Here we go again! Three years after “The Phantom Menace”, another “Star Wars” prequel is coming out. The film begins with a bang, literally, as an assassination attempt is made against Senator Padmé Amidala (Nathalie Portman). Not overly startled, she still meets with Chancellor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) to oppose the creation of an army to protect the Republic against disgruntled Separatists led by former Jedi Count Dooku (Christopher Lee). We’re then reintroduced to the other main characters of “Episode I”, Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor, who’s grown a beard and resembles Alec Guiness even more), a now grown up Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) and Jar Jar Binks, who’s now a politician! I’m sorry, I must be one of the only ones, but I dig the Gungan dude. Sure, he’s stupid and over the top, but at least he’s got personality (personality goes a long way). One of the real problems of these new Star Wars flicks is that the actors, maybe intimidated by the legacy, take it all too seriously. They forget that the original trilogy was about playful, rough around the edges heroes, not solemn stiffs. Jar Jar might be a retarded character, but at least he’s colorful.
So the bunch is back together, but the story mostly revolves around Annie (what a sissy nickname!). The future Darth Vader is getting overwhelmed by his emotions, be it how he’s always pissed at Obi-Wan for “holding him back” or how he lusts for Padme even though Jedi aren’t allowed to love. Melodrama can work, but not when it’s badly written and acted. Christensen occasionally has a chilling darkness behind his eyes foreshadowing his eventual transformation into Vader, but most of the time he’s just as whiny and annoying as Jake Lloyd was playing the character as a kid. Portman is a talented actress (see “The Professional” or “Beautiful Girls”), but she can’t make Padmé’s feelings towards Annie convincing. How can a woman who’s supposed to be this brilliant politician fall for Skywalker’s utterly cheesy and contrived pick-up lines (“The sand is rough… But you’re smooth, m’lady.”)? It can’t be his rat-tail mullet that’s turning her on, can it?
When it was released, “Episode I” was much maligned, and it only got worse since, as if it was the worst movie ever made. Sure, the story was a bunch of dull nonsense about Trade Federations and whatnot and the overall movie was somehow both childish and too serious, but I loved it anyway for its amazing and imaginative visuals. With “Attack! Of… the… CLONES!”, it’s pretty much the same deal. If you get bogged down by lousy dialogue and underwritten characters, you’ll hate it. As a matter of fact, I did hate most of the first two hours devoted to boring plot mechanics and laughable attempts at romance. George Lucas is a visionary, in the sense that he’s go a knack for coming up with cool concepts, but when it comes to developing those into a screenplay, he leaves much to be desired as a writer. In the first trilogy at least he had the good sense of keeping things simple. You had the Empire, bad, and the Rebels, good.
In these new movies, though, Lucas rambles on and on through dry exposition, as if anyone but himself and a few fanatics cared about the intricate details of politics in the galaxy. I still don’t quite get who’s supposed to be on which side. The Jedi are the heroes alright, and the almost unseen Sith are their mortal enemies, but what about Count Dooku and the separatists? Are they to become the Rebels or something? And what’s the deal with bounty hunter Jango Fett? If he’s the basis of the Republic’s army of clones, why does he want Senator Amidala dead? My best guess is that Chancellor Palpatine (who’s obviously Darth Sidious and the future Emperor) masterminded the whole thing, but this brings even more interrogations as to why he would go to war against himself. Maybe “Episode III” will bring some answers.
Anyway, as you can see, “Attack! Of… the… CLONES!” is way too complicated for its own good, to the point where you lose interest and don’t even bother trying to figure it out. In spite of this, the movie remains enjoyable because even if what the characters are saying is uninteresting (which is generally the case), you can take pleasure in admiring the details of the out of this world locations and the alien creatures. The film didn’t impress me visually as much as “The Phantom Menace”, but that’s probably because that movie’s almost completely digital universe was unlike anything I’d seen before, while this is mostly more of the same. We go back to the ever busier Coruscant, where countless flying vehicles are constantly going back and forth in the skies, the gorgeous palaces and countryside of Naboo and the sandy dunes of Tattooine, as well as a few new planets with their own particularities. I especially enjoyed the design of Tipoca City, with its “Close Encounters”-type elongated aliens and its curvy, bright white buildings, and you gotta love Dex, the filthy four-armed short order cook Obi-Wan meets in the space version of a ’50s diner.
The other thing which keeps “Episode II” from being completely weighed down by its crappy screenplay is the action scenes, even though it takes forever to get one which really brings the house down. Early on, you have a flying car chase through Coruscant that’s neat if nowhere near as breath-taking as the Pod Race in “Episode I”, then you’ve got a spiffy little fight in the rain on a spaceport between Master Kenobi and Jango Fett which leads into an unremarkable dogfight in an asteroid field with obnoxious outbursts by Jango’s kid Boba. There’s a highly promising moment where a rage-fuelled Anakin sets out to slaughter a whole village but, in a frustratingly idiotic move, Lucas cuts away from it! This could have been one of the most powerful scenes of the whole series, and it’s only referred to in a speech, dammit! Oh well, at least Lucas delivers by the last half hour. In a sequence reminiscent of “Gladiator”, Obi-Wan, Padmé and Annie are brought to an arena to be executed by monsters, which makes for “Starship Troopers”-good bug squashing, and that’s just for starters! They’re then joined by a posse of Jedi led by Samuel L. Jackson’s Mace Windu, who finally gets to kick some ass! What follows is a truly exciting battle scene with droids, clones and Jedi knights bursting out of every frame. Last but not least is a light-saber duel between Count Dooku and, get this, 3 feet tall Muppet Yoda!
The tricky thing about “Attack! Of… the… CLONES!” is that it’s as if you were reviewing two films: a lame melodrama and a pretty great sci-fi action flick. What to make then of the mismatched whole? I say go; you might check your watch a couple of times during the long, long set-up, but that last act will have you riveted to your seat!