May 2002: Bigger, Better, Faster, More

Thereís a moment, early in Star Wars, Episode II: Attack of the Clones, when you realize just where George Lucasí obsessive attention to detail has been all this time. During an adrenaline-surging chase scene through the highways (literally) and byways of the planet Coruscant, mobile billboards, gleaming vehicles, and bug-eyed aliens flicker by, a wealth of background detail so richly immersive that, for those of us seated in the front row opening weekend, it was utterly overwhelming. Clones has plot holes you can drive a Federation starship through, but damn, it looks good.

A lot of people are complaining about that. And they have a point.

By the time the movie ends, though, you may not care. Wooden acting? Sure. Wince-worthy dialogue? Of course. Massive explosions, for no apparent reason? It wouldnít be Star Wars without them. Those expecting the emotional resonance and tragic revelation that upped the ante in The Empire Strikes Back may emerge disappointed. Clones contains no shockers, although it does contain tragedy. But those expecting a rousing adventure, brimming with romance, heartbreak, and, of course, bloody spectacular battle sequences, canít help but be satisfied by a climactic battle sequence with all the stops removed.

Plot-wise, Clones closely mirrors Empire in structure, which on the one hand puts us on familiar ground. Thatís helpful, what with a bewildering array of new characters, planets, and situations for our intrepid band of galactic adventurers; this movie is much grander in scope than was The Phantom Menace. On the other hand, it does highlight the ways in which Empire is a more emotionally satisfying film. While the intent seems to be to parallel Luke Skywalkerís eventual triumph with Anakin Skywalkerís (Hayden Christensen) eventual fall, the looming sense of inevitability that should surround the latter character is only sometimes evident.

Then again, thereís another Star Wars movie that sometimes sacrifices depth for derring-do. While Episode IV: A New Hope had moments of violence and tragedy, it was mostly about fast ships, cool tricks, and pop-culture mysticism. Clones has all of that, to the nth power.

The film does manage to surprise us right off the bat; after the opening crawl, the camera pans up instead of down, unlike every other Star Wars movie thus far. Itís entirely suitable that Lucas should first surprise us with a visual trick, and something that critics of Star Wars, those who see it in a positive light as well as a negative one, should keep in mind is that the primary impact of Star Wars has always been visual. Itís a form of storytelling that has more in common with comic books than with straight narrative. This is not necessarily a bad thing.

Lucas, aware that much of the first half of the film will be taken up by political intrigue and Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) playing Sam Spade, whets our appetites with a chase almost right off the bat. Senator Amidala (Natalie Portman), who was a queen in The Phantom Menace, but never mind, arrives at Coruscant to vote on the issue of creating a galactic army, since the Republic, presumably, doesnít have one. Itís an important issue because a number of star systems are breaking away from the Republic, but itís important in the way the dissolution of the Senate was in A New Hope; you take note of it, and move on, drawn by stunning visuals of Coruscant that make those of Episode I look like a Saturday morning cartoon.

Of course, as soon as Amidala lands, her ship blows up, killing her decoy and most of her staff. The Jedi Council tells off two Jedi to be her bodyguards; they are, of course, Kenobi and Anakin, the latter having somehow reached the age of 19 without ever learning anything about girls. As a sulky, headstrong youth, Christensen is perfect, even though heís given some of the worst lines in the film. Anyway, another assassination attempt leads to a chase through Coruscant that involves, among other things, Kenobi dangling from a flying assassin droid, Anakin commandeering a bright yellow speeder with which he proceeds to perform stunts that physics never intended, a chase through an alley, and a bar scene, complete with peculiar creatures with their eyes on stalks. Itís great fun, and the rush it provides nearly carries us through subsequent political maneuverings and shuttling of characters here and there.

Our friends split up; Anakin and Amidala head for idyllic Naboo to protect the senator from further attempts on her life, while Obi-Wan begins backtracking in search of whoeverís behind it all. He interviews a four-armed restaurant cook who just happens to be an expert on ballistic poison darts, visits a planet populated by tall, light-blue aliens who make clones for a living and where it rains all the time, gets into a fight with a certain masked bounty hunter who gets around on a jetpack, and jets over to another planet populated by winged reptiles who make droids. There he meets up with Anakin and Amidala, who have stopped for a quick, albeit tragedy-laden, hop on Tatooine and decided to ignore their blossoming romance, which they manage to tamp down despite Amidalaís taste for corsets. (Amidalaís wardrobe, by the way, is scrumptious, not to mention much more reasonable than in the previous film. I found myself coveting her clothes.) All of this, of course, culminates in a massive showdown that manages to combine an arena scene straight out of Ben-Hur with an action-packed sci-fi battle wherein Yoda (Frank Oz and a CGI job above and beyond that of the previous film) lays the smack down in a now-famous duel.

In other words, this film is chock with event. Thereís so much going on in any given scene that, really, it should be utterly confusing. The fact that itís not is indicative of one thing: Lucas has got his editing groove back. He still canít write, and what chemistry exists between the actors comes in spite of the dialogue, not because of it. But the thing moves, so quickly that by the time you notice a gaping hole in the plot, your attention is already captured by something interesting, if perhaps extraneous, on the screen. Thatís the thing: everything is gorgeous. The ships are beautiful, the scenery is stunning, the lightsaber battles are a feast for the eyes. Itís sensory overload. Itís probably how Lucas would have made his very first Star Wars movie, had the technology existed.

And thatís the thing: intellectual it ainít. The spiritual notions embodied in the Force have never looked as shallow as they do here, because the inherent contradictions that are present, although muted, in the original trilogy cannot stand up to intense scrutiny. Lucas is many things, but he is not a theologian. There are villains in Clones, but they arenít quite convincingly evil, although Lee does his very capable best on that score. Theyíre of the dark side because smackdown-delivering Yoda and equally smackdown- delivering Mace Windu (Samuel L. Jackson) (who between them have all the best lines) say so, and we have to content ourselves with that.

As is standard by now for Star Wars films, the best performances come from the supporting characters. Count Dooku is a cakewalk for Lee, who gives his lines a weighty dignity. As Jango Fett, Temuera Morrison, who is capable of much more than heís asked of here (see, for instance, Once Were Warriors), conveys a sense of intelligence and pride beyond the requirements of the character, but which justifies the adulation of Fett fans around the world. Likewise, Ian McDiarmid as Palpatine is perfect in his portrayal of a would-be sovereign appearing reluctant to take the reins of power. And while McGregor has difficulty delivering lines like ďBe mindful of your thoughts, my young apprenticeĒ without a smirk, he does tell Anakin that ďYouíll be the death of meĒ without conveying any awareness of the irony.

A relative absence of Jar Jar Binks (Ahmed Best) is a welcome relief, though anyone still managing to pay attention to the plot at that point will notice that the character is gullibly responsible for the very thing Amidala intended to vote against. (Why does Amidala leave a proven idiot in charge? Never mind.) Instead, C-3P0 (Anthony Daniels), with a familiar if muted covering, joins the team and takes responsibility for most of the more egregious puns for the rest of the film, freeing up the rest of the cast for other things.

Thereís some other stuff, some of which goes against what weíre told in Phantom Menace, not to mention the original trilogy, but again, never mind. This is not a film on which to expend intellectual energy; youíre asked to ignore a lot of holes, but Lucas makes it easy for you. It is a film to be enjoyed, probably more than once, a film to whet oneís taste for adventure and the thoughtless idealism of youth. There are plenty of nits to pick from this film, and a little thought can net you dozens, but thatís a different kind of fun.

It is doubtful that Clones will take the place of any of the original trilogy in longtime fansí hearts. Itís too long, too glitzy, too spectacular, too much. The familiarity of the plot works against the film; while Yodaís skill with a lightsaber and Boba Fettís (Daniel Logan) origins are surprises, nothing about the core events of the story is astonishing at all. This adds to the aforementioned sense of inevitability while at the same time working against the engagement of the audience. And most of the time, whatís going on on-screen is so busy and chock with detail that itís hard to pay attention to anything else. That may be deliberate.

But itís hard to quibble with, say, Anakin and Dookuís duel, filmed entirely by lightsaber-light in flashes of light and shadow, or the contrast on Tatooine of Anakinís dark, severe clothing and the desert-wear of the Lars family (yes, theyíre in this too), or the shiny gleam of Coruscantís hover cars (in the Star Wars universe, it seems, car-washes do a brisk business, and thereís no such thing as traffic enforcement). Though the pacing occasionally missteps, and the film wonít win any awards for acting or script, thatís not really the point, and never has been. The power of Star Wars resides in its visuals; by such a standard, not only does Clones stand head and shoulders above its prequel, itís a worthy inclusion in the Star Wars series.