Films

Send in the clones

In Star Wars, the hardest thing is acting human

Brian D. Johnson May 20 2002
Films

Send in the clones

In Star Wars, the hardest thing is acting human

Brian D. Johnson May 20 2002

Send in the clones

Films

BRIAN D. JOHNSON

In Star Wars, the hardest thing is acting human

Memo to: George Lucas

From: A critic in a galaxy far, far away

Dear George: Now I’m beginning to regret that I turned down your recent invitation to visit Skywalker Ranch. Not that it would have been an intimate encounter, you and me sharing French toast across the breakfast nook. No, it was a promo junket for Star Wars: Episode II — Attack of the Clones. But had I gone, I could have come back loaded with interview material, and ranch anecdotes. We could have filled the magazine with more of the Star Wars hype that’s been floating through the media recently like so much space junk. Instead, all that’s left for me to do is review your movie, which is not an enviable job.

Where on earth to begin? The Star Wars universe, after all, is governed by its own laws of critical relativity. As in outer space, it’s hard to know which way is up. Attack of the Clones is the fifth movie of the franchise, but the second episode in the story. We could compare this prequel to the previous prequel, Episode 1 —The Phantom Menace, and conclude that it’s way better. But better than what? Than Liam Neeson and Ewan McGregor playing Jedi straight

men to Jar Jar Binks’s Stepin Fetchit? We could compare it to the original, which had a certain hokey charm, but that was 25 years ago, back in the Stone Age of special effects. It’s like comparing apples and iMacs. The other relativity issue, with apologies to Einstein, is the observer’s point of view. Unfortunately, I’m old enough that Star Wars isn’t part of my personal cosmology; it didn’t change my life. But it changed the culture of movies, right down to the rocket-ship kitsch of the new multiplexes . . . don’t get me started.

Back to the matter at hand. George: if you were a post-modernist, which seems unlikely, Attack of the Clones could refer to the brand of replicant cinema that you’ve unleashed on the world—the franchising of fantasy. But the title actually refers to an army of human clones being incubated on Kamino, a grim planet beyond the galaxy’s outer rim where it’s always raining. The austere beings who lord over Kamino are very thin and white and smooth, like aliens by Ikea. These creatures hold court in a white room so stark I have to ask if it’s an homage to the minimalism of your own 1967 feature debut, THX 1138. And there’s no doubt you’re borrowing liberally

from Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will when you depict vast battalions of clone storm troopers parading in Busby Berkeley formation—a vision so sleek and sexy it makes me wonder whether, amid all this old-fashioned romance of Jedi knights in monks’ robes, you might not have a dark fetish for modern militarism.

In the Star Wars master plan, Attack of the Clones is an escalation. The story, which takes place a decade later than Phantom Menace, finds the Republic creating its own Grand Army. A bunch of Jedi peacekeepers just can’t handle the stress and strain on the galaxy, as the Republic is threatened by separatism. Separatism! Now there’s something we can relate to up here. In fact, I’m beginning to wonder if an insidious Canadian influence hasn’t crept into the Force. The Republic ends up invoking emergency powers that sound a lot like the War Measures Act. And things get so dire that Yoda—the Trudeau-like Zen doll whose only weapon has been mind over matter until now—even picks up a light sabre. But George, the big giveaway that Canada has overrun your franchise is the new guy: Hayden Christensen.

This 21-year-old Canadian actor was a clean-cut tennis ace from Toronto before acting swallowed him up. Now he’s playing Jedi apprentice Anakin Skywalker, the future Darth Vader, as a young man. It’s a little hard to buy that this is the same Anakin who was portrayed by Jake Lloyd, the stuck-up child actor in Phantom Menace. They don’t look remotely alike. Meanwhile, as Anakin’s mentor, Obi Wan, Ewan McGregor has grown a beard and is morphing nicely into Alec Guinness. But Natalie Portman has not visibly changed much in a decade of story time, although her character, Padmé, has gone from being teen queen of the planet Naboo to senator, which apparently constitutes a promotion. Once again Padmé’s main job is to be protected from assassins. Anakin serves as her bodyguard, and he’s burning with an illicit love for her (Jedi knights, like Catholic priests, aren’t allowed to mate).

Now George, I can see why you cast this Hayden Christensen. He’s a fine young actor, and you’d never even guess he’s Cana-

dian. There’s a hint of magnolia drawl in his accent, and he’s got that James Dean smoulder in his eyes. In fact, he smoulders so much, and acts with such passionate conviction, that it becomes a bit of a problem. This is Star Wars, not Rebel Without a Cause. Some actors seem perfectly at home there—such as McGregor and vampire veteran Christopher Lee (fresh from The Lord of the Rings) who reworks his evil wizard number as a Jedi knight gone bad. But in a movie where most of the other actors are on cruise control, giving relatively flat line readings, it’s jarring to see Christensen lending your script so much emotional weight.

Thus the Star Wars law of relativity produces another paradox: in a movie where technology routinely upstages character, good acting can easily curdle into bad. There’s one scene of young Skywalker writhing and groaning in bed that drew titters in the audience I was with—it turns out he’s just having a bad dream, but it looked like, well, an activity you wouldn’t expect to see in a Star Wars movie.

As Hayden acts up a storm, he’s the victim of an emotional logic in the script that doesn’t scan. It goes like this: as a boy, Anakin is plucked from his home by Jedi knights, who think he’s the Chosen One, destined to bring the Force back into balance. We already know he’s going to turn into Darth Vader, and Attack of the Clones is the episode where we see him start to slip over to the dark side. But George, what’s his motivation? Apparently, it’s just that he has more feelings than he knows what to do with: the boy loves his mother. The ultimate crime. And in an Oedipal double whammy that would make Freud blush, he’ll grow up into a demon who

will eventually be killed by his own son.

Of course, I’m not giving anything away here. One of the problems with Attack of the Clones is that the audience knows the outcome in advance. And George, you prey upon that shamelessly. Whenever Anakin starts to take on a sulphurous air, the scenes reek with portent. But then, subtlety has never been your strong suit. Lets talk about the visuals . . . beginning with Natalie Portman. Her role is to look good, and she acquits herself brilliantly, with costumes that shift from velvet and beadwork to a stretchy action outfit—exposing a Britney Spears expanse of midriff after her top gets shredded in a fight. George, this is the sexiest Star Wars ever, not that you’ll want to use that as a blurb.

But as much as Attack of the Clones tries to be a love story, it’s not boy meets girl— it’s boy meets gun. The only true love in this movie is with machines: light sabres, blasters, sliders, speeders, cruisers. And the action is state-of-the-art. The first set piece is an arcade-style classic, a dizzying chase through thick traffic in the night sky of a downtown reminiscent of Blade Runner. The swashbuckling business has also expanded: a squad of Kendo swordsman imported from Japan portray Jedi knights in a mass light sabre battle.

But George, what does it all mean? I’d like to think it’s just harmless eye candy. Yet there’s something unsettling about seeing so much firepower harnessed to rhetoric about saving democracy. And after the silk-spun confection of SpiderMan, it all seems so lugubrious: an industrial fantasy of vehicles and weaponry in a world where it’s always high noon. But maybe that’s how it is at Skywalker Ranch. I’ll never know. E3