by Ben Kenigsberg
George Lucas must be joking.
He says that
Star Wars: Episode II -- Attack of the Clones
, which he shot entirely on a new kind of high-definition digital video, looks as good as it would if it were shot on 35-millimeter film. He needs new glasses.
The new technology allowed Lucas to create many of the digital effects first, then add the humans later. (With film, the process of adding computer-generated effects works in reverse.) The result is a strangely unconvincing blend. Shots that are purely computer-generated -- night views of the city-covered planet of Coruscant, for example -- are awe-inspiring, but whenever a person is on-screen in anything closer than an aerial view, the digitized backgrounds look like bad rear projection.
One of the nice things about
Star Wars: Episode I -- The Phantom Menace
is that it was able to replicate the visual style of the old
represents a radical departure from the look of the other films. The movie appears to be mostly animated; it often gives the impression that the human characters are walking around a computerized landscape. Even the sand on one of the desert planets looks too smooth to be real. The third-to-last action sequence is set in a gladiatorial stadium that looks to be animated itself. Whatever happened to building sets?
The movie is being shown in two different formats, regular 35-millimeter film projection and digital projection, the latter of which presents the movie in the format Lucas shot it in. I saw the film for the first time in digital projection, which is the way Lucas wants it seen. The image wasn't as bright as that of a film projector, and the borders of characters' faces were blurry, which I suspect is because digital projectors can't handle as much resolution as standard projectors. Every shot seemed to be in slight soft focus. I got the impression that I was watching an extremely large television screen.
Taking one for the team, I returned to see the movie in 35 millimeter two days later. The edges of characters' faces were more clearly defined -- that is, the soft focus effect was lessened -- but the overall image was fuzzier, the film grain was sometimes visible, and the colors, especially, were far less vibrant on film than on digital. The digital was superior, but neither version looked as good as a movie shot on film, and neither version disguised the artificiality of the backgrounds. (The film is showing in digital projection at UA Farmingdale on Long Island and at the Ziegfeld and AMC Empire 25 in Manhattan. Digital is still flawed, and unless you're a diehard fan, the movie isn't good enough to warrant a shlep.)
But the movie's look is just part of the problem. The film has no dramatic energy -- it doesn't suck you in. And that's a harsh damnation, given that I'm one of a handful of people on the planet who liked
The Phantom Menace
Say what you will about
, but it was clear that George Lucas had a vision when he made it, however misguided some components of that vision (Jar Jar Binks -- this time thankfully reduced to a cameo -- and the casting of Jake Lloyd and Pernilla August) may have been. It wasn't as sweeping as the other Star Wars movies, but it was still a lot of fun, and it looked splendid.
retains none of the epic feel of the other movies. It goes through the motions, telling us what we need to know for the next episode without ever shaping the plot details into a three-act narrative. It often self-destructively lapses into parody, as in the scene where Yoda is shown instructing a group of pre-school-age Jedi, and in the moment where Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) says to Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen), "Why do I get the feeling you're going to be the death of me?"
The film is action-packed to a fault. Fight sequences go on endlessly, far past the point where they could be exciting. Ironically, despite all the computer-generated explosions, the most exciting sequences are still the old-fashioned light saber duels, of which the movie has a few. At the end, even Yoda picks up a light saber in a scene that is either thrilling or hilarious, depending on how amusing you find the height disparity. Yoda is completely computer-generated in this movie, so he has a greater degree of motion than he had in the earlier films, but frankly, he coexisted more convincingly with the humans as a muppet.
One key development in
is the blossoming of a love affair between Anakin and Senator (once-Queen) Amidala (Natalie Portman), who, we know, will be the parents of Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia. Christensen and Portman's performances are completely devoid of passion and feeling, but with lines like theirs, who can blame them?
"You're exactly the way I remember you in my dreams," says he to her.
"I'm not afraid to die. I've been dying a little bit each day since you came back into my life," says she to him.
There's also Anakin's soon-to-be-timeless first flirtation with Amidala, which comes right after she tells him a story about how she used to swim at a beach as a child. "I don't like sand," he says. "It's coarse and rough and irritating and it gets everywhere. Not like here. Here everything is soft. And smooth." Then he puts his hand on her bare back.
Aside from the romance, there isn't much that's emotionally involving, or even much of a story. The major development is that Count Dooku (Christopher Lee), a previously unmentioned Jedi who converted to the dark side, is somehow involved with the creation of an army of human clones. That, and Anakin, who will soon become Darth Vader, is lonely for his mommy. Samuel L. Jackson, as the Jedi Mace Windu, gets a chance to be a real badass, but it's only for a moment.
The main problem, I think, is that Lucas was so intent on cramming the movie with special effects that he forgot to tell a story, which is really what made the original
so entertaining. When Lucas announced in August that
would be titled
Attack of the Clones
, fans were outraged that the installment should have such a cheesy title. Since the title indicated that Lucas knew the
flicks were B-movies at heart, I thought it was a step in the right direction. Apparently, it was the only step.