Published Dec 01, 2002Star Wars is not your average movie to a generation of fans. For a group of people now old enough to look back at 1977 with some perspective (though we may refuse to do so) for a group of people to whom Star Wars was called just that (not Episode IV: A New Hope) for a generation it was not just the first great sci-fi film we saw, but the very first film we loved. Now that we feel like pioneers of Hasbro-brewed marketing campaigns we were the first victims of the action figure as cross-marketing, and though it may be a sad sense of pride we feel, we have nonetheless harboured a sense of propriety (if not a sense of perspective) for this soap opera in the sky for most of our lives. We defend it a little too vigorously to its detractors; we overlook its flaws a little too easily but it feels like ours and we want each step to be as great as we remember it in our childhood dreams and fantasies.
This is, of course, a ridiculous burden for George Lucas to shoulder, intentional or not. It's one that has defined not only his career but his entire life (he lives on Skywalker Ranch, for god's sake!), but to his credit, he has stayed true to the legacy he has built, making films with an eye not to critics, or to Comic Book Guy, but to the wide-eyed 12-year-old who will take the foundation of these adventures as both gospel and jumping off point to at least a couple of summers worth of imaginative play. (Yoda meets Spider-man in the backyard battle for supremacy of the force!)
It seems like a ridiculous claim to say that Episode II arrives with relatively little hype, but given the 20-year build-up orgy of expectation that climaxed in 1999's Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones arrives almost like a normal movie no fast food tie-in, no pop can ubiquity. It tells the next instalment of the fall from grace of young Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) on his path to the dark side. Ten years after the yippee! of Jake Lloyd's Episode I enthusiasm, Skywalker is now a Jedi apprentice under the tutelage of Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor), assigned to protection detail for former Queen, now Senator Padme (Natalie Portman). Meanwhile, the diplomatic crises faced by the Republic are collapsing into a secession by a bunch of outer systems; now-Chancellor Palpatine is desperately trying to consolidate his power with government missives and Jedi might. The macro story is familiar to any Star Wars fan Padme and Skywalker, the parents of Luke and Leia, fall in love; the Republic devolves into the darkness of the Empire; the order of the Jedi collapses.
Episode II unfolds in two threads the micro story involves Skywalker's obsession with Padme as her assigned protector and Kenobi's pursuit of the conspiracy against her while the macro story sees Palpatine consolidating power by creating a "grand army of the Republic."
Before the flat and nitpicky detail-oriented Phantom Menace, George Lucas had not directed a film in over 20 years, since the original Star Wars. His emphasis on visuals and technical detail over guiding his human actors was palpable from that effort, and while Attack of the Clones is not a radical improvement in that area, Lucas has bought himself some insurance against bland performances by at least hiring more talented actors, better able to equip themselves for the year-long grind of shooting a film almost entirely without sets or even other actors to help invoke their imaginations. Acting has never been the strong suit for this series (just look at Mark Hamill), but AOTC at least isn't a disaster. His big-picture storytelling remains his first priority, moving the action forward in big leaps and sweeps of his digital brush, though his stilted dialogue is even less memorable than any of Han Solo's quotable quips.
Where Lucas both shines and fails is in his utter dependence on the digital wizardry of his visuals. While he deserves praise for his technical achievements or rather, those of his hundreds of detail-oriented employees AOTC remains a weird-looking, otherworldly picture. It's not quite a really high-end videogame, but it is also lacking the concrete reality that the original movies managed by building and filming models and shooting on location. The location shoots Padme's Naboo retreat (filmed in breathtaking Italy) and the return to Tatooine (filmed at the original Star Wars location in Tunisia) are the best-looking scenes in the film, while the all-digital creations of its climax come across as weirdly flat. Lucas's steadfast refusal to ditch the wildly unpopular Jar Jar Binks from the film sees the digital lizard in a much smaller role, but Lucas insists of "pushing the envelope" by inserting a few more all-digital speaking roles, none of which really succeed, even the newly-digitized Yoda.
Lucas has repeatedly made it clear that he sees the entire six-chapter adventure as one 12-hour tale, meant to be seen as its whole (though one wonders if five more would have been made had he started with Phantom Menace), and he does a fascinating job weaving different elements of music and themes throughout AOTC. Accompanying music for Anakin Skywalker hints at the foreboding Vader theme, while his romance with Padme is scored with hints of Leia music. The rise of the clone army also provides exciting hints of the later films' storm troopers, and Yoda finally emerges as the kick-ass Jedi we've always heard about. The film starts slowly, but peaks with enough power and excitement to sustain fans into what will surely be the darkest chapter of the six-part adventure, the fall of Anakin and the rise of Darth Vader. It also requires a little perspective none of the films have ever fared well with critics. It's the 12-year-olds (and those still in touch with that sense of wonder and imaginative possibility) that have always sustained this series. Attack of the Clones is no different. And no Ewoks either.