I watched October Sky while up in Portland this morning for a donation at the Red Cross. It’s a feel-good film about a group of late ’50s high school boys in a coal mining town who are inspired by the Soviets’ Sputnik satellite to build their own rocket. It’s a touch melodramatic in places, but the acting is fine and the story—a true one—is solid. Recommended.

I pre-ordered the Star Wars II: Attack of the Clones DVD, and it arrived from Amazon.com today. I watched it again last night, and have additional comments to make regarding my brief initial entry (May 21, 2002) on the subject. First, the good news: This is a much better film than Phantom Menace from a filmgoers perspective. Also, the end-of-film special effects-rich Clone War is mind-blowing. For science fiction or special effects fans (all of whom are likely already Star Wars junkies), there’s definitely stuff to like.

It gets decidedly mixed after that. Acting is good on the whole, and though scenes and dialogue tend to clunk around quite a bit, that’s more of a screenwriting issue that an acting one. This film’s Anakin Skywalker, Hayden Christensen, is far superior to Phantom Menace‘s Jake Lloyd. Christensen has Anakin’s brooding teen thing going, and he traverses the mindfield-laden dialogue about as well as one can expect. (In other words, sometimes it goes “boom.”) Natalie Portman is called on for more range in this film, and it’s not in her. Physically, she’s very captivating (and given plenty of outfits which prove it), but her acting talent is questionable. Ewan McGregor is again fine as Obi-Wan. Newcomers Samuel L. Jackson and Christopher Lee are excellent.

Now the bad news: The screenwriting is a mess. Dialogue, motivation, and storyline are sloppy beyond what one would expect in a feature film, and all the special effects in the world won’t get you greatness when that’s the case. Finally, the tone is wildly inconsistent, rendering the mistakes made here large—even bigger than the idiotic midichorians thing in Phantom. But we’ll start with dialogue….

At the best of times, Star Wars dialogue is a difficult. Actors in the series have long complained about it, and it’s not hard to hear why. Things like “When I’m around you, my mind is no longer my own” and “I am haunted by the kiss you never should have given me. My heart is beating, hoping that kiss will not become a scar. You are in my very soul, tormenting me” are retch-inducing. (Go ahead. Try saying them aloud.) Even worse in Clones, occasionally the dialogue is character-destroying—witness C3PO’s lines during the Clone War. Yoda’s schtick of placing the verb at the end of his sentences comes off as stupid in the heat of battle (“around the survivors a perimeter create”). You begin wondering why, if he’s so Jedi wise, he can’t just talk normally. Actors, computer-generated or otherwise, try gamely to make the best of what Lucas has offered, but it’s a losing proposition. A lot of the Clones dialogue stinks.

Character motivation must have been an afterthought. We have no problem seeing what Anakin finds attractive in Padmé (however awkwardly it is expressed in the film) as she’s exhibits any number of charismatic qualities, except apparently good judgment in boyfriends. What does Padmé see in Anakin? Other than hunky good looks, there’s just anger and a lust for power. Is this a Jedi mind trick?

It gets worse for other characters. Whose side is Janga Fett on and why? He builds a clone army then fights against them? The unfortunately-named Count Dooku is a confusing villian. Lucas has tried to make him mysterious, but—like the main mystery of the story—we’re never in much doubt. What would have been cool is if Lucas had made Dooku a good guy, and the only one who grasped the truth of the situation in the Senate and who left the Jedi order only after the Council wouldn’t listen to him. That still wouldn’t have solved all the character motivation issues, but it would have made for an interesting and unexpected twist. As it stands, Dooku’s actions make little sense. If he’s working for Palpatine, then why is there a Clone war? If Palpatine was ultimately the one ordering the clones to be built, then doesn’t Palpatine control both armies? Why doesn’t he just give Dooku control of both armies and rule the universe?

The largest issue confronting Star Wars II: Attack of the Clones: Its tone is utterly inconsistent. If it’s a ’50s B-movie serial with a big budget, then the romantic stuff doesn’t play and it needs to be less serious about itself. If it’s a romance, it’s horribly overwrought, incredibly ill-expressed, and remarkably unbelievable. If it’s a straight up space action flick, then it does better but it’s not up to snuff with say, The Matrix, Star Trek (pick in of the series except Star Trek V), Starship Troopers, Aliens, Terminator, Total Recall, or 2001. To name just a few. The jokes of the film, particularly C3PO’s Clone War comments, are devasting to the film’s tone. An audience can’t take the battle seriously when Threepio is up there doing a Jerry Seinfeld. This is easily the worst bit of the movie for me, and one of those things you wish Lucas had never done. In your mind’s eye, contrast C3PO from Star Wars marching in the Tatooine desert with the Threepio of Clones being shaken about in the droid factory, and I think you’ll see what I mean. The tone is completely different, and for me, Clones represents the death of Threepio as a serious character in the saga. (Maybe he’ll get a memory flush in Star Wars III; God knows the audience may need one too.)

So I think Clones, like Phantom, is another mixed bag. It does action and special effects very well, but just about everything else very poorly. That’s not a great trade-off in my opinion, but whether audiences agree is an open question. Clones did $303 million in US box office and is, as of this writing, ranked 13th all-time. That’s not bad. Of course Phantom did $431 million and is ranked 4th all-time. Maybe for others it is as it is with me. Despite the incredible special effects, I find waning my enthusiasm for the series and my hope that Lucas will recapture the lightening in a bottle that was the original Star Wars trilogy.