There's a great movie buried in this movie. It would've been so easy to use a sharp blade, and carve the hidden movie out to bring out the poetry in the drama, make the lines ring true. All they had to do was hire a real science fiction writer, or a good strong writer of movies, like Jeffrey Boam, or a vigorous, sharp TV scripter like Harlan Ellison or Ira Behr. Besides the visual mis-steps, which are relatively few, what's really wrong with this movie is what's wrong with most big budget films: Big Media's lack of appreciation for writers. For real writers.
You know how at auditions a production assistant will read out lines, in a wooden, rote sort of way, just to cue the real actors? That's how the real actors too-often read their lines in Episode II like production assistants reading them off a script they'd just been handed. And do you know why? Is it because Natalie Portman and this Christensen kid and Sam Jackson can't act? Hell no. It's because they can't read those lines with conviction. Oh, if you've got an old hand with some Shakespeare somewhere in his background, like Christopher Lee, somehow he makes his lines work and he got some of the better ones. But a great deal of the dialogue made me feel I was subjected to an "Attack of the Groans". Much of it was even ungrammatical.
It's dangerous being George Lucas, both vastly egocentric and also vastly successful, because you've got no one around to tell you when you're falling short of the mark. No one dares. There must have been hundreds of people who saw this script and who knew the dialogue was, in large part, hideously rotten. But they didn't dare say anything.
(Much the same applied, I suspect, to Woody Allen when he passed out copies of his Curse of the Jade Scorpion.)
And yet... and yet I enjoyed the film.
The story in Episode II actually tracks pretty well, and intriguingly. A conspiracy to give the Chancellor absolute power deliberately foments a war, equipping him with an army of clones. An attempt to assassinate Portman's former-Queen-turned-Senator prompts Ewan McGregor and Christensen to pursue the assassin to the hidden planet of the clone masters. (McGregor manages to make most of his lines work pretty well, but he's one of the best actors in the cast.) Even when the clone army is revealed to have been planned long in advance our Jedi fail to see what should be obvious but the story goes by so rapidly we don't begrudge Lucas such strained logic.
The film comes alive during the frequent action scenes. The art direction is splendid: there were small children sitting in front of me in the theatre and though they couldn't possibly have followed the story they sat quietly enraptured the whole time, because there was always something intriguing to look at. Each planet, each setting, each character and vehicle and device design, was an idea, cleverly realized, and, if not original, always vivid.
Characters who would've been puppeted and prosthetic, like Jabba, had this been made in the original Star Wars era, are here animated though often it doesn't quite work. We manage to buy into the slinky, snaky clone-making aliens, and even Yoda, suspending our visual disbelief as much as we can but others just don't look solid, they don't have weight or believability. Characters in some action scenes seem doll-like, and some objects look like miniatures when they're in fact computer-generated. Still, I saw the celluloid version; maybe the digital-projection version works better.
Despite its flaws, this is a much better movie than Episode I, and it makes me want to see Episode III. That wasn't my feeling after seeing Episode I; I didn't care.
But this time, Anakin's inexorable buckling under to the dark-side influence of the Chancellor, the Emperor To Come; his suffering when his Mother died; his chafing under Obi-Wan all this is reasonably dramatic, and engaging. You can feel the story gaining power at such moments.
I noticed something I think is significant. When Christensen and Portman are close together, throwing romantic sparks suddenly these two are good actors. And Christensen is good when his character's mother dies; you believe he cares and you care too suddenly he's a good actor. Why? Because the actor himself finds the situation and the dialogue believable here partly because the lines are pared for high drama and intensity, at this point, but also because passion is something young people in the 21st century can relate to. When he believes it, he expresses it believably, and we buy it.
In other scenes the clunky writing fails to make the dialogue believable, fails to make the drama of the politics and the undercurrents of the intrigue pick up traction, and the actors suffer accordingly. Even so good an actor as Sam Jackson struggles.
Another problem is Lucas's apparent inability to direct actors. He directs droids well. Christopher Lee doesn't need direction he's too much a pro. (And who's this gorgeous woman who plays the new Queen? She's striking and she actually makes her lines work.)
The bottom line here is that a lesson needs to be learned by big money filmmakers no, make that two lessons. You can't rush technology when it's not ready: computer animation is not ready for all that Lucas wants it to do. And most important, solid writing especially in dialogue is not of secondary importance. It's primary. It's imperative. Beautiful visuals, great action and charisma can't make up for its lack.
But see this film. Give in to the hype. Its pleasures are considerable, and when it works, Lucas's imagination or is it the imaginations of all those obscurely credited fantasy artists working behind the scenes? really shines.
Next Week: I compare the digital-projection version with the celluloid.