In anticipation of Star Wars Episode VII: The Last Jedi, MakingStarWars.net correspondent John Bishop is re-watching the saga’s entire visual canon…
It was an inauspicious start for Star Wars Episode II.
“I just heard that!” said a disbelieving Ewan McGregor to a laughing CNN reporter, a smirking Nicole Kidman, and a lucky CNN video crew, which captured the awkward moment on a red carpet in 2002. “I just heard the new Star Wars film is named Attack of the Clones,” the Scottish actor told Kidman.
“Naaaaaaw,” said the wide-smiling Australian, McGregor’s co-star in Moulin Rouge, before the pair shared a generous guffaw.
“Is that better than Phantom Menace?” mused McGregor out loud as he regained his composure. However, he belied a bit of worry about his next project when he answered, “I don’t know…”
Many fans have wondered the same thing ever since.
Is Episode II an Improvement?
Even beyond the clunky title, an obvious – but unnecessary – allusion to the Republic serials that partially inspired the Star Wars saga (as well as the adventures of Indiana Jones), many people have questioned whether Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones was an improvement on its much-maligned predecessor, Episode I: The Phantom Menace.
In some ways, it was better.
Digital filmmaking continued to improve even as the Star Wars universe added umpteen worlds, species, and spaceships to its ever-expanding canon.
There are moments of beauty, what with an asteroid-dodging dogfight, ocean-covered planets, desert worlds (Two of them! Why two of them?) and a sweeping, Sound of Music-sounding soundtrack.
Furthermore, the dual-bladed saber of forbidden romance blooms between Hayden Christensen’s Anakin Skywalker and Natalie Portman’s Padme Amidala – both youthful and eye-gougingly beautiful in ever-changing costumes and locales, but with plenty of portentousness previewing the darkness to come.
And there is, mercifully, much less in the way of Jar Jar Binks (or other ethnically insensitive alien species).
But even as Lucasfilm sought to tighten its storytelling as it began to explain the mysterious origins of the Clone Wars (the seminal conflict first mentioned by Luke to Obi-Wan Kenobi in Episode IV: A New Hope) the fifth installment in George Lucas’ saga suffers from a haughtiness, a self-importance that leaves many viewers – even those who still enjoy the movie – cringing at a flawed film that is unable to manufacture as much pure fun as its predecessors.
Upon re-watching AOTC it’s clear the Episode II is immediately bogged down from a sullenness that now, in retrospect, seems inevitable in the absence of Qui-Gon Jinn and Darth Maul – the two most memorable characters in Episode I if not the entire prequel trilogy.
Without the swashbucklingly straightforward kinetics of the two antagonistic warriors, AOTC gets mired in a lot of words.
Words, words, words…
“[A]s someone who admired the freshness and energy of the earlier films, I was amazed, at the end of ‘Episode II,’ to realize that I had not heard one line of quotable, memorable dialogue,” said Roger Ebert in his two-star review. “And the images, however magnificently conceived, did not have the impact they deserved.”
“Lucas has, in fact, come closer than anyone could desire to the cheap, graceless, hackneyed sci-fi serials of the ’30s and ’40s,” said an unimpressed Michael Atkinson of the Village Voice in his review. “[T]he screenplay would make Buster Crabbe call for a rewrite.’Toxic dart!’ exclaims Obi (Ewan MacGregor [sic] cashing that check) after picking a dart out of a dead person’s neck. ‘don’t like sand . . .’ is how the agonizing Ani-Amidala romantic pattern begins.”
An aside: Romantic patter it may be, but I think people have always been too critical of that particular aspect of the film. Yes, Anakin is annoying, and Padme may be unsentimental, but to make that critique without remembering your ninth grade Shakespeare – namely Romeo and Juliet, from which I believe Lucas derived inspiration – is to forget how stilted and cloying teenage talk can actually be. I also think that the juxtaposition of Padme’s obvious intelligence against Anakin’s tenuously bridled emotion is lost on folks who forget how sucky it could be to be young and full of hormones and lacking in context, never mind living in a real world. But I digress. JB
Also frustrating is the loss of yet another series stabilizing character, namely Jango Fett.
After being the badass basis of the clone army, holding his own against Obi-Wan, and being introduced as Boba Fett’s “dad,” we see nothing to indicate Papa Fett’s motivations or desires. Also lacking, particularly after the demise of the Expanded Universe, is the reason behind Count Dooku’s choosing him as the alpha stormtrooper (and, alas, Jango’s conflict with Komari Vosa on the moons of Bogden fades into Legends).
And while we’re on the subject, can I just say that Dooku remains my least favorite character in Canon. Pardon my Aurebesh:
With all due respect to Christopher Lee, Dooku is a weak replacement for Maul and much less interesting than the rumored female Sith (an idea that would eventually become Asajj Ventress). But more on that as we watch The Clone Wars…
Furthermore, the competing MacGuffins of Jedi Master Syfo-Dyas and/or a missing planetary system and/or the identities of the Sith lords and/or the Death Star plans just leave viewers slack-jawed from the many levels of deceit in play.
Add in the galactic politics (“dellow felagates”), unexplained Separatist collusion (how would the uncharismatic, snotty Dooku rally anyone to any cause), even snootier cloners, the droid factory, and the single worst lightsaber battle in all of Star Wars canon (BTW, I have no particular problem with Wushu Yoda, but think reclining Obi-Wan and temporarily paralyzed, dismembered Anakin a lazy construct – especially when they get up immediately after Yoda chases off Dooku) and you have the real reason I suspect many folks hate the prequel trilogy.
All of this pains me to no end.
Much like our editor Amanda Ward, who recently said on the “Rebel Grrrl” podcast that her fandom’s fire was stoked by Attack of the Clones, my own devotion was re-ignited by AOTC to the tune of nine full-price theater viewings and the purchase of every ancillary item possible.
However, looking back, and despite my fondness for the first appearance of the clone troopers, I can’t help but agree with David Denby’s conclusion to a mostly positive review printed in the New Yorker:
Lucas shifts back and forth between this kind of original invention and a dependence on pompous dead-level dreck, a grade-B cheapness that he’s obviously addicted to. He’s no longer spoofing the old material; he’s redoing it in grandiose terms. His dramatic imagination is still severely limited, but it would be nice to think that his visual imagination is just taking off.
Next up: The Clone Wars
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