A New Hope?

Attack of the Clones is better than you’ve heard.

McGregor and Christensen: a force at the box office

Having been bored into a near-coma by The Phantom Menace (1999), I was surprised by the first wave of scornful notices for the far less narcotic Star Wars Episode II:Attack of the Clones (20th Century Fox). Cut it some slack—it’s almost a real movie! It opens with a scary act of sabotage and an aerial-hot-rod chase amid futuristic skyscrapers—a happy reminder of the Saturday-matinee serials out of which this saga was born. It has three or four impressive action set-pieces; it has more Yoda and less Jar Jar; and it features the last of the great horror idols, 79-year-old Christopher Lee, as the lordly separatist Count Dooku. It seems to me a tolerable night out once you accept that: a) the storytelling is hopeless; b) the Flash Gordon giddiness of the first Star Wars trilogy is long gone, replaced by turgid pageantry tricked to life with gargantuan amounts of computer-generated busyness; and c) George Lucas is trying to be Japanese.

Why not call him sensei? Lucas presides over a feudal empire employing thousands of artisans. He makes, in collaboration with his disciples, epic kiddie movies that preach self-mastery and that, in their stiff and formal bearing, maintain a Zenlike detachment from their own narratives. This is not to say his films have no feeling. There is emotion in the design of the aliens and beasties, in the fluid line of the sets, in the elegant compositions and the palette of steel grays and blues. He is discernibly passionate about his digital technology. I doubt a single frame of Attack of the Clones went unaltered in post-production—although labels like “post-production” mean little in this context, since it’s clear that for Lucas the “production” (i.e., the handling of humans on sets) is just a precursor to the real work, which takes place in computers after the actors have all gone home.

That work is both dazzling and obsessive-compulsive. Two characters cannot converse in front of a window without scores of shuttle-crafts whizzing by at sundry angles, at speeds so insanely fast that the Force would seem a minimum requirement for a driver’s license. Every inch of every frame is crammed with stuff, every color supersaturated, every pixel sprinkled with cyber-MSG by hundreds (thousands?) of talented artists—many of whom must feel that this is their generation’s Sistine Chapel, the one they’ll be remembered for. For better and worse, the movie is afflicted with a runaway digititis.

Christensen, Portman, and McGregor in a dry environment

For better because: Can you imagine dialogue like this without the whooshy distractions? Consider the admonition of Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) to his teen-age charge, Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen): “We will not exceed our mandate, my young Padawan learner.” This is how characters talk in pseudo-Brit historical epics of the ‘30s and ‘40s. Apart from campy interjections during action sequences (“This is why I hate flying!”), the tone throughout is solemnly portentous, the diction public even in private, the characters aquiver with a patrician sense of duty. The love duets between Christensen and Natalie Portman as Sen. Padmé Amidala, the former Queen of Naboo, are of a high twittiness. I cannot imagine a crueler thing to do to an actor than give him a declaration like, “You are in my very soul, tormenting me.” It could only work in the fey tones of Marlon Brando’s Fletcher Christian. It doesn’t at all in Christensen’s peculiar Canadian singsong—although there’s something searching in the young actor’s woodenness, as if he’s chafing, like his rash apprentice Jedi, against the constraints of his role. His readings are dead (his voice sounds as if it dropped yesterday), but his eyes are angrily alive. And he’s all by himself on screen. Portman is madly sexy in her stretchy white, navel-baring warrior get-up (she’s unencumbered by the curly horns of her Naboo queenship), but that robotic monotone would ice down the most erotically fevered suitor.

To give Lucas credit, these debates on the subject of duty versus desire mean a lot to him: He seems genuinely engaged by his weighty themes. He believes that politics is rooted in deception, that legislation is the art of subterfuge. We’re not meant to trust the chancellor of the senate, Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid), who might prove to be the dread Darth Sidious. The parliament, with its floating platforms and freaky representatives, is almost literally a circus. (Sen. Jar Jar Binks, drafted to take the endangered Padmé’s place, ends up as a pathetic dupe.) As Yoda might put it, clear your mind you must to see the evil that pulses under the ceremonial surfaces. In these prequels, Lucas is attempting nothing less than an epic saga of corruption, more ambitious than even David Lean’s in Lawrence ofArabia (1962). We know going in that the protagonist, Anakin, is the future antagonist, that he will be ravaged by tragedy and seduced by the “dark side of the Force”—which Lucas implies in Attack of the Clones is both an un-Zenlike desire for control and a conviction that a mighty, centralized dictatorship is preferable to a messy and chaotic republic.

Flying and lessons

The scale of the enterprise is thrilling; it’s too bad the movie is so muddled on so many different levels. The political machinations are poorly scripted (you need a dedicated 12-year-old to walk you through the true loyalties of Count Dooku), and Lucas’ addiction to cross-cutting among three different story lines kills whatever momentum builds up. In an eerily beautiful series of scenes, Obi-Wan plays gumshoe and visits the stormy, ocean-swept planet Kamino, where stringy beings show him the burgeoning clone army. But what is bounty hunter Jango Fett (Temuera Morrison) doing shuttling off to Geonosis? (No, don’t e-mail me, I don’t care: I’d rather have gotten it while I watched.) Lucas’ plot is predetermined, but his scene-by-scene plotting is on autopilot. Somewhere in the middle, Anakin remembers that his mom was sold into slavery 10 years earlier and takes off for the desert planet of Tatooine, where he learns that Injuns (here called Tusken Raiders) are doing unspeakable things to her; suddenly he’s John Wayne in The Searchers (1956), working himself up into a genocidal froth. It isn’t always clear what’s supposed to be eating Anakin. In one scene Jedi master Mace Windu (Samuel L. Jackson) tells him he’ll be a great Jedi knight when he learns to trust his feelings—but I thought his problem was he trusts his wayward feelings too much. Do Jedi self-help books contradict one another?

At least there are a couple of human interactions. Ewan McGregor manages to relax this time out—although he’s acted off the screen by Morrison, who played a drunken wife-abuser in Once WereWarriors (1994) and is the only person in the movie who suggests an autonomous existence. (It helps that his scenes are built around Jango’s conspiratorial relationship with his cloned “son,” Boba.) And Christopher Lee? As a Hammer horror maven, it thrills my soul to see him wield a light-saber in another A-list epic. (He was the towering Saruman the White in The Lord of the Rings [2001].) But he doesn’t show up until an hour into the picture, and lines like “You have interfered in our affairs for the last time” don’t exactly stretch him. (The ultimate Christopher Lee line is from the 1961 Terror of the Tongs, in which his Chinese warlord asks the hero: “Have you ever had your bones scraped, Captain? It is painful in the extreme I can assure you.” Now that was villainous dialogue!)

You come out humming the FX. A chase through an asteroid field has maybe a hundred more elements than a similar sequence in The Empire Strikes Back (1980), and there’s a stunning effect when torpedos go off: a blue flash, a metallic ker-chung! that shakes the theater, and a shock wave that radiates out and pulverizes anything in its path. A fight on a Droid assembly line has a “top-this!” quality—it’s not as witty as the pie-machine scene in Chicken Run (2000), but what could be? A battle in an arena features creatures that would make the brilliant stop-motion animator Ray Harryhausen giggle—especially a crablike thingie with lethal stabbing pincers and a trapezoidal head. The climactic light-saber battle, between Count Dooku and a certain syntactically backward Jedi master, is smashingly designed and edited. All the sequence lacks is a decent payoff—which is true, come to think of it, of all the action sequences save that asteroid chase. What should be the picture’s biggest punch line—the arrival of the Clone army—gets lost in the shuffle.

None of this, of course, will matter to the scores of millions who’ve grown up with Star Wars and for whom this installment will be as much a religious as a cultural event. They will find any and all objections beside the point, even infuriating—although the last I heard, the moviegoing galaxy was a democratic republic and not a fascist empire. With all the screaming Lucasoids on one side and all the hand-wringing critics on the other, it might be hard to remember that Attack of the Clones is more or less OK. And not especially important.

Correction: Readers have been quick to let me know (surprisingly politely, in most cases) that I misattributed the line in which Anakin is encouraged to trust his feelings. It is not Jedi Mace Windu (Samuel L. Jackson) but the suspect Sen. Palpatine who plants this un-Jedi-like idea. That’s entirely consistent with Lucas’ portrait of the future Darth Vader as a young man destroyed by his inability to achieve a state of enlightened detachment. Thanks to all except the abusive types, who should learn to master their emotions.