Summary: Another very tired entry in the series.
I’ve said before that I avoid reading reviews prior to seeing the movie and writing my own. However, in the case of a Star Wars film, it’s pretty flogging impossible not to hear general word of mouth, and the word of mouth in this case said Episode 2 was a major improvement over Episode 1. I must have watched a different movie, because as far as I can tell Episode 2 is every bit as tired and listless as its predecessor. True, Jar Jar Binks is in this new entry a lot less, but he was a symptom of the ailments, not the cause.
When the first three Star Wars films came out, they were at the leading edge of visual effects technology. Even if you couldn’t care less whether Darth Vader conquered the universe, you could at least admire the craftsmanship of the effects wizards as they furthered and refined their art with each film. The movies were fun eye candy, if nothing else. But in the years since Return of the Jedi dazzled audiences, the rest of the world hasn’t stood still. Other films have come along which have taken the realm of visual effects even further. As a result, the Star Wars series can no longer fall back on its visuals to gloss over the shortcomings in its acting and scripts, because they’re no longer special. In theme park vernacular, it’s a ride which is showing its age.
There’s a second problem with the effects, in that they’re good but not great. True, they’re noticeably improved over those in Episode 1 (and miles beyond the awful digitals added to the first three films upon their re-release). But the computer animated creatures aren’t quite Jurassic Park quality in terms of realism, and the spaceships and large-scale battle scenes can’t hold a candle to their counterparts in Starship Troopers. Again, the feeling is we’ve seen it all before, only done better.
Now here’s where I really get myself into trouble. It’s time to admit to ourselves that George Lucas, no matter what other ways he may be a genius, is not a particularly good director. He seems unable to coax convincing performances from his actors, and the three Star Wars films he’s helmed have all suffered uneven and sometimes plodding pacing. In the opening scenes of Episode 2, the acting is downright horrid, with Natalie Portman looking like she couldn’t act her way out of a paper bag. Hayden Christensen as Anakin Skywalker isn’t much better, delivering his lines with a woodenness usually reserved for line rehearsals. Even the blocking of these scenes (the manner in which the actors move around the set and physically interact) is strangely stilted. I remember thinking, “I hope the whole movie’s not going to be like this.” Fortunately, things improve somewhat in later scenes. The acting never gets to be what you’d call “good,” but at least it becomes passable, and the blocking and camera work become more fluid.
The Star Wars movies have always had elements of “bad” science fiction in them, such as characters in funny uniforms standing before a video monitor announcing, “The XJ4 high velocity laser unit has been primed and is now operational.” (Okay, I made that specific quote up, but there are similar lines in the movies. And before you send me nasty e-mails, note that I put the word “bad” in quotes.) But I found the script of Episode 2 particularly devoid of quality. For one thing, it tends to be episodic (no pun intended); instead of having a conflict which develops over the course of the movie and explodes in a climax, there are simply a series of barely related events. A problem arises, the problem is solved by an action sequence, then we move on to a new problem. Hints of foreboding develop early on when Obi-Wan (Ewan McGregor) discovers an army of clones is being grown on a faraway planet for some sinister purpose. But the early promise that these scenes will develop into something meaningful is completely squandered. When the climax (such as it is) arrives, it’s forced and uninvolving. And the inevitable lightsaber duel between hero and villain is by far the lamest one in the series.
So what did I like about the new movie? Well, there’s a fight scene between Obi-Wan and Boba Fett’s father which has some inventiveness in it. Later, in the best sequence in the film, our heroes find themselves battling some very strange critters in a public arena reminiscent of the Colosseum. And that’s about it. The rest of the movie is thoroughly forgettable.