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Aisle Seat EPISODE II Mailbag

By Andy Dursin

With Memorial Day weekend just past, the Laserphile has been preoccupied with a big DVD blow-out column coming up for next week. In the meantime, reaction remained fairly split on STAR WARS EPISODE II: ATTACK OF THE CLONES, with many either loving this installment or being severely disappointed. Here's a sampling of Mail Bag reaction.


From Jim Mitchell <jnjmitch@swbell.net>
Thanks for your review of Episode II- it summed up exactly what I've been trying to say since I saw it this weekend. I could not believe how bad this movie was. I admire you for printing it here and not giving into a lot of mindless fawning that you see on other prominent web sites. I imagine that a lot of your audience is pretty friendly to Star Wars and might not be too secure with your honest review.
 
You raise several good points that also occurred to me. First, this simply doesn't look like a Star Wars movie. I realize that it's another era, before the "fall of civillization" and all, but there should be SOME connection to indicate that this is set in the same universe. It's just too busy- the galaxy certainly seems a lot more densely populated than it does in the original, "later" movies. Where did all the people go? I know the Empire may have committed some atrocities, but would it really have been in its best interests to reduce its population by about 90%? Not just the physical appearance is different- the fighting styles make the battles in the later trilogy seem tired and worn out. Maybe Vader's injuries prohibit him from fighting the way Anakin does, but certainly Obi-Wan would have remembered some of his old training (obviously, as indicated by Yoda and Count Dooku, physical size and age don't impact one's ability to fight). I understand that technology and movie-going tastes have changed since the original trilogy, but I don't believe that they should take precedence over trying to establish some consistency in the tone of the new, "earlier" trilogy.
 
You also touched on the the poor performance from Hayden Christenesen. Granted, he may not have had much to work with, but he clearly lacked any intensity or hint of darkness that is necessary for the role of the future Darth Vader. He does seem like someone more suited to a more "glamorous" role like Dawson's Creek. And Ewan McGregor may be a great actor, but I just don't watch him and think that this is the future old Obi-Wan. Robert DeNiro in Godfather Part II is a perfect example of how this concept of playing a younger version of a famous actor can work.
 
Something you hinted at but didn't really pursue is that the special effects just aren't that good to begin with. They appear to me to be shimmery, fuzzy, and lacking in depth. I'll grant that I'm probably just partial to what I first saw as a child, but I still believe that models and puppets offer more depth and realism than any CGI. Yoda may have had less mobility and expressiveness in the first trilogy, but he also had more substance and even humanity. Lucas seems to take the approach that the special effects drive the film, and the story/character development is simply an incidental framework on which which to hang his technology. Spider-man proved to me that mediocre special effects can still make a great movie when they take the background to interesting characters and a moderately coherent plot. I don't think that Lucas has yet refined his technology to the point that he thinks he has. Filling a screen with as many computer generated images as you can does not a good movie make.
 
Regarding story- what a mess! Talk about overused cliches (I'm aware that the original films didn't exactly break new ground in plot development). Throwing your heroes into a Gladiator-style arena for the villians to watch them die, thereby buying the characters time to escape (by picking the lock with some unidentified object hidden in one's mouth from a kiss no less) and turn the tables on the bad guys? The hero's mother dies in his arms after being held captive for a month? A major character stumbles upon a hidden planet, only to accidentally overhear some previously unseen villains conspiring about overthrowing the galaxy? Yet another character loses a limb? I could go on and on, but I think I've made my point.
 
Anyway, thanks again for the painfully honest review and for giving me a chance to express my frustration (at least as frustrated as I allow myself to get over some ultimately frivolous entertainment).

From Eric W.:
First off, I almost 100 percent agree with everything you said in your review last week. I couldn't have said it better myself.

I had written to you a couple of weeks ago and made mention of the fact that even the almighty Williams needs to be inspired to really dredge up good work. Goldsmith is the only amazing freak of nature who has practically made a career of defying this statute of creativity.

I can usually tell by most composers' scores, including Williams, whether or not 1.) It was a good film and/or 2.) Whether or not they were inspired by said material. Granted, Williams on cruise control is still better than most on their good days. The sound mix on this film was atrocious as far as the score goes. Most of his score, when not bringing out the necessary classic themes at the right moments, I found to be mickey-mousing filler. This "awesome love theme" that everyone kept telling me about is lifted straight out of Hook, blatantly. I hate to say it, but Williams pulled a Horner with that one. One other thing that I keep hearing all over the place was that this was the first Star Wars to have a love theme and a love story. Even people associated with the film are saying this misinformation. Hello?!?! Han and Leia?!

John Williams was clearly more inspired by the Harry Potter film. That score sounds more like old school Williams then this does! That score has way more of that "Williams magic." Hell, parts of it almost sound more "Star Wars-ish" then this does. I will let the music speak for itself.

The Kaplan's breakdown on this last week on the FSM site was a heck of a good article. I agree with it now that I have seen this movie myself a couple of times. I will say this, sound mix aside, I tried to listen to this score and at about track 4, I turned it off and went to sleep for the night. This is a John Williams Star Wars score that I did this to! Can you believe that?!!? I can only use the sound mix excuse so far...there is just no thematic material above and beyond the recycling of key classic themes once or twice and a curious reprisal of the Duel of the Fates theme. Beyond that, there's just nothing but wallpaper and white noise and it saddens me to have to say that. Williams really cruise controlled on this thing and on TPM. Who can blame him?

The "love story" was indeed painfully cliché. I was appalled at how bad the dialogue was. I still maintain that casting Portman, and especially this guy, is on par with casting Sofia Coppola in Godfather 3, with all the consequences that go with it. They kept cutting to these love vignettes at the most inopportune times. There's that one where you see the camera zooming in on the hilltop...I swear, I was waiting for someone to whip out a guitar and start singing, "The hills are alive! With the Sound of Music!" I am sure I wouldn't have minded any of this nearly as much if there were actually some good writing and acting backing it up.

I did have to disagree with you on this one point. The original trilogy has all sorts of tight, funny dialogue that we all can recite off the top of our heads. Many of Han's lines, for example. My personal favorite being Vader's "I find your lack of faith disturbing." No one would confuse any of this with Shakespeare, but the original Trilogy's is way above these new ones.

I definitely agreed with you on the Anakin casting. Surely there must have been an over glut of talent vying for this hot and all-important role. Why not cast a bunch of unknowns like in the original Trilogy? Get some of those awesome stage actors. I KNOW there was better talent out there than this guy. I still maintain that Portman was originally cast for the fanboys. I keep hearing what a great actress she is...I still haven't seen it. People usually spout of her performance from the Professional. Yes, she was good in That, but in no way do I conclude from that, nor did I back then, that she was going to be amazing when she grew up. Lots of child actors aren't. I just don't buy her as the future mother of Luke and Leia based on everything I have seen thus far.

Like you said Andy, TPM set the tone. That's the mistake, right there. That's the tragedy. They should have almost started over with this film. No one, including George, could have been immune and unaware of the complaints against TPM.

There also needed to be real checks and balances behind the camera, not just a bunch of "yes men" for George. I am sorry, but he can't write characters and dialogue whatsoever. At least not anymore. Back in the 70's he was younger and had a lot more to prove. He also didn't have blind worshipers following his every command without question. He has a great imagination and he is a great technical director, but that's where it seems to end. I am no shrink, but it's no secret that he's had a bad 10-15 years personally. I think that shows up in his work. Both of these new Star Wars films reek with at least apathy, indifference, and "let's get this over with."

It's a pity that this is what it comes to. I think when all is said and done, a lot of people will look back on these and think what could have and should have been. I already am! It's infuriating to watch someone destroy their own creation and that's what this all feels like.

Anakin and Padme needed to be characters that the audience falls in love with. We should be rolling in the aisles with grief when it all goes to hell in Episode 3. Instead, the reaction from a lot of people, including me, is going to be like: "Good. Bring on Vader. Something we recognize." It's quite regrettable that this is what it is coming to.

Don't forget that some of the funniest lines in the original STAR WARS weren't in the script, but rather improvised by Harrison Ford on-set! Speaking of that, it's painfully obvious that this new trilogy misses the dose of humanity that Ford's Han Solo provided as an "everyman" to the stoic Jedi Knights and other characters of the original trilogy. Lucas could have and should have created a similar side character whose own story line would be resolved by the time this series was finished, but if Jar-Jar is all he could come up with, no wonder why we're in trouble here.


From Arthur Lintgen:
Dear Andy: Did you ever stop to think how ludicrous a complaint of "lack of thematic material" for a Star Wars film sounds? There is no group of film scores ever written that has so many high quality themes. The scores are all based on a Wagnerian leit-motiv system. In the Ring, there are not many new themes in Gotterdammerung, because Wagner has already composed countless themes for numerous characters, situations, etc. in the three preceding operas. The same is true for the complex thematic proliferation in the Star Wars films. The important issue in such a group of interrelated scores is NOT the number of new themes. It is the musical development and transformation of the already existing themes, and how these relate to any new themes. You trivialize the new "love theme" without subjecting it to adequate musical analysis. Once again, Williams has created his magic as no one else can by composing a theme that is incredibly complex in its origins, but is still instantly hummable and accessible despite its complexities.The love theme is actually an ingenious and appropriate combination and set of variations on Luke and Leia's theme, the Force theme, and Anakin's theme. In addition, the Darth Vader theme is subtly buried in its structural base. Williams makes much of this clear at the very end of the soundtrack album when he juxtaposes a snippet of Anakins's theme and the love theme, which then transforms seamlessly into the Darth Vader theme. This is the stuff of genius, not mediocrity. What Lucas and his butchers do to this complicated score in the film itself is another matter .
Seeing that Williams DID compose a wealth of new thematic material for Episodes IV, V, VI, and I, how is not valid to knock this score for lacking that quality when all preceding four films had it? Subjective criticism over the Love Theme aside (have people even heard the HOOK score??), I completely understand Art's point about too many themes cluttering up the Star Wars universe. On the other hand, even if you subscribed to that argument, I didn't think there were nearly enough new arrangements of pre-existing themes (Duel of The Fates and the militaristic "droid march" from TPM sounded pretty much like they did before). And, as yet another sign that Williams wasn't inspired here, the very same Darth Vader quote interpolated with Anakin's Theme at the end of the AOTC score is pretty much identical to the one that closed TPM -- so how is that something fresh or different?


From Bill Williams:
Hi Andy,

I happened to see "Star Wars: Episode II" this past Friday night, and I have to admit, it was one dazzling odyssey from start to finish, the pacing of the film was much tighter in terms of action and drama. The entire film from start to finish was visually dazzling and encompassing, and the entire last third of the film left me physically exhausted, there was so much action going on! It was like a combination of all four of the previous "Star Wars" films combined times ten, with the arena scenes from "Gladiator", the battle scenes from "Black Hawk Down" and "Apocalypse Now", and the martial arts scenes from "The Matrix". The tg definite highlight of the film was Yoda kicking Jedi tail all over the screen! :)

In addition to the intensity of the action, there were obvious moments of emotional intensity in the film, particularly with what Anakin endured. I point these things out because of my dad's recent passing, and for me this added another layer of emotional intensity to the film. And this was something I pointed out to my mother a couple of years back about it being one of the key factors that will drive Anakin to the dark side of the Force, and it was interesting that my opinions were right on the money.

One of the brighter spots of the film was the lack of involvement of Jar Jar Binks throughout most of the film. The few scenes he is in, though, don't add up to much except for one key pivotal Senate scene. The moment where he's greeting Obi-Wan really degenerates back to his "Episode I" roots (other moments excerpted in the novelization are much worse and mercifully are not in this film).

Christopher Lee's role of Count Dooku is more reminiscent of a duplicitous version of Darth Vader from "The Empire Strikes Back", and the few moments with Ian McDiarmid on screen hint at his quest for absolute control that will lead to his becoming Emperor. And as for anyone debating the connection between Chancellor Palpatine and Darth Sidious, has anyone thought about just pulling back the hood on his cloak? Everyone seeing these films knows they're one and the same, and Lucas should just get it over with in "Episode III". Ewan McGregor does a much better job here as Obi-Wan than in the previous film, with more than just a beard and longer hair to convey the differences between Obi-Wan's youth and maturity; he's becoming more and more polished as the venerable Jedi Knight we know from the late Alec Guinness' portrayal in the original trilogy. And Natalie Portman - wow!!!!!!! She looked absolutely beautiful in this film! And I do agree with your statement that she could have done a much better job with a more convincing leading man - any single guys care to take a number behind me? heehee :)

As for the musical aspect of this film, Lucas really butchered John Williams' score again in this film as he did in the previous film, especially in the last third of the film. I picked out at least eight or nine distinct cues from "Episode I" that were slapped together as the "underscore" for the battle sequences. The use of recurring motifs throughout the "Star Wars" series is one thing - as with "Superman", "Indiana Jones", "Star Trek", and "James Bond", you expect specific recurring motifs to be reused throughout each film. However, using the exact music for one film reused again in the sequel with no re-orchestration, whatsoever, as in the case of "Episode II", makes no sense at all. And even with the 76 minutes of music that Williams scored that appear on the original soundtrack album, that still accounts for 34-49 minutes of music that remains unreleased to date - what happened with all that music? That makes me fearful that the eventual 2-disc "complete film score" for this film will be nothing but a repeat of the previous film's 2-disc "complete film score", a haphazard edit job. I'm not knocking John Williams here, by any means. He did another marvelous job composing the music for this film. The fault here lies at George Lucas' feet for his botched edit job. He didn't do that for the original trilogy of films (not counting the Special Edition versions), and the only edits in the music were either minor nips and tucks or fades to emphasize stronger dramatic content on-screen. This is not the way to treat film music properly, and Lucas should know better than that. As for the unreleased cues - will they ever surface, even on the video games?

Other than the music being the biggest down side, this was a much needed improvement over "Episode I", and I'm looking forward to "Episode III" bringing it all together.


NEXT WEEK: Back with the first DVD blow-out column of summer, from archival titles to ALI and others. Email me at dursina@att.net and we'll catch you then. Excelsior!

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