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"Star Wars: Episode II" Review

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Title: Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones

Starring: Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman, Hayden Christensen, Christopher Lee, Frank Oz

Written by: George Lucas, Jonathan Hales

Directed by: George Lucas

Rating: PG for sustained sequences of sci-fi action and violence.


Review by Stephen Silver

First off, one thing must be said: there is no way that George Lucas current, prequel Star Wars trilogy can be in any way compared to his original trilogy. This is not a matter of comparing the relative quality of the two trilogies, but rather their status in the culture. After all, virtually every single modern filmgoer is so enmeshed in the mythology of the classic trilogy that Lucas could produce a masterpiece on the level of Citizen Kane and it still wouldnt measure up to Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi.

1999's Episode I: The Phantom Menace, the first film of the new trilogy and Lucas first picture as director since the original Star Wars in 1977, was slammed upon its release as an infantile, overly cutesy effort that failed to capture the emotional or spiritual essence of the original series. I always maintained that Phantom Menace got a bum rap- yes it was aimed at adolescents, yes it over-relied on the despicable character of Jar Jar Binks, but the wondrous art direction and the amazing, parallel-editing-based third act, in my view, salvaged the overall film. No, it didnt live up to the hype, but consider it the Godfather Part III Syndrome: considering the pedestal on which the film culture puts the first three films, how could Phantom Menace ever measure up?

Now we have Episode II: Attack of the Clones, a film that according to advance word is aimed at an older audience, has subtracted most of Jar Jars role, and is more focused on the inner conflict within the character of Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader. Yes, most of the pitfalls of The Phantom Menace are largely eliminated from Attack of the Clones, yet a whole new set of problems emerge that, ultimately, sink the film.

Chief among them is shockingly substandard manner in which Lucas tells the story. A key strength of the original trilogy was the structure of the storytelling, which is ironically the central weakness of both Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones. In the new film the logistics and geography of the story are incredibly hard to follow, the political implications related to the Republic and Empire (which there was already too much of in Phantom Menace) almost completely overwhelm the plot, and there are simply so many central characters that the script has trouble keeping track of them.

We never know which planet is which, or where each character is at any given time. There are multiple armies of Clones, Droids, and Storm Troopers and its practically impossible to know which army is on which side, and when. And all of the political wraggling and intrigue is severely undermined by the audiences knowledge that Emperor Palpatine is on his way to the Dark Side; our only guess is when? Indeed, the political parts of the plot owe much more to Star Trek than Star Wars.

We learn that there is a separatist movement, but we never learn why, and the weak, easily defeated secondary villains of Phantom Menace (the Trade Federation and their army of droids) are brought back for no apparent reason; in addition to the presence of actor Christopher Lee, Clones has in common with Lord of the Rings the annoying predilection for random monsters who suddenly appear and are easily vanquished.

A key strain of the plot involves Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christiansen)s budding affair with Amidala (Natalie Portman); the film does what it has to do in establishing the couples love and Anakins inclination towards the Dark Side; its unfortunate that Lucas develops the political side of the plot so weakly. Christiansen, for what its worth, delivers the intergalactic equivalent of bad pickup lines and clearly reveals where Luke got his whining gene.

Ewan McGregor (as Obi-Wan is given more to do this time than merely imitate Alec Guinness) is given much more to do, as is Samuel L. Jackson, who steals each and every one of his scenes. And the venerable old Yoda, now a full-fledged special effect, gets the films most memorable scene as he fights a high-energy light-saber duel with Count Dooku (Christopher Lee).

Its hard to accuse Lucas, who practically invented special effects, of over-relying on them. But cool computer-generated sets can only take a film so far; the far-reaching cityscapes, we realize soon enough, arent part of any grand universe - they're just there for decoration. Also, the amount of settings that seem downright stolen from other movies is downright embarrassing for a filmmaker of Lucas caliber (I counted Gladiator, The X-Files, A.I.: Artificial Intelligence and Close Encounters just on first viewing Im reminded of those years-ago rumors that Lucas pal Steven Spielberg would direct Episode II himself.)

Much like the original trilogys second film, The Empire Strikes Back, Attack of the Clones ends anti-climactically as one big cliffhanger for the third film. But aside from the 30 second long Yoda scene, the new films entire third act is inferior to that of Phantom Menace - the action in Attack of the Cloness climactic fight is not only harder to follow, but its not nearly as exciting and theres nothing to make up for the loss of the Darth Maul character.

We've got three more years until the Star Wars saga concludes and we already know that the final film will contain the fall of the Republic, of the Jedis and of Anakin Skywalker. While most Star Wars enthusiasts clearly wont be satisfied no matter how well the third prequel turns out, perhaps Lucas can use the template of a classical tragedy to finish his tale on the right note. But even if the magic of the original trilogy is unapproachable by any film that dares call itself Star Wars, Lucas now stands at two strikes, and counting.

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