Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones (UK - BD)
Chris takes a look at the second of the Star Wars prequels on Blu-ray Disc...
The film opens with the familiar scrolling text that explains how the galaxy is under threat from a separatist movement lead by the mysterious Count Dooku (Christopher Lee), who has convinced several hundred star-systems to leave the republic and join his cause. In order to combat the increasing threat of the separatists the Galactic Senate is voting on the contentious issue of creating a clone army. Enter Padme Amidala (Natalie Portman), the former Queen of Naboo who now represents her planet in the Senate. Upon her arrival on Courascant, the central system in the Republic, Padme is the victim of a failed assassination attempt that leaves her starship in flames and her decoy dead.
In the wake of this treacherous attack the Jedi Council appoint two Jedi Knights to protect the senator. These guardians are Obi-Wan Kenobi (once again played by Ewan McGregor) and Anakin Skywalker (newcomer Hayden Christensen). Skywalker has matured into an exceptionally gifted, yet arrogant young Jedi, far removed from the little boy Padme first encountered ten years ago. Anakin has also been infatuated with Padme for the last decade, believing himself to be in love with her (more of which later). A second attempt on the senator’s life leads to an exhilarating speeder chase through the skies of Courascant, as Obi-Wan and Anakin track down the would-be assassin. However, just as the Jedi apprehended the suspect she is assassinated by a mysterious bounty hunter, leaving them with more questions than answers.
At this point Obi-Wan is charged with the task of discovering the identity of the bounty hunter, an adventure that takes him to the planet Kamino where he makes a startling discovery about the clone army. Meanwhile, Padme returns to homeworld taking Anakin along for protection. On Naboo Anakin’s love for Padme grows, but she is more cautious than the headstrong young Jedi, putting duty before affairs of the heart. At the same time Anakin has a vision of his mother, a vision so powerful it causes him to disobey orders and head to Tatooine. But young Skywalker is destined to find only pain and suffering on the desert planet, and the events that unfold will have far-reaching consequences for the entire galaxy…
For my money Attack of the Clones is a step up from its predecessor, featuring as it does more action, a larger universe and an ever-thickening plot filled with some very pleasing twists. Both Ian McDiarmid and Christopher Lee are in fine form as the villains of the piece, while Ewan McGregor’s Obi-Wan Kenobi is a more mature version of the character we met in the previous film. McGregor delivers an assured performance and revels in the chance to explore his character more fully than the restrictions of The Phantom Menace’s script allowed. Much of the humour in the film, at least the humour that works, stems from Obi-Wan, including an especially amusing little ‘mind trick’ early on. I also really enjoyed his noirish mystery subplot. Unfortunately the film also suffers from many of the same problems that plagued The Phantom Menace, not least an over-reliance on CGI. While I freely admit that it would have been very costly to manufacture thousands of sets of clone trooper armour the problem with using CGI is that it lacks any weight. There are entire acts of the film (notably the final act) where almost nothing on screen exists outside of a computer and it really shows. If CGI is still unconvincing in 2011 you can imagine what 2002 CGI looks like when viewed today... Many of the digital creatures lack realism and even Yoda bears little resemblance to the original puppet.
Another issue - some would say a major one - is the love story. In many respects the film hinges on the romance between youthful Jedi-in-training Anakin Skywalker and the beautiful Senator Padme Amidala (Natalie Portman). While I thought Hayden Christensen brought some much-needed arrogance to the character of Anakin - it’s not too big a stretch of the imagination to believe that this quick-tempered, impetuous youth will one day become the Dark Lord of the Sith himself - I wasn’t completely sold. At times Christensen’s performance is more Pinocchio than Pacino and I can’t help wondering what a better actor would have done with the part. After escaping relatively unscathed from The Phantom Menace - largely because she was required to sound stilted in that movie - Portman herself suffers somewhat in this film. Much of her performance is wooden, but again this could be down to some of the impossibly hackneyed dialogue she’s expected to deliver. While it’s obvious that the trite dialogue didn’t help matters I just didn’t sense any chemistry between Christensen and Portman during the romantic scenes. This is a big problem considering we’re supposed to believe that they are madly in love with one another. In fact, most of the time Christensen just appears to be leering at Portman like some kind of horny teenager (although who can really blame him for that?). It really doesn't help that the romance feels incredibly rushed. The confines of the two-hour running time prevent the relationship from evolving organically, so we have a situation whereby Padme falls for this petulant man-boy because the script demands it, not because it feels right. The saga's other great romance between Han and Leia was believable not only because of the chemistry, but because the characters spent time (three years) together between the first and second films. In Attack of the Clones Padme hasn't seen Anakin for a decade, at which time he was ten!
Jar Jar haters (and surely this will be most of you) will rejoice to hear that not only has he been toned down, he's been almost completely removed from the proceedings. In fact his presence is almost inconsequential save for one pivotal decision that will shape the course of events on a galactic scale! You think we vilified him? That’s nothing compared to what the citizens of the Republic would do if they found out what events he unwittingly set in motion! Unfortunately George Lucas has seen fit to replace Jar Jar with another ‘comedic’ character that is almost as annoying as the floppy eared buffoon himself. Who is this mystery character? None other than C-3PO! Oh dear God George, why did you do it? One of the most beloved characters from the original trilogy reduced to making inexcusably cheesy puns and getting himself into all manner of slapstick scrapes. It’s Jar Jar all over again… Thankfully R2-D2 is still around and largely unspoiled.
All of the above is in danger of sounding like I didn’t enjoy the film after all, so let me dispel any such thoughts. I believe that the biggest testament to my enjoyment of a film is how I feel a few days on, not as I walk out of the cinema. Upon leaving The Phantom Menace back in 1999 I was suitably entertained, but a few days later I had pretty much forgotten the years of excitement and anticipation. My expectations weren’t so high for Clones and perhaps that accounted for my feelings about the film, but all I can say is that I was still thinking it a week later so it must have done something right. Watching it again on Blu-ray is pretty much the same experience. Sure it’s still not a patch on any of the original Star Wars films - not even Jedi, and certainly not Empire as some blasphemers have dared to suggest - but it’s on the right track. Star Wars isn’t about long, sharply observed dialogue sequences, it’s about action, adventure and most of all, fun. Attack of the Clones has all of this and more.
As the first film in the saga to be shot entirely digitally you might expect Attack of the Clones' 2.35:1 (1080/24p AVC) transfer to be of 'reference' quality (whatever that means these days). Unfortunately a few issues prevent it from attaining the standards set by the very best transfers, but let's talk about the good first. Comparisons with the DVD reveal a pleasing jump in definition and fine detailing. It's fair to say that most reviewers went loopy over the visual quality of the DVD when it was released, but looking at it now the limitations of the standard-definition MPEG-2 encode are apparent. When upscaled it looks a little mushy, compression (understandably) isn't what it could be, and there is actually a fair bit of edge enhancement. Thankfully the Blu-ray remedies all of these issues, with the absence of halos a particularly obvious advantage.
However, the biggest difference between this and any other version of the film I've seen is the colour timing. The film always had a very bright, cartoonish palette with vibrant, almost over-saturated colours and high contrast, but this Blu-ray transfer has been granted the now-infamous - and I hate to use this word - 'teal' shift. It appears to be present for the entirety of the running time and has a varied effect on the picture. It's immediately obvious that the image is darker than before and contrast has been flattened. The pure whites of the cloning facility on Kamino have taken on a blue tint and even the Kaminoans themselves look subtly different. The red walls of Senator Palpatine's chambers are now more of a burgundy and the earthen tones of Geonosis have been somewhat tamed. The new colour timing is perhaps most obvious when looking at flesh tones, especially those of darker skinned characters like Captain Typho, Bail Organa or Mace Windu, who occasionally take on a magenta glow. There's also a scene featuring a blue female Twi'lek whose colouring has changed drastically, so much so that I suspect it's been purposely altered.
I don't want to get drawn into some sort of Lord of the Rings style debate about whether or not it is intentional or an error, but I saw some screen captures purporting to be from Lucasfilm themselves prior to release and this new colour timing was not present. On this evidence I have to conclude that it was added very late in the day, perhaps in an attempt to tone down the cartoon look of the film. Of course if you aren't particularly familiar with Attack of the Clones I doubt you will even notice the shift. As previously mentioned many features have this look ( Aliens was a recent, high-profile case) and it's only when comparing and contrasting with the older version that most people would spot it. In fact, I have to admit that apart from one or two scenes I really didn't mind the new timing. Other than that there's not a lot to comment on. The transfer is more consistent than The Phantom Menace's but it is still a little soft in places. I'm told this is due to intentional filtering applied to the master (not the Blu-ray) to lend a more diffuse look to the picture. There's also a minimal amount of edge enhancement present. Does it look as good as the best Blu-rays? No, definitely not, but given that the original source for this film that's to be expected. Shot on Sony HDW-F900 cameras at 1920x1080, the resolution was further compromised when the 2.35:1 ratio image was extracted from the 1.78:1 filmed image. Given all of the above it's a reasonably attractive transfer free from artefacts, and it makes for a decent upgrade over the DVD.
As with The Phantom Menace audio comes courtesy of a DTS-HD Master Audio 6.1 soundtrack, and again it is of very high quality. There is always something going on in this mix, be it subtle ambient effects in the varied locations or the maelstrom of noise that accompanies the various large-scale battles. Things get off to another good start with the arrival of Senator Amidala's starship at Coruscant, with a subtle transition from the rear to the front of the soundstage. The subsequent assassination attempt fills the room with noise and elicits a satisfying roar from the sub. The speeder chase high above the city streets is another highlight, as the vehicles twist and turn through traffic that whooshes past your head in a very convincing manner. I also enjoyed Obi-Wan's skirmishes with Jango Fett, particularly the second encounter around Geonosis and the accompanying seismic charges that create a 'black hole' of sound before unleashing a terrifyingly powerful 'thwaaaang' as they rip though the asteroid belt. The climatic battle sees countless rounds of blaster fire discharged as the clone troopers take on the droid army, with the viewer placed firmly in the centre of the action. The battle provides some of the most captivating use of the 6.1 track to be found in the film as huge AT-TE walkers gun down the fleeing Federation Control Ships, and Republic gunships vie for aerial supremacy with Geonosian fighters.
So that's the noisy stuff dealt with, but what about the subtleties? Never fear, as always the little things are also well-catered for. Dialogue is generally well-represented in the mix, and I don't recall any specific instances where I had to strain to hear it over the action (although that would have been preferable during some of the romantic scenes). Having said that the overall level of the track is a little quiter than The Phantom Menace, necessitating a a few more turns on the volume control. Some of the ambient effects are extremely well realised, such as Kamino's torrential rain, the general chatter of the busy Mos Espa space-port, or the noise of the assembled masses in the Geonosian arena. There's also one important audio addition during Anakin's nightmare, which really improves what was always a big of a dodgy scene.
As always John Williams' score sets the tone from the outset, but I have to admit that this is probably the weakest Star Wars score overall. It isn't Williams' fault though, as Lucas rejected much of his original work and instead opted to temp-track many scenes with music from other parts of the film along with music from Episode I. The problem is that he never changed the temp-tracking, so long periods of Clones sound like they've been lifted wholesale from the previous film, making this the most derivative soundtrack by quite some margin. One day I'd love to hear what JW originally came up with for the climactic battle on Geonosis. However, negativity aside I do love the way in which Williams' began to incorporate themes from the classic trilogy (such as the Imperial March) into the prequels. This occurs during a number of key sequences, and there's even a brief reprise of the awesome ‘Dual of the Fates’. Speaking of which, just as The Phantom Menace had its signature piece Attack of the Clones features its own anthem in the form of the astounding love theme ‘Across the Stars’. While not as exhilarating as ‘Duel of the Fates’ it is still a hauntingly beautiful, yet melancholic piece of music that manages to perfectly capture the mood of Anakin and Padme’s domed romance. So fond of this piece of music am I that it actually played at my wedding (thankfully I haven't yet turned to the dark side). Caveats about the score aside this is another great soundtrack that matches The Phantom Menace blow for blow, and is therefore deserving of its high marks.
As with The Phantom Menace we get the original audio commentary from the DVD release and a new patchwork commentary featuring various cast and crew-members. The original commentary is very similar to the one found on The Phantom Menace DVD, in that it concentrates more on technical aspects than narrative elements. The participants include George Lucas, Rick McCallum, Rob Coleman, Ben Burtt, Pablo Hellman, John Knoll and Ben Snow, all of whom have their own unique spin on the proceedings. Like the Episode I commentary this makes for interesting, if not terribly exciting listening, but it did mark the first occasion that George publicly stated that Stormtroopers are clones.
The second commentary includes the likes of Ben Burtt, Hayden Christensen, Nick Gillard, Sam Jackson, Christopher Lee, Ian McDiarmid, Temuera Morrison, Natalie Portman, Ewan McGregor, Jimmy Smitts and even John Williams. As with The Phantom Menace's patchwork commentary it's actually a pretty revealing and interesting track that's definitely worthy of your time.
Like The Phantom Menace before it Attack of the Clones is a reasonably entertaining yet flawed film. It suffers from all of the problems that plagued the earlier film and delivers a love story that isn't convincing for a moment, but its mystery elements and increased action quotient make for a more entertaining ride. Having the uncut version of the film available on a UK home video format for the first time is also a bonus. The visual presentation isn't as good as I'd hoped but it is at least more consistent than The Phantom Menace and the soundtrack is yet another home run. The included extras are limited but they are supplemented buy the material on the bonus disc, some of which is very good. Once again I'm reasonably happy with the finished article, the aforementioned issues excepted that is.
* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray release and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.
Review by Chris Gould
General viewing, but some scenes may be unsuitable for young children
Release Date: 12th September 2011
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 6.1 English, Dolby Digital 5.1 French, Dolby Digital 5.1 Portuguese, Dolby Digital 5.1 Spanish, Audio Description Dolby Digital 5.1 English
Subtitles: Danish, Dutch, English, Finnish, French, Norwegian, Portuguese, Spanish, Swedish
Extras: Audio Commentaries
Easter Egg: No
Director: George Lucas
Cast: Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman, Hayden Christensen, Frank Oz, Samuel L. Jackson, Christopher Lee, Ian McDiarmid, Pernilla August, Ahmed Best, Anthony Daniels, Kenny Baker, Andy Secombe, Silas Carson, Oliver Ford Davies, Jimmy Smits, Ayesha Dharker, Joel Edgerton, Daniel Logan, Temuera Morrison, Bonnie Piesse, Jack Thompson
Genre: Action, Adventure, Fantasy and Sci-Fi
Length: 142 minutes
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