In Defence of Attack of the Clones
Lucas Strikes Back!
From the very first announcement of Episode II’s title, the knives were out for George Lucas.
The tide of cultural and critical opinion turned firmly against the filmmaker following the overblown reaction to The Phantom Menace, and the reveal of the retro, B-movie sounding “Attack of the Clones” was enough to send the post-Matrix fandom into hyperbolic meltdown.
Yet Lucas had a lot more defenders back then, and more than a few of us pointed out that the name “The Empire Strikes Back” was hardly of its day back in 1980.
Further stalling the trend of negativity was the fact that the trailers were good. With fewer child actors and more actual war than seen in The Phantom Menace, this looked like being the moment that Lucas truly delivered.
We waited with bated breath for May 16th, 2002.
Despite the optimism, upon release Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones met with a similar critical reception to its predecessor.
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“.
It was a view shared by many, particularly across the increasingly negative fanbase.
Yet one critic, Peter Rainer of New York Magazine, hit on something that now, almost two decades later, appears closer to the truth. According to Rainer, Attack of the Clones was “a commendable example of the sort of movie we once loved and then outgrew“.
And that brings us on to the crux of the issue. The single biggest failure of Episode II is not due to the filmmaking competency of George Lucas; at least not in the way that many would suggest.
The biggest failing is that, more than any other Star Wars episode, Attack of the Clones is a film that Lucas made for himself.
“The Dark Side Clouds Everything”
None of this is to say that the film is without its issues.
The film is flabby and could bear to be a few minutes shorter. Many of the actor’s performances are self-conscious. The majority of C-3PO’s scenes should have landed on the cutting room floor.
These surface issues are trying, but not terminal. The lack of on-screen chemistry between Natalie Portman and Hayden Christensen, on the other hand, puts an emotional black hole where the heart of the tragedy should be.
In short, the film is flawed and would have benefitted from an editor with a keen eye and the skill to communicate with Lucas.
But you can only edit what’s in front of you. And that’s why, beneath the surface, Attack of the Clones remains a remarkably accomplished film.
It’s just perhaps not the one you were expecting.
A Product of His Time
It’s well known that Lucas’ key influences for Star Wars included Flash Gordon and the pulp sci-fi serials he grew up watching. Yet it’s a fact that’s often regurgitated without any real understanding – as the mixed reaction to Attack of the Clones’ title demonstrated.
But when you consider the circumstances in which he made the film, Lucas’ investment becomes that much clearer.
The Phantom Menace had to set the stage for the prequel trilogy, and re-introduce the audience to the universe and key players. It was also the testbed for the technology that Lucas needed to communicate his vision; the success of which was vital to his plans. 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 from a plot point of view, adds another level of colour and exuberance to proceedings.
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 Lucas at his most inspired.
This engagement follows through to his craft. The Phantom Menace was perhaps too traditional, too laboured, and the fact that Lucas hadn’t directed a film for twenty years showed.
As if in direct response to that, Attack of the Clones takes cinematic chances.
Lucas experimented with form in a way those familiar with his early work would recognise. And it’s exciting. Despite the noise, and the jokes that don’t land, from the moment that Anakin and Padme are captured the film accelerates towards a thrilling climax.
Lucas was still not quite at the top of his game, and it wouldn’t be until Revenge of the Sith that all the pieces fell into place. But then that’s an article for another day…
Like all things worth thinking about, Attack of the Clones has come into its own in the fullness of time. In this context, it stands out as the most personal film of Lucas’ oeuvre.
As stated up top, it’s a film that Lucas made for himself. If you understand that and take the time to understand a little about the man, then it’s easy to see the film as a focused burst of unfettered creativity.
In this era of the artistically devoid sequel trilogy, Attack of the Clones is a rare and welcome peculiarity – a blockbuster film that’s the product of a unique, singular creative vision.
You don’t have to like it. But it is worth your appreciation.