Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Saturday, November 21, 2015

Director Report Card: George Lucas (2002)

5. Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones

The reaction that faced “Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace” was mixed, to say the least. But it’s not like Episode II was never going to get made. “The Phantom Menace” was, predictably, a huge box office event, becoming the highest grossing film of year and racing all the way up to the second spot on the all-time highest grossing chart. Whether or not George Lucas learned anything from the first prequel’s response is debatable. When you’re as successful or popular as Lucas is, you’re probably shielded from most criticism. “Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones” would face nearly as much criticism as its predecessor and suffers from many of the same problems. Yet I’m confident in saying it’s the superior of the first two prequels.

In the decade since the last star war, the politics of the galaxy have grown even hotter. A separatist army threatens to break away from the Galactic Republic and plunge the galaxy into civil war. Someone within the separatist movement wants Padme Amidala of Naboo, now the planet’s senator, dead. Obi-Wan, now a Jedi master, and Anakin, now his arrogant if powerful apprentice, are sent to protect her. Obi-Wan’s investigation of the assassin leads him to a planet where a clone army has been created, uncovering a conspiracy. Anakin, meanwhile, falls deeper in love with Padme and makes an awful discovery about his mother.

A complaint I had about “The Phantom Menace” is that its plot was needlessly complicated compared to the elegant simplicity of the original trilogy. Well, “Attack of the Clones” isn’t much better in that regard. There’s still a two-prong conspiracy at work here. You see, Senator Palpatine is also the Sith Lord, who is secretly funding the separatist movement. As a politician, he gathers more and more power in response to this conflict. A villain benefiting from a war he himself creates is an interesting idea. Unfortunately, “Attack of the Clones” does not take a direct A-to-B route to get there. There’s some false leads, with the Trade Federation still floating around along with some other shifty, corporate organizations. A more concise writer then George Lucas probably could have made this plot work. In his hands, it's jumbled and often difficult to follow.

However, “Episode II” is mostly a superior film to “Episode I.” First off, it utilizes its cast much better. In the previous episode, Ewan McGregor was mostly wasted as the teenage Obi-Wan, relegated to a supporting role that left him with little to do. “Episode II” elevates himself to a lead role. Left to his own for most the film, McGregor gets to be a man of adventure, investigating leads and being a general bad ass. Speaking of bad asses, Samuel L. Jackson’s Mace Windu is actually given something to do. The last act has the Jedi master swinging a purple light saber around in the middle of the action. Best of all, Christopher Lee is brought into the “Star Wars” fold. Lee easily overcomes the ridiculous name he’s given. Lee brings an unbelievable dignity to the part of Count Dooku. Lee was always respectable, even in the lowest of material, and this film allows Lee to lord over lots of people. A legendary figure, Lee’s presence elevates the entire movie around him.

While some actors that were underutilized last time get more to do this time, there’s still a major problem. Many established names auditioned for the role of Anakin Skywalker. Ryan Phillippe nearly got the part, while Lucas reached out to Leonardo DiCaprio at one point. Instead, an unknown named Hayden Christensen won the role. Christensen has one of the most obnoxious screen presences I’ve ever seen. From his first scene, Christensen is whining. The character is meant to be an arrogant teenager. The writing is too good in this regard, as the audience frequently hates Anakin. Even after loosing his mother, and massacring a village of Sand People in his grief, Christensen isn’t believable. He always comes off as petulant and irritating. Christensen has never gone on to much of a career probably because he’s so fucking annoying in this movie. It’s hard to believe that Darth Vader, ruthless leader of the Imperial army, started out as this wienie.

While “Attack of the Clones” was generally better received then “Episode I” but one aspect was heavily criticized. While Anakin and Padme are left on Naboo, their romance blooms. Or it’s suppose to anyway. The romance in “Episode II” is embarrassing. If Hayden Christensen’s attempts at emoting rage or arrogance is bad, his attempts at being a romantic lead are even worst. Then again, I don’t think anyone could make Lucas’ attempts at romantic dialogue work. Natalie Portman, a wonderful actress who looks wonderful in a series of elegant gowns, also stumbles under the terrible dialogue. “I don’t like sand” is the most infamous example of Lucas’ attempt at romantic dialogue. When Anakin starts talking about how he burns for Padme, I actually think that’s even worst. Anakin frolicking with some sort of space cow is supposed to be charming but is just uncomfortable. The entire subplot is like that, making the audience cringe in the worst way. The romance is utterly impossible to believe.

In “The Phantom Menace,” the many references and call-forwards to the earlier/later films were often distracting. C3PO’s random appearance was only the most egregious. “Attack of the Clones” does a slightly better job with this. The fans adore Boba Fett despite the fact that he never did anything interesting in his movies. “Attack of the Clones” has another Fett, Jango Fett, Boba’s father. Unlike his son, Jango actually does something. He gets to blast people with his ray gun, fly through the air on his jetpack, and faces off against monsters and jedi. The second episode also shows the origin of R2D2 and C3P0’s partnership. Threepio is incorporated into the film in a far more organic way. The puns and buffoonery he gets up to are embarrassing. However, the scenes between the two droids are actually quite charming and amusing.

Some origins, however, are harder to rate. The very first “Star Wars” movie featured an off-hand reference to the Clone Wars. For years, fans wondered what in the world that could be. “Attack of the Clones,” naturally, expounds on this. And not in the most satisfying way. First off, we learn that the Clone Wars is called that because the victorious army was made up of clones. That’s odd. Aren’t wars usually named after who the aggressor was? Secondly, the origin of that clone army is a bit strangled. Basically, the clone army became the empire’s stormtroopers. And each one has Jango Fett’s face, a frankly bizarre screenwriting decision I can’t justify. It’s not as ridiculous a reveal as Anakin building C3P0 in his bedroom or the midi-clorians but it definitely creates some pauses. (Oh, we also find out how Luke got an Uncle Owen, for all that’s worth.)

Mostly, “Episode II” is better than “Episode I” because it has far better action. The second prequel is just as CGI heavy as the first, if not more. However, the effects have aged a lot better. You can actually believe the various CGI droids, monsters, and vehicles exist on the same plain of reality as the human actors. (There’s also less kiddy bullshit, excluding Obi-Wan’s odd trip to an alien diner.) Take, for example, the early scene of Anakin and Obi-Wan chasing an attempted assassin through Corusant. It’s an exciting sequence, the characters diving between moving vehicles and careening around buildings. Unlike the super-safe action in “The Phantom Menace,” there’s actually a bit of danger and excitement in these scenes. Obi-Wan’s duel with Jango Fett is even better, as the characters dangle over the ocean in the pouring rain. The following space chase is also effective, as the bounty hunter’s mines clip through an asteroid field.

Proof that Episode II utilizes its effects way better comes near the end. After Anakin, Obi-Wan, and Padme are all captured by the bad guys, they’re put in gladiatorial combat against a trio of monsters. Unlike the ridiculous CGI creations in “The Phantom Menace,” these creatures feel alive, having weight and character. They’re just generally neat too. One is a dinosaur-like beast, his facial markings resembling an executioner’s mask. The other is a giant praying mantis-like crab creature. The final one is a weird rat/tiger monster. Watching the heroes survive and dismantle these beasts is loads of fun. Natalie Portman in the tight white uniform, which is quickly torn away, had the same effect on a new generation as Carrie Fisher in the iron bikini did on the previous one. The sequence later explodes into an all-out war between the Jedi and an army of battle droids. After years of hearing about how bad ass the Jedi Knights were, actually seeing them in mass combat is a satisfying sight.

As much fun as those sequences are, “Attack of the Clones” eventually degrades into too much combat between zeros and ones. The human element is removed entirely as we’re treated to long sequences of droids, battleships, and clone troopers firing at each other. By the time the weird tanks on giant wheels roll in, any semblance of humanity is once again gone. Just minutes ago I was having fun with this stuff. Now, it’s a heartless CGI orgy of destruction. “Attack of the Clones” is actually the longest of all the “Star Wars” movies and these scenes could have easily been clipped. What are you gonna’ do? Also weird are the rough zooms Lucas utilizes a few times. Since all of these films are homages to old Hollywood sci-fi serials, I’m not sure why he would employ a thoroughly modern technique like that.

The ultimate bit of fan service in “Attack of the Clones” occurs near the end. Count Dooku easily beats back Obi-Wan and Anakin. After he’s been such an annoying jerk throughout the whole film, it’s satisfying watching Christopher Lee beat the shit out Hayden Christensen. The movie even makes that silly Force Lightening a creditable threat. Out of the shadows waddles Yoda. For the first time, we see the wrinkly, green muppet pick up a light saber. We see why Yoda is such a respected warrior. He leaps and spins through the air, fighting off the Sith Lord’s abilities. Some people have criticized the sequence as ridiculous or comical. When I saw “Episode II” in theaters, people were cheering. Hate me for it but I still think it’s awesome. It’s the kind of silly, unaware fun these prequels maybe needed more of. I especially love how, right after the sword fight, Yoda hobbles back off with his cane.

The dialogue is still stiff, bloated, and quotable for all the wrong reasons. The romantic subplot is a tumor that drains the entire film. Hayden Christensen is woefully unprepared. The plot is still self-serving in complications. On the plus side, the CGI is incorporated much more cleanly. The action is exciting and focused. The characters are given more to do. Jar Jar has less then ten minutes of screen time. Comparing “Attack of the Clones” to “The Empire Strikes Back” won't do the prequel any favors. Yet it’s still a major step up from “The Phantom Menace.” Maybe George Lucas can learn… [Grade: B-]

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