2015 Update:

Are you ready to go back… to Attack of the Clones?

These were the first impressions I posted after an opening-night screening of Star Wars, Episode Two opened. It’s been more than a decade since then — I write this while fans count down the last 16 days before Episode Seven arrives — and I find that this post reads like a review hastily written in the heat of fanboy debate and conversation. But I’m preserving it as a piece of Looking Closer history… a snapshot of a Star Wars enthusiast’s struggle to sustain his love for a fantasy series even as it declined sharply into mediocrity.

I miss being able to love George Lucas’s worlds the way I did when I was a kid. I’d like nothing more than to find imaginative storytellers restoring a playful sense of adventure, strong characterization, real suspense, and wild imagination to the saga.

But I’m going to keep my expectations in check. We’ll see what happens.  

My First-Impressions Review

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 one wonderful 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 Star Wars prequels — 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. What a waste of potential. What 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 make them 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 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 present provocative ethical dilemmas.

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 clashing 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 — and not solely on personal feelings. But Anakin’s feelings are powerful. 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’s about 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 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 is told to ignore his friends in need so that he can achieve a “greater good”, is this sound advice? (We already know his his son will fare with such a test.)

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? It’s another good topic for debate in movie rich with such dilemmas.

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.

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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: Empowered by digital animation, he took us to entirely new kinds of environments and 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. Alas, the dialogue (as many critics have noted) is still 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, for this moviegoer, the most visually enthralling adventure of the series so far.

Those critics who are disregard the film entirely due to lackluster acting and lousy dialogue 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.
  • 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 a quiet hideaway, murmured tutorials, and quiet grumpy fits — but wait until you see him in this episode. We’ve learned to associate those gleaming white stormtrooper outfits with trouble — wait until you discover whom they first served.
  • John Williams’s rich and compelling score, one that never overpowers the action. It’s one of his best works.
  • Better performances, in general, than those in both 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. His resemblance to Alec Guinness’s Kenobi of the 70s 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 can hear this Anakin saying those lines.

Moreover, I find meaningful themes at work here:

  • The devolving friendship between Anakin and Obi-wan raises questions about the nature of good teaching and good learning. The conflict of political coalitions raises questions about compromise, diplomacy, the use of force, and the dangers of majority rule.
  • The Jedi have become arrogant, clearly, and thus blind to their weaknesses. How can we — in companies, governments, and especially churches — remain spiritually humble and vigilant, even examining ourselves for flaws and blindspots? The development of a Clone army should raise questions about the wisdom of human cloning, and the tendency of human nature to abuse any new powers that it develops.
  • 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. (Interestingly, most religious-media voices that condemned Harry Potter for the role of magic are still giving this movie about “the Force” a rave review.)

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In the past ten years, I’ve gone from being a fan of movies to a student of cinema. My tastes and interests have changed. I’m more inclined to watch foreign films than American films, more likely to spend time with independent films than commercial franchises. But I hope that my attempts to take on new challenges and “renew my mind” have 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 intent on fine art for adults that they’re unable to recognize a good storybook for children. Or maybe they never learned how. (Those who still all disregard comic books as juvenile frivolity haven’t been paying attention.) When our lack of ability to enjoy something sours into contempt for those who do, something has gone terribly wrong with us. Watching Star Wars, we are invited to play with variations on the timeless myths and legends of human history — and the key word there is “play.” Whatever the rewards of my cinematic education, however thoughtful I might become about Lucas’s strengths and weaknesses, I hope that I never forget how to enjoy Star Wars’ playground for the imagination.