“I killed them. Not just the men… but the women, and the children too. They’re animals, and I slaughtered them like animals! I hate them!!” (said by the teenager who, three years from now, will become Darth Vader. The illusion is shattered…)
So this is it. Having stuttered through Anakin Skywalker’s childhood in Episode 1: The Phantom Menace, Star Wars fans were eager to see how the character’s inevitable path towards the dark side would progress in Attack of the Clones. George Lucas’ answer was to insert a love story around which this sequel would revolve – a love story that begins weird on Anakin’s side and evolves in a way that doesn’t make much logical sense.
After the disappointment expressed towards the first part of the prequel trilogy, everyone was hopeful that Lucas had learned his lesson and that this sequel would be a much improved addition to the Star Wars universe. And in some crucial ways, it is. This film goes along at a much better pace than its predecessor – there is rarely a let-up in the action. Acting is also marginally improved, though still often held back by the fact that everyone is expressing themselves in front of blue screens or reacting to CGI that would be inserted in post production.
Obi-Wan (Ewan McGregor) takes more of a central role here as Anakin’s master, and you do get the sense that the two men have developed a bond in the intervening ten years between Episode 1 and this film. For me Hayden Christensen is not quite as bad as some say – unless he’s “looking longingly” at Padme (Natalie Portman), which comes across more like he’s preparing to rape her than falling in love with her.
Still, Christensen’s main problem is the material Lucas gave him to work with here. Anakin’s portrayal as a whiny, slightly creepy lovestruck teen is not quite the prelude to Darth Vader that we all imagined.
There is one brief moment in which we get a cruel hint of the Anakin we actually wanted to see. It is when he finds his mother on Tatooine, who has been held captive by the ‘sand people’, and she dies in his arms. For a moment Anakin gets a certain look – a look of anger, of hatred, of wanting to hurt people very badly – and the soundtrack picks up in a way that makes you think ‘yes, finally we’re going to see some edgy shit’ go down around here.
So what does Lucas do? Well as this film is primarily for the kids, he cuts from the scene immediately as Anakin cuts through his first victim. The next time we see Anakin, he’s crying and spitting in front of Padme, his outburst with the sand people seemingly the result of a tantrum.
Whatever intensity existed in the previous scene is quickly extinguished in favour of painting his character as a boy with emotional problems, perhaps still at the tail end of puberty. Lucas tried to get us to feel sorry for Anakin when most people surely felt Darth Vader should have been a more rogue-like Jedi whose edginess covered a kind-hearted nature deep down.
Once again in Attack of the Clones, as with its predecessor, we’re presented with logic that insults our intelligence. Despite knowing from the opening scene that Anakin clearly has feelings for Padme, and having warned his padawan that his commitment to the Jedi Order means he’s forbidden from acting on such feelings, Obi-Wan nonetheless approves a mission in which the two are sent off alone together to her home on Naboo.
Anakin is appointed Padme’s personal Jedi protector. Did Obi-Wan ask himself what they’ll do together on Naboo I wonder… you know, when it’s just the two of them, and Anakin has to make sure he stays close ‘for her protection’? Someone needs to think logically here, as it seems the Jedi don’t bother… because logic would only get in the way of the script, after all.
On Naboo, Anakin and Padme have romantic dinners and picnics in the sun. They roll around and play together on the grass. They sit by a fire in the evenings. Padme wears increasingly revealing clothing during their time together. It all seems so perfectly crafted… as if to make it seem like, say, I don’t know, they were going to fall in love or something.
This gets cringeworthy real fast. That George Lucas sees fit to blatantly spell everything out for his audience is infuriating. That he doesn’t know how to write a decent love story in the first place is irritating. Less is more with this kind of thing in a Star Wars movie – Lucas himself should have known that after The Empire Strikes Back (1980). Han and Leia never needed this treatment to fall in love… but then again, their love story felt organic. Anakin and Padme’s love story only happens because the plot needed a vessel in which to insert Luke Skywalker into the continuity later.
Another major part of Attack of the Clones is, as the title suggests, the introduction of the conflict we heard about from Obi-Wan in the original trilogy: the ‘clone wars’. Its set-up in this film left a fairly major plot hole that was never resolved: that of Jedi Master Sifo-Dyas and Count Dooku’s involvement in the commissioning of a ‘Grand Army of the Republic’. Incidentally, these details were explored in the Darth Plagueis novel (published in 2012 and, for what it’s worth, an immensely enjoyable read in its own right), but as that is no longer considered canon – nor should viewers be expected to go elsewhere for such a crucial plot point – it isn’t a valid excuse for Lucas brushing over these details.
In fact this entire plot thread is again indicative of a script that is forcibly driven towards a fixed future destination rather than allowed to develop organically (my biggest criticism of the entire prequel trilogy if you hadn’t noticed). Logical jumps can be found all over the place if one looks close enough.
We learn at the end of this film that the whole thing was a plan masterminded by Darth Sidious and helped along in its execution by Count Dooku, which is a nice idea, but it breaks down to an extent when one stops to think about the factors that went into it.
Obi-Wan discovers the planetary system Kamino only because of a toxic dart used by Jango Fett, the bounty hunter commissioned to assassinate Padme. He then discovers Geonosis, the planet on which the clone wars begin when the Jedi all rush to rescue him, because he manages at the last moment to lob a tracking device on to Fett’s ship as the latter escapes. Fett then almost succeeds in killing Obi-Wan in an asteroid field (with very cool sound effects); had he done so then the plot would have ended there. The Jedi would have had no way of knowing where Jango Fett had fled to.
Then we have the Jedi themselves. Oh boy. Once again the Jedi Council shows a complete lack of logic in almost every department, from letting Anakin (a nineteen year old padawan who still bears the unresolved emotional issues Yoda perceived in him ten years before) escort Padme across the galaxy by himself, to then sending their entire force over to Geonosis to save one Jedi and attempt to wipe out all those who had decided to secede from the Republic. They jump into full-scale war so fast that you wonder how exactly they managed to be the ‘guardians of peace and justice’ for a thousand years beforehand.
Yes, on one hand it’s nice to see more action in this film. It’s cool to see Mace Windu (Samuel L. Jackson) whip out his purple lightsaber and to see the Jedi do something other than sit around in a circle talking. But the lack of critical thinking on their part is absurd – it’s something we’re not really supposed to notice as those cool elements distract everyone from it, and George Lucas certainly isn’t going to let critical thinking get in the way of the direction in which he wants his story to go.
Christopher Lee and Ian McDiarmid give admirable performances as Count Dooku and Chancellor Palpatine respectively; the latter again making an otherwise drab political backdrop bearable. Jar Jar Binks is instrumental in helping Palpatine secure power in this film, meaning the character was indirectly responsible for the rise of the Galactic Empire and over twenty years of tyranny in the galaxy. Maybe that’s some kind of karma at work or maybe you consider it an insult that he was given such an important role in the saga. Make your own mind up.
In a lot of ways this film was all about fan service. Harking back to The Empire Strikes Back, we get another sequence in an asteroid field – though I’ll leave you to work out for yourself which one is clearly superior. Jango Fett plays a significant role, as does his son Boba Fett in Empire; both are involved in those respective asteroid scenes.
Most of all though, many fans wet their pants at the prospect of Yoda whipping out his lightsaber in a confrontation with Count Dooku towards the end of the film. The fight itself is easily the weakest of the prequel trilogy; fan anticipation and excitement once again helping to paper over an underlying lack of substance.
On the surface Attack of the Clones is an improvement over its predecessor. One can sense here that George Lucas was getting closer to the story he really wanted to tell, and the one we really wanted to see (that being the fall of the Jedi and rise of Darth Vader). Getting to that point, however, proved a bit of a problem, certainly when you peek behind the curtain to find the rather flimsy skeleton around which this film is built.
Sure it was technically an improvement, undeniably fun in places, but I’m a sucker for good storytelling and well written characters… unfortunately those elements are what this movie lacked most.
4 / 10