There is a world shortage of opinions about Attack of the Clones.
It seems that the only things that anyone is allowed to say is that:
1: It has bad dialogue
2: It is dominated by CGI special effects
3: It is derivative of other movies, e.g. Fifth Element and Gladiator
4: It is better than Phantom Menace.
Opinion famines seem to attach themselves to this kind of movie. At the time of Star Wars all anyone said was that it had great special effects. At the same time, all you were allowed to say about Doctor Who was that it had bad special effects, and, interestingly, that The Hitch-Hikers Guide To The Galaxy was impossible to understand.
When someone says 'Doctor Who has bad special effects' I am inclined to reply 'Well, I don't think the CSO experiment in Underworld worked particularly well, but then the alien dimension in Warriors Gate was very evocative.' To which they reply 'Wobbly sets, wobbly sets, wobbly sets' and walk off: the concept of 'wobbly sets' has expanded to fill their whole consciousness on this point. Silly me to expect words to be used to express actual ideas.
In the case of Phantom Menace, the only viewpoint one heard was that Jar-Jar Binks was very irritating. I have to say I never found him so: I thought he was a relatively amusing character, in same vein as C-3PO, Jabba the Hutt, and all the other comic-relief characters of the first trilogy. After six viewings of Phantom Menace, the only 'racism' I can discern is the Japanese accent of the trade federations representatives.
This separatist review will therefore secede from the army of cloned opinions which is oppressing the galaxy, and try to say a few coherent things about the movie.
The dialogue of Attack of the Clones is melodramatic and non-naturalistic. If 'good dialogue' means, say, Tarantino-esque repartee, then Attack of the Clones doesn't have it. On the other hand, there is only one genuinely awful passage, the blazing-fire love scene, in which Anakin and Amidala start talking in a weird, formal language, rather like a badly translated opera libretto. For the rest of the movie, well it didn't sound like bad dialogue to me; it sounded like the way they talk in a Star Wars movie. 'Bad' dialogue has been a feature of the franchise from the moment the Jedi with the public school accent said 'He thought he should have stayed at home and not gotten involved.'
The problem was actually one of unintentional bathos as a result of an inconsistent tone. If we had been asked to believe that the 'Old Republic' was an age of heroes where everyone wore sweeping clothes and talked in arias, then 'If we follow to this to a logical conclusion it will take us to a place where we cannot go and which would destroy our lives' might be a reasonable thing to say. But it is a mistake to have Anakin saying 'If Obi-Wan saw this, he would be very grumpy' in one scene and 'I am haunted by the kiss you should never have given me' in the next.
2: CGI Effects
Computers are still a sufficiently novel idea that we are aware of what they can do. We are therefore inclined to use CGI as a buzzword. We are less impressed by fantasy and spectacle because we now know that it is relatively easy to produce. Most of us know that you can create any kind of virtual world inside a computer: the only limit is your artist's imagination and the amount of time you are prepared to spend rendering it out. There were very few moments where it was obvious to my untrained eye that I was watching computer animation. Some scenes, especially the Jedi council had a quality of unnaturally sharpness which gave me a sense of it 'not being quite real'. (This may have been an artefact of the Leicester Square Odeon's ultra high teach projection system.) CGI creatures occasionally have a specific, slightly mechanical way of walking which distinguishes them from, say, the slight jerkiness of a Ray Haryhausen monster pic. (I particularly noticed this as Yoda walked offstage in the background of the Jedi councils first meeting with Palpatine.)
The film naturally plays to the strengths of the computer animation process. The special effects in Attack of the Clones are not 'better' than those in Return of the Jedi. The spaceships in Return of the Jedi look real; you can't actually improve on that. What the new film can give you is MORE special effects. A computer can give you a hundred or a thousand Stormtroopers, where miniatures and extras can only manage ten. That tends to give us very crowded screens; and to me, a thousand battle robots is less dramatic than a single invincible Death Star. In that sense, the capabilities of the CGI process did rather dictated the contents of the film.
Lucas's imagination has a relatively limited range, and keeps going over and over the same material, trying to do the same kinds of scenes better and better each time a new piece of technology comes along. I have the sense of a man who is forever frustrated that he can't make the pictures which he sees in his head come to life on the screen. When we first saw the bar filled with aliens in Star Wars, it was an awesome and funny concept, even though some of the individual creatures were not particularly well realized. It is understandable that Lucas wants to do it again and again, with aliens that really look alien. But there is a law of diminishing returns – and when we end up in the bar in the Coruscrant under city, we don't say 'Wow, wow…a night club full of aliens!' we say 'Yeah, yeah, yeah: another Cantina scene.'
Duh, it's a Star Wars movie.
Star Wars is basically pastiche; cool bits of other movies translated into sci fi terms and then pasted together—Roman Arena with aliens; Ben Hur with aliens; the Searchers with aliens; the Dam Busters with space ships, some of which are flown by aliens.
It is true that some of the source material for the Coruscant car chase in Attack of the Clones did seem to be Judge Dredd, Blade Runner, Fifth Element; and the assassin-eels looked as if they had wandered in from Alien or Wrath of Kahn. It might be thought a pity if Star Wars is reduced to pastiching post-Star Wars sci fi movies.
I also felt that some of the pastiche was a little too banal, so that the Jedi archive looks too much like a modern public library and the civilian transportation looks too much like the interior of a subway. This implies, to me, a failure of imagination, a failure to see that everything in the Star Wars universe must be, not only bigger, but also more heroic than that in real life.
This is not to say that I don't think that the film was flawed. It was. I think that its flaws were threefold:
The film's plot went nowhere. There was no tension in the Amidala-Anakin romance, because we all knew where it had to end up: but the element of pre-destination wasn't used to generate, say, dramatic irony. But neither was there any great sense that Obi-Wan's wanderings from set piece to set piece were very meaningful, nor that they related to the overall structure of the movie. Just as Phantom Menace very loosely follows the structure of A New Hope, so Attack of the Clones is meant to feel structurally similar to Empire Strikes Back. We jump backwards and forwards between two plots, one full of action (Obi Wan, Han and Leia) and one static and character based (Anakin and Amidala, Luke and Yoda.) But Empire Strikes Back is tightly plotted: not only do we know that the sufferings of Han and Leia are intimately related to what is happening to Luke; but we also recognize continuous thematic echoes between the two storylines. (For example, Han Solo and Luke both have an adventure in a cave which turns out to be quite different from what they were expecting.) Attack of the Clones is really just a tumbling mass of incident. And the end result of all the incident is neither victory nor defeat for the heroes, but the release of two small pieces of plot-information, or the moving of a plot pawn or two. Anakin and Amidala are married. Palpatine is voted special powers by the senate. Er…that's it.
Does anyone remember Dark Crystal? (Rhetorical question. Don't write in.)
Despite the rather inane plot, it's one of the best-realized cinematic fantasy worlds. The surreal muppetery creates a great sense of Otherness. There are no knights in armour, no castles, or goblins: it is set neither in the world of here-and-now, nor in the over-familiar world of fantasy archetypes. (Granted, once you look at them for more than a minute or so, you realize that all the weird creatures are the familiar archetypes in fancy dress but that didn't remove the initial sense of being far, far away.) It also has great depth, or rather, the illusion of great depth. Wherever you look, there are wall carvings, symbols, strange ceremonies, and unfamiliar flora and fauna. One of the first images is of a Mystic creating a sand painting and destroying it with his tail. We don't know why he does this: we just sort of accept that sand paintings are very Zen, and this is very much the sort of thing these Mystics might do.
Tied in with the movie was a gurt big art book called The World of the Dark Crystal, which I understand now sells for frighteningly high amounts of money on Ebay. Mine isn't for sale. It contains a lot of pre-production art, and some photographs from the movies; all tied together with an elaborated back story about how the Crystal came to be broken in the first place, and lots of data about the goodie Mystics and the evil Skeksis. We learn the names of individual Mystics and Skeksis; we learn that the Mystics aren't really called Mystics at all, but Ur-Ru. We learn that the beings they merge into at the end are called the Ur-Skeks. We even learn what the sand-painting meant (it represented the history of the world of the Dark Crystal.) It was the sort of book that every fantasy geek would be proud to have on his coffee table. I often thought 'I could use this as the basis of an RPG', before adding 'No, I couldn't: background notes about the significance of murals is not a good basis for an interactive scenario.'
It would have been intolerable if all that background detail had appeared in the film. Exposition of Ur-Skek religion and the mystical significance of the number three would have slowed down the plot. But it is that the existence of all that off-screen data contributed to the illusion of reality which made the film so convincing..
I have, to coin a phrase, a bad feeling that Attack of the Clones only existed as a vehicle for its back story. George Lucas had some notes about the political structure of the Galactic Empire and the relationship of the Jedi to the Sith and he jolly well wanted to explain them to the audience. Plot and characters were secondary to that world-building aim.. He'd decided that the Death Star was designed by some people called the Geonosians; and decided to work this into the movie. But 'worked in' means 'stated, alluded to, dangled in front of the viewers nose': It doesn't actually have any purpose or role in the story. Yes, Star Wars aficionados get a certain sort of pleasure from noticing that the representative of the Techno-Union has a breath mask reminiscent of Darth Vader's; but he's only in the story is so that aficionados can notice him. It all feels flung together, like Lucas is trying to retro-fit the old films to his new vision of the setting.
Lucas's failure to understand what made his original movies tick is immense. Go back and watch the films, particularly the first one, and what strikes you are the chemistry between the five main human characters, with a bit of a comic relief from the metal ones. What makes us go back to Star Wars again and again is the way Han Solo says "No reward is worth this", and Leia says "This is some rescue!" This survives into Empire Strikes Back, about a third of which is about the sexual tension between Han and Leia, and even into the slightly more cardboard Return of the Jedi. Now, granted, Attack of the Clones has a better stab at creating some characters than Phantom Menace: but they never sparkle. They are primarily there to go through the motions of advancing the plot. Anakin is going to rebel against Obi-Wan and go bad; Amidala is going to fall in love with Anakin. There is no group dynamic, only a collection of plot-coupons.
Once upon a time it seemed rather bizarre to imagine that there could be a Star Trek series which didn't feature Sperk, Kock and Bones. Surely, Star Trek was reducible to those three characters? But Mr Roddenbury, having half a brain at least, sat down and said "If I come up with a new set of characters, with some of the same themes and ideas behind them, then people will accept Star Trek: Next Generation as a new version of the same show. And so it proved. Say what you like about Enterprise or Voyager, and I often do, but each version of Star Trek has been based around a set of characters whose interactions are likely to generate amusing narrative situations. Cardassian civil wars come a very poor second.
So why, oh why could not Mr Lucas think along these lines? "I need to think up a set of half a dozen cool characters, he could have said -- quite possibly one of them a bit roguish and one of them a bit mystical -- and get them together in Episode I, and keep them together until Episode III. And I need to make them as much fun to spend time with as the characters I created in Star Wars. And then I need to think up some cool adventures for them to have. Perhaps I'll have them fighting baddies, who we can call, for the sake of argument, "The Sith". And in the background to their adventures, I can leak some data about the Old Republic, and then, as a sub-plot, we can show how Obi Wan's apprentice goes bad and turns evil. He'll be a minor character in the first film, and the main villain in the last one."
But, alas, what Lucas actually did was say "Gosh, everyone is bound to be fascinated to find our who Luke's mother was, and precisely what it was which turned his Dad bad; and won't they just be so thrilled to see a young Obi and a young Darth walking into a bar together. When they see Anakin and Amidala fall in love, they will know that they are witnessing an awesomely important event in galactic history; and that will make the film seem important, and that importance will be enough to carry the film all by itself."
It ain't so, George. It just ain't so.