Review by Dustin Putman
3 stars out of 4
So much hype surrounded 1999's release of "Star Wars: Episode I -
The Phantom Menace" that viewers were bound to be disappointed in
comparison to their enormous expectations. It didn't help that what
director George Lucas had built up and created over the sixteen-year
period between installments was admittedly pretty lackluster fare.
Light-hearted, slow-paced, and woodenly written and acted, "Episode
I" was a visual marvel, but not much else. The final product simply
did not come alive the way fans had hoped.
General expectations have been noticeably lower for the second film
of the prequel trilogy, no doubt due to the overall failure of its
predecessor, and that is a fortunate thing. "Star Wars: Episode II
- Attack of the Clones" is not only five times better than "Episode
I," but it, ultimately, can handily place second-best among the five
films, just behind 1980's "Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes
Back." In other words, it will reinvigorate "Star Wars" fans' interest
in the wildly popular series.
Set ten years after the events of "Episode I," "Episode II" gets off
to an attention-grabbing start on the planet of Coruscant with the
failed assassination attempt of Senator Padme Amidala (Natalie Portman),
formerly Queen of Naboo. Someone, it seems, is dead-set on taking
Padme's life. Brought in to assist in the matter are Jedi Knights
and long-time friends of Padme's, Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) and
a now-grown Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen). Instructed by Jedi
Master Mace Windu (Samuel L. Jackson) to capture the culprits, Obi-Wan
sets off for a hidden planet known for creating clones that he suspects
is somehow involved.
Meanwhile, Anakin accompanies Padme back to her lush home planet of
Naboo, where he lets it be known that he has had strong feelings for
her ever since they first met. Anakin also becomes obsessed with tracking
down and freeing his mother (Pernilla August) from her slave life
on Tatooine. What occurs on this journey forever sets into place the
anger and suffering that Anakin holds within him.
Just as "Episode I" was pure setup of the things to come, so is "Star
Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones." The difference in quality
between the two pictures, however, is all in the artistry of the plotting.
The story that "Episode II" comes equipped with is a remarkably stronger
and more involving one, not to mention more important to the history
of the "Star Wars" universe. Likewise, George Lucas' direction is
infinitely more assured, as he is constantly pushing the story and
action forward. While there is certainly exposition to get through,
Lucas thankfully opens up and explores his purely imaginative settings,
rather than treating them as mere backgrounds. Blessed with a sheer
expansiveness and visual complexity lacking in the last movie, "Episode
II" is, if anything, one of the most creatively ambitious feature
films of the last decade or two. Because of this, the film's entertainment
value never flags even in the scenes when a lot of talky background
information ! has to be covered.
Aside from a thrilling pod race and a climactic three-way battle sequence,
"Episode I" had few action scenes, and even less that were effectively
edited. Not so here. Extensive action scenes run rampant throughout
"Episode II," and each one of them is a genuine show-stopper. From
an astonishingly mounted chase through the heavy-trafficked nighttime
skies of Coruscant, to a storm-swept battle between Obi-Wan and assassin-bounty
hunter Jango Fett (Temeura Morrison), to an exciting and suspenseful
encounter at a clone factory between Padme, Anakin, the machines,
and a group of angry winged predators, Lucas has tightened the screws
(and the editing) on his action set-pieces, and it shows. Aided by
the meticulous, mind-blowing visual effects work by Industrial Light
and Magic, who have clearly outdone themselves like never before,
"Episode II" pulses with vitality and inventiveness.
If "Episode II" is a visceral rollercoaster ride, the screenplay,
by George Lucas and Jonathan Hales, does not stand up to such close
scrutiny. One must actually question why, if George Lucas goes to
so much work and trouble in bringing his worlds to stirring life,
he doesn't pay more attention to his writing. Despite a notable strengthening
of development for some of the characters, the dialogue is oftentimes
cringe-inducing. This is no more true than during the unconvincing
romantic interludes between Anakin and Padme. Every single line that
escapes their mouths in these moments is filled with embarrassing
naivety and a reliance on horridly sappy romantic movie cliches. "I
don't like sand," Anakin tells Padme at one point. "It's coarse and
rough. Not like you. You're soft and smooth." Later, Padme earnestly
tells Anakin, "I've been dying a little bit more inside each day since
you came back into my life." If this is as passionate and humanistic
a love story as Lucas can ma! nage, then he definitely should consider
hiring someone else to write the screenplay for 2005's "Episode III."
On a brighter note, these romance scenes are all relatively short,
so as to lessen the blow and get back to the next technical wonder.
The acting, plagued by a curious stiffness in "Episode I" that may
have come from the usually talented performers' discomfort in acting
largely beside a blue-screen, is particularly more vibrant here. Ewan
McGregor (2001's "Moulin Rouge") is an arresting, less self-conscious
presence as Obi-Wan Kenobi, while Natalie Portman (2000's "Where the
Heart Is") is given far more to work with this time, eliciting an
unavoidable poignancy as Padme. Replacing the hideous child monstrosity/actor
Jake Lloyd, as the doomed Anakin Skywalker, is Hayden Christensen
(2001's "Life as a House"). Christensen nails the arrogance and confusion
that plagues Anakin and, even when forced to say some lines of dialogue
I wouldn't wish on my worst enemy, his dignity as a performer to watch
in the future remains healthily intact.
Rounding out the cast are Samuel L. Jackson (2002's "Changing Lanes"),
as Mace Windu; the classy Christopher Lee (2001's "The Lord of the
Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring"), as villain Count Dooku; Frank
Oz, as the indelible voice of Yoda, who gets the most audience-pleasing
moment of the film; Anthony Daniels and Kenny Baker, as the voices
of wisecracking robot comrades C3P0 and R2D2; and the voice of Ahmed
Best, as Jar Jar Binks. Hate club members of the kid-friendly Jar
Jar Binks will be pleased to know that he remains fairly low-key throughout,
and only appears in a handful of minor scenes.
"Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones" is a triumph of a motion
picture. Beautifully majestic from an aesthetic standpoint, often
awe-inspiring, and with a few rousing action sequences that give the
ones in the superior "Spider-Man" a run for their money, the film
is an utter delight for its 138 minutes, which fly by. Had George
Lucas reconsidered some of his more terribly written dialogue exchanges
and treated his generic love story with more charisma, "Episode II"
would have all the ingredients of a truly epic science-fiction masterpiece.
Copyright © 2002 Dustin Putman