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DVD Review: Star Wars: Episode II -- Attack of the Clones

By Glenn Abel

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Clones art "Humans are the new aliens in George Lucas' fifth "Star Wars" film. Strangers in the strange land of pure digital filmmaking, they flail, flop and slash their way across planet Blue Screen, trying to hold their own with the digital denizens.

The extras-packed DVD of "Star Wars: Episode II -- Attack of the Clones" spends little time championing the acting skills of its human stars -- in some cases a very good thing -- while the dramatic chops of Jedi master Yoda are analyzed at length. Real actors are barely mentioned in the tech-heavy commentary fronted by Lucas.

Many shots of human faces look soft, with a shallow depth of field, while the computer progeny look sharp and bold. The often-stunning digital-to-digital transfer is much kinder to robots, spaceships, lights and buildings than to humankind. Flesh tones look curiously bland.

At one point, animation director Rob Coleman tells how he "felt sorry" for top-billed Ewan McGregor as he gamely tried to swashbuckle in a blue-screen room with nothing there. One actor enters a scene nine months after it's shot. Christopher Lee speaks with limited enthusiasm of his face being grafted onto a stuntman's body.

Clearly, a decade of actors guild nightmares has become real.

Regardless of how viewers view the new realities, they'll find Fox's release of "Clones" (retail $29.98) a comprehensive and sometimes fascinating look into filmmaking's new age.

Last fall's "Star Wars: Episode I -- The Phantom Menace" was one of the year's best DVDs. "Clones" pretty much follows its format. The centerpiece is a new 52-minute documentary, "From Puppets to Pixels: Digital Characters in Episode II," made over a period of years with full access to Lucas and his co-workers.

Numerous specific featurettes, a collection of deleted scenes and the in-depth commentary are among the other highlights.

The discs again demonstrate that where many DVD creators seek the promo possibilities in any editiorial content, Lucas and company look for editorial possibilities in any material, promotional or not.

All the strong content helps, because repeated viewings of the film itself wear thin, emphasizing the weaknesses of the many Anakin Skywalker/Hayden Christensen scenes. What was merely slow in theaters becomes interminable upon third or fourth viewing. A telling moment comes when Lucas speaks in depth about his troubled Jedi's greed, demons and thirst for power, while onscreen, Christensen struggles to deliver amazingly inept dialogue.

Fortunately, the DVD's quantum leaps to other chapters provide escape to the killer action scenes, shown in breathtaking video and heard in stirring Dolby Digital 5.1 EX. Black-hole blacks anchor the visuals. The subwoofer rumbles and foreshadows and pounds, while rear speakers swirl away.

"Clones" is a first-rate home theater experience, at least viscerally. The film comes in widescreen and full screen. The widescreen image is 2.35:1 with the 16:9 TV upgrade.

One of the drop-jaw moments comes as Obi-Wan Kenobi battles villain Jango Fett in a meteor field, a showcase for the sound editing and digital format. Editor and sound designer Ben Burtt notes that a space dogfight "doesn't happen as often in 'Star Wars' films as you'd think." (Take a look at the human faces in this scene for a telling contrast in digital delivery.)

Of the stunning coliseum scene, in which our Jedi heroes battle monsters and machines, Lucas credits the advancements of "Phantom Menace." "(That film) was a large exercise in learning how to use this new digital technology. This is really the result of that experience." Lucas notes that scenes like the coliseum and the climactic clone battle existed in his head for 30 years but never were possible: "Now I'm able to cut loose."

The biggest moment in "Clones" comes as Yoda casts off his 800 years and kicks ass in the light-saber battle of wizards. That seemingly absurd challenge provided the most sleepless nights.

Producer Rick McCallum says, "How do you get a 2 1/2-foot frogling to be fighting a 6-foot-6 man? We never knew if it was going to work. It could have ended up completely ludicrous." The docu shows Lucas reviewing early 3-D Yoda footage, telling his artists at one point, "C'mon, guys, that's pathetic." Much is made of the need to return Yoda to the spirit of his original puppet look, catering to the fond memories of "Star Wars" fans who panned the "Phantom" face-lift. Yoda creator and actor Frank Oz is consulted at every turn about changes to his "illegitimate child of Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy."

The docu shows how much of Lucas' direction of animated characters is done by proxy. We see artists molding specific characters, acting the part in front of mirrors to envision eye movements and facial expressions.

"They say digital actors are going to take over," Lucas says to a room filled with computer artists. "I don't think so." The director then turns to a resourceful young animator. "When they talk about digital actors, they don't know you exist."

Lucas talks about his series at some length, giving away a few specifics about the sixth and final film, including the death of one key character. He says "Star Wars" ultimately is the story of R2-D2, and he always struggles to work in some heroics for the little droid.

Of "Clones," Lucas says: "It's difficult making a (film series) backwards and forwards in six parts and trying to make this one work unto itself. There is a lot of explaining and a lot of complex issues that need to get woven into this fabric."

One of the DVD extras' best clips comes when Lucas returns to the deserts of Tunisia and his surviving homestead set where it all began with Luke Skywalker. Cast and crew seem awed, but Lucas flatly says, "It hasn't changed too much -- little funky set." He shoots a scene there for the final "Star Wars" film, but won't talk about it. The "Clones" scene in which Anakin talks with his stepfather deliberately mirrors Luke's dinner-table talk with his uncle in the first film.

Deleted scenes mostly feature Natalie Portman, whose character would have benefited from their inclusion. The film itself includes shots added for the digital projection run in cinemas.

A mockumentary on R2-D2 includes Francis Ford Coppola saying he wanted the robot for "The Godfather," but "Bob Evans thought he was a runt." Visual effects development is demonstrated in a montage. The sound effects process gets a listen in a docu on Burtt and his team.

Other extras of note include a promo piece on the "previsualization" process (forget storyboards), marketing materials, TV spots and trailers, and a DVD-ROM link to Web site content.

Glenn Abel is Executive Editor, Electronic, at The Hollywood Reporter

Reprinted, with permission, from The Hollywood Reporter

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