Star Wars Revisited: Attack of the Clones
The Rise of Skywalker is almost here, and it’s supposedly the conclusion to the Skywalker Saga. So, I’ve decided to attempt a full canon rewatch before it releases, reviewing each chapter as I go. That’s all the movies, as well as the Clone Wars, Rebels, and Resistance TV series. We continue with Star Wars: Attack of the Clones.
It can only get better from here
I hate this dumb movie. I worked so hard to convince myself it was good when it came out, but it’s not. I’m not even saying this as a Star Wars fan, but as a movie, it fails on every level. It looks bad, it sounds bad, it’s poorly cast, it’s poorly written, it’s poorly put together, and even when there are moments of not awful stuff, it’s buried under a mountain of issues and/or genuinely awful stuff. I took no joy in watching it, and I really did try to see the good here, but no. It’s bad. Very, very bad.
And now, strap in. This is going to be a long one…
By the power of the force, how did this go so wrong? I hardly even know where to start with this thing because there’s something wrong with nearly every single aspect of the movie. I honestly don’t think they got a single thing right, or at least completely right. Like I said at the top, there are nuggets of coolness here, but even when they happen, there’s something else awful happening that rebalances the scales in favor of the Dark Side.
The Phantom Menace started out with a bang. A super fun exciting sequence that showed us some cool Jedi stuff, established a great relationship between Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan, included a bunch of rad practical effects mixed with some CGI that doesn’t look too terrible today, and set the stage for a fun adventure that while ultimately VERY flawed, still felt like Star Wars at its heart. Attack of the Clones starts with a literal bang, when Padme’s ship is blown up in an assassination attempt. Her decoy actually takes the blast and is killed instead of Padme and her dying words are “I failed you, senator.” No. No, you didn’t. This was literally the most successful you could have possibly been at your job.
And this is what we’re in for, folks. A wild ride of what I can only assume was a series of decisions that weren’t thought through to conclusion. (And a litany of astonishingly bad dialogue).
That’s probably this movie’s biggest sin. If you write down the elements of the film, it sounds like a pretty good idea on paper. The problem is that the execution isn’t just off, it isn’t just flawed, it’s aggressively bad. Star Wars movies all have a certain degree of cruddy dialogue, but the actors manage to make it charming. It’s a testament to their skill as actors, and why casting the right people in a Star Wars movie is so freaking important. If you do it wrong, you wind up with this, and it’s genuinely hard to watch.
And where is this dialogue the worst? The love story. Let’s talk about this sad excuse for a love story. I say sad excuse because it I honestly feel calling it a love story is disingenuous. There’s no love there. Anakin and Padme say words to one another and occasionally they include the word “love,” but that doesn’t make a love story. Han and Leia falling for one another is a love story. In this movie, Anakin’s just a creep. Yes, he grows up to be Vader, the baddest villain in the galaxy, but at this stage in the game aren’t we supposed to like him? Didn’t Obi-Wan consider him a good friend? No, scratch that, let’s not look at this as a prequel to the original trilogy, let’s just look at it as its own movie. Anakin Skywalker should be likable in some way shape or form, especially if you’re going to have a genuinely likable character pose as his love interest. But he’s not. He’s awful and gross. Every scene between him and Padme is dead fish.
He spends the whole movie having these weird scenes where he leers at her and comes on to her, and she makes her feelings perfectly clear. He doesn’t care though, and keeps pushing his advances on her. It’s completely one-sided, as Padme does nothing that would imply that she has one shred of attraction, be it physical or emotional, for this kid. It’s not endearing, it’s not cute, and it certainly isn’t attractive. It’s gross. Then she starts doing small things that imply some sort of attraction, like in the scene where Anakin calls sand both rough and coarse, but nothing surrounding the physical action of kissing him implied that she wanted anything more than to get as far away from him as possible. So at the end of the movie when she says she truly, deeply loves him, I say it’s truly, deeply bullshit, because that wasn’t earned, not by a parsec. Those two have zero chemistry together.
Hayden Christensen may not be a genuinely bad actor, I’ve seen him in some other things and he wasn’t terrible, but he was not the right choice for this part. Anakin, as he is written, is a very complex character. What they needed to do in this movie was make him strong and likable while still making it seem plausible that he could somehow turn to the Dark Side and become Darth Vader. They planted a few seeds for that throughout the movie, like in their hideously uncomfortable picnic scene where they discuss their views on government before he starts riding giant swollen tick monsters for some reason, but that’s not enough. Whoever is portraying Anakin needs to be able to convey the depth that contains a character that’s capable of great friendship as well as terrible evil and eventual redemption, even if the audience doesn’t know that’s his arc yet. Casting Christensen should have never happened because not only can he not carry that much weight in his performance, but it should have been super obvious at some point in pre-production that he and Natalie Portman have zero chemistry, which is kind of an important thing to be aware of when putting together a love story in a movie.
And speaking of chemistry, Portman wasn’t alone. Anakin doesn’t have any chemistry with anyone in the cast. Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon was a great relationship. Obi-Wan and Anakin is constantly uncomfortable. Every scene he appears in is carried by everyone else on screen, and none of them are up to the task of making things work around this cruddy performance. And again, I’m not necessarily blaming Christensen for this 100%. The dialogue is awful. But how is it that this list of legitimately excellent actors couldn’t carry this poor kid through these scenes, even with the terrible dialogue? My theory: because they weren’t even there.
This movie stands as a testament to why access to unlimited CGI can be a very bad thing. This movie was almost entirely shot in green screen, and it suffers for it on multiple levels. Most obviously is the fact that it just doesn’t look very good, especially now. Special effects tend to not age super well, and CG in particular is very susceptible to that fault. Even simple scenes that weren’t created in CG like office interiors manage to look fake. I could go on and on about all the crappy CG because it’s in nearly every single scene in the movie, but the bigger issue with the overuse of CG was the effect it had on the actors’ performances. Since so much of this movie was just them standing around in a green room with green props and green things to talk to that would eventually be replaced by CG characters, there’s very little weight or sense of presence to anything or anyone in the movie. I’m no actor, but I suspect it’s a lot harder to really feel your part when you’re acting in a giant green screen room almost exclusively. Great stuff has been done in green screen, don’t get me wrong, but there’s also usually other instances where the actors get to be together and have fun. This environment doesn’t look like it was fun to work in, and none of the actors seem like they’re having fun. Say what you will about The Phantom Menace, but it always seemed like everyone involved was really excited to be there. Attack of the Clones is a sad, energy-free groan fest.
Even John Williams’s score felt phoned in this time around. I love that dude to death, but the music in this movie was miss after miss, which is pretty uncharacteristic for him, but given the material he was working with, I can’t say I was surprised. In Phantom Menace, even in the quiet scenes, the music added so much to the emotion of the film. In AotC, none of it works. The scene where Anakin and Padme kiss for the first time and the music swells in the background and cuts out like a comedy routine when she breaks away is… well… bad. I’m sure we weren’t supposed to be laughing at that moment, but the music makes it seem like it’s a joke. My friend Paul pointed that out to me and it’s always stuck in my head as 100% correct. It’s goofy. There’s also the scene when he goes off to rescue his mother and the movie starts playing Duel of Fates again, and it’s incredibly out of place. That song had a specific purpose at the climax of Phantom Menace, and it thematically doesn’t make a lick of sense where it’s used here. That song was about a literal duel of fates. This is Anakin searching for his mother. It’s cheap, and I can’t believe they made such a miserable use of such a great piece of music.
So what about the good stuff? There was good stuff, right? Let’s unpack that.
It’s been said that if you cut out everything except the Obi-Wan and Jango Fett stuff, it’s a pretty good movie. Well, it certainly makes a better (albeit much shorter) movie, but even that stuff is riddled with flaws. Obi-Wan at the Diner is a really fun scene to listen to, and the whole 50s diner aesthetic is kind of a good gag, but the overly CG nature of the whole affair is just distracting. The conversation with Dex is super cool, but all that CG, especially on Dex himself, kinda takes away from it. Regardless, this is about as close to a genuinely good scene as this movie gets, so credit where credit’s due.
Then we go to the Jedi Archives, and the bitchy librarian is kind of ridiculous. Is the idea that the Jedi are so arrogant that even the notion that their archives don’t know something is some sort of tremendous insult? Rubs me the wrong way, especially given just how obvious the problem is with what Obi-Wan discovers.
When he goes to see Yoda and the…*shudder*… younglings, he points out that there’s a star system with gravity in place, but no planet where a planet should obviously be. No, not should, literally has to be because there’s a freaking gravitational pull. So we go have this conversation with Yoda where they bring up this cool looking star chart, Yoda talks about how neat children are, and the conclusion to the whole thing is to just go there and look with your eyes. Did Obi-Wan really need Yoda’s advice for that?
Moving on, the fight scene between Jango Fett and Obi-Wan is super cool, but again, some ugly CG and confusing effects get in the way. When he tosses his grapple hook up to catch himself it just looks wrong. It is cool seeing Obi-Wan be so physical though, not just fighting with a light saber. But why does Jango clunk his head on the door while its closing? Did we need this weird little bit of comedy at the very end of a legitimately awesome fight sequence? No. No we did not.
The kid who plays young Boba Fett is awful. I hate calling a child actor awful, but sometimes a spade is a spade, and every time that kid spoke, it just pulled me out of the scene. But man, when Obi-Wan is questioning Jango, that’s a very well-acted scene. In fact, most of the Kamino stuff is pretty great. I love the design on those creepy cloner aliens, and the sterile environment is something this movie’s CG actually does well. But then you have the CG clone troopers, and it’s just so unnecessary. How did they never make an actual physical clone trooper suit? Why did they decide to CG something that would work so much better as a practical effect? So close, movie. You were so close.
There’s about 100 other little things I want to get to, but for the sake of not literally picking the film apart scene by scene, let’s get to the big stuff.
Anakin meeting the Lars family. Whoo boy, this is every flavor of broken. This section has to be looked at from a big picture perspective, and as something intended to create some serious connective tissue between it and the original trilogy, it’s a miserable failure. These brief moments, as far as the movies are concerned, are all the time Owen and Anakin spend with one another. In A New Hope, everyone talks about Anakin like they knew him, like they had interactions with one another aside from this brief brooding meet up and subsequent funeral. Owen didn’t tell Luke about Anakin being a Jedi because he was afraid Luke would follow old Obi-Wan on some idealistic crusade like his father did. Oh? Because these interactions don’t point to that at all.
The trouble here is that there was an implied familial history in A New Hope that’s completely disregarded here. As if they looked at the words in the original script and figured out how to technically fit what they were doing with Anakin into that, but they didn’t exactly think it through to conclusion. It breaks part of A New Hope by creating an unnecessary inconsistency. This moisture farmer bought Anakin’s mom, freed her, and married her. Cool, but there had to have been a better way to go about what happens next. This was where they were supposed to establish a relationship between Anakin and his newly found half brother. He could have gone there and learned that his mom wasn’t in trouble. He was seeing the future that hadn’t happened yet. He goes there, spends some time with the family, then she gets kidnapped and he goes all bug nuts. I don’t know, I‘m just spitballing here, but the point I’m making is that this wasn’t a hard thing to write around. This didn’t need to hurt the original movie. But it did, and I hate it. It’s a real shame too because they did a fairly decent job casting young Owen and Beru, and seeing the old moisture farm in action again is a real delight. Close, movie. Real close. But no cigar.
Then we have Geonosis. I hate pretty much everything that happens on Geonosis. Christensen freaking Lee has this fantastic conversation with Obi-Wan, misdirecting him on a whole bunch of interesting stuff, and had it been just the two of them talking with Obi-Wan behind bars or something, the scene would have been an absolute home run. But Lucas’s apparent insistence that every scene involve a CG effect in some way means that the whole time this conversation is going on, Obi-Wan is rotating around like a rotisserie chicken so Count Dooku has to keep pacing around the room to maintain eye contact. There’s nifty blue light effects all over the place, and that’s what the focus on the screen is. Not the actors actually acting, but this completely unnecessary CG prison contraption.
Then there’s the big battle of Geonosis with the three giant monsters, the Jedi army showing up, and then the flying chase scene leading up to the climactic light saber battle. This entire sequence is without a doubt the worst this movie ever looks. It’s garish, and it looks like something you’d see on ABC’s Once Upon a Time, which is extra weird because a lot of what’s seen is actually a physical miniature. But whatever CGI magic they used to put the actors there and gussy the rest of it up looks very, very bad. An army of Jedi slicing through a bunch of battle droids should have been jaw-dropping, but it seems to me that they didn’t hire stunt people or even martial artists to perform these roles. I’m not going to IMDB it and look up all these Jedi, but there’s absolutely no good fight choreography on display. Just watch the scene and look at what everyone’s doing. It all looks so unnatural. Again, you were so close, movie.
Then we have R2 and 3PO. I don’t know who was specifically responsible for the dreadful physical “comedy” that 3PO is put through, but it isn’t funny, and the least funny bit is the shoehorned “this is such a drag” joke. Also, R2 can fly? Really? Judging this movie completely on its own merits, sure. Why not? But as part of the larger whole, I’m sorry but that breaks some stuff. Which leads me to the lightsaber fight.
The fight between Obi-Wan and Dooku is great. Anakin with both light sabers is super cool. Good job, movie! Then Anakin slices up a wire on the ground and the lights go out. Okay… that was a neat-looking move I guess. Kinda pointless and I’m not sure why Anakin would want the lights to go out, but it sets up the idea for a light saber duel in the dark, which is a cool visual, so I’ll allow it. So Anakin and Dooku start fighting in the dark and… what am I looking at here? No exaggeration, the majority of this fight is just them twirling their light sabers over their heads. They aren’t even trying to hit one another!
But back to breaking stuff, then Yoda hobbles in. Now, I’ll never forget the feeling of seeing this in the theater. When Yoda showed up, the audience went absolutely nuts. We all know how powerful Yoda is, and to get to see him use his abilities in a practical sense was some serious wish fulfillment. Dooku tosses some stuff at him, Yoda bats it away. He tries force lightning, Yoda’s not impressed. Now, the movie still has me at this point. This is great. Genuinely great. They pull the lightsabers, and whoa, that’s so cool. Yoda’s got his own cute little green light saber and that’s awesome, but hear me out, that’s where it should have stopped. I would argue that this entire bit with Yoda fighting didn’t need to happen to begin with, but if they absolutely had to go this route, him pulling out his saber is as far as it should have gone. Dooku should have created his distraction and run the heck off before it went any further, but it did. Don’t get me wrong, the audience went wild, myself included, and with good reason. Seeing Yoda jump around and just beat Dooku’s ass in a remarkably well choreographed fight was a sight to behold. It’s genuinely cool, but it comes at too great a cost.
Yoda is one of the very best “old mentor” characters of all time. It was always fun to imagine what it would be like to have him commanding troops in the Clone Wars with his silly vocal affectation. Did he have a light saber? What would Yoda fighting look like? These were fun to speculate on because we knew that he was unbelievably powerful, but we never knew exactly what that meant because it was never laid out for us. It didn’t need to be. The movie told us exactly what we needed to know and moved on. This fight scene takes all the imagination out of it and answers questions that didn’t need to be answered. This, to me, is the biggest sin of the prequel trilogy that it commits over and over again. If you’re going to make a prequel, your number one priority has to be to enhance the existing material. Rogue One pulls this off like a boss. Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith absolutely damage the mystique behind Yoda’s introduction in Empire Strikes Back. You no longer have to imagine how powerful Yoda really is after he lifts a freaking X-wing with his mind, because now we’ve seen it first-hand. Now, if you watch these movies chronologically, Yoda training Luke doesn’t hold the same weight. It’s not completely ruined, but the magic of his introduction lesser than it was, and this scene, and subsequent fight scenes involving Yoda are at fault for it. For as goofy as it is, seeing Yoda hop around like a frog with his light saber in hand is truly awesome, but this was a perfect example of short term profit at the expense of long term gains. A better movie wouldn’t have needed to play this card, and even doing so wasn’t enough to save the rest of it.
To paraphrase Dave Chapelle, I wish I had more hands so I could give this movie 4 thumbs down. There’s a very vocal sect of the Star Wars fandom that insists The Last Jedi (and to a lesser extent The Force Awakens) ruined Star Wars, and seriously? SERIOUSLY??? Have they seen this movie? Because I honestly can’t imagine a scenario where someone can watch Attack of the Clones and Last Jedi back to back and claim that Attack of the Clones is better in any way. Does The Last Jedi have its faults? Absolutely. But it’s a functional movie with some untarnished great stuff in it. AotC, on the other hand, is a freaking travesty. If Star Wars wasn’t dead after this, it’ll have no problem surviving the legacy of The Last Jedi.
This whole bit about being damaging to the original trilogy is going to be expanded on greatly when I eventually get around to Revenge of the Sith. I hear a lot about how that movie is way better than I give it credit for, but before we get to that, I have 6 seasons and a movie of Clone Wars to get through. I’ll report back after the movie and then after each season. It’s been a long time since I’ve watched this stuff, but from what I remember, when it’s good, it’s really good. Should be a nice palate cleanser after this turd.