Edited article published for The Boar in January 2016. Available here: https://theboar.org/2016/01/revisiting-star-wars-episode-ii-attack-of-the-clones/
Attack of the Clones (2002) was the first Star Wars picture I saw at the cinema. Despite being largely considered ‘Worse than The Phantom Menace’, there is no doubt it had a profound effect on my love for film, the franchise and in shaping the person I am today. I recall, at seven years of age, lightsaber in hand; queuing up for the next chapter of something I was already deeply emotionally invested in.
But re-watching it in lieu of The Force Awakens (2015) is like realising your childhood heroes are flawed individuals. Attack of the Clones misses every opportunity to be interesting. Plagued with poor writing, unimaginative direction and truly disappointing acting; it is unsurprisingly relegated to bottom of the pile. Albeit heavy-handed character arcs or tedious political sequences, it sacrifices all humanity and heart — traits that I feel define the best of the Star Wars universe. Its overindulgence in CGI is equally problematic and dates the film greater than its spritely thirteen years would have you believe.
In fact, reflecting on what the film does well proves exceedingly difficult. It has a remarkable ability to feel like a lot transpires — new characters and set-pieces that have nothing to do with a desire to flog merchandise — yet it offers no real movement in terms of plot or character. The film loosely accounts for the start of the Clone Wars, building upon Palpatine’s transition to Emperor; Anakin’s love interest and his flaky relationship with the Jedi Order. But for the most part, Attack of the Clones drags. If looking at the archetypal trilogy, the second part is typically the darkest chapter. It puts the established characters into new circumstances and allows for the final film to ascertain the resolution. But Clones sits far removed from the eloquence of Empire Strikes Back. (1980) In fact, it’s a far messier film than I remembered.
Admittedly, the politics of Clones didn’t resonate with me as a child. Yet they are the most immediately odd thing about this film upon re-watching it. They dictate an overwhelming amount time for little to no reason. Did we really need three films of Galactic Senate meetings to convey the rise of Evil? Obviously the Sith play both sides — Dooku coercing the Separatists and Palatine pushing the Senate into Civil War. But the anxiety and impact of such a move is non-existent. It’s lost on children and it’s not enough for adults. It’s hard to feel any concern for the likes of Bail Organa or Viceroy Gunray when they feel like expendable characters. Nor is one compelled by the political repercussions, either, when they’re drawn out by such tiresome parliamentary episodes. Where they offer the guise of rationale and relief in-between action sequences, they feel vague and tedious. It’s hard not to switch off. Even the film’s final line even embodies this: ‘Begun the Clone War has’ sounds more foreboding than it really is; as one finds themselves head-scratching as to what has really occurred for the last two hours and how it holds any credence towards the original films.
Worse still, the moments of genuine intrigue are wasted. The conspiracy regarding a Clone Army, commissioned by a deceased Jedi Master, has great potential. The burnt paper-trail in the Jedi Archives has a whiff of Film Noir, yet it is completely extinguished within the context of the film. There is no investigation into why a Jedi commissioned such an army, nor the implication of a Sith plot in its place. Remarkably, no-one in the Council finds it odd to use an Army that no-one [explicitly] asked for. For all their self-proclaimed wisdom, the Jedi Council are remarkably thoughtless in this film. Windu remarks in an opening sequence: ‘We’re keepers of the peace… not soldiers’. Yet the film literally ends with the Jedi roped into a war that need not even happen, with themselves happily fronting legions of troops. No doubt this is part of Palatine’s great scheme –– but it comes across as frustrating in practice. Amalgamating a film later, to our beloved Obi-Wan parading around with soldiers and a military title: ‘General Kenobi, you are a bold one!’
This inherent lack of continuity or defined characterisation overshadows Clones. Lucas makes it hard to sympathise with anyone, Jedi or otherwise. Hell, it’s hard to care about anything in this film. Jar Jar Binks declares Emergency Powers to the Chancellor, instigating a Galactic Civil War [!] — whilst the most powerful Jedi in history, the so-called ‘Chosen One’, enjoys a picnic on Naboo. With fire-place passion to boot; Lucas simultaneously achieves one of the most laborious romances in filmic history alongside the most tedious of plots. The original trilogy triumphed because of relatable characters in a distantly un-relatable universe. Laurence Kasdan crafted perfect on-screen chemistry with Han and Leia in Empire: a human romance that blossomed in the darkest of times. In Clones, we see parallels, a vague attempt to find love in a hopeless place — but the jump from the pre-pubescent: ‘Are you an angel?’ in The Phantom Menace to ‘I’m haunted by that kiss you should never have given to me’ is almost vomit-inducing. It’s simply not believable. It’s uncomfortable to watch. Albeit it the age gap or the fact that people, even in a Galaxy Far Away, do not speak like this; the script does little to convince audiences about this newfound love.
Anakin’s seduction to the Dark Side is equally fallible to this half-baked writing style. The sequence where he massacres Tusken Raiders represents another missed opportunity. It reveals his aggressive and possessive instincts — a penchant for the Dark Side in lieu of his late mother — but the character developed up until this point is so unbearable, that the scene caries no weight. It is for this reason that Anakin’s ‘dark’ moments, just as his romance with Padmé, feel like an after-thought. It is as if the pressure of turning him into Vader hangs awkwardly over Clones; forcing abrasive dialogue and clunky character development.
All that said, there are some commendable efforts within the film. Credit should be bestowed upon Ewan McGregor; there is little doubt that his role within the prequels stands above the rest, something that became increasingly apparent upon re-watching these films. He bought his all, it’s just a shame no-one else did. Temuera Morrison (Jango Fett) also shines amidst a sea of mediocrity, which is commendable given the material handed to him, although he never feels fully fleshed-out. Christopher Lee provides a curious role as master-swordsman Count Dooku — a character whose potential seems incredibly missed. It seems whilst actors can rise above the weakest script; Lucas et al fail to develop them beyond their action-figure value. In fact, this continues an idiosyncratic trend within the Star Wars saga — one of squandered, potentially brilliant, on-screen villains. (See also: Darth Maul, Jango Fett, General Grievous)
Above all else, re-watching Attack of the Clones, is a conflicted experience. For all its whimsical action, it has not aged well. The combat is excessive and CGI in place of thoughtful spectacle feels shallow in retrospect. Nothing comes close to that opening shot of A New Hope (1977) and the whole film is tinged in a strange digital processing, with every shot leaning upon once state-of-the-art technology to construe meaning. Its visual style is jarring; jumping between mind-numbingly fast edits and poorly constructed backdrops. (See: Kamino and Arena Sequences) Equally, if viewing it as sophisticated political drama, it feels ill-conceived. The plot is malnourished, dragging its feet for the two hour running time. It’s hard to care for characters and their meandering problems, nor process a clumsy Gungan quite literally changing the fate of the Galaxy forever. As for its performative value? Bar a few commendable efforts, it’s not an easy watch. Hayden Christensen’s insufferable moaning is both coarse and irritating — and now remains in Star Wars canon as the precursor to one of Cinema’s greatest villains.
Ultimately, if one takes nostalgia out of the equation, Attack of the Clones deserves a thousand years in the digestive transit of the Great Sarlacc. It is a misguided and heavily confused picture. But by the same token, I do find it hard to scoff at a movie that for better of for worse, shaped my relationship with science fiction. My cynical, adult self will never forget that unobtainable sense of escapism I enjoyed as a child. It is for that reason, and that reason alone, I might just dig out my lightsaber for an IMAX Anniversary Cut. Just don’t expect me to enjoy any Special Edition-style adjustments.
After all, George, we already hate sand.