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Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones (2002)

Hope Deferred

Time doesn’t heal all wounds. When it comes to bad movies, in fact, time can be cosmic pliers coming back for more teeth. Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones was George Lucas’ mulligan, an opportunity to reconcile with diehard fans who’d tolerated his nakedly commercial and unforgivably juvenile franchise re-launch, The Phantom Menace, and get back to the high-stakes space opera that made him a pop godfather. It wasn’t meant to be. Though initial reactions to AotC were positive, the ensuing thirteen years have been cruel to this ill-conceived romance masquerading as a quasi-political thriller/detective story, and wrapped in gaudy CGI posturing. Attack of the Clones still hurts, and it hurts in new ways.

Nine years after chipper young Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen, taking over from Jake Lloyd) helped foil the Trade Federation’s attempts to overthrow the galactic senate (or something), the Jedi-in-training has blossomed into a pouty, brooding creep. One might think his insubordination, recklessness, and unhealthy obsession with Queen Padmé Amidala (Natalie Portman) would draw suspicion from either his teacher (Ewan McGregor) or the psychically gifted Jedi council, but it turns out there’s a lot of looking the other way in the galaxy far, far away.

Following an attempt on the Queen’s life, Obi-Wan vows to get to the bottom of things, leading him to the heart of a conspiracy involving bounty hunters, a clone army, and corrupt politicians. Before leaving town, he assigns Anakin to protect Padmé—a task that finds these two unlikely lovebirds gallivanting through fields, half-rescuing Anakin’s enslaved mother (Pernilla August), and fending for their lives in an arena of insectival spectators.

Factor in the Odd Couple misadventures of R2-D2 and C-3PO (Anthony Daniels), and the machinations of Senator “Psst! I’m The Emperor” Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid), and we’re left with a film that’s over-stuffed with “stuff” yet depressingly light on substance. This is especially troubling for Star Wars fans who'd spent a quarter-century dreaming up myriad “What If…?” scenarios via novels, comics, video games, and action figures—all based on Lucas’ mythology of infinite universes. Yet Lucas and co-writer Jonathan Hales’ screenplay largely plops us in the same cut-and-paste locations as the previous picture. Aside from an eerie ocean planet, Attack of the Clones circles back to the old desert planet, a “new” desert planet with mountains, and the senate chambers of the city planet. The filmmakers may have broken the bank by furthering digital special effects, but, in terms of scale, this entry feels downright cheap.

I can't stress enough how detrimental the Anakin/Padmé storyline is to this film. Had Lucas focused exclusively on Obi-Wan's quest to defeat galactic revolutionary and sinister-string-puller Count Dooku (Christopher Lee), Attack of the Clones might have been the dashing, planet-hopping adventure promised by the trailers and our collective imagination. Instead, Christensen, Portman, Lucas, and Hales conspire to deliver a bold razor slash across those dreams. I'll be generous and assume the film takes place over the course of one very eventful week, during which time:

  • Anakin and Padmé reunite after a decade apart.
  • Anakin professes his undying love for the Queen, all the while complaining that no one understands just how powerful he's destined to be.
  • Anakin butchers a village of men, women, and children because they kidnapped his mother sometime during the decade he was away at Jedi camp (you know, not using his skills or influence to free her from a lawless desert planet with all the security of an Old West theme park).
  • Padmé literally brushes off Anakin's murder confession and demands that he continue to be her escort as they head into a war zone.
  • They get married in a secret ceremony.

Portman is a gifted, award-winning actress, so her performance here is quite frustrating. Maybe Harrison Ford was right in asserting that Lucas could write crappy dialogue, but that no actor could be expected to say it. I'm not so sure about Christensen, whom I've only seen in one other film. His turn in Shattered Glass was terrific. As I recall, though, he played a whiny sociopath there, too. His persona in both films is a distracting cocktail of wooden entitlement crossed with the swagger of a man emboldened by a nifty Halloween costume. The point is it would take a powerhouse acting duo to make these characters' dialogue and romantic situations even an eighth plausible, and Attack of the Clones hobbles out of the gate.

I'd like to believe the screenwriters packed the film with superfluous cartoon action in order to absorb the black hole of charisma at its center, but I'm not convinced Lucas and Hales weren't legitimately in love with their silly scenarios. Between the extended droid-factory sequence that plays like a GameCube demo and the "badass" fight between Yoda and Dooku that has all the suspense of a green karaoke ball bouncing around a cosplay fencer, it's clear the team at ILM was instructed to just render all of Lucas' hare-brained ideas as realistically as possible--never daring to pipe up with any words of caution during the process.*

I opened this review by saying Attack of the Clones "hurts in new ways". Had Star Wars just been allowed to die after the third prequel film,** I could have left the entire new-millennium series to the dustbin of history, content to remember the first incarnation of George Lucas' rousing and inventive sci-fi trilogy (before any of that unholy "Special Edition" mid-90s meddling). But three months from today, J.J. Abrams will debut Episode VII: The Force Awakens.

Star Wars fandom, from what I can tell, is highly optimistic. After the second teaser trailer, and especially after the unveiling of the app-tivated BB-88 toy, I'd dare say they've largely left "cautious optimism" behind and are prepared to debate whether or not the first truly Lucas-free installment will be simply "awesome" or "incredibly awesome" (or, God forbid, "The Best Star Wars ever"--if one is to believe poster-art guru Drew Struzan).

I'm not so sure. Early buzz surrounding Attack of the Clones was that Lucas had left behind the groan-worthy kiddie nonsense of The Phantom Menace and made Star Wars exciting again. Like that Force Awakens teaser, the trailer for AotC is one of the best I've seen--full of mystery, danger, and potential. Lots of people cite Episode I as one of their biggest pop cultural letdowns. For me, it was Attack of the Clones that fixed my eyebrow in a permanent arch when it comes to this series. I'm still hopeful, but the damage may be irrevocable.

*Okay, that's pure speculation. Maybe Lucas was more collaborative then that. But he did have final say on the project, meaning his head is as culpable as his many flailing arms.

**Stay tuned for more on that gem.

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