Why Star Wars Episode 2: Attack of the Clones Sucked

What I liked about Attack of the Clones:

John Williams's score was better than he's done in ages. Williams has been coasting on a reputation he mostly earned from the first trilogy for years. This is the first score that he didn't phone in. In particular, the final clone-marching scene worked because of the use of Williams's famous Vader music.

Christopher Lee and Ewan McGregor gave very effective performances. (Does anyone else think it's cool that Lee's enjoying this sudden renaissance with his roles here and as Saruman in The Lord of the Rings?)

It was fun to see Jay Laga'ia (Draco on Xena) in a small role as Amidala's security chief.

Great costumes, especially on Amidala.

What I didn't like about Attack of the Clones:

Everything else.

I really wanted to like the bits with Yoda, but I found them ultimately disappointing for two reasons, the second of which I'll get into in a bit. The fight scene with Lee just didn't do it for me--it came across as way too comical. Yoda's leaping about was too fast, like he was some kind of dervish, and it made the scene less effective, because he didn't seem real. The crowd we saw it with--which did not seem to be laden with fan types, as there was none of the cheering during the airing of the Holy Lucasfilm Logo that was reported in opening-night showings--spent the entire time during the Dooku/Yoda fight laughing.

The bad intercutting didn't help, which leads nicely to another problem: the swordfighting scenes were horribly disappointing. The much-hyped two-sabre duel between Dooku and Anakin lasted all of half a second, the cheesy strobe-light effect on Lee and Christiansen lasted too long, and there was more intercutting than in an MTV concert video, making it impossible to appreciate the choreography. Said choreography was equally disappointing (what could be seen of it). They went to the trouble of having Lee open each duel holding his light-saber like a rapier, but then didn't match the fighting style to that, which would've been much more effective. (One wonders if Lee didn't "ad-lib" the saluting and the rapier stance himself.) The Big-Ass Battle Scene was more effective than the like battle in The Phantom Menace, but only by dint of there being actual, y'know, people in it. It still came across as a giant video game, only without the gravitas.

And the main problem there was the CGI just didn't work. As with TPM, I never felt like the CGI characters existed in the same plane of reality as the humans. (A major exception was the diner owner, who was remarkably effective.) The lighting was wrong on all of them, especially Yoda. Yoda was actually the most frustrating because they did manage the complexity of facial expression (down to the ears) that the Henson folks gave Yoda in Empire and Jedi. But he was lit as if he was standing with a light source two inches away: no shading, and not a match with the people around him. Ditto for the other CG characters, from Jar-Jar to the monsters in the Gladiator sequence.

Actually, that's not fair--Gladiator is just the most recent example of the arena-fighting genre, and Star Wars making use of it is fair game, though it did come across as an attempt to one-up Luke vs. the monster in Jedi's opening sequence. Far worse was the scene in the droid factory with Amidala and Anakin in a scene that immediately had me flashing on the choppers scene from Galaxy Quest. Calling to mind a recent blockbuster that won Academy Awards is one thing; calling to mind a movie that made fun of the genre in a non-comic scene shows a bankruptcy of ideas.

And speaking of the droid factory, why was C3PO in this movie? Having him be the domestic droid of the Lars family was fine, but what was he doing in the ship with A&A when they hared off to rescue Obi-Wan? Didn't the Larses need him, especially now that Shmi was gone and Cliegg lost a leg? What possible purpose could he serve on this rescue mission? (As it happens, none, except to crack groaners to interrupt the flow of the climactic action sequences.)

The truly pathetic romance storyline has gotten plenty of discussion, and I will only add that I find it more than a little disturbing that our alleged heroine doesn't admit her love for Anakin until after he confesses mass murder to her. (And why did they suddenly stop using contractions when they were Professing Their Forbidden Love?)

The biggest problem with the movie, of course, is the truly wretched performance by Hayden Christiansen, who spends lots of time pouting and whining and emoting and grimacing and setting his face and doing all the other things that high school students do when they think they're acting. Since this is a George Lucas movie and I've never seen any other Christiansen performances, I'm willing to give him the benefit of the doubt and admit to the possibility that he can act. After all, I know for a fact that Natalie Portman and Samuel L. Jackson can act, too, but you'd never know it from this movie. Portman, like Nicole Kidman in Batman Forever, is primarily reduced to standing around watching the hero with her mouth slightly open. (However, Portman does at least get to wear cool clothes and kick serious butt in the climax...)

And if you ever needed proof that Lucas isn't an "actor's director," look no further than Mace Windu. Until TPM and AOTC I didn't think it was humanly possible to make Samuel L. Jackson boring, but Lucas managed it. A friend once said of Avery Brooks on Deep Space Nine that Sisko only really came alive when he was holding a gun and channeling Hawk from Spenser: For Hire, and while I don't agree with that assessment as regards Brooks, it does hold true here: Windu only truly comes to life when he whips out the purple light saber and channels Jules from Pulp Fiction.

The action was, at least, improved in the climax. I have to say that I was utterly bored by the car chase on Coruscant (it takes a lot to make a car chase interesting; The Blues Brothers managed it, AOTC did not).

I also came out of the movie without any feeling that anything was accomplished except to show how easily our alleged heroes are manipulated. The entire plot was masterminded by Darth Sidious/Palpatine, a manufactured war to bring the Republic to an end, and it relied on our heroes falling for it lock, stock, and light saber--which they did. The only thing they did right was keep Amidala alive, but the reasons for Amidala being targeted were pretty weak: basically, the Neimoidians wanted revenge for Amidala's actions in TPM. It's unclear why Amidala being a target is such a big deal. If the Jedi are reduced in numbers and stretched thin, facts mentioned many times in the film, why is one measly senator among thousands worth diverting two Jedi? Yes, they stumble across the clone army thing on Kamino, but that was an accident. (And those clone-masters have to be the dumbest people in the galaxy, given that Obi-Wan obviously has no clue about any of what's happening, yet they let him into the clone facility and assume he's there on behalf of the army commission. And why don't the clone-masters question the fact that Jango Fett has supposedly never heard of the Jedi who commissioned the army in the first place?)

Most of the scenes on Kamino were weak in any case. The CGI was especially dreadful here. Oftentimes moviemakers will have it rain in order to make model work more convincing by obscuring flaws with darkness and the rain itself (seen most recently in the Devlin/Emmerich Godzilla remake). Sadly, with CGI, rain serves only to show up how fake it all is. To add insult to injury, in the fight with Jango Fett, Obi-Wan suddenly forgets all about his super-Jedi telekinesis when he loses his light saber at the start of the fight. Then again, in general the super-Jedi telekinesis is only used sporadically and rarely sensibly.

Ultimately, the problem with this movie is that I just didn't care about the heroes all that much. Anakin kept telling us how much he resented Obi-Wan, but we never saw any evidence of it onscreen. The last time we saw these two, Obi-Wan was just taking him on, and in AOTC Jedi and Padawan are separated almost from the git-go. We're given no context for the relationship between mentor and student whatsoever. The bit with Anakin's mother is dropped into the middle of the movie with little warning and less sense, and is a game attempt to show Anakin going to the dark side, but it was so manipulative that it wasn't convincing. (She's been imprisoned and tortured for a month, but she just happens to die after Anakin rescues her. How poetic. Barf.) And then Lucas--who hasn't shied away from showing carnage elsewhere in the movie (the entire climax, e.g.)--backs off from it here, refusing to have the hero actually perform this massacre onscreen. It's not like we don't know what Anakin's going to become. Hell, Lucas must be counting on it, given how much of this movie depends on knowledge of the other movies (the scene at the Lars igloo on Tattooine, the very existence of Jango Fett and his clone son Boba, Obi-Wan's "You'll be the death of me" line, the quick look at the Death Star designs, etc.).

The first trilogy showed a heroic journey: Luke from whiny adolescent to hero to Jedi Knight to savior of his father's soul. For that matter, Han has a heroic journey as well, finding himself capable of being something greater than himself after living a selfish life. This trilogy isn't giving us anything that satisfying. A friend described what we're getting here as the virtual equivalent of doing a World War II movie where Hitler is the hero we're supposed to root for. That may be a bit extreme, but not too much.

Yeah, it was better than The Phantom Menace. Root canal is also better than open-heart surgery, but I'm not going to go out of my way to experience either one.

[First posted on sff.people.krad at SFF.net on 21 May 2002.]

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