George Lucas, thou art redeemed. Well, on second thought…maybe not.
To the first question on any “Star Wars” fan’s lips – is Episode II: Attack of the Clones as heartbreakingly lousy as Episode I: The Phantom Menace? – the answer is, happily, no. To the next question – does Attack of the Clones recapture the ineffable magic of A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back? – the answer is also, unfortunately, no.
But at least it’s better than Return of the Jedi. If that sounds like faint praise…then line up and find out for yourself.
Where does that leave us, then? Satisfied enough for now, I suppose, but also wanting more. Not just wanting more because we can’t f—in’ wait! until 2005 for Episode III, but wanting more from head Jedi George Lucas himself. More emotion, more grandeur, more of what we – the old-school ’77ers among us, anyway – loved so dearly about the originals.
Lucas does appear to have permanently lost touch with the simpler pleasures of his creation, and the lesson he needs to learn is this: Just because you have all the toys in the universe at your disposal doesn’t mean you should use them. As a certain Lord Vader once advised, “Don’t be too proud of this technological terror you’ve constructed…”
The cruel truth is that Attack of the Clones suffers from every one of the many problems that plagued The Phantom Menace – wooden acting, awkward dialogue, lumpy storytelling and wall-to-wall special effects that just won’t quit – but to a less painful degree. Still, there are more than a few moments, especially involving the actors, when one can’t help but think “This is the same George Lucas who directed ‘American Graffiti’?”
As for the story, either you already know it by heart or you don’t want it spoiled in any way. In short, aside from the usual Galactic Senate meetings and Trade Federation disputes, there’s the love story between Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) and Padme Amidala (Natalie Portman), and some interstellar sleuthing by Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor). Later on a bad guy shows up in the form of lapsed Jedi Count Dooku (the magnificent Christopher Lee, joining his old Hammer Films cohort Peter Cushing in the “Star Wars” villain pantheon). Then a*s-whuppin’ Jedi Master Mace Windu (Samuel L. Jackson) and the new CG Yoda step into the ring, various Clones start attacking…and all holy heck breaks loose.
In strict storytelling terms, the degree to which Lucas has regressed continues to startle. He now directs his films less like the omniscient creator of the “Star Wars” universe and more like a hyperactive kid playing with the world’s biggest “Star Wars” toy collection. The drum-tight structure of the original trilogy has unraveled into utter galactic confusion. While Attack of the Clones certainly manifests more coherent story sense than the baffling Phantom Menace, it’s clear that the script is no longer the thing for Lucas. This regression has burdened the prequels with a weird sort of schizophrenia: static scenes of bone-dry exposition on the one hand, juvenile antics and goofball aliens on the other (worst exemplified by the dreaded Jar Jar Binks, and Jake Lloyd’s performance as young Anakin, in Episode I. Mercifully, Lucas has at least listened to his critics to the extent that Jar Jar is good and scarce this time around.)
While Episode I was aimed squarely at videogame-addled 10-year-olds, this chapter has romance on its mind and thus should appeal more to randy teen boys and their moony-eyed girlfriends. But any thirtysomething fan with a brain might still feel left in the cold. Anakin and Padme’s blossoming amour is laughably chaste, needless to say – if they’re supposed to get busy and produce Luke and Leia in Episode III, some emergency chemistry lessons are in order. This is a love story insipid enough to make Titanic look like, well, “Romeo and Juliet.”
Of course the “Star Wars” movies are not the best forum for judging the talents of any actor, young or old, but these two are just bloody hopeless. Christensen, by all accounts, gave a skilled performance in last year’s drama Life as a House, but here he’s strictly Mannequin Skywalker. He pouts prettily and comes off as a petulant brat, far from embodying the future Dark Lord of the Sith. And Portman, so good in so many other films, looks as lost in her snazzy costumes as she did in Episode I. She and Christensen can’t remotely convince us of their “passion” with the stubbornly earthbound dialogue they’re given; Lucas, their trusted director, doesn’t even seem to have been on set with them. Maybe he wasn’t – maybe he was already back at the Ranch, laying in all those way-cool background elements.
Really, how can any actor be expected to deliver recognizably human emotion when he or she is spending 99% of the shoot standing in front of a bluescreen talking to a tennis ball on a stick? Lucas is madly in love with the fact that he can now digitally create whatever he sees in his mind’s eye, but he’s not doing his cast any favors. The last couple of “Star Wars” movies have seen some very good actors – Liam Neeson most painfully of all – give the worst performances of their careers. At least the original trilogy had the actors doing their jobs on actual sets, interacting with one another – lately it looks and sounds as if none of these people was even in the same country. (This goes for Yoda’s exciting new look as well. The little rubber puppet of old may not have looked real, but in its charmingly low-tech way it felt real. It was on the set with the actors. The all-CG Yoda of Episode II looks like a moving painting; it appears trapped, along with everyone else, in a giant widescreen videogame.)
One gets the feeling – a bad feeling, don’t you know – that Lucas’ entire contraption only really comes alive when there’s some kind of epic-scale disagreement going on. In that way, Episode II often plays just like every other soulless, machine-tooled Hollywood blockbuster these days: the action stuff rawks, and the talk stuff just stands there, dying on its feet.
It’s sad how Lucas seems to have grown so jaded, along with the rest of us. We really have seen it all, haven’t we? Can there be nothing left to the imagination anymore? What was so wonderful about the original “Star Wars” movies was the way they sparked your imagination but also left a little room for you to fill in the blanks, to extend the “Star Wars” universe in any direction you wanted, and place yourself anywhere in it. Now, Lucas and ILM are damned if they aren’t going to do all that work for you. Lucas has decided that every setting must now outdo the cantina scene from Episode IV, packed to the rafters with freaky creatures of all shapes and sizes. Yes, these new movies are sometimes beautiful to look at, but they’re so goddamn busy, so exhausting in the all-too-familiar Hollywood manner. Lucas indulges a relentless emphasis on visual business, visceral thrills that stampede every other element and leave the entire enterprise feeling over-stylized, over-designed and just plain overbearing. In this way, the best scenes in Episode II may be when Anakin and Padme head back to good old Tatooine, and we finally get some of that down-home junk and grit in our eyes. We’re led right back to the Skywalker homestead, and Lucas somehow forces himself to calm down and replicate the gorgeous austerity of “Star Wars” circa 1977 – it’s ever so refreshing. There’s no place like home, truly.
The pleasure is fleeting, though; soon enough we’re blasted back into the shiny hypertech world of 2002. Luckily for all involved, the audience above all, the third act of Attack of the Clones does end up kicking all kinda galactic a*s. We get a gladiator arena, we get giant monsters right out of Ray Harryhausen, we get Yoda vs. Count Dooku and we get Mace Windu vs. everybody. The last half-hour of this movie is perhaps the ultimate apotheosis of ILM F/X porn, even if you can’t sort out the good Clones from the bad. This nonstop madhouse action orgy does no less than save the movie, and it arrives not a moment too soon.
But it can’t save us from continuing to feel a great disturbance in the Force: the inescapable fact that George Lucas the toymaker has betrayed George Lucas the filmmaker. The man has too many gadgets in his sandbox, and he can’t help himself: he has to play with them all, show them all off, jam them all in our faces at once. What Lucas doesn’t realize, unfortunately, is that now he’s playing in the same sandbox with everyone else in Hollywood. We’ve subjected ourselves to over 20 years of super-mega-ultra entertainment, and Lucas quite obviously feels duty-bound to top all those who have made so many billions of dollars striving to top him.
Rather than rise above, he sinks to their level. It’s a losing game, and it doesn’t take a Jedi to see that Lucas has turned to the Dark Side. He has created a monster with his blind worship of special effects technology, and now the creation has gotten away from him – he’s lost sight of what was important about these stories, what we originally adored about them.
There is a new hope, however. There is one who has recently outdone Lucas, who has left the Almighty Creator behind…
Let’s be honest, shall we? Compared to the dark grandeur, organic sweep and operatic emotions of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings – based on a trilogy that was one of Lucas’ principal inspirations, lest we forget – all this “Star Wars” nonsense seems rather childish, doesn’t it?
Personally, Episode II didn’t much make me look forward to Episode III. It made me look forward to The Two Towers.