In 1999, the hype for the return of Star Wars was overwhelming, and The Phantom Menace suffered for it. Even without the build-up, many people would say that it was too cheesy, too cartoonish, and too childish.
Now, three years later, the horribly titled Attack of the Clones hits theaters, promising to be darker, more ominous, and just plain better than its predecessor. Is that the case? Here you go:
Attack of the Clones is still not up to par with the original three, but it's pretty close. It is easier to say that it is much better than The Phantom Menace - I did like that movie for what it was, but do have to admit that it needed to lose a lot of the goofier stuff - by a long shot. It is darker, foreboding, and marks a sign for things to come.
The things that hurt Attack of the Clones are the script, the collections of subplots meant to make the overall plot, and the over reliance on the visual effects. The dialogue in the movie probably isn't much different from that in the original trilogy, but its flaws show a lot more now, since the original fans of the trilogy have grown and evolved into [sometimes] intellectual adults, that demand a certain level of quality. The film is really dragged down by some cheesy lines here and there, especially some one-liners, and even complete scenes that just don't cut it. Lucas made the originals twenty years ago; you'd think by now that he would have been able to work out his shortcomings.
The acting in Attack of the Clones has been criticized a lot, but it is the script that is keeping the actors back. Ewan McGregor really shines here, his evolution from The Phantom Menace distinct, and his character is starting to show a lot of the traits that Obi-Wan did in the original Star Wars. Natalie Portman is decent, but no where as good as she was in The Phantom Menace (but still looks good in a tight, torn-up white jumpsuit). As for the important newcomers, I was rather impressed with Hayden Christensen as Anakin Skywalker, soon to become Darth Vader. He received far better reviews for last year's Life as a House, in which he played a troubled teen, but I found no huge flaws in his performance in Attack of the Clones. He is still new to the game and shows weaknesses here and there, but he handles the tight rope that he is standing on pretty well, juggling between a horny, rebellious teenager and a growingly angry Jedi who will eventually become a very nasty fellow. People just have to realize that he is playing one of the most important and watched roles in cinematic history, and that he is doing a pretty good job considering his position. And then there is Christopher Lee, who plays the evil Count Dooku. Lee really doesn't get the chance to show off his acting, as his character is reduced to a dark bad guy with no character depth whatsoever. When all is said and done, most of the faults do not lie in the actors but in the depth of the screenplay, which at times can be pretty shallow.
Lucas's problem is a big one, and one that he cannot necessarily solve. He has all these things to explain and not much time to do so. He sort of worked himself into a corner by having The Phantom Menace serve as basically a prelude to anything really important, since we only really get to see the transformation of Anakin to Darth Vader over two movies, the fall of the Republic in one, and so forth. Because of this, Attack of the Clones has a very fragmented storyline. It is a love story, it is a thriller about someone trying to assassinate Senator Padme, and it is a political action-drama showing the rise of Chancellor Palpatine to the level of an Emperor. All of these elements are important, but the way that Lucas decides to tell them seems to separate them further. Anakin and Padme's romance goes on throughout the movie all by itself, climaxing in a cheesy, "I love you too" scene right before they are about to be Gladiator-ed to death. The political plot, which, ultimately, is the most important, has its time in the sun here, but still seems far off by the time the end of the film is reached, which means that a lot will have to be done in the final movie. To say things in a shorter manner, I'll say this: Lucas has one movie left, and as far as I can tell, he still has a vast majority of things to cover in that short period of time. How will he do it? I don't know.
The visual effects in The Phantom Menace were stunning but at times overwhelming. Why do all of the aliens need to be computerized now instead of puppetized? The same problem lies in Attack of the Clones. This one has even more visual effects, and some times they are absolutely extraordinary, but at other times they just seem wasteful. The most obvious problems lie in the aliens. Computer graphics are still not at the point where they can make a consistent digital character, and even the wizardry of George Lucas can't fix that. Some of the aliens seem like they are out of a cartoon, including Yoda at times, and it does not help things. For the most part, if you can make a creature move and look pretty realistic as a puppet, then it is good enough to be filmed. Lucas should have stuck to that for at least some of the aliens.
Well, that's enough complaining for one day. What about the good things?
As much as the plot seems scattered, Attack of the Clones is much darker and has a more political theme, just the way I like it. There are some good foreshadowing scenes and some interesting plot developments. There are times where Lucas seems to be getting off track, but for the most part he is pretty focused on what he wants accomplished. To say the least, The Phantom Menace is nothing compared to Attack of the Clones.
The action is impressive, to say the least. The chase scene through Coruscant is exciting. The battle scene with all of the Jedis is outstanding. And then there is the fight between Count Dooku and Yoda. The movie is worth seeing just for that (let's just say Star Wars is the only franchise that can get away with a tiny little green guy jumping around swinging a sword).
The visual effects, aside from the aliens, are impressive. They are a small step up from The Phantom Menace, but still a step up. At times you can't tell what is real and what is not, at least when it comes to background scenery.
Attack of the Clones is a very good sequel to The Phantom Menace. It is better in almost every way, although it still isn't as good as any in the original trilogy. The script needed some changes and it is obvious that George Lucas isn't too good at doing romantic scenes, but other than that Star Wars fans cannot be very disappointed with this second installment. It's definitely worth seeing more than once.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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