May 16th, 2002 saw the release of Episode II: Attack of the Clones, the second chapter in George Lucas’ prequel Trilogy. Much anticipated by the fans, as it would further develop the story of Anakin Skywalker, and would finally show a chapter in Star Wars lore that the fans had been fantasizing about ever since Lucas started working on a second trilogy; The Clone Wars.
Mentioned briefly by old Ben-Kenobi (Alec Guiness) in a conversation with young Luke Skywalker at the beginning of Star Wars (1977), the Clone Wars represents a turning point in Star Wars history, in that is the point where The Old Republic starts falling apart to slowly, but surely, eventually make way for the Galactic Empire. So, how this came about and what happened before it did, to end up in a galactic Civil War, was something that had always appealed to the fans of this new trilogy, and the main selling point of the new movies, along with the turning of Anakin Skywalker to the Dark Side, and his eventual transformation into the dreaded Darth Vader.
Lucas also had to contend with a love story in this movie, that of Anakin and Padmé Amidala that will result in the birth of the heroes of the OT, Leia Organa and Luke Skywalker. So, as you can see there’s a lot of storylines that Lucas had to get through for this movie and, as a result, we get a lot of stuff crammed into an already long-running movie, that doesn’t get sufficient screen time to breathe and fully develop. The love story, though, would be the weakest aspect of the movie. More on that later.
The gang is back together
In addition to getting another screenwriter, Jonathan Hales, to help in the development of the script for Episode II, Lucas pretty much assembled the same creative team with whom he had worked on the previous movie, those being; Doug Chiang as Conceptual Artist, David Tattersall as Director of Photography, Gavin Bouquet as Production Designer, Trisha Briggar as Costume Designer, Ben Burtt as both Sound Designer and Editor, John Knoll and Pablo Helman as Visual Effects Supervisors, Ben Coleman as Animation Supervisor and John Williams as Music Composer. There were a few additions to the cast as well; Temuera Morrison as Jango Fett, Christopher Lee as the devious Count Dooku, Bonnie Piesse and Joel Edgerton as both Beru and Owen Lars, Daniel Logan as a young Bobba Fett and Jimmy Smits as Senator Bail Organa.
But the most crucial piece of casting would be, once again, of the actor who had to portray Anakin Skywalker all the way up to Episode III, and who would eventually wear the mask of Darth Vader at the end of this trilogy.
That honour would fall on the shoulders of a very young Canadian actor, Hayden Christensen, who had limited experience on the big screen, but had been working on TV since the age of thirteen. He was chosen among a cast selection of 1500 candidates.
With the cast and crew pretty much in place, shooting started in locations in Spain and Italy for the Planet Naboo-set scenes and, once again, in Tunisia, Africa for the scenes set on the planet Tatooine. The bulk of the shooting was done in the Fox Studios, in Sidney, Australia, and some additional scenes were shot in Ealing Studios, in England. This would also be the first Star Wars movie to be shot entirely with Digital Cameras, as Lucas thought that this would speed up the process in the Editing room, and make it easier for the Sound Designers and Visual Effects artists to work on the movie. As the filming with Digital Cameras was relatively still in its infancy, the amount of connections needed for each camera and the dimensions of the these, would prove to be cumbersome when it came to handling and moving them around. Despite all this, the shooting moved along at a swift pace.
Lucas also became more ambitious in the kind of shots and effects he wanted to achieve, almost all of these regarding creature design and animation, and the final ground battle on the Planet Geonosis between the newly discovered Clone Army and the Separatist Droid Army. But one major change was on the cards that would give Lucas and the Animators more than one sleepless night; the creation of a fully functional digital Yoda.
Pushing the envelope
With the use of Digital Cameras, Lucas wanted to push the boundaries of what could be achieved in the digital realm; so for this new entry his Animators started working full gas on the development of a complete CGI recreation of Yoda that could, not only move faster for one pivotal scene at the end of the movie, but further enhance the body language and facial expression nuances of the character, without divorcing it completely from what Frank Oz had achieved with the puppet back in 1981 with the release of The Empire Strikes Back. Months of painstaking computer animation work went into the development and refinement of ,not only the body movement, but also the recreation of the fabrics of the clothing that the character would wear while on-screen. This same process would also be used for the animation of CGI characters like Dexter Jettster, some facial replacement for Christopher Lee’s character for the light sabrefight scenes, and to be used as CGI stunt doubles for Temuera Morrison, Ewan Macgregor, Samuel L. Jackson and Hayden Christensen in some of the most demanding and dangerous action set pieces. In almost all the cases the end results blended seamlessly with the live action footage, but in other cases, like the interaction of Obi-Wan with short-order cook turned spy, Dexter Jettster, the results were not so good, and it can be clearly seen that the technology still had a while to go to be perfected.
That nitpick aside, it was clear that the advances in digital animation and computer graphics had advanced to such a level, that the Visual Effects Supervisors started using Computer Graphics as a tool to pre-visualize CGI-heavy sequences in order to better plan out and execute said sequences later on in Post-production. This process would come to be known as Pre-viz, in which the technical crew themselves would dress up as the main characters and act out certain scenes with the aid of practical models and props. That footage would later on be digitally added to previously shot digital matte paintings or miniature models, and Computer Graphics would then be used to enhance the animation. Up until that point, animatics (small vignettes animated as cartoons), and storyboards, had been used as reference for the animators and special effects guys to serve as a visual guide on which to plan out the most daring and difficult action set pieces. This process was exactly the same, only it was less time-consuming and laborious for the technical crew. Plus, they saved money and time, which are the two things filmmakers don’t have in abundance when making a movie.
With all this digital power at his disposal, Lucas felt for the very first time that he now actually had the creative freedom to do pretty much as he pleased. With the advent of digital filming came digital editing, that further simplified the Post-production process by being able to change and tweak things till the very last minute. The overall output by Industrial Light & Magic was once again, outstanding. Scenes like the Speeder Chase throughout Coruscant, the new planetary additions to the Star Wars Universe; The Planet Kamino, which is basically a huge ocean, the Cloning facilities inside the Citadel of Kamino, and the Termite-like structures of the planet Geonosis with its underground Droid Factory and the Sports Arena, that resembles a Termite Colony, not to say anything about the vast array of alien creatures and monsters that our heroes face in and out of the Arena. All in all, excellent production values.
The good and the bad
As I mentioned earlier, the movie has too many storylines to fit into a two-hour movie and unfortunately, some of those storylines suffer for it. Not only does all the addicional plot points make the movie longer, but as they’re so constricted with the running time, some of those plot points, like the love story, for instance, are not given enough time to develop and the characters to be fleshed out properly. Thus, the dialogue scenes come across rather stiff and un-natural. And here is where the movie falls into a pit from where the brilliance of the action set pieces and visual effects rescue it.
Let’s get this out of the way first; dialogue, except in a few occasions, is not very good on these movies. Let’s be honest. This is a recurrent theme that the prequels would suffer from for all three movies. And the main culprit here is George Lucas. In his obsession to control every little aspect of these movies, and not seek out the help of better prepared screenwriters to suggest, improve or even tweak some of his writing, he ended up drowning his characters, who are supposed to come out as heroic, charismatic and larger-than-life, with dry, lifeless, flat, and sometimes even downright cringe-worthy dialogue. This is especially true during the romantic exchanges between Anakin and Padmé. The man doesn’t know how to write a love scene. His concept of romance is old-fashioned and his prose is stilted. Like something out of time. Nobody speaks like that in real life. Not in a romantic situation, anyway. It sounds like some kind of heightened Theater. Of the bad kind. Now, you could argue that he’s pulled it off before with the love story between Han Solo and Princess Leia, but he had help on that. Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan were brought in to iron out the wrinkles on that script and Lucas came out the better for it. Ok, so he had a collaborator this time. By the looks of it, he had little to no input when it came to the dialogue and was merely brought in to help out with the developing of the story. Whatever happened, it is quite clear to me that the script needed a few more drafts before shooting started. Another major issue is Lucas’ directing. I think I mentioned in my previous review that Lucas has never been very good at directing actors. He has been proven over the years through numerous interviews with some of his actors and crew, and even from on-set footage that it is something he’s never learned to do. I’m sorry, George, but; ”Faster”, ”More intense”, doesn’t cut it. He could learn a thing or two from Steven Spielberg.
Some actors need more direction than others, some, very few, need none at all. This is not the case with Hayden Christensen. Don’t get me wrong. He’s a very capable actor; Life as a House, Irwin Winkler (2001), comes to mind. He unfortunately, in this case, lacked a strong guiding hand that could get the better of him. He does get there sometimes, though. But more by sheer talent than anything else. More on that later.
The love story was a plot point in the movie that needed the most attention in order to believably convey the feeling that this momentous, doomed love affair was bound to happen. Unfortunately, neither the actors nor the awful dialogue helps the cause. Lack of on-screen chemistry between both actors doesn’t help either.
Much better resolved, though, is the plot revolving around the asassination attempt on Senator Amidala and Obi-Wan’s investigation into it, resulting in the uncovering of a secret Clone Army being developed on the faraway planet of Kamino at the behest of the Republic, and the discovery of a plot to form an alliance between several disgruntled galactic Systems under the order of a mysterious Sith Lord, Darth Tyrannus. This is what really drives the story along.
There’s one more plot point we have to talk about, and that is the one involving Anakin returning to Tatooine to rescue his mother. And that one falls into the good category.
As I said earlier, I don’t think that Hayden Christensen is a bad actor. Quite the opposite. Fortunately, he gets to prove his acting chops right where I wanted him too. Via a misguided direction and weak dialogue, Anakin, at first, comes across as a cocky, complaining adolescent who thinks that his master his holding him back. But he also has frequent nightmares of his mother being in some kind of danger and he’s torn between his duty to protect Padmé and his desire to go back to Tatooine to rescue his mother. He finally goes, only to find out that she’s been kidnapped by Tusken Raiders and has been missing for months. He tracks her down with the aid of some local help, but comes too late and just in time for her to die in his arms. Now,on this one scene, is when we get a taste of Anakin’s Dark Side. Heartbroken and overwhelmed with grief and hatred, he massacres the whole Tusken village. Retrieves his mother’s body and returns to the Homestead. There he confesses to Padmé what he’s done, and his innermost desire to become the most powerful Jedi ever to stop those he cares about from dying, which is the vow he makes on his mother’s grave. That, I believe, more than anything else we see later on in Episode III, is what marks the turning point for Anakin and his downward spiral path toward the Dark Side. These two scenes are the stand-out dramatic moments of the film and a testament to Christensen’s acting skills, which would see more of in Episode III.
As for the rest of the cast, they do their best considering what dialogue and character development they had to play with. Of all of these, the one that probably comes off best is Ewan MacGregor. He’s clearly more comfortable in the role this time around and oozes charisma as Obi-Wan Kenobi. He’s the one actor from the prequel trilogy, along with Ian McDiarmid, to really shine throughout, and is still, to this day, talked about . Fans have been clamoring for an Obi-Wan stand-alone movie for ages.
We’ve already talked about the technical merits of this movie, but another saving grace for, not only this movie, but the entirety of the Star Wars Universe is Composer John Williams. His classic themes still resonate with fans and casuall viewers of Star Wars alike and have become an indispensable part of the tapestry that is this Sci-fi saga. This time around he composes one of the most beautiful and haunting love themes ever written. The rest of his repertoire; like the Chase through Coruscant track and the Asteroid Field Chase, to name just a few, are full of the rhythm, color and cheerfulness we’re so used to.
Not much else to say about it, really. The movie’s got top notch production values, a great score, a few stand-out dramatic moments, a few scenes with Jar Jar Binks ( thank God!!); even though one of them turns out to be a pivotal moment for the whole saga, who knew?, a kick-ass final battle on the Planet Geonosis between a Battle Droid Army and like a hundred Jedi Knights ( Awesome!!), an even bigger Ground Battle between said Droid Army and the newly appointed Republic Clone Army (jaw-dropping), a face-off between Anakin and Obi-Wan and Count Dooku (good, but short), and the end result of bringing Yoda into the digital realm; getting to see him wield his lightsabre and give Count Dooku a run for his money ( I always geek out at this point). I don’t care what any die-hard Star Wars fan says; that was the single most awesome moment in the entire film and worth the entry fee just to see that.
As for the rest, the Droid Factory fight scene was very well done, but was basically filler; which the movie could have done without, the Asteroid Field Chase was great, but the Speeder Chase through Coruscant was equally good. The film has got lots more action in it, a weak and poorly developed love story result of an equally weak scrip that clearly needed more work done on it, a few surprising appearances and an awesome last scene that makes you wish for more.
So, in spite of the many weaknesses I’ve pointed out, I still enjoy it. So, shoot me.
Thanks for reading.