It grossed over $430 million in the United States alone and earned almost $1 billion worldwide, yet for many people “Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace” was a disappointment. Casual moviegoers and fanboys alike complained of too much politicking, confusing trade disputes and a flop-eared Gungan named Jar Jar. After scathing reviews from both fans and critics, it looked as though the most popular series in Hollywood history had gone the way of the dark side, but with “Episode II – Attack of the Clones,” fans can take a collective sigh of relief as George Lucas has created a more than worthy entry in the “Star Wars” saga.
The trademark scrolling yellow text informs us of what has transpired in Lucas’ galaxy far, far away in the 10 years since “The Phantom Menace.” Padme Amidala (Natalie Portman), former Queen of Naboo, is the subject of several assassination attempts while her future dark knight in shining black armor, Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen), continues his tutelage among the Jedi. The mysterious Count Dooku (Christopher Lee) leads a separatist movement against the longstanding Republic while Obi Wan Kenobi investigates the creation of a clone army on a lost planet. “Clones” may seem more complicated than the beloved entries of the original trilogy, but it’s just as entertaining, if not more so.
A mere 10 minutes into “Episode II,” the action begins in a thrilling chase sequence on the “Blade Runner”-inspired plant Coruscant. The wizards at Lucas’ own Industrial Light and Magic provide the most breathtaking visual creations ever seen in a motion picture and the always brilliant John Williams accompanies the on-screen action with a sweeping score.
The film hits its stride in the final hour and never lets up, from the coliseum-style melee to the cartoonish trek through the droid factory seen in countless trailers and television ads. While entertaining for their unrelenting action and jaw-dropping visuals, nothing in “Attack of the Clones” matches the “performance” of Yoda, the “Empire Strikes Back” Muppet gone “Matrix.” The perennial favorite little green man, now in CGI form, finally lets his lightsaber do the talking in a scene that is sure to make even the most subdued viewer crack a smile.
Of the returning cast members, Ewan McGregor gives the most rewarding performance as the fabled Jedi Knight. His Obi Wan Kenobi sounds remarkably similar to Alec Guinness, and sporting a full beard, his appearance mirrors the famed British actor as well. McGregor has fun with the role, most notably in a scene with a filthy four-armed diner employee turned informant named Dexter Jettster.
Relative newcomer Hayden Christensen (“Life as a House”) plays Jedi-in-training Anakin Skywalker in a style reminiscent of Mark Hamill, which may have some fans gagging in their seats. The young Canadian actor was a bold choice by Lucas, who also considered Ryan Phillippe and Colin Hanks for the role. Christensen is able to balance the good and evil of Anakin’s character, hinting at the eventual downfall of the tragic hero. The romantic scenes between Anakin and Amidala may lack the charm of Han and Leia, but this is a frustrated teenager and a politician, not a dashing rogue and a rebel leader. Critics have condemned the trite dialogue of two young lovers, but this is a sci-fi serial, not Shakespeare.
The casting of Christopher Lee as villain Count Dooku is a masterstroke. His haunting voice and snide smile blends well in “Episode II,” much like Peter Cushing’s performance as Grand Moff Tarkin in the 1977 original “Star Wars.” Cushing and Lee starred in several low-budget horror films together, beginning with the 1957 classic “The Curse of Frankenstein.” The “Hammer Horror” veteran Lee has experienced a resurgence of late, also starring in a very similar role as Saruman in Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy.
The only way to fully experience the technical bravado of Lucas’ latest “Star Wars” installment is to see the sci-fi yarn projected digitally. The movie was shot using a revolutionary Sony digital camera that could withstand the 125 degree temperatures of the Tunisian desert. When projected on film, “Episode II” can look grainy at times, often within the extravagant CGI backdrops. The digital projection provides sharper images and more vibrant color, providing the ideal format for the digital landscapes of the “Star Wars” universe. Lucas was hoping theater owners would rush to install digital projectors in time for the May 16 release date of “Clones,” but only 58 theaters across the country have done so.
“Attack of the Clones” is a landmark film in the history of motion pictures. Whether or not “Episode II” fulfills the high expectations of its devoted fans, the filmmaking process itself is epic in scale. The transition from film to digital video will be a slow process, as theater owners balk at the high cost of upgrading to digital projectors. Purists will argue film has a distinct atmosphere, but after watching “Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones,” it looks as though George Lucas might be changing the way Hollywood makes motion pictures yet again.