Star Wars, Episode II: Attack of the Clones
Part of the reevaluation process for a series like it is trying to divorce yourself from everything you think you know about the series. I remembered going in to the second prequel film in the Star WarsThe modern blockbuster: it's a concept so commonplace now we don't even think about the fact that before the end of the 1970s, this kind of movie -- huge spectacles, big action, massive budgets -- wasn't really made. That all changed, though, with Star Wars, a series of films that were big on spectacle (and even bigger on profits). A hero's journey set against a sci-fi backdrop, nothing like this series had ever really been done before, and then Hollywood was never the same. series, Episode II: Attack of the Clones and absolutely loathing it in theaters (I certainly ripped the film a new one in my old review). But I'm trying to come at these movies with fresh eyes, to try and understand them as someone new to the series might, so whatever I felt about the movies I had to get rid of that notion this time around.
Going into Episode II with fresh eyes and an open mind, I have to admit that the movie wasn't anywhere near as bad I remembered or expected it to be. It's not a film I really enjoy, not on the level of the original trilogy certainly, but it is fun in places and, overall, manages to find that epic Star Wars feel better than Episode I ever managed. Put another way, while about 20 minutes of the first film was actually worth watching, most of Episode II is at least bearable, and there are a few set pieces that really propel the movie.
We open on Coruscant, capital of the Republic ten years after the events of the first film. Senator Amidala's ship lands at the designated point but, as the Senator exits her ship, it explodes, killing her. Or, really, it kills her body double as Amidala (Natalie Portman) was actually hiding as one of her guards on a different ship. The Jedi Council then intervenes, sending two of Knights, Obi Wan (Ewan MacGregor) and Anakin (Hayden Christensen), to act as her body guards during her stay on Coruscant. Another attack on her life, though, prompts for a new line of defense: Obi Wan would follow the clues left by the would-be assassin while Anakin would take Amidala back to her home planet, Naboo, to keep her safe.
Things don't go exactly as expected, though, as the clues lead Obi Wan to a mysterious planet, one seemingly scrubbed from the Jedi records: Kamino. There he finds a cloning facility (on, apparently, the only building on the entire planet) apparently authorized by the Jedi Council to create a whole fleet of warriors. After touring the facility, Obi Wan gets into a battle with the base-model warrior who supplied his genetics for the clone, Jango Fett (Temuera Morrison), and Obi Wan is forced to pursue the soldier off-planet. Meanwhile, Anakin has been having terrible visions of his mother. Packing up, Anakin left Naboo (with Amidala in tow) to Tatooine to try and find his mother and make sure everything is okay. This is then where they get Obi Wan's signal -- having pursued Jango to a new sector, he's found an entire facility tied to the Trade Federation on the planet Geonosis and he needs backup. Anakin, Amidala and, eventually, the Jedi Council, all head to the planet for the start of Galactic war.
My biggest complaint about the first film, The Phantom Menace, was that it's entire plot could be summarized as "a plucky band of rebels ran around a lot and managed to achieve nothing." If they had just stayed on Naboo and fought for their planet, they could have won in about twenty minutes. Thankfully of all the things this movie improves upon, actually having the actions of its principal characters matter is the largest improvement of all. Episode II takes the path of a would-be murder mystery, trying to solve the plot of who wants Amidala dead and why they keep coming after her. it then smartly ties itself into a larger story of political intrigue and war, all before bringing all the elements together for a final blowout. It's wise plotting and, in the right hands, it could have made for a very tense, dynamic film.
Problem is that George Lucas was not the right hands for this film. As I noted in my last review, Lucas doesn't have the deft touch needed for this series of films. While the base structure of the movie certainly makes sense -- assassination attempts and political intrigue -- you have to have to right factors also in play to make the plotting work. You have to have clear stakes in place -- who could benefit, what they stand to gain, and what happens if they lose this battle -- and you also have to have an obvious pool of villains to work from. Red herrings and fake schemes are par for the course, and it's certainly okay to reinvent what the audience thinks they know, but at its core you have to have certain elements to raise tension, up the stakes, and make the thriller work.
Attack of the Clones has none of this. For starters we don't know what there's even an assassination attempt on Amidala's life until the last third of the last act. Within the context of the film we just watched, it's basically an aside, a petty plot point that barely ties into the murder mystery. Worse, because the machinations are all revealed at the end, along with the pool of villains, we don't have anything to look at, to blame, or to watch as they scheme. A whole chunk of the movie is missing until the last section of the film and, by then, the whole of mystery has already fallen apart.
Instead of a tight and twisty mystery what we really have is Obi Wan following a linear path without really understanding it. A lot of clues are dropped in his lap and he barely understands any of them. He's much less a gumshoe in the role the film gives him than a bumbling detective just lucky enough to put all the pieces together. It certainly does help the stakes, or the thrills, of the movie. Obi Wan isn't essentially to solving the mystery at the core of the film, he was just the guy sent on the mission and he simply followed the clues, from point A to point be, relying on luck and coincidence to pull it all together.
What's really annoying is that at the ed of the film, the big villain, Darth Sidious, is revealed to have pulled all the strings of the movie to make it all happen. There's no payoff for this, though. Everything Obi Wan does is pure luck and, if he hadn't found the right clue, following the right path, or had been killed by this person or that bounty hunter, he never would have finished the path and the whole pre-plotted Galactic War never would have happened (at least, not like Darth Sidious wanted). It's like in other movies where, after a whole series of coincidences and bad luck, the villain gets captured only to then launch an elaborate escape because being captured was part of his plan all along. It's supposed to make the villain look like a brilliant tactician when, in reality, it's just the movie lacking a better way to bring everything together.
Still, Obi Wan's plot line is miles better than the other thread of the movie, Anakin and Amidala. I feel bad for Natalie Portman because she's basically the heavy saddled with this terrible plot line, forced to work across from an awful actor. Apparently 1,500 actors were looked at for the role and, despite negotiating with the likes of Ryan Phillippe, Colin Hanks, Paul Walker, and Leonardo DiCaprio, the casting directors settled on Hayden Christensen. This was a poor choice because Christensen gives the most wooden performance I've ever seen in a film. He barely seems to know how to act in this film, waffling between cardboard emotion and petulant whining. You're supposed to care about Anakin, about his plight and how he's trying to be the best Jedi Warrior around but no one seems to want to give him the time of day, but he just comes off as a pathetic man-baby.
This is what drags down the plot line between Anakin and Amidala. It's supposed to be a love story, one that plays up the unrequited love to two feel since last seeing each other all those years ago (in the last movie). Of course, in the last movie Anakin was nine years old and Amidala was fourteen so it's hard to see how either of them could have unrequited love, or really even understand that emotion, let alone still feel that ten years later. even if we could get over that little tidbit, the fact is that we get noting like emotion from either of them; Hayden's performance as Anakin during these scenes comes across like a creepy stalker trying to woo a beautiful woman by staring through her soul and undressing it with his mind while Portman's Amidala seems confused and disgusted by him 95% of the time. Somehow this is supposed to be a love story for the ages?
I get it, these two have to get together to ensure Luke and Leia are born so they can be the heroes of the next trilogy. A new viewer certainly wouldn't understand that, and the film does a poor job of selling us on their love at all. Instead, for some stupid reason, Amidala falls for Anakin, giving into the creepy guy that has zero chemistry for her because that's what the future movies demand. It's writing for an ending without developing the scenes in the middle to justify it (a problem Game of Thrones season eight also had). It would have been so much better for the movies to find a way for this love to grow organically... or, better yet, cast an actor that had chemistry with your already cast lead female so these sequences could have actually played properly.
But then that just leads us back to the big problem with these movies: George Lucas. A better director would have realized his leads were giving wooden performances. A better director could have directed their scenes with more panache to really bring the two lovers together. A better director could have seen the flaws in his movies and found a way to correct for them. George Lucas was not that man and the films suffer under his direction.
At least there's barely any Jar Jar, so I guess that automatically makes this a better film. George did learn that lesson from the previous film.
Thing is that I did actually like Episode II a lot more that Episode I. Yes, it's not very well paced, tragically slow at times, but it still has more going on, more to interest viewers and delights to show, than the first film ever mustered. The opening chase of the film, with Obi Wan and Anakin chasing down a would be assassin across the skyline of Coruscant, is a thrilling sequence. It has more energy, dynamic dialogue and interesting action, than the best sequences of Episode I. We also get a decent battle between Obi Wan and Jango Fett at the mid point, and a pretty great battle sequence to cap the movie. Of course, the best fight of the movie is one between Yoda and finally-revealed villain Count Dooku (Christopher Lee, under-utilized in the role), where we finally see why everyone talks about him in hushed tones.
Star Wars, Episode II: Attack of the Clones shows signs of life that the first film lacked. It's not a great movie, far from perfect in just about every way, but this is the first time I could see someone come into these movies and think, "sure, I finally get what everyone else sees in these movies."
Continuity and Issues:
The ten year jump between movies is a tad off-putting. One would think the point of a preplanned trilogy would be to establish all the necessary characters in the first film so they could carry through to the other movies in the trilogy. If you are going to introduce a new character, like Count Dooku, do it organically, during the flow of the movie, not in the text scroll at the start. The characters talk about him, but we haven't seen him and know nothing about him so he's just a name, not a person. It stupid. "Oh, he's the nasty villain!" Is he? Really? Why?
What does it actually mean to bring balance to the Force? This is something they talked about in the first movie, like it's a good thing, and they mention it here, too, but no one ever actually explains how the Force is currently out of balance. Balance would imply neutrality, order and chaos, good and evil, Jedi and Sith, and yet the Jedi want this to happen (but they don't want Sith around), so what exactly does it mean? (And yes, I know I could look it up and find the answer, but the point is that the movies never tell us what it means.)
I get that there's a Galactic Senate and each planet is part of that senate, but that also implies that each planet has but a single government. It's a convenience most sci-fi takes, but I really don't feel like that's realistic. Considering how many governments we have on Earth, and how poorly they all get along, I don't think any one planet could ever settle on a single government anywhere.
And speaking of all those planets, the clone army is two hundred thousand strong with another million on the way. That seems like a lot, but considering how many planets could join the Galactic Civil War, that really doesn't seem like all that much.
Oh hey, blue milk. Apparently that's just a recurring thing. How odd.
And here we have the first in-continuity reference to the Death Star, the ultimate weapon that, eventually, the Empire builds. No matter what we do we can't escape that damn space station.
Its never really established why Jango Fett was the perfect guy to use as the base for the Clone Army. One would think it would be for his prowess as a warrior, but he gets taken out pretty easily in a one-on-one fight between himself and Mace Windu, so I'm still left wondering.
I love how much Yoda was sandbagging. "Oh, I'm so old and frail I need a cane to walk and HELL YEAH LIGHTSABERS! EAT FROGGY DEATH!" Also, this is the first moment where I actually felt like the CGI Yoda was a better fit for the movie than the puppet Yoda. Puppets would have been much harder to control in the Dooku/Yoda fight.
The closing montage gives us the leaders of the Republic staring out at their clone army, Star Destroyers flaying off into the sky, with the Imperial March playing on the soundtrack. If that wasn't a hint that the Chancellor was the evil Darth Sidious, nothing could be.