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Star Wars at 35/ Ill-starred or easy targets?: Episode II: Attack Of The Clones (2002)/ Episode III: Revenge Of The Sith (2005) ~ Review

June 1, 2012

(Attack Of The ClonesDirected by: George Lucas; Starring: Ewan McGregor, Hayden Christensen, Natalie Portman, Ian McDiarmid, Samuel L Jackson, Christopher Lee, Kenny Baker, Anthony Daniels, Frank Oz (voice); Screenplay by: George Lucas and Jonathan Hales; US; 142 minutes; Colour; Certificate: U

It must have been love, but it’s over now, sang Roxette at the end of 1990’s Pygmaliaon-esque sleeper hit Pretty Woman; it must have been good, but I lost it somehow. And 12 years later, many Star Wars fans were thinking exactly those thoughts (if not singing exactly those lyrics). Yes, the affection, fanaticism, nay, love they’d held for the space-opera movie series that had made more money than those cartoon Tetley charlies had made teabags was in danger of going up in smoke like the whisps of air from a whistling kettle. And those fans – as so many peeps do when they angrily rally behind a cause – blamed one person in particular for their predicament: George Lucas. Yes, the man behind Star Wars had become a hate-figure for many fans of Star Wars.

The problem for Lucas was that, although he’d been worshiped like one for two decades, he wasn’t a god; he was just a genial, softly spoken, beardy bloke who’d come up with a rather genius trilogy of sci-fi box-office blockbusters that helped shape a generation’s childhood, so when he had the misfortune of bringing fanatics of his original trilogies back to the universe he’d dreamt up with a flick that underwhelmed many (1999’s The Phantom Menace) and then three years later with the next in the new trilogy (Attack Of The Clones), which the fanatics liked even less, poor old George got it in the jugular from them big-time. Indeed, if he’d have lived in an ordinary house and not out in the desert on Skywalker Ranch, he’d probably have been letter-bombed by one or two. Poor old George – he was only human.

And because he was human, he certainly made mistakes with Attack Of The Clones, let’s not pretend he didn’t (some of them arguably the same mistakes he made with The Phantom Menace), yet did he deserve the level of vitriol he received from fans for ‘ruining’ Star Wars with this flick? The answer, for me, is a flat-out no. In fact, I’ll put my neck on the block and say I’ve rather a soft spot for it – I know, beetchawawa!  For while there are big problems with Attack Of The Clones, there’s also decent, even fine things about it. No really, there are.

So what are they? As my recent review of The Phantom Menace (to be read here) points out, the Star Wars universe that Lucas showcased in it wasn’t really that of the original trilogy. It was one in which talky politics and Machiavellian machinations seemed to take precedence over simpler, more audience-friendly black-and-white-good-versus-evil. This lended the film a slow, ponderous tone, which somewhat turned both the average fan and cinemagoer off. However, with Attack Of The Clones picking up anti-hero Anakin Skywalker’s story about 10 years after the conclusion of the aforementioned movie, its pace and tone picks up too. Although still a padawan, Anakin is now 20-ish years-old and capable of mixing it with the best of Jedis and pilots, journeying here, there and everywhere in the Galaxy. But he’s not alone, though. Now a Jedi knight, as well as serving as Anakin’s mentor, Obi-Wan is no longer wet behind the ears and is full as just as many beans and just as active as his apprentice.

In fact, for me, the relationship between the two of them – more older brother/ younger brother given their respective ages than master and apprentice – is one of the best things about Attack Of The Clones. Indeed, where he was stilted and clearly holding himself back in The Phantom Menace, McGregor is allowed/ takes it upon himself to make a more experienced and confident Kenobi an upstanding, dignified hero, but also wily and happy to make his fair share of ironic asides. Significantly, given what’s happening to Anakin, Obi-Wan is our example of all that a Jedi knight should be and do – and McGregor nails it; he’s the young Alec Guinness of A New Hope.

One of Obi-Wan’s best sequences – and one of the best examples of his relationship with Anakin – comes near the film’s beginning when the two pursue a would be assassin of old friend Padmé in a speeder through the centre of the the Galaxy’s capital, the city planet Coruscant. And this bit brimming with visual and aural detail is also an electric example of another thing Attack Of The Clones does so well: deepening and enriching the pre-A New Hope universe. The Republic era isn’t just that of verbose politics it turns out, but also genuinely that of brilliantly CGI-realised advanced technology and architecture (shimmering spires and night-time neon, spaceships and speeders, clone and battle droid armies) on highly developed planets (Coruscant, Naboo and rainy Kamino) and more hostile and brutal worlds (Tatooine and Geonosis).

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Moreover, thanks to Obi-Wan and Anakin energetically engaged on different adventures while also checking back with the Yoda and Mace Windu-led Jedi Council and – in a perfect pair of scenes; see video clip above – checking the Jedi Temple archives, this flick (far more than its posturing predecessor) gives the viewer an excellent idea of what the culture and everyday activity of the Jedis is actually like. And, must say, I do get off on that. Together, they’re a damn cool character collective. Witness perhaps the highlight of Attack Of The Clones, when a bunch of Jedi knights come to Anakin, Padmé and Obi-Wan’s aid on Geonosis and, as the film reaches its climax, they all flourish their lightsabers and take on battle droids et al in the planet’s Roman-esque arena, kicking off the Clone Wars. It’s dizzying delightful stuff, all right – surely just the sort of things fans had always hoped the prequels would bring.

However, as this is a near two-and-a-half-hour-long movie, it’s fair to say it takes a while to get to its climax. And that fact isn’t helped by the film’s two biggest problems. The first is one familiar to viewers of The Phantom Menace: the casting of Anakin. In the former flick, Lucas cast child actor Jake Lloyd in the role of the 10 year-old boy who, while he looked right was far from blessed with natural line delivery; this time he makes an even bigger boo-boo in the casting of Hayden Christensen as the post-teenage protagonist. Like Lloyd, Christensen’s appearance isn’t an issue, its his abilities to convince as an actor that is.

In his hands, Anakin comes across less as a troubled young man bending under the weight of his responsibilities and far more as a whining teen who’s overwhelmed by his emotions and hormones. His lack of ability to control these emotions and hormones will ultimately be his downfall, of course, but Christensen simply isn’t capable of giving Anakin enough charisma or charm – or make him feel like a three-dimensional human being. For instance, instead of sympathising with him when he slaughters the Sand People for their kidnapping and vicious treatment of his mother, we’re left feeling he’s an emotionally unstable adolescent who requires urgent professional help. Besides this being a major distraction whenever he emotes, it leaves you wondering how a smart, level-headed girl like Padmé would ever be attracted to him, let alone fall for him.

Which leads us to Attack Of The Clones‘ second major mis-step. If Christensen’s acting chops are suspect, then the leaden dialogue he and the otherwise engaging Portman are stuck with during their scenes together is frankly criminal. Realising he needed to beef up the script in this area, Lucas brought in Jonatahan Hales as co-writer for these scenes, but the latter seems not to have been able to improve them. Devoid of any energy, urgency or electricity, the burgeoning Anakin/ Padmé romance slows down the film immeasurably and simply irritates (and that’s in spite of it being backed by John Williams’ fittingly haunting Across The Stars theme)  – if the wonderful Han/ Leia scenes helped make The Empire Strikes Back (1980) fly, then this flick’s equivalent efforts threaten to sink it.

And yet, like I said, these setbacks certainly aren’t enough to drag Attack Of The Clones down to some sort of Jar Jar Binks-inhabited Gungan hell. Many old-school Star Wars fans will doubtless disagree with me (indeed, in a brilliant blog post that needs to be read, a good friend of mine argues this movie’s ponchos may be to blame, or something like that). For me, though, its bright spots offer enough excitement, imagination and verve to ensure it does shine. Give it a view again – you might just find yourself feeling like Richard Gere guiltily running off with a great looking, well meaning hooker. Well, you know, you might.

Best bit: Anakin and Obi-Wan pursue Zam Wesell through the night lights of Coruscant

Best line: “You don’t want to sell me death sticks/ I don’t want to sell you death sticks/ You want to go home and rethink your life/ I want to go home and rethink my life” (Obi-Wan and a sleazy alien give us a repeat/ foretaste of his classic Force-fuelled exchange from A New Hope)

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(Revenge Of The SithDirected by: George Lucas; Starring: Ewan McGregor, Hayden Christensen, Natalie Portman, Ian McDiarmid, Samuel L Jackson, Christopher Lee, Kenny Baker, Anthony Daniels, Frank Oz (voice); Screenplay by: George Lucas; US; 140 minutes; Colour; Certificate: 12 (UK)

So it comes down to this. In 2005, after nearly five hours of cinematic CGI-driven supposed drivel, many an underwhelmed Star Wars fan awaited the climax of the prequel trilogy in the shape of Revenge Of The Sith. And, after five-and-a-half posts of cinematic-related probable drivel, this blog’s Star Wars season reaches its finale with this review of that very film. But was the wait worth it, did the movie ‘redeem’ the trilogy’s first two flicks? And will this review be a fitting send-off of this blog’s celebration of The ‘Wars? Well, I can’t answer the second question (that’s very much down to your opinion), but as this is a review, I can certainly answer the first question. And my answer is…

… yes. Like the contents of a tin of Ronseal varnish, Revenge Of The Sith did exactly what it said on the tin – or to be exact, precisely what it was supposed to do. You may already have gathered from my reviews of the previous pair of prequels, as a casual Star Wars fan I’m not averse to the second trilogy; indeed, I believe they contain enough good things to ensure worthwhile not just their making, but also their standing alongside the original trilogy and not looking like a shunned poor relation. And the best of those good things lie in Revenge Of The Sith.

This movie is one of the best of the six Star Wars flicks; it’s not as good as A New Hope or The Empire Strikes Back, but for me betters not just its trilogy counterparts but also Return Of The Jedi. Yes, really. The reason is that, finally in this flick, writer-director George Lucas goes for it in the prequels. In fact, he goes for it like a Jedi knight packing a lightsaber in either hand – and both of ’em boasting brazenly brilliant purple beams.

Take the plotting and pacing. Unlike the plodding ponderousness that plagues both The Phantom Menace and too much of Attack Of The Clones, Revenge Of The Sith whips along. In fact, the action – both its actual action sequences (breathless all of ’em) and its plot-developing dialogue-driven scenes – pass by faster than their equivalents in any of the first trilogy’s films. As if realising that the immediately preceding film only took the story up to the start of the Clone Wars, thus this one was burdened with delivering practically the whole of Anakin Skywalker’s fall from a Jedi version of Prince William to a nightmarish Sith take on Prince Harry (ie Darth Vader), Lucas crams a hell of lot of plot and action into the two-hours-and-20-minute running time (maybe a little too much?). But after the, at best leisureliness, at worst lethargy of the previous two prequels, it comes as a welcome and necessary shot in the trademark Skywalker cyborg arm.

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Necessary? Yes. Because for it to work at all effectively, Revenge Of The Sith has to be brimming with adrenaline, and has to pass that on to the audience – and it is and does. Sure, Hayden Christensen’s performance is still as wooden as the entire Endor forest, but his most melodramatic emoting as raw feelings consume him and he sees no alternative to save the woman he loves – and, to less an extent, save the Galaxy from descending into chaotic hell – than to join the Dark Side as The Emperor’s sidekick are actually quite fitting. By now, Anakin’s totally f*cked and the role no longer needs to be delivered in subtle shades.

The stand out performances, however, come from McGregor as a maybe too complacent and ultimately despairing Obi-Wan and McDiarmid as Palpatine, who really impresses as the über-persuasive yet subtle tyrant bringing his plans of domination to fruition and then delightedly does the business as the evil b*stard finally throwing off the shackles as he becomes the saga’s out-of-the-closet villain, some sort of ebullient male version of the witch from Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs (1937). For me, McDiarmid is one of the pleasing surprises of the prequels – a bona fide Machiavelli pitch-perfectly played, especially in this film.

However, the best thing about Revenge Of The Sith is that, unlike the first two prequels, it genuinely emotionally resonates. The tragedy that befalls Anakin and, therefore, everyone around him and by extension the entire Galaxy is properly delivered. After sitting through two far from expertly executed films, you do find yourself caring about these characters as their world falls apart around them. Much has been made of Star Wars being a space opera – for sure, backed by John Williams’ awesome scores, it shares many attributes with opera – but, being a former Classics student, I’m reminded far more of the Greek tragedy tradition. Fair dues, Anakin may not exactly be Aeschylus’ Agamemnon or Sophocles’ Ajax, but his hubris, fall and ultimate fate are no less tragic or grand than those of either of these great anti-heroes. Lucas then, surely deserves credit here.

And, perhaps most of all, he deserves credit for fulfilling one of the biggest expectations of the prequels for many a person au fait with Star Wars – giving maybe the entire saga’s best character, a fully CGI-realised and thus versatile Yoda, a full-on supporting role. Despite the presence of Samuel L Jackson as Mace Windu, Yoda’s the wisest, coolest dude in the room, enigmatically enjoys comradeship with Chewbacca and his fellow Wookies and, following on from his hip-as-sh*t lightsaber duel with Christopher Lee’s Dooku in Attack Of The Clones, this time out nearly, nearly prevents the fall of the Republic by almost besting The Emperor in a terrific tête-à-tête (see above video clip), which is interspersed with Anakin and Obi-Wan’s long awaited scrap-and-a-half set in the fittingly hellish environs of Mustafar.

The last word, though, should probably go to the film’s conclusion – a collection of scenes containing Anakin’s transformation into Vader, Padmé giving birth to Luke and Leia and her passing and, finally, the twin babies’ transport to separate places of hiding. Over the years, many have criticised these scenes for their non-too-subtleties, not least Vader’s cringeworthy cry (which would better serve an episode of cartoon Droids). Yet, I’ve always thought that they work pretty well in setting up A New Hope. Perhaps the thing with them, as with Revenge Of The Sith itself (and maybe the prequels as a whole) is whether you can follow Obi-Wan’s disembodied advice at the climax of the saga’s ‘next’ film: ‘Let go’. If you can, you’ll no doubt enjoy them; if you can’t, best head back to Tatooine and stick to the original trilogy.

Best bit: The enaction of ‘Order 66’ – Revenge Of The Sith‘s tragedy at its best

Best line: “Good relations with the Wookies have I” (Yoda)

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