Anakin Skywalker is not your ordinary hero. In fact, he may not be a hero at all. Whether or not you like Hayden Christensen in the role (most critics don't), Anakin Skywalker is clearly headed for trouble in Star Wars—Episode Two: Attack of the Clones. He talks back to his teachers and his elders. He pursues whatever—and whomever—he likes, using every method at his disposal. In his own eyes, he is serving the greater good while wiser, older leaders stand aloof and prove ineffective. But he's dealing in compromise, and as the enemy closes in on the Republic, he's making himself an available tool for the Dark Lord's sinister purposes.
Critics continued to take opposite sides in the debate about whether Episode Two is a good movie. But some critics, and some readers as well, offered similar complaints about mediocre dialogue and bad acting, and looked deeper at the implications of the storytelling.
In his review, Greg Krehbiel claims the film as a great resource for teachers and parents: "George Lucas … has done a service to parents everywhere by creating a clean and meaningful movie for families. Clones is a fantastic film to see with your pre-teen kid. It provides several good opportunities to discuss some of the common trials of the teen years. Lucas has distilled parental lectures about obedience, responsibility, and right conduct into about two hours and 20 minutes of special effects extravaganza. Watch it with your kids. Talk about it. Use [it] to innoculate your children against these all-too-common failings. Who knows. Perhaps it is possible for a teenager to learn from other people's mistakes—before making them himself."
One Film Forum reader found another meaning to Anakin's rebellion: "[For] a Christian, the parallel to the church here is clear: if the individual believer spurns the beliefs/standards of the Christian community, that person moves … outside of that community."
Youth Pastor Matthew French writes, "As a lifelong Star Wars fan I must say that I absolutely loved Clones. This film has a lot to say to Christians. Besides the obvious moral lessons, I think the decline in the Jedi's powers and the strengthening Dark Side is [something] that Christians (especially evangelicals) should play close attention to. The Jedi became arrogant and overconfident, not taking the Dark Side seriously enough. Because of that the Dark Side was able to get many footholds. Christians must not forget that we are battling not against flesh and blood. When we become arrogant and forget that we need to put on our armor, we end up in our own strength fighting battles of the flesh against those we should be working with, not realizing the real enemy behind it all."
"One would need to be blind to not hear religious themes in the entire series," says a writer at Dick Staub's CultureWatch. "For example, in Star Wars—Episode I … we learn that Darth Vader (Anakin) was born of a virgin, not of a Father, but of the midichlorians, the link between every living thing and the Force. The priestly Jedi are aware of an ancient prophecy that a "chosen one would appear and would alter the force forever, bringing balance between darkness and light."
David Bruce (Hollywood Jesus) sees timely relevance to the film's many layered meanings. He points to its story of sinister, stealthy evil that is creeping up on the unsuspecting Jedi Council and the Republic, and he compares it to our own nation's shock at being tricked and deeply wounded by enemies on September 11. He also questions, in view of the recent scandal in the Roman Catholic Church, whether it is healthy for a spiritual leader to vow celibacy like a Jedi does.
Further, Bruce offers a perspective on why Star Wars has meant so much to us in the last 20 years. "The ongoing Star Wars series supplies a framework for an entire generation. It has evolved with that generation. Yoda is a case in point. He starts out as a Frank Oz Sesame Street-type puppet and evolves into a high-tech computer-generated character. Likewise, Gen X started out on Sesame Street and graduated to computers. In the seventies, Yoda is a Buddha-like monk—a symbol of spirituality when Eastern religion was popular in the West. Yoda was withdrawn from culture. Inner meditation was his thing. Violence was not a part of his makeup. In this episode everything changes. Yoda becomes involved in the world around him—big time. And becomes a warrior capable of marshaling an army into war, literally."
In an examination of the lasting success of Star Wars, Paul Chinn (Relevant Magazine) credits the film's lasting significance to its emphasis on spirituality. "I believe the Star Wars phenomenon is based on this: Whatever your personal creed or religion, Star Wars speaks to you. Its messages of hope and salvation are universal. There are themes of Christianity, Buddhism, Taoism, etc." He then focuses on the simplified good and evil of the series. "There is no grey area in Star Wars. People are either good or evil. I'm not at all putting down movies with anti-heroes. I am a big fan of them. [But] a built-in desire in most of us roots for larger-than-life heroes with the virtuous characteristics of Indiana Jones, Frodo … Peter Parker, and Luke Skywalker."
Pastor Bryan Host enjoys the 'entertainment' value of Star Wars. He applauds Episode 2 for its depth and multi-layered storyline. But he remains troubled by Lucas's concept of the Force. "I see the Force as another entrée on our culture's pluralistic smorgasbord (as it resurrects a mixture of Eastern mysticism). I think your average person who isn't given to much deep thought on spiritual matters is greatly affected by the message that says, 'Follow your heart/trust your feelings/you have the ability to find and make your own way.' As a Christian who believes in the Bible's claim that the human heart is intrinsically flawed and corrupt, I find this advice disturbing."
W. Derek Atkins suggests that the Force leads viewers closer to the truth, even if it does not take them all the way. "Lucas's theology is more New Age than anything else. Still, one of the key reasons why Star Wars has such a special place in my heart is that … God used Episode 4 way back in 1977 to launch me on a trajectory towards Christianity. God in his providence saw to it that I read a book entitled The Force Of Star Wars, written by Frank Allnutt, that explained the parallels between that movie and the Bible. As a result of reading this book, I made the decision to place my faith in Jesus Christ in 1978, when I was 11 years old."
Atkins also points out "parallels to the ancient Roman Empire, especially in the historical shift from Republic to Empire. For example, Chancellor Palpatine 'reluctantly' accepts a 'limited' dictatorship of the Republic, just as Julius Caesar 'reluctantly' accepted popular demands that he become the first King of the Roman Republic."
He concludes: "I really, really enjoyed this movie, and I am so thankful that Lucas brought back the magic to Star Wars. I'm also thankful that he demonstrated his cinematographic skills, because I feel that doing so may well inspire many others to seek excellence in the use of their various talents and abilities."
Readers and critics point to Clones' pros and cons
Regardless of its meanings and metaphors, Episode Two has sorely divided moviegoers—whether they are newcomers, fans, or professional critics. Many journalists and fans went to the film with a good deal of skepticism, having been disappointed by the juvenile character of the previous episode The Phantom Menace. Most fans came out raving. Some critics said they were eager to get back in line and see it again—others said they'd rather kiss a Wookie.
Todd Hertz, assistant online editor at Christianity Today, offers a response: "I am debating whether this rates second in between The Empire Strikes Back and A New Hope in my list of favorites in the series. Sure, there are flaws—but minor flaws in the overall scope. I saw it twice this weekend and what is wonderful about the depth of this film is that there is so much for you pick up on in the second viewing. I was really captured by the intrigue, beauty, and adventure."
"The many action scenes are impressive and lightning paced," says a critic for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. "Where the movie lags is during the developing relationship between Anakin and a reluctant Padme. Christensen's line readings … are stiff and unconvincing, all the more so beside the more accomplished Portman. Ewan McGregor is dashing throughout and Samuel L. Jackson brings decisive vitality to his role as Jedi Master Mace Windu. But the movie is stolen by the fully computer-generated Yoda, who [is] sure to have audiences cheering."
J. Robert Parks (Phantom Tollbooth) is displeased by the portrayal of Anakin: "He whines, he complains, he sulks. And this is our hero? If I wanted to see that for two hours, I would've volunteered to teach sports at a local high school." But he's thrilled with McGregor and Portman. "Stiff and awkward in Phantom Menace, [McGregor] now inhabits the role of Obi-Wan Kenobi with verve. Portman [is like] a young Grace Kelly." He concludes that the strengths outweigh the faults: "The richness of its world … is fantastic to behold. The special effects are absolutely top-notch in Clones, and have the added benefit of being beautiful. I'm not ashamed I'm looking forward to Episode 3."
Some reject the film for what they view as moral failings. "Although the exciting action-adventure refrains from sexual content and vulgar language," says Paul Bicking (Preview), "the frequent and sometimes graphic violence in … Clones prevents positive endorsement." Holly McClure (Crosswalk) complains about "the lack of any real character development" and says she is left "feeling a little on the 'dark side.'"
Mainstream critics continued to voice strong opinions. Susan Ellis (Canada.com) calls it "better—far, far better—than its lackluster predecessor The Phantom Menace." She also responds to critics of the movie's dialogue: "With our ears accustomed to snappy David Mamet prose and Simpsons witticisms, this film's script may seem dreadfully unhip. But it's also honest, and true to the original trilogy, which was itself rife with lines like: 'You have much to learn, young one … ' and 'Don't give in to hate … ' Maybe they sound trite and familiar, but there's something comforting in that as well."
Shawn Levy (The Oregonian) says, "Last time they jumped on Jar Jar and the little boy. This time they'll likely go after the teen lovers. Frankly, it's nitpicking. This is a beautiful and exciting film that builds to an electric, hourlong climax and leaves you panting for the next installment in the series. Don't go if Star Wars isn't your bag."
It's certainly not Stephanie Zacharek's bag (Salon.com): "What I loved best about it was running, almost literally, from the theater afterward: I can't remember ever feeling so glad that a movie was finally over."
I think a lot of critics have become so focused on refined art that they no longer see the virtues of childlike adventure films and crackerjack invention. They're so accustomed to classics hanging in frames of the Great Films museum, they show contempt for those who still enjoy stopping at the comic book shop on the corner. Lucas may be a technical innovator, but when it comes to storytelling, he has far more in common with Ray Harryhausen than William Shakespeare. There is a lot of "play" going on.
I admit, I too winced at the film's obvious flaws. (My full review is at Looking Closer.) Hiring Jonathan Hales to help George Lucas write dialogue did not help very much. Nevertheless, I was overwhelmed by the film's far more obvious strengths. Lucas's visual storytelling capabilities are in peak condition. I didn't want to blink for fear of missing another incredible sight. In retrospect, Princess Leia's hairdos and wardrobe are downright boring compared to the amusingly impossible array of costumes and coifs displayed by Padme Amidala; she seems to change clothes for every scene, which just adds to the ludicrous fun of it all. In spite of its somber storyline, Attack of the Clones looks like the world's greatest costume party held at the galaxy's grandest amusement park.
And the sights are only half of the thrill—wait until you hear this latest episode. Ben Burtt's sound design may be the most elaborate and amazing achievement in sound effects ever. John Williams's remarkably rich and compelling soundtrack did not overpower the action like it did in Harry Potter. It's one of his best works.
But what I liked best of all is the way Lucas is challenging young viewers to think about spiritual leadership, and what makes a healthy teacher/student dynamic. In companies, governments—and especially churches—how can we remain spiritually humble and vigilant, even examining ourselves for flaws and blind spots? The relationship between Anakin and Padme brings up questions about the definition of unconditional love. Does Anakin behave honorably in his relationship with Padme? Does love disregard responsibility?
The development of a Clone army should raise questions about the wisdom of human cloning, and the way that sin eventually warps our ability to use powerful technology, turning powerful tools into destructive weapons. The warring political coalitions in this film should provoke good discussions about compromise, and the roles of diplomacy and militant action. There is also fodder for a debate about how democracy can go wrong when the majority makes rash and foolish choices.
And that's just scratching the surface of this parable-rich story.
It should also be noted that the spirit of a Star Wars crowd is very different than what I have experienced at the concerts and sports events that draw many of the same people. There is camaraderie, a shared enthusiasm, and all for a story about good versus evil. I've made new friends in each Star Wars line I have joined. On Wednesday night, I was surrounded by talkative grownups. Some brought their toy lightsabers, some wore elaborate costumes, and many wore T-shirts advertising their favorite episode of the saga, even the much-maligned Episode One. During the sold-out screening, which began at 10:45 p.m., the crowd cheered at the appearance of familiar characters, good-humoredly groaned at the occasionally awful dialogue, and applauded like a crowd at a college basketball championship when little Yoda showed just what he can do in a battle. While some of them take their fan fever to ridiculous extremes, I can't help but enjoy the peaceful, good-natured character of this congregation.
People love to watch likeable, flawed heroes who believe in something more than self-satisfaction, and who can overcome evil through the influence of a higher power. The box office reflects that. Attack of the Clones made $110.2 million at the box office in just four days, becoming the third most successful opening weekend in movie history, just behind Harry Potter and Spider-Man—which, by the way, are about the same thing.
Hot from the Oven
Last year's comedy The Royal Tenenbaums asked, Can a man live his whole life as a complete jerk and then try to repair the damage? Gene Hackman turned in a wonderful, endearing performance as a very bad husband and father who tries—or at least pretends to try—to bring his family together again and be the sort of man he should have been. This month, another grand loser is asking a similar question. Hugh Grant stars in About a Boy, where he plays Will, a man well-versed in the ways of shallow love affairs, who now wants to compose something more meaningful and lasting. Is it too late?
Religious press critics like the idea, but some were dismayed to encounter characters who speak harshly and treat sex lightly. "Will's promiscuous lifestyle is portrayed humorously, but is eventually shown to be shallow and unfulfilling," admits John Evans (Preview). Yet he concludes, "The story … is tragically marred by a great deal of obscene and profane language, as well as much sexually suggestive humor and dialogue."
Lisa Rice (Movieguide) gives the film low marks because the characters do not become Christians in the end. "Though well-acted and pithy at times, the movie is heavy and hopeless, even with the story's solution to 'get real and get involved' in the lives of others. That solution does not go far enough. Though finding realness and selflessness in relationships is wonderful, the human heart cup will never be truly satisfied outside the loving embrace of the Lord."
But Holly McClure (Crosswalk) enjoyed the film: "This male version of Bridget Jones's Diary will entertain you and make you laugh, while giving you a candid view of the complications of single life."
Phil Boatwright is impressed: "Grant proves that, along with perfect timing and a sheepish bad-boy grin, he also possesses vulnerability and purpose. He presents his familiar scallywag with his usual charm, but his character is also the touchstone for a meaningful morality play. No matter how much we try to shut ourselves off from our fellow planeteers, sooner or later, the wise man discovers that life is meant to be shared." He adds, "It's also very funny."
The USCCB critic says, "About A Boy is really about two boys, one thrust into the adult world of handling an unstable mother and the pressures of pre-teendom, and the other trying to stave off the responsibilities of adulthood despite already being an adult. The film doesn't tap the emotional depths it could have, considering the source material, but it is nonetheless entertaining fare for the adult moviegoer."
Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) writes, "It may come as a bit of a surprise to find that this refreshingly sweet and funny film was co-written and directed by Chris and Paul Weitz of the crass and sexually-minded American Pie. Let's hope other filmmakers can follow their lead and grow beyond the sexually immature humor that has so dominated American 'comedies' of late." Loren Eaton (Focus on the Family) is equally surprised: "Coming from [the Weitz brothers], About a Boy almost seems like an attempt to prove they have souls." But she concludes, "Soul alone isn't enough. While awash in noble themes absent from their previous efforts, sexual impropriety and scads of profanity will make most families want to wash this Boy's mouth out with soap."
Christopher Nolan (Following, Memento) is distinguishing himself as a director of films about good men going bad. The characters at the center of his films are far more complex, and far more human, than Anakin Skywalker. Insomnia opens this weekend, and I am confident it will be remembered as one of the year's best films. It is being described as a remake of Erik Skjoldbjaerg's 1997 arthouse film of the same title, but Nolan's revisions have drastically changed the story and even improved on it. (My full review is at Looking Closer.) It's an intense, involving thriller. But beyond that, it is an honest exploration of how a person can, with righteous intentions, stray into unrighteousness.
Will Dormer (Al Pacino) looks like a good cop trying to hunt down a clever killer. But he's also an aging professional trying to finish his career with a blameless reputation. Thus, when he and his partner travel to Alaska to hunt down a killer, he goes to great lengths to cover up anything that might look like an error or a lapse in judgment. When a second body turns up, and Dormer realizes he has made a dreadful mistake, he goes to dangerous extremes trying to appear blameless in the eyes of the local cops. Crime writer Walter Finch (Robin Williams) might be the killer Dormer is looking for, but he knows things that make Dormer hesitant to actually catch him.
Nolan sets this challenging story in a small Alaskan town on the edge of the wilderness, where fog blurs the lines between right and wrong, and where relentless, cold light burns like pangs of conscience. It's as artful and compelling a thriller to come from an American director in a good while. And it gives you plenty to ponder afterward.
We'll look more closely at it next week, as other reviews come in. If you see it, let me know what you think.
Next week: Religious media critics respond to Insomnia and Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron.
Copyright © 2002 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Film Forum looked at Attack of the Clones last week as well.
Past review roundups are available in the Film Forum archives.
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