from Film Forum, 05/16/02
The previous Star Wars film, 1999's Episode One: The Phantom Menace, has become the most successful of the entire series. Ironically, it is also considered one of the most disappointing—and even despised—adventure movies of all time. Three years have passed, and we now have Star Wars: Episode Two—Attack of the Clones. In this chapter, young Anakin Skywalker starts giving in to his foolish impulses, rejects the counsel of his teachers, and responds to the temptations that lead him on the path of the Dark Side. His primary weakness is his infatuation with the beautiful Senator Padme Amidala.
Most critics are thankfully saying Attack is not a clone of Episode One. But does that mean Lucas has found his "space legs" again? That's a matter of heated debate.
Those religious press critics who have spoken reflect the same spectrum of opinions that the series has generated since 1977. Most are thrilled with the action and effects. Some express reservations about the quality of the writing and the acting. And a few are worried that the messages about belief in the Force are not sufficiently Christian.
Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films) joins the chorus lamenting the film's weak dialogue and acting. But he has much more to say: "If [Clones] doesn't quite recapture the charm of the original trilogy, it does combine more enjoyable characterizations and dialogue and better paced storytelling with even more dazzling imagery. [Lucas] may have the tone-deaf ear for dialogue of a dime-store pulp novelist, but he's still got the visionary eye of a technological Tolkien, and the worlds he creates are pure magic. When Lucas creates visuals like these, he's doing something quite simply unmatched by anything anyone else in Hollywood is doing, or has ever done."
Greydanus also highlights ethical lessons of the film: "While Lucas's story doesn't touch upon the underlying moral issues of human dignity and the sacredness of human life in its origins, the progression it shows from the optimistic promises of cloning technology to the dehumanizing reality that actually follows remains an evocative metaphor for the false hopes of human cloning experimentation. Whatever Lucas's intentions, his story resonates with the prophetic warning of John Paul II that 'man must be the master, not the product, of his technology.'"
He goes on to praise the film's recognition of celibacy and marriage both as valid, honorable institutions, while the pursuit of dangerous liaisons is portrayed as "living a lie."
Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) says, "I don't think I was alone in wondering if perhaps the steam had gone out of the Star Wars franchise. Nor do I think I'll be alone in celebrating George Lucas's return to form in the highly exhilarating and enjoyable Episode II." He explains, "Clones … has more of a psychological depth to it as it begins to lay out the course of a good man who turns bad. We see the bad seed planted as Anakin Skywalker receives some 'advice' from a false counselor. 'Trust your emotions,' he is told. This … opens Anakin's heart to the temptation of disobedience as he rejects his understood moral code to act out of passion rather than reason."
Lisa Rice and Tom Snyder (Movieguide) start with raves for "incredible fight scenes … collectively speaking, among the best that have ever been done." Then come the complaints: "The first half of this movie is not very convincing. The acting by … Christensen and Portman … and the scripting of their characters' dialogue is also unbelievable and poorly done."
Rice and Snyder also caution readers that they should beware of false messages: "Star Wars II seems to have abandoned the positive, theistic orientation that the first episode seemed to be moving toward at times. Apparently, George Lucas has decided to slightly reinforce the Buddhist leanings of the saga, where the heroes (and villains) engage an impersonal, illogical, spiritual, and transcendent 'Force' in a mystical, partially occult way."
Bob Smithouser (Focus on the Family) offers a few cautionary words about the "theological hodgepodge … reflected in The Force." He also calls Clones "a wild, satisfying adventure" that lacks "the carefree, organic quality of the earlier films. You wish the young actors would just relax, have fun and stop treating the material as sacred."
The mainstream press avoids discussion of the film's "theological hodgepodge," focusing instead on issues of craftsmanship. Those who enjoy Lucas's imaginative environments and who value Lucas's effective, efficient visual storytelling give the film rave reviews, even as they note its familiarly mundane script and wooden performances. But others are unmoved by the sights and sounds, condemning the film for Lucas's failings as a writer and for his work with the cast.
Many scorn the film's romance plot as derivative and dumb. Kirk Honeycutt (Hollywood Reporter) declares, "These two fall in love not because romance sparks but to suit the needs of subsequent movies." Roger Ebert (Chicago Sun-Times) adds: "Padme and Anakin [are] incapable of uttering anything other than the most basic and weary romantic clichés, while regarding each other as if love was something to be endured rather than cherished."
Ed Gonzalez (Slant) faults the flat conversations: "Lucas' toys always look better when keeping mum and waving their sticks around." Roger Friedman (Fox News) says that Yoda "literally saves Episode II from quicksand," but then complains, "What's completely missing … is any jauntiness or sense of fun, camaraderie or purpose. This second generation of Star Wars characters all sound like Keanu Reeves delivering a soliloquy from Hamlet."
"Mr. Lucas seems to have lost his boyish glee," agrees A.O. Scott (New York Times). "[Lucas] … has lost either the will or the ability to connect with actors, and his crowded, noisy cosmos is psychologically and emotionally barren." And Lisa Schwarzbaum (Entertainment Weekly) says, "Here we are again: not entertained, not nearly enough, by an installment … that exhibits a chill, conservative grimness of purpose, rather than an excited thrill at the possibilities of cinematic storytelling."
But when Schwarzbaum says we, she's not speaking for a large portion of her peers. Some of Episode One's strongest naysayers come away impressed this time. Chris Gore, editor of Film Threat magazine, writes, "I have been one of Episode I's most outspoken critics for the last three years. [It's] … one of the greatest disappointments in movie history." He agrees that Clones' dialogue is "cringe-inducing." But in spite of this, he's full of praise. "Clones is epic, entertaining, romantic and funny—it is a true Star Wars film. When I walked out of the screening, all I could think of is that I want to get right back in line to see Clones again."
Todd McCarthy (Variety) turns in an rave: "Virtually everything that went wrong in Menace has been fixed, or at least improved upon … The exposition and sense of storytelling are clearer and more economical, all the main characters have significant roles to play, the detailing of the diverse settings is far richer, the multitudinous action set-pieces are genuinely exciting, there is now the dramatic through-line provided by a love story, some of the acting is actually decent, and even the score is better."
"Clones is much better," agrees David Denby (The New Yorker). "Digital invention is becoming grander, wilder, more free-spirited. Lucas and his computer artists have a ball with the climactic scene … The mayhem is delirious fun."
Two weeks ago, David Poland (The Hot Button) wrote, "George Lucas takes a movie world obsessed with CG and big images and tops every single film ever made going away. The story moves in surprising and clever ways as well as in obvious and expected ones." This week, he insists, "No film has ever come close to [Clones'] visual complexity and beauty."
What do the film's fans have to say about the weaknesses? "If it can be easily faulted for cardboard characters and clunky dialogue," writes Michael Wilmington (Chicago Tribune), "then it should be recalled that these are defects of the entire series—which takes most of its cues from the old Flash Gordon serials, as clunky and cardboard as they come. This is visual storytelling of a high order, and though we've heard and seen it all before, it has never been with quite this childlike awe and incredible elaboration. The movie keeps topping itself, not dramatically, but with one pure, explosively delivered, ripely detailed action set-piece after another. This is a landmark film, for technological bravura … if nothing else. Clones celebrates a certain youthful spirit in both moviemaking and movie watching; because it's as much phenomenon as movie, audiences will either ride with or reject it. I was happy to take the ride."
After I stay up for the late-night showing on Thursday, I'll post my opinion of the film at Looking Closer. Admittedly, Episode One suffered from bad acting and poor writing. Then again, so did 1993's Return of the Jedi. But I have to wonder—isn't griping about bad dialogue in a Star Wars film a little like pointing to artificial butter flavoring on movie popcorn? You can state the obvious, but why belabor the point? Lucas's work in screenwriting and directing actors has always been substandard, and critics should indeed acknowledge that. But shouldn't they give more credit to his grasp of visual storytelling and his vision for harnessing technology and using it to free his imagination? These talents seem sorely undervalued and even ignored. Further, it is a rare wonder, the way that moral and spiritual truths are powerfully illustrated and communicated by the Star Wars stories. Like the Arthurian legends he so clearly reveres, Lucas is giving us an alternate history rich with parables.
I'd like to hear from you as well. Do you think the Force is a dangerous idea for moviegoers? Do you think Clones stands up to the series's best films, or sinks as low as the worst? Has Lucas lost it? And what, if anything, is meaningful about this particular episode? Send me a note.
(NOTE: If you plan to see the film, pay attention to where it's being shown. Several critics are exhorting viewers to seek out a theatre with a digital projection system. Alas, theses theatres are only available in certain cities. Jeffrey Wells raves about the digitally projected version: "It's roughly analogous to watching a well-mastered color film on a regular television, and then seeing it again on high-definition TV—the latter is obviously the way to go. Ideally, everyone should see Attack of the Clones this way. If you're near a big city that has a digital-projection theater showing Clones, make a point of seeing it there. Trust me—it's worth whatever the extra effort may be.")from Film Forum, 05/23/02
Anakin Skywalker is not your ordinary hero. In fact, he may not be a hero at all. Whether or not you like Hayden Christensen in the role (most critics don't), Anakin Skywalker is clearly headed for trouble in Star Wars: Episode Two—Attack of the Clones. He talks back to his teachers and his elders. He pursues whatever—and whomever—he likes, using every method at his disposal. In his own eyes, he is serving the greater good while wiser, older leaders stand aloof and prove ineffective. But he's dealing in compromise, and as the enemy closes in on the Republic, he's making himself an available tool for the Dark Lord's sinister purposes.
Critics continued to take opposite sides in the debate about whether Episode Two is a good movie. But some critics, and some readers as well, offered similar complaints about mediocre dialogue and bad acting, and looked deeper at the implications of the storytelling.
In his review, Greg Krehbiel claims the film as a great resource for teachers and parents: "George Lucas … has done a service to parents everywhere by creating a clean and meaningful movie for families. Clones is a fantastic film to see with your pre-teen kid. It provides several good opportunities to discuss some of the common trials of the teen years. Lucas has distilled parental lectures about obedience, responsibility, and right conduct into about two hours and 20 minutes of special effects extravaganza. Watch it with your kids. Talk about it. Use [it] to innoculate your children against these all-too-common failings. Who knows. Perhaps it is possible for a teenager to learn from other people's mistakes—before making them himself."
One Film Forum reader found another meaning to Anakin's rebellion: "[For] a Christian, the parallel to the church here is clear: if the individual believer spurns the beliefs/standards of the Christian community, that person moves … outside of that community."
Youth Pastor Matthew French writes, "As a lifelong Star Wars fan I must say that I absolutely loved Clones. This film has a lot to say to Christians. Besides the obvious moral lessons, I think the decline in the Jedi's powers and the strengthening Dark Side is [something] that Christians (especially evangelicals) should play close attention to. The Jedi became arrogant and overconfident, not taking the Dark Side seriously enough. Because of that the Dark Side was able to get many footholds. Christians must not forget that we are battling not against flesh and blood. When we become arrogant and forget that we need to put on our armor, we end up in our own strength fighting battles of the flesh against those we should be working with, not realizing the real enemy behind it all."
"One would need to be blind to not hear religious themes in the entire series," says a writer at Dick Staub's CultureWatch. "For example, in Star Wars: Episode I … we learn that Darth Vader (Anakin) was born of a virgin, not of a Father, but of the midichlorians, the link between every living thing and the Force. The priestly Jedi are aware of an ancient prophecy that a "chosen one would appear and would alter the force forever, bringing balance between darkness and light."
David Bruce (Hollywood Jesus) sees timely relevance to the film's many layered meanings. He points to its story of sinister, stealthy evil that is creeping up on the unsuspecting Jedi Council and the Republic, and he compares it to our own nation's shock at being tricked and deeply wounded by enemies on September 11. He also questions, in view of the recent scandal in the Roman Catholic Church, whether it is healthy for a spiritual leader to vow celibacy like a Jedi does.
Further, Bruce offers a perspective on why Star Wars has meant so much to us in the last 20 years. "The ongoing Star Wars series supplies a framework for an entire generation. It has evolved with that generation. Yoda is a case in point. He starts out as a Frank Oz Sesame Street-type puppet and evolves into a high-tech computer-generated character. Likewise, Gen X started out on Sesame Street and graduated to computers. In the seventies, Yoda is a Buddha-like monk—a symbol of spirituality when Eastern religion was popular in the West. Yoda was withdrawn from culture. Inner meditation was his thing. Violence was not a part of his makeup. In this episode everything changes. Yoda becomes involved in the world around him—big time. And becomes a warrior capable of marshaling an army into war, literally."
In an examination of the lasting success of Star Wars, Paul Chinn (Relevant Magazine) credits the film's lasting significance to its emphasis on spirituality. "I believe the Star Wars phenomenon is based on this: Whatever your personal creed or religion, Star Wars speaks to you. Its messages of hope and salvation are universal. There are themes of Christianity, Buddhism, Taoism, etc." He then focuses on the simplified good and evil of the series. "There is no grey area in Star Wars. People are either good or evil. I'm not at all putting down movies with anti-heroes. I am a big fan of them. [But] a built-in desire in most of us roots for larger-than-life heroes with the virtuous characteristics of Indiana Jones, Frodo … Peter Parker, and Luke Skywalker."
Pastor Bryan Host enjoys the 'entertainment' value of Star Wars. He applauds Episode 2 for its depth and multi-layered storyline. But he remains troubled by Lucas's concept of the Force. "I see the Force as another entrée on our culture's pluralistic smorgasbord (as it resurrects a mixture of Eastern mysticism). I think your average person who isn't given to much deep thought on spiritual matters is greatly affected by the message that says, 'Follow your heart/trust your feelings/you have the ability to find and make your own way.' As a Christian who believes in the Bible's claim that the human heart is intrinsically flawed and corrupt, I find this advice disturbing."
W. Derek Atkins suggests that the Force leads viewers closer to the truth, even if it does not take them all the way. "Lucas's theology is more New Age than anything else. Still, one of the key reasons why Star Wars has such a special place in my heart is that … God used Episode 4 way back in 1977 to launch me on a trajectory towards Christianity. God in his providence saw to it that I read a book entitled The Force Of Star Wars, written by Frank Allnutt, that explained the parallels between that movie and the Bible. As a result of reading this book, I made the decision to place my faith in Jesus Christ in 1978, when I was 11 years old."
Atkins also points out "parallels to the ancient Roman Empire, especially in the historical shift from Republic to Empire. For example, Chancellor Palpatine 'reluctantly' accepts a 'limited' dictatorship of the Republic, just as Julius Caesar 'reluctantly' accepted popular demands that he become the first King of the Roman Republic."
He concludes: "I really, really enjoyed this movie, and I am so thankful that Lucas brought back the magic to Star Wars. I'm also thankful that he demonstrated his cinematographic skills, because I feel that doing so may well inspire many others to seek excellence in the use of their various talents and abilities."from Film Forum, 05/30/02
Star Wars: Episode Two—Attack of the Clones topped the box office again this week, and continued stirring up critics who either revile the film for its juvenile dialogue or rejoice at its visually enthralling adventure. Religious media critics, however, continue to discuss the spiritual lessons illustrated by the ongoing saga.
Roger Thomas (Ethics Daily) talks about one of the ways in which this trilogy differs from the previous films: "George Lucas has said that he believes the message of his new Star Wars trilogy … is that the journey toward evil is often a gradual one. Anakin Skywalker … is destined to become one of the most evil characters in film history, Darth Vader. With the outcome already determined, the thrill of the prequels is discovering the journey." As far as his estimation of the new film goes, Thomas calls it "a worthy addition to the canon. Some of the dialogue could have seen a rewrite or two. But for even marginal fans of the series, most will be satisfied by the story of this latest chapter."
Do the Jedi have anything to teach Christians? Cultural commentator Dick Staub thinks so. He suggests forming an "Order of Jedi Christians" to "recover the radical nature of Jesus' original vision for his disciples."
On the same page, Staub shares some of George Lucas's own statements about the spirituality portrayed in the saga. For example, in a February 2002 interview at Well-Rounded.com, Lucas explains, "Star Wars is designed to make people think about the larger entities and mysteries of life. But there aren't enough answers in Star Wars to turn it into a religion." And in a conversation with Bill Moyers in 1999, Lucas said, "I put the Force into the movie … in order to try to awaken a certain kind of spirituality in young people—more a belief in God than a belief in any particular religious system."
Meanwhile, Christian critics continued arguing over whether this is a good chapter compared to the others in the series. Dawn Xiana Moon (Relevant Magazine) says, "Somewhere along the way, it seems George Lucas lost sight of his original vision and caved in to marketing pressures and the urge to show off his technical wizardry. The movie was better than I feared, but worse than I hoped it would be." And Peter T. Chattaway (The Vancouver Courier) isn't thrilled with the results either: "There is much to admire in this film, on a visual level. But like the film that came before it … Clones fails to make its characters all that interesting, and as a result, it lacks both the joy and the dramatic heft of the original trilogy; instead, it is saddled with bad puns … and stilted moments that exist not for their own sake but to set up the following episodes. But the most alarming thing about this film may be that, for the first time, a Star Wars movie has no greater moral or spiritual lesson to impart, beyond paying lip service to democracy."
Some opposing views are available this week at The Film Forum, run by Steve Lansingh (who originated this very column a few years ago). Lansingh calls Clones "a morally complex tale that rivals The Empire Strikes Back for brain food. It gives the series richer, more resonsant tones. I can't wait to get back in line to soak it all in again, to grasp things that might have slipped by me."
Lansingh also answers critics that have criticized the film for not having the simple, compelling, good guys vs. bad guys plot of the original trilogy: "Many reviewers have criticized the movie on this front, saying there's no real story here, just an assemblage of spare parts. While I can see their point, I think it's a whole lot easier to tell the story of one man's journey (as the original trilogy did) than the whole galaxy's journey (as this new series attempts). Not every character gets as solid an arc as in the originals, but the machinations of the universe follow a fairly clear arc if you choose to look at it from that 'certain point of view.' For me, at least, the busyness of Episode II is not a turn off but an invitation to explore further."
At the same Web site, critic Jeff Diaz writes: "Many of the intelligentsia and their rivals the cultureless rednecks are in agreement that this film is heavily flawed … the first for reasons of dialogue or because the film was too popular by nature … the second because there isn't enough action and a person must possess a brain in order to appreciate this movie. But to the normal person who still possesses the ability to like a movie because of a good plot, good action, and stunning effects, get out there and be impressed."