I’m often criticized by elitists in the film world for my love of Star Wars. It’s just a bunch of cheesy, popcorn movies lacking substance, they tell me. There’s nothing these snobs can say that will lessen my love for one of the great cinematic experiences of our time. Yes, it is mainstream popcorn fun, but there’s so much that can be learned. What I find so fascinating about Star Wars is that the movies utilize every available filmmaking tool to tell the story. The Star Wars Episodes combine all known techniques in the magic bag of moviemaking used to their fullest potential – cinematography, costumes, props, digital effects, models, exotic locations, sound effects, stirring music, make-up and special effects of every kind. And often, technology is not only pushed to the limit, new technology must be invented to tell the story writer/director/creator George Lucas has in his mind. In fact, if you took a filmmaking course and only studied the Star Wars films, you would learn everything you need to know about making movies. (Okay, everything except maybe acting.)
So, how exactly is Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones? Well, compared to Episode I, it’s a lot faster and much more intense.
Attack of the Clones re-introduces us to Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen), now a 20 year-old bratty, whiny and arrogant Jedi-in-training who would rather take care of problems by kicking a*s than exercising patience. Anakin and his master Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) are thrust into the midst of an assassination plot to kill Senator Padme Amidala (Natalie Portman) from Naboo. As a nine year-old kid, Anakin saved her planet and since then he has never forgotten the beautiful Padme. Of course, this all leads to murderous bounty hunters, political intrigue, centipede assassins, hover car chases, a water planet, an asteroid field, mysterious Jedi separatist leaders, cloned armies, robot armies, Jedi armies, and Jar Jar screwing things up as usual. Massive battle scenes ensue. The result is epic and romantic – the kind of Star Wars joyride that fans have been waiting for. But as with all things related to the Force, along with the good side, must come the dark side. Clones is certainly not without its problems.
EPISODE II: THE DARK SIDE ^ Let me put it to you this way, Clones is not a good movie – but it is an incredibly awesome Star Wars movie! This is far from a perfect film, but the problems are almost dismissable based on the final result. Here are just some of the problems…
The Acting – The most glaring problems mostly have to do with the cringe-inducing dialog during the “love” scenes. Anakin and Padme discuss old boyfriends and politics over a picnic that I would describe as about the best place to hit the bathroom during the film. (In fact, I encourage all fans to get up for a bathroom break during this scene so they don’t miss the frenetic battle scenes at the end.) Hayden Christensen and Natalie Portman stumble as best they can through those scenes and even show glimpses of chemistry, but do you really go to see a Star Wars movie for the acting in the first place? If I want to see great performances, I’ll go see Robert DeNiro, Al Pacino or Russell Crowe in a movie. Perhaps the problem lies with the unevenness of the performances – great ones turned in by Ewan McGregor, Christopher Lee and Sam Jackson with mixed results from the brooding Christensen, the monotone moodiness of Natalie Portman and Jimmy “remember me from TV” Smits. I will say that I don’t think Hayden Christensen is any better or worse than Mark Hamill was in the original trilogy. In fact, Hayden has his moments for sure, but he seems to be trying just a little too hard. But let’s face it, Star Wars films are built around spectacle and special effects, not acting – the effects are the stars. On that, Clones succeeds marvelously.
The Dialog – Yep, just as bad as ever. But thankfully nothing as horrifying as “Yippee!” is uttered. What is missing is some kind of quotable trademark line or exchange like the infamous Han-Leia “I love you/I know” in Empire. More standout lines were definitely needed.
The Story – There’s just a little too much detail about the politics of the galaxy and every scene providing these details just slows things down. Look, we don’t need to know everything. In the original trilogy, the Galactic Senate is merely mentioned giving us some idea of the scope of this universe. The original trilogy focused on the hero’s journey of one Luke Skywalker. This prequel trilogy, in both Episode I and Clones, is often bogged down by providing story threads for numerous characters as well as delving into the politics that turned a Democratic Republic into a Fascist Dictatorship. We don’t need to know every detail. I know Lucas has mentioned many times in interviews how interested he is in history and politics, especially having to do with the Roman Empire. Strangely this fascination with history and politics has crept into the prequel trilogy in a big way. Thankfully, most of these scenes are short.
The Blue Screen – While the locations and effects are breathtaking, I can’t help but think that the actors look, at times, as if they are standing in front of a blue screen on a soundstage, which is not unusual since they actually are. The lighting doesn’t quite match for all the shots or the depth of focus sometimes looks off. Again, this is no better or worse than the original trilogy.
Jar Jar – He has less than five minutes of screen time, maybe five lines total and he’s still annoying. Even in small doses, Jar Jar still can kill a scene. Funny that his screen time is about 1/25th of the original film and his Barney the Dinosaur voice still grates on the nerves.
EPISODE II: THE LIGHT SIDE or HOW GEORGE GOT HIS GROOVE BACK ^ The Humor – Here is where the tone of the film actually works. The jokes do not include inappropriate toilet humor at the expense of Jar Jar like burps, farts or stepping in poop. The tone is more in line with that of the best from the classic films. The addition of screenwriter Jonathan Hales has been a definite improvement here. Obi-Wan has some great exchanges that elicit laughs to break the tension. There’s also a sequence at the end in which C-3PO’s parts are mixed up with a Battledroid. Now, if I described the sequence to you, it would just sound dumb. But it’s handled just right and it takes place in the midst of a colossal battle, which serves to add some lightness to the hundreds dying on the battlefield. That nutty Gay robot cracks me up in every movie.
The Editing – The film is cut a lot tighter with less needless plot explanation and more getting us right to the action. The running time is nearly two hours and 20 minutes, but it feels much shorter. Not so with Jedi or Episode I. One of the problems of Episode I‘s finale was the cutting back and forth between four separate action sequences. For Clones, there are four major action setpieces, but we see them one after the other, not intercut. It’s much more engaging this way.
Let’s NOT Take A Meeting – One of the complaints about Episode I were the sheer number of “meeting” scenes that took place throughout the story. Normally they occurred sitting around a table making them deadly dull and stopping the film in its tracks. For Clones, there are plenty of those “plot-revealing-meeting” types of scenes, but they are thankfully short and sweet. And some of them even take place in the midst of action or while doing something else, so we’re getting plot information while something else is grabbing our attention.
The Effects – If Episode I was a leap forward in special effects, Clones is another three leaps ahead. Jaw-dropping is the best description with just too much going on for the eye to catch even on multiple viewings. At times, the visuals were simply breathtaking with audible “oohs” and “aahs” heard among the audience.
Genuinely Great Star Wars Moments – There are just too many to mention from Jango Fett kicking a*s to Obi-Wan kicking a*s to Anakin kicking a*s to Sam Jackson kicking a*s to Yoda kicking a*s to hundreds of Jedi kicking a*s. I would just say that many moments simply kick a*s and must be experienced over and over again.
GOOD VERSUS EVIL IN STAR WARS – AN OBSERVATION ^ A lot of people are going to be saying a lot of the same things about this movie, so I won’t bore you by recounting obvious moments from the movie. (It always happens when you read a lot of reviews of an event film – after a while they all start to sound the same and make the same points.) I do just want to leave you with one interesting observation that no one else seems to have caught onto. George Lucas began as an experimental filmmaker. His early short films experimented with editing and color and “THX-1138” is truly a feature-length experimental film. Lucas is also an old school filmmaker who likes to focus on the basics in terms of storytelling. Here’s a little exercise for you — go back and watch all the films from the original trilogy and note the direction on screen that particular characters move. This is very important. You see the “good guys” can always be seen moving from left-to-right. The “bad guys” can be seen moving right-to-left. As this chart illustrates: ^ Good Guys like Luke Skywalker move left-to-right —-> ^ <—- Bad Guys like Darth Vader move right-to-left
Now, why is this important? Well, when we read in English, directionally speaking, our eyes move from left-to-right. It feels comfortable. We’re used to it. When we see something moving right-to-left, it feels uncomfortable. Something about it unnerves us and we don’t know why. It’s because that is not the way we are used to reading. I don’t want to get into a bunch of film theory mumbo-jumbo, but the purpose of this is to illustrate, visually-speaking, two characters in conflict. Eventually the character (Luke) moving from left-to-right will eventually clash with the character (Vader) moving from right-to-left.
Lucas is very consistent in all the Star Wars films in using this visual metaphor. What I found extremely interesting is that when the Clone Troopers appear at the end of the film, they are moving from right-to-left while the Jedi lead them into battle — the direction normally taken by the bad guys. ^ <—- The Clone Troopers and the Jedi move right-to-left like the Bad Guys
Just a little something to observe that is worth noting. Now, this is not unique to Star Wars movies, other directors take this kind of care in setting up character conflicts, I just found it interesting that the “good guys” were moving in the direction generally reserved for the “bad guys.” Hey, I could be reading too much in, or this could really mean something…
IN SPITE OF EVERYTHING… ^ I have been one of Episode I‘s most outspoken critics for the last three years. In fact, I relish every opportunity to take potshots at that film, which I still think is one of the greatest disappointments in movie history. It was like Lucas broke my favorite toy from my childhood and then pissed on it ruining it forever. But I have to admit that my experience viewing Clones (twice now) was the most fun I have had at a movie, I think, since 1983. So, I think coming from this perspective, that bodes well for other fans. Clones is not just a home run – Lucas hit this one out of the park. If one were to rank the Star Wars films in terms of quality, Clones would be just behind Empire. Yes, it’s that good. It’s that much fun.
I have to say, I feel like I am still on a Star Wars high. And I don’t want to come down. This movie rocks from start to finish. Lucas has gotten into the groove with this movie and found his sea legs. Clones is epic, entertaining, romantic and funny – it is a true Star Wars film. When the shadow of Yoda appears on screen as he prepares for battle, the audience erupted in cheers and applause like I have not heard in a movie theater since Return of the Jedi‘s original release. When I walked out of the screening, all I could think of is that I want to get right back in line to see Clones again. I haven’t felt that way in, like… forever. Lucas made the Star Wars film we all wanted to see. The magic has definitely been recaptured.
FINAL NOTE: 35MM VERSUS DIGITAL PROJECTION ^ So, how different is the 35mm version when compared to the digital projection? Dramatically different. The 35mm version comes with the usual flaws – dust, hair in the gate, scratches, etc… The main difference is that the digital projection features more vibrant colors and a generally sharper appearance. Yes, it is superior, no matter what the old school film folks say. And, the other advantage is that a digital print that screens on day one looks exactly the same as one that screens on day 101. Not true for a film print which easily begins to look abused after only two weeks. At all costs, see “Clones” in a digital theater, the way the filmmakers intended you to see it, you won’t be disappointed. And if the theater in your area does not have a digital theater, ask when it’s coming. In fact, demand it.