There's no question that I walked into the latest addition to George Lucas's Star Wars saga with low expectations. The deafening hype surrounding the release of Episode One: The Phantom Menace in 1999 and the Jar-Jar Binks inspired let down that followed left me more than a little disillusioned with the entire Star Wars franchise. As the saying goes: "once bitten, twice shy" and that certainly described my mindset going into an opening night screening of Episode Two: Attack of the Clones. Would it stumble into the same traps that rendered Phantom Menace so lackluster or would it be able to rekindle that elusive Star Wars magic? The answer is a resounding 'Yes' and 'Yes.'
The first thing that anyone who sees Attack of the Clones is going to point out is that it's better than Phantom Menace. You'll get no argument from me on that account. This is a superior film on a number of levels. It has a much more coherent plot, the characters are slightly more relatable and since the expository work of introducing principles and motivations was done in the last film they're afforded more range and depth here.
The special effects seem more integrated with live action elements and the design work (sets, costumes and locations) exhibits a finer degree of coherence and detail. Nowhere was this more apparent than in scenes of Coruscant, which in Phantom Menace looked impossibly busy, somewhat sterile and even a little bit blurry. In Attack of the Clones Coruscant takes on a grittier edge reminiscent of Blade Runner's L.A. coupled with a technical crispness that reminded me of The Fifth Element. In Attack of the Clones Coruscant is more plausible as a real location and that strength runs through all of the film's many landscapes.
Creature design is another Clones strongpoint. Lucas presents us with a vast menagerie of species, intelligent and otherwise, that runs the gamut from small rodent-like beasts and vicious scavengers to lithe, graceful aliens and monumentally menacing monsters. In grand Lucas style each of these fantastic beings seems to have a history, a culture and a complex inner life. No one does creature design quite like Lucas and Clones has the most satisfyingly diverse and endlessly fascinating batch to date.
The same holds true for ship design on which Lucas lavishes an almost fetishistic attention to detail. The star cruisers, land speeders and anti-gravity platforms are all exceedingly beautiful and refined. There's an abundance of chromed surfaces and smooth, graceful lines. Each ship has a unique way of moving and emits satisfyingly idiosyncratic sounds. Best of all, unlike their Phantom Menace counterparts, most of these new vehicles seem to have been created not as springboards to ancillary marketing (read: toy design) but to fit snuggly into their respective worlds.
'Fitting in' is a key design concept in Attack of the Clones, the result of which is striking at times. We get to see the roots of everything from Star Destroyers and Imperial Walkers to the Death Star and Storm Troopers. Through the use of subtle visual elements Attack of the Clones is made to more perfectly fit into the established Star Wars universe, more seamlessly than Phantom Menace ever did.
Visual elements aren't the only thing that hearkens back (forward?) to the original trilogy. John Williams provides a remarkable score for Clones that mixes cues from each of the four other films to create a familiar aural backdrop. Williams makes liberal use of humor, irony, urgency and novelty throughout the score.
Sounds Great! What's the Hitch?
So, you get the point. There's lots of great eye-candy. You'd expect nothing less from Lucas right? Right. And you get it here in spades. Unfortunately Attack of the Clones is lacking in a number of disturbing ways. Disturbing because, with all the care that went into the technical side of things you'd think that someone would have made sure that the fundamentals of filmmaking (script, performance and pacing among others) would be adequately addressed as well.
First there's the script. One of the best things about the original Star Wars films was the campy, quotable dialogue. Each character had strong traits that were illustrated in their speech. Han had bravura (Watch your mouth kid or you're going to find yourself floating home.), Luke was a wimp (Listen, I can't get involved! I've got work to do! It's not that I like the Empire; I hate it! But there's nothing I can do about it right now.), Vader was mystical and menacing (Don't be too proud of this technological terror you've constructed. The ability to destroy a planet is insignificant next to the power of the Force.) Attack of the Clones just doesn't have any of that. Oh sure, Lucas recycles lots of lines from the other films in an attempt to fabricate continuity out of thin air but it just falls flat. There are only so many times you can hear a Lucas character say 'I have a bad feeling about this' before it begins to sound insipid.
The recycled lines are the least of the problem though. Clones is simply filled to the brim with painfully bad lines that are neither notable nor quotable. Thankfully they're not in the least bit memorable either. The bulk of the embarrassingly childish, dull and emotionless drivel comes during the excruciating romance scenes, which isn't really saying much. After all, when the blasters and light sabers come out the time for talking is over.
The next problem with Attack of the Clones is the uninspired performances by most of the film's leads. In the original trilogy Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford really went the distance to sell their characters. They seemed alive and in the moment no matter how silly the situation. In Clones no one, with the exception of Ewan McGregor seems to be running at 100%. Portman and Christensen in particular come across as detached and distracted. Their romantic scenes have no weight and the two appear to be incapable of selling any but the broadest of emotions to the audience. One begins to wonder why they're interested in each other at all (I won't spoil anything but there are actually more reasons shown for this pair not to get together than there are for them to become a couple.) Is it because of Anakin's ten year obsession with the 'angel' he discovered in his youth? Is it because Amidala just finds young powerful Jedi hot? Your guess is as good as mine is since no rationale was ever offered by the film. What is clear is that acting in front of a blue screen is an art that's very difficult to master, very difficult indeed.
Finally there's the issue of pacing. If there's one area in which the original trilogy always succeeded it was pacing. I've seen every one of the four Star Wars films on opening night and I had never been part of a restless Star Wars audience. Thanks to the glacially slow pacing of the first half of Attack of the Clones I was part of just such an audience tonight.
Everything started out just fine. There were explosions, there was action, we got to see Jar-Jar justly marginalized and we got to ride along on a heart-pounding speeder chase through the endless city of Coruscant. Then the romance plot came on and we got lots of exposition about the state of the Republic, the Separatists and the Trade Federation. These long, tedious stretches were broken up by some action but the general feeling of the first half of the film was one of increasing boredom. By the beginning of the second half of Attack of the Clones I could hear people shifting in their seats, sighing, snickering at Anakin and Padme, getting up and heading for the restrooms. In short, the attention span of the hard-core, opening night Star Wars fans had been needlessly squandered. So much of the excitement had dissipated by the time that the final battle scenes arrived that no one seemed to care much about what was happening up on the screen. They were decisively revived for one particularly engaging light saber battle at the very end (a stunning high point) but by then it was too late.
In the end Star Wars Episode Two: Attack of the Clones was able to rekindle my youthful Lucas-inspired enthusiasm if only due to the impeccable visual design and wonderful sound-scape. Unfortunately the film does indeed fall into many of the same traps that ensnared Phantom Menace. As a stand-alone movie I'm not sure Clones would succeed. As part of the Star Wars canon it fares a little better but still amounts to an abundance of icing and very little cake.