Okay, this is not a spoiler. The mountain-lake retreat on the Planet Naboo where Anakin Skywalker and Princess Padmé hide out in the early part of Attack of the Clones is where my wife and I stayed for a few days on our honeymoon. Little did we know that when we stayed at the Villa D’Este in Lake Como, Italy, that we were at the same place where the most disastrous relationship in the history of the universe was born. The ominous significance of this notwithstanding, as a Star Wars geek I still think that’s pretty cool. So, to paraphrase Bill Murray from Caddyshack, I got that going for me.
As for the movie, it’s a glass half-full/half-empty deal. On one hand, Attack of the Clones is vastly better than Phantom Menace. On the other hand, it’s not nearly as good as it could or should be.
Now, as for the rest of this review, it’s not brimming with spoilers and I won’t reveal much of the story line you couldn’t pick up from the trailer. But if you want to go into the theater with Alec Baldwinesque ignorance of the film, I guess you shouldn’t read any further. (Then again, if you are looking for that level of nescience, you should huff a bucket of model-airplane glue).
As I’ve written many times before (See my review of Lord of the Rings, for example), the original appeal of Star Wars flowed from a single sentence: “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.” This was, beyond a doubt, one of the most brilliant, and simply so, introductions to a movie ever conceived. In those ten words the audience was told, “everything you need to know about this movie will be contained in this movie.” You didn’t need to bring anything to the movie, no knowledge of history, no literary fluency, nothing. As the best science fiction and fantasy always does, Star Wars presented the audience with a take-it-or-leave-it alternative reality.
Let me try to explain this a different way.
Did you ever see Somewhere in Time? I hope not. It was an absolutely terrible movie and I would think less of you for having seen it. But I saw it — albeit more than 20 years ago — partly because I love time-travel flicks, even horrible ones. In the film, Christopher Reeve plays a writer who uses self-hypnosis to travel back in time in order to meet some turn-of-the-century actress (played by eternally spicy Jane Seymour) whose portrait hangs in a hotel lobby. In order for the time-travel self-hypnosis to work, he must remove all items which might remind him of the present day. So he buys some vintage clothes, gets in an old bed, and concentrates so hard he bends time.
Look, I told you it was an awful movie. Anyway, most of the film is a long, dry love story between Reeve and Seymour (in fact, the film really chronicles a case of temporal stalking).
What’s relevant here is that just when it seems they will live happily ever after, Reeve reaches into his pocket and casually pulls out a penny from circa 1980. Seeing the penny, even for a moment, shatters the spell and yanks Reeve back to the present day.
This illustrates — I hope — why I hated Phantom Menace so, so much. The movie was littered with pennies which pulled me out of the illusion. Jar-Jar Binks was awful, but not just because he had a silly voice. He was awful because he sounded like he was a pitchman for McDonald’s Happy Meals. Across the board, the dialogue was riddled with references which didn’t belong, which reminded us of our world rather than hint what was going on in another world. It was like watching A Man For All Seasons, with Sir Thomas More occasionally sounding like Joey from Friends.
Attack of the Clones has fewer pennies. But it still has way too many. We all know that Obi-Wan Kenobi is wise. But now we know he basically agrees with John McCain on the corrupting influence of big money. Greasy spoons in the Star Wars universe still have neon signs and waitresses — albeit droid waitresses — who talk like Flo from Alice. Though she didn’t say “kiss my grits” or “kiss my circuits,” the waitress still looked like Rosie the Maid from The Jetsons. Obi-Wan pauses for a brief anti-smoking message about “death sticks.”
But while it has fewer pennies, Lucas repeats a similar mistake from Menace. Again, like all good fantasy, Star Wars’s success as an alternative universe lay in convincing viewers that there were huge icebergs under the tips. In much the same way the Lord of the Rings story sits atop a vast, yet largely implied, history of Middle Earth, everything we saw in Star Wars was supposedly supported by deep roots going back in time. Hearing a brief reference to the Clone Wars in the original Star Wars may not have been more exciting than seeing an actual Clone War in the latest movie, but it was certainly more intriguing. In Attack of the Clones, and Phantom Menace, the Star Wars universe seems less rich, less complex.
In much the same way that a joke is ruined when you have to explain it, an alternative universe is ruined if you pull back the curtain and learn everything there is to know about it. The X-Files were compelling because every question was answered with a deeper mystery, every mystery was answered with a more complex puzzle. The full truth always remained “out there.” In a similar vein, Empire Strikes Back was the best Star Wars movie (an indisputable fact, by the way) in large part because it revealed so much, and still made us want to know so much more. That magic was missing entirely from Phantom Menace (indeed, many of the explanations were simply lame; “midichlorians,” my butt) and is in too short supply in Clones.
ATTACK OF THE MINOR DETAILS
This is a failure of scriptwriting. And, there are other such failures. The dialogue is very weak. As Roger Ebert points out in a spot-on review, the first hour or so is dedicated almost entirely to conversation and plot development. Unfortunately, the conversations aren’t very engaging. They move the plot along, but they don’t make the main characters very interesting. Remember the dialogue in the canteen between Han Solo and the bounty hunter in the first Star Wars?
Sure Yoda’s cool to listen to, because he’s Yoda, damn it. Mysterious are the ways he talks. Hmmm? And Samuel L. Jackson is great to listen to because he constantly seems to be on the verge of saying, “I’m a bad motherf***er.” In fact, Jackson had BMF engraved on his light saber for the film (recall he had BMF on his wallet in Pulp Fiction).
I would blame some of this on the actors, but we know that Ewan McGregor and Natalie Portman are great actors. Whether this kid who plays Anakin Skywalker can act is a bit of a question mark for me. I do suspect that making a film with so much digital animation makes acting a lot more difficult.
Speaking of the digital animation, the special effects are cool, but I agree with Ebert when he notes that the film doesn’t pop out at you the way it should.
Other script problems involve the fact that Clones seems awfully derivative of Empire Strikes Back. But, again, I don’t want to spoil too much.
Okay now for the good stuff.
Yoda is a bad ass.
Who would guess that while co-starring with Samuel L. Jackson, Yoda would be the intergalactic Shaft? (“Who’s the cat that won’t cop out when there’s danger all about? Yoda! Right On! Some people say he’s a bad Jedi, SHUT YOUR MOUTH! We’re talkin’ bout Yoda!”).
Indeed, the whole last third of the movie approaches the excitement of the Death Star battle in the first Star Wars. I realize that’s probably controversial to some, but I really dug it.
More generally, Clones really is much better than Phantom and since my expectations were so much lower it was a genuinely fun movie. I left the movie glad I saw it, not disappointed.
I know it may not sound like that from the first half of this review, but it’s true. Everything in the last third of the film is fun and exciting. It almost feels like the producers considered the middle third to be a chore and only cut loose at the end. But the Jedi battles, the plot thickening, and, of course, Natalie Portman’s skintight sweater give Clones a very strong finish. I would give you more examples, but there are too many spoilers involved to do that. Maybe after more of you folks see it the first time and I go back for seconds or thirds we can get into the nitty-gritty. In the meantime, go see it.