After the popular disappointment of The Phantom Menace in 1999, most Star Wars fans were willing to give George Lucas another shot. The 2002 follow-up, Attack of the Clones, seemed promising. The name was adventuresome. Anakin was more or less an adult. There were tons of Jedi! And
People forget, but Attack of the Clones was pretty well received by fans when it came out! “This was the prequel we wanted!” was a common refrain. That’s because the shell-shock of The Phantom Menace left fans vulnerable for things that signified things they felt meant “Star Wars” and Lucas, wounded by the critical response to The Phantom Menace, was willing to pay some fan service. (Slave 1! Kinda Stormtroopers! Industrial-looking spacecraft! Tusken Raiders! Death Star plans! Blue milk!) It was only after some time Attack of the Clones came to be seen as the weakest link, a view I share.
I was in college when Attack of the Clones came out and was deep into Star Wars prequel fandom. I collected every Hasboro Jedi figurine. I spent a hours a day on messageboards arguing what was going to happen in AotC and the third installment. And at the time, after viewing, I felt AotC was on-par with TPM. I was glad some TPM detractors seemed to like it. I liked the “Detective Obi-Wan” plot. I really liked seeing the Jedi Council become war generals, it seemed like the kind of thing the original trilogy hinted at.
I saw Attack of the Clones seven times in the theaters.
At the end of its theatrical run, I was starting to date a woman who had a boyfriend that was studying in Germany for a semester. (A life choice I deeply regret.) We saw the picture in IMAX together in Indianapolis, and after I drove up to her dorm room in Muncie, IN to drop her off, she squeezed my hand. I vomited. I always felt like puking after Attack of the Clones kind of meant something.
Oof. There’s maybe 25 good minutes of Attack of the Clones. It was worse than I remembered it. There is a precipitous drop in craftsmanship from Episode 1.
The cinematography is completely uninspired until the third act.
There is more greenscreen in AotC than TPM, and that means the real-life sets are even more jarring. For example, after Obi-Wan meets with the Kaminoans, the picture cuts to the Naboo lake retreat with a an actual boat prop and no green screen. It takes you out of the movie.
There are two terrible music cues. The Duel of Fates plays when Anakin goes to kill the Tusken Raiders, and the Battledroid March plays when the Clone Army is revealed. Neither of these cues make any sense.
Saddest of all, the costume design takes a serious step backward. Half the costumes look CGI anyway. I don’t know if they made a single real piece of Clonetrooper armor.
The pacing at the top of this movie is terrible. TPM begins with shadowy intrigue, this one with an overlong starcraft approach that ends with an assassination attempt in broad daylight. And after one explosion the next fifteen minutes are nothing but meetings between persons of stature! Snore! Whereas TPM has legitimate palace intrigue, the plotting in Attack of the Clones feels more like a Jane Austen novel, dignitaries and people of privilege repressing their passions to maintain composure instead of taking character action driven by emotion
It’s not until Zam Wessel’s second assassination attempt that the pacing picks-up. But why isn’t Jango Fett just attempting the assassination himself? (As the plot is revealed… to earn the Trade Federation’s support, Count Dooku permits Nute Gunray to hire Jango Fett to assassinate Padme, and Jango pawns it off on Zam because… reasons? It’s convoluted.)
After Obi-Wan has scolded Anakin that their job is not to investigate Padme’s would-be assassin, the Jedi Council then charges Obi-Wan with investigating Padme’s would-be assassin. And they send Anakin separately to escort Padme back to Naboo. While I much enjoy Detective Obi-Wan Cracks the Case of the Clone Army, it’s a mistake to separate Obi-Wan and Anakin for the second-act of the prequel trilogy. In the OT, Obi-Wan talks of Anakin as an old friend. Anakin and Obi-Wan say as much in this movie, but we barely get to see it!
The other big problem with breaking up Anakin and Obi-Wan is Anakin goes with Padme to Naboo to… wait. They begin to fall in love while…. waiting. If Attack of the Clones featured Obi-Wan, Anakin, and Padme solving the case of the clones together, with Anakin and Padme having to hide their romance from Obi-Wan right under his nose, this would have been a much better movie. Anakin and Padme should have fallen in love on adventures, not in a living den.
And just why does Padme fall in love with him? He’s self-centered, mopey, and fucking creepy! The script doesn’t give Natalie Portman anything to work with. There’s no motivation for their love, except that Anakin is supposed to be iresistably attractive. (When the role was being cast, Lucas said to the press more than once that Anakin had to be someone little girls would swoon for.)
I generally think Hayden Christiansen has more good moments in his two pictures than rabid detractors are willing to admit, but none of them are in the first two-thirds of Attack of the Clones. From the start, he’s obstinate and selfish. I wish in the first act, Anakin was still basically heroic and noble. He’s a hero in The Phantom Menace, and I feel like Attack of the Clones needed to start him in that place and move him toward greed as the film progresses. By the time Anakin has killed the Tusken Raiders that kidnapped his mother and snaps at Padme in the Lars homestead, he’s already whined his chief complaint (“Obi-Wan is holding me back!”) twice before. Instead of frightening rage that bubbles up without warning, it’s just a predictable tantrum.
Virtually every scene from the start until the Battle of Geonosis is poorly shot, poorly written, poorly acted, and poorly edited. In 2002, the modern digital blockbuster was still being invented. (AotC was the first shot on digital, actually!) Today, after Harry Potter, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and a half-dozen other monster film franchises, the sluggish pacing in Attack of the Clones is just unbearable.
There’s a couple exceptions. I love the scene with Yoda and the younglings, when they help Obi-Wan locate Kamino on a map. It’s the scene that ties stern-faced prequel Yoda to the goofy Muppet Yoda of the OT. It’s a touching contrast to the war general and lightsabre master we see later in the film.
And I do like the Lars homestead scenes. I like that Clieg Lars, well-acted, is kind of a piece of garbage for not protecting his wife Shmi Skywalker. And I love the look of contempt Anakin gives Clieg when he returns with Shmi’s carcass. It’s the first time Christiansen shows up to the ball game.
It takes forever for Attack of the Clones to introduce Count Dooku, the fallen Jedi turned Seperatist faction leader, but once he shows up, when Obi-Wan’s investigation takes him to Geonosis where he is captured by Dooku, Attack of the Clones finally gets good. Including one of my favorite scenes in Star Wars…
The Phantom Menace sets-up there can be Only Two Sith. Dooku pleads to Obi-Wan to join is side against the Dark Lord of the Sith controlling the Senate. We don’t know that Dooku is the Sith apprentice yet, but once we find that out we realize that Dooku’s ambition was not to manipulate war with Palpatine, but to use the war to strike down Palpatine and rule the galaxy himself! There’s that prequel theme of greed again!
(AotC is so convoluted, so let me spell it out for you… after Darth Maul is killed, Palpatine recruits Dooku, who is either still a Jedi or recently left the order. He sends Dooku to Kamino, who impersonates a different Jedi (Syfo-Dias), to begin the creation of a clone army — ten years before the Separatists even form! Then, under Palpatine’s orders, Dooku starts mucking-up the confederation of separatists to launch a civil war against the Republic. Behind the scenes, Palpatine uses the Trade Federation Nemoidians again as foolish pawns to raise a droid army for the Separatists. When the droid army is revealed to the Republic, Chancellor Palpatine is granted emergency powers he’ll never relinquish, publicly authorizes the clone army he ordered Dooku to create a decade earlier, and the manufactured war is begun. And all the time this is going on, Dooku means to double-cross Palpatine by recruiting a Jedi as his apprentice!)
At about the same time Obi-Wan is captured, the Padme / Anakin love story finally gets kind of interesting. Contra Revenge of the Sith, Padme in Attack of the Clones is a pretty assertive, active character. Padme pushes Anakin to go rescue Obi-Wan. There’s the godawful droid factory scene where they are captured. And then… hey, the love story is kinda good at this point!
Just before going out to their deaths, Padme confesses her love to Anakin. The music swells! They kiss! The shot opens up to show tens of thousands of hostile Geonisians cheering for their mortal end! It really works!
And then… monsters! Dozens of Jedi! Mace Windu kicks ass! Clonetroopers in the mode of Apocalypse Now! Two pretty good lightsabre duels! War is hell even a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away and we start to see the cracks in Yoda’s resolve. It’s no big shocker when Palpatine and Dooku are revealed to be in cahoots, but the moment works. So does the music cue when the picture ends as Padme and one-armed cyber Anakin are married.
Attack of the Clones is a failure of a movie, and I really believe if it had been better, it could have lifted-up both The Phantom Menace and Revenge of the Sith. Based on what the original trilogy needs satisfied and what The Phantom Menace sets-up, there are basically three things Attack of the Clones needed to do:
On the first point, though convoluted, Palpatine’s rise to power is pretty compelling in this movie. Along the way, it illustrates the self-cannibalizing nature of The Sith.
On the second point, AotC establishes Obi-Wan as a successful Jedi Knight pretty well. It generally fails to show Anakin and Obi-Wan as friends in the Clone Wars, but I do like the moment when they’re chasing Dooku after the big battle and Obi-Wan’s own thirst for victory and arrogance eschews waiting for backup.
Most tragically, the love story fails. Firstly, because the dialogue is literally exclusively cliches and shitty metaphors about sand. Secondly, because Anakin begins the movie as a whiney repressed novice and ends the movie as a whiney repressed killer of Tusken Raiders. There is no reason for Padme to love him. And for that matter, Padme doesn’t really do anything for Anakin to fall in love with her, either. His love is so childish, but not in the tragic Romeo and Juliet way. Her love is flat, wooden, superficial attraction weakly expressed. Yippee.
Ideally, Anakin would have started the film a hero and lost his way somewhere in the fog of war. Ideally the stakes of their forbidden love would have been higher; everywhere they express their feelings, they are far from the eyes of those who forbid it — lightyears away, even! There’s no dramatic possibility of them ever being caught. Ideally, the audience would have wanted a charismatic Jedi and an adventuring senator to be together forever. Sadly, there’s nothing like that here.
(And by the way — why don’t any of the Jedi detect the forbidden love that will derail the Prophesy of the One Who Brings Balance to the Force? Lucas covers his bases here, actually! The presence of the Dark Side and Palpatine on Coruscant has clouded the Jedi’s ability to use the force. I love that Yoda chooses to hide this fact from the Republic, because Yoda’s arrogance and Obi-Wan’s failure as a mentor are ultimately to blame for Anakin’s fall.)
To its credit, as far as the love story goes, Attack of the Clones continues the theme that the Jedi Order’s downfall is that it represses passion and emotion rather than using passion and emotion to connect to The Force. It ties in well with Yoda’s prequel arc. A small consolation lost in a CGI a droid factory of sadness.