Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones

Here we go again: Star Wars Episode II – Attack of the Clones has landed, and all the fans will have to activate their denial shields anew. You may recall that some fans of George Lucas’s saga, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, accepted the long-awaited first episode, 1999’s The Phantom Menace, as if it were something more than … um … well … crap. Indeed, it was as if Obi-Wan Kenobi had used a Jedi mind trick on the weak-minded throngs: “It’s a Star Wars movie. You think it rules.” “It’s a Star Wars movie. We think it rules.” “You don’t need credible dialogue or a coherent plot.” “We don’t need credible dialogue or a coherent plot.”

With Attack of the Clones, the mantra (seconded, sadly, by many critics) is more like “This is the best Star Wars film since The Empire Strikes Back. It’s better than Phantom Menace.” Both of which are correct, actually — it would be hard not to be the best Star Wars entry since Empire, given that Empire‘s two follow-ups (Return of the Jedi and Phantom Menace) stank like the restrooms at a leper colony, and more difficult still to be worse than Phantom Menace. Still, with the saga’s increasingly out-of-it guru George Lucas back in the writing and directing saddle, there’s a sharp limit on how good Clones can be. Lucas doesn’t direct a movie so much as manufacture it, and this time he has corralled a writing partner (Jonathan Hales), who seems to have done nothing but enable the Master’s foibles. You may have boggled at the following exchange already (it’s in every radio promo):

Padmé Amidala
You’re not all-powerful.

Anakin Skywalker
I should be! Someday I’ll be the most powerful Jedi EVER!!

That’s about as good as it gets. Ten years have passed since the events in Phantom Menace, and the annoying Jake Lloyd has been replaced by the annoying Hayden Christensen, whose performance as the sullen, impatient late-teen Anakin (destined to become Darth Vader) is, to put it bluntly, terrible — with his flat, uncomprehending delivery, he comes across like the worst actor in a high-school play, whom everyone indulges because he’s also the star quarterback. Anakin has a serious crush on former queen turned senator Padmé (Natalie Portman, politely composed throughout), who eventually gives in to his pathetic cajoling because — well, because Lucas decrees it; I can see no other reason. Meanwhile, Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor, relegated to a supporting role in a movie he’s first-billed in) zips here and there looking for bad guys who tried to assassinate Padmé and tracking down the hidden planet where an army of clones is being readied.

The clones don’t quite attack, though they get off a few shots during one of the film’s 51 climaxes. Instead of reducing the number of groaningly boring dialogue scenes in which members of the Jedi Council sit around grimly discussing matters of grave intergalactic significance, Lucas arrogantly throws in yet more civics lessons and then aggressively bombards you with action, as if to make up for all the yapping. The action did less than nothing for me. There’s no sense of awe or terror or grandeur in the imagery. It’s all so smooth and fast and hermetically-sealed it makes you feel trapped inside a private PlayStation game set on demo in Lucas’s head.

Even when the ridiculously named Count Dooku (Christopher Lee, underused but always nice to have around) faces off against the wizened Yoda, in the sort of moment that separates the fans from the unbelievers (I thought the duel looked immensely goofy), Lucas can’t bring himself to crack so much as a smile at what he’s wrought. Not that there aren’t sad stabs at humor; C-3PO is the foil for much indignity, as when his head is placed onto a Battle Droid and vice versa, and R2-D2 drags C-3PO’s head away while he says — I wish I were making this up — “Oh, this is a drag.” Does Lucas actually think that’s funny? Is there no one in his sphere bold enough to tell him his writing sucks?

Attack of the Clones is pop junk taking itself with deadly messianic seriousness, as if the morals in these movies would instruct children for generations to come (there’s even a cheesy just-say-no scene when Obi-Wan declines “death sticks” from a scuzzy dealer). The movie never lingers on any identifiable emotion, even when Anakin goes ballistic and avenges his dead mother on a bunch of Tusken raiders, or when he and Padmé end up married in a final sequence full of computer-tweaked beauty but no love whatsoever. I have no particular hopes for Episode III, in which Hayden Christensen will be even whinier, Natalie Portman will be visibly counting the days till she can get back to real movies, and George Lucas will be busily designing new toys and action figures but forgetting to come up with a good film to showcase them in.

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