Star Wars, Episode Two: Attack of the Clones
a review by Jeffrey Overstreet
Great cinematic storytellers know that movies are something we watch. That is to say, what we see on the screen is as important, if not more so, than what we hear. Movies have been about pictures from the beginning, and the best filmmakers have crafted productions that would be worth watching even with the sound turned off. Otherwise, why not stick to radio or literature, where everything is communicated with voice and script?
George Lucas has never been much good with dialogue — in fact he treats it like a necessary burden. But he is a master of innovative big-screen imagery. And thus, his scripts, which wander from functional to tedious to maddening, are usually worth enduring for the sake of visual spectacle. (The most glaring exception is Star Wars, Episode Five – The Empire Strikes Back, which stands as one of the greatest adventure films ever made, in every aspect… script included.)
In each Star Wars film, the screen is full of childlike play. Invention for the sake of invention. While we can find all sorts of meaningful metaphor and mythic resonance in his stories, Lucas also provides exhilarating, creative displays of light and color, and a fascinating array of creatures and spaceships. It helps that Lucas has Ben Burtt on board, who is as much a master of sound design as Lucas is of visual invention.
It hurts to think about how much better these new Star Wars movies — The Phantom Menace, and now Attack of the Clones — could have been if the scripts had been composed by talented writers. The actors have no chance of developing believable and interesting characters, as they’re being directed by someone who seems completely unconcerned about subtlety or complexity, or character development. Critics who disdain Star Wars films are right to be dismayed at such a waste of potential, such an insult to audience intelligence.
But for Lucas, these characters are “types.” They are the archetypical heroes of the comic books and B-movies of his childhood. He aspires to nothing more, and as disappointing as that is, if we’re going to gain anything worthwhile from the Star Wars prequels, we’ll have to learn to live with that. These are groundbreaking comic books for the big screen, enjoyable only if we try to ignore what’s written into those dialogue balloons. And despite the outrageous dialogue, the narrative does continue to raise spiritual questions, explore political dilemmas, and portray profound ethical dynamics that can fuel rewarding discussion and debate.
So let’s consider Star Wars, Episode Two – Attack of the Clones. Yes, the screenplay is another embarrassing, cringe-inducing display of incompetence. And yes, the movie is glorious to behold.
* * *
At the end of The Phantom Menace, young, impetuous Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) had been freed from slavery and accepted — reluctantly — by the Jedi Council as an apprentice for Obi-Wan Kenobi. Obi-Wan agreed to train Anakin to grant his own teacher’s dying wish.
Now, Obi-Wan has his hands full. Anakin, ten years older, is still reckless, and he has grown arrogant. He thinks he knows how to fix the troubled Republic, which is dividing up into arguing factions. And he wants to break away from his orders in order to find and rescue his mother from slavery. A Jedi is not supposed to act impulsively, solely on personal feelings. But Anakin’s feelings are powerful and we know it is a matter of time before he breaks away from his teachers and superiors to do his own thing.
Above all, Attack of the Clones is a story about good teachers and bad teachers, good students and bad students. And, like other films in the series, it explores the dangers of following one’s selfish impulses, and the rewards of giving up one’s desires for the greater good. But it also raises questions about the definition of true love and the design of good government. Which is preferable: the tyranny of a well-intentioned overlord, or a democracy in which the majority makes foolish decisions?
Anakin and Obi-Wan are assigned as bodyguards to Padme Amidala, who was a Queen in Episode One but now it just a Senator. Many of the Republic’s member-worlds are pulling away to form a Separatist movement and Amidala is trying to persuade the Republic to seek a diplomatic solution to their problems instead of military action. But someone wants to silence her. Behind the curtain, a sinister villain is manipulating the Republic. He wants military power, and so he is determined to destroy Amidala’s influence. A conspiracy is in play. When an assassination attempt fails to claim Amidala’s life, Anakin is sent to hide her in a remote place while Obi-Wan Kenobi goes in search of the assassins.
What Obi-Wan discovers is that the division in the Republic is not accidental. There is in fact a plan in motion, led by a renegade Jedi, to overwhelm the Republic. And the Jedi Council are not only weakening in their powers, but they are playing right into the enemy’s hands.
We have to stop and wonder: What have the Jedi done wrong? Have they become so accustomed to sitting around and pondering the universe that they have lost touch with their own vulnerability? Which Jedi exemplifies what a Jedi should be? When Anakin (and later, Luke) is told to ignore his friends in need so that he can achieve a “greater good”, is this sound advice?
Anakin, alone with Padme, takes this opportunity to declare his love for her. This defies Jedi rules about avoiding “attachments”, and reminds us of a priest’s vow of celibacy. Are such vows foolish or detrimental? Is Anakin rebelling righteously? Or is he a slave to his hormones? Another good discussion topic in movie rich with such questions.
Anakin’s intensifying emotions are interrupted when he senses that his mother is in danger, and hurries off to rescue her. What transpires back on his home planet of Tatooine will change him forever, pushing him further down the path of resentment and anger that will make him the monstrous Darth Vader.
In the end, Anakin, Obi-Wan, Amidala, and the Jedi Council are drawn into a violent conflict between Separatist droid armies and an army of Clones fighting for the Republic. This battle dominates the last 45 minutes of the film. But even when it is over, the Jedi are in terrible peril. They are being drawn into a trap set not just by the Separatist’s leader, but in fact by a higher mastermind who is controlling both the Separatists and the Republic. To see the trap spring shut upon our heroes, we’ll have to wait until Episode 3.
* * *
1999′s The Phantom Menace was the Star Wars movie that most depended on talk. Thus, it showed Lucas’s weaknesses more than any of the other films. But it also displayed his strengths reaching new heights. Empowered by digital animation, he took us to entirely new kinds of environments, introduced creatures that were unlike any that had ever walked across the screen. He was trying out new ideas.
In Attack of the Clones, it’s clear that Phantom Menace taught Lucas a few lessons. Here, he wields new animation techniques the way a Master Jedi wields a lightsabre. The dialogue, as many critics have already said, is still only mediocre and at times downright appalling. Case in point: the clichéd, groan-inducing romance between Anakin and Padme Amidala. Two of their scenes are the most unbearable in the whole Star Wars saga (even worse than Jar Jar’s Phantom Menace scenes). Anakin’s vows of love are at times positively awful. And Padme’s replies aren’t much better. If Lucas had hired a better writer than Jonathan Hales, I’m sure the romance would have become more interesting, and we would have avoided these scenes of sentimentality. As it is, the love story’s lack of invention weakens an otherwise compelling adventure movie.
Still, it would be a mistake to spend much time quibbling over five or ten misguided minutes in a 142-minute film. The rest of the time, you’ll likely be wide-eyed, intrigued, and thoroughly entertained. Lucas’s Star Wars universe has always been exciting to visit and beautiful to look at… but never like this. While it lacks the truly exceptional quality of The Empire Strikes Back‘s script and performances, Clones is, in my opinion, the most visually enthralling adventure film of the series so far.
Those critics who are condemning the film entirely because of its mediocre acting and dialogue are condemning a great pizza because the crust is somewhat soft. They’re overlooking these things:
- The sound design, which may be the most elaborate and amazing achievement in sound effects to date. it’s a concert played on a new world of instruments, full of surprises. Pay attention to the incredibly orchestrated noise of the car chase through Coruscant, the sound of a battle in the rain on Kaminoa, and — my favorite — the sound of a depth charge exploding in an asteroid field. Lucas doesn’t just give us new sounds; he gives us new kinds of sounds.
- The visual effects, which have never been better. Lucas makes up for Jar Jar Binks by supplying an impressive array of likeable digital characters this time… Yoda, best of all.
- The costuming, more lavish and extravagant than any sci-fi film we’ve seen. Star Wars costumes have always been a little ridiculous. (Princess Leia’s hairdo used to seem a little crazy. Wait till you see Amidala’s impossibly varied array of hairdos and costumes here. It’s all part of the “playing around” that Lucas enjoys so much. I love it too.)
- Revelations that subvert our assumptions and transform what we thought was a simple back-story into something complex. We’ve learned to associate Yoda with quiet hideaway, murmured tutorials, and quiet grumpy fits. Wait until you see him in this episode, where we learn why Yoda is so revered among the Jedi. We’ve learned to associate those gleaming white stormtrooper outfits with trouble. In this movie, when those outfits appear, you’ll be surprised at what they’re doing, and for whom.
- Developments that transform our understanding of Yoda, Darth Vader, and Obi-Wan Kenobi.
- Storytelling that challenges young viewers to think about politics and to question whether the world’s leaders are waging war for noble purposes. He also raises questions about good spiritual leadership, and what makes a healthy teacher/student dynamic.
- John Williams’s remarkably rich and compelling soundtrack, one that never overpowers the action. It’s one of his best works.
- Better performances than we had in Phantom Menace (where most of the actors seemed like action figures) and Return of the Jedi, where even the roguish Harrison Ford and the smirking Carrie Fisher seemed bored.
- Ewan Mcgregor exhibits more energy and humor than he did last time around, and he looks and sounds more and more like Alec Guinness’s Kenobi of the 70s — the likeness is almost spooky at times. His action scene with Jango Fett in the rain is one of my all-time favorite Star Wars sequences.
- Hayden Christensen plays Anakin as a stubborn, moody adolescent prone to fits of rage and resentment. And when he wants something, he pursues it with a menacing smile (no pun intended). He’s unlikable, and he should be. He’s simple-minded, and he should be. He is far from eloquent, and — contrary to the host of complaining critics, he should be. It’s the perfect voice for the young Darth Vader. Vader was not a grand statesman. The Dark Lord’s most memorable lines: “The circle is now complete!” “You are unwise to lower your defenses!” “Join me!” “I find your lack of faith disturbing.” I could hear this Anakin saying those lines. It’s far short of Oscar material—Lucas doesn’t work with his actors enough to draw out rare moments of deep human insight. But as the Star Wars comic-book character he’s supposed to be… Christensen is right on.
* * *
As mentioned in my plot summary, I find many meaningful themes and questions underlying this episode that should provoke rewarding discussions.
The tempestuous relationship of Anakin and Obi-wan leads us to questions about what makes a good teacher? What are the duties of a good student? How important should our emotions be in our decision-making? It would be worth comparing the teacher/apprentice relationships throughout the saga: Yoda and his former student (revealed in Clones), Qui-Gonn Jinn and his teacher (revealed here as well), Qui-Gonn and Obi-Wan, Obi-Wan and Anakin. How are these different from the relationship between Obi-Wan, or Yoda, and Luke Skywalker?
The relationship between Anakin and Padme leads us to questions about love. What is unconditional love? Does Anakin behave honorably in his relationship with Padme? Does love disregard responsibility?
The conflict of political coalitions in this film should provoke good discussions about compromise, and the roles of diplomacy and militant action. It also raises questions about democracy and the dangers of majority rule.
The Jedi have become arrogant, clearly. One insists that they are incapable of making a mistake. But Yoda shows the wisdom of the young, who are not yet corrupted by pride, by allowing a child to highlight a big mistake that the Jedi did indeed overlook. In companies, governments… and especially churches… how can we remain spiritually humble and vigilant, even examining ourselves for flaws and blindspots?
The role of the Force here is interesting. This time, the characters don’t spend time talking about it. They just do it. The wise Jedi use it for the good of the whole galaxy, while the villains use it for their own gain. The Jedi pursue stillness, calmness, and peace. Villains stir up trouble. Audiences should continue discussing the idea of the Force and how it differs from the idea of a living God who can have a relationship with us. (Interestingly, most conservative critics who condemned Harry Potter for his magic are still giving Clones a rave review.)
The development of a Clone army should raise questions about the wisdom of human cloning, and the way that sin eventually warps our ability to use powerful technology, turning powerful tools into destructive weapons.
And that’s just scratching the surface of this parable-rich story.
* * *
One of my friends in the film critics’ world saw this episode and pronounced the series “dead.” In view of this list of interesting themes and subjects, not to mention the amazing advances in technology on display, and the way Lucas is pulling the threads of his story together, I cannot agree. I like what Ebert once said: Lucas isn’t just taking us to new places… he’s taking us to new kinds of places.
In the past ten years, I’ve become a devotee to art films, and now many foreign films and critical favorites have become my favorites as well. My favorite director is the late Krzysztof Kieslowski, and my favorite film is a black and white art film by a German director. But I hope that my attempts to take on new challenges and “renew my mind” has not spoiled my love of whimsical children’s stories, of wild and illogical fantasy, of grand romances and crackerjack adventures.
As C.S. Lewis wrote, “When I became a man, I put away childish things, including the fear of being childish and the desire to be very grown up.” Star Wars occasionally stoops to childishness. Return of the Jedi was overstuffed with muppet-like creatures and teddy bears that made it difficult to take seriously. The Phantom Menace’s Jar Jar Binks talked like a Saturday morning cartoon character. But most of the time — and this goes for Attack of the Clones as well as the others — it shows a remarkable, rare spirit of childlike enthusiasm rather than childish foolishness. There is a boundless creativity in this movie that most kids and kids-at-heart will enjoy, evident in its many and varied creatures, vehicles, cities, landscapes, and characters… even the names are fun to say.
I think a lot of critics (not all) have become so accustomed to classics hanging in frames in the museum, they can’t enjoy a good comic book. Or maybe they never learned how. (A lot of people still think comic books are just juvenile trash. They haven’t been paying attention.) They are so irritated by mediocre dialogue that they are not only unable to enjoy the movie, but they show contempt for those who do enjoy them. This isn’t infantile entertainment, although there is a lot of “play” going on. This stuff is still as rich with metaphors, spiritual parables, and echoes of time-honored myth as it has always been. Star Wars continues to get my own imagination running on all cylinders.