Coming to Terms with Attack of the Clones, 20 Years Laterby Todd King, contributing writer
From a more civilized age...
I was there, 20 years ago, May 16, 2002. I was there at the front of the line with my friend Adrian (left, in the photo above), waiting hours for the theater to open so that we could get good seats for Star Wars: Attack of the Clones. You could get tickets in advance, but there were no seat reservations back then. Seats were first come, first serve, so we had to queue up early in order to get situated at the optimum position in the auditorium and have the best movie-watching experience possible.
We played Star Wars Monopoly on the lobby floor to pass the time. The local newspaper put our picture in the following day's edition. We made friends in the line, geeked out about Star Wars stuff, and tried not to discuss what we were about to see so we wouldn't spoil it for ourselves. Finally, the doors opened for the first screening of Episode II—with our seating mission accomplished, we sat center middle as the lights dimmed.
This was going to be good. This was going to be the dark chapter of this prequel trilogy. Like Empire Strikes Back before it, it could be the best one of the new breed. When we came out of the theater after the credits had rolled, the feeling of exhilaration hadn't worn off. It was the beginning of the time to reflect on what I had just seen. The exhilaration, however, was tempered with a twinge of confusion. What had I just seen? How did it unfold? How does it fit into the larger saga? I left with far more questions than answers. That's not always a bad thing; it makes you anticipate the next chapter and wonder even more strongly about what will happen next. However, the particular questions I had weren't so much about what was to come, but about what had just happened. This simply wasn't as good as I had hoped.
Coming to Terms, 20 Years Later (Problems & Pearls)
First of all, it's Star Wars and I love it. Basically, I love it all. But that doesn't mean it is devoid of flaws. There are many aspects of the execution of Attack of the Clones that just don't quite hold up after repeated viewings. In spite of that, I still enjoy it. I will always enjoy it for its building up of the Star Wars mythology. As for the presentation of the story itself, I feel like it, well, how to be diplomatic… it just could have been better. It's not bad, just disappointing. Amid the problems, however, as I dig into the messy narrative and dive into the context of the story, I've discovered a few pearls.
Problem: Compared to the Original Trilogy, with its zippy dialog and quick action dictating the cuts, this one really meanders. Many cuts begin with 3, sometimes 4 or more seconds of dead air. It will start and a couple characters will already be walking or sitting but we've entered a pause in their conversation from the start. Then, oftentimes, when a scene ends, the cuts come too late. We linger too long after the scene's impact.
Pearl: I wonder if some of these lingering frames were left in for the mood of the romance. George Lucas said that this one, more than any other Star Wars movie, was going to be a love story. Romance scenes must be filmed differently than action scenes. Romance takes in the atmosphere and the setting all to make it look pleasing and grand, and to feel close and personal. In an adventure movie like Star Wars, you do need a contrasting pace for scenes that deal with intimate feelings. We see beautiful scenery and pretty sunsets in the background while Anakin and Padme talk awkwardly and (every once in a while) endearingly. Taking all that in with a few seconds to breathe sets you more at ease. Perhaps that eases the tension of the stilted dialog trying so very hard to be loved, like our heroes.
Is Anakin already Vader?
Problem: Anakin in this movie is impatient, hostile, angry, and—is he's already on the stuff? At moments he's unhinged, disrespectful, awkward, and self-centered. What happend to this transition to the Dark Side of the Force? Was he already a Sith wannabe? I hoped he would make the turn in a gradual manner but from the first moments that we see Anakin, he's openly disagreeing with his teacher, Obi-Wan Kenobi, in front of others. He's confessing a pent-up love for Padme right out of the blue with no wooing game. He shows uncontrollable anger toward Zam, the assassin, when she's literally been disarmed and is no longer a threat. What gives?
Pearl: Well, the timeline has us about 10 years after the events of Episode I where Anakin was an innocent little boy so he's bound to have some changes. We haven't really seen him grow. So what happend in that time to make him act this way? Again, let's look back to the previous chapter. He was going to be trained by Qui-Gon Jinn who was the more stoic, meditative Jedi than Obi-Wan. During the lightsaber fight between those two and the Sith Lord Darth Maul, the iconic music of John Williams' "Duel of the Fates" played under the action. This scene became the duel that would decide Anakin's fate. Who would be his teacher? If the Jedi won against Maul, Qui-Gon would continue that role. If Maul defeated them both, the boy's fate would be even more uncertain.
As it was, only Kenobi survived and he was not yet a Jedi Knight. He did earn that rank by defeating Maul but he may not have been ready so soon to become a teacher. Later, in Retun of the Jedi, he would lament, "I thought I could instruct him just as well as Yoda. I was wrong." Anakin needed very special guidance that perhaps only Qui-Gon could have given. And so, we meet an Anakin who left his mother behind, gained a father figure and lost that father figure, then got a reluctant teacher. He got off to a bad start and all that time kept dwelling on feelings for his mother and for those that had shown him kindness (which wasn't many), notably Padme. We learn he's been taught, according to Jedi teaching, to get rid of attachments, but he can't let go. With all that going on inside him, it's a little more understandable that he's a boiling mess under the surface.
A lightsaber, Yoda wields
Problem: Yoda uses a lightsaber. That's the problem. Well, that's what I've been saying for many years. He doesn't need a lightsaber. He has such a mastery over the Force that he can use his mind powers to defend himself without necessitating use of a blade. This is how he's portrayed in the original trilogy which was George Lucas's intention. Lucas said, "Jedi are the warriors who go out and fight with their swords. The Emperor and Yoda are the priests who are the spiritual chiefs; they have powers that are much stronger" (from The Star Wars Archives 1977-1983, Paul Duncan, 394-395). So, when he gets out his little lazer sword here and goes to town it seems like a step down. Like the Flash driving a race car or Superman brandishing a gun.
Pearl: In the context of the movie, Yoda using a lightsaber is indeed a step down. He shouldn't be using it, shouldn't be needing it. But through the course of the movie, Yoda continues to warn others that the Dark Side is clouding everything. New problems keep showing up without solutions which the Jedi usually offer. Count Dooku underscores this by this exchange with his captive Obi-Wan in the film:
Dooku: What if I told you that the Republic was now under the control of the dark lord of the Sith?
Obi-Wan: No, that's not possible. The Jedi would be aware of it.
DooKu: The dark side of the Force has clouded their vision, my friend. Hundreds of senators are now under the influence of a Sith lord
Obi-Wan doesn't believe him, even though it turns out that Dooku wasn't lying, which is an odd thing for a villain. But that shows that the Jedi have been fooled, even Yoda. And now they've given in to Palpatine's overall plot: he turned the Jedi into warriors. They lead generals and batallions in attacks against the Separatists. Yoda said later that Jedi should use the Force for defense, never for attack, but here they are. They're at war, time for weapons, but by doing so, they've sealed their fate. Even with the good intentions of restoring peace, picking up arms means arms will be picked up against them.
In the theater at the premiere, most of the audience cheered when Yoda ignighted his lightsaber. But I had an uneasy feeling about it, and that's how I look at the scene now. No, it isn't right, but that's the point. Et tu, Yoda?
Problem: Needs more
cowbell Palpatine! In my opinion, the most interesting story of the prequels is the rise in power of Palpatine. Through his cunning and his manipulation of the Force, he was able to set up both sides of a war in order to obtain power. At the same time, he uses the dark side like powers of suggestion to slowly turn the Jedi against their own code. This puts everything in a state of confusion so that he can move on his power trip. The Jedi don't even notice. They sense something is wrong but can't discover the truth. That's what makes Palpatine so interesting is this giant web of lies he has spun and how he stays so many moves ahead in this galactic chess game. He basically set the pieces! However, we barely see any of this in the film!
Pearl: Lucas made a decision to keep that hidden, in essence, to cloud our vision. We don't really put all this together until we see step back and see the broad strokes of the prequel trilogy. Still, I don't think that helps the movie. I think we might have far more enjoyed the irony of it all—to see Palpatine at his most sinister and watch helplessly as the Jedi fall into his traps. What we end up seeing is just hints of that story. A lot of Attack of the Clones has hints to other stories that happened off-screen (like the story of Sifo-Dyas). It would have been nice to see those in a film but at least it builds upon the lore of the saga.
Counting out the Count
Problem: Why didn't we get more and more of Christopher Lee? My favorite scene of his is when he interrogates the captured Obi-Wan and just flat-out drops some truth on us all. He's Palpatine's apprentice so he's working both sides of everything and so his charisma would have gone a long way in enticing us into this story.
Pearl: Christopher Lee is a diamond in this rough movie. He chews up every scene deliciously. But he's barely on screen for a few minutes. He's mentioned from the beginning as a mysterious person who was once a Jedi and became a political idealist. Well, there's a story! Under what circumstances did he leave the Order? How? I thought you were a Jedi for life. Why does Padme (rightly so) suspect him of trying to kill her and behind the separatist movement? He's in here too little, but what we do see of him is fascinating.
Defense of the Clones
So now, 20 years later, Attack of the Clones is still kind of rough to watch. The weird cuts, the sudden character motivations, and all the hints of other (possibly more interesting) stories makes it a patchy feature. It's just... awkward. I can accept it the more I think about it and all the pearls I can mine from it like those mentioned above. I've made my peace with it and like a Jedi should, I won't attack it. Will I defend it? Some of the criticism the film gets it brought on itself, but I'll pick it up, dust it off, put my arm around it and tell it that it will be alright in the grand scheme of things. Perhaps I just like more about what the movie tells us better than what it shows us. For that, I'll let it be awkward in its own way. Besides, it spawned The Clone Wars animated series (two, actually) which are pretty darn great.
Thank you for reading. If you made it all the way through this article, you can make it through Episode II. May the Force be with you.