Star Wars - Episode II
Attack of the Clones
***.5 GM
Starring: Hayden Christensen, Natalie Portman, Ewan McGregor, Christopher Lee, Ian McDiarmid, Samuel L. Jackson, Frank Oz, Anthony Daniels, Kenny Baker, Temuera Morrison, Daniel Logan

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Ah, another visit to the "Star Wars" universe, with one more to go. I really like this neck o' the woods, and I'm always excited to return. The anticipation for this film, however, does not seem to be anywhere near the typhoon of coverage was visited upon the world before the opening of The Phantom Menace, but this can be attributed to a number of things. First, the first punch of the one-two geek-flick combo of 2002 has landed HARD in the form of Spider-Man, stealing a bit of its thunder. Second, what with "The Lord of the Rings" and "The Matrix" franchises springing up, "Star Wars" may not hold quite the same hammerlock on fantasy appeal it used to. Third, the generally negative feeling of underwhelmedness that resulted from "The Phantom Menace" and its distractingly dissonant feel has lowered expectations for the rest of the trilogy. The good side of that last point is that it means the next chapters are more likely to be pleasantly surprising as a result.

BIAS ALERT: I feel I must include a bias alert here, because I am a professed "Star Wars geek." I have neat-o Star Wars toys, including a talking foot-tall Darth Vader on my desk, and after seeing this film, I procured a Jango Fett that dangles precariously from a shelf. Therefore, I may be more inclined to pop this flick up a few notches on my rating scale simply because it appeals strongly to my nerd tendencies. You are duly warned.

I'll plainly admit that my initial "Menace" review was a bit colored by the fact that it was A) a NEW STAR WARS MOVIE WOO-HOO! and B) I was extremely excited to be seeing it about a week before the general public did. That didn't keep me from overlooking the problems - it just meant I could ignore them in favor of what I found exciting and cool. However, upon repeat viewings, the stuff I initially found thrilling became unpleasantly less so (and lest you say 'that's what happens when you see things more than once' I'll respond with 'I saw 'Spider-Man' three times in one day and remained excited, and I always enjoy watching the original 'Star Wars' trilogy again and again) and soon all I could really notice were the annoying things - save the final duel, though. That doesn't stop being cool. With that in mind, I'm trying not to let the facts that A) NEW STAR WARS MOVIE and B) I saw it a week early again get in the way of my opinion of the film. As a word of warning, I've only seen it once at the time of this writing, and if I feel the need to amend this after I see it further, I shall.

I doubt that'll be the case, though, since it feels to me like the rose-colored glasses have been discarded. Bottom line is this: Episode II is BETTER than Episode I, but I was not blown away. The storyline is thus: It's ten years or so after the events of "The Phantom Menace," young Anakin Skywalker is a young man, now, and Obi-Wan Kenobi's Jedi padawan (something teachers apparently LOVE calling their students every ten minutes). Padme Amidala (apparently that's her full name, rather than 'Padme' being her secret identity name and Amidala being her queenly moniker) has ended her "elected term as queen" and has since become the Naboo Senator in the Republic, and Gungan Representative Jar Jar Binks chills with her as a flunky/sycophant/advisory? capacity. The major issue of the day are rumblings of unhappiness between many factions in the Republic, so much so that they are planning to secede from the union, a development which rightfully worries the Jedi Council, since they are "keepers of the peace, not soldiers," and if some sort of war were to begin between the Republic and the Separatists, there'd be problems. This is, of course, magnified by the fact that the Dark Side of the Force is so active at the moment that the Jedi are having trouble foreseeing anything. Even Yoda. This, apparently, is why they place such an importance on Anakin's perhaps-prophesied arrival of "The Balance of The Force." However, you kinda have to wonder why it doesn't occur to the Jedi that, since there are lots of folks on the Jedi council and usually about two Sithers at the time, perhaps bringing 'balance' to the Force ain't such a grand idea. By the way - who came up with this prophecy, anyway? If all the Jedi can see into the future, who has enough stroke to be considered a prophet?

So, when an attempt is made on Amidala's life as she tries to return to the Senate to argue against a Military Creation Act (somehow the Republic formed and existed for eons without one - nice thought, but might require another trilogy to explain how the hell THAT happened), Obi-Wan and Anakin are put on the case to protect her and to find out whotriedtodunit. Anakin is a bit of a punk, knowing he's a badass Jedi and not feeling the need for any sort of discipline to hone his skills, but he's understandably obsessed about and in true magic love with Amidala, even though he hasn't seen her since he was Jake Lloyd. However, Jedi are not supposed to have personal attachments (which, I suppose, explains why they left Anakin's mother to rot in slavery while taking him away to teach him how to fight for truth, justice and the Jedi way - which apparently does not involve liberating slaves), and even though Amidala's thrilled that the little boy she liked is now a smooth Jedi hunka hunka burnin' love, they know if they hook up, it endangers people and things. Too much is conspiring to keep them apart, not the least of which is Obi-Wan. Not only is Kenobi trying constantly to school Anakin on the Jedi rules, but there's a slight hint of Kenobi having a small thing for Amidala himself (which I'll assume may be the final straw that causes Anakin to trot on over to the Dark Side in Episode III: Night of the Space Zombies).

However, while Anakin takes Amidala back to Naboo to protect her and make passes at her, leaving Jar Jar as a temporary regent, Obi-Wan tries to track down the culprits, and apparently has some sort of street cred, since he walks into a diner and raps with a mustachioed lizard alien thing that speaks English and gives him the low-down on arms dealing issues as if he's is Detective Lenny Kenobi from "Law & Order: Special Jedi Unit." This leads Obi-Wan to Bounty Hunter Jango Fett, and it also leads to the discovery that there's some dirty shit being planned to threaten the Republic, including the mysteriously Jedi-sanctioned creation of a clone army that no one recalls authorizing. The trail soon brings him to the planet of Geonosis and to the enigmatic Count Dooku, a former Jedi who has left the order, but of course, nobody suspects there's anything TO that until he's caught red-handed by a skulking Kenobi. You'd think these Force-wielding types could sense each other a bit more ably than they do here, but then again, if they're experienced enough, perhaps they are able to shield themselves from having their presences felt during sneaky-time.

I won't give any more away, save to say that there's a huge battle at the end, and Yoda gets to kick ass literally for the first time instead of just metaphorically as usual. Overall, I dug the film. It was incredible to look at and it was much less annoying than "Phantom Menace" due to the cunning use of Jar Jar Binks - not only was he barely in it at all, but the way he IS employed could be considered a minor stroke of genius. Perhaps it was planned all along, but using him to unintentionally sell out the entire Republic seems like a great way to give all those people who hated him a legitimate in-story REASON to be disgusted with him. Although, to be perfectly honest, watching the dumb bastard make the single-costliest bungle in Republic history made me feel some actual sympathy for the poor schmuck, which leads me to me believe that if only his manic, obnoxious bullshit from "Phantom Menace" were toned down enough, there wouldn't have been anywhere near the amount of vitriolic savagery spewed forth about that film. Take out the lame fart jokes and a few spastic screechy fits and he would have been acceptable, if not beloved.

While I'm on the subject of Jar Jar, in my "Phantom Menace" review, I mentioned that it really bothered me that so many of these aliens were speaking a crappy Pidgin English instead of being understood in their own languages, which, to me, would have spoken of greater intelligence permeating the Republic's denizens. However, further discussions have brought me to the realization that it makes a certain amount of sense that, during the time of great peace and prosperity in the Republic, there would be a sort of universal language of commerce and trade that as many beings as possible would try to learn and be familiar with. Those bad kung-fu/Transylvanian Trade Federation losers were, well, with a TRADE Federation, so it would behoove them to speak the language of the people they deal with (although why they'd speak that language to each other in private is beyond me). The Gungans are sort of a bastard species driven away from the dominant Naboo populace, so I suppose it's also logical that they'd speak a broken, weird English (or 'Basic' I think it's called in the 'Star Wars' geek circles) as their offshoot. I could even invoke the Tower of Babel story from the Bible, where God gets freaked out when he realizes humans can accomplish things without him, so he curses them all with differing languages so it makes it more difficult to work together harmoniously and thus, they remain dependent on him. When the Republic begins to crumble, everyone resorts to their natural languages again, making it a little harder for everyone to get along and work things out. Of course, I may also just be another "Star Wars" freak trying to find rationalizations for every little thing in the mythos that bugs me.

So I'll attempt to delve into the minor things that are troubling me about this film. First of all, there was a jackass guy with his head right in my way throughout most of the movie, so I had to crane my head around his to read all the alien subtitles. That was aggravating, but you're not allowed to punch guys in the back of their heads during movies. Secondly, there were too many action sequences that look like they were taken directly from every video game ever made. Thirdly, I've realized that the special effects here don't inspire the same awe that they did in the first trilogy because they no longer have to construct these huge, elaborate creatures and sets as much as they used to - now it's all done on digitally, and that takes some of the wonder away from it. "How'd they do that?!" is a more compelling question when the answer isn't "Ah, it's all computers." Fourthly, there seems to be a 'Han Solo' element missing. I mentioned that last time, and justified it by saying 'we don't want to repeat the same things here, we want new things.' This is true, but at the same time, Han Solo wasn't just a charming rogue - he provided us with a dose of reality and cynicism about everything. Han Solo was the guy hovering around outside of the mythology, scoffing at it. "The Force? That's hogwash. Self-sacrificing space battles? No way, kid! I just wanna go home, kick back, eat some Pizza The Hutt and do my job of shuttling this crap to where it's supposed to go." He's the space-faring UPS guy, the blue-collar joe that eventually gets sucked into the world against his better judgment - a guy the audience identifies with. Even those who WANTED to be a part of this world could follow Luke Skywalker, an outsider who was learning everything just as we were. In this new trilogy, there's nothing like that, really. Everyone is solidly a part of this world of mystics and highfalutin government officials, and there ain't no regular joes. Anakin's a bit of an outsider, because he doesn't particularly agree with the order and we sense his dissent, but he's still a super-powered kid gettin' down with Natalie Portman, and he's going down the path of becoming a despotic mass murderer. I think the film, and heck, this trilogy, is suffering a little for the lack of the Han Q. Public aspect.

The other flaw I see is that there isn't a villain as charismatically evil, interesting and cool as Darth Vader here. In "Phantom Menace," we had bungling green morons - hardly a threatening concept - and we had Darth Maul who, while a considerable badass, barely spoke, and thus gave us no sense of who he was or his motivations, and then croaked before we really learned enough about him to be interested in anything more than the neat-o jumping and kicking. In "Attack of the Clones," the majority of the film is spent hunting down the villain, so we don't even get to see Count Dookie (sorry... Count 'Dooku' - I'd hate to get a name that regal and austere wrong) until the last third of the movie. True, we have Jango Fett, who is unassailably cool, but he's a bounty hunter - a hired gun with no real connection to the true threat other than what he was paid to do. All of the evil is under the surface, bubbling up in Anakin, slyly played down by Dooku or completely concealed like Palpatine (is he secretly Darth Sidious, or are they clones of each other, and if they are clones, is THAT why the Jedi are having a hard time figuring out what's going on - because clones of Force-wielders have a completely different aura and dilute everything?), and while it's interesting and compelling to see how it shakes out, there isn't a real overarching urgency or a sense of impending doom as there was when Vader could show up at any moment and find your lack of faith disturbing.

These thoughts give this new trilogy a significantly different vibe from the first three, and while it's still a good, compelling story, it will always pale a bit in comparison to what went before. The first trilogy was the personal saga of a small group of heroes struggling against the odds to topple a monumental evil - always a thrilling and inspiring theme. The new trilogy is the story of the destruction of paradise, political intrigue and deception and a galactic government collapse into warfare and madness - the story of How Things Came To Be. It is by nature a wider scope and larger picture, and therefore will not have the individual emotional resonance that many will be looking for. This is a fact that will need to be accepted in order to fully embrace these films.

On that note, let's aaaaac-centuate the positive. There's no more pandering to children involved here - Jar Jar is limited and there's nothing cutesy to be found, nor are there any fart jokes. This fact alone will make some people think it's better than "Return of the Jedi," when many think George Lucas initially lost it by introducing the Ewoks. I never really had a problem with them, though - it stands to reason that there'd be cute alien species around as well as all the ugly ones with butts for mouths like Ponda Baba (Walrus Man) - and I'm pretty sure that a Star Wars movie without Han Solo can never be better than a Star Wars movie WITH Han Solo (and for the record - I don't really want to see "kid Han" in Episode III: The Mystery of Old Man Wilson's Haunted Mansion, because it would just dilute him even more than Greedo shooting first did), but that may just be a personal issue.

I'd gone into the film expecting Hayden Christensen to be the worst actor in the history of time, so therefore I was happy to discover that he's better than Keanu Reeves and Paul Walker, combined, even. He's not great, but he's not horrendous, and that's all you can really ask for in a Star Wars flick. His relationship with Amidala, while very slightly nauseating at times, is believable not only because Natalie Portman is almost criminally beautiful, but because both Amidala and Anakin are hot-headed stubborn go-getters who do not like to be told what to do, and butting their heads against authority and each other as much as they do is bound to produce a spark or two. Plus, we get to see some Vaderesque flare-ups in Anakin's mindset, and that's good stuff. Christopher Lee is so good as the unfortunately named Count Doodoo (er, Dooku - I'm sorry, but c'mon. Doku, Duko, Doko - all would have been fine! Dooku?! That's just no good - luckily, he takes a new, cooler name at the end of the film) that it makes one angry that he's not more prominent. Temuera Morrison's Jango Fett is allowed to do more and be cooler in one movie than Boba Fett was allowed to be in three (note that the Special Editions boosted his appearance number up to three, but diluted his cool factor by making him flirt cheesily with Jabba's dancers in "Jedi" - and appearing as a child now in "Clones" doesn't really count, because he ain't full-on Boba Fett). Samuel L. Jackson's Mace Windu gets to show a little flair and the rest of the Jedi get to pop open some Whoop-Ass Cola on the oodles of battle droids floating around. C-3PO is played for comic relief to much better effect than Jar Jar ever was, and he even gets away with some really horrible puns that work just because he's friggin' C-3PO! R2-D2 gets to fly. Yoda gets to use a lightsaber.

Correct me if I'm wrong here, but has anyone noticed that Obi-Wan Kenobi does not seem to be a very good Jedi? I know we're getting the story of his greatest failure here, so he's not going to be showcased in his best light, but he's not a really good teacher, he needs a Jedi trainee kid to point out the obvious answer to his archive question, he doesn't seem to have a firm grasp on the big picture and later he spins half-truths and dances around semantics to Luke about his father, and so-on. Yes, he's got all the tricks down to a science, and he's bad-ass enough to leap out of a window and ride a spy satellite across town to its bounty hunter master (that whole sequence was great), it just seems as though he's in way over his head and there's a slight sense of uncertainty about him. Then again, I bet Crazy Ol' Ben on Tattooine would be the first one to admit that he was a failure as a Jedi, and hell, I LIKE the idea of a Jedi that's not particularly sure of himself and a bit shaky in his confidence. Makes for a more interesting character.

So, in summation, it's a good Star Wars flick that improves upon the last entry but does not come entirely without flaws. Now this is what I want to see for Episode III: A good title like "Rise of the Empire," "Fall of the Republic," or even "Dark Side Ascendant," and not a whiz-bang serial title like "Invasion of the Mysterious Ape-Men From Planet X" or "The Frightful Danger" or "Cruise Control." The bulk of the story being Anakin Skywalker AS Darth Vader - with full regaila, mask, James Earl Jones voice and armor that allows his hands to move above his head - exterminating the Jedi (a recent interview with Christensen seemed to indicate this may be the case, so I'm giddy). Obi-Wan being called Ben before Luke and Leia are born. An explanation of why Threepio and Artoo do not recognize the Lars moisture farm on Tattooine in "A New Hope" after being there in "Attack of the Clones." An explanation of why Qui-Gon Jinn didn't vanish when he died like Yoda and Kenobi did. Mace Windu not going out like a punk, like Samuel L. Jackson requested. An at-least-teenaged Boba Fett kicking some ass here and there. A Special Edition of "The Phantom Menace" with Jar Jar toned seriously down and "Yippee" taken out of Jake Lloyd's dialog. A Special-Special Edition of the original trilogy that keeps the updated effects, perhaps adding a scene where Vader takes a lingering glance at Threepio at some point, but loses the Greedo shooting first in "A New Hope," the Skywalker scream from falling away from Vader in "The Empire Strikes Back" and the bad Boba Fett smarm from "Return of the Jedi" (I'm unsure about whether the new Jabba-Solo scene in "A New Hope" should stay or go). Maybe an IG-88 scene, too.

Now I'm rambling. May the force be with you.

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