Although May 4th is known the world over as Star Wars Day, many also choose to celebrate the popular, generation-spanning science-fiction saga on May 5th as a play on the word “Sith”. This can extend Star Wars Day into three day celebration of the influential science-fiction series and, as a result, I am using each of these days to look back at the Prequel Trilogy!
Released: 22 September 2019
Director: George Lucas
Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment
Original Distributor: 20th Century Fox
Budget: $115 million
Stars: Ewan McGregor, Hayden Christensen, Natalie Portman, Christopher Lee, Ian McDiarmid, Temuera Morrison, and Frank Oz
Ten years after the events of Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace (ibid, 1999), the galaxy is on the brink of civil war as Jedi Master Obi-Wan Kenobi (McGregor) and his volatile apprentice, Anakin Skywalker (Christensen), investigate an assassination attempt on Senator Padmé Amidala (Portman) and uncover a mysterious conspiracy involving the creation of a clone army to service the Galactic Republic.
Although The Phantom Menace made over $1 billion at the box office, the film was generally poorly received and, as a result, George Lucas was hesitant to begin work on the next chapter in his epic space opera saga and specifically wrote the script for Episode II to focus more on action rather than political intrigue. Unlike the previous Star Wars films, Attack of the Clones relied heavily on digital effects and CGI creations and went all-in with its use of fascist allegories in its depiction of corruption within the Galactic Republic. Despite Lucas’s insistence on swamping the film with digital effects, Attack of the Clones’ budget was exactly the same as its predecessor; however, the film made considerably less than The Phantom Menace, clocking in at just under $655 million. While I have come to regard the film as an under-rated entry in the saga, reviews have been less than favourable and criticised the script and line delivery (rightfully so, I’d say) and many weaker CGI and narrative moments, and it is is generally regarded as being one of the worst Star Wars films.
I mentioned in my review of The Phantom Menace that it, and the Special Edition release of the Original Trilogy around the same sort of time, rekindled interest in Star Wars but I can’t really say the same for Attack of the Clones. The negative feedback from Episode I kinda killed any momentum and interest I and a lot of people had in the films, especially as they erased the popular Expanded Universe books, comics, and videogames from continuity and replaced them with material that was so far, far less interesting. Indeed, as far as I can remember, people were mainly interested in Attack of the Clones because of the trailer showing Yoda (Oz) in action, the nostalgia that follows Star Wars everywhere, and the vague hope that things couldn’t get any worse.
Young, fresh-faced, and headstrong in the first film, Obi-Wan Kenobi has grown into a far wiser and more seasoned Jedi Master between films. Though he often despairs of Anakin’s recklessness, impatience, and bouts of insubordination, Obi-Wan and his Padawan have grown closer and their bond is analogous to an older brother with an impudent younger sibling. Much of Obi-Wan’s interactions with Anakin consist of reminding the youngster of his place, warning against the dangers of politicians and the shadiness of bureaucracy, and emphasising that Anakin needs to slow down, calm down, and focus his thoughts and feelings. Rather than dwell on the specifics of their partnership and see how their tumultuous relationship develops in the field, the two are split apart from the majority of the film as Obi-Wan investigates the bounty hunter Jango Fett (Morrison) and discovers not only that he’s formed the basis for a secret clone army, but also that former Jedi Count Dooku (Lee), using the Sith alias Darth Tyrannus, has brought together various villainous factions into a Separatist army.
Far from the annoying, wide-eyed boy from the first film, age and experience have caused Anakin to become as arrogant as he is powerful; impatient and overconfident, Anakin is torn between feeling a genuine affection for his master (whom he respects and sees as a father) and his jealousy of Obi-Wan’s stature as a revered Jedi Master. Frustrated at constantly having to endure Obi-Wan’s lectures and teachings, Anakin finds his ego and prowess fuelled by Supreme Chancellor Palpatine (McDiarmid), who has taken a shine to the prophesised “Chosen One”. Eager to prove himself when he’s finally given a solo assignment, Anakin is equally excited and anxious to be reunited with Padmé; his schoolboy crush turning into complicated feeling of lust and desire, Anakin goes out of his way to try and impress and prove himself to her only to constantly stumble because his feelings clash with his strict Jedi teachings. Haunted by nightmares of his mother, Shmi (Pernilla August), Anakin soon sets out to find her on Tatooine and his tumultuous emotions are sparked into a furious rage when he finds her tortured to death by Tuskan Raiders; lamenting having given in to his bloodlust and tormented by his forbidden feelings for Padmé, Anakin is largely characterised as a powerful but petulant youth who isn’t in full control of his emotions, much less his vast Jedi powers.
Having moved away from her royal position on Naboo, Padmé is now a senator in the Republic and actively trying to steer the galaxy away from conflict by working within the Galactic Senate. Padmé is annoyed at being forced away from Coruscant by the threat to her life and treats Anakin with a mixture of contempt and empathy, which only further confuses the young Padawan. Despite rebuking his awkward attempts to flirt with her, Padmé is actually harbouring her own feelings for the young Jedi as she is extremely mindful of her diplomatic duties and Anakin’s loyalty to the strict Jedi Order. As much as I defend this film, I can’t say that I’m a fan of the idea that Jedi can’t fall in love as there never seemed to be an inclination of this “rule” in the Original Trilogy; however, this does add some layers to Padmé’s character as, for all her logic and reason, she still encourages Anakin to disobey Obi-Wan and head to Tatooine, comforts him after he slaughters the Tuskan Raiders responsible for Shmi’s death, and, against her better judgement, she confesses her true feelings to him regardless of the consequences of this admission.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a Star Wars movie without old favourites like R2-D2 (Kenny Baker) and C-3PO (Anthony Daniels); this time around, C-3PO gets a little more to do as he’s picked up by Anakin and Padmé while on Tatooine and tags along largely to provide awkward comic relief and be replaced by an obvious and uncannily awful CGI model. This was also the first film to render Yoda as a CGI character, primarily to make his big fight scene more diverse and energetic, but I’ll get into the CGI Yoda a little later. R2-D2’s role and capabilities are also greatly expanded to afford him a host of abilities that really would’ve been useful long before this movie (like, seriously, why not just have Artoo roll onto or take control of a floating platform instead of being able to fly with little booster jets?) Still, there are some positives: Jar Jar Binks (Ahmed Best) is practically non-existent, boring political debates have been replaced with a far more intriguing mystery regarding the clone army on Kamino; and we even get to meet Owen Lars (Joel Edgerton), Beru Whitesun (Bonnie Piesse), and other characters who would form the backbone of the future Rebellion, such as Bail Organa (Jimmy Smits).
Palpatine continues to manipulate events both within the Senate as the Supreme Chancellor and behind the scenes in his guise as the Sith Lord Darth Sidious and, as discord has increased across the galaxy, Palpatine’s plan has grown far greater in scope and complexity. Thanks to orchestrating events to position the Separatists as a serious threat to order and stability, Palpatine is easily able to get himself appointed “emergency powers” and appears as a conquering hero when he immediately reveals his vast army to defend democracy while surreptitiously ensuring a stranglehold on the galaxy for himself. Since he’s still very much a puppet master (and Darth Maul (Ray Park) was stupidly offed in the last film), it falls to Dooku and Jango to shoulder the burden as the film’s primary antagonists. I never really understood why Lucas bothered to have Jango in the film; since we never see under Boba Fett’s (Jeremy Bulloch) helmet in the Original Trilogy, I feel like it would’ve been much simpler to just have Morrison portray Boba here to give the fan favourite character a bit more screen time and personality, but I guess it does tie into Lucas’ themes of the sins of the father and all that since young Boba (Daniel Logan) is raised to be a merciless bounty hunter like his father and sees his dad beheaded in front of him. While I think it would’ve been far better to have had Darth Maul survive The Phantom Menace and get more screen time in the sequels, you can’t go wrong with Christopher Lee and Dooku makes for an enigmatic and compelling villain; a former Jedi turned to the Dark Side by Darth Sidious, Dooku is a manipulative, loquacious snake who becomes a ruthless and bloodthirsty warrior when forced into combat.
One of the main things I disliked about The Phantom Menace (and which undoubtably brings down the entire Prequel Trilogy) is George Lucas’ terrible dialogue; nowhere are the flaws in Lucas’ script more evident than in Attack of the Clones, where Anakin’s attempts at expressing his love for Padmé come across as stilted and wooden and not in a way that you’d expect from an awkward, love-sick youth. Jake Lloyd might not be around to grate on my last nerve, but Daniel Logan isn’t much better, and once again Lucas seems to be happy to settle for inelegant, unnatural line deliveries and sub-par performances. Ewan McGregor, Temuera Morrison, and Christopher Lee are the obvious standouts in the film and even they seem to be struggling to make Lucas’ clunky dialogue acceptable.
Of course, it probably doesn’t help that the film is absolutely swamped with CGI; almost every single shot bar those on Tatooine seems to have been filmed on a massive green screen, which makes many of the scenes seem surreal as the live-action actors jut out from a cartoony, computer-generated environment and interacting with largely CGI characters doesn’t appear to have excited the cast all that much. Don’t get me wrong, I am not against CGI, especially in Star Wars and sci-fi films, but it’s clear that Lucas went way, way overboard here and the film hasn’t aged too well as a result. The sequence on Geonosis where Anakin, Padmé, Theepio, and Artoo get into all sorts of hijinks amidst an abundance of stupidly big and cartoonish CGI hazards stands out as one of the worst moments of the film, and the excess of terrible-looking CGI monsters in the coliseum are a far cry from the impressiveness of the Rancor or the Wampa. The overreliance on CGI may make for grander battles and a much bigger scope than was possible back in the seventies or eighties, and CGI’ing all the clones may have been faster and is technically impressive, but was it all really necessary? Imagine how well practical effects such as animatronics, miniatures, and puppets could have benefitted from Lucas’ technological innovations if he had just exercised a little restraint rather than dropping his actors into a massive green screen and clumsily splicing in dodgy-looking CGI creatures.
A core aspect of the film revolves around Palpatine’s scheme to assume control of the galaxy through complex manipulations; not only is he manipulating the Jedi Council without being suspected (beyond his position as a politician being a source of distrust for Obi-Wan and the other Jedi), but he’s also been busying corrupting Jedi, erasing their records to cover his tracks, building his own private army, and orchestrating events to lay the foundation of the Galactic Empire and the construction of the Death Star. Palpatine delights in stroking Anakin’s ego and encouraging his ambitions; playing on the Padawan’s resentment towards Obi-Wan, his immaturity, and his desperate need to be all-powerful, Palpatine woos Anakin with promises of him one day achieving his full potential as the most powerful Jedi of all. Frustrated with being “held back” and eager to rush to that end, Anakin’s arrogance is matched only by his fear and anger. Despite Christensen being hampered by Lucas’ script, he does a commendable job of juggling Anakin’s many complex emotions; he’s meant to be this stroppy, volatile braggart and it’s genuinely interesting (if not down-right heart-breaking) to see him both hate and love Obi-Wan and both revel in and be disgusted by his slaughter of the Tuskan Raiders.
One of the best parts of The Phantom Menace were the fight scenes and battles which, unlike other parts of the film, generally benefit from the advantages of CGI. Obi-Wan and Anakin’s pursuit of Zam Wesell (Leeanna Walsman) through the skies of Coruscant is very exhilarating, as is the chase between Obi-Wan and Jango through an asteroid field, though the first deployment of the clone army isn’t as impressive despite the scope of the battle being beyond anything achievable thirty years prior. Still, for me, this sequence and the introduction of the clones is all a little rushed; when the Clone Wars were first mentioned, I never imagined that they would actually (technically) be the good guys and I can’t help but feel like they should’ve been a much bigger part of all three films (perhaps set up in the first one, in full force here, and concluded in the third). Still, just as the lightsaber battles were one of the best parts of the last film, so too are they an endlessly entertaining aspect of this one; although the Jedi are small in numbers (for…some reason…) we get to see them in full force when Mace Windu (Samuel L. Jackson) leads them in rescuing Obi-Wan, Padmé, and Anakin and, while some of them are killed off with a ridiculous amount of ease and the monsters they fight look terrible, the scene with them coming in, laser swords flashing, in the coliseum is pretty entertaining. Obi-Wan’s battle against Jango on the storm-swept landing bay is an intense fight scene as well and great for showcasing what Fett’s armour is actually capable of but, of course, the highlight of the film comes in the finale where Obi-Wan and Anakin confront Count Dooku. Here, Anakin’s recklessness cost him not only their advantage but also an arm and Dooku is easily able to best the two Jedi thanks to them being unable to get on the same page and fight as a unit. Thus, it falls to Yoda to battle his former Padawan in one of the most thrilling, if ludicrous, sequences in all of Star Wars. While I can understand the mindset that Yoda really shouldn’t even need to use a lightsaber since his command of the Force is that powerful, it can’t be denied that seeing him whip out a laser sword and hop all over the play like a crazy little monkey is incredibly entertaining and just serves to emphasise how desperate events have become where even Yoda is taking an active role in the rising conflict.
A lot of people hate on Star Wars: Episode II: Attack of the Clones and, honestly, it’s easy to see why: there’s too much green screen and too much CGI; the script, dialogue, and line delivery is down-right awful at times; the “love story” (and I use the term very loosely) is contrived, forced, and painfully awkward; and Anakin is overbearingly immature and petulant throughout. Yet, for whatever reason, I actually find myself enjoying it far more overall than The Phantom Menace and it’s probably my second favourite of the Prequel Trilogy. While handicapped by Lucas’s terrible writing, Ewan McGregor really shines in this film and looks to be having a blast; bringing in Christopher Lee was an inspired decision to add the same kind of gravitas that Alec Guinness and Peter Cushing brought to the
first fourth film, and the escalation of the galactic turmoil is really interesting to see. I find it fascinating that Palpatine was able to so masterfully fool everyone into allowing him to simply usurping control of the galaxy by first sowing discord and then manoeuvring himself into a position where he was the natural choice to lead a war effort. While Jedi like Obi-Wan, Mace Windu, and Yoda suspect a greater, more dangerous threat, they are all completely blinded to Palpatine’s true and obvious motivations because he has them running around with limited resources fighting the likes of Jango and Dooku. While I never imagined the Clone Wars to be depicted in the way they are here, having them basically be the proto-Empire was a bitter irony as the people basically ended up causing their own oppression. Obviously, though, Attack of the Clones isn’t a perfect film by any means but I think it has more positives than negatives and is deserving of a little more credibility than it often gets.
Are you a fan of Star Wars: Episode II: Attack of the Clones? Where does it rank against the rest of the Prequel Trilogy, and the other films in the Star Wars saga, for you? Do you agree that it is under-rated or do you think the script and green screen effects irrevocably ruin the experience? What did you think to the conspiracy sub-plot and the introduction of Count Dooku? Were you a fan of Jango Fett and do you agree that Lucas could have just used Boba instead? What did you think to the romance between Anakin and Padmé and Anakin’s chaotic emotions? How are you celebrating Revenge of the 5th today? Whatever you think, comment below and let me know, and be sure to check out my review of the final part of the Prequel Trilogy.