(movie review written Summer '02)
I should've known better than to underestimate "The Force". Considering the reaction to the last film and the fact that I was going to be attending a 9:30am screening on a Thursday morning, it couldn't be that crowded, could it? It could. As I rounded the corner towards the theater, I was confronted with what looked to be about 650 people already in line. As with "The Phantom Menace", I thought some were likely in line for other, later shows already. Nope. Luckily, I was able to get in line quickly and, while what seemed like half the crowd was at the concession stand (I'd imagine it's not terribly easy to finish a giant popcorn at 9:30am, but what do I know?), I grabbed an aisle seat. Within minutes, the 800-seat auditorium was full.
As for the film itself, "Attack of the Clones" certainly is a better film than "The Phantom Menace", but there's still a few areas where it falls slightly short of expectations. The film opens about ten years after the events of "The Phantom Menace". Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) has spent the last ten years under the watch of mentor Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) and has become impatient at the length of time it's taken to become a fully realized jedi.
Amidala (Natalie Portman), once a queen, now a senator, has arrived on Coruscant to place an important vote. Shortly after her ship lands, she barely escapes an assassination attempt. Assigned to protect her are Anakin and Obi-Wan. It's not long before they have to go into action, as both give chase to an unseen attacker in a spectacular scene that has both flying through the city.
While Obi-Wan's investigation takes him to a rain-drenched planet where an army of clones are being made, Amidala and Anakin find themselves falling for one another, even though their places in life would seem to make their love impossible. "Attack Of The Clones" starts off wonderfully; there are a couple of solid action sequences and even some nice moments where Obi-Wan plays sort of a detective and eventually runs into Jango Fett (Tenemura Morrison), father of Bobba Fett.
Then, the trouble begins. There is a stretch of romantic scenes between Anakin and Amidala that is easily the most dismal part of the movie. While the two seem comfortable with one another, both have a difficult time trying to deliver lines that seem lifted out of a supermarket romance novel - and do so in an ultra-serious monotone. With the sold-out audience of about 800 that I saw the film with, these scenes got the biggest laughs, especially a strange "Sound of Music" scene.
Still, that stretch is over soon enough and the excitement takes over again. The last quarter-or-so of the movie contains some of the most dazzling action scenes I've seen in ages - but I won't spoil them here. To put it simply, Yoda fights. Although some have seemed to dislike this sequence, I thought it was not only beautifully animated, but highly entertaining.
Lucas still gets mixed performances from his actors. To their credit, the dialogue isn't always wonderful, but they also must have difficulty essentially playing to nothing while effects and most of everything else around them is likely something to be added in later. The most improved over the last film is Ewan McGregor as Obi-Wan; his performance is far more confident and enjoyable this time around. Natalie Portman, on the other hand, is somewhat better, but still not quite what I'd expect, given her prior efforts. As for Hayden Christensen, I didn't like him in "Life as a House" and I didn't really care for him here, either; his performance is uneven and his scenes of anger occasionally seemed bratty. Samuel L. Jackson has a bit more to do and really kicks ass in the final battle sequence, while Christopher Lee makes a fine villian as Count Dookoo.
Overall, "Star Wars: Episode II" is fine entertainment and a respectable entry into the "Star Wars" universe; had the middle been trimmed, I would have liked the film even better. Part of me would enjoy something along the lines of an "old school" film with less in the way of completely computer-generated places, but I suppose Lucas wants to put the technology to use.
It should also be noted that I viewed episode two in a theater that offered DLP (digital) projection of the movie, which was originally filmed on digital video instead of film. Afterwards, I peaked my head into one of the film-based screenings of the movie and was surprised at just how different the two presentations were. There was more depth to the image in the DLP presentation and more detail; the image also seemed brighter and more vivid. It's definitely the way to see this film - the only problem is finding one of these theaters, as there is only somewhere in the neighborhood of 20-25 showing it in digital instead of film.
The DVD release is another fine effort from Lucasfilm, but the small screen did seem to only highlight some of the film's (Christensen, who I really hope is not in the third film, although I'm sure he will be) lesser performances.
VIDEO: "Star Wars: Episode II" is presented here in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen. "Episode II" was filmed in high-def digital video by George Lucas, who is one of a small - but growing - legion of filmmakers who are using the format. In theaters, the film was either presented digitally in a fairly small group of theaters equipped with DLP projectors, on film prints or - most recently - blown up for IMAX film presentations. On the DVD edition, this transfer has been taken direct from the digital source, and not from film elements.
The presentation is not quite flawless, but it's still an awfully strong effort that looks truly stunning throughout much of the show. Sharpness and detail were magnificent throughout the entire film, save for a couple of dimly lit interiors that looked slightly murky. Detail and depth are also surprisingly good, considering the amount of scenes here that seem to be created entirely in the digital realm.
The usual flaws found on most DVDs (and found on the much-discussed transfer for "Star Wars: Episode I") are not in attendance here. Edge enhancement is not an issue, nor is pixelation. Given the direct-from-digital transfer, there are also no film-related flaws apparent, such as marks or scratches on the print used.
Colors were also reproduced beautifully, with rich tones that appeared beautifully saturated and crisply reproduced. Black level was solid, as well.
SOUND: "Star Wars: Episode II" is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1-EX. Given the fact that director George Lucas often discusses the importance of sound in the experience of watching a film, audiences have expected - and recieved - thrilling soundtracks for the first two new "SW" films. Also, it helps that Lycas has recruited two of the world's best sound designers (Ben Burtt, Gary Rydstrom), one of the most highly regarded score mixers (Shawn Murphy) and a remaining sound crew whose credits are quite remarkable.
Although there are a few stretches of calm scattered throughout the film, several action sequences provide incredible surround use. Although the last 30-45 minutes provide a terrific assault, I especially liked the chase through the asteroid field, where the twang sound effects from the seismic charges travelled beautifully from front-to-back. There's not a whole lot of minor ambience here, but that's a rather minor complaint, given how terrific the rest of the film's soundtrack is.
Audio quality was terrific, too. Plenty of rich, deep bass was present, but these levels never became too overwhelming. John Williams' score is often mixed to both front and surround speakers, filling the room and sounding warm and crisp. Dialogue came through clearly, as well. "Episode II"'s audio is certainly up there with what I consider some of the finest audio experiences available.
Commentary: Once again this time around, we get a commentary from director George Lucas, exec producer Rick McCallum, sound designer Ben Burtt, animation supervisor Rob Coleman and effects artists Pablo Helman, John Knoll and Ben Snow. All of these participants have been recorded separately, but their comments have been recorded together (very well) for this screen-specific track. As with the track recorded for "Episode I", the track is certainly very informative, but rather on the dry side. The track launches into many different topics, from more character-based discussions, story chat and casting to more technical topics, such as digital effects and sound. Everyone has a lot of information to provide, but I found Burtt's discussion of sound design particularly enjoyable (for another great discussion of sound design, listen to Randy Thom's commentary on the "Cast Away" DVD.)
From Puppets to Pixels: This is a 55-minute documentary that largely follows the crew of the film as they develop some of the digital characters (Yoda, etc.) and try and overcome some of the technical obstacles of the production. What this piece generally consists of is following the crew of the film into the back rooms of the production facilities as they view new footage on their computers or chat with one another on how to improve the look of the scene. While those interested in the digital effects and technical aspects of the production may really find this enjoyable, those who don't will likely be bored. It is a fine documentary for what it is, but it makes me long for the more beginning-to-end production documentary of "The Beginning", the famed documentary that was included with the "Episode I" DVD. That hour-long documentary still remains one of the most intimate and personal I've seen for a blockbuster, big-budget picture. As for "Puppets to Pixels", what viewers see early on is what they'll get for the remainder of nearly an hour, so those who are enjoying it should proceed - those who aren't should move on.
State of the Art: The Pre-Vis of "Episode II": While filmmakers before have simply drawn out storyboards to have an idea of their big-budget films before they proceed, new technology allows filmmakers to digitally create animated storyboards to give a clearer and more detailed idea of how a scene will go together. While this documentary focuses on a subject that I don't particularly feel positive about - this film's essentially building entire worlds from the ground up around actors who are simply standing in front of a blue screen and reacting to maybe some off-screen direction - it's well-edited and informative, going through many of the sequences and doing so in a way that mixes behind-the-scenes clips and interviews well. Watching the film again and this documentary makes me appreciate "Lord of the Ring"'s better mixture of real and effects.
Films Are Not Released: They Escape: This doc - buried within the "Dex's Kitchen" area for some reason - is a 25-minute look at the creation of the film's sound design. The main interview participant is sound designer Ben Burtt, although we also hear thoughts from Gary Rydstrom, George Lucas and others. The documentary focuses on two aspects of the sound: where the sound effects were recorded (it's always surprising where the sounds were taken from) and the amazing amount of layers that go into the sound design of any one particular sequence. We also sit in with the ADR (automated dialogue recording) sessions, the foley recording and other aspects of the sound production.
Effects Breakdown: This 3 1/2 minute ILM featurette provides a look at the before-and-after of many of the films effects sequences, showing rapid clips of each of the elements that went into the final scene.
R2-D2: Beneath The Dome: This jokey 6-minute featurette charts R2's rise to fame via the "Star Wars" pictures. Not much repeat-viewing value, but funny once through.
Web Documentaries: These featurettes, originally found on the internet, go though various aspects of the production: "Here We Go Again" (digital cinema); "Wedgie 'Em Out" (creating the Jedi starfighter); "We Didn't Go To The Desert To Get A Suntan" (shooting around the world); "Trying To Do My Thing" (Christensen's casting); "A Twinkle Beyond Pluto" (extras); "It's All Magic" (on-set visual effects); "Revvin' It To The Next Level" (sound effects); "A Jigsaw Puzzle" (building models); "Bucket Head" (Introducing the Fetts); "Good to Go" (Jedis in action); "P-19" (Portman's wardrobe); "Reel 6" (creating the action in the film's final sequences).
Featurettes: Mainly promotional looks, these three featurettes are really the weakest link in the second disc. They're titled "Love", "Story" and "Action" and provide a very general overview of what there is of all three in the final film.
Trailer: The film's full theatrical trailer.
Teaser Trailers: Three teaser trailers.
TV Spots: 12 TV spots.
Music Video: The "Across the Stars" music vid.
Gallery: The "Dex's Kitchen" area includes numerous production photos and a poster gallery.
Deleted Scenes: 24 minutes of deleted scenes are included and, as with the DVD of the prior "Star Wars" film, these are scenes that have been completed before they were made available here. These scenes include introductions and are mostly dialogue-driven pieces that were deleted from the final film because of pacing reasons. They're enjoyable to view here,although I really didn't see any that I felt would've worked in the final film.
Also: THX Optimizer a/v tests (disc 1) and some easter eggs.
DVD_ROM: Weblinks and additional promotional supplements.
Final Thoughts: I remain a little less pleased with some of the acting aspects of "Episode II" after watching it on the small screen, but I still find it to be a more enjoyable feature than the "Star Wars" film that came before it. "Episode II"'s DVD edition provides stellar audio/video quality and terrific supplements. A definite recommendation for fans.
The Film ***