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Star Wars II: Attack of the Clones 

Though a few diehards decided to camp out for Star Wars tickets last week, it's safe to say that the level of anticipation for the new installment, Attack of the Clones, is considerably lower than it was for The Phantom Menace. The humorless characters, the horrible dialogue, and the excruciating Jar Jar Binks of the first episode have dampened expectations for Episode 2 considerably. Which is as it should be. Instead of burdening the movie with all our childhood hopes and dreams, it's much better to come
to George Lucas's latest film expecting only a good yarn and beautiful effects.

As with every second part in a trilogy, Attack of the Clones is a bridge movie, a film that has to carry its characters and the audience. In this one, we have leaped ten years from where we left off in Phantom Menace. The galaxy is on the verge of civil war as a separatist movement threatens to secede and the republic attempts to respond. The Jedi Council, led by Yoda and Mace Windu is trying to intervene but are having little success. On a more personal level, someone is trying to assassinate Senator Amidala (Natalie Portman), so Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) and his young assistant Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) are assigned to protect her and find out who's behind the plot. This leads to a growing love between Amidala and Anakin, and it carries Obi-Wan to the outer reaches of the galaxy.

One of the best aspects of Attack of the Clones is how much more comfortable Ewan McGregor looks. Stiff and awkward in Phantom Menace, he now inhabits the role of Obi-Wan Kenobi with verve. There are some nicely comic moments in a bar as he's tracking down a bounty hunter and when he first appears on the clone planet of Kamino. And his serious scenes as he comprehends the magnitude of the separatists' plans are powerful. Even McGregor's movements as he wields his lightsaber seem more fluid and natural.

The same is true for Yoda, who has a much bigger role in Attack of the Clones. Forsaking the puppetry of Frank Oz and going with CGI effects instead, Lucas is able to bring Yoda fully into the action, and the movie benefits greatly. The littlest Jedi with the greatest abilities has always been a powerful figure, and now he assumes a more important role, helping to move the story along and provide a screen presence equal of Darth Vader's in the first trilogy. There's a wonderful scene where he's instructing a young group of Jedi trainees that captures Yoda's charm perfectly. And I won't spoil his climactic scene except to say it's one of the coolest things Lucas has ever done. It's telling that Lucas's most compelling creations have always been non-human (Darth Vader in the original Star Wars may have been human, but he didn't appear so).

Samuel L. Jackson as Jedi Mace Windu doesn't fare so well. Always looking as if he should be pulling out a gun and chasing someone down an alley, Jackson never appears comfortable; and his climactic scene, as he runs across a desert flashing his purple lightsaber, is comically inept. Christopher Lee, who plays the turncoat Jedi Count Dooku, is much better, though evil always seems more interesting in these kinds of movies.

That is unfortunately not true for our central character, Anakin Skywalker. Though this movie is ostensibly about his maturity--finding love as well as the pain that pushes him to the dark side--Anakin is instead just a spoiled, petulant teenager who can't understand why Obi-Wan won't let him "do anything." He whines, he complains, he sulks. And this is our hero? If I wanted to see that for two hours, I would've volunteered to teach sports at a local high school.

I'm not sure if Lucas or Hayden Christensen is to blame for this bizarre character choice, but it ruins almost every scene Christensen is in. More importantly, it undermines the story's development. As I mentioned earlier, Attack of the Clones functions as the bridge in the narrative. Its most critical aspect is explaining how the cute, little boy of Phantom Menace will grow up and become Darth Vader. It does so by constructing an extraordinarily banal encounter with his Anakin's mother, which is undermined even more by Christensen's completely unconvincing portrayal. What's supposed to be the climax of the film is instead grating and stupid.

If Hayden Christensen is the nadir of this movie, then Natalie Portman is the real reason to see it. My friend Garth took me to task several weeks ago for spending too much time fawning over beautiful actresses (a legitimate criticism), but it's impossible to describe why I enjoyed Attack of the Clones without mentioning Portman's old-style grace and beauty. It's as if a young Grace Kelly had come back to shower us with her charm. And huge kudos to costume designer Trisha Biggar. Every scene features a Portman costume that's more flattering than the last. A stunning cream-colored backless dress that really should be worn to the Oscars is followed by a glorious, black, strapless number, and then comes a simply beautiful powder-blue affair, only to be outshined by an extremely attractive, form-fitting white jumpsuit.

Portman's regal beauty is so compelling I was able to completely ignore the absolutely laughable dialogue she's asked to spout. I'm not sure she has a single interesting line, and her love scenes with Christensen--what should be the heart of the film--are instead moments of comic ineptitude. There's actually a scene where Portman and Christensen roll in a grassy meadow while the irritating John Williams score plays in the background. And when Christensen goes to touch her, his response is a hopelessly redundant "Your skin is so soft." Only the youngest of teeny-boppers will be moved to sigh; the rest of us will have to stifle chuckles. Having said that, though, I guarantee that the number of Natalie Portman fan web sites is about to rise exponentially.

The rest of Clones' dialogue isn't much better. Lucas brought in screenwriter Jonathan Hales to help him, but it doesn't seem to have worked. Most of the dialogue is weighted with pointless exposition and
drops out of the actors' mouths like week-old biscuits. The film's pacing could also use some help. After an early chase sequence, the movie slows down considerably for at least an hour, and then throws the audience into a non-stop, effects-laden action sequence that feels like it'll never end.

In that sense, Attack of the Clones is like the counterpoint to Spiderman, which featured interesting dialogue, a powerful love angle, and measured pacing--all things I value as a moviegoer. And yet, though I can certainly admit Spiderman is the *better* movie, I enjoyed myself more at Attack of the Clones. The richness of its world--the production design is marvelous, especially in the spaceships and interiors--is fantastic to behold. The special effects are absolutely top-notch in Clones, and have the added benefit of being beautiful. And Clones features Natalie Portman in a role for which she's perfect. Those not enamored of such qualities probably won't enjoy themselves, but I did, and I'm not ashamed I'm looking forward to Episode 3. Oh, and those wondering about Jar Jar Binks will be happy to
know his character has been largely eliminated. 

J. Robert Parks

It was with much anticipation that I awaited Episode II, the next chapter in what is arguably the greatest fictional saga of all time. I saw the movie twice within 24 hours of release, yet I waited to write the review until now, three weeks after the movie came out, having seen it a third time. Just because I'm a Star Wars maniac doesn't mean I'm a pushover and I can honestly say after the first time I saw the movie, I was a bit disappointed with the acting and script. Thus, it was with mixed feelings about the movie that I ventured out to see it a  third time (the first time in the digital formed it was designed for).

My feelings about the movie were resolved in this third viewing chiefly by one startling revelation I had: Star Wars movies are not about acting and script. Granted, I dismiss most movies with poor actors who have nothing to say. But Star Wars is different. The focus of the Star Wars saga is not the actors, but their environment and the plot entanglements.

Regardless, the acting was difficult to get over. Hayden Christenson (Life As a House) plays the role of Anakin, probably the biggest role he will ever see in his lifetime. Unfortunately, he struggles to be convincing. Granted, his job may have been made easier if he had a better script that forced him to stretch a bit. Natalie Portman (Where the Heart Is, The Phantom Menace) reprises her role as Padme. She doesn't necessarily succeed in her role, but her natural beauty almost makes up for it. Ewan McGregor (Eye of the Beholder, Black Hawk Down, The Phantom Menace) does an excellent job as Obi-Wan Kenobi, bridging the gap between his character in Episode I and the older Obi-Wan in Episode IV.

The two key elements to keep in mind in this movie are plot and action and Episode II certainly succeeds at both. From the air chase scene through the heart of Coruscant to the final lightsaber duel between Jedi Master Yoda and his former apprentice Darth Tyrannus, this movie does an amazing job of taking the audience's breath away for two hours. The budget of $285 million means this this was no cheap, simple undertaking yet the investment was worth the outcome. The digital format that George Lucas opted to go with only makes the movie that much better.

By the end of Episode II: Attack of the Clones, I was left hoping that the next three years of my life go by quickly so that I can see Episode III. Weaknesses aside, this is still the greatest fictional saga of all time in my book.

Trae Cadenhead 7/19/2002


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