Perhaps the words that will most commonly be uttered in association with Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones — that is, right behind “Yoda is one badass m**********r,” but more on that later — are “It’s better than The Phantom Menace.” But to leave it at that is to damn the film with faint praise, for George Lucas’ venerable sci-fi film franchise is back on track with this satisfying installment.
While he vehemently denies it, one cannot shake off the sense while watching Attack of the Clones that Lucas worked overtime to win back the favor of fans after their audible grumbling about 1999’s Episode I: The Phantom Menace. Gone or vastly diminished are certain things that didn’t quite work. The unfunny bafflement that is Jar Jar Binks is now relegated to an extended cameo (and in a particularly clever move, Lucas uses viewer hatred of the character to the film’s advantage). In being relieved of her post as Queen of Naboo, Senator Padmé Amidala (Natalie Portman) is also freed of her icy “royal” monotone, cumbersome costuming, and heavy kabuki-like makeup, hence allowing Portman a little more freedom in her performance (not to mention allowing for her natural, luminous beauty to shine through). In are some tried-and-true fan favorites: for instance, comic relief comes largely from the reliable droid duo of C3PO and R2D2; popular villain Boba Fett (Daniel Logan) is also here, albeit as a child, with his father Jango (Temuera Morrison) doing the familiar bounty hunter business in the familiar Fett armor. As icing on the cake, creeping in at crucial moments in John Williams’ majestic score are the familiar, booming notes of “The Imperial March.”
Shameless pandering or not, such touches make Clones succeed in what was perhaps the most glaring area in which Episode I: The Phantom Menace fell short: a clear context as to where the film ties into the extablished “Star Wars” mythos. In fact, Clones renders the entertaining but empty Menace that much more of a pointless exercise, for in this film does the real story of the prequel trilogy truly begins.
That story is, of course, that of Jedi Anakin Skywalker’s descent into the dark side. Clones picks up ten years after the barely-referenced events of Menace, and the now-teenage Anakin (Hayden Christensen) is poised to become the most powerful wielder of the Force the galaxy has ever known. But as a certain other summer blockbuster teaches, with great power comes great responsibility, and despite Obi-Wan Kenobi’s (Ewan McGregor, making the role his own) teachings and warnings, Anakin’s burgeoning powers are also feeding an even more rapidly burgeoning ego — and, hence, a growing frustration with his master and the strict Jedi code of conduct in general. Lucas wastes no time establishing the dynamic between Obi-Wan and Anakin, which is far more fascinating than that between Obi-Wan and his master, Qui-Gon Jinn, in Menace; one of the first scenes is an extended speeder chase through the bustling ultra-urban skyways of Coruscant, and it delivers the expected thrills and eye-popping digital effects imagery while efficiently advancing the story and shaping the characters (unlike Menace‘s most memorable action sequence, the pod race).
Contributing to Anakin’s frustration are his growing romantic feelings for Padmé, and their forbidden love is what Lucas intended to be the major hook of the film. But grand romance doesn’t come naturally to Lucas; look no further than his decision to give a film he’s described as a love story the beautifully evocative subtitle Attack of the Clones. The awkwardness more clearly (and in the worst cases, painfully) shows in Padmé and Anakin’s romantic patter, which is so overbaked that Portman and Christensen quite understandably tend to stiffen while delivering it. Whenever the attractive pair’s chemistry shows signs of igniting, Lucas and co-scripter Jonathan Hales can be counted on to douse them with strained lines such as “I’ve been dying a little every day since I saw you again” or clichéd “love actions” such as rolling around on the grassy knolls of the Naboo countryside.
Such labored dialogue and scenes don’t exactly escape the memory very easily, and they are likely accountable for the harsh early notices that Portman and Christensen have received — which is a bit unfair, considering the two do good work in other areas. While she is still fairly underused in this episode (though a little more proactive) and most of her scenes concern the drippy romance, Portman does hold the screen with her usual regal grace. Christensen has a rougher time with the romantic scenes, but he justifies Lucas’ casting risk by nailing the more important aspect of the character: his dark side. Christensen handles Anakin’s turn-on-a-dime mood shifts with ease, and he excels in one particularly chilling dialogue scene; he should definitely be more in his element in Episode III, where the darkness completely takes over the character and the series.
And does Lucas ever leave one ever so anxious for Episode III by Clones‘ fantastic final act, when the tensions involving the intensifying separatist movement led by Count Dooku (Christopher Lee, oozing cool menace) and Chancellor Palpatine’s (Ian McDiarmid) plan to build a clone army to protect the Republic come to a head. From some coliseum antics involving nasty creatures (shades of Gladiator) to all-out Jedi/droid slice-n-dice/shoot-’em-up battle scenes (shades of “Braveheart”) to some tense, high-energy light saber duels (shades of nothing anyone’s ever seen before), Lucas proves he certainly hasn’t lost his gift for creating rousing spectacle. His actors are right with him, clearly relishing the physical work, particularly McGregor and Samuel L. Jackson, who sees his share of action as Jedi Master Mace Windu. As convincing a job as they, Christensen, and Lee do, they all end up being upstaged by the jaw-dropping skills of a CGI creation: Yoda (again voiced by Frank Oz), who finally gets a chance to show exactly why he has such a legendary reputation.
However, Lucas’ slickest trick in Attack of the Clones ends up being not one of the many technical ones up his sleeve — not the ever-elaborate makeup and FX work; not even the great look of the picture, which was shot entirely on high definition digital video cameras. His slickest trick is how by the end — in spite of any snickers or groans one may have uttered along the way — one finds oneself interested in the fates of these iconic characters. That investment, above even the promise of more spectacular action, will be what leads audiences lining back up to witness the series’ inevitably tragic end in May 2005.