide any thrills, because the prospect of his sudden and violent death is not likely (given that he must survive to become Darth Vader), and because we really wouldn't care if he did die.

This brings us to the film's second major problem: the character of Anakin Skywalker, who once again fails to excite interest or empathy. Last time he was an annoying moppet who didn't deserve our attention. This time he's a petulant adolescent who needs a good smack in the head a lot more than he needs to be treated as the saviour of the world. Of the movie's two narrative strains, by far the most interesting is Obi-Wan's star trek from digitised location to digitised location. Though derivative and unsurprising, this plot thread offers at least two relatively enjoyable scenes and McGregor is not bad (although his character is still not fully realised yet). Anakin, by contrast, is here beginning his path to the dark side as a whining teenager with the serious hots for his alien babe squeeze. What is supposed to be professed love and devotion comes across more like simple sexual infatuation, and we are not surprised that their relationship will inevitably not survive a whole lot longer.

The problem is that in giving weight to Anakin as the centre of the narrative, Lucas has stranded the film on not one, but numerous occasions throughout the film. Every time we return to him, we are treated to a variant on the same theme. The same is true in the Obi-Wan plot, but at least there we are given action to distract us. Every Anakin scene states and restates his teenage frustration with the world around him and his undying lust for Amidala. An attempt to revisit the locations of the original Star Wars and bring in some series continuity falls completely flat, and is soon followed by frankly pathetic attempts at slapstick and pun humour involving C-3PO and R2D2 which make you want to cry. The deficiency is primarily one of writing and direction, but matters are not helped by Christansen's performance, which is bland. Portman, likewise, having had her character stripped of social grounding by ridiculous contrivance (her "term of office" as Queen (!) has come to an end, but the current Queen has made her the official Naboo senator), is adrift. The character of Amidala has gone from having regal dignity and inner strength to being nothing more than a clothes horse for the costume designer and an object for Anakin to fixate on. For a woman supposedly trying to put off the advances of an unwelcome suitor, she certainly wears a hell of a lot of loose-fitting, low-hanging clothing. Fetching she looks: but acting she is not (as Yoda might say). Portman is understandably unable to do much with this character: she mostly reacts. Given what she's reacting to, it is no surprise that the romantic scenes are tedious and lacking in chemistry. Therefore the central relationship by which the film is grounded is not convincing and quickly becomes boring. The centre of the film is therefore inevitably flat and the movie on the whole dies on its feet.

The third major problem is perhaps one which many of the film's fans will find its greatest strength. The profusion of digital effects has, to my mind, stripped the franchise of much of its excitement. The adventure blockbuster genre has thrived upon finding new ways to restage, reinvent, and surpass the thrills of the classic Saturday Matinee. It is appropriate that as technology evolves filmmakers should use it to take this as far as they can. Yet the ability to create any number of physics-bending effects with computer generated imagery has meant that there is now absolutely nothing that cannot be achieved on screen. This can, on occasion work to the advantage of a certain kind of film:Gladiator, Moulin Rouge, and Spider-Man used these effects well. But there is, to my mind, no visceral thrill in the numerous chasing, leaping, and fighting scenes in Attack of the Cones. There is never any real sense of physical danger and the phantasmagorical semi-transparency of most of the green screen backdrops and computer generated props, effects, and characters only serves to reinforce the sense of distance between the human beings and the digital background. It is impossible to feel the excitement of watching great stuntwork and thinking "what would happen if I did that?" This cuts the empathetic connection between actor and audience even more than the bad writing, and the result is a heart-numbing collection of moving images with which we can feel no involvement.

The film's major failings aside, there are numerous continuity problems, issues with characters (minor ones who come and go too quickly, including Lee's Count Doccu), unwise pacing decisions and dialogue which alternates between irrelevancy and flippancy far too frequently. The movie tries hard for atmosphere, but fails to generate any. Arguably the film's most important moment, representing Anakin's first tangible step towards the dark side, is badly handled. After a poorly acted scene between Anakin and his mother which is derived from a hundred westerns, he sets about slaughtering a settlement of Tusken Raiders in hatred and revenge. To avoid upsetting anyone (and, God forbid, showing evil in its true form), Lucas draws a veil over the action, then gives us Anakin's pouty 'no one understands me' reaction to his atrocity.

The nitpicking could go on forever, but there is no point. Attack of the Clones is trash on every level. It is poorly crafted, badly written, badly acted, heartless and manipulative garbage which condescends to everyone who cares to watch it. I have no doubt that it will make plenty of money and that Lucas will round out the trilogy with a film which is an equally appalling failure on every level but on the one it counts: commercial. If the 'second' Star Wars trilogy is about anything, it is about Lucas' descent to the dark side of his own universe: he has taken the quick and easy path to success, failing to develop a decent script or allow more talented directors than himself to take centre stage and helm the movies. It is a deeply saddening assertion that all that is wrongheaded about American cinema will continue to prevail as long as people are willing to allow it. We are all equally culpable of course, because we're all paying for our tickets and will probably buy the DVD, but we are sowing the seeds of our own intellectual lobotomising. If we allow our expectations to be continually lowered like this, then we cannot but extinguish the fire of human imagination which Lucas once sought to rekindle.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2002.