The general view among fans seems to be that Attack of the Clones is the worst of the prequels. Upon rewatching it, I’m going to have to dissent from the majority opinion. It is in no way a good film, in fact it’s arguably worse on a purely structural level than Phantom Menace, but for my part I enjoyed it considerably more than I did the previous film. Or at least, I found there to be more good parts to Attack of the Clones than I did Phantom Menace, though at the same time the lows of this film are worse than anything in its predecessor.
Hopefully this will become clearer as we go on.
The film opens with a title crawl informing us that the Republic is being torn by separatist movements, before we witness an assassination attempt on now-senator Amidala (Lucas appears to have gotten a bad case of anti-monarchism in the intervening years and studiously avoids anything threatening to make her ‘Queenship’ anything but titular, raising even more questions about just how Leia is a princess. Along with the question of what kind of society elects a fourteen-year-old girl as sovereign?). The attempt only takes out her decoy, which only works because of the specific method chosen (the real Senator’s flying an escort fighter: lucky they weren’t actually attacked in space, or she’d have been toast). Anyway, this leads to the decision that Anakin Skywalker should be assigned to guard her because she knows and trusts him (unlike, I guess, every other Jedi who isn’t a hormonal teenager with self-control issues). Meanwhile, his master Obi-Wan Kenobi undertakes to follow the trail of her assassin to find out who is trying to kill her and why.
That description skips a fair amount of overlong discussion of political subjects that we don’t understand or care about, not to mention a lot of painfully bad dialogue. In any case, following a car-chase that ends the first act, Attack of the Clones adopts the two-path structure from Empire Strikes Back, with Anakin and Padme going off to Naboo while Obi-Wan engages in a planet-hopping conspiracy investigation. Only, where Empire was tonally consistent and engaging across its double plotline, here it feels more like it’s split into two completely different films: one directed by Stephen Sommers, the other by Tommy Wiseau.
There are two glaringly huge problems with this film which sink it in many viewers’ eyes to the absolute bottom of the heap: one is that the plot is an incomprehensible mess. The other is the truly cringe-inducing romance plot that takes up much of the film. The former we’ll deal with later. There are so, so many problems with the romance, even passing over the terrible dialogue and abysmal acting (both of which I am blaming completely on George Lucas, since Hayden Chistensen and Natalie Portman have shown they can act in other projects).
The biggest problem is simply that there is no reason for these characters to fall in love. Or rather, there is no reason for her to fall in love with him (his infatuation is more understandable, given the endless parade of overelaborate and bizarrely slinky outfits Natalie Portman wears). Anakin is more or less everything you would think a girl would not like; he’s creepy, pushy, dismissive of her interests, whiny, and self-absorbed. He spends half his time complaining to her about how the Jedi don’t give him the appreciation he feels he deserves, and the other half giving leering and inappropriate compliments. That’s before he slaughters a bunch of sand people and screams about how he hates them before ranting about how much his best friend is holding him back. Anakin is both the self-absorbed bad-boy that any girl’s father would send packing the moment he set eyes on him and the sniveling, insecure loser that she wouldn’t look twice at to begin with.
That’s a problem with the film as a whole, and frankly with the entire prequel trilogy; Anakin is never the “good man” or great Jedi that he is supposed to have been. He’s a cocksure brat with an ego as inflated as the Hindenburg and half as stable, and that’s when he isn’t a psychopath in the making. Luke was chewed out for becoming mildly frustrated when Yoda was jerking him around: why did the Jedi even let this narcissistic rage machine in the door? Nor are his powers, so crowed about in the dialogue of both this film and previous one ever much on display. Anakin just seems like a fairly bog-standard Jedi, never showing much in the way of extraordinary powers and ending the film by being thoroughly humiliated by the villain of the week.
It’s bad enough for the plot as a whole, but it absolutely kills any chance at a believable romance, which is a problem because the love story is one the key factors to the story they’re trying to tell.
Now, in the original films, we could believe that Leia and Han would fall for each other, because though Han could be smarmy and self-aggrandizing, he’d long since shown the self-sacrificing and heroic side to his character. The two had already earned each other’s respect both in the original and the earlier stages of Empire by constantly pushing against one another, while simultaneously fighting on one another’s behalf.
They ought to have done something similar here; had them go in off on an adventure where each could be seen to the best advantage, rather than just having them sit around Naboo talking about whether they’re in love or not. But no, we have scene after scene of them on dates, exchanging vapid dialogue while Anakin leers all over her and the result is supposed to be a love that transcends all other concerns.
As I say, the lows in this film are worse than anything in Phantom Menace. Even Jar Jar’s antics are more bearable than the romance plot, because at least Jar Jar wasn’t the only thing on screen for minutes at a time. Also, Jar Jar wasn’t essential the film’s plot.
All that said, when the film isn’t watching these two rehearsing for a part in The Room and instead focuses on the other plot of Obi-Wan’s cross-galaxy investigation, I actually found it to be very entertaining. Ewan McGregor does a fine job of channeling Sir Alec Guinness even with the clunky dialogue, and he has a well-developed character of a highly competent, though kindly man of vast experience and savoir-faire. Unlike Anakin, he makes for good company, and his adventure across several planets is pretty cool to watch.
I really like the whole sequence at the cloning facility. Everything about it from the towering, spindly alien masters to the soft yet eerie lighting creates the feeling that there’s definitely something wrong here, yet everyone is so polite and so accommodating that there doesn’t seem cause for alarm. You’re just waiting for the other shoe to drop the whole time. It’s visually fantastic and a really well-done sequence.
It also culminates in one of my favorite action scenes in the prequels, perhaps in the whole series: Obi-Wan’s battle with Jango Fett (father of Boba). It’s one of the few, if not only times that we see a Jedi going up against someone who is equally as dangerous, but in a completely different way, and seeing these two skilled and deadly opponents squaring off is really cool (granted, the motivation for the fight isn’t very clear, but we’ll come back to that). The fight is followed by an equally cool battle in space, with Fett’s ship deploying a series of mines that set off a visually and audibly striking display.
On that subject, I like the kid they got to play young Boba Fett: he conveys just the perfect air of being a nasty piece of work who worships his no-good father.
And you know what? I even liked the flying car chase that ended the first act. It’s silly as hell, and the cars look terrible (like those kiddie rides outside of convenience stores), but it’s energized and creative, more so than most anything in the previous film. Also, for all the terrible dialogue in this film, I admit I laughed out loud when Anakin casually throws himself out of the car and Obi-Wan wearily comments, “I hate when he does that.”
So, when the film focuses on the sci-fi adventure aspect, it’s not bad and can even be hugely entertaining, though it definitely drags towards the end and could have stood to be at least half an hour shorter.
The climax is a big problem. Yes, it’s cool to see all these Jedi show up and fight en mass, and that sequence was okay (the earlier one with the monsters, not so much. I really like my monsters, but the whole set up just seemed silly to me), but then it just goes on and on, with the clones showing up to save the day (they never really ‘attack’ so much as ride to the rescue), then a battle sequence of clones versus robots, then a chase sequence, then a final lightsaber battle, and arguably the worst of the whole series at that (despite featuring the always-fabulous Christopher Lee as the opponent). It really drags, especially as the film lumbers to nearly two-and-a-half hours of running time, yet never manages to convey just what the heck they’re fighting about. Which means that now is maybe time to address the plot. Good Lord, where to begin?
This first thing to point out is that the story should have started about here, with the Republic being threatened and the war beginning. Wasting a whole film on a pointless prologue set ten years before the story proper was a huge mistake. But more than that, we never find out just what the ‘separatists’ are trying to do, except that they want to leave the Republic. Why? What is their goal? What do they hope to achieve? And, most importantly, why are we rooting against them? Apart from the fact that they try to kill some of the good guys, but again why are they doing that? Compared to the straightforward faction goals of the original, or even the slightly more convoluted ones of the previous film, we have nothing to work with.
To make matters worse, the film (and its predecessor) fail to convey to us why either the Republic or the Jedi are worth preserving. From what we see of the Republic, I don’t blame anyone for wanting out. If the whole trilogy is about the fall of the Republic and the Jedi Order, we need to have a reason to feel why that was bad and why they ought to be restored (which, of course, is also the problem with Anakin. I will say the storytelling is at least consistent: it fails in exactly the same way across all the parallel plotlines).
But it gets worse. Lee plays a fallen Jedi named Count Dooku (a stupid name, but never mind). At different points in the film he is presented as A). the man who ordered the creation of the Clone Army, B). the head of the separatist movement who warns Obi Wan that the senate is under control of a Sith Lord, and C). the apprentice and servant of said Sith Lord, Palpatine. Why would he do ‘A’ if he is ‘B,’ and why would he give the warning in ‘B’ is he is ‘C’? And why is he the one who has the Death Star plans? If he’s working with Palpatine, what is their end goal? To rule the Republic? Then why does he try to warn Obi-Wan about Palpatine? And why, in any case, is he trying to kill Amidala? Ostensibly it’s so she can’t vote against the creation of the army, but the army already exists. And any way, does the galactic senate of tens of thousands of worlds really come down to a single vote on this issue?
So, to sum up, we have no idea what’s going on and we have no real reason to care about it in any case. When they raced after Count Dooku in the climax, I was still confused as to why he’s a bad guy.
Also, in this ‘Star Wars’ series, we spend almost two whole films on the political background to the war, and yet somehow fail to end up with a clear notion just what they’re fighting about in the first place. The plot in this film is simply awful.
Before I leave off the subject of Christopher Lee, I do have to say that this film reiterates just what a good actor the man was. Even under Lucas’s direction and reading this terrible dialogue, he still absolutely owns the part and his character actually comes across like a real person rather than a walking cutout. The scene where he talks to the imprisoned Obi-Wan is great, at least from a pure acting perspective, and I also love the way he just stands there calmly when one of the Jedi rushes him with a lightsaber, as though contemptuous of the very idea that he might be in danger. Really, Lee is so darn good that I can’t help wondering why they didn’t focus the whole trilogy on him as the main villain, with Palpatine in the background. As it is, his frustratingly small screen time (he doesn’t even show up until an hour and a quarter in) only adds to the film’s myriad other problems.
I should probably say something about the Yoda fight as well. A lot of people don’t like the very idea of Yoda fighting, but I’m okay with it as a concept. It is satisfying to watch little old Yoda hobbling into the room and know at once that the bad guy doesn’t stand a chance. But, like so many of the ideas in this trilogy, the execution of the fight is awful, partly because Dooku is so poorly set up as a villain (again, he has minimal screen time), but more so because of the terrible choreography that has Yoda zipping around like a Loony Tunes character or else slowly waving his hands around to engage in a bit of Force push-pull (the wizard duel in Fellowship of the Ring – also featuring Lee – was infinitely better done than this).
Actually, my main problem with Yoda in the prequels is that he almost completely lacks the playful personality he had in the original films. One would think he’d be far more relaxed, more cheery and good-natured here among his friends and doing what he loves, but apart from one scene with him training children (actually kind of a nice scene, despite the terrible acting and worse CGI on the kids), he’s almost completely humorless. Why give such a great character so much screen time if you’re not even going to let him be himself?
All that and still so much I haven’t mentioned, both of good and bad. There are some genuinely funny moments (the “death sticks” gag for instance) and ones that make you cringe (having a great comedic character like C3-PO reduced to the “I’m beside myself” pun is painful to watch). There are long stretches of skin-peeling boredom interspersed sequences of thrilling high adventure. There is a lot of great creativity, all in the service of a script that is the storytelling equivalent of pulling teeth. The most important aspect of the film – the romance – is an utter failure, but we also have some of the best action scenes in the prequel trilogy. The good parts of this film are mostly better than those of its predecessor (with the exception of the final lightsaber fight), and the bad parts worse. This film is like someone spilled one box of diamonds and another of broken glass: half of it is great, half is painful, and it’s all a mess.
In the end, though, I’m going to rate it higher than Phantom Menace just because there is much more of point to it all. Phantom Menace was completely extraneous, even to the prequels. Attack of the Clones at least moves the plot along toward the original films and feels much more like a necessary piece to the puzzle. It is, at least, a half step in the right direction.