Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones
by Jon Bastian
After Phantom Menace Dashed Our Hope, Lucas Strikes Back…
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I want to buy the DVD now.
I want to buy the DVD right now, and see Episode III tomorrow.
That’s it. That’s my review. That’s really all there is to say. Our beloved Star Wars saga is back in form, and Episode II - Attack of the Clones makes up for all the mistakes in Episode I - The Phantom Menace. Hell, it almost makes up for those damn Ewoks. Almost. The silliness of the first installment is now past, and we’re moving back into darker territory, setting up for the inevitable transformation of our hero, Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen), into our villain, Darth Vader (body by David Prowse, voice by James Earl Jones, face by Sebastian Coe). Like the highly praised Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back, we’re in a darker, more dangerous galaxy here. As well, the resonances between past and future are starting to build, with references both visual and emotional to events yet to happen in the second trilogy. With any luck, when we finally get around to Episode III (do we really have to wait two years?) Lucas will have succeeded in creating a mythology, an Odyssey for modern times.
We pick up our characters ten years after the events of Phantom Menace. Padmé Amidala (Natalie Portman) has since been term-limited out of her elected queenship, but still serves as Naboo’s representative to the Senate. Somewhere along the way, she’s brassed off someone, and that someone is trying to assassinate her. The top Jedi, Yoda (voice of Frank Oz) and Mace Windu (Samuel L. Jackson), decide that she needs protection, and her chosen protectors are Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) and his apprentice, Anakin — now no longer a little boy, but having matured into a young teen stud with an itchy lightsaber finger. While their reunion seems cold, Anakin definitely has the hots for Padmé, an infatuation that’s momentarily sidetracked as someone makes an attempt on her life. Obi-Wan and Anakin set off after the would-be assassin, and the conclusion of that chase sets up the rest of the film, as Obi-Wan tracks down a mystery planet that seems to have vanished and Anakin becomes Padmé’s only bodyguard.
Yes, it’s a love story and an action film, both threads wending their separate ways even as rebel forces, led by the evil Count Dooku (Christopher Lee) threaten to tear the Republic apart. Along the way, we catch up with C3PO (Anthony Daniels) and R2D2 (Kenny Baker), as well meet bounty hunter Jango Fett and learn of the rather unusual genesis of his son, series favorite Boba Fett (Daniel Logan), who resembles Dad in more than just choice of armor style. If you’re also paying close attention, you’ll notice three characters whose adoptive children we will get to know well much later. Or earlier. Or… well, you know what (and whom) I mean.
Along the way, we’re treated to various moments of heroics and derring-do, including a thrilling chase through the three-dimensional traffic of Republic homeworld Coruscant; a battle between Obi-Wan and The Family Fett; a beautifully designed and realized ocean planet that’s home to the cloners; a visit with an older, seedier Watto (voice of Andrew Secombe) on Tatooine; and a breathtaking and suspenseful fight and chase through a treacherously industrial droid factory. All the storylines eventually collide on the red, ringed planet Geonosis for the first battle of those famous Clone Wars, and this battle is a doozie.
All that, and Yoda wields a mean lightsaber, proving himself here to be the most badass Jedi of them all.
Many critics have knocked the film for its wooden performances, but I didn’t see any. Yes, some of the dialogue seems overly formal. However, we are moving in diplomatic circles so that, for example, Anakin and Padmé’s early exchanges are those of a knight and senator, not two star-crossed lovers. And while some moments in their romance might seem to be clichéd, I think Lucas has done this knowingly. For example, a shot of Padmé running through a field is strikingly reminiscent of that famous moment in The Sound of Music — except that Julie Andrews didn’t have strange alien creatures wandering around her. (Though I was half expecting Portman to bust out in a chorus of, “Those things are alive, and they’re going to eat me…”) Christensen comes off far better than you might expect from some reviews, creating a very dimensional character teetering between the light and dark sides of the Force, especially in a moment when he’s given a whole lot of reasons for blind rage and revenge against a village of Tusken Raiders (the “sand people”) back on Tatooine. As a couple, they’re quite believeable and both of them are as pleasant to look at as the bucolic landscapes of Padmé’s native Naboo.
As for those resonances and references, they’re everywhere. Jar-Jar Binks’s role is mercifully reduced. However, his one essential action here is an extremely important one, something that could only have been done by a complete idiot with good intentions, and it suddenly justifies exactly how annoying he was in Phantom Menace, layering that performance with tons of irony. Maybe in Episode III, one of the Jedi will catch on to the stupidity of this action and just lop off the Gungan’s head. Still, in a single speech, Lucas has justified what had seemed the most heinous misstep of Episode I.
Meanwhile, old pals R2D2 and C3PO take on larger roles here, moving toward their more familiar comedy relief mode of the second trilogy. R2D2 continues to be the plucky little hero, bailing his human friends out of danger with no regard for his own safety. Meanwhile, C3PO has a truly schizophrenic moment in the wake of an unfortunate stumble in the droid factory. The end result is to make R2D2 even more noble and C3PO even more sympathetic in his bumbling, prissy way.
But Attack of the Clones has that effect — altering the meaning of things that have come before and after. When we meet the clone army, they look a helluva a lot like the Stormtroopers we learned to boo in the latter trilogy, but here, they’re still the good guys. This leads to a rather pleasant disconnect when one of the soldiers in white approaches a fallen Padmé to help her out of the sand, and our reaction is, “No, run away, he’s… oh, yeah. Right.” We also find out how… well, I won’t tell you what, but let’s just say one of the series’ running motifs happens again here (actually, twice, making it the fourth and fifth time, if I count correctly), and rather unexpectedly at that. Bet you thought it was someone else who’d done that, but you were wrong. We all were.
Pay close attention to several moments surrounding the Lars family, as well. The first time we see Beru Whitesun (Bonnie Piesse) she’s doing exactly the same thing we see Luke’s “aunt” Beru (Shelagh Fraser) do twenty-some years later, and Cliegg Lars (Jack Thompson) is the splitting image of Phil Brown, who played “uncle” Owen in A New Hope. C3PO delivers a line almost identical to that which he first (or later) says to Princess Leia regarding a holographic message from the same source, and a shadow on the wall both echoes the original teaser poster for Phantom Menace and prefigures Darth Vader’s ominous silhouette.
Musically, John Williams has rarely done finer work, blending “old” themes from the second trilogy with new themes from the first episode, adding to the emotional resonance. “Clash of the Fates,” the Obi-Won/Qui-Gon/Darth Maul duel music from the first film, is particularly effective as background to Anakin’s mad speeder bike dash across Tatooine, and “The Imperial March” (often wrongly identified as the Darth Vader theme) makes its first appearance, but again, with entirely different meaning. This time around, it’s the stirring “off to war” music that rallies our heroes, the Republican Army. We also get hints of both Luke and Leia’s themes dancing around the Anakin/Padmé romance, and a wonderfully cut-off music cue that echoes the sudden change of heart of a character.
As a side story, but a nice bonus, we meet little Boba Fett, one of Star Wars’s most popular characters, and learn exactly where he gets it from, as it were. Why is he the most popular? It’s that awesome outfit, natch, especially \the helmet, which takes on added significance here. Also, never explicitly stated but a nice touch nonetheless, he really is a perfect counterpart to Anakin/Darth Vader. Both of them wind up masked nemeses, one with no father and the other with no mother. Likewise, it’s only circumstance that makes either of them appear a villain later on.
Or maybe. After all, we still have Episode III to put all the final pieces into the puzzle for us. The Republic has yet to fall, Anakin has yet to go over to the Dark Side, the Death Star is yet to be built and Darth Sidious has yet to reveal himself. Episode II has lived up to the promise of things to come. Yeah, sure, ultimately, Star Wars is just a series of Saturday morning serial popcorn movies. But so what? That’s all Lucas ever intended. But whereas Phantom Menace was a paper cup full of unpopped kernels, Attack of the Clones is a piping hot big buttery bucket, and gives every indication that Episode III will be an extra large with a free prize hidden somewhere inside.
Jon Bastian is a writer based in his native Los Angeles. He was lucky enough to attend an advance screening of the original Star Wars (long before it was Episode IV) at 20th Century Fox, and has been a fan ever since, but wonders when, oh when, will Lucas release Episodes IV , V and VI on DVD?
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