In Defence of Attack of the Clones
Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones remains the most confounding of George Lucas’s six Star Wars films.
It’s such a comprehensive and realised vision that it is, in many respects, an outstanding cinematic achievement. The 2002 film is the work of Lucas as an artist; weaving a wonderfully complex universe of political intrigue, prophecies, awkward teenage romance and strict dogma. The fact that he managed to wrap this up into a (mostly) successful sci-fi/fantasy film for the whole family has always been impressive. Now, in the context of Disney’s sequel trilogy, the scale of Lucas’ achievement becomes ever clearer.
Yet the fact is that, depending on your criteria, Lucas perhaps wasn’t successful enough with his second prequel film. Many fans go back and forth between Attack of the Clones and The Phantom Menace as the weakest of the six films for a series of reasons that we address below, but that’s talking in terms of sheer entertainment. At the risk of making a cheap dig, it’s easy to imagine that the fans most disappointed with the prequels were the same who most enjoyed the vacuous-yet-flashy sequels.
George Lucas was always an exciting independent filmmaker. And as such, when we start to consider Attack of the Clones as a piece of art, rather than simply commerce, it becomes a lot more interesting.
Yet, unfortunately, many people didn’t see the film this way when it was released.
Lucas Strikes Back
The tide of cultural and critical opinion had turned firmly against the filmmaker in the wake of The Phantom Menace. The overblown negative reaction to Episode I shifted the expectation Lucas faced. He was no longer the messiah in charge of the next cultural epiphany, but rather the flawed genius (at best) responsible for getting a franchise back on track.
As such, the knives were out for Lucas from the very first announcement of Episode II’s title. Lucasfilm’s reveal of the retro, B-movie sounding “Attack of the Clones” was met with derision by some fans, even as others recognised how well it kept with The Empire Strikes Back.
Yet when the first trailers for Episode II hit movie theatres and the internet, fan reticence all-but evaporated. With an older Anakin closer to how many fans imagined him, groundbreaking special effects and out-and-out war, this looked like the moment that Lucas would truly deliver.
As reported by the BBC back in 2002, Attack of the Clones was “one of the most hotly-anticipated films of the year.” Fans the world over waited with bated breath for May 16th.
The Dark Side Clouds Everything
Despite the optimism, Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones met with a mixed critical reaction. Some publications (such as the UK’s Empire film magazine, below) went all-out in praise. Yet many outlets just could not understand the appeal of the film.
Joe Morgenstern of the Wall Street Journal opined “You can’t blame actors, particularly young ones, when the words put in their mouths are almost unspeakable and the direction seems to suck them dry of energy or spontaneity“.
Many in the (increasingly negative) fanbase shared this view. In time even Empire would walk back its early review to fit with the prevailing opinion (you can read into that what you will). For whatever reason, Lucas’ films no longer resonated with the popular culture that he helped to create.
Of course, this isn’t completely without reason.
Most notably, Attack of the Clones is a flabby film that could easily afford to be a few minutes shorter. If the bulk of these cuts reduced C-3PO’s role then all the better; the misjudged slapstick of his scenes on Geonosis is distracting at best. The Coruscant speeder chase could also stand to be shorter for both brevity and, arguably, taste.
The biggest issue is often raised yet not always fairly represented, and that is the absent chemistry between Hayden Christensen and Natalie Portman. We can believe that young Anakin Skywalker, a teenager raised in a celibate order, would struggle with the delicate art of romance. This is part of what makes Christensen’s work so endearing. Yet whether through writing, directing, performance or editing, it remains difficult to see how Padme falls for Anakin in return.
To simply address the performances as wooden is reductive. The romance itself is awkward, which is well conveyed. It is the execution that falls short.
The thing is, these issues are not terminal. Yes, more could have been done in the editing room to smooth some of the roughness, but the film remains remarkably accomplished.
One critic, Peter Rainer of New York Magazine, hit on something that now, almost two decades later, appears prescient. In his review, Rainer described Attack of the Clones as “a commendable example of the sort of movie we once loved and then outgrew“.
This brings us to the crux of the issue. The single biggest failure of Episode II is not the filmmaking competency of George Lucas; at least not in the way that many would suggest. It is instead that, more than any other Star Wars installment, Attack of the Clones is a film that Lucas made for himself.
A Product of His Time
It’s well known that Lucas’ influences for Star Wars included Flash Gordon and the pulp sci-fi serials of his youth. Yet many people appear to regurgitate this fact without any real understanding of what it means.
“He believes, truly believes, in his boy’s own adventure plot, and approaches the pulpish narrative with a sense of wonder and with naive enthusiasm”, wrote Stephen Zito in a 1977 interview with the filmmaker. If Attack of the Clones proved anything, it was that Lucas’ belief had not dimmed in the intervening years.
The Phantom Menace set the stage for the prequel trilogy and had to re-introduce the audience to the universe and key players. Along with carrying the weight of expectation, it was also a testbed for new filmmaking technology. At the other end of the trilogy, Revenge of the Sith needed to reach a pre-defined destination.
Attack of the Clones had no role other than to be the middle of the story. And so, with that in mind, it became Lucas’ chance to kick back and tell the story he wanted to tell in the world that he had created. Subsequently, it appears to be the film where he had the most fun.
In Episode II Lucas giddily pursues his vision across the galaxy, from Coruscant’s Metropolis-inspired skyline and film noir clubs through to the ‘30s sci-fi aesthetics of Kamino and Geonosis. The cliffhangers of the final act play out like a classic newspaper strip, each third panel revealing another level of danger or suspense. The addition of a snooty librarian, so unnecessary to the plot, adds yet more colour and exuberance.
Attack of the Clones is a reverential homage to the pulp culture that Lucas loved as a boy. It’s a strikingly personal film; and, like it or not, it’s the product of a filmmaker at his most inspired.
This engagement follows through to his craft. The Phantom Menace was perhaps too traditional, too laboured. Certainly, the fact that Lucas hadn’t directed a film for twenty years was plain. As if in direct response, Attack of the Clones takes cinematic chances. From the all-encompassing (and revolutionary) VFX to the audio choices, to the use of light and shadow during Anakin and Dooku’s duel to the pure popcorn magic of Yoda’s intervention, Lucas is clearly not playing it safe.
And it’s exciting. Despite the moments that don’t work or the easy criticisms noted above, Attack of the Clones is bombastic and expansive. The final 40 minutes ratchets the intensity to a level beyond any other Star Wars film. It is – and there’s no better way to put it – thrilling.
Attack of the Clones stands apart as a rare and welcome peculiarity. It is a blockbuster film that’s the product of a unique, singular creative vision. Lucas made the film for himself, and in many ways it’s his most personal work. If you take the time to understand a little about the man, then that identity shines through.
You may not like it, and that’s fine. But if you enjoy anything about filmmaking, it is certainly worthy of your appreciation.
Full disclosure: I saw Attack of the Clones five times in the cinema. Yoda drawing his lightsaber remains a favourite cinematic experience.