The most important question about Episode II: Attack of the Clones is whether or not it learned anything from the mistakes, failings, and indulgences of its predecessor. The Phantom Menace is derided by many fans of Star Wars as a bombastic mess, be it from too much Jar Jar, Jake Lloyd’s performance, bad dialogue, and the like. Lucas brought in Jonathan Hales to help clean up the script for Clones, so it doesn’t suffer from as much mouth-full-of-words dialogue as did Menace, but its failures are Menace’s failures, in that the poor decisions made during episode I that follow into the prequel-sequel are its characteristics most worthy of derision. Clones isn’t any better or worse than Menace was. It is simply a different kind of good and bad that altogether still feels like Star Wars, but wholly inadequate and incomplete.
As much as some fans hate on Menace, there is a group who believes that Clones is actually a worse film, finding it horribly slow-paced and boring. Such a diagnosis is accurate in that it is definitely slow-paced, but very deliberately slow. The film unfolds slowly as a mystery of who is really engineering the brewing tension and looming civil war, and here Lucas actually succeeds. It doesn’t move at break-neck speed, instead allowing the viewer to drop themselves in and immerse themselves in the mystery, and it doesn’t leave anybody behind. If there’s one criticism to be leveled here, it is a reflection back on Menace, where it is painfully obvious that Palpatine is organizing a rise to power. So the “mystery” plot doesn’t hold a lot of water for many viewers in that, ultimately, we know who is behind it. Yet, Clones makes a great effort in not making our protagonists absurdly stupid for not knowing the answers that the audience does.
The film opens, and in the crawl we learn that several thousand solar systems have left or are threatening to leave the Republic. It also mentions that the Senate is engaged in the issue of creating an army for the Republic to counter the threats that the separatists present, but is any of this really necessary? In Menace we learn that systems under the rule of the Republic still have a great degree of autonomy, given that they can raise their own armies and invade other planets in the Republic at will. So are there no planets out there who are willing to lend their own army to the Republic to counter this threat? One supposes this is yet another indictment of the ineffectiveness of the Galactic Senate, or a criticism of its complete faith in- and reliance on- the Jedi order. Realistically, the audience is supposed to understand how inept the Republic has become, but they’ve reached levels that go beyond Germans-in-a-Spielberg-film of ineptitude here.
A bomb planted inside of Senator Amidala’s ship explodes when it lands on Coruscant, kick-starting the plot and immediately raising the question of who was behind the assassination attempt. It also raises the question of why the hell said assassin didn’t just blow the ship up in orbit or at any point before it even reached the capitol. One imagines that word of her demise would still just as easily reach the Senate, and realistically, a ship blowing up in orbit could just as easily have been chocked up to some kind of engine failure and not raised immediate suspicion.
This, of course, is the continuation of Palpatine’s machinations, where Lucas continues to excel. Again, if the prequels have one saving attribute, it is the level to which Palpatine is committed to taking over the Republic and destroying the Jedi. With Amidala dead, the biggest opponent to the creation of an army is gone as well. The death of the opposition leader in the Senate at the hands of the separatists would easily sway enough votes in Palpy’s favor to create an army and speed along the beginning of the civil war he is engineering to take over the Republic. This is why the slow-burning plot really works well for this film and for Palpatine’s development as a character. His hatred of the Jedi and lust for power are such that he is willing to play an extreeeemely long con in order to secure his victory. There is little doubt by the end of Sith exactly how detestable and evil Palpatine is, and that is thanks in large part to the slow development of his character through the prequels. It also helps to have a powerhouse actor in Ian McDiarmid playing the role, but, still.
Unfortunately, Clones doesn’t take long to shovel up some big heaps and throw them right in the audience’s face. “Grown more beautiful, I mean.” When Hales was cleaning up this script, how did he not smash his face into his keyboard when he read some of this stuff? Or is this the cleaned-up version? Could it have been even worse? The biggest subplot in the film is the love story between Anakin and Padme, and it works for the most part in scenes where the two don’t share as much dialogue. Falling in love isn’t just spouting off nonsense dialogue back and forth at each other until, snap, we’re in love now (although Twilight has been obscenely lucrative following the “tell don’t show” model). There are even some decent moments of dialogue, such as Anakin’s description of love when the two are on their way back to Naboo. By and large, however, Clones falls back into the trap that Menace laid before it in excessively expositional dialogue that is not necessary. For starters, the love story is garbage because it is placed on that foundation. There was no reason Anakin and Padme needed to meet in Episode I, outside of maybe the young boy catching a glimpse of the young queen and becoming infatuated with her. It also doesn’t help that Christensen and Portman really don’t have a lot of chemistry, but it’s hard to really blame them when Lucas is cramming this garbage dialogue down their throats and not directing them properly. Even worse, Lucas left a lot of the worst scenes of the love story in the film while cutting others that were better out. On the DVD, there are a couple of cut scenes where we meet Padme’s family, and there is a nice scene that Anakin and Padme share in her bedroom, talking about her life. It was far more minimalist and relied on more subtlety from the actors, and thus comes across as much more convincing than some of the dreck left in the film, such as the after-dinner scene or the pre-execution slop. A better cut of Clones would do well to take advantage of such scenes, but they are sadly non-canon.
For all the flak that Christensen receives for his portrayal of Anakin, it is actually not that bad, and is leaps and bounds better than what we got with Jake Lloyd. Mostly because Lloyd’s character was poorly written in Menace and disturbingly over-exposed, but the point stands. Some of the love scenes are awkward since they’re chewing on fat chunks of dialogue, but he ably portrays some of the darker traits that will inevitably seal Anakin’s fate and turn him into Vader. His wholesale slaughter of the Tusken village is damn good on-screen, as is his subsequent confession of it to Padme. The pain and intensity in Christensen’s performance is palpable in that and some other scenes. Like in Menace (and Sith and A New Hope), the issue is with Lucas’ lack of direction and obtuse, clunky writing. He and Ewan MacGregor also have a fantastic rapport in their mentor-mentee father-son relationship, lending a great deal of credibility to their friendship on-screen. This, unlike Menace, is a story that Anakin largely belongs in, so he doesn’t feel like a shoehorned-in element this time around.
Clones repeats the sins of Menace in many other ways, however, most especially in shoehorning in nostalgia and useless characters, and this is in no way more evident than the Fetts. Why is Boba Fett so popular? He is an inept, pathetic, detestable, soulless character that happens to wear some cool armor. The adoration heaped upon this character is outside of the realm of understanding, so to then slap his just-as-detestable father into this film and make him the template for the entire army of clones is shoving salt into wounds by the fistful. The forced inclusion of Jango and Boba Fett in this story is by far the worst part of Clones, even if it affords the audience a pretty enjoyable fight between Obi-Wan and Jango halfway through. Temeura Morrison delivers a decent enough performance, but this character is not necessary to the narrative. Whatsoever. The bounty hunter who tries to kill Padme isn’t in any way important- whomever hired said bounty hunter is. This is Lucas simply attempting to over-stuff the film with nostalgia and trying way too hard to tie all of these characters together in sixteen different ways. This subplot wastes time that could have been better spent on further exploring the love story or on the beginning of the war. It also forces the audience to suffer through the god-awful, gag-inducing performance of Daniel Logan as the young Boba Fett, who makes Jake Lloyd look like Daniel Day-Lewis by comparison. It needlessly copies the asteroid field sequence from Empire, with Jango even referring to it as such, except for the fact that it’s a planetary ring system, NOT an asteroid field, and all one need do is fly up out of it. Thankfully, Jango is treated to the film’s most brutal death when he is beheaded by Mace Windu, which is one of those fist-pumping moments of the prequel trilogy for all the wrong reasons. A great “special edition” of Clones and even Empire would completely excise the Fett family from Star Wars canon forever.
The Fett subplot barely manages to edge out C-3P0 in terms of bile-soaked trash shoved down the audience’s throat, but his is distinct in that this is the second time he has been in a film needlessly, coupled with the fact that he becomes the Jar Jar of the final reel when he is cut to time and again for unbelievably bad comic relief. Especially in this film, where the political machinations and tension of a looming war do not merit this kind of nonsensical humor, and it is a complete detriment to the otherwise excellent ending sequences of this film. The character is so forced into the film that he rips open a gigantic plothole in A New Hope, where Uncle Owen purchases the same damn protocol droid he owned before and can’t remember it. 3P0 quite simply doesn’t belong in the prequel trilogy. In the original trilogy, he was great comic relief because of his bickering with Han and R2, mostly because of Harrison Ford’s back-and-forth and the fact that 3P0 wasn’t necessarily out of place, and was often just following his protocols. He felt like part of the team because he was part of the team; he had a purpose, and wasn’t just shoved in to serve as comic relief. Thankfully, the character’s biggest PT spotlight is here, and his presence is much-diminished in Sith.
Outside of those glaring flaws, however, Attack of the Clones manages to be a pretty damn good film in its own right. The effects are much better and haven’t aged nearly as badly as those in Menace. The city chase sequence in the beginning of the film is actually pretty fun, and Lucas manages to carry a good tension throughout. The plating done in the Naboo sequences is fantastic. While his love story might have been forced, Lucas certainly set the right scene for it, and John Williams absolutely knocked it out of the park again with a stellar score. “Across the Stars” is an incredibly beautiful piece that emotes the love between the characters while highlighting the tragedy that yet awaits them. The “Imperial March” is out of place in the film (as in the entire PT) simply because it is such an effective piece at the start of Empire, but the score is otherwise excellent and a shining example of what went right with the prequels. The costume designer in the film, Trisha Biggar, deserves all the accolades one can heap her way for the excellent work she did for Natalie Portman, who looks absolutely stunning throughout in her numerous elaborate outfits.
When the film reaches Geonosis, it turns everything up a notch or two, including the dismal aforementioned subplot with 3P0, but it also begins with the entire PT’s worst sequence, that being the droid factory. Referring to it as crap would force the rest of crap to unionize and strike and then sue for libel. Forcing someone to view the droid factory sequence repeatedly would be punishable as a crime against humanity and must certainly be considered cruel and unusual. The execution sequence that follows isn’t much better, frankly, and seems like a sick parody of a really bad Bond-style death trap. Fortunately the execution scene wraps quickly and jumps into the far-better Battle of Geonosis, the first official battle of the Clone Wars that were… wait, why the hell is Yoda here with an army?
The slow-cooked plot and the mystery of who exactly is behind the start of the war would have been thoroughly satisfying if not for the frustrating aspect of the clone army. Obi-Wan discovers it and that it was plotted some ten years back, with Dooku recruiting Jango to pass his failure onto hundreds of thousands of clones. From here, Yoda decides to go to Kamino and… just takes the army. What about the Senate?? Doesn’t anyone in the Senate wonder where the hell this clone army came from? Maybe perhaps Senator Amidala, who was bitterly opposed to the creation of an army in the first place? Yet, when they show up on Geonosis, she doesn’t question it in the slightest. Doesn’t it seem a little odd that this MASSIVE clone army, complete with colossal starships, shows up out of nowhere? Might that not lead Senator Amidala to think that maybe someone somewhere is trying to start a war? The film really misses on this, and it is absurdly out of character for Padme to willfully ignore it. And she’s not even the only one! The Jedi just jump right into battle and lead them right on in. As awesome as the battle is to watch, it doesn’t make the least bit of sense that no one questions where this army came from at all.
Never mind the approval of its use in the Senate in the first place. So, Amidala is sent away to her home planet to hide out. Why can’t she just speak in the senate and vote via computer projection? By the time anyone found her, the vote would already be over and killing her would be useless. Even if they have to elect someone to stand in for her, A.) Why in the HELL is that thing Jar Jar Binks, and B.) Where the HELL is Bail Organa and the rest of those opposed to the creation of an army to slap Jar Jar around and tell him not to suggest voting the chancellor emergency powers? Also, why the HELL will the rest of the Senate willingly vote to give the chancellor emergency powers to create an army instead of just voting to create the damn army? Or, if Palpatine wanted to start framing the Jedi, why not point out that the Jedi are trying to overthrow the Republic since they commissioned the creation of an army ten years prior? At a certain point in it’s almost as if Lucas gave up on trying to explain everything and just rushed into the finale, which is exciting and satisfying but not really very full. If this were a meal, you’d still be starving afterward.
That said, the finale is pretty exciting. Its subtext is both exciting and frightening, as both sides are manufacturing soldiers to fight the war which promises to make it far longer and far more costly in every regard. During the battle there’s an excellent sequence where one of the command ships is shot down and all we can see is a bunch of blaster fire being exchanged in a thick cloud of dust. This is a fantastic metaphor for the Clone Wars in their entirety, since exactly who is fighting and why really remains under a shroud of mystery. Palpy’s machinations are made crystal clear at the film’s ending when Sidious and Dooku get together and discuss the beginning of the war very casually, but as far as the rest of the galaxy and the Jedi, they’re under this shroud of the dark side.
The entire visit to Tatooine is equally rewarding, 3P0 aside. Anakin and Watto’s reunion is touching, especially when Watto looks up at him with that moment of recognition and says, “Ani?” There are a lot of overused CGI effects in the PT, no one would really argue that point, but not all of them are used poorly. Anakin and Padme meeting Owen and Beru are wonderful little character moments, and Cliegg Lars has a genuine affection for Shmi, despite the fact that we never see them together, and each of them gets only the slightest touch of screentime. Why on the forest moon of Endor Anakin isn’t called home to maybe check on his mental state once Yoda realizes “Young Skywalker is in pain” is anyone’s guess, but again, there’s no time to explain everything, we’ve got a war to fight!
The battle culminates in the Republic securing victory over the Separatists and the Clone Wars begin in earnest. Christopher Lee fights Obi-Wan, then Anakin, and then Yoda gets into the action, which is a really fun sequence to watch. The film ends on a down note similar to Empire, yet this one is a little harder to discern, being that a wedding should be a cause for celebration and joy. Yet Anakin is clearly a disturbed young man who just slaughtered the entire village of those who murdered his mother. Hell, the hunt for Shmi Skywalker could and should have been half of this film. Anakin should blame the Jedi for leaving his mother a slave to Watto when they know full-well how important Anakin may be (and discuss as much). Is it the terrible tragedies that befall Anakin that inevitably turn him to the dark side, or is it the flat-out ineptitude of the Jedi to do anything that would give him any other path? Well, there’s one more film left in the prequel trilogy, so we’ll have to wait to find out in Episode III. 6/10 lightsabers.
by Nicholas Haskins
Other Reviews: Episode I, Episode II, Episode III, Episode IV, Episode V, Episode VI, Episode VII
I will be releasing reviews of all six episodes of the Star Wars saga in the run-up to Episode VII this December and are teaming with the great guys over at http://www.battlefrontforums.com/. Look for our next review coming soon!