Ahhh "Star Wars", at this juncture many a reviewer would be telling you how the original trilogy was such an important part of inspiring them to get into the film business and how those films have more than any other been a key part of their lives - but I ain't like that folks.
Being born a year AFTER the first one hit the cinemas, the entire SW craze happened long before my time and it wasn't till about 1991 when I'd just turned 13 that I sat down and watched them. To this day I think 'New Hope' is glorious fun, 'Empire' is a truly wonderful film, and despite a few flaws related to walking carpets 'Jedi' is still a solid movie. They are among my Top 50 or so films of all time, but they're still just films - I love them for the entertainment and story but as for their personal impact, well the late 80's/early 90's works of James Cameron, John McTiernan and Paul Verhoeven had more of an inspiration on me to write about film than the Lucas epics.
Why am I telling you this? Well the problem with this franchise more than any other series is that everyone comes into this with different preconceptions. As a reviewer its your job to be as objective as possible but more than any other SF tale, the 'Wars' movies inspire a level of unconditional love or bitterness amongst reviewers. The former (the lovers) deliberately ignore the giant flaws they would take other films to task on, the latter (the haters) overexaggerate the problems which they would otherwise ignore in other movies this Summer. These are popcorn movies and so the bigger a fan you are, the 'stronger' your level of enjoyment or loathing will be.
Adding to the confusion is the nostalgia factor, like it or not any franchise as long running and culturally affecting as this (eg. Trek, 007, etc.) inspires a level of sympathy in even its most casual fan - 'Wars' especially so due to the sheer size of its success and the lack of a 'geek stigma' against it which something like Trek or LOTR has. When those yellow words roll up on the screen its easy to find yourself short of breath and your pulse quickening in anticipation.
It was this more than anything that inspired reviewers to be more generous to "The Phantom Menace" than it deserved and many of those said reviewers are now 'fessing up to the mistake in their 'Clones' reviews - myself included. 'Phantom' certainly wasn't the disaster the let down purists were making out, but rather just a very ordinary dumb Summer movie - a dud which sadly had way too high expectations to live up to and so compared with the previous films was quite a shocker.
So what about 'Clones'? Well if I had to state my reaction it would be 'Mixed'. A definite improvement on 'Phantom', the latest 'Wars' chapter is visually splendant throughout its slightly bloated runtime and has a glorious fun last 30 minutes of non-stop action which ranks right up there with the first two films. Its a pity the two hours preceding it proves only sporadically entertaining. That two hours consist mostly of meeting after meeting filled with exposition and/or banal jokes/dialogue broken up only by the occasional (and for the most part cool) action sequence.
The film is darker in tone than the last one but aside from maybe one sequence, its all very clean cut and family friendly in content. Still missing from both the prequel films is the pep, humanity and deeper personal themes of the original trilogy (even though this time it feels as if they're trying and in fact they actually get it right at some points). Gone though is the silly poop gags, Jake Lloyd (an example why pro-choice is the only way to go if there ever was one), and even Jar Jar has been seriously disciplined and restrained down to about five minutes of screen time though still manages to irritate every time he opens his beak.
The story is a convoluted jumble. 'Phantom' suffered from having too little and too juvenile a story. 'Clones' has the right tone but there's so much debate about politics and so many strange names that it's too confusing for kids and yet not interesting enough for adults. The politics on Coruscant in 'Menace' were interesting as it was more of a sly manipulation on Palpatine's part to become head of the Senate.
Lucas seems fascinated this time around on seeing how a democracy can become a dictatorship and how great powers fall - certain scenes (esp. one in the Jedi archives) make more than one unspoken comparison to that of the Roman Empire in its waining years. The thing is politics, if told right and delievered in the right way, can be one of the most riveting pieces of subject matter there is and yet here things which should have a big impact simply happen with little to no effect. Dialogue proves just as cringe-inducing as in SW1, yet the pace is pretty good - in the first half things move too slow but by the end you don't want things to end which is always a good sign and the runtime which was a bit daunting at first becomes a breeze.
The action is GREAT, no doubts there whatsoever. From a speeder chase through the cluttered skys of Coruscant, a one-on-one between Obi-Wan and Jango Fett on a rainsoaked platform, a great shoot out in an asteroid field (look for a great sound effect in regards to the 'seismic charges') to the non-stop last 30 minutes it works very well and is much better paced and choreographed than Episode I.
The ending couple of action sequences for example occur sequentially rather than all at once which makes each one flow easier and build in crescendo - all capped off with the easy highlight of the film and the one moment that'll go down in cinematic history, Yoda vs. Dooku. The pair's fight is just magnificent and will make you realise that you should NEVER piss off a Muppet. Still one or two sequences feel unneeded, most notably a big piece of action in a droid making factory which does nothing really to advance the plot.
The weight of the franchise now rests on the shoulders of Hayden Christensen, a capable but underwhelming young actor who, much like he did in "Life as a House", gives a decent but uninspiring performance. On the one hand Hayden plays the scenes of young male arrogance quite well, but the more serious moments such as the romance to the quieter meetings feel very forced and unfocused.
Only one key scene with him describing something horrible he'd done, you'll know it when you see it, do we finally see him really click as he gets some real drama - sadly that scene is all too short. Actually you could make a drinking game out of the amount of bitching Anakin does in this - at one or two points he seems to be channeling Elizabeth Berkley in "Showgirls" (an underrated trashy performance if there ever was one).
After playing a badly accented cold fish last time, Portman gets to open up and show a little heart and guts this time as Padme, bringing a little warmth to her still stilted dialogue. She and Hayden do have a vague hint of chemistry but the so-so handled romance subplot (which suffers from being rushed more than anything) doesn't alow her much breathing room. The biggest improvement this time is Ewan McGregor who finally gets the restraining collar removed and does some assertive stuff.
His detective subplot on Kamino with some gorgeous long necked white aliens is engaging fun and far more interesting than the slowly unrolling love story on Naboo, and also includes a great scene with him learning information from an overweight alien cook at a fast food diner. Things slow down a bit as he moves to Geonosis but pick up for the great finale. Appearances from R2-D2 and C-3P0 are half fun/half annoying, Aussie actors Joel Edgerton and Jack Thompson as the Lars family get maybe one-line each, and Pernilla August is utterly wasted in a few seconds of onscreen time. If any single character saves this movie its Yoda who gets to do some great stuff both in meetings and with the sabre.
Onto the more senior human figues of the film - Christopher Lee is Christopher Lee, I love the dude as a bad guy and always will. This proves no exception - not a standout role for him but certainly up there with his better villain roles despite very little screentime. Morrison gets to ooze nastiness as the quite cool Jango Fett - I love the way Lucas has made him both an aggressive and clever warrior, but one who like any fighter makes mistakes and/or gets hurt.
The Obi-Wan/Jango fight on Kamino for example is made all the better by the fact at several points both find their lives in jeopardy and both are thoroughly exhausted from the fight. Add to that Daniel Logan as the young Boba, a kid actor who easily puts Jake Lloyd to shame within his first 10 seconds on screen. Samuel L. Jackson gets more screen time than in 'Phantom' but aside from a fun "This Party's Over" one-liner he's just not got much to do and still feels more like Samuel L. Jackson than an SW character, whilst its frightening to say it but the great Ian McDiarmid as the Chancellor is stuck not doing much here after making a vague impression in 'Phantom'.
One surprisingly big downside is the humour. C-3P0 gets the occasional joke in (despite being poorly timed), but on the whole that's about it. Obi-Wan and Anakin try a lot of one-liners in the first act and its amazing how quite simply 'dead' these jokes are on arrival. In a packed cinema full of "Star Wars" fans, there was silence for a lot of the time - especially in the opening scenes. In fact the good humour of the film comes more unintentionally than first thought. Yoda's saber battle causes cheers and laughs, little references to other films in the saga (check out the nightclub sequence for a whole bunch) also inspire giggles. One surprisingly funny moment is a scene in which Anakin has a nightmare - a moment which should be very serious but the fact that the shot is framed so that it appears as if Christensen is pleasuring himself (complete with erect nipples and panting) caused all sorts of giggling fits amongst the crowd I was with. Obi-Wan does manage one or two chuckles during his investigations but the 90% of the time attempts at laughter are made - they just collapse. Thumbs also down for John Williams' so-so score which has one likable new theme for the romance angle, and great to hear shades of the old Empire theme in there, but the 11 or so other pieces of music simply lack any punch or resonance. FX wise Lucas can't be beat - with plenty of time, money and ILM under his reigns we're once again treated to a pure visual feast with a multitude of varied environments, each one looking convincingly scrumptious. I must admit when it comes to landscapes and natural wonders the crew of that FX house have pretty much reached the pinnacle.
Yet character animation still sadly looks like character animation, especially in close-up - from the all new CG Yoda to even Jar Jar Binks the character animation still looks drawn on and gives them a somewhat 'out of phase with everyone else' look. Same goes for some of the blue screen FX which pop up from time to time (eg. the archives scene) - this universe is filled with a lot of giant environments which are poorly populated. With hallways and palaces this big, the amount of walking these people must do explains why they're all so fit.
In the end 'Clones' proves a likable yet surprisingly forgettable and dare I say 'average' chapter in the SW saga. Its a step above Phantom, nowhere near 'New Hope' or 'Empire' and actually stands a little below 'Jedi'. In fact much like 'Jedi' you have about 40 minutes of a great "Star Wars" movie surrounded by a lot of forgettable filler struggling to find a direction or point.
Most hardcore fans will be satisfied with the end product, others will be even more disgruntled, and casual moviegoers are already looking as divided over this as they were over last year's "AI". There's no doubting the next Episode is filled with the potential for a lot of serious drama and I hope things pick up (script & directing wise) because its the most vital film of the three, as for this - its a decent time filler to satiate audience desires. It won't be a highlight of the Summer, but it is an enjoyable escape that due to some funky visuals is worth catching at the cinema once the crowds die down a little.