Film Reviews: Wednesday, May 16, 2002
Hardware Wars

After The Phantom Menace, Episode II is more of the same ó but better

By Kristian Lin

So, have you read enough Star Wars reviews yet? The national media and every fan well-connected enough to get into an advance screening have already weighed in on Star Wars: Episode II ó Attack of the Clones. They tend to fall into three camps: 1) George Lucas apologists who feel the master can do no wrong; 2) fans of the original trilogy who find the new films unforgivably disappointing; and 3) highbrows who hate the entire Star Wars franchise for helping create the phenomenon of the modern Hollywood blockbuster. Even for film critics with none of the above axes to grind, itís tempting to lavish praise or heap scorn, especially since the movie gives plenty of ammunition to anyone who wants to do either. An extreme reaction to a film this visible always draws in readers, but since itís so easy for casual moviegoers to sort out the movieís good and bad parts, a critic does himself no favors ranting or raving. So, Iím going to try and be measured about this, and when you see the film (as you probably will), you can decide for yourself whether or not Iíve managed to do it justice.

The fifth Star Wars film picks up the story ten years after the end of Episode I. Padmť Amidala (Natalie Portman) has voluntarily relinquished her power as queen of Naboo, but continues to serve her home planet as senator. The intergalactic Republic is facing a separatist movement led by Count Dooku (Christopher Lee), and a Senate faction wants to create a giant army to defend the Republic. Amidalaís preparing to vote down the motion when sheís the target of successive assassination attempts. Jedi trainee Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) sees to her personal security, while his mentor, Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor), tries to find out the identity of the would-be killer. His investigation leads him to an army of cloned warriors thatís already being secretly created.

Episode II improves on Episode I by subtraction ó no cute kid actors and much smaller doses of Jar Jar Binks. Lucasí skill at creating imaginary landscapes is even more in evidence here; the planet thatís one big storm-tossed ocean with sealed-off buildings on raised platforms is particularly notable. These worlds not only look spiffy, but they provide backdrops to crackling action sequences, which Lucas can still direct. Shortly after the opening, thereís a teeth-rattling nighttime speeder chase through a crowded urban landscape that gives a dizzying vertical dimension to the standard car chase scene.

As splendid as sights like these are, however, the filmís deficiencies are glaring. Lucas uses a co-writer (Jonathan Hales) for Episode II, yet his scriptwriting has actually gotten worse. Long stretches of stilted dialogue about politics bring the first half of the movie to a dead stop. The romance between Padmť and Anakin falls hideously flat, and considering how important that plot is to the saga as a whole, thatís a fatal shortcoming (for this movie, anyway ó it could get fixed in the next movie, but donít hold your breath).

Portman and Christensen, fine actors elsewhere, look horrendous here. Christensen catches fire briefly when Anakin takes revenge on the Tusken raiders who have killed his beloved mother ó those who saw him in last yearís Life As a House know he can do smoldering anger. Even so, McGregorís the only major cast member who out-acts his plastic action figure, which illustrates what a marvelous actor he is. As a more mature Obi-Wan, he exudes a grave authority that the movie sorely needs, while he still retains enough of his youthful presence to lend zip to his fight scenes.

The movie does pack a few satisfying surprises for the fan base. As Jedi master Mace Windu, Samuel L. Jackson flashes his best ďdonít mess with meĒ glare during a lethal showdown with Boba Fettís dad. Yoda turns into a bad-ass, commanding an army of prototype storm troopers, and, even more disconcertingly, drawing a light-saber and wielding it spectacularly against Count Dooku. (That sequence could have been thought up by someone making a Star Wars parody, but Lucas carries it off.) Most unreal of all might be the athleticism shown by Christopher Lee in that same fight scene. Fresh from playing the wizard Saruman in The Lord of the Rings, he has lengthy light-saber duels with both McGregor and Christensen (and itís obviously him and not a stunt double in most of the shots). What makes it so remarkable is that Lee turns 80 next week, and he looks fit enough to take down someone 60 years younger.

In the end, the difference between Episode II and Episode I is one of degree rather than kind. The newer film is distinctly better, but the strengths and weaknesses of both movies are pretty much the same. I could wind up this review by drawing a grand conclusion on the state of Cinema, or the state of Hollywood, or even the state of George Lucas, but Attack of the Clones just doesnít warrant it. Most moviegoers should have no trouble putting this picture in its proper place: as highly flawed, visually entrancing, and ultimately disposable entertainment.

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