Reflection: ‘Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones’

[What a title–and you thought The Phantom Menace was corny.]

Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) and Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) speed through Coruscant in search of a suspect
Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) and Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) speed through the bustling airways of Coruscant in search of Senator Amidala’s would-be assassin a la Popeye Doyle in ‘The French Connection’

The second installment in George Lucas’ Star Wars saga is a subject of great pain and torn feelings for me. On the one hand is my sincere respect for the series; on the other is my self-respect. There is no denying that this film is riddled with problems. After a careful study, however, I think I have found a solution that will ensure the enjoyment of all self-respecting Star Wars fans.

***

Let me begin by discussing what Attack of the Clones does well, for despite what you may initially think, such things do exist and they deserve mention.

The overall plot is well conceived and realized. Unlike Phantom Menace, which is a straightforward action movie with little-to-no mystery, Attack of the Clones immediately presents us with a whodunit: Senator Amidala (Natalie Portman)–the former Queen of Naboo and cardboard cutout from Episode I–arrives back on the Galactic Republic’s capital of Coruscant just in time to vote on a crucial senatorial debate that will decide whether the Republic will create an army to deal with a new separatist movement in the galaxy, headed up by the mysterious (and ridiculously named) Count Dooku (Christopher Lee). Upon landing, her transport explodes, though we soon see Amidala has been up to her old “switcheroo” tricks from Phantom Menace and has really been safe on a smaller vessel with her personal bodyguard. The Jedi Council quickly dispatches Jedi Master Ob-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) and his apprentice, Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) to look into the matter. Thus begins the great detective story that claims the majority of the film’s complex narrative.

As I watched this film, I was pleasantly surprised to find that it evokes the feel of great detective films like The French Connection; certainly, Obi-Wan and Anakin’s raucous pursuit of Amidala’s would-be assassin through the bustling airways of Corscuant is highly reminiscient of Popeye Doyle‘s pursuit of a hitman through the streets of New York. Also, the plot is revealed piece by piece, sometimes confounding what you already know–or think you know–which is yet another characteristic of classic detective films and film noir in general. The ultimate revelation leads back, not surprisingly, to the Sith, who first presented themselves as a problem in Episode I, but this expected outcome is overshadowed by its sinewy connection to the genesis of several key icons from the Original Trilogy, particularly stormtroopers, Star Destroyers, and the Death Star itself. While you do know who is ultimately behind Amidala’s attempted murder as soon as it happens, you cannot ever truly be sure who else is suspect, and to what extent he or she is involved, which–if nothing else–provides a much-needed distraction from the film’s blatant faults.

Two actors are also deserving honorable mention: Ian McDiarmid, who plays Senator Palpatine/Darth Sidious (aka the Emperor in the Original Trilogy) and Ewan McGregor. McDiarmid’s portrayal is well-versed and appropriately ambiguous; we can tell by his familiar face that he is the root of the saga’s main conflict, but no one on screen knows that yet, and McDiarmid conducts himself accordingly. McGregor deserves top credit, however, for he carries the bulk of the film on his shoulders and is without a doubt the most believable character in any scene. When appropriate, he is funny, suspicious, aloof, annoyed, furious, etc.; he delivers each and every word fluently and with the proper intonation, regardless of how bizarre he may otherwise sound. While watching McGregor on screen, I thought, “Yeah–this could definitely be a young Alec Guinness,” which is, I guess, his job.

Given that they seem to have been Lucas’ chief concern during the production of this film, it comes as no surprise that the visual effects are unparalleled. Most of the acting in this movie was performed in front of blue and green screens, but you only noticeably get that sense a few times; the actors almost always seem to be natural elements of the otherworldly environments. In fact, the best visuals in the film are mere settings and locales where there are prolific uses of vibrant lighting and coloring to make these strange places look as real as the world outside your door. The big hoop-lah surrounding Attack of the Clones when it came out dealt with its inordinately large cast of computer-animated characters, but those types of visuals actually detract from the film since some of the aliens–particularly Obi-Wan’s jolly informant, Dex–are illustrated in such a way that they look laughably cartoonish and out-of-place in a world which has been so well designed and realized.

***

Alas, I wish I could continue bestowing honors upon this film, but there are many serious problems to address, namely the contrived love story, the atrocious dialogue, and Christensen’s and Portman’s portrayals.

***

So much of the Original Trilogy’s backstory banks on the events in Attack of the Clones. After all, since Episode III must deal with Anakin’s fall and transformation into Darth Vader, it is in this installment that we must see how Anakin and Amidala fall in love and ultimately conceive the twins, Luke and Leia. If nothing else, that is the reason for Episode II, not to depict some wild detective story or give us mind-boggling visuals. It could have been such a lovely tragedy, complete with forbidden love and a secret wedding. You may think, “Well, there happens to be forbidden love and a secret wedding in this movie.” Technically, you’d be right; but just because the diamond looks real doesn’t mean he bought it at Jared.

First of all, Anakin and Amidala fall in love far too quickly and for the wrong reasons. The young Jedi isn’t even on the screen for a minute before he verbalizes–to his Master, no less!–his lustful desires for the Senator. Amidala keeps her distance for about a scene, in which she tells him he’ll “always be that little boy [she] knew on Tatooine.” A few scenes later, Anakin’s escorting her to a refuge in the Lake Country of Naboo, and before you know it, she’s making out with that little boy she knew on Tatooine. Ew.

And then Amidala doesn’t go away. She convinces Anakin to go completely against his orders and try to rescue Obi-Wan, who has since been imprisoned on a distant planet. Rather than doing the sensible thing by remaining safely hidden on Naboo–Amidala was a queen before she was a senator, correct? Not a soldier?–she accompanies Anakin to the planet, where she becomes nothing more than bait for the big, bad machines to pour magma onto and for the killer robots to shoot lasers at. Thankfully, R2-D2 flies to the rescue (you can see how ridiculous the film gets here, and all just because Amidala inexplicably decides her past in peaceful diplomatic negotiation has prepared her for the task of toting a massive blaster and rescuing a Jedi from an unknown multitude of enemies).

It is at this point that I will stop, for thankfully this love story, which must have been contrived in the Fiery Forges of Hell, ends shortly hereafter and is quickly–mercifully–overshadowed by the still-engaging whodunit.

It’s sad that Lucas cares so little for his original storyline that he would rather skip a juicy, tragic love story–one that holds immeasurable importance for the characters he breathed life into just thirty years ago–for “Bang! Bang! Bang!

If I were Mark Hamill or Carrie Fisher, George Lucas would be looking at the business end of a nasty email.

***

Once upon a time, George Lucas had an ear for realistic dialogue. Observe:

[A tremor knocks Leia in Solo’s arms.]

“Let go.”

“Shh.”

“Let go, please.”

“Don’t get excited.”

“Captain, being held by you isn’t quite enough to get me excited.”

“Sorry, sweetheart. I haven’t got time for anything else.”

And this:

“Why are you still here?”

“Afraid I was going to leave without giving you a good-bye kiss?”

“I’d just a soon kiss a Wookie.”

“I can arrange that–you could use a good kiss!”

Not to mention this:

“Well, Princess, looks like you’ve managed to keep me around here a while longer.”

“I had nothing to do with it. General Rieekan thinks it’s dangerous for anyone to leave the system until they’ve activated the energy shield.”

“That’s a good story. I think you just can’t bear to let a gorgeous guy like me out of your sight.”

“I don’t know where you get your delusions, laser brain.”

And who could forget this:

“Hey, Your Worship, I’m only trying to help.”

“Would you stop calling me that?”

“Sure. Leia.”

“You make it so difficult sometimes.”

“I do, I really do. You could be a little nicer, though. Come on, admit it. Sometimes you think I’m all right.”

“Occasionally, maybe… when you aren’t acting like a scoundrel.”

“Scoundrel? Scoundrel? I like the sound of that.”

[Han starts to massage Leia’s hands.]

“Stop that.”

“Stop what?”

“Stop that. My hands are dirty.”

“My hands are dirty, too. What are you afraid of?”

“Afraid?”

“You’re trembling.”

“I’m not trembling.”

“You like me because I’m a scoundrel. There aren’t enough scoundrels in your life.”

“I happen to like nice men.”

“I’m a nice man.”

“No, you’re not. You’re–“

And now, 22 years after the dialogue above was first heard in theaters around the world, we have this:

“From the moment I met you, all those years ago, not a day has gone by when I haven’t thought of you. And now that I’m with you again, I’m in agony. The closer I get to you, the worse it gets. The thought of not being with you–I can’t breathe. I’m haunted by the kiss that you should never have given me. My heart is beating, hoping that kiss will not become a scar. You are in my very soul, tormenting me. What can I do? I will do anything you ask.”

What happened? At what point in 22 years did George Lucas go from writing playful and believable romantic banter to the utterly trite nonsense of a bad  Backstreet Boys song?! As I watched Christensen say these pathetic words–and oh! how he says them; that voice! So whiny and scratchy, as if the future Darth Vader should be wearing horn-rimmed spectacles and a pocket protector!–my skin literally crawled. Never before had my skin crawled, but then it did. And never before had I judged everything an actor had done or will ever do from one god-awful performance, but Christensen wins that booby-prize.

It gets worse: I used to respect Natalie Portman as an actress–well, in truth, I still do, but this performance definitely knocked her down several pegs in my book. A good actor will say his or her lines fluently and with the proper intonation, regardless of how ridiculous the lines may sound; case in point: Ewan McGregor’s portrayal of Obi-Wan Kenobi in this very film. But Portman seems to have given up altogether–she doesn’t even seem to try to act in this movie! When she isn’t responding to Anakin’s vomitous love belches (“We’d be living a lie. One we couldn’t keep, even if we wanted to. I couldn’t do that. Could you, Anakin? Could you live like that?”), she is spewing jingoistic nonsense about democracy that is so trite, even George W. Bush is calling for a rewrite: “The day we stop believing democracy can work is the day we lose it.” (It is enough to watch the Old Republic die; we do not need cardboard commentary from cardboard characters.) I literally found myself saying–out loud, no less–“Please! Stop!”

At which point it donned on me: I could, in fact, make it stop. The volume knob on the sound system is a wonderful thing. Since the movie looks so good–even the sub-mediocre Christensen manages to make the right facial expressions when he needs to–but the dialogue is ridiculously pathetic, you can find an ample amount of enjoyment in this film simply by turning the sound off whenever Anakin or Amidala open their mouths. You will find your enjoyment in the overall viewing experience increase ten-fold.

***

Remember, there are, in fact, several highly admirable aspects of Episode II: Attack of the Clones. Chiefly, Ewan McGregor’s fine acting deserves to be watched, and the complex whodunit plot deserves to be unraveled. Don’t let the bilious love story, its insipid characters, or their god-awful dialogue ruin it; just be prepared to make liberal use of your volume control.

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