Blundering onto a massive assembly line for engines of war, the ever-camper robot C-3PO tut-tuts, "Machines making machines! How perverse!" This is the only flash of wit in George Lucas's latest Star Wars episode, and you only wish you could believe it was at the film's own expense. Certainly, Attack of the Clones is no assembly-line knock-off, but a meticulously crafted state-of-the-art exercise in computer-generated cinema. Yet for all its obsessive eye for digital detail, in other areas the best you can say is that it's slightly less of a grind than its predecessor The Phantom Menace.
Despite the much-vaunted epic conception of the Star Wars mythos, there's little coherent narrative, just the usual mystifying imbroglio of intergalactic politics: "I'll get to the bottom of this plot quickly," swears Ewan McGregor's earnest Obi-Wan Kenobi, and if he can, good luck to him. The cloak-and-dagger intrigue quickly devolves into a series of disjointed action sequences, with interludes of glutinous romance. This film's main innovation is a drippily chaste love story between tyro Jedi knight Anakin Skywalker and ex-Queen Amidala, whom he's now of an age to moon over petulantly. They're not an obvious match. She (Natalie Portman) is a sophisticated fashion plate who, on her travels through the universe, clearly has ample spare time to have her hair crafted into extravagant shapes; he's an arrogant, grouchy jock, played by pouting newcomer Hayden Christiansen with a woodenness that would shame Keanu Reeves. The couple's idyll takes place on a planet that seems to be one vast Romantic Europe theme park, comprising the postcardiest bits of Italy, Spain and Old Ruritania. They exchange Lucas's famously stilted dialogue ("If you follow your thoughts through to a conclusion, it'll take us to a place we cannot go") with the coy awkwardness of drama students playing their first love scene before a classroom of tittering peers.
The formulaic action mostly runs the usual variations on arcade-game racing; one sequence, a zip through cluttered urban skyways, seems to take its stylistic cue from Luc Besson's ropey Star Wars knock-off The Fifth Element. All that gives Attack an edge over previous episodes is its determination to be shinier, more thoroughly digitised, and more dizzyingly populous – the titular clones now come in their multitudes, as opposed to the original 1977 Star Wars with its scant hundreds of troopers. The one scene to pack any real excitement is a wink at Gladiator, as the good guys take on several repellent monsters in the arena, including a giant crustacean intent on turning them into thermidor. At least Lucas's team still has a way with critters – the film's prize invention is a piss-elegant race of things with silver skinned-rabbit features.
In a shamelessly crowd-pleasing move, wizened guru Yoda – no longer a ball of green latex but an all-digital mirage – not only spews his usual syntactic contortions ("Impossible to see the future is") but also twirls a mean light sabre. Among the humans, Christopher Lee and Ian McDiarmid give of their august best, and McGregor is rather less pallid than last time, but Samuel L Jackson is manifestly struggling to stay awake until the cheque arrives.
For all its technological dazzle, the film is lamentably slipshod. The tone is wildly inconsistent, slipping almost randomly between deadly serious and facetious, and the supposed mythical resonance is nowhere to be seen. The groundwork is laid for Anakin's evolution into merciless Darth Vader, but here he's still a sulky kid, and his violent act of revenge – his first step towards the Dark Side – is treated so gingerly it looks like a high-schooler's prom-night snit.
It's a losing battle critiquing Star Wars films by conventional standards, partly because they have created their own genre rules, partly because they are critic-proof in the absolute sense. I've never seen audiences who so wanted a film to work: at the preview I attended, there was rapturous cheering the moment the title appeared. But George Lucas should beware: with the advent of Peter Jackson's Tolkien trilogy, the stakes have changed, and he must now compete with something that has a real dramatic shape, a more coherent mythology, and a genuine feel for the shades of pleasure and terror. Attack of the Clones will inevitably perform at the box-office, but for all its digital sheen, it's a clanking rustbucket through and through.
It's painful to think that Lucas has devoted 25 years to masterminding this impersonal cycle of nonsense; if not for the millions, you might think it a wasted career. Light years away, on the other side of the cinematic galaxy, is a film-maker whose career has been exemplary, if hardly as spectacular. Ninety-three-year-old Portuguese director Manoel de Oliveira made his first film in 1931, and still makes one a year or more, each expressing a very personal imagination while expending a minimum of Euros or escudos.
I'm Going Home is a wry miniature about a veteran stage actor (Michel Piccoli) who faces up to personal tragedy by enjoying his daily paper, treating himself to new shoes, and keeping up professional standards. One day he's cast by an American director (John Malkovich at his most creepily soft-spoken) in a film of Joyce's Ulysses. Piccoli wigged up to play Buck Mulligan in a heavy French accent ( "To be sûr! To be sûr!") is a grandly bizarre spectacle that no amount of digitals can buy you.
I'm Going Home is undemonstrative but utterly individual, as discreetly classy and hand-crafted as the luxury brogues that, in one eloquently understated shot, we get to admire at length. Piccoli is at his best – tender, bulky, testy and expressing more nuances and more fun with one impatient shrug than you'll find in the entire Star Wars cycle. Possibly a mischievous joke at our expense from start to finish, the poignant, droll piece is Oliveira at his most accessible and gleefully perverse. Wise, playful and just occasionally mystifying, he's the Yoda of European art cinema.
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