Star Wars, Episode II: Attack of the Clones (2002) *Ĺ
Before I started operating a movie review website, I was far more sensible in my approach to really shitty films. If a movie looked totally unappealing on any level, I didnít fucking watch it. Easy, right? And smart, too. I used to save myself a lot of trouble that way. For example, after Star Wars, Episode I: The Phantom Menace stank up the entire Outer Rim, I felt no compunctions whatsoever about washing my hands of the franchise when all the trailers and TV spots for Episode II: Attack of the Clones promised more of the same. Now itís different, of course. Now the advent of a new Star Wars film has me going back to review all the old ones I hadnít done yet. And so here I am watching Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith after all, despite successfully dodging them when they came around the first time. That means these next two Star Wars reviews are going to be different from the four before them. Whereas before I was revisiting films Iíve known and loved for years (or known and hated, in the case of The Phantom Menace), this review takes me into practically virgin territory. The second and third prequelsí reputation precedes them, obviously, and itís been impossible to avoid learning about or even seeing certain especially infamous moments from them, but this is the first time Iíve ever watched these two turkeys stem-to-stern. In other words, youíre getting to see me react to them with freshly horrified eyes.
Ten years have passed since the events of The Phantom Menace. On Naboo, Padme Amidala (just Natalie Portman this time) has completed her constitutionally permitted two terms as queen, and has stepped down to make way for her successor, Jamilla (Ayesha Dharker). At the new queenís urging, however, Amidala has taken a seat in the galactic legislature as her planetís junior senator. The change of office has come just in time to place her at the center of a crisis much farther-reaching than the Trade Federationís blockade of Naboo a decade ago. Unspecified but apparently widespread dissatisfaction with the government of the Republic has given rise to a separatist movement that threatens to plunge the galaxy into civil war. Most disturbingly, the leader of the separatists, for most practical purposes, is a former Jedi Master, the formidable and universally respected Count Dooku (Christopher Lee). As the situation deteriorates and separatist sentiment spreads, the unionist faction in the Senate increasingly favors the creation of a regular army to prevent secession by force. The Jedi Council opposes such a measure, even though they manifestly lack the numbers to do an armyís job, but the strongest voice against both separatism and militarization is that of Amidala. Maybe thatís why somebody keeps trying to assassinate her.
Meanwhile, Supreme Chancellor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) is still pretending along with George Lucas that we donít know heís also the Sith Lord arch-villain Darth Sidious. Consequently, he more than anyone pushes Amidala to accept a bodyguard of Jedi Knights, despite almost certainly being behind the plot to kill her in the first place. The Jedi to whose protection the senator ultimately, grudgingly consents are her old ally, Obi Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor), and his teenaged apprentice, Anakin Skywalker (now played by Hayden Christensen, from In the Mouth of Madness and Vanishing on 7th Street). The reunion is rendered less pleasant than any would have hoped by the fact that Anakin has grown seriously infatuated with Amidala since last they metó and also by the fact that heís grown from an annoying, Pollyanna-ish little boy into a dead-eyed, creep-tastic young man. Skywalkerís obsession is double trouble, too, because romantic attachments are forbidden to Jedi Knights. What Anakin wants is against the rules, even if the prospect didnít make Padmeís skin crawl.
Still, thereís no gainsaying the ladís performance when a bounty hunter (Leeanne Walsman) sneaks a couple venomous centipedes into the senatorís bedroom, and Anakin goes all Marion Cobretti on her ass. The capture of the assassin doesnít do the Jedi a whole lot of good, however, because she is immediately slain with a poison dart by a second bounty hunter, this one dressed exactly like our old pal, Boba Fett, only shinier. That last attack convinces the Jedi Council that Amidala needs to get the hell off of Coruscant until such time as they can get to the bottom of the plot against her. Number-two councilman Mace Windu (Samuel L. Jackson) orders Anakin to escort the senator back home to Naboo while Obi Wan goes into detective mode to track down her would-be killers. As for the forthcoming vote on the Army of the Republic, Amidala will just have to trust in the prudence and good sense of her proxy delegate, Jar Jar Binks (Ahmed Best). Yeah, youíre right. The Republic is so hosed.
From this point on, Attack of the Clones basically splits in two. Half of it follows Obi Wanís hunt for the assassins, while the other half details how Amidala falls in forbidden love with Anakin despite everythingó and not unrelatedly, how she continues going out of her way to get herself killed. Obi Wan discovers that the shadowy second assassin is a man by the name of Jango Fett (Temuera Morison, from Barb Wire and The Island of Dr. Moreau), who works for a dubiously legal cloning colony out on the farthest periphery of the galaxy. The cloners of Camino arenít paying Fett to murder senators, though. Rather, theyíre using his DNA as the starting point for their greatest achievement to date, a million-man clone army combining the dependability and standardization of battle droids with the flexibility and adaptability of humanoid soldiers. The prime minister of Camino (Anthony Phelan, from X: Night of Vengeance) is very helpful and cooperative when Kenobi comes to check out the facility, mistaking him for an agent of Cipher Diaz, the customer who commissioned the clone army. Thatís weird, because Cipher Diaz used to be not merely a Jedi Master, but the leader of the Jedi Council. Weirder still, he died under mysterious circumstances ten years agoó right about when the order for the clone army was placed. As for Jango Fett, he disavows any knowledge of Diaz. He says he was recruited by someone named Tyrannus. Thatís all he intends to say, however, and heís prepared to fight Obi Wan if it comes to that. It does, naturally, and Fett is able to escape from Kenobi and Camino with a little help from his ten-year-old clone son, Boba (Daniel Logan)ó yes, that Boba. Obi Wan gives chase, all the way to a remote planet of desert-dwelling bug-people called Geonosis. There he finds Darth Tyrannusó or Count Dooku, as he was called back in the opening crawló plotting with representatives of the Trade Federation, the Banking Clan, the Corporate Alliance, the Trashcan Robot Union, and the Bug-People Bund to escalate the separatist crisis into all-out civil war. Then Kenobi gets captured in the act of reporting his preliminary findings to the Council.
Meanwhile, on Naboo, Amidala whiles away her seclusion lounging about by her favorite lake in a costume that carries the William Ware Theiss seal of approval, and reminiscing about the good old days. Anakin, for his part, passes the time bitching about how much he hates sand and leering at the senator like a rapist were-jackal. Also, heís having nightmares about his mother (Pernilla August), which eventually become so insistent that he feels he simply must return to Tatooine to save her from whatever vague peril his dreams foretell. Amidala agrees to go with him on the grounds that Windu ordered him only to protect heró he never technically said anything about Naboo being the only place where it was appropriate to do so. Once on Tatooine, Anankin seeks out his old master, Watto (Andy Secombe), who lays off mixing the blood of Christian children into his matzo dough long enough to report that he sold Anakinís mom years ago to someone named Lars. This is supposed to be an ďAha!Ē moment, because Expanded Universe writers had by this point settled on the idea that Lars, and not Skywalker, was Uncle Owenís last name. But since this is the first time the name has been mentioned in a fully official context, Iím not sure itís actually that successful a callback. Anyway, this Lars guy isnít Owen (whoíll be played by Joel Edgerton, of King Arthur and The Thing, when we see him later), but his father, Cliegg (Jack Thompson, from Wake in Fright and Donít Be Afraid of the Dark). It turns out Cliegg fell in love with Mama Skywalker once heíd owned her for a while, and married her after releasing her from bondage. Donít you go thinking that means a happy reunion is in the cards, though. When Anakin and Amidala arrive at the Lars moisture farm, Cliegg explains that his wife was taken prisoner a month ago by a tribe of Sand People. Thereís been no trace of her since, and Sand People donít habitually keep their captives alive very long. That, to put it mildly, is not what Anakin wants to hear. He sets out at once in search of the savages, and when he does indeed find them too late to save his mother, he massacres the lot of themó every last man, woman, and child (excuse meó ďyounglingĒ) in the village. Now you might expect that to hustle the romance plot into an early grave, but no. In fact, you could be forgiven for forming the impression that Amidala falls for Anakin because of what he does to the Sand People. At the very least, itís only after he confesses to the massacre that she stops looking at him like something that crawled out of the sewer with its dick in its hand.
And then, finally, the two plot threads twine back together, as Anakin gets word of Obi Wanís peril on Geonosis. In the one emotionally intelligible bit of behavior we see from anyone, the lad decides that his conduct in the desert means that he can no longer trust his own judgement, so at first he vows to stay put and look after Padme like heís supposed to. But since nobody ever told Amidala not to try rescuing Obi Wan, the young Jedi winds up on Geonosis just the same. In fact, he and Padme get there before Windu and his Jedi commando team doó for all the good that accomplishes. Meanwhile, Obi Wanís report on the separatistsí fivefold alliance gets all of Coruscant in such a tizzy that the Senate votes to grant Chancellor Palpatine emergency executive powers, enabling him to accept on the Republicís behalf the Camino Clonersí custom-grown army. The resemblance between the clone soldiersí body armor and that of the later Imperial storm troopers suggests that this is maybe not such a good thing in the long run. And even in the short run, it means that civil war is upon the Republic, despite the Jedi Councilís efforts to forestall it.
Well, Attack of the Clones isnít as thoroughly wretched as The Phantom Menace, anyway. Jake Lloyd is nowhere to be found, for one thing, although itís hard to argue that Hayden Christensen counts as an improvement. Ewan McGregor and Natalie Portman arenít so goddamned stiff this time around, either, even if theyíre nowhere near the top of their respective games. Unfortunately, they still have no chemistry whatsoever, either with each other or with Christensen, and they still canít do much of anything with Lucasís inhuman dialogue. Christopher Lee is a welcome addition to the cast, however little use the film makes of him. There are no fart jokes and a minimum of slapstick, so Episode IIís sense of humor comes across as at least slightly elevated above the last installmentís, whether or not any of the jokes actually land. (For the record, one or two of them do.) Attack of the Clones dials way back on the bewildering retro-racism, sparing us from the dire prospect of Bug People, Trashcan Robots, and Camino Cloners portrayed as, say, Space Injuns, Space Oirish, and Space Eye-Talians respectively. On a related note, Jar Jar Binks, Watto, and the Trade Federation viceroy are barely in this movie at all. And most importantly, Attack of the Clones tells a story obviously connected to the events of the original trilogy, and it doesnít blow long stretches of its running time on gaudy distractions like pod races or trips through the domains of submarine-eating sea monsters. Unlike the last movie, Star Wars, Episode II has something to say about how we eventually get to Episodes IV through VI.
Mind you, the ways in which Attack of the Clones is more focused and coherent than its predecessor simply confirm how utterly pointless and unnecessary The Phantom Menace really was. There isnít a single thing in this story that required a whole other film to set it up. Forget pod racing, Gungan isolationism, and Anakin building C-3PO in his garageó we already knew none of that shit mattered. But now it becomes apparent that Obi Wanís apprenticeship to Qui Gon Jin, the Trade Federationís bid to bend Naboo to its will, and even the prophecy of Jedi Jesus were of no lasting practical significance, either (although the prophecy gets talked about enough this time around to create an illusion of lasting significance). Meanwhile, Senator Palpatineís elevation to the chancellorship, Anakinís origins in slavery on Tatooine, and the prior relationship between him and Padme Amidala, although vitally important in Attack of the Clones, could have been established in all the detail this movie needs via a line of offhand expository dialogue each. And most galling of all, Episode II makes plain that Jar Jar Binks neednít even have been introduced, since the one thing he ever does in Attack of the Clones (or in Revenge of the Sith, for that matter) would have been much more resonant if Amidala were made to do it herself. You could skip The Phantom Menace altogether, and it would not impact the experience of watching Episodes II and III in any meaningful way.
You might therefore expect that George Lucas would be finished wasting our time now, but no. It may not be obvious from the foregoing synopsis, but Count Dooku, despite getting a shout-out as the separatist leader in the opening crawl, doesnít actually put in an appearance until well after the midpoint of the film. For that matter, in all that time, heís mentioned only twice by any other characteró and on one of those occasions, heís called by a different name, which weíve been given no reason to associate with him. This is the guy whose activities are supposed to be driving the entire plot (although he inevitably turns out to be taking orders from Darth Sidious), so we really ought at least to have seen him at some point during the opening act. As things stand, itís far too easy for far too long to believe that this installment will end up having as little to do with itself as the last one. Furthermore, fully six sevenths of a movie called Attack of the Clones are permitted to elapse before clones are seen attacking anything. So how does Star Wars, Episode II spend those two hours instead? Largely by attempting to take care of business that Episode I neglected. For instance, now that Anakin is old enough to function as at least an assistant Jedi, it finally becomes possible to develop some kind of relationship between him and Obi Wan. It also becomes possible to develop a romance between Anakin and Padme without automatically ringing the ick alarm. And finally, with the timeframe advanced to within a few years of the momentous events that we already know are comingó the rise of the Emperor, the destruction of the Jedi order, the transformation of Anakin Skywalker into Darth Vaderó it becomes possible to lay some proper groundwork for all that stuff. But as weíre about to see, thereís a big difference between attempting something and doing it.
The Anakin-Obi Wan pairing is shortchanged by the splitting of their missions after the attack on Amidalaís Coruscant apartment, so that they never progress beyond an inept stab at odd-couple banter. Picture an 80ís buddy cop movie in which the brash rookie and the cantankerous veteran are never allowed a chance to bond despite their seemingly incompatible styles, to learn respect for each other despite their differences, to discover ways in which their respective approaches can compliment each other instead of acting in opposition. Who would want to watch such a thing? It isnít just the buddy cop blue balls that make it a bad idea to separate the characters, either. The prequel trilogy is trying to tell too big a story to have any single protagonist, so it vitally needs to develop an ensemble at least as strong as the one in the first three Star Wars installments. That didnít happen in The Phantom Menace, and boxing Obi Wan and Anakin up in separate story compartments helps ensure that it doesnít happen here, either.
With Anakin and Obi Wan, though, you can at least see what Lucas meant to accomplish. But Anakin and Amidala? No way. Thereís just no making sense of their plot thread without positing that he wins her over, either consciously or unconsciously, by putting the old Jedi suggestion-whammy on her. Truth be told, that would be a really good way to foreshadow how this petulant teenaged twit could possibly grow up into so fearsome a force for evil as Darth Fucking Vader, but I can find no indication that any such thing was actually intended. Rather, we seem to be invited to take the Anakin-Amidala romance at face value, and to consider it a happy ending of sorts when the two lovers get married in secret upon making their escape from Geonosis, nevermind all the thousand ways in which itís obviously a bad idea. The coupling is thus still creepy, and whatís worse, Lucas still doesnít seem to understand that.
Attack of the Clonesí biggest and most inexplicable missteps, however, are the ones it makes while trying to tell the big story. That tale is basically political in nature, so itís a nigh-insurmountable handicap that the politics of the Republic make less and less sense the closer you look at them. Letís start with the separatist movement. These things donít just happen. Whether itís the stirring of nationalism among a minority population, the fear of a local elite regarding the loss of their traditional prerogatives, partisanship over rival dynastic claims, or whatever, people need reasons to do something as drastic as plunging their homelands into the chaos of civil war. So what the exact fuck do these separatists want? Itís impossible to tell. Nor can Lucas dodge the issue by pointing to Darth Sidious and saying itís all his fault. That wonít work because the entire point of Sidious is that everything he does is secret. By definition, his motives cannot be those of the people who unwittingly do his bidding. Thatís what ďunwittingĒ means.
Mind you, the unionist position is equally inscrutable. Leave aside for now the astonishing fact that the Republic as a whole maintains no permanent military organization, even though at least seven of its constituent polities do. Taking that as given, what on Earth are we to make of it that the anti-army faction is led by (1) the peacekeeping force that openly admits its inability to keep the peace under present circumstances and (2) the representatives of a planet that would really have benefited ten years ago from the Senate having enough muscle to bring malfeasors like the Trade Federation to heel? If anyone should be agitating for an Army of the Republic, itís Padme Amidala and Jar Jar Binks! And while weíre talking about the Army of the Republic, isnít it a little strange that once the separatistsí true strength is revealed, nobody ever again troubles themselves about how there just happens to be a galactic-scale clone army lying around in storage with the Senateís address on the delivery ticket and a dead Jediís signature on the order form? I know what they say about the mouths of gift horses, but this is ridiculous!
As I said, though, the trailer for Attack of the Clones promised a movie on the same order of badness as The Phantom Menace, so itís not like any of the aforementioned defects came as a surprise. What was unexpected was the way this film seems to show Lucas losing his grip as an action director. Up to 1999, the action scenes in Star Wars had always been beyond reproach as action scenes. Episode Iís pod race was boring in context only because it was a meaningless waste of time; taken without reference to its place in the picture as a whole, it looks pretty impressive. The same cannot be said of the big set-pieces here, however, and remarkably enough, each one manages to suck in its own unique way. Anakinís pursuit of Centipede Assassin Lady fails because it never feels like heís in any credible danger, despite the outlandish speeds and altitude at which the chase occurs. Once he successfully makes that eleventeen-hundred-story jump from his own car to hers, itís obvious that thereís no way the assassin can beat him. Obi Wanís two-stage clash against Jango Fett doesnít work for the opposite reason; the Jedi is so plainly outmatched (nevermind how thatís even possible) that his mere survival tells us that Lucas is cheating on his behalf. The capture of Anakin and Padme in the Bug Peopleís robot factory is undone partly by its excessive resemblance to a late-80ís video game (specifically, itís like something out of Strider or Rastan), and partly by the instantly lethal absurdity of R2-D2 flying under his own power. (The latter falls somewhere between Godzillaís halitosis-powered aviation in Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster and Barry Bostwickís motorcycle taking to the sky in Megaforce.) The arena fight on Geonosis repeats the Phantom Menace mistake of going on and on and on past any point or purpose while hobbling itself with a comic subplot. (In this case, C-3PO accidentally gets his head switched with that of a Bug People Bund battle droid. Itís really better not to ask.) The long-belated start of the Clone Wars falls flat simply by coming out of nowhere, and by so obviously occurring only within the memory banks of the Industrial Light & Magic effects-rendering computers.
The worst, though, is the climactic showdown between the Jedi Knights and Darth Dracula. Sure, it starts off well enough. Christopher Lee remained an impressive figure even in his dotage, and he handles his light saber like he already knew a thing or two about swordsmanship before ever meeting the movieís fencing coach. Anakin and Obi Wan are nicely in-character in their reactions to him, with Kenobi trying to play it smart and Chosen One Skywalker just charging straight into a face full of clock-cleaner like a great big Muad-Dumbass. But then Yoda shows up, and everything goes to shit. I remember his last-minute intervention being well received by fandom at the time, but this truly is the silliest thing in all of Attack of the Clonesó sillier than the 50ís diner run by a Mortal Kombat villain, sillier than Anakinís infamous ďI hate sandĒ speech, sillier even than ďYounglings.Ē Itís the bouncing that does it. When Yoda springs into action, he does so quite literally, like a sword-swinging ping pong balló and never you mind that he was hobbling around on a cane mere seconds before. Lee hasnít been so deflated by a preposterous special effect since the time he looked upon a doofus in sad satyr makeup and gasped, ďThe Goat of Mendes! The Devil himself!Ē That moment, more than any other, illustrates what I said in my Empire Strikes Back review about Lucas losing the capacity to tell a good idea from a bad one. I mean, Yoda fencing was one of the specific things he (or perhaps Lawrence Kasdan) dropped from Leigh Brackettís script for Episode V during rewrites! And now here it is again, rising from its tomb in the desk drawer to prove once and for all how smart a decision deleting it really was.