Review by Jack Foley
AFTER the relative disappointment of The Phantom Menace three years ago,
George Lucas, Yoda and co were feeling the force of a different kind in 1999,
when the hysteria of pre-Star Wars hype gave way to much head-scratching among
fans and prompting a vociferous backlash from attack-minded critics.
It is little wonder, then, that the hype has not been so intense this time around, particularly given that Lucas is faced with the triple whammy of having to outdo The Phantom Menace, at least rival The Empire Strikes Back (for many, the best so far in the series) and produce a blockbuster capable of mixing it with the likes of Tolkien's Rings trilogy and the ultra-cool Matrix phenomena.
But the good news is that Star Wars is most definitely back - for Attack of the Clones is a return to form for the director, packed with memorable characters, jaw-dropping spectacles, a nice line in sarcastic humour and, best of all, something for fans to really sink their teeth into.
While certainly not as fresh or as exciting as the first two in the original trilogy, Episode 2 manages to rise above some fairly dismal dialogue, some wooden performances and an indifferent love story to rescue the franchise and set up a mouthwatering finale as feisty young Anakin Skywalker finally becomes lured to the dark side.
Attack of the Clones picks up some 10 years after The Phantom Menace left off, at a time when the galaxy is in turmoil and thousands of solar systems are threatening to secede from the Galactic Republic under the alliance of a renegade Jedi named Count Dooku (Christopher Lee).
Caught in the middle is Naboo's former queen, turned politician, Padmé (Natalie Portman) and her loyal protectors Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) and his young apprentice, Anakin (Hayden Christensen), whose strong feelings for the beautiful senator threaten to place him at odds with Obi-Wan and pave the way for a new, altogether darker, destiny...
Given that audiences know what happens next, part of the fun in Attack of the Clones is spotting the knowing references to it and, for his part, Lucas doesn't miss a trick, littering the movie with cunning in-jokes (in one aside, Obi-Wan jokingly tells Anakin that he will be the death of him), as well as some teasing tasters of the third film (the Death Star even gets a fleeting appearance).
What is curious, however, is just how far his in-jokes extend, taking in everything from The Matrix and Blade Runner to movies as diverse as Gladiator, Titanic and even The Sound of Music (?), which is where Episode Two may find its biggest critics - for while quality acting and imaginative dialogue was never a strength of the saga, maintaining its own identity (and even defining genres) was.
By resorting to mimicking other movies, Star Wars could be accused of running out of ideas at a time when Hollywood is desperately in need of some originality (the novelty of knowing cinema references is quickly wearing thin!), and it is during these moments (and the shallow love scenes) that Episode Two is at its weakest.
Lucas, however, seems to have learned his lessons from the failures of three years ago and maintains a healthy momentum throughout, striking a near perfect balance between special effects and story/characterisation. And while Yoda may act almost everyone off the screen, there are some performances worth noting - not least from Portman's increasingly skimpy wardrobe, McGregor's deadpan Obi-Wan and, of course, Lee's menacing villain (the guy has surely now become Hollywood's most enduring villain, what with this and Lord of the Rings under his robe).
Samuel L Jackson's Mace Windu also gets a few moments to savour, as does Christensen when flirting with the Dark Side, while series favourites R2-D2 and C3PO recapture some of their old magic, particularly during the latter, spectacularly-staged battle scenes.
But surely the defining moment - and the point at which even the biggest sceptic will be roaring with delight - is when Yoda himself picks up a light-sabre and dishes out some punishment in what looks set to become part of Star Wars folklore. Roll on Episode Three...
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