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|Star Wars: Episode 2 - Attack of the Clones
by Erik Childress
You can take the Star Wars away from the boy but you can’t take the boy away from the Star Wars. Life can turn the wide-eyed fantasy world-entrenched 8-year boy standing outside for hours waiting to see Return of the Jedi into a jaded, helplessly cynical pessimist, but wonder, hope and magic can never escape the heart of that boy when the right movie comes along, especially if it begins with the name of Star Wars. The Phantom Menace was a drastically flawed but still a breathtaking piece of entertainment. Those who felt betrayed by Lucas led the charge into denouncing the series and its creator until the cult of hip turned into a cliché to roll one’s eyes and bash every frame of it at the announcement of its first syllables. Now, another three years have passed and wannabe Jedis everywhere will be lining up again despite ritualistic chants of “well, it’s gotta be better than Phantom Menace.” If that’s all they want to hear, then I’m writing to give them an absolute yes. Yes, it’s better than The Phantom Menace. Yes, it’s one of the best films of the year.It will only take an audience member five minutes to ask themselves this question – “How come all special effects laden films don’t look this great?” Does Lucas just keep all the best equipment and technicians for himself or do other filmmakers just fail to put forth the effort? Attack of the Clones is easily one of the best looking films I’ve seen in years and quite possibly ever! The level of special effects is an obvious benefit, but also observe the costumes, the art direction and the paintings that in no way look like matte backgrounds. Most filmmakers will use close-ups on their characters to soften the background work on their FX creators. Whether the actors are in the foreground or a medium distance, the environment around them dances alive like a kaleidoscope of other worlds. The detail is so shockingly specific through both the pixels and the live-action that the initials CGI will soon be letters from an amnesiac’s alphabet.
"Send In The Clones...Again And Again!!!"
You will have over 130 minutes to soak in all the colors and singularities of what surrounds the characters in the square inches of every frame, but as Yoda would say, “sucked into the story will you be.” Episode II picks up ten years after we were first introduced to little Anakin Skywalker. Now grown up from an wide-eyed, annoying little boy into a frustrated teenage Padawan, Anakin (Hayden Christensen) and his apprentice, Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) are assigned to protect former Queen, now Senator Amidala (Natalie Portman) from recurring assassination attempts designed to keep her deciding vote away from the Republic. Kenobi gets to play detective, traveling to all corners of the universe to discover the source of the executioners and their grand plan. Anakin is then left alone to harbor the Senator and the ten years of repressed thoughts about her despite the ways of the Jedi which stress no emotional attachments.
These two plot threads are such the obligatory driving force behind Episode II that it’s easy to lose track of all the information that’s being trotted out as both a continuation of previous efforts and the groundwork of the impending Episode III. The particulars of the enduring political struggles that are slowly leading the Republic into the Empire, the creation and utilization of the Clone Army and the significance of characters who are introduced but never seen are cloudy enough to warrant multiple viewings as well as raise the expectations for 2005.
As a testament to how strong the main concentrations are in the film, the developing love story between Anakin and Amidala doesn’t pander to the necessary conventions of an adventure subplot. There’s real emotion here through the forbidden love and its strength is in mainly due to Portman and Christensen who do more with their eyes (than with Lucas’ words) to suggest the angst of how badly they want to be in each other’s arms. Their star-crossed hesitation pays off immensely when they are allowed to finally give a proclamation to each other in a beautiful shot that heartbreakingly suggests the beginning of a tragedy-in-waiting.
If Act II seems a bit slower by comparison, that’s mainly because our expectations for whatever revelations this chapter has in store has to wait while our fear that the love story or Obi-Wan’s investigation may be cutting into whatever running time we have left for the next three years. The overall pacing never slips into a lifeless slumber because Lucas, the actors and the ILM wizards always give us something to see or hear. (Just wait until you the film’s sound design, particularly the smart bombs of the Slave I, a creation in and of itself that deserves an Oscar.)
Lucas has even managed to come up with some inventive action sequences for the ride. He’s been in love with the three endings-in-one climax since we shuffled between the battles of Endor, the Death Star and Luke vs. Darth in Return of the Jedi. Phantom Menace continued the trend (one movie later or technically, three movies earlier) with four separate battlefields around the planet of Naboo. Attack of the Clones’ ingenious sense of pacing though teases us with what truly may be the final battle. Instead of piling them one on top of another, Lucas lets each one play out, gives us a second to catch our breath and then bolts right into the next one. A 10-minute chase through Coruscant traffic, bounty hunter confrontations and one of those classic trips through an assembly line all go the extra mile to outshine the action sequences we’ve come accustomed to.
Comparisons to The Empire Strike Back have already begun in some circles and its justification may only lie in that it’s the second film in the new trilogy. Does it really possess the same darker themes of hopeless love, loss and betrayal as the film widely considered the coup de grace of the Star Wars series? Yes and no. In Empire, our heroes were constantly on the run, pursued by evil forces and backed into corners at every turn resulting in one of moviedom’s ultimate cliffhangers where the only happy thoughts one could take away was that they were still alive. Attack of the Clones presents many of the same themes and the tone is far more somber than the cutesy Toys ‘R’ Us attitude of fart jokes and wisecracking sports announcers of The Phantom Menace. But this is just the beginning of the end, and while we are left to wait for the culmination of several dangling plot threads, the real “Empire” may truly reside in Episode III.
Ewan McGregor really acquits himself here as Kenobi, after being forced to sit around most of The Phantom Menace and playing second fiddle to his own master, Liam Neeson’s Qui-Gon Jinn. Almost as if he were channeling Alec Guinness, his speech patterns at the very least are going to make for a perfect bridge between the young and the old hermit. Hayden Christensen gets to do an about-face on his “Life As A House” character who started out an angry metal-loving teenager and progressed into a forgiving son. Christensen never overplays his frustration with the restrictions of his master, concentrating that rage into a ball of negative energy we’re never sure when may get played, except to know that he’ll never have the opportunity to become a Rebel without a cause.
Can there also be a more luminiscent presence on screen than Natalie Portman? If beauty is what gets you in the door and talent is what keeps you there, then Portman is most certainly the Queen of the Star Wars universe. With everything that’s happening around her, from the special effects to the romantic countrysides of Naboo, you are still drawn to her face not just because of her beauty but for the truth that resides just underneath. I believe most guys in Anakin’s position would take a first-class ticket to the Dark Side if it meant hearing the words “I love you” from her lips.
The supporting cast also has a lot of fun with their roles. Samuel L. Jackson manages to escape the daze of his first appearance, mainly by getting more scenes and an ample position in the film’s climax. Temuera Morrison (Once Were Warriors) has a great face for a smiling villain and his Jango Fett is a perfect fit while Christopher Lee shows up late to somewhat reprise his role from The Lord of the Rings, but in a grander scale. Fans may have to wait around for the end credits to discover the significance of Jimmy Smits’ Senator if they haven’t already seen his character’s name discussed on websites or trading cards.
Fans is the name of the game, however, no matter how much grief Lucas shot back at many of them (“get a life”) for burning his name in effigy around an outstretched middle finger for The Phantom Menace. Fans are going to be most pleased with Attack of the Clones from the re-appearance of many of their favorites (Yoda, R2-D2, C-3PO) to the introduction of future key players (which won’t be spoiled here). Episode II is, in many ways, a movie you are going to want to see with fans, friends and family members who all hold the same fond memories of the series and will certainly want to create new ones. There is a sequence in this film that demands to be seen in a crowded theater. It is going to draw cheers, screams of “YES!”, deafening applause and may result in an instanteneous standing ovation by certain patrons.
If you thought Lucas had forsaken his rabid fanbase with the wide-eyed mawkishness of TPM, be prepared to re-evaluate your position. Just examine the way Jar Jar Binks is utilized this time around. How telling is it that in his first appearance in the movie, he isn’t given a single line of dialogue? And when he does, he’s frequently cutoff by other characters before given his big moment in the sun which is laced with the grand irony that audiences will now loathe him even more. Lucas may have been out of touch with his fans when he created The Phantom Menace, but months and months of criticism have obviously caused him to go the way of his own THX sound system, because somewhere along the road, he has been listening. Unfortunately, that’s also a bad thing because Lucas still manages to interject a few too many modernisms into this galaxy from a long time ago. “Deathsticks” and his thoughts on how political corruption never seems to change are way-too-obvious personal agendas to be used in such an ironic antiquated notion.Attack of the Clones truly is the "New Hope" for the Star Wars devoted, in that Lucas apparently has not been completely devoured by the dark side of crass commercialism and childish antics. It's profoundly reassuring to see the filmmaker still has a deep respect for the universe he's created, and the people he's inspired. So many franchises, trilogies and errant sequels are quick to ignore the histories of their characters or have a contempt for the fans’ sense of continuity. It’s hard to separate the “critic” from the movie lover sometimes and a fanboy metabolism is likely to creep out during any experience that involves adventure and explosions even without the label of a comic book junkie, Trekkie or Jedi. I cringed several times during my first viewing of Phantom Menace and I still enjoyed it despite resting uncomfortably in a mind consortium of protective fandom and bitter cynicism. It’s three years later and the cynic in me continues to rise like the phoenix of mediocrity and disappointment. But if its possible, the fan in me has grown even larger and despite any of the miniscule misgivings I may have had about Episode 2, it will remain one of, if not THE greatest pleasure of the year I have at the movies.
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originally posted: 05/09/02 23:50:20