There is a moment late in Attack of the Clones capable of awakening the dormant Star Wars geek in even the most fervent George Lucas critic. It wouldn’t be fair to give it away; suffice it to say, it involves the frail, wizened Jedi master Yoda strutting his stuff in a way we’ve not seen before. It’s a flash of inspiration in a franchise that desperately needs it.
Genuine inspiration and imagination have always been in short supply in the Star Wars universe, but it was easier not to notice back when the clunky but charming original and its sleek sequel The Empire Strikes Back were first released. Even hardcore fans were quick to dismiss both Return of the Jedi and 1999’s The Phantom Menace as cutesy kid stuff (not all of them, of course; the hate mail will no doubt be piling up back at culturevulture.net headquarters mere minutes after this review goes online). This means that the most beloved movie series of our time – maybe of all time – has disappointed as often as it has satisfied.
The new installment takes place ten years after the events of The Phantom Menace. The good news is, Anakin Skywalker is no longer played by towheaded moppet Jake Lloyd. The bad news is, with brooding Hayden Christensen taking over the role, this episode might as well be entitled I Was a Teenage Darth Vader. Anakin is, of course, the future Dark Lord and father of Luke Skywalker, but for now he is an apprentice to Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) and a Jedi-in-training. As Attack begins, Anakin and Obi-Wan are assigned to escort Senator Amidala (Natalie Portman) to the city-planet Coruscant for an important vote.
Shortly after arriving on Coruscant there is an assassination attempt on Amidala, and the first of the movie’s big action set pieces kicks into gear. A speeder chase through impossibly towering skyscraper canyons teeming with traffic, this swooping, whooshing sequence suggests that, if nothing else, Attack will turn out to be a diverting roller coaster ride. No such luck.
While Obi-Wan tracks the would-be assassin through the galaxy, Anakin and Amidala go into hiding and fall in love, and Attack of the Clones bogs down into dense thickets of tedious exposition. Some sort of power struggle is threatening the Republic, with one faction commissioning an army of clones while the other is busy manufacturing a platoon of droid soldiers. There are muddled loyalties and confused speeches before the Senate and numerous discussions about the balance of the Force among the Jedi Council. With at least a half-dozen plot threads in motion, it seems like there must be something going on, but Lucas is unable to gather it all up into one epic sweep.
This wouldn’t matter so much if the movie had a solid emotional core, but the love story between Anakin and Amidala is not one of the great screen romances, to say the least. Of course, a Star Wars movie was never going to give Casablanca a run for its money in that department, but there’s no need to reach that far into the vault to find Attack wanting. Take that other mega-hyped summer blockbuster, Spider-Man, for example. Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst may not be Bogie and Bergman, but they nonetheless breathe life into a believable love story between two flesh-and-blood characters, forging a genuine emotional connection with the audience in the process. By comparison, Christensen and Portman couldn’t strike a spark with a stack of gasoline-soaked newspapers and a box of waterproof matches.
Not that this is entirely their fault – not when they’ve got dialogue by the notoriously tin-eared Lucas to contend with. Even though the ILM maven hired a collaborator this time around – the script is credited to Lucas and Jonathan Hales – Harrison Ford’s observation of many years ago still holds true: "You can type this shit, George, but you sure can’t say it." Lucas must surround himself with loyal crew members, indeed, if none of them visibly cringed whenever Christensen tried to wrap his mouth around a line like "You are in my very soul – tormenting me!"
It is Christensen who seals Attack‘s fate as failed drama. He’s simply godawful. Whenever called upon to reveal the dark side that will one day overtake his character, he just comes off as a sullen, pouty brat. We’re supposed to be witnessing the birth of the fearsome Darth Vader here, but Anakin is more like a petulant pretty boy who’s just begging to be pantsed after gym class. Even the much-reviled Jar Jar Binks (mercifully reduced to little more than a bit player) gives a better performance.
It’s not impossible to be entertained by Attack of the Clones, with its gobs of special effects, appearances by old favorites like R2-D2 and C3PO, and juicy villainous turn by Christopher Lee. After spending the better part of two movies dispensing solemn intonations in the Jedi council chambers, Samuel L. Jackson finally has the opportunity to get jiggy with a light saber. The whole thing climaxes with an enormous battle between various shapes and sizes of CGI that could conceivably be construed as exciting. The Star Wars faithful will no doubt line up at the box office many times over, even while crossing their fingers and hoping against hope that Lucas will really pull it all together in Episode III.
That will happen when Tattooine freezes over. Lucas is a toymaker and merchandising mogul who has long since lost the human touch, and there’s not enough industrial light and magic in the universe to make up for that.