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18 May 2002 — Attack of the Clones

First impression: this film stinks.


Second impression: the core of a good film is in there somewhere.


Third impression: this film stinks.


I hadn't planned to see Attack of the Clones so soon; however when Mac asked if we wanted to see the film last night after book group, I was happy to say yes. (We haven't done much with Mac and Pam lately, and I miss that.)

Before the show started, the crowd was a bit rowdy. Certainly not as rowdy as the crowd had been at the midnight showing of The Phantom Menace, but a bit rowdy nonetheless. At the end of the show, the crowd was silent. Not a good sign.

The movie was dull at the start and remained dull nearly throughout. Kris' succinct review highlights one of this film's root problems: "It wasn't engaging, there were no characters that were engaging." (Her one-word review was also apt: "Lame.")


Many reviews have stated that Clones is better than Menace. This isn't really the case. It seems to me the two films are equally bad, just bad in different ways.

Here are some thoughts on specific aspects of the film, the positive first:

  • Hayden Christensen, as Anakin, isn't as bad as I had feared. Some of his line readings are worthy of wincing, but mostly he does a passable job. The real problem is the script, not the acting. Star Wars has traditionally had some relatively wooden performances, but it's difficult to overcome poor dialogue.
  • Amidala is great in the last half of the film (essentially the entire time she's in her white outfit). I'm not saying this simply because the outfit is snug and form-fitting. No, her character is well-written at this point: decisive, resourceful, engaging. Unfortunately, her character is pretty dull during the first half of the film.
  • Kenobi as secret-agent-Jedi works well. Very well. This is the "core of a good film" to which I earlier alluded. His story is interwoven with the Anakin/Amdidala love story -- a story with dialogue so painful as to inspire laughter from the audience -- and it is this story alone that is compelling in the film. The rain-drenched ocean world of Kamino, with its tall and graceful cloners, with the mysterious Jango Fett and his son, Boba, is an intriguing place. The film would have been more satisfying if this had been its central focus. (Ewan McGregor does a fine job as Kenobi. He gives the film's best performance.)
  • I liked most of the Anakin/Amidala story-line from the point they leave Tatooine until the point the Jedi arrive to save them in the gladitorial arena. For maybe twenty minutes, this plot thread is handled well, in the tradition of the earlier Star Wars movies. I didn't care for the video-game-esque foundry sequence, but found the "execution" scene great fun. Well done.
  • Many of the visuals were stunning. Some of them were too flat and cartoony for my taste, but the animations of the ships and structures were fantastic, especially those on Coruscant. The art-deco styled buses and freightliners and buildings are a strange addition to the Star Wars universe (we've seen nothing before or since to suggest their presence), but I like them. When Amidala's ship came sailing through the clouds to settle at the landing bay in the opening sequence of the film, I was awed.
  • I also liked two borrowed elements: the Jedi library on Coruscant (with its lack of information about Kamino) was eerily similar to a scene in Isaac Asimov's Foundation and Empire in which our heroes are searching the University library on the planet Trantor, the former seat of the galactic empire, for information about a hidden planet. Also, the choral music near the end of the film is a straight lift from Ralph Vaughan Williams' Symphony #7 'Sinfonia Antarctica' (A beautiful, haunting piece of work. This performance by the London Symphony (conducted by Andre Previn) is superb, with Sir Ralph Richardson reading each movement's introduction aloud.) Simply awesome stuff and well worth borrowing.

And some thoughts on the negatives:

  • Yes, Lucas reduced Jar-Jar's role in this film. Severely. But that doesn't matter becuase C3PO is the new Jar-Jar, but even less funny and more annoying.
  • As has been reported elsewhere, the dialogue in this film is bad, it's not nearly as bad as the overall story, a story which makes no sense. Characters' motivations seem completely arbitrary, as do their resultant actions. We never understand why any group is on this side or that side of the galactic struggle.
  • Why is Anakin so damn concerned with his mother now? Where has he been for the past ten years? Wouldn't his first thought after the events The Phantom Menace have been to return to purchase her freedom from Watto? Why is he only concerned about her now? This plot point is ludicrous. And Shmi's death scene is awful, too, producing scattered snickers throughout the theater. Anakin finds her tied to a beam. She looks weak. She moans, "Oh, is that my Ani? My how you've grown. Gugh." And she dies. Terrible, terrible writing. Merely a plot device so that he can go berserk and taste the dark side.
  • Lucas has apparently come to the conclusion that more of anything, even a bad thing, makes that thing better. So we're "treated" to incomprehensible battle scenes with thousands of combatants, yet we care about none of these people. Our heroes are off chasing the bad guys. Why do we need five minutes of animated battle scenes that give no service to the plot? The Battle of Hoth from The Empire Strikes Back was perfect: the audience understood that this was a battle on a grand scale with high-tech vehicles and weapons, yet we had characters we cared about. We understood the motivation of each side in the conflict. We could follow the action. There were dozens of things on screen at once instead of thousands. And I don't care how fake the models looked, I prefer them to the animation in the newer films.
  • If R2D2 can fly, why haven't we seen him do it before?
  • If Yoda can hop around like Kermit the Frog on meth, cutting a mighty path with his light-saber, why does he hobble around on that stinking stick?
  • Other than the Antarctic-inspired section, the music was generally dull. Worse, it was omnipresent. Not every scene needs to be scored, but every scene in this film has been. Ugh.
  • Many of the events in later episodes now don't make much sense. For example, when Owen Lars buys C3PO and R2D2, why isn't there a glimmer of recognition in any of the three parties? Whoops. That doesn't really makes sense now, huh?


As we left the theater Pam wondered aloud if George Lucas had even watched the first three films before making the last two. He seems to have forgotten what Star Wars was about. Or perhaps changed his mind.

The original films were effective for a variety of reasons, but one of the key factors was the feeling that our heroes were but small players in a galactic conflict. Luke Skywalker was a lowly moisture-farmer from a backwater planet who inadvertently becomes entangled in events far greater than himself.

The various stories written after the first film retained this sense of "small fish in a big pond". The novels, such as Alan Dean Foster's Splinter of the Mind's Eye, and the comic books (including the still-magnificent Marvel run of issues #11-38, soon to be reprinted in trade paperback by Dark Horse Comics) and the newspaper comic strips all managed to convey a sense of the grand sweep of the galactic civilization and the smallness of our heroes.

Now it has been revealed that our main characters are all part a small band of individuals that shape the course of this galactic civilization, that all of the events for forty years featured the intertwined fates of just a few individuals, or just one individual: Anakin/Darth Vader. The characters are revealed to be "big fish in a big pond", and this causes them to become less iconic, to lose much of their appeal.

Further, the levels of co-incidence that Lucas is willing to introduce into these stories defies belief. Yes, the original films were fantastic, presenting alien civilizations, technological marvels, and epic battles. But through all of it, the audience was able to accept what they were seeing on the screen, believe that it might possibly exist. It had a sense of realness.

No more.

Now we're simply overwhelmed with implausible co-incidences and battle scenes with thousands of combatants but no rhyme or reason. Characters act with no plausible motivation, simply to serve the needs of the plot, a plot strung together on the most tenuous of threads.


Am I disappointed?

Hell, yes. I had hoped that The Phantom Menace was an anomaly, but it appears instead to have been an omen.

Some people will read this review and think that I should lighten up because it's only a movie, as if this somehow excuses it from the realm of quality. Action-adventure movies don't need to be bad. In fact, we've been treated to two good Star Wars films in the past: A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back. The recently released Spider-Man is an action film, too, but one that isn't afraid to be smart and sensible and accessible (my review).

Other people will read this review and think that my expectations of the film influenced my opinion of it. This may be true to an extent, but it's unlikely to have had much of an effect. I went into The Fellowship of the Ring with low expectations and, though I did not love the film, it surprised me with the quality of its production. I went into Spider-Man with very low expectations and was delighted to be proven wrong. Clones, however, met my lowest expectations and then sank beneath them.

It's not the worst film I've ever seen, but it will probably be the worst film that I see this year.

The best part of the night was the trailer for Minority Report. Now that looks like a good science fiction movie...

Comments
On 18 May 2002 (12:40 PM), tim said:

well put. i think i agree with 98% of what you said.


On 18 May 2002 (03:01 PM), Jason said:

Whoa... scathing.

And considering Rotten Tomatoes tallies the score at 55%, I've come to the conclusion that the Star Wars legacy is doomed.

What a shame.


On 20 May 2002 (04:52 AM), Dagny said:

As usual, JD, I agree with some of what you've said... the most disturbing element to me was Yoda. If he can avert disaster by heaving a multi-ton stone column with his mind, why in hell does he need to jack around with a light saber? He could have put Dooku down with a raised eyebrow. But that doesn't make much of a fight scene... no, wait! It did in LOTR. Kinda gives Yoda a bum rap when he has to resort to physical weaponry.

Also ~ when the movie was done, Dane asked me "What do you think?"

I said, "I think that too many people have VCRs and don't know how to behave themselves in public."

Dane clarified. "No, about the movie."

Dagny: "Well, it wasn't torture. Except for the others in the theatre... they were torture."


On 20 May 2002 (07:36 AM), Kal said:

What do you guys usually do after 'book group'?


On 20 May 2002 (09:21 AM), Dave said:

Being fully advised by JD's rant and other, similar expositions of the film's merits (or lack thereof), I felt that I was fully prepared about what to expect from Attack of the Clones, but boy was I wrong.

First, the good parts:

Yes, I think Natalie Portman looked great in a backless gown.

Karen said that Mr. McGregor looked hot too, and why was Amadala looking at the stupid Anakin guy with Obi-wan around. (and I thought that Mr. McGregor's acting was the best in the film, recognizing that this doesn't say much).

The premise of the story was really quite clever.

Oh, and did I mention that I thought Natalie Portman looked really good in the skin tight white outfit? (Although I apparently missed the scene where she leaves the arena, puts it into the washer/dryer, shrinks the hell out of the middle section, puts it back on and returns to the arena. Not that I'm looking a gift bare midriff in the belly button.)

The special effects were usually quite good.

Seeing Yoda bouncing around like a muppet on meth was cool.

Well, ok. That's about it for the good side. Karen wanted to know where George Lucas got the cigar store indian to play the main character and why he couldn't have at least painted a convincing expression on him. I wanted to know why a whole bunch of Jedi are going to dump themselves into a hopeless battle when they could have just as easily done the vast majority of the destruction via airstrikes. And lets put on red shirts and fight a huge number of machines in an vast pit where there are no natural terrain features to take advantage of and where we're going to be picked off like fish in a barrel.

The fact that Anakin can apparently float lends further credence to the supposition that he's a witch and thus made out of wood.

Even Natalie Portman can't look good in a stupid head handerchief.

I was praying that Count D. would just run Anakin through and save us all from having to see ST III. Ah, but no luck. Now he's just got a dorky mechanical hand, OH MY GOD, JUST LIKE LUKE!!!! Isn't the parallel remarkable?

By the time we were done watching the film, I was fairly convinced that the Jedi deserved to be wiped out because they're stupid and incredibly short sighted. Just start from scratch and get it over with.

Anakin + Amadala = blech blech blech. "Oh we can't, Yes, we can, No, we can't, yes, we can! Ok, but only if you wear this stupid doylie on your head. OK" For crying out loud, just do it and get on with it! Every time they started the romance thing I had my head in my hands wondering how Karen was ever going to forgive me for dragging her into this load of crap. (I'm sure she'll devise some suitable punishment. She did mention "chick flick" somewhere in her irritated diatribe.)

Watching the Anakin character go through his "personal agony" over everything in the universe was quite annoying. It really reminded me of a scene from BlackAdder III where Pitt the Younger is talking to BlackAdder about the feelings that he's developing and the poem he's written "Why do girls hate me". Fortunately, that scene made no pretense about being anything other than a comedy.

And to answer JD's question about Yoda, I'm sure that it's for the same reason that Jedi take the stairs instead of simply force-jumping to the top.

Yes, death to C3PO and now we have an even bigger reason to hate Jar-Jar since he brought the emperor to power. Of course, since I'm now rooting for Palpatine and want him to kill the Jedi, especially Anakin, that's ok, isn't it...

On the whole, I have to agree with JD's review as well. There is a good story (or two) in this film, but it is severely hampered by crappy dialog (yes, I know that the line you just spoke was spoken by someone in one of the first three movies, but does that mean that Lucas is attempting to be ironic or is he just running out of dialog and decided that the dialog in the first three was sooooo good that we'll just recycle it?), wooden acting (I killed them all. Not just the men, boo hoo hoo ... & such memorable scenes as "We should go after Obi-wan", "No!!" "Why not", "He is like a father to me" !?!?!?!???), and implausible individual circumstances (hmmmm, lets keep the audience interested by having Ms. Portman show her midriff. We'll try to justify this as damage to her clothing from the nasty beast attacking her, which, when it tears clothing will in fact create a new seam and make sure that everything is even.) (Ok, that bit worked for me, but hey, I'm shallow, alright) & "I know you just got tossed out of a fast moving aircraft and you appear to be unconscious, laying there in the sun burning your belly button, but are you OK?" "Oh, well, I was unconscious, but Yes, I feel great now, thank you Mr. StormTrooper prototype, let's go run across the sand until we can find another transport, take it to the place where the bad guys are at and try to kick some butt, ok?."

Unless STIII involves Palpatine turning Amadala into his concubine, killing Anakin and basically looks like a remake of Caligula (set in space), I'm thinking that STIII is going to be a video only experience for me because I can't continue to suffer like this. At least on video we can fast forward to the lightsaber duels and get the crap out of the way.


On 21 May 2002 (05:26 AM), Dagny said:

Hi Dave. =)

Re: Karen's "irritated diatribe"

Is there any other kind of diatribe?


On 21 May 2002 (04:15 PM), Dave said:

Dagny-

Obviously you're not married. Otherwise you'd know that there are a multiplicity of diatribes. There's the irritated diatribe (I'm upset with something/one else), the annoyed diatribe (I'm upset with you), the hormonal diatribe (I'm upset with everyone/thing) and the righteous indignation diatribe (I'm really upset with myself, but I'm taking it out on you).

These are just the basic diatribes, each of which have various subcatagories and subclassifications. I've no doubt I'll have the opportunity to expound upon those at some later point in time.


On 23 May 2002 (07:40 AM), Paul said:

JD,
Why do you continue to consume the mass marketed pablum passed off as entertainment? Your expectations are high because you think. This is not a commie plot to overthrow the dominant paradigm. If you would cast your dollar votes for "good" movies and did not cast your dollar votes for films like Attack of the Snot Clones,then eventually the market produces "good" films to meet demand. Supple and Demand is not a commie plot nor anti-establishment. You don't buy and read books marketed at the check out counters because you know they are shit. Is Spider Man a gem in the rough? Jim Jarmusch has produced thought provoking movies over the years that certainly are "mainstream", but do not stoop to the lowest common denominator. For gods sake JD, stop going to "bad" films, you are killing yourself!!! (is that too melodramatic?)


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