"I've got a bad feeling about this" is a line someone says in every Star Wars film. You may mutter that yourself at the outset of the fifth installment (but second "Episode") of George Lucas' space opera.
When you read the title Attack of the Clones in opening crawl, when you hear grown men called names like "Dooku" and "Annie," when you set eyes on bumbling alien Jar Jar Binks, you get a sinking sensation: It's happening again!
But just when you begin to worry that Attack of the Clones has learned nothing from missteps of the prior film, The Phantom Menace, things get intriguing. Apprentice Jedi knight Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) confesses, "I don't sleep well any more" while framed by a nighttime cityscape worthy of Blade Runner. Since we know that Anakin eventually becomes the villainous Darth Vader, it's a haunting image, hinting that a dream of the future turns nightmarish.
Then, as Anakin and Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) foil an assassination attempt and embark on an aerial car chase, like The French Connection gone airborne, the sheer propulsion blows away the initial bad feeling like, well, a phantom.
The Force returns to George Lucas with Attack of the Clones, which crafts a universe filled with mysteries and perils. The film's human element can falter, hindering some of its grander ambitions. But in exploring the darker themes in its sci-fi setting, Attack of the Clones is a more exciting and more mature movie than The Phantom Menace -- and Return of the Jedi, for that matter.
A decade has passed since Phantom and the well-intentioned Galactic Republic is being menaced by "separatists" led by rogue Jedi Count Dooku (Christopher Lee). Following an attempt on the life of Senator Amidala (Natalie Portman), the plot splits onto parallel tracks. Anakin whisks Amidala to safety on the verdant world of Naboo, and they fall into a love forbidden to a politician and a chaste Jedi.
The love story is Clones' weakest thread, a succession of scenes each with its own romantic cliche (a picnic, a roaring fireplace) against backdrops worthy of New Age calendar art. Amidala should be one of the film's most passionate roles, but Portman's flatness makes her feelings all but opaque. You're reminded of how stranded young Jake Lloyd seemed in the prior film.
Christensen's Anakin isn't so much a dashing romantic lead than an angst-ridden teenager, conveying mostly arrogance and petulance. But when an emergency leads the pair to the desert planet of Tattooine, Christensen gets to exhibit a range that gives the film some emotional heft.
McGregor's Obi-Wan, like the other Jedi roles, is frequently underwritten and underplayed. But his subplot unfolds like a deliciously entertaining marriage of Star Wars and James Bond. Lucas' script, co-written with Jonathan Hales, makes nods to fans as Obi-Wan trails bounty hunter Jango Fett and his young offspring Boba (a first-trilogy role with an ardent cult following). Similarly, the natives of the rain-drenched world of Camino look like the long-necked aliens of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, no doubt a nod to Lucas' pal Steven Spielberg.
The action scenes are all gorgeously rendered and have superb sound, though some seem familiar: A race through an asteroid field evokes Empire Strikes Back, while the cliffhangers in a robot foundry are oddly reminiscent of Chicken Run. But they set the stage for the film's jaw-dropping final half-hour, in which the romantic element finally connects and the spectacle is so rich you'll be reluctant to blink for fear of missing something. You marvel at slavering monsters, clone armies, huge-scale battles and a climactic duel blending light sabers and martial arts that could be nicknamed "Crouching Yoda, Hidden Dooku."
With his prequels, Lucas is going for something more complex than the first trilogy's archetypal struggle between good and evil. Clones anticipates the collapse of the Republic and the fall of heroes, suggesting that the current trilogy strives to be more of an epic of historic proportions and tragic consequences. The new films are also more interdependent, and as in Phantom, the flashy events tend to be smokescreens for more ominous goings-on. Even if you're steeped in Star Wars lore, you might wish for more exposition. As is, it's remarkable that Lucas will refuse to connect all the dots until the final film.
Clones effectively evokes the "arc" of the first three films, bringing up plot points with clear parallels to the story of Luke Skywalker. John Williams' fiendishly catchy "Imperial March" snakes through the score, foreshadowing even more dire events to come. You do miss the star power of Harrison Ford and Alec Guinness, and you're not likely to see their equal in the sixth and final Star Wars installment, planned for 2005. Still, Attack of the Clones gives me a good feeling about it.
In the latest 'Emory Looks at Hollywood' episode, Judith Evans Grubbs, Emory Professor of Roman…
"In the movies' worst scene..." should be "movie's"
--freelance copy editor, available for hire
I saw this headline before watching the movie yesterday, but this movie was way better…