It was an enormous task to make a second Star Wars movie. To follow up that explosion of a success, that immense phenomenon must have been terribly challenging on so many levels. What these filmmakers did with The Empire Strikes Back was a masterstroke of genius. Instead of retreading the same tone, pace, action, and style of Star Wars, George Lucas and Irvin Kershner, along with screenwriters Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan, chose to make this a film about character development and darker consequences as a second act in a trilogy. Characters would mature, the dangers they faced were more dire, there would be heavy losses, and some major revelations would surface. Whether it was the general consensus or not, I would still state that this is the best Star Wars film to date.
Despite the destruction of the Death Star, the Rebel Alliance still flees from the might of the Galactic Empire to the remote, barren ice planet of Hoth. There, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) receives a vision from a ghostly Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guiness) to seek out Jedi Master Yoda on the planet Dagobah. When the Empire finally locates the rebel’s base, an imperial assault drives them to evacuate in a crippling loss. Captain Han Solo (Harrison Ford) escapes with Wookie co-pilot Chewbacca, Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher), and the protocol droid C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) aboard the Millennium Falcon, but with their hyperdrive damaged, they are forced to evade the Imperial fleet in an asteroid field. Later, they seek sanctuary at the beautiful Cloud City from Han’s old gambling and smuggling buddy Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams). Meanwhile, Luke begins his training with the wise and unexpected teacher in Yoda. However, with the evil Lord Darth Vader vehemently intent on finding young Skywalker, Luke races to save his friends from a painful vision, against Yoda and Kenobi’s warnings of temptations of the Dark Side of The Force. What awaits the Jedi-in-training is a startling revelation and great peril for him and his heroic friends.
I really like the reversal of structure on this film. It starts out with the bigger adventure aspects, and the major battle between the Rebellion and the Empire. Then, it descends into the more character driven aspects building towards very deep personal conflicts and resolutions. It satisfies your expectations up front with some peril and fun, and proceeds to exceed them with a much more emotionally powerful storyline. Where the first film had our heroes all gradually coming together for an adventure against a large scale threat, this one has them separate so to further explore their own personal journeys. Ultimately, they come out of it wounded and changed.
The film really wastes no time in establishing the darker, more dangerous tone as Luke is attacked by a Wampa Ice Creature while on patrol. It adds some well crafted fear and tension into the film. This perilous sequence further builds the bonds of friendship between Han and Luke as Captain Solo risks his life to save his friend’s. Luke’s ultimate escape from the creature’s cave gave us our first look at what The Force can do. Before, it was mind tricks and a sort of second sight. It was all very abstract and mystical, but when Luke uses The Force to pull his lightsaber to his hand to free himself, we see what that power can physically and practically do. It’s a wondrous moment that sparks the magic of Star Wars. Yet, the film shows us the true depth and nature of The Force when Luke seeks out Yoda, and brilliantly expands upon the vague ideas we got in the previous movie. Yoda teaches him to change his perceptions in that the physical has no bearing on the potential of The Force, merely your will and clarity of mind are relevant. Yoda shows Luke that it’s his own self-imposed perceptions and limitations that are the instruments of his own failures. The tests Yoda puts him through are difficult ones that are meant to confront him with frightening truths of where his path may take him if he follows his impulses and passions. Luke may have matured somewhat, but he still has an impatience and impulsive quality that puts him into danger. He’s allowing his emotions to guide him without the wisdom or experience to temper those emotions. It’s a fascinating journey that Luke takes in this film as he does begin to understand the philosophy of a Jedi, but the dire peril of his friends is something he cannot shake from his mind. He knows it’s likely a trap, and is unprepared for what Lord Vader has in store for him.
The Battle of Hoth is excellently done giving us a land battle to contrast the space battles of the original Star Wars. We see the rebels utilize some strategy in attempting to topple those awesome Imperial Walkers to buy time for the evacuation of Echo Base. It’s a big, impressive, and exciting opening to this film that has Star Wars again showing us something that had never been seen before. This sequence showcases the evolution in effects work by Industrial Light & Magic. They really achieved something exceptional here, and continued to do so throughout the film. They truly exceeded their own standards of excellence here. The first Star Wars was groundbreaking in the realm of visual effects, and ILM was motivated to keep pushing the boundaries of what was possible. The asteroid sequence is spectacular, as is so much from top to bottom here. The Go-Motion effects with the Tauntauns remain excellent, and the model effects are still some of the most impressive in cinema history. It is no wonder that this won a Special Achievement Award for Visual Effects at the Academy Awards. They, without a doubt, earned it with every new fantastic sequence of thrilling imagery. And furthermore, the matte paintings are stunningly gorgeous, and are beautifully integrated into the rich visuals of the film.
The Empire is presented perfectly here. The reveal of the fleet and the Super Star Destroyer creates a sense of scale and power to their presence. To me, they feel like an even more formidable military force than they were in the previous film. We have more troops, more ships, more personnel, and more resources, and their early victory over the Rebellion sets a tone of desperation and danger for our heroes. Darth Vader himself is clearly unleashed in this film. He’s not held back by Tarkin or the Emperor. He’s assuming complete command over everything, and stops at nothing in attempting to crush the Rebellion and obtain what he wants. There’s no one stopping him from Force choking Admirals, and promoting people to take their place, putting the fear of death into them to motivate their success. Once the Emperor does endorse his quest to capture Luke Skywalker, Vader uses every resource at his disposal, such as the bounty hunters, and becomes an even more frightening threat. This is a major part of why I think this is the best film of the franchise. The villains are out in full force, not hiding behind protocol or deception, and showing their near ever-present might. Nowhere else in the saga do the antagonists feel so hell-bent on crushing our heroes, and they’re nearly winning for most of the film. It’s said that a hero is only as great as the enemy he faces, and this film shows us the vast scale and threat of the Empire like no other. Our heroes are left with a steep failure to rise back up against for the next film.
I do like that, for all the darker tone and subject matter, the film never forgets to inject fun and humor at appropriate moments. We still get the overly excited panic of C-3PO, the cute moments with R2-D2, and the humorous quips and sharp banter between the other heroes. Even Yoda is given a nearly hilarious introduction into the film as he plays with Luke’s misconceptions, and has a playful time with him and his droid friend. It’s all handled wonderfully to keep the film lively while never intruding upon the more dramatic and dire aspects of the film. It’s a perfect balance, and it wouldn’t feel like Star Wars without it.
Speaking of Yoda, he proves to be an inspirational achievement. I can definitely understand the apprehensions of the filmmakers in putting what was essentially a Muppet on film, and hoping it will come off as life-like. However, with the amazing work of designer Stuart Freeborn and performer Frank Oz, this magical character came to stunning life. Every word spoken had the weight and gravity of the most talented and credible actor behind it. There are many subtle expressions worked into Yoda that further created a believable character that an audience never questioned the realism of. This was all vitally important due to Yoda’s poignant role in the film in training Luke in the ways of the Jedi, and bestowing upon us the deeper ideals, wisdom, and philosophies of The Force. Because of the brilliant work of all these fantastically talented effects masters and performers, he were treated to one of the most fascinating, insightful, and endearing characters of this saga. We were previously intrigued by The Force, but I feel that Yoda truly made us believe in its power beyond all imagination. He opened up our minds to its possibilities, and the potential it had within Luke. Through Yoda, The Force was wondrously mystical and magical, and taught us the weight of commitment and responsibility to becoming a Jedi. Everything that needed to be known about The Force was revealed to us in this film by a rubber puppet, and we never doubted it for an instant. That is the magic of cinema.
The Empire Strikes Back is filled with some tight pacing and urgency. The signature intercutting between storylines creates that great rhythm which keeps the film engaging without drawing any one scene out too much. There’s almost always something interesting developing even if it’s not a rousing action sequence. This is greatly helped by the expert, tight editing by Paul Hirsch. He and director Irvin Kershner knew when to cut to the right angle, and when to let a shot play out. And the film is shot so dramatically perfect with solid compositions and superb camera movements pushing in at the right moments and giving the film scope and scale with sweeping and subtle camera work. Lighting is always excellent giving personality and mood where needed to the appropriate scenes. Irvin Kershner really helped up the visual storytelling in The Empire Strikes Back, and the refined, polished quality enhances the overall picture immensely. George Lucas was the executive producer and did have creative input, but he allowed Kershner to make the movie his own. So, while it is generally Lucas’ story, this is Kershner’s film through and through.
This truly is an emotionally powerful film hitting us with a vast array of pain, fear, sorrow, heartbreak, and disturbing revelations and insights. Our heroes are put through a maelstrom of hell in their journeys. Luke learns the most from it on the most personal of levels which challenge him right down to his core. I love seeing the maturity take form in Return of the Jedi showing that he has learned a great deal from these events, but he had to experience some terribly hard learned lessons. Sometimes, we can only learn to commit ourselves to change when faced with the absolute worst of consequences, and that’s Luke’s journey here.
Even Han and Leia are faced with their own pain and heartache. Their love for one another is apparent almost from the start. They wouldn’t be so mad with one another if they didn’t care so much, but it takes a series of worsening pitfalls and dangers for them to begin to genuinely show that affection. This is punctuated like a dagger through the heart in the Carbon Freezing Chamber scene where they have the most heartbreaking of parting words. It is undoubtedly this moment, where we see the severe anguish on Leia’s face, that motivates Lando into taking action. Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher have amazingly sharp chemistry in all their scenes together selling every nuance of Han and Leia’s relationship. It’s a very emotionally natural progression of two characters who really did not like each other at first trying to hide their feelings through conflict, but their true emotions break further and further into the surface. It is glorious work on both actors’ parts as well as Irvin Kershner’s detailed and masterful direction.
The returning cast shows a lot of growth. Primarily, Mark Hamill matures with the character of Luke Skywalker. He carries the heaviest weight in this film with a great deal of subtle emotions and deep rooted fears. You feel the honest depth of Luke in Hamill’s performance as he struggles with his training, and the thread of fear that is ever present as he battles Darth Vader. He tries to mask and control his fear, but he slowly realizes how outmatched he is as Vader gains the upper hand. Hamill delves deep into a real well of pain and desperation by the end which really penetrates powerfully into an audience. Mark Hamill was required to stretch his acting abilities much further than the first Star Wars film demanded, and he rose to the task admirably and successfully. The wonder of Yoda is also sold through Hamill’s performance, and the urgency of the latter half of the film is driven by his remarkable acting.
We also get Harrison Ford maturing Han Solo as well. He shows a lot more responsibility to himself and his friends, conveying respect to his fellow rebels, and leaving behind that “out for himself” arrogant attitude. The more juvenile aspects only really show up in the heated moments when rash action is necessary, or when he’s arguing with Leia or 3PO. However, when circumstances become more grim, Han shows that he is a far more matured character handling the situations with a lot of earnestness. Ford probably puts in his best performance as Han Solo in this film because it has the most for him to work with between the romantic arc with Leia, the comic timing with Chewbacca and C-3PO, and dealing with the betrayal of Lando. It was a strong and diverse spectrum for Ford to work with, and by no surprise, he achieved it with ease.
I truly love the addition of Lando Calrissian. Where Han Solo was a very roguish outlaw, Lando’s a gambler. He can come off as a legitimate businessman, but is able to manipulate people and events to his liking. With Vader, he succumbs to the might of the Empire only until the stakes are too high where not acting is too costly of a choice to make. Even with appearing in less than half the film, Lando has a strong character arc to traverse. He tries to bargain everyone’s way out of a worse scenario while betraying his friends to the Empire, but as I said, when he sees the price of bowing to their demands, he shows who he is deep down inside by trying to save Han’s friends from a potentially terrible fate. Billy Dee Williams puts in an excellent performance showing off Calrissian’s smooth charisma, but also reflecting the frustration and dire weight of Lando’s situation. He walks the line of friend and adversary very masterfully. Lando’s struggling with the effort to do right by everyone, and you can see that painful internal conflict play out in Billy Dee’s performance.
And of course, many fans would be remised if I did not make mention of Boba Fett. The fascination with this bounty hunter really stems from something like Clint Eastwood’s The Man With No Name character. A gritty, mysterious man who doesn’t speak much, but when he does, it carries a great deal of weight. Fett is someone who only speaks when he has something important to say. That creates intrigue. It makes him standout because it creates a certain looming presence. Also, the original voice for Fett provided by Jason Wingreen was absolutely perfect with its right amount of grit and vile attitude. A voice can tell you a lot about a character’s personality, and get that with Wingreen’s voice work. Additionally, Vader tells Boba Fett, specifically, “No disintegrations.” That lays an air of ruthlessness on Fett, and smartly spotlights him amongst the other eclectic bounty hunters in that scene. Plus, where everyone else has failed to capture Captain Solo and the Millennium Falcon, Fett succeeds using some subversive cunning of his own, which demonstrates the character’s intelligence. He’s a subtly developed character that quickly builds that air of mystique around himself. Furthermore, all of this is done without Fett ever having to fire a blaster. He physically does very little in the movie, but it’s the results of his actions which count. It surely helps that he, like Darth Vader, is hidden under a mask and armor. It makes you wonder more about who he is.
I honestly believe this film features John Williams’ best work of the Star Wars saga. With the more character driven story, he is given a broader canvas to work with, and to create a more diverse and powerful score. The beautiful compositions pull at the heartstrings making one feel the immense weight of emotion throughout the film. Every moment of magical wonder, ominous threat, romantic richness, and rousing excitement is lushly and gorgeously on display in every note he commits to this score. “The Imperial March” is the most notable debut here creating a militaristic musical presence for the oppressive Galactic Empire, and is one of my absolute favorites. However, Leia’s theme gets a sweeping enhancement accentuating the film’s romantic feelings. I own the scores for all six films on CD, but this is the one I listen to most often because of its wider breadth of artistry and cinematic beauty.
The Empire Strikes Back also showcases a lot of great imagination in its production design. It’s great seeing the scope of the Echo Base hangar with the full size X-Wings and Millennium Falcon there along with various other Rebel Alliance vehicles. The integration of the ice caverns into the technology of the base is done with a lot of attention to detail for an interesting visual aesthetic. However, the most notable environments are the swamps of Dagobah and the immaculate Cloud City of Bespin. Yoda’s adopted home gives us a location full of lush life where one would imagine that The Force is very strong here, as life is what creates it and allows it to grow. This was all created on a soundstage, and that is just a fantastic accomplishment. This makes me think why the same effect of depth and all encompassing realism couldn’t have been achieved for the Genesis Planet sequences in Star Trek III: The Search For Spock. In that film, similar environments were created on a soundstage, and are blatantly obvious as being set on a soundstage. Here, Dagobah looks and feels like a wholly authentic environment. Never does it feel like a fabricated set. That’s the immense care and hard work that were put into these films by exhaustive crews and talented artists.
Still, it is Cloud City that is my favorite Star Wars environment. I’ve never seen another design in science fiction quite like it. The rounded buildings and corridors with their subtly textured stark white walls give us a very picturesque locale. It also feels like something elegant and futuristic that would come out of the era of 1980. It feels like a peaceful city, and is surely a new, unique, and welcoming world to visit. However, once things turn ill for our heroes, we are plunged deeper into the more industrial bowels of the city where it just gets darker and darker both literally and figuratively. I think the overall design is beautifully inspired, and I am so glad to own the book The Art of Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back. I fond memories of reading through this gorgeous large format book, and being inspired by the designs and matte paintings. It made me want to run home and watch the movie that night.
While there is not as much action here as there was in the first Star Wars, there is no shortage of imagination. I absolutely love the asteroid chase sequence as the Millennium Falcon weaves its way through this near certain death trap to evade the forces of the Empire. John Williams’ score in this sequence is another one of my favorites which reflects both the rousing adventure aspect and the high tension and danger of it. What Han does after escaping the asteroid field to further elude the Empire is ingenious, and perfectly on-the-mark for Solo’s craftiness. It shows his intelligence and sharp thinking that define the cunningness of his character.
The entire climax is just brilliant all the way through. Lando, Leia, Chewie, and the droids escaping Cloud City is wholly exciting giving us some fun and dramatic beats along the way, but ultimately, a sense of elation as they fly away on the Millennium Falcon. However, it is the confrontation between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader that is the centerpiece of the film. The dark tone reaches its pinnacle in the shadowy, smoky Carbon Freezing Chamber where their duel begins with a chilling line from Vader, “The Force is with you, young Skywalker, but you are not a Jedi, yet.” That dark environment, with its moody orange and blue lighting, establishes an ominous, foreboding atmosphere that is only heightened in the latter two parts of their escalating duel. While it was never clear in the context of the film, after seeing a schematic of Cloud City, I could see that Luke actually does descend further and further into the depths of the city until he literally falls out the underside of it. That descent is such a perfect metaphor for what is actually happening to Luke in this battle with Vader. For the first two sections, it’s Vader testing Luke, seeing how proficient and resourceful he is. He wants to be able to inform the Emperor of how advanced Skywalker is in his training, and how susceptible he is to the Dark Side. However, the final part on the gantry is Vader letting loose entirely, and we see how truly outmatched Luke is against the dangerously aggressive Dark Lord. Here is where Luke pays the price for rushing headlong into this confrontation without the proper training. Yet, the action is not the ultimate pay-off. The legendary and climactic revelation in this scene is shocking, and I’m sure, back in 1980, this left audiences stunned and in disbelief. Mark Hamill’s acting in this scene is intense, and couldn’t be more perfect. It’s a culmination of all the emotional trials he has battled through this entire film, and it hits him with all the dread in the universe. It creates that final emotional stinger which carries the momentum of dire peril through to the film’s end, and leaves an audience in suspense for the resolution of everything in Return of the Jedi.
The Empire Strikes Back is an absolute masterpiece of cinema, in my honest opinion. I would not change a single frame from the original theatrical release, period. The late director Irvin Kershner did a marvelous job focusing this film so tightly and strongly on the characters, making their development the core of the story without losing what makes Star Wars entertaining and rich. All that was crafted for this film from the screenwriters to Kershner’s input, made this not a sequel, but a second act in a trilogy. That opened up the possibilities far wider allowing for growth to occur, and consequences to be faced that would require a final chapter to resolve fully. The characters are hurt physically and emotionally, but also, they learn a great deal from their defeats. The film may have a down ending, but that final scene where everyone is gathered back together, mending their wounds and setting plans to rescue Han, leaves an audience with hope that they will return for further heroics and redeem their losses. As time has gone on, my choice for favorite film of the saga has shifted from the original Star Wars to The Empire Strikes Back due to the depth of character, emotion, and consequence in the story. Even more so now, I can vastly appreciate the level of filmmaking artistry and talent on display here from all involved, and it should be always heralded as one of the finest works of cinema.
With Attack of the Clones there was some improvement in the prequels, but many of the stinging problems from The Phantom Menace still exist here. The pace is generally improved with some more action sequences, some better characters, and more interesting locales to explore. However, the supposed “love story” between Anakin Skywalker and Padmé Amidala couldn’t be more contrived or agonizingly acted. Of course, there are frivolous character and story elements peppered throughout which have no bearing on anything at all. So, let’s jump into it, and deconstruct Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones.
Set ten years after the events of The Phantom Menace. Padmé Amidala (Natalie Portman) is now the Senator of the planet Naboo, and is leading the opposition to creating an army of the Republic. This is in response to a faction of political separatists, led by former Jedi Count Dooku (Christopher Lee), who want to breakaway from the Republic. After an assassination attempt on the Senator’s life, Jedi Knight Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) and his Padawan learner Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) are sent to protect her. After the assassin strikes again with the Jedi thwarting the attempt, they capture the assassin, but she is killed by a bounty hunter named Jango Fett (Temuera Morrison) before they can obtain any answers. The Jedi Council then send Obi-Wan and Anakin on separate missions with Chancellor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) fearing for Senator Amidala’s safety. Anakin is sent with Padmé to Naboo as a protector. However, their feelings for one another slowly stir to the surface causing emotional conflicts for them. Worse yet, nightmares of his mother trouble Anakin enough to return to Tatoonie in an attempt to save her from dire peril. Meanwhile, Obi-Wan’s investigation ultimately leads him to the planet Kamino where he uncovers a deeper conspiracy involving this assassination plot, the Separatist movement, and a Clone Army which could lead to all-out galactic war.
While there are various negatives I wish to point out here, let me counter-balance the review of Episode I by starting out with some positive aspects of this film. Mainly, the visual effects are far improved and much more consistent than what The Phantom Menace offered. It’s hard to believe that CGI evolved so much in such a short span of time, but the industry required it. Bigger films were being made now because filmmakers saw what could be accomplished, and the technology and artistry of these effects houses simply pushed hard to match up with the demand. Everything is generally more detailed in Episode II, and the story allowed for a more vast and diverse set of locations, vehicles, props, and alien creatures. So, there was more of a canvas to apply the improvements in digital filmmaking. Still, the movie is starved for more practical locations. Granted, many don’t exist in reality, but the constant filming against blue screens begins to wear thin. It takes away from the potential depth of the frame, and the tangibility of the environments they inhabit. So much of it just feels fake because it is fake.
On a better note, George’s decision to shoot in high definition digital video was something I was supportive of, same as with Robert Rodriguez. That evolution in video camera technology has actually allowed for my independent filmmaker career to exist. Unfortunately, I did not see Attack of the Clones in a digital projection theatre. That experience would have to wait for Revenge of the Sith.
Another positive is that there is more life with a few characters. Ewan McGregor steps into the mentor role of Obi-Wan Kenobi well injecting some nice dimension into his scenes. He feels more fleshed out and comfortable this time around. A little chuckle here, some urgency there go a long way to show the depth and personality of his matured Kenobi. He truly feels like a good leader, a fine Jedi, and an interesting character to follow now. His single scene opposite Kenobi’s alien friend Dex shows more intelligible and relatable character traits from him than most anything displayed in The Phantom Menace. It shows both a jovial, friendly side, but also, the inquisitive mind of the character. McGregor is surely an excellent actor with a wide range, and I am glad that his talent was allowed to be more in the forefront here. Of everyone in the prequels, his performances feel the most natural and dimensional. I feel he sells Anakin’s downfall more that Hayden Christensen does.
The legendary Christopher Lee gives us a villain with some substance in Count Dooku. I only find it unfortunate that he doesn’t show up until half way through the film. This would be better if he was built up more to create mystery or anticipation around him, but he’s barely mentioned in that first half of the movie. And where Darth Maul had nothing to say for himself, Dooku has plenty, and Lee works his scenes very well. There’s enough ambiguity about Dooku to build suspicion and doubt over what he claims to be truth. Lee’s performance rides the fence of a man who could either be a straight out villain or a controversial strong leader who has a valid point of view. He’s just shady enough to keep it all uncertain. His scene opposite the imprisoned Kenobi is quite rich with juicy character interactions. It is a pleasure indeed.
Unfortunately, from there, the quality of the performances start to get more one dimensional and hollow. Natalie Portman, again, is reflected as a far lesser grade acting talent than she truly is with poor characterization and awkward, ineffective emotions. While she has a generally good show of emotions, they seem to lack depth or realism. The romance, of sorts, between Padmé and Anakin never feels earned, only forced. For the life of me, I cannot rationalize why a young woman dedicated to peaceful, intelligent solutions would ultimately marry a man who confessed to a rage filled slaughter. Tusken Raiders or no, Padmé has always sought out the way of peace in all situations. She never comes off as someone in favor of blind hatred or rage, and in all other instances, appears to have a distaste towards unwarranted violence. She didn’t murder Nute Gunray at the end of the last film. She retook her throne and put him into the custody of the authorities. She believes in justice, and resolving conflicts with negotiation and rational thought. However, she marries a man who is volatile, insubordinate, emotionally unstable, immature, and supports tyrannical political ideals. There is no rational reason they would be attracted to one another side from the physical aspect.
Now, I really don’t know any of Hayden Christensen’s other work to offer a perspective on his talents. Granted, the characterization of Anakin Skywalker is not his fault at all. He played the character that was on the page. There’s nothing different he could’ve done with what he was given to make Anakin a better character. Still, there are many moments where he comes off as wooden. Much of his intended “serious” or “mature” dialogue is delivered with a drab, downtrodden empty quality. As with Portman, there’s no depth behind what is said. Anakin Skywalker should have been a rich character with many sides from the brave and honorable to the conflicted and troubled. Considering the entire saga is ultimately his story from innocent child to conflicted Jedi Knight to the evil Darth Vader to redemption through his son, Anakin Skywalker should have been the most fascinating character of all six films, but he ultimately comes off as one of the least interesting and most annoying in these prequels. So, what Lucas gives us is a very immature and flat character who has little for an audience to emotionally invest themselves in.
There are other characters which I do have things to say about, mainly the Jedi Masters, but they are best left for my summation in the Revenge of the Sith review to avoid redundant criticisms. However, to briefly touch upon those thoughts, I have to say that if Yoda has nothing intelligent or pertinent to say, he ought to keep his mouth shut. So much of his dialogue ultimately makes him seem like a short-sighted fool. He has plenty of opportunities to act upon the bad vibes coming off of Anakin, but he never takes any action in response to them. And I do believe having Yoda engage in frivolous lightsaber battles is a terrible idea. Instead of criticizing the cringe inducing visual of Yoda flying around like a video game character and acting like some dim-witted action hero parody, I want to point out the purpose of lightsaber battles in the Star Wars saga. They are a plot device used to twist the storyline into a new direction, and that is not at all a negative thing. However, that is not the case with Yoda’s duels.
For example: the climactic saber duel in The Phantom Menace results in the death of Qui-Gon Jinn which gives way to Anakin being less-than-well trained by Obi-Wan. The death of Darth Maul opens the way for Dooku to become the new Sith apprentice, and setup the circumstances for the Clone War. In Attack of the Clones, Anakin charges into battle, gets his arm chopped off, and begins to lose more of his humanity from this loss. This motivates him to kill Dooku in Revenge of the Sith, and his death makes way for the rise of Darth Vader. Then, Obi-Wan destroys Grievous, and thus, motivates the end of the Clone War, the attempted arrest of Palpatine, and Anakin’s turn to the Dark Side of the Force. Vader versus Obi-Wan in that same film results in the half-man, half-machine Sith Lord, destroying Anakin Skywalker further. Ben Kenobi’s death in A New Hope allows him to become “more powerful than you can possibly imagine” by becoming one with The Force, and helping to guide Luke anywhere at anytime. The duel in The Empire Strikes Back clearly sets up a whole host of character and plot twists to the point where in Return of the Jedi, the final duel between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader becomes the catalyst for Luke to put down his arms, and ultimately, instigate the event that turns Darth Vader back into Anakin Skywalker. So, you see, lightsaber duels are never gratuitous action scenes. They serve a very specific plot purpose. That is except for all of Yoda’s lightsaber battles.
They do absolutely nothing to further the saga along. Here, he fights Dooku, only to lose. In the following film, he fights the Emperor, only to lose. By showing that Yoda is unable to defeat a Sith Lord in battle makes it difficult to believe he’s the right one to train Luke in The Empire Strikes Back. Not to mention, in that marvelous film, Yoda talks entirely about how the physical is inconsequential to one’s power with the Force, but in Attack of the Clones, he does nothing but resort to physical means of combat when a few minor Force tricks do nothing against Dooku. And once he has lost, he is apparently so worn out from the battle that he has to strain his Force abilities to lift a piece of machinery from crashing down on Obi-Wan and Anakin. In Empire, Yoda lifts the whole X-Wing fighter from the swamp and onto land with amazing grace and ease. There, all that mattered was the will and confidence to achieve such a feat. This is another obvious example of George Lucas’ change in philosophy that occurred between the creation of the two trilogies. Yoda’s physical strength should not have an effect on his power with the Force. If Yoda can only call on his Force powers in short bursts and it exhausts him to do so, that only shows that his power is very limited. This is in direct contrast to Yoda’s teachings in Empire that, because the Force is his ally, he is powerful beyond physical strength. By failing to defeat any Sith he opposes, and straining to do what should be easy for him with his purported Jedi mastery, it only proves that he’s no more capable than any other Jedi. Yoda is supposed to be the most accomplished and powerful Jedi around, but if this is the extent of their power and wisdom, it is no wonder the Empire was able to wipe them out.
Another thing that is eradicated, again, is intelligence. I mentioned in The Phantom Menace the absurdity of how the Senate was run in that one outspoken statement from any one representative immediately causes sweeping change in the Senate. That returns here, and in cringe inducing fashion. As Senator Amidala returns to Naboo to hide from her assassin she leaves Jar Jar Binks to act in her place with her Senatorial power. Representative Binks is then manipulated into going before the Senate and propositioning the Senate to vote emergency powers to the Chancellor so he can authorize the creation of a Clone Army. This one vote from one STAND-IN for a Senator immediately allows for it to happen. Meanwhile, throughout the rest of the film, the Senate is entrenched in conflict over whether to create an army or not, and Amidala has been the leader of the opposition to this. I find it highly improbable that the majority of the Senate and Amidala’s supporters would suddenly roll over because this dim-witted fool speaks up. I mean, it’s not like they didn’t just have Padmé on a holonet transmission where she could speak on her own behalf in front of the Senate. Not to mention, why is everyone talking about going to war the whole film when, until Obi-Wan uncovers the Separatist’s plans, no hostile action had been taken against the Republic? As far as the Republic knows these people simply want to become a separate autonomous alliance of worlds. Sure, the Republic being split in two would cause some controversy and unease, but immediately jumping to the prospect of war is a little rash when they have no evidence of violent intentions from the Separatists.
I also have issue with what was done to Boba Fett in Attack of the Clones. I’m a general fan of the character, and I find him interesting and exciting. However, Lucas does another frivolous, pointless change to a character. Making Boba Fett a young clone of Jango Fett is inane as it serves no purpose towards the plot or the characters of Jango or Boba. There is no reason Boba Fett couldn’t have been a regular offspring of Jango, and be given his own unique identity instead of being just another clone out of thousands or millions. I also find it quite creepy that Jango is raising a clone of himself. It almost sounds like the strange machinations of a mad scientist to being doing such a thing. Speaking of pointless things, the assassin Zam Wessel had no purpose to being a shape shifter. Again, it serves no purpose to the character or plot. It actually could have been used intelligently with Zam changing form and escaping into the crowd, and creating an actual challenge for Obi-Wan and Anakin. Instead, it’s just there to make her more “alien” and to show off another little visual effects gag.
Digging into Jango Fett a little more, I did enjoy what Temuera Morrison brought to this role. He’s both a cunning, dangerous bounty hunter and a smooth gentleman. Morrison has some restrained charisma in this role allowing Jango to come off as a smart and savvy villain that is confident without being arrogant. He has a very nicely played scene opposite McGregor as Fett and Kenobi size each other up in a stand-offish exchange of words. It’s a strong first true impression of Jango that really sparks an interest, and Morrison handles the overall demands of the role exceptionally well.
On the technical side of things, Ben Burtt should be ashamed of some of the editing in this film. The one part that stands out is the saber duel between Anakin and Dooku. The close-up shots of the two swinging their blades around actually have no continuity to them at all from one shot to another, and hardly look like they’re clashing blades. It looks more like an interpretive dance than an aggressive battle. It’s shoddy work. There are other instances where editing should’ve been tightened up to maintain immediacy in character reactions, or maintain rhythm in certain action sequences. However, the sound design in the film is excellent. The sonic charges deployed by Jango Fett in the asteroid field create one of the most awesome speaker blasting sound effects I’ve ever heard. The city sounds on Coruscant are excellently crafted to create a nicely enveloping world, and the end battle scenes are well balanced for fine clarity where the sound effects don’t simply become an indiscernible onslaught.
What I also do like about this film is the added atmosphere tying in with the mystery elements of the story. The various night scenes create a neo noir visual aesthetic that really appeal to my tastes greatly. The stormy environment of Kamino was an excellent choice that further heightened the mood of the film. As Kenobi gets deeper into the mystery, the more treacherous his surroundings become, and it culminates in a stellar fight between Obi-Wan and Jango. The slippery aspect of the landing platform added a different dynamic which keeps the sequence exciting and unpredictable. Obi-Wan doesn’t get to rely on the lightsaber as much, and has to be more innovative and cunning to survive. This is more akin to classic Star Wars were characters were made intelligent to figure their way out of tight situations.
Of course, pulling directly from the original trilogy is not entirely the most successful approach as the end duel between Anakin and Dooku demonstrates. It tries to recreate some of the smoky light and shadow effect of the climactic duel in Empire, but it comes off as forgettable and mild. It really comes down to a buildup of characters, emotions, and plot points. In Empire, the visual of the carbon freezing chamber with its smoke and orange and blue lighting enhanced the tone of the story being told. It is dark, mysterious, foreboding, and ominous. Everything built up to this, and it sends a chill down the spine of many viewers. Here, it’s just a nice visual. There’s nothing inherently bad about it, but it’s just another hollow throwback to a better film. The duel itself is not that impressive, either. Conversely, I’ve never had an issue with the asteroid field battle in this film. It’s entertaining and exciting. While it is a throwback to Empire, it works for me as it is a logical progression of the plot, and showcases some of Obi-Wan’s cunning combat skills.
While the plot is more sensical than The Phantom Menace, there is both padding to make up for a lack of plot developments and hanging plot threads that never get tied up, ever. Obi-Wan’s investigation into the poison dart should really end with the scene where he meets Dex who tells him its from Kamino. Instead, it goes on for another two scenes where he investigates the planet in the library, and then, since he can’t find it there, he goes to Yoda for answers. Yoda has none, but the little kids he’s training do. This not only unnecessarily pads out the film, but also makes Obi-Wan Kenobi look stupid because he can’t figure out something a five year old who can’t act could. It’s never explained who deleted Kamino from the Jedi Archives, or how they did it. Also, everything about Jedi Master Sifo Dyas ordering the Clone Army despite having died around the same time is never cleared up or resolved. I could speculate on the truth, but that is all that can be done. Lucas lays no clues to come to a confident answer, and no one in the film tries to figure it out. It’s entirely forgotten by the next action sequence. It is also curious that the Sandpeople would hold Shmi Skywalker captive when they’ve always been murderous scavengers, and there is fan conjecture over this saying it was orchestrated by a third party. However, there is hardly anything within the context of the films to perceive it as anything more than it appears to be.
Again, the romance storyline between Anakin and Padmé really doesn’t hold together. The dialogue is stilted, the performances are wooden, and the entire interaction is more like a screenwriter’s naive perception of love. The Han Solo and Princess Leia relationship worked because these were two well developed characters with strong personalities and honest, realistic emotions. It felt like a natural, organic relationship that evolved and grew between them. Plus, they didn’t fall in love and get married within the course of a few days. Anakin and Padmé feel like an immature teenage high school couple who over dramatize their so-called romance because they have no genuine grasp on what real love truly is. They think that what they have is love, but they would be wrong. What they have, at best, is the illusion of love built upon teenage style angst and physical attraction. And again, Padmé is subjected to Anakin whining about Obi-Wan, blaming him for everything that’s wrong in his life, being insubordinate to his superiors, bitching her out in front of the current Queen of Naboo, and confessing to the mass murder of not just the Tusken Raider men, but the women and children, too. Quite frankly, in any other film, Anakin Skywalker would be the psychotic villain, and Padmé would be running away from him screaming in horror. I can’t imagine that she is meant to be a moronic idiot, but that’s exactly how she continually comes off considering all of this nonsensical madness. No woman in her right mind would be so eager to love and marry a man like this. It also makes no sense to me why Padmé is so vehemently opposed to just being involved with a man. She keeps saying she loves Anakin, but then, says she can’t love him because she’s a Senator. That doesn’t compute in my brain. No other reason is ever given. She’s a Senator, and so, she can’t go out on a date. That’s her entire reason. No expansion on that at all. It’s ridiculous.
Never minding all of that, Attack of the Clones has plenty of good action sequences. While not all come off as rational, like Obi-Wan uncharacteristically jumping out the window to grab the assassin droid (couldn’t he have just used the Force to disable it and bring it to him?), the scenes are well structured and choreographed. They are all different and maintain good momentum, to a point. The previous movie had a serious lack of compelling action scenes, and traded them off with long, drab dialogue scenes. Here, it seems like they have to milk the action scenes for as much as they’re worth because the plot lacks enough threads to weave throughout the 120+ minute run time. While the droid factory sequence is decent, it is ultimately another piece of run time padding. It could be a much tighter sequence, if you had to have it, but it needs to be long to stretch the story out. This is the case with most of the action scenes especially the speeder chase through the nighttime of Coruscant. It’s not a bad action sequence, but an action scene is best when it’s tightly paced and gets straight to the point. If you’re going to have a chase scene, make it count with a solid pay-off.
Again, there are some cringable attempts at humor here, but this time, it falls on R2-D2 and C-3PO. I won’t get into it. It’s brain dead idiotic slapstick gags that would even be bad in some television program for kindergarteners. This crap has nothing to do with anything in story, action, or character development. It’s gratuitous garbage filled with horrible puns, and that’s all I’m going to waste my time mentioning it because this review is too long as it is already.
I really hoped to say more positive things about this movie, but the more I dug into it, the more flaws I saw. It’s frustrating to me that I want to enjoy more about this movie, but it’s designed to backfire on me. I’m not going into these films with the intent of tearing them down, and I hope the praise I have offered up reflects that mentality. I don’t have any memories that stick out about my theatrical experiences with this movie, unlike the other two prequels, and so, I can’t recall my early feelings on it. I did purchase the John Williams score CD the same day, and so, that says something. Of course, regardless of the quality of the films, I do own all of the soundtrack CD sets. Anyway, while Episode II makes some improvements from Episode I, some problems are exchanged for others, and some of the biggest ones are never fixed. Again, I don’t want to hate on George Lucas, but the man is not helping me to avoid doing so. I can forgive certain underdeveloped aspects of a film depending on various factors, but the rampant stupidity of some characters and the horribly contrived love story are too much to forgive. Thankfully, I do have very fond memories of Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith, and so, I have more sentimental leeway to offer it. But that’s another review for another time. As Attack of the Clones stands, it’s a long way from greatness, but at least, I can sit through it. I can’t say the same for The Phantom Menace.