Attack of the Clones starts out like any other entry in the billion dollar Star Wars franchise; its yellow synopsis scrolls away from us as we become immersed in the triumphant nostalgia of John Williams’ ‘Star Wars Theme’.
It’s the first of the new century, and the second in George Lucas’ recent trilogy that details the birth of Anakin Skywalker (Darth Vader and Luke’s father), as well as the rise of the Galactic Empire. It’s a film that upon its release in 2002 – three years after The Phantom Menace sent fans into a Jar-Jar induced coma –garnered less than favorable reviews, igniting a Metascore of 54 yet taking in almost $650 million at the box office worldwide.
It put plastic Hayden Christensen and Ewan McGregor’s in millions of homes, helping Hasbro reach over $5.5 billion revenue in toys from 2002 to 2011. It’s also a sequel that sent fans further into a tailspin that had already picked up wind after Menace, sparking frustration over Lucas’ excessive use of CGI, exhaustive performances and comically flat dialogue.
But is it really so bad?
Attack of the Clones takes us immediately into a world lavished with excessive CGI, where ships, cities, aliens and even couches are awash with a digital aesthetic. There’s so much CGI that it’s surprising Anakin’s rat-tail isn’t digitally inserted. The original trilogy’s on-set locations of Tatooine (filmed in California’s Death Valley as well as parts of Tunisia) and Hoth (Finse, Norway) are replaced with flattened computer generated worlds such as Corsucant, an abject idea of a metropolis, and the water-logged planet of Kamino, where its waves roll without any trace of texture. And unfortunately, it’s the only kind of world we know.
In his extensively researched book How Star Wars Conquered the Universe, author Chris Taylor explains George Lucas’ conception of an entirely computer generated world, stating that “….for Lucas, CGI was a natural solution to all the challenges of filmmaking. He’d been an animator, after all-that was the first class he took at USC (University of Southern California), and it was the first career path he took outside of USC. By 1996, he was convinced there was nothing digital animation couldn’t or shouldn’t do.” Except give actors much to work off of, as our living breathing cast traverse blue screens and interact with stand-ins covered in ping-pong balls; a dismissive approach to the prop and practical effects laden trilogy we’ve come to love. With every frame a stifled growth can be felt, as relatively dynamic and competent actors contend with a world that offers almost zero breathing room.
Ewan McGregor, who looks more Robinson Crusoe than Jedi, admirably gives it his all as Obi-Wan Kenobi; a performance that exudes a genuine magnetism. It’s clear he cares immensely about this character, despite his co-star being as insufferably tedious as the CGI landscape. Growing up from the Jake Lloyd Ani to Anakin – now a moody Padawan to Obi-Wan – is 19-year old Hayden Christensen, who shows you that you’re never too young to retire.
Delivering lines as course and scathing as the sand his character hates so passionately, Christensen subverts stoicism into a one-man show of unflinching hilarity. In the flick of a lightsaber, we move from empowering emo songbook line delivery (“The thought of not being with you- I can’t breathe. I’m haunted by the kiss that you should never have given me”), to brazen proclamations of murder (“I… I killed them. I killed them all. They’re dead… every single one of them. And not just the men. But the women… and the children, too. They’re like animals, and I slaughtered them like animals! I HATE THEM!”). If one hormonal truth is upheld in Attack of the Clones, it’s Anakin’s severely ballooning outbursts.
However, Christensen spends most of the films nearly 150 minute run-time pouting off Natalie Portman’s portrayal of Queen Amidala, who appears to have gotten lost somewhere between her agent’s office and the Skywalker Ranch. She parades around in grand and sumptuous gowns with a stunned, anesthetized look of sheer boredom until even her costume flees the scene, revealing attire that’s Lucas’ 21st century amendment to Princess Leia’s slave outfit. In between there’s a budding love that feels as sedative as the performances, with a fireplace romance burning as hot as dry ice. We’re told to believe in this young love, though it becomes more abstract as the film pushes forward, dragging any sense of believability down into its artificial world.
Now, it would be easy to chalk these performances up as ones from young actors nervously thrust into a universally adored mega-blockbuster, though it would be unsound on our part. After all, these are actors who have gone on to prove their clout, if they hadn’t already; Christensen’s commanding lead in Shattered Glass one year later and Portman’s youth turned hitman in Leon: The Professional eight years earlier. These are actors who have regrettably become victim to Lucas’ insupportable direction, whose discourse is as fake as his playground. “The dialogue was, well, I didn’t know how I could make it convincing. Finally, I just said to myself, I am George’s voice. This is his vision, and I’m here to fulfill it, and that’s how we worked,” Christensen recalls in 2005, which governs the entire narrative structure of Attack of the Clones.
Here we have a film wrought with turmoil and emotion, and its actors are left completely in the dark; cast away from this world that only exists in the recess of Lucas’ mind. Not even a single typed draft was turned in, leaving the actors to work last minute at discovering not who these characters were, but why they were. This gives rhyme and reason to the wooden and often stale line delivery that permeates every scene, even with veteran actors in front of the camera, though it far from excuses it.
Despite this, Roger Ebert expressed glowing sentiments over Attack of the Clones, stating that “Dialogue isn’t the point. These movies are about new things to look at,” which is preposterous given the fact that this is as much a talkie as it is an action opera. After all, there’s an insurmountable amount of establishing lines, setting up the third and vastly superior final film, Revenge of the Sith; an entry that thins the discourse with action that takes a much more operatic approach to its Greek tragedy.
Still, that isn’t to say Attack is without its dramatic set pieces and stirring action. When Obi-Wan confronts the bounty hunter Jango Fett (father to Boba, as well as thousands of Clone Troopers), there’s an overwhelming feeling of nostalgia for Return of the Jedi, recalling the action atop a barge that feels underwhelming and disappointing. It’s a battle that found a different Fett jettisoned into the mouth of a Sarlacc, due essentially to an oopsie-daisy by Han Solo. Here, we’re treated to a redo, a wondrous display of aerobatics, as Jango jet-packs around the rain, firing off wrist-rockets and blaster shots in an attempt at defeating our lone Jedi. Obi-Wan even high kicks Jango out of the air! It’s a wild-west showdown – Jango sounding an awful lot like Django – where Ennio Morricone’s cracked whip is replaced with John Williams’ pop and boom of horns.
There’s even an operatic showdown between our Jedi’s and Count Dooku, that has the legendary Christopher Lee donning a cape and wielding a lightsaber; its display a wild red, green and blue. It’s a climatic duel that feels intimate and rousing, and very much needed after a garishly cluttered arena battle that feels half-hearted despite showcasing almost a dozen Jedi’s against an army of CGI bugs.
The fight choreography by sword master Nick Gillard is breathlessly masterful and well, real, acting as a Band-Aid for the incessant wounds carved by Lucas’ digital pen, one he uses to sign the checks for the 650 visual effects crew members. Watching Lee move in sync to the whirring sound of a lightsaber is watching the films greatest technical achievement unfold, proving just how monumental his 6’5” physical stage presence has been throughout his career. Sure, much of Lee’s footwork is done with the aid of a stunt double, given that he was 79 years old during production, but not all of it; and as Darth Vader would say, that’s “most impressive.”
Unfortunately, a now computer generated Yoda, replacing the puppet voiced by director and puppeteer Frank Oz, crashes the party in what amounts to the visual equivalent of Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music. Yoda twirls and leaps around in flashes of green that feels disorienting and bombastic rather than triumphantly empowering. Mayhem seems to trump any sense of coordination, as a showdown between an 800 year old Jedi and Count Dracula becomes an orgy of color and motion; one where the only thing getting off is our interest.
After much of the bile induced chaos clears, we’re left with a maimed Anakin and a disoriented Obi-Wan, two tragic figures that seem to represent our emotional well being after witnessing the disaster that is Attack of the Clones; a film that really is, so bad.
Do you agree? Is Attack of the Clones so bad it’s bad? Let us know what you think!