Determined to prove the critics and doubters wrong and show the world that he is capable of making another good Star Wars movie, George Lucas puts aside the critical panning he received following The Phantom Menace, goes back to the galaxy and gives it another go.
Director: George Lucas
Starring: Ewan McGregor, Hayden Christensen, Natalie Portman, Christopher Lee, Samuel L. Jackson, Ian McDiarmid
Run Time: 142 Minutes
Release Date: 16 May 2002
In his defence, Lucas had 1.027 billion reasons why he should give this Star Wars movie-making another shot, though most were quick to realise that the $1 billion+ takings of the much-derided Episode I came about largely through anticipation and hope. However, by the time May 2002 had rolled around, anticipation was no longer the byword for Star Wars fans. The more casual viewers had seen their attention grabbed by Frodo’s antics in Middle Earth, and when coupled with the public backlash against The Phantom Menace, it meant that when the familiar screen crawl started, what should have been a countdown to the latest biggest movie event of the year was little more than a regular trip to the pictures.
Following The Phantom Menace, things had to change. The use of CGI, while competent and – dare I say – stunning in some places, was rightfully criticised for it’s frequency, while the character development was nothing short of unacceptable. This time out, we needed more rounded characters, a plentiful and entertaining story and a damn good looking movie, however the problem we encounter immediately is that it has to follow the dour story started last time out. Lucas buried himself, and the film itself, so far into political warfare territory that he was never going to be in a position to dig himself out of.
First things first though, some immediate changes had to be made, primarily to gain some goodwill with fans who had been turned off by the first film. Consequently, Jar Jar Binks is shunted into the background where he should have stayed to begin with, while Yoda is given a much-needed CGI upgrade. We are also introduced to an older Anakin Skywalker, with Jake Lloyd replaced by Hayden Christensen. Much was made of Lloyd’s ability (or inability) to bring to the big screen what Lucas had imagined for his young Ani, and while a casting change was necessitated, there is never any definitive evidence that George has actually traded up. Sure, the whiny teenager is an improvement on the unexciting kid, but in the lead role of a freakin’ Star Wars movie – and given the endgame for the character – it’s another casting failure. Although in the defense of his new young star, the film’s main story thread of Anakin and Amidala’s burgeoning relationship is doomed from the start thanks to the fact that romantic drama is something that, try as he might, Lucas just can’t write. Watching Anakin pursue and attempt to curry romantic favour with Amidala borders on painful and awkward, and that really isn’t the intention. The idea is clearly to paint these two as the new trilogy’s Han and Leia, but whereas Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher had believable on-screen chemistry, Christensen and Portman have little to none.
Thankfully, there is some good here. After his cautious performance in The Phantom Menace, Ewan McGregor approaches something closer to the form we expect from him. Continuing the impressive beard continuity started by Liam Neeson, his full-on master Obi-Wan doesn’t just take the facial hair baton from Neeson, but also the lead actor responsibilities. Many an actor would crumble – and some have – with the level of exposition and building asked of him, but McGregor responds masterfully. Ably assisting him is the consummate professional and legend that is Christopher Lee, bringing some required ed gravitas to proceedings. Indeed, his Count Dooku’s scenes with McGregor’s Kenobi are some of the film’s best, along with the battle scene between Obi-Wan and bounty hunter Jango Fett, and of course the final act war between Yoda and Dooku.
Attack of the Clones had one primary missive; be better that The Phantom Menace. George Lucas was fully aware of the reception to Episode I, and his decision to soft-sell Episode II prior to its release was an obvious attempt to purposefully not build anticipation, given the almost-universal disappoint suffered following Menace. Granted, it still has far too much exposition, still makes just too much use of the CGI that George needs to back away from, spends far too much time on seemingly-endless story threads that feel they could be considerably shorter, and still possesses lines of dialogue that someone really needed to pull Lucas up on – “I don’t like the sand. It’s coarse and rough and irritating–not like you. You’re soft and smooth.” – but despite all that, it is of course better than it’s predecessor and does set up a conclusion that you can’t help but feel will be epic. At least, you hope will be epic.
And that is not a new hope.