Another article and another week closer to The Last Jedi. This week, we’re looking at the entry many believe belong at the bottom of the list. However, I’m a contrarian and can’t have that. For this article, I’ll review the film in the same way as done previously, but will also include my arguments as to why I ultimately chose The Phantom Menace as the worst over all. Let’s get started.
#7: Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the ClonesAttack of the Clones is where George Lucas finally revealed, or at least, gave us a better look at what his intention was with the prequel trilogy. With The Phantom Menace he simply introduced us to important characters, but ultimately focused on a plot that is almost entirely irrelevant in the grand scheme of things. Here, the conflict that will define the prequel trilogy is introduced and characters are furthered into becoming the people we know they were destined to be. In terms of plot and structure, this may well be Lucas’ most ambitious entry in the series. But, does it pay off? Judging by it’s placement here, in a lot of ways, no. However, like it’s predecessor, there’s enough here to enjoy for revisits.
I mentioned in the previous article that McDiarmid is great in the role of Palpatine, and this is when he begins to truly shine. In The Phantom Menace, Palpatine utilized a vote of no confidence in Chancellor Valorum to take the role for himself. With ten chronological years between the two films, Palpatine is now in position to enact his master plan. The orchestration of The Clone Wars. I cannot overstate how good McDiarmid is in the role. Though the film may hint at something sinister behind the chancellor, when looking at his performance by itself, it’s obvious to understand why he would be viewed as a benevolent chancellor trying to act justly. He displays what appears to be genuine care and worry for Padme, and works cordially and cooperatively with the jedi council. The last line exchange between he and Anakin in the previous film was Palpatine stating that he “will watch your career with great interest.” Here we see the beginnings of a mutually respectful relationship between the two. Anakin trusts Palpatine and places confidence in him. With knowledge of how the story will end in mind, it’s great to see how wonderfully set up the dynamic between Sidious and Vader was. With Maul being killed in the last film, the role of apprentice to Sidious was open, this time to be filled by Sir Christopher Lee as Count Dooku, also known as Darth Tyranus. Though Lee isn’t as memorable in the role of a Sith as one might imagine he’d be, he’s still effective as the face of the films opposition. Dooku, a former jedi, is the leader of the Separatists, a group of systems wanting to remove themselves from Republic rule. Joining the villainous portion of the cast is Temuera Morrison as Jango Fett, a bounty hunter whose DNA is being used for the clone army. Fett doesn’t get huge amounts of screen time, but is great in the amount he’s in with a rainy, well-choreographed fight with Obi-Wan being the highlight. Speaking of Obi-Wan, Mcgregor returns to the role and at this point has fully come into his own as a character. Everything about his performance in this film is enjoyable to watch, so much so that it seems he’s won over even some of the most adamant of “purists.” It doesn’t hurt that his side of the story is by far the best thing about the film, but love for this character is based on so much more. He brings so much personality to the role, giving Kenobi a sense of sarcasm and almost cocky levels of confidence. There is nothing ill to be said of the character. Lastly, Frank Oz once again returns as Yoda and is as perfect as ever. Oz reprised his role for The Phantom Menace, but was sidelined for major portions of the film and was also a hideous puppet that would frighten children. It wasn’t a great comeback and has fortunately been corrected here, as well as the re-releases of Episode I. The Empire Strikes Back first introduced us to the character and teased much of his background. Here, Lucas puts to film that background and doesn’t disappoint. He’s as wise and respected as one would imagine the head of the Jedi Council be, but also as powerful. Many took issue with the way Yoda’s combat style was portrayed. Personally, I loved it. I was completely sold then and there that this was someone who could hold his own in a lightsaber fight. Size matters not indeed.
What doesn’t work:
As far as acting, this film fares a little better than the first, but only just. Natalie Portman is better this time around, but still finds the occasion for a wooden delivery here and there. At least this time traces of emotion can be detected. The worst offender in this outing is Hayden Christensen as Anakin. From time to time I try convincing myself he’s actually pretty good, but it ends up being to no avail. He’s often creepy, and always whiny. The only time he ever sells the audience on his having real emotion is when he has to express anger and pain. What’s so surprising is that he’s not just good in those scenes, he’s kind of great. There is genuine, raw emotion in his voice and demeanor when he confesses to Padme his slaughter of the sand people. And the pain in his eyes as his mother dies in his arms is inarguably real. It just makes his horrid acting in all the other scenes all the more apparent. He’s never charming and delivers lines meant to be full of emotion with little to no conviction. Jake Lloyd as young Anakin is DiCaprio in comparison.
As for their romance itself, it is the source of nearly every problem this movie has. It is entirely unbelievable and botches the films pacing completely. Every time an interesting plot point is discovered on Obi-Wan’s end of things, Lucas jerks us back to Anakin and Padme, begging us to care. There’s just no possible way to convince oneself that your watching people fall in love. There is a scene early on where Padme actually comments that Anakin’s incessant need to stare at her “makes me uncomfortable,” an instance of a character speaking on behalf of the audience. The rest of their “love story” involves Padme making it clear to Anakin that they could never be together, then throwing on the most revealing outfits she could find and planning romantic picnics and intimate chats by the fireplace. There is no discernible progression in their romance, that is, until near the end when the film decides that it put enough work into their romance and has Padme profess her “true, deep” love for Anakin. This results is a wedding, leading into the third film with the most half baked marriage in film yet. Its pacing is also hurt by Lucas’ desire to stuff this film too full. As I mentioned earlier, this feels like the most ambitious entry in the series. It is the longest film in the series at 2 hours and 22 minutes, yet still doesn’t manage to find the time to tell the story coherently.. The film tries to explain the concept of the clones, the conflict between the Separatists and Republic, create and develop a pivotal romance, all while providing the action we’ve come to expect from Star Wars. Yet, despite being overstuffed, the film often feels boring. Certain necessary scenes linger too long, and any time spent on Naboo with Ani and Padme feels like an eternity. Separating Anakin and Padme from the actual plot was a mistake. Lucas was fighting a battle against himself by having to cut back and forth between the two, where he could’ve kept everyone together and develop their story without cutting away from the plot that is desperately trying to unfold. One of the clumsiest moments in the film is when Lucas attempts to reunite our cast just before the climactic arena scene. Lucas has acknowledged that he felt the film was getting too slow, and so before Anakin and Padme meet Obi-Wan on Geonosis, they have what feels like a twenty minutes escapade in a droid factory. The scene is one of the worst shot sequences Lucas has ever produced. It’s nearly impossible to follow because the film gives almost no visual clues as to where anyone is in relation to anyone else or where they’re headed. It’s mostly just close ups of actors ducking under bad cgi cranes and machinery. So, now that we’ve established both films are pretty bad, why one over the other?
Attack of the Clones versus The Phantom Menace:
While I can’t begrudge someone for someone disagreeing with me or being unable to choose at all, the answer is clear to me. The Phantom Menace has a bigger list of cons while Attack of the Clones has a bigger list of pros. In discussing the flaws of Epidode II, almost every flaw in the film can be contained in the romance. I understand that it is central to the film, but it spends the majority of its time isolated by itself, secluded from the rest of the film. And as I said before, the rest of the film is pretty good. The actual political conflict between the Separatists and the Republic is infinitely more interesting than that of Naboo and the Trade Federation. Obi-Wan gets an entire plot with a beginning, middle and end that develops his character while progressing the lore, all while committing no major movie sin. The effects are much cleaner and polished, and the bad acting is reduced almost entirely to Anakin, with Padme sounding wooden here and there. As a whole, the central plot is compelling and engaging and, unlike Episode I, is relevant to the series’ overarching story. The moments of untainted goodness in Episode I are almost entirely isolated to two scenes, the podrace and the final lightsaber battle. Every other moment that has traces of something to be enjoyed must fight against a cast of bad actors, horrid visual effects, and the most boring conflict and plot the series has to offer. Comparing the redeeming qualities of both films and, in my mind there is no real argument.
Finally, the two films in the series I actually consider “bad” are out of the way. Every film from here on out ranges from good, but problematic, to genuine cinematic greatness. It also may be a little less predictable than the bottom two, so stay tuned.