So, Episode II. The objective with this review is going to be the same as with the previous one. The objective is to examine some of the main flaws of the film (some, but not all), but also to point out some of the good things in it.
To broadly summarise the problems with this film, while its overall structure moves things in the right direction (in the sense that it sets up many of the things that it needs to for Anakin’s fall and Palpatine’s rise in the subsequent film) it again comes across more as an outline than a story. Many crucial scenes are too short, and crucial reactions are wrong or missing. Many of the scenes do not develop the tension as the story progresses. Because of this I’m going to have to go through the film in (mostly) chronological order.
The first scene of interest is the scene where we see Obi-wan and Anakin in the elevator. This is when we first see the older Anakin, and when we see how much time has passed between the previous film and this one.
This scene attempts to set up the relationship between Anakin and Obi-wan. This scene tries to show us that even though Obi-wan is Anakin’s mentor, and is senior to him within the Jedi Order, they are friends, and have had many off-screen adventures. They have – dare I say – a bit of banter. (It’s pretty weak, early-2000s banter, but it is banter.) This is supposed to show how well they know each other, but it’s actually a bit off. I wouldn’t describe the dialogue in this scene as rigid, but it doesn’t really sell it. This scene comes across – slightly – as two actors acting, rather than two people who know each other very well talking as they realistically would. It’s not very convincing. This is a problem, because the final battle between Anakin and Obi-wan in the next film is made much more significant if we are convinced that these two people have known each other for a decade and were friends.
This is, I think, primarily a writing problem. The dialogue that’s been written for this scene is not easy to perform. It’s quite minimal – it includes only what it needs to in order to convey the facts of the story and no more. This is a problem with A LOT of the dialogue in this film. It might have been good, in this part of the scene, to let the actors improvise, but of course it’s very difficult for actors to improvise if the story takes place in a very different universe (because they don’t know what the reference points would be).
This scene also attempts to set up that Anakin is nervous to meet Padmé, which it does quite well. I actually think that Hayden Christensen performs many of the lines in this scene very well. (It’s mainly Ewan McGregor’s lines that are a bit off.)
After this, Obi-wan and Anakin meet Padmé, who is now the senator for Naboo. This is the second scene of interest (well, really it’s the same scene as the previous one, but for simplicity let’s call it the second scene). This is also a crucial scene.
This scene tries to show us, again, that Anakin is nervous to meet Padmé, and that this is because he hasn’t stopped thinking about her since they met ten years ago. This is an often-criticised scene. A lot of people complain that this scene is wooden or awkward. But I think this criticism is incorrect. Anakin is supposed to be awkward when he first meets Padmé in this film, because he is nervous. Anakin has spent the last ten years living and training within a religious order – he has no experience of this. I think Christensen performed this in the right way. I think the problem with this scene is that we don’t get the right reaction shots. We don’t get any reaction shot of Obi-wan, who is standing right next to him, and who must have seen and heard the whole thing. We needed a reaction shot from Obi-wan expressing ‘What on earth are you doing?’. We also needed a slightly different reaction from Padmé. While Padmé’s reaction does suggest that she’s noticed how awkward Anakin is being, it’s not strong enough, given just how awkward Anakin is being. A third reaction shot from one of the other characters in the room would also have been good. So the problem with this part of the scene is that we the audience don’t get the sense that the characters have realised the same things we’ve realised, even though they should.
The same problem happens later in the scene. When they’re all talking about what Obi-wan and Anakin are there to do, Anakin cuts in and promises more than what they’re supposed to do, and Obi-wan has to walk things back. This moment is in many ways quite good – it shows that Anakin is headstrong and will argue back with people who are senior to him in the Jedi Order. These are traits that lead to various events in this film, and to his eventual downfall. However, again, in this part of the scene, we don’t get the right reaction shots and we don’t get enough of them. Anakin arguing back against a senior Jedi – which he’s not supposed to do, and everyone there knows it – should make the whole conversation tense, and we should see this in reaction shots from the other characters, but we don’t. This gives the whole interaction less of an impact. However, as I say, it does show the essential traits of Anakin.
The third scene of interest is shortly after this. It starts with Anakin and Obi-wan standing guard outside the room where Padmé’s sleeping. An assassination attempt is made, and it leads to a speeder chase through Coruscant at night.
At the start of this scene, there is some dialogue between Anakin and Obi-wan. Anakin says how he would like to dream of Padmé, and for the first time in the film we get some indication that Obi-wan has realised that Anakin is attracted to Padmé. He reminds Anakin ‘You have made a commitment to the Jedi Order – a commitment not easily broken.’.
This moment is crucial. In this moment, we the audience are informed that Anakin must not fall for Padmé. It’s important that we understand the magnitude of this – we must really get a sense that this must not happen. Without that sense, we will not get a strong enough sense that Anakin and Padmé’s romance is a forbidden one, and we won’t get a sense of foreboding as we watch it happen. We don’t really get this sense strongly enough in this scene – because it’s only one line. In this moment we really needed to get a sense of what would happen if Anakin were to fall for Padmé – we needed a stronger sense of what the consequences to that would be. We needed more of an idea of how the Jedi Order – the institution – would react, and we don’t really get that.
Another important aspect of this scene happens during the speeder chase. I get a sense that a lot of people don’t like the speeder chase. I myself have never minded it, because I have always found that it is the other things that are happening that are more interesting and important.
During this chase, we see even more examples of Anakin being headstrong – he does several dangerous manoeuvres, despite Obi-wan’s warnings (and the fact that Anakin succeeds at those manoeuvres shows how he has become used to his extraordinary powers). But we also see, many times, another important aspect of how Anakin and Obi-wan interact. Obi-wan often berates Anakin (‘If you spent as much time practising your saber technique as you did your wit, you would rival Master Yoda as a swordsman.’, ‘I thought I already did.’, ‘Only in your mind, my very young apprentice.’) and Anakin often apologises to him. This is crucial.
The fourth scene of interest is shortly after this, and is the scene between Anakin and Padmé just before they leave for Naboo. In this scene, Anakin says how he finds Obi-wan frustrating. (‘It’s infuriating. He’s overly critical; he never listens.’) However, he then says that he does actually appreciate having Obi-wan as a mentor. (‘I am truly thankful to be his apprentice.’) Anakin first says that he finds Obi-wan frustrating, but then, knowing that he is supposed to follow the customs of the Jedi Order, and show deference to his teachers, he expresses that despite that, he is grateful for Obi-wan’s teaching. This is what we saw in the previous scene (and what we see throughout this film): Obi-wan berates Anakin, and then Anakin apologises, because he must follow the Jedi way, and show deference to those senior to him within the Order.
This scene between Anakin and Padmé is one of my favourite in this film. It shows – very well, I think – someone who has been brought up in a martial, religious order, which has a hierarchy, and customs and traditions associated with it, and a moral code, but who is also exceptionally gifted, and who is constantly frustrated by the constraints of that religious order. This is someone who has been told – for the last ten years – that he is the Chosen One – that he is expected to be a great Jedi – but every time he actually uses his exceptional gifts, he is berated for it. He is constantly expected to be the Chosen One, but is frustrated because his teacher and the Jedi Order are preventing him from achieving it. This is why I really like this scene. I think Hayden Christensen performs it very well.
Around this point in the film we get several scenes set in the Jedi Temple. Getting to see more of the Jedi Temple is one of my favourite parts of this film. I really enjoy seeing the Jedi Order at its height. One of the frustrating things about the Disney films is that we never got to see any kind of new Jedi Order. I like just seeing inside the Jedi Temple – the cavernous hallways – it’s incredibly immersive.
I really like the scene in the Jedi Archives – with one of my favourite characters in the series: Jocasta Nu. Jocasta Nu is basically the Jedi’s head librarian. Obi-wan is in the Jedi Archives, trying to look up Kamino, and Jocasta Nu comes over to him, and says in a very fusty tone ‘Are you having a problem Master Kenobi?’. After Obi-wan shows her that Kamino isn’t showing up on the main computer, she insists that therefore Kamino does not exist, and then bustles off to help a young padawan. I really like this – I like the idea of a fusty librarian in the Jedi Order who’s not afraid to tell Jedi masters that they’re talking nonsense. I like that this reminds us that the Jedi Temple – as well as being, essentially, both a shrine and a military command centre – is also a school, and that lots of young Jedi spend their lives there. We see this even more as, after Jocasta Nu has finished dealing with Obi-wan, she goes off to help another young student. (And also, since Jocasta Nu is quite a lot older than Obi-wan, she might well have been a librarian even when Obi-wan was a young student or a padawan.)
We get another scene set in the Jedi Temple shortly after this – the scene where Yoda is teaching some very young students. I really like this scene too, despite the fact that it doesn’t make sense. Obi-wan has gone to Yoda to ask why the planet Kamino – which he trusts does exist – wouldn’t show up in the archives. Now, Obi-wan already knows the coordinates of where the planet’s supposed to be, and he knows that all the stars around the star system are being affected by gravity from something that’s there. If you know all of that, it doesn’t take much to realise that the data has been deleted, and that if you just go to those coordinates, you’ll find the planet. But seemingly, Obi-wan and Yoda need to ask some six-year-olds. This doesn’t really make sense. (In fairness, Yoda might have realised the answer, but just saw this as a teaching opportunity for his students, and Obi-wan might have had such strong conviction in the completeness of the Jedi archives that he just didn’t think it would be possible for anything to have been deleted.)
However, there are many things that I like about this scene. I like that we get to see Yoda teaching, and we see that Yoda – grandmaster of the Jedi Council, figurehead for a galactic religion (basically the equivalent of the Pope but for the religion of the Force), and quite possibly the most powerful Jedi of all time – still sometimes teaches the beginners. It really sells the idea that the Jedi Temple is a school, and that even Jedi like Yoda, who has Jedi Council meetings all the time, and often meets with important figures like the chancellor of the republic, are still involved in the day-to-day running of a school. Again, it’s incredibly immersive.
I also like how Yoda and Obi-wan speak to each other in this scene. Yoda essentially ‘performs’ for the students, pretending to admonish Obi-wan, as though he were another student, even though he’s another teacher to these six-year-olds. This reminds me a lot of what teachers would do in my secondary school – if one teacher came into your German class and had to ask something of your German teacher, the teacher coming in had to talk in German, as though they too were part of the class.
In this part of the film we’re cutting between scenes with Anakin and Padmé and scenes with Obi-wan – the film’s A and B plots – though one of the problems is that it’s difficult to tell which is the film’s A plot and which is the film’s B plot. These films are about Anakin’s fall to the Dark Side, so in a way, the plot with Anakin and Padmé should be the A plot, but the plot with Obi-wan seems to get far more screen-time, even though it’s a lot of action scenes and CGI. Again, I wonder if this is because George Lucas was too focused on the bigger picture of the events leading up to the clone wars.
We get a scene between Anakin and Padmé as they are travelling to Naboo. I really like this scene, because we get to learn more about the Jedi Order – what it’s core precepts are – and also what Anakin thinks of them. This is something that I would have liked to have seen more of in Star Wars – what is it really like to be a Jedi, to live in the temple? What’s it like growing up in that system? What are the rules? How do young Jedi respond to those rules? As it is, I like this scene, but it’s a bit short – it cuts off in a bit of an odd place. While we learn some interesting things about the Jedi in this scene, nothing happens apart from that. It should probably have been merged with another scene later or earlier, so that the whole thing could be a bit slower, and a bit more in-depth. As I say, one of the problems with the prequel films is that many scenes just aren’t complete.
We get some great world-building at this point in the film with Kamino – what looks like a planet that is entirely covered by ocean. The Kaminoans look distinct from the species’ we’ve seen so far, and they seem to have a distinct culture and customs as well. At the same time, in the other plot, the location that they chose for that part of Naboo – which is Villa del Balbianello on Lake Como in northern Italy – is just stunning. This one location choice is better than anything we got in the Disney films.
We also get some great music with Across The Stars – probably my favourite piece of music in the whole series. As a theme, it’s used for Anakin and Padmé’s romance, and it’s absolutely perfect for this. The piece is sweeping, epic, romantic, but also tragic, because this romance will lead to the fall of Anakin, and the rise of Palpatine. This one piece of music is better than everything produced by Disney.
It’s at this point in the film that we get the infamous line ‘I don’t like sand.’. People who despise the prequels seem to think that this line is proof that the prequels are the worst films ever made, but watching this film back, this line is completely forgettable. The reactions to this line are completely over-the-top. (And the same people seem to have no problem with ‘I saved you, dummy!’ from the Disney films, which is infinitely worse.)
Shortly after this, we get a scene between Anakin and Padmé where they’re just sitting in a meadow, talking about politics. What I like about this scene is that it shows Anakin’s naïveté when it comes to politics. The system he proposes as an alternative to the current one is completely un-thought-out – when Padmé questions him on it, he has no good answers to the questions. This is good because it shows that Anakin can be easily manipulated by Palpatine. Anakin is not savvy enough to realise that Palpatine might have ulterior motives for doing things, or might be deceptive. The idea that Palpatine is both secretly fuelling the separatist movement, and fighting it, in order to justify being given more power, is well beyond the level of political thinking that Anakin is doing.
This scene is one of several intended to show the developing romance between Anakin and Padmé. A lot of people criticise Christensen’s performances in these scenes, but I think if you watch closely, they’re very good. The problem with a lot of these scenes is that they are too short, and that prevents them from building any romantic tension. As an audience, we must see that this romance is going to happen before it does. This gives the storyline suspense, and this is what makes it engaging. I think doing this requires having longer, slower scenes, and having the right reaction shots at the right time – which, as I’ve said many times already, is one of the things that these films often get wrong.
One scene that I think Christensen performs exceptionally well is the scene between Anakin and Padmé at the Lars family home on Tatooine after Anakin has attacked the sand people. I don’t know how anyone could think that that scene is badly performed by Christensen. The reactions from Padmé are lacking – whether this is due to the way Portman chose to perform it or direction from Lucas is difficult to tell here. Padmé doesn’t seem at all shocked by what Anakin tells her, despite everything us knowing about the character suggesting that she should be.
But this scene really sells Anakin’s frustration. He wants to be a great Jedi, and he knows he can be, but killing the sand people puts that in jeopardy. There is a great expectation on him to be the Chosen One, but it’s all going wrong. He needs a mentor who is not going to berate him, in the way that we’ve seen Obi-wan do the entire film. Obi-wan might be very good at teaching Anakin the more practical aspects of being a Jedi, like using the Force and wielding a lightsaber, but he’s not very good at helping Anakin deal with attachment and impulsiveness. At this moment, Anakin needs a mentor who is not Obi-wan, but he doesn’t have access to anyone at that moment, and even when he gets back to Coruscant, there will be very few people – if anyone – within the Jedi Order who can help.
We then move into the final part of the film. The world-building of Geonosis is excellent. This planet looks different again to what we’ve seen before, with the distinct Geonosian architecture. The Geonosians are unlike anything we’ve seen before in appearance, and their language is distinct, and relates to their particular biology. We also get Christopher Lee as Count Dooku. As I’ve said before, many of the lines that Lucas wrote are a bit off – they’re a bit obvious and cliché – but even these lines Christopher Lee manages to pull off, showing just what a great actor can do even with a bad script. (Although sometimes a script can be so bad that even a great actor can’t perform it well.)
When Anakin and Padmé arrive on Geonosis we get an action sequence of them in the droid factory. This I think is the worst part of the film. This action sequence does nothing. It happens by accident, and Anakin and Padmé achieve nothing from it. On top of that, they could have avoided the machines just by stepping to the side at any point – the conveyor belts have panels on the side that you could stand on. Or even easier – just walk along the conveyor in the opposite direction to that which it’s moving in, then you won’t get hit by the various robotic arms. This sequence takes up A LOT of time considering it adds nothing to the story.
This is actually true of several sequences towards the end of the film. The fight above Geonosis between Obi-wan and Jango Fett is similarly pointless, and also quite long, though I do give the film points for showing us a different kind of space battle to what we’ve seen before – taking place in an asteroid field, and having Obi-wan and Jango actually use the asteroids to their advantage. That’s more than we got from any of the Disney films.
The sequence in the arena is also over-long. It starts with Obi-wan, Anakin, and Padmé being chained to the pillars to be executed. The Geonosians release the different beasts, which are swiftly killed. The Jedi turn up to take down Dooku, and there’s a big battle between them and the droids. Then Yoda turns up with the clones from Kamino. Most of this adds nothing to the story, and it takes up a lot of time. This sequence also has no tension. At no point does it really seem like Obi-wan, Anakin, or Padmé might die. It’s just not established that this situation is in any way all that dangerous.
A way to streamline this part of the film would have been to cut out the battle in space between Obi-wan and Jango Fett, and instead give them a battle in the arena. They’ve already had one fight in this film, of course, so it might be too much to have another, but Jango Fett goes down a bit too quickly.
One thing I did like about this sequence is that when Anakin and Padmé are brought into the arena and tied up, the first thing Obi-wan does is berate Anakin, and Anakin apologises to him, despite Anakin coming there to rescue him, reinforcing again just how completely unsuitable Obi-wan is as a mentor to Anakin at this point.
As I say, the action sequences in this part of the film are too long, and do nothing. It would have been far more valuable to give some of that time to the scenes between Anakin and Padmé, as their romance is a crucial part of this trilogy and the hexalogy as a whole. Many of their scenes are too short. One in particular is the scene just before Anakin and Padmé are taken into the arena, where Padmé finally says that she loves Anakin. This should have been a big, big moment in the film – if anything the moment that everyone comes away from the film talking about and remembering most vividly, as it is utterly crucial to Anakin’s storyline. As it is, the scene is too short, and there is no tension. In this scene, we should really have gotten a sense that these two are in danger – that they really are about to be executed. This could have been shown by Padmé’s fear. (Anakin would be unlikely to be fearful in this situation, as he will have been used to using the Force to get out of situations like this by this point.) The greater we sense Padmé’s fear, the bigger the impact that her saying she loves Anakin has – because we understand the importance of the sentiment at that moment. (The fact that this sentiment lacks impact in the film is also – and in large part – due to not enough focus being given to the romance storyline up to that point.)
As for the battle between Obi-wan, Anakin, and Dooku, I quite like it – it shows Anakin’s flaws very well. As for the battle between Yoda and Dooku, I know a lot of people don’t like it. I like the fact that we get to see just how agile Yoda can become when necessary, by channelling the Force into his movements, and Christopher Lee is brilliant as always, but the fight certainly seems to lack a distinct choreography. None of the camera angles used seem to be particularly satisfying angles to see the fight from. I think the first time we see Yoda use a lightsaber, we ought to be able to describe it with more adjectives than just ‘fast’.
So, to summarise, like the last film, many of the scenes in this film are incomplete. Many of the scenes are too short and lack the right reaction shots. There is an overemphasis on action – particularly towards the end of the film – and an underemphasis on the crucial plotline of this film, which is Anakin and Padmé’s romance. There is some excellent world-building, some sublime music, some brilliant actors, some great performances, and we really get to understand Anakin’s flaws, the frustration he has being the Chosen One, and how it is both the wrong guidance from Obi-wan, and the wrong guidance from the Jedi Order as a whole, that lead to his fall.