Attack of the Cloner Tomatoes

Or: Why George Lucas is Never Getting My Money Again

(May 23, 2002)

So this last Saturday afternoon, a group of the usual suspects and I wandered into Chelsea to see "Attack of the Clones." Our expectations were low. We brought alcohol, on the theory that it could only help. And we were still grievously disappointed.

Since I'm pretty sure that the number of people interested in hearing me rant on about George Lucas' filmaking skills is a low one, let me start out with the most interesting part of the story, which actually happened at the very end: after the film, Dave, Neal and I got pulled aside by a rep from HBO's "At the Multiplex with Judy Gold", which was shooting a segment at the theater, and wanted to interview people coming out of the Star Wars film about their impressions. Never being one to turn down the chance to make a fool of myself in front of millions of people, I signed the release, and you should allegedly be able to see Dave Kirkpatrick and I do battle with Darth Blondus next Saturday night (5/25), around 7:30pm, just before the premiere of "Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within." Well, assuming that they decide we were funny enough, and that Ms. Gold doesn't hold me nearly shattering her kneecap with my umbrella against her.

Oh yeah, the film. What follows is several paragraphs of ranting about a "Star Wars" film. This is by definition an overly geeky waste of electrons. Stop reading now. You were warned.

Basically, having George Lucas come over to my office and piss on my shoes would have been a more enjoyable experience. I haven't seen this kind of contempt for the audience in a major motion picture since The Fifth Element. This isn't "a movie you have to suspend disbelief for." This isn't "a movie that doesn't bear much analysis." This is a terrible movie, full stop. Practically every aspect of its making, from the screenplay on down through the direction, acting, editing and cinematography (yes, the cinematography; more on that later) is flabbergastingly slipshod.

Yes, the visual effects are brilliant, but this is allegedly a movie, not Industrial Light and Magic's 2003 SIGGRAPH demo reel.

Is it worse than "The Phantom Menace?" That's a tough call. "Phantom" was a lousy movie, but in retrospect its sins seem somewhat forgivable. Extrinsically, it was Lucas' first screenplay and directing experience in over 15 years, so you could understand that it felt sketchy and amateurish. And intrinsically (and more importantly), the story that "Phantom" was telling wasn't one that anybody really cared about. No ten-year-old who walked out of "The Empire Strikes Back" in 1980 did so with a deep urge to find out how Darth Vader spent his kindergarden years. If Lucas wanted to spend an entire motion picture telling a story that could just as easily have been covered in a book, a TV special or six lines in the opening crawl of the next movie, well, that was unfortunate, but it didn't really have any bearing on your feelings about the first three movies. All of the terrible things in "Phantom" -- Jar Jar and the Gungans, the Midochlorians, Natalie Portman's diction -- could be safely tuned out, and you could just concentrate on the lighsaber duels. It had, in the end, no relevance. On paper, "Attack of the Clones" contains at least a few less of the last movie's primary annoyances (Jar Jar, for instance, shows up just long enough to destroy the Republic -- seriously), but this time Lucas is trying to tell the story that we actually paid our $9.50 to see. The stakes are higher, and the loss is greater.

Let's start with the biggest problem. Lucas received a lot of very justifiable criticism for the quality of The Phantom Menace's screenplay, and so for "Attack of the Clones", he brought in Jonathan Hales, a veteran of some of Lucasfilm's television productions, to work on the script with him. Yet, despite the presence of professional supervision, AOTC's dialogue is actually worse than the last movie. Much, much worse. No, I didn't think it could be done either, but there it is. Poor Sam Jackson has to struggle to put a dramatic spin on lines like "The party's over, Dooku!" Christopher Lee is visibly holding a poker face for "I can see that this battle will not be resolved testing our mastery of the force." Nobody is spared: each charater has at least one line that will make you want to jam needles into your ears. Some of them have more than one. Lots more. It wouldn't be so bad if this was the kind of film that told a story with action and reserved talking for occasional character development, but Lucas has chosen to tell nearly the whole story with expository speeches, so the pain never stops.

That, of course, brings us to the acting, which can often lift up and transcend a shoddy script. No such luck here. There is a huge, gaping void at the middle of this film, and its names are "Hayden Christensen" and "Natalie Portman."

It's hard to tell if Christensen is actually the worst actor in the known universe, or if he's just completely at a loss in the face of the script, the non-direction and the omnipresent blue-screen effects. I'm going to be charitable and assume the latter, since on the rare, happy moments when the script calls for him to stop talking and just move, he almost begins to suggest what should have been: a swaggering, yet sometimes hesitant teenager, who is just beginning to realize his own potential. But it all comes crashing down every time he opens his mouth. He's supposed to be the dramatic center of this story, and his delivery is just terrible: you cringe when he declares (over, and over again) his love for Amidala, you want to smack him senseless every time he starts to grouse about Obi-Wan, and you have to suppress sniggers when he begs forgiveness for his mistakes. Who knew that the Dark Lord of the Sith was such a whiny bitch? For all of the flap that broke out when Lucas briefly considered casting N'Sync for some bit parts, I suspect any of them could have turned in a better performance.

Portman, on the other hand, has no excuse at all. She's an established and respected actress who has done solid work in plenty of other films. From interviews with her, I gather that she simply doesn't like the Star Wars films, and she's apparently unhappy about being stuck in the part. I guess I can't blame her for either, especially after being forced to dress up like a low-rent Britney Spears clone for the last half of this film. But you know what? When you're being paid several million dollars to act in a film, there's no excuse for phoning it in. Her reading is consistantly flat, except when it's shrill, and there's nothing in her voice or her bearing to suggest the leader that the character is supposed to be.

The only actor who walks away with any dignity intact is Temuera Morrison, who manages to inbue the bit part of Jango Fett with enough sheer physical presence that you barely notice how few lines he has. Apparently not content to just recite his lines in front of the bluescreen and collect his paycheck, Morrison actually acts, and everybody else in the film looks shamefully inept by comparison. It took me a while to recognize him, but Morrison is the same actor who played the astonishing -- and terrifying -- character of Jake in Once Were Warriors. Even coasting on a quarter of what he brought to that role, he's still magnetic here.

But okay, nobody goes to multimillion dollar space fantasy movie for the acting, and Harrison Ford's breakout performance in "Empire" was just a happy accident. So the action scenes should make up for it, right? If only.

The saber battle with Darth Maul at the end of "Phantom" nearly made up for everything else in the whole movie. But here, without Ray Park's spectacular acrobatic skills on hand, both major duals are against Christopher Lee's Count Dooku, and one of them is between Lee and Yoda, who is entirely a digital effect. Now, Christopher Lee is a fine actor, but there is no getting around the fact that he is eighty years old; even older than Alec Guiness was in the first movie. His fighting scenes are short and effect-laden, with many jump-cuts to disguise the presence of a double, and the much-heralded battle with Yoda resembles nothing so much as one of the end stages of Sonic the Hedgehog.

The only action sequence that almost consistantly works is the showstopper at the end: a rolling battle that starts out in a Roman-style arena, and rumbles onward and outward with inexorable momentum to become the first major engagement of the Clone Wars. For a few brief moments, you can get a feel for what this film could have been: it's actually exciting, engaging, and propulsive. There's a fleeting sense of actual danger and, because the audience knows a few facts that the characters don't, menace.

But even at the key moment, when all Lucas had to do was coast and let the effects team do its stuff, he can't seem to get out of his own way. For the first half of the battle, he keeps cutting away from the action for a series of stunningly lame comic relief bits with C-3PO. They're not even slightly funny, and they completely break the rhythm of the scene: it's like he wanted to make sure that everyone over the age of 6 in the audience knew what contempt he held them in. And when that's over, and you're just about feeling safe in enjoying the rest of it, he cuts away again to a completely superfluous scene letting you know that Count Dooku actually designed the Death Star. (Just in case you didn't get it the first time you see the Death Star's outline on a screen in the background, he shows it two you twice more in close-up.) I guess this was meant as some kind of sop to the fans in the audience, but it's just another agonizing misstep, and you watch it with your teeth clenched, waiting for the action to resume.

Unfortunatly, those kind of directoral and editorial misjudgements are the dominant motif of this movie. Even the little things are off: over a decade after "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" convincingly sold Bob Hoskins reacting to a nonexistant character in nearly every scene, Lucas still can't get the actors to block correctly around the CGI characters unless they're all standing still. (In Jar Jar's mercifully brief scenes, everybody seems to be nervously dancing around an invisible hole the the floor of the set.) Lucas consistantly opts to tell rather than show, and so the dialogue problems are magnified by the fact that the characters spend so much time explaining the movie to each other. The editing is no better: dozens of scenes open with a horizontal wipe onto nearly identical-looking landscape matte paintings; you can't figure out which setting you're watching until the characters finally walk onscreen.

Worse yet, Lucas seems to have spent so much time over the past few years plotting out ever more spectacular digital effects that he appears to be completely at a loss the moment he's off a soundstage. The first time the film cuts to a location shot, for an outdoor love scene on Naboo with Portman and Christensen, it's jarring: the digital sheen of the painted-in cityscapes is gone, and all of the shots seem grainy, out of focus and poorly framed. To add insult to injury, Portman is made to do a "Sound of Music" run through a field of flowers in a flowing dress, while Christensen tries to ride a CGI animal that appears to be a giant hamster.

Some of the film's moments are flat-out mystifying. An assassin in the first act turns out, after her death, to have been a shape-shifter. Why? Well, apparently Lucas thought it would be cool to have her turn into a lizard as she died. Just to make sure we didn't miss it, he gives Anakin a clunker of a line to draw our attention to it: "I think she might be a changeling!" But it leads nowhere: all of her action is in the guise of a human, and no other shapeshifters appear in the film after she's gone. Was there a scene or a plotline that was cut that would have given this some context? It's a complete non-sequitor, and it's not the only one.

And remember the grief Lucas got for the alleged ethnic stereotyping of some of the alien creatures of the last movie? Well, we get his response here, and it's a middle finger raised on high: Watto, the slave dealer from "The Phantom Menace" who appeared as a caricature of the Dirty Jew to many eyes, now sports a little wide-brimmed Hasidic hat. Thanks George, very mature. (Just for the record, I don't think Lucas is really a racist or an anti-semite. I just think he's an ass.)

The sad thing is that from a 30,000-foot view, the basic story is servicable enough. "Boy meets girl. Boy can't have girl. Boy meets Senator. Senator is orchestrating a war to propell himself to absolute power. Boy gets girl, but war breaks out. To Be Continued..." It would not have taken a lot of effort to make this into a thoroughly entertaining film. But at just about every possible turn Lucas sabotages his own best ideas, failing in the execution again and again.

Whether out of wisdom or laziness, Lucas handed "The Empire Strikes Back" to a writer (Leigh Brackett) and a director (Irvin Kershner) infinitely more competant than himself, and in doing so produced one of the most memorable and beloved fantasy films of all time. The tragedy of "Attack of the Clones" is that he didn't have the sense to do it again.

To reiterate what I said the first time: if you haven't seen this movie yet, don't. As long as Lucas (and hacks like him) gets financially rewarded for churning out crap like this, they're going to keep doing it. Remember, only you can prevent bloated, wretched, brainless "Summer Event Films." Watch safely.

p.s. Go see "Spider-Man". It's good.