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Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones

Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones on DVD

By Jim Bray

Well, finally, we have here a DVD that does George Lucas' imagination and penchant for technological advance justice. And which proves that, if not dead, film is at least well on its way to being replaced by high definition video.

The latter point is obviously arguable, but having seen “II” in the theater and now on DVD I’m even less likely to visit the local Cineplex again. As it stands I can only be dragged there for the occasional film: in the past two years that has meant Fellowship of the Ring (the presentation of which was so bad in the theater that I complained to THX), Harry Potter, Spiderman, and “Clones”. Each of these viewings featured grainy and fuzzy visuals and audio I can exceed in my (admittedly higher end) home theater - so why go other than to spend too much money on a ticket and have my feet stick to the floor?

And now, with Attack of the Clones, George Lucas has advanced the state of the “live action” movie art to its next level and, at least in the home video incarnation, given us the picture clarity of such all-digital features as “Monsters, Inc” and the like.

This is a good thing! Thanks, Mr. Lucas!

This is the DVD that “Phantom Menace” should have been. When Episode I premiered on DVD, it was hailed as a new reference standard for the medium - but it wasn’t. The digital characters and effects were indeed crystal clear, but the live action was too soft, almost fuzzy. And the audio, while excellent, was too quiet (on my home theater I had to turn the volume knob up from its regular level to get the same sound out of “Menace”). For a reference quality live action DVD it couldn’t hold a candle to such releases as “The Fifth Element.”

But Episode II was shot entirely on high definition video, a format known as 24P (24 frames per second, progressively scanned), with lenses designed to give the same look Lucas had achieved when using film. The result is eye-opening to say the least, and since its genesis was all digital (as opposed to shooting on analog film and then transferring it to video) it translates directly to the digital DVD medium the same way as those all-digital Pixar and Disney flicks do.

So Episode II is head and shoulders better, and therefore more satisfying as a DVD, than Episode I was. The live action is wonderfully sharp and matches all the movie's computer-generated stuff much better than in Episode I, to create the seamless blend that was missing from “Phantom Menace.” Not only that, but the overall picture quality is nothing short of superb, with razor sharp images and gorgeous colors.

The audio is also excellent, though perhaps they’ve gone the opposite way this time and made it a little too hot. I started running it at the normal listening level, as I do with all DVD’s, but it seemed that the bass was a tad excessive because when Senator Amidala’s decoy ship was blown up in the opening scene, my subwoofer rattled mightily and I had to turn it off. I’d like to think it was the disc and not the subwoofer, which is THX-certified (but which, to be fair, has packed it in before). Fortunately, my main front speakers have built in powered subwoofers so we managed to continue the viewing after a short pause to change the surround processor’s configuration - but even then the bass was such that it rattled the loose pictures on the walls more than most movies do.

You just can’t please some people, can you?

We also noticed the odd bit of distortion at places during the movie, but this was minor in the grand scheme of things. Overall, the audio quality is as excellent as the picture - and very loud.

So how’s the movie itself? Great but, as with Episode V “The Empire Strikes Back,” since it’s the middle part of a trilogy it’s very much darker than the other episodes - though probably not as dark as Episode III will necessarily be.

It doesn’t seem to have the pacing of the other entries, either and, at 142 minutes, it’s also longer and the two factors combine to make “Clones” seem even longer.

But that’s a minor criticism of a film that, in the grand "Star Wars" tradition, has more imagination and life to it than most of its contemporaries.

Set a decade after Episode I, the storyline advances the fall of the Republic, which is already crumbling beneath the very eyes of the guardian Jedi Knights who are being manipulated by forces they don’t really understand and who are finding themselves increasingly out of their depth. Thousands of worlds are joining a secessionist movement and a civil war is becoming increasingly likely.

Padmé Amidala (Natalie Portman), former Queen of Naboo and now a senator from that lovely world, comes to Coruscant to vote against the creation of an Army to combat the separatists. But an attempt on her life causes her to go into hiding, under the protection of the Jedi order as represented by Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) and his student Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) - the later of whom is even more gifted than when we last saw him as a young boy and who’s now chafing under the tutelage of his mentor and the discipline necessary to become a true Jedi.

We know Anakin has to succumb to the dark side of the force if he’s to become Darth Vader (which, as we all know, he will), but from the time we first see him in “Attack of the Clones” we can see the beginnings of this descent into evil. Anakin is not yet evil, far from it in fact, but he’s headstrong, impatient, emotional, and far too impressed with his own abilities for his own good. He’s also paying too much heed to Chancellor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid), who we know (but he doesn’t) is also the dark lord who will become the Emperor and will turn him to the dark side. Palpatine plays on the youth’s weaknesses, strokes his ego, and generally does his best to keep him off balance (all in one very brief scene!).

And now Anakin is being haunted by nightmares of the mother he hasn’t seen for those ten years, and this is affecting his performance and his judgement - seriously and tragically so, as we’ll find out later in the film when he takes a pivotal step towards the dark side.

As protector to Senator Amidala, he’s charged with keeping her safe - but he’s also hopelessly in love with her - moreso than the childish crush he had when he last saw her as a kid (“Are you an angel?” he asked her in “Phantom Menace”). Yet as a Jedi he can’t love her, and as a Senator she can’t love him - regardless of the feelings stirring within her as well.

They have to fall in love, of course, because she has to give birth to Luke and Leia Skywalker somewhere down the road, and over the course of the film they do find that forbidden love.

Meanwhile, the Jedi discover that the people on a world deliberately hidden from them has been quietly building a clone army for the republic at the behest of a long dead Jedi. This comes as a complete surprise to the Jedi, but the clones come in handy at movie’s climax when they and the Jedi must face off against a new droid army being wielded by the evil Count Dooku (Christopher Lee) who has turned to the dark side and taken the place of Darth Maul from Phantom Menace.

Meanwhile, the Jedi council is being played for fools - and the much-savaged Jar Jar Binks is manipulated in his role as substitute senator - all while Dooku tells just enough of the truth to his ex-Jedi compatriots to cause them to question their own perceptions of reality.

That’s a pretty superficial look at a movie that does an excellent job of moving along the events of Phantom Menace while putting into place many of the situations and characters that will happen in the “original” Star Wars trilogy that, alas, shows no sign of appearing on DVD any time soon.

Natalie Portman is very good as Senator Amidala, much grown up from “Phantom,” and Ewan McGregor excels as Kenobi, trying to ride herd on an apprentice whose abilities far outstrip his own. Christensen, though hated by some, is perfectly cast as Anakin, combining youthful exuberance and hormones with more than a touch of the darkness we’ll undoubtedly be seeing more of in the next installment.

It’s wonderful to see Christopher Lee here. He has such great presence - and he makes an interesting connection to the “earlier” trilogy where Peter Cushing (Lee’s old compatriot from Hammer horror films) also made an impact as Governor Tarkin. Samuel L. Jackson is better here than in “Menace” and we now have the most fully fleshed out performance from Yoda since, appropriately, “Empire.”

Much has been ballyhooed about how this time Yoda has moved from puppet to all-digital creation and, while I didn’t think it worked when I saw the film in the theater, I’m a lot more disposed to like him on my second viewing. The digital version is better, but despite their efforts to make the digital creation as faithful as possible to the original version, he’s just too animated (no pun intended) for me to completely suspend my disbelief.

There isn’t a lot of the R2D2/C3PO relationship which, to be fair, is just beginning anyway, and the protocol droid seems there basically for comedy relief in what could otherwise be an excessively serious film. I’m not sure he/it really works, but I’ll give the droid and Mr. Lucas the benefit of the doubt.

The effects, of course, are mind bending. Each Star Wars movie gets better in this regard and that’s great - though I still think the best of the movies over all (effects notwithstanding) is the “first” one, Episode IV A New Hope because of its freshness and energy. Sure, its effects look a tad dated today, even the special edition’s, but I hope they don’t give it any more special edition treatments because it’s clearly a case of gilding the lily.

And once again John Williams is on hand to give us yet another sweeping, classic score full of themes both familiar and new, and Lucas uses Williams’ genius to plant seeds about events to come and remind us of events past.

But back to the DVD. As with “Phantom Menace,” you get a lot more than just the movie. The two disc, THX-certified (no surprise, since it was Lucas who first brought us THX - in every respect) DVD includes a gang commentary on disc one, with enough extras on the second disc to keep Star Wars fans happy for many an hour.

Those extras include a plethora of documentaries, and they're fascinating. Best of all, virtually all of them are in anamorphic widescreen, which is a real bonus to people with 16x9 TV's. The extras cover everything from eschewing film to the creation of the special effects, sound design, creatures, and just about every other aspect of the production. You also get a music video feature Maestro John Williams in his element.

Fox has chosen to release this film in both widescreen and Pan&Scan versions under separate cover, which really rubs me the wrong way because it'll force those who buy the P&S version to shell out for the widescreen one again when they upgrade to the new TV technology. I'd recommend anyone interested in buying the disc to get the widescreen version and live with the black bars; if the bars really bother you then just rent the P&S disc and take it back when you're finished with it.

Star Wars Episode II Attack of the Clones, from 20th Century Fox Home Video
142 min., anamorphic widescreen (2.35:1), 16x9 TV compatible, Dolby Digital EX,
Starring Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman, Hayden Christensen,
Produced by Rick McCallum
Written by George Lucas and Jonathan Hales, Directed by George Lucas


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Updated May 13, 2006