Alexandra DuPont needs no introduction for regular readers of the site. She's got her look here at ATTACK OF THE CLONES, and I'll save my comments for my own review. Take it away, my dear:
Introduction: Keep those expectations in check, fellow geeks
This time, it's not that simple.
I enjoy the dubious distinction of having written one of the first online reviews of The Phantom Menace. You can blind yourself on that laser burn of dashed expectations here — or you can read my re-cap of many of the same points during a follow-up appraisal of the excellent DVD here. I'm afraid I'm rude on both occasions.
But now that Episode II: Attack of the Clones is upon us, it's not that simple — and I'm not feeling so mean. That said, I do think the many Talk Backers taking an absolutist, "it will rock or it will suck" stance on the picture need to relax and temper their expectations a bit — or they will be miserable.
For Episode II is, I'm sorry to report, a mixed bag — an improvement on Phantom Menace, to be sure, but hardly the home run director George Lucas needed to bring everyone back into church glassy-eyed and drooling and singing hosannas. Instead, it's a minor base hit; the movie sort of sputters to life, with occasional action set pieces punctuating a series of deadly-dull meetings — until, with about 45 minutes to go, the film suddenly plays to the cheap seats and embraces its pulp roots and becomes a very big, very violent, kind-of-dumb monster movie all the way to its slam-bang conclusion.
The monster-movie connection really slammed me during the climactic arena battle, which is just packed to the gills with Jedi Knights and robots and mosquito-men and dusty mayhem. There's this one full-profile long shot of Obi-Wan facing down what is essentially a giant, shrieking praying mantis — and it flashed me back instantly to a shot of a wayward Union soldier facing down a giant crab in Mysterious Island, one of the cherished Dynamation stop-motion monster movies of my youth. At that exact moment, I realized that the movie had abandoned all hope of telling a powerful story and was ladling out monster-movie thrills as only ILM can, and without apology.
This will be enough for many fans. It will not be enough for all of them. Speaking personally, I found Clones quite entertaining the second I stopped holding it up to a mythological standard that I've always felt the Star Wars movies needed to meet — and that slackening of standards has proven both liberating and bittersweet. More on that far below.
It's all spoilers from here on out: What's the story?
Ten years have passed since Phantom Menace. Obi-Wan (Ewan McGregor) and Anakin (Hayden Christensen) have been assigned to Senator Padme's (Natalie Portman's) security detail; she's been the target of assassination attempts ever since she decided to vote against the creation of a vast galactic army.
A new assassination attempt — this one involving droids and creepy centipedes and followed by a marvelous but somewhat geographically confusing flying-car chase that plays like The Fifth Element by way of "T.J. Hooker" — splits up our heroes and sends them skulking across the galaxy:
Obi-Wan flies off to see who's behind the assassination attempts, and uncovers a vast conspiracy involving (a) hidden planets, (b) the creation of a "clone army" of stormtroopers and (c) a rebellion led by a coven of Dune-inspired guild leaders and the rogue Jedi Count Dooku (Christopher Lee). Meanwhile, Anakin and Padme go into hiding — first (and sort of unnecessarily, plot-mechanics-wise) on Naboo, then on Tatooine, where Anakin finds out his mother's gone missing. Along the way, the couple falls in love rather abruptly — following some stalkerish pleading by Anakin — and a family tragedy pushes young Skywalker into vengeful, homicidal territory.
At which point the movie finally gets interesting and kicks into high gear.
Following some anguish and light mayhem and a few more scenes of people standing around talking, everybody shows up in an alien gladiator arena. Roughly 30 minutes of unprecedented ILM pornography ensues — their best work since the attack sequence in Pearl Harbor. There are monsters! Lightsaber duels! Too many characters to follow! Bits of lame comedy involving C-3PO's misplaced nog! And Yoda putting on the proverbial pimp-smack!
Is the movie different from the draft screenplay that was online a few weeks ago?
Considerably, and for the better. Roughly 50 percent of the plodding, redundant exposition — include a "Dawson's Creek"-ish stay with Padme's family on Naboo — has been neatly snipped from the final cut. Meanwhile, a clunky action scene in a droid factory — and one that doesn't make a whole lot of logistical sense, quite frankly, unless the Geonosians are putting landing pads in their smokestacks — has been added.
But still. Although there are solid action set pieces along the way, that leaves a lot of people sitting around talking in the first half of the film. Which leads to my biggest critique, and I'm afraid it's a bit of a deal-breaker for many:
So how's that love story?
Good Lord, it's just horribly written by George Lucas and Jonathan Hales — but it's not horribly written and horribly acted and horribly dwelled upon, which is what I was most afraid of.
In the coming weeks, I think, Attack of the Clones is going to be compared quite frequently to Titanic; both movies force their viewers to slog through an expository, sophomoric romance before rewarding them with a staggering set piece. But there's a crucial difference: Titanic's Jack Dawson gets Rose to fall in love with him by appealing to her inner liberated woman and painting her portrait and getting her freak on in a Model T. Anakin, on the other hand gets Padme to fall in love with him by essentially reciting the Stalker's Lament ad nauseam — two-dozen variations on the following three sentences:
"Obi-Wan's holding me back! I love you! It will make me miserable if you don't love me back!"
Well past the point that this particular barrage of dialogue has gotten uncomfortably creepy, Padme suddenly gives in to Anakin (during what is, I must admit, a quietly underplayed little scene as the couple's being rolled into the Geonosian arena). But there are no "transitional scenes" between Padme's two emotional poles. It's as if a switch flips and the woman takes total bloody leave of her senses.
Personally, I didn't buy it for a second, and scoff at those who would counter, "Oh, well, it's Lucas' depiction of 'young love.'" Maybe for Anakin — but for Padme? The woman has been dealing with politicians and dignitaries and probably more than a few lecherous cranks since her bat mitzvah. And now she falls for this dilettante, this arriviste, this un-sophisticate? He's not fit to carry Bail Organa's luggage!
All that said, the movie never spends more than five minutes at a time on this narrative thread, and Hayden Christensen does the best he can with the material. While Portman could still stand to freshen up her vocal life a bit more — though she's considerably less autistic-sounding than in Clones — Christensen has a fine glower, and uses it to good effect more than once.
So what's good?
(1) Technically, Lucas has once again rewritten the rules of cinema with his digital cameras — Clones' digital cinematography is indistinguishable from movies shot on film, if not better-looking. I have to hand it to the Flanneled One: The technical innovations he's spearheaded will theoretically allow anyone to make any kind of movie they want in the years to come. For that, maybe he should be forgiven a thousand Phantom Menaces.(Oh. Wait. No he shouldn't.)
(2) Once again, kudos to the beleaguered and passionate and pear-shaped geeks of ILM: The action set-pieces and art direction are just ridiculously generous in terms of production design and effects detail. I mean, ridiculously generous. I may have to watch the film again just to drink it all in. (The little riffs on cheesy Tokyo advertising in the Coruscant entertainment district were probably my favorite little grace note.)
(3) Ian McDiarmid is a mean little camp icon in his reduced role as Chancellor Palpatine, the closet Godfather of Evil. "I love democracy!" he tells the Galactic Senate even as he's yanking it from them. Hilarious! And the way he holds his hands like the Emperor while talking to Anakin!
(4) The opening shot is a return to form after Menace's boring fly-by. (For my money, Star Wars opening shots need to be vast.) And after the title crawl, the camera pans up instead of down to the busy planetscape — a nice deviation.
(5) There's a moment when, after Anakin has slaughtered an entire Tusken village (and yes, it's a nice homage to The Searchers, and yes, we see him decapitating no fewer than three Sandpeople in the process) where he's recounting his crime to Padme in the Lars family garage. As he's calling them "animals," we cut to a close-up on his face — and I swear, for the first time in a while, it feels like we're watching Method Acting in a Star Wars movie.
(6) That said, McGregor is, as Mr. Harry Knowles noted, "totally on the clock" as Kenobi. One wishes there was more to his detective-story arc; he grounds all the movie's best moments — grimacing as he beheads a giant insect, growling like Alec Guinness outside a Coruscant nightclub, relaxing as he commiserates with the four-armed informant Dexter Jettster (and yes, Lucas does seem to be letting his children name his characters again) in a diner.
(7) People were laughing at the already-infamous Yoda/Dooku lightsaber duel — but it was that delighted-surprise kind of laughter, near as I could tell. I wish there had been more of that sort of delight throughout the movie.
What's not so good?
(1) While I was happy to see the Death Star plans being handed to Count Dooku near the end, I was quietly and irrationally disappointed that they weren't the groovy, low-fi, '70s vector-graphics Death Star plans we all know and love. Instead, they were the overly polite, colorful, holographic Return of the Jedi Death Star plans. I fear A New Hope is going to be tweaked further.
(2) John Williams' score is not as abundant as one might hope. In fact, as confirmed by some recent online reports, there's more than a little re-used music from Episode I playing during key scenes. Not re-recordings -- the actual original music from Episode I, recycled. Was Mr. Williams too busy writing embarrassing ersatz techno riffs for Minority Report? Suffice to say I'm in no hurry for the two-disc "Ultimate Edition" of this score.
(3) Anakin's mother sort of flops over comedically when she dies.
(4) Padme, for all her professed love of peace and justice, seems mighty forgiving when Anakin recounts his act of genocide. In fact, she never mentions it afterward. At all.
(5) A little bit of Jar-Jar is like a little bit of third-degree burn; it really hurts about the same. At least he's the patsy.
(6) Christopher Lee is great in the movie, but he should never, ever be seen riding an anti-gravity Honda scooter. I kept looking for his golf clubs.
(7) "Say, Master Yoda! Someone inside the Jedi Order has covered up the existence of an entire planet! Think you might want to investigate that?" "Investigate Obi-Wan can by himself. Bemused I shall seem, and then return to teaching little children I shall. That important it cannot be."
(8) The entire Naboo interlude really could have been consolidated into the flight to Tatooine. At least then these profoundly dysfunctional children could have fallen in love while on the lam and under duress and grieving and bickering — a vastly sexier and more human courtship than the dramatic dead stop on Padme's Maxfield-Parrish-by-way-of-Dinotopia homeworld.
And finally, The Peanut Gallery: Comments of varying length overheard and solicited (from friends and the hoi polloi) as I left the packed preview screening
"R.H.," lesbian filmmaker: [dripping with sarcasm] "I really loved the fight between Count Chocula and the puppet."
"A.C.," test pilot: "I went in with such low expectations that I didn't hate it outright — but at the same time, all the basic failings from Return of the Jedi to now are there — bad dialogue, bad plot mechanics, all that rot. But all the ingredients are at least in the pie. Still, I thought Anakin should have been more like an evil Han Solo, or a charismatic Satan; in retrospect, Hayden Christensen is terrible. But the Star Wars faithful will walk out thinking they got what they wanted — there's lots of action and Ewan McGregor is cool and Natalie looked hot. Lucas is playing to the groundlings. People will go see it five or six times. It's not a good Star Wars movie, but it will do until one comes along. [pause] Though, come to think of it, there was a point before the third act kicked in that I kind of power-napped."
"Mr. Sox Fox," comics shopkeeper: "I went into this movie expecting nothing at all. After the crushing disappointment that was Phantom Menace, I decided not to even hope that Clones would be any better; even when early reviews started coming out positive, I isolated myself from all expectation of non-sucking. I went in prepared for the worst. And you know what? I didn't hate it. This is a big, fun movie that's actually growing on me; I'll see it again, and pay for the experience. I'll address only two of the criticisms I've heard: that it has a slow middle (while Anakin is romancing Padme and Kenobi is doing his investigator shtick) and that the plot is too complicated.... I simply don't see either of those two things as being a drawback. The story is complex — great! And the pacing slows down in the middle — which it really needs to do. Frankly, this movie is as good as any of the Star Wars films — yes, and I mean that pointedly towards Star Wars (Ep. IV, that is) and Empire. Look at Empire in particular — the plot hurtles from one locale to another, the action is split up, and even Empire is stuffed to the gunwales with plot holes, ludicrous set pieces and big cheesy monsters. What part of 'this is a Star Wars movie' did you not understand? Clones is loads of fun and piled high with cool stuff — and it doesn't have anything as show-stoppingly embarrassing as Jar Jar's antics in Menace, the 'Wacky Racers' shtick of the pod race or even the Ewoks. To counter the heapin' helpings of hate that will no doubt be ladled out by the film-sophisticate set, I'd offer a main course of 'go see it, fanboy' — and a side dish of 'and stop pretending the rest of the movies were Citizen Kane.'"
And finally, a longish rant from dear friend Alina DeVries — a rant I was compelled to transcribe and include here in its near-entirety because it segues nicely into my final point:
"There is no sense of awe or reason in the film! From Lucas' inability to show off a multitude of aliens in the new cantina scene to his inability to suggest geography in the first chase to his inability to pay off all that 'be mindful of your lightsaber' dialogue, the film doesn't follow up on its set-up beats! Anakin's dialogue is nearly schizophrenic at times — but instead of showing his schizophrenia, Anakin just says he's troubled, over and over!
"And Padme and Anakin's relationship is more discussed than shown — the two have absolutely no chemistry together! It smacks of first draft! There aren't any characters to latch onto! Even the bad guys are poorly drawn — and no one seems to have any clear-cut goals, so there's no sense of victory or defeat! And there's way too many "in the nick of time" moments that aren't set up properly! There are literally too many gaping inconsistencies to name! And Attack of the Clones features no clone attack!
[I pressed Alina on that last point until she admitted, "Well, not much of a clone attack, anyway." Back to her rant. — A.DuP.]
"Structurally, Lucas was drawing parallels to Empire — but this is the first-draft version of it, without the sex, drama or poetry! And characters are shown repeatedly doing things that contradict the value system of the other movies! When the writers can't think of a way to get out of things, they throw away what we've learned from the other four films!
"For example? At one point, R2-D2 flies; um, wouldn't that ability have come in handy in the Dagobah swamps? Or when he was on Jabba's sail barge? And the Jedi Knights are shown enjoying violence — which, if memory serves, means you're giving in to the Dark Side, right?
"And that last sequence where Yoda fights, and he's flummoxed by a large pillar at one point? That's retarded! Yoda himself has told us that "size matters not"! The new, revised mythology paints the Jedi as nimrods!
"The last battle adds a very important, traumatic event to the mythology — one paralleling a similar event in Empire — but it's just sort of thrown away to make way for Yoda! It's a passing thought!
"And Jar-Jar? Good Christ! Okay, the audience didn't like him in the first film — but what Lucas does to him in this movie betrays everything the entire first trilogy stood for! One of the most important messages of the series is to never judge characters by their appearances, as they might have hidden depths or purposes — like the Ewoks. But here, Lucas has turned a good-hearted but slightly dumb character into the being who kicks off the fall of the Republic! Those who hated him may enjoy this turnabout — and I think that's why it was included — but again, it's at the price of Lucas's major theme in the original trilogy!
"A lot of people will forgive the film because of the old 'it's Star Wars defense — and that doesn't cut it. The film doesn't work on any of the levels that make great movies great — which the first three did and then some. There's no sense of build-up, of climax, of characters, of story arc. So it's never really a movie — just a collection of scenes that don't add up! And when you have all the time, money, and power to make a film exactly how you want to — and Lucas does — how excusable are these faults?"
Sigh. Alexandra here. I can't say I agree with every point of Alina's rant, but I can write with confidence that she will speak for a vocal subsection of the Star Wars community.
I can also say this for Alina: Alina still cares. I no longer care to that degree. If these last two Star Wars movies have taught me anything, it's that all my prior rantings about Star Wars needing to be mythologically and thematically coherent and profound no longer apply. Those rantings were, in retrospect, most likely the justifications of a young adult who wanted to explain why she'd liked a pulp sci-fi/fantasy series so emphatically — and who gleefully adopted as her own the "Power of Myth" mental gymnastics handed to her on a platter by Joseph Campbell and the Lucasfilm P.R. machine.
That said, when I came to the above understanding and relaxed my standards a bit — right around that Mysterious Island shot — I quite enjoyed the final moments of Attack of the Clones for the pulpy pastiche that they are. Take that for what you will.
All grown up now, apparently, and going spoiler-free for Episode III,
— Alexandra DuPont firstname.lastname@example.org