Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Heath Holland On...Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones

by Heath Holland
I wish I could just wish away my feelings.

In a lot of ways, Attack of the Clones is the hardest film in the Star Wars series for me to write about; I find myself torn between the great memories surrounding the experience of watching the film and the reality of the film itself.

The story picks up ten years after the events of The Phantom Menace, with the Galactic Republic splintered as thousands of planets are about to withdraw from the union. These planets consider themselves Separatists from the Republic and believe that the system of government is no longer effective. They’re led by the unfortunately-named Count Dooku and are willing to defend their freedom with violence if necessary. Meanwhile, Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) and his master Obi-Wan (Ewan McGregor) arrive on Coruscant at the same time as Padme Amidala, who is no longer a queen and is now serving her planet of Naboo as a senator. The Galactic Senate (headed by Palpatine) is about to hold a vote to decide if an army should be created to oppose these Separatists and quash what they see as a rebellion. We have Darth Sidious fomenting a rebellion that will lead the entire galaxy into a war and we have his alter ego, Chancellor Palpatine, spearheading the creation of a clone army to fight those rebels. The same guy is playing both sides against each other with the total annihilation of the Galactic Republic as his ultimate goal.

I’m really interested in the character of Count Dooku, even though we don’t get to know him or his motivations very well. The movie explains to us that Count Dooku was once a Jedi Master who trained under Yoda himself, but who fell to the Dark Side and turned his back on the order. A deleted scene from the movie also tells us that Count Dooku was the most recent of the “Lost Twenty,” a group of Jedi who voluntarily walked away from the Order over disagreements in doctrine and philosophy. We know that he was highly respected and that he was a lot like Qui-Gon Jinn, in that he questioned things too deeply for the Jedi Council to be entirely comfortable with him. We can also deduce that as the Sith Lord Darth Tyranus, he believes Palpatine/Darth Sidious had the power to create a more perfect union and restore the fractured system of government. Being a Sith seems to be a means to and end, not a ladder to power. Dooku/Tyranus is a fascinating character that the movie simply does not have the time to delve into beyond a surface level, and that’s a real shame.
Meanwhile, we have an older Anakin now with Hayden Christensen. Hayden has taken a lot of criticism over the years for being wooden, but I think he’s just doing what he’s told here. Some people believe that if you listen to how he delivers his dialogue, you can hear the cadence of James Earl Jones, but I’ve never quite been able to hear it myself. For what George Lucas wanted -- a James-Dean-type leading man with an air of danger -- Hayden Christensen delivers. I think any faults with his performance lie more with the direction than with his choices. The Anakin of this movie is a noble guy who believes in standing up for what’s right, but he’s also full of anger and fears the things that are out of his control. If you think about it, it’s a pretty layered character with a fair amount of believability behind it, ESPECIALLY when you consider all that Anakin has been through in his past (separation from his mother, life as a slave on an Outer Rim planet, etc).

Obi-Wan’s also back, and this time he’s rockin’ a mullet and a beard. He’s probably way into Nickelback, but we can only assume. If we’re paying attention, we get that he and Anakin have been through a lot of scrapes and close calls since the last time that we saw them. We also gather that they have a friendship that can be tense, but Obi-Wan carries a sly sense of humor and genuine affection for Anakin. Also returning is Padme Amidala (Natalie Portman); she’s still a pacifist who believes in the power of democracy, but she also understands the necessity of picking up a weapon when all other options have been exhausted. With strong female roles being debated endlessly in our current culture, Amidala is a character who often typifies strength, leadership and a willingness to get her hands dirty.

Part of the plot of Attack of the Clones has Obi-Wan investigating a bounty hunter and stumbling upon a secret cloning facility on the planet of Kamino. It’s here on Kamino that he meets Jango Fett and Boba Fett, a young and unaltered clone who Jango considers his son. I like the clone plot and the fact that a super-awesome bounty hunter is the genetic template for all the clones that will one day serve the Republic. I think Jango rocks hard, and I love that George Lucas is tipping his hat to Django and the spaghetti westerns of the 1960s. Jango Fett’s two blasters are even similar to western pistols. What I do NOT like is the introduction of a young Boba Fett years before he would be the coolest bounty hunter in the galaxy. Lucas has been (justifiably) criticized for connecting so many disparate threads that he ends up shrinking what should be a massive galaxy. We’ll see it in the next movie too. In an effort to connect things for the audience and show some sort of a master plan at work, he’s diminishing the impact of the characters and why we love them. Young Boba Fett is the most damning example of trying to tie too many things together and flesh out things that are better left a mystery. Having said that, I don’t HATE what’s being done here; I just think it’s really unnecessary.
While on Kamino, Obi-Wan learns that a Jedi master named Sifo Dyas ordered the clones on Kamino, but neither Obi-Wan nor the Jedi Council had any awareness that Sifo Dyas (dead for almost a decade) had done such a thing. There’s fan debate about Sifo Dyas and if a Jedi really ordered all the clones, but the theory that holds the most weight is that Palpatine/Sidious masqueraded as Master Dyas to order the clone army and then had Kamino wiped from the Jedi archives. Who could have wiped Kamino from the Archives? Dooku would have had the easiest access and the right motivation. Also, it’s interesting to note that Sipho Dyas and Sidious sound a lot a like. No one can say for sure, because the movie doesn’t tell us. For all the stuff that George Lucas feels compelled to explain and connect, there are tons and tons of things like this and Dooku’s motivations for leaving the Order that are never explained at all. This is a quality that exists in all Star Wars films, and I really love these speculative aspects, which exist in abundance in Episodes IV, V, and VI.

Unfortunately, a big part of the story of Attack of the Clones revolves around a developing romance between Anakin and Padme. That wouldn’t be a bad thing in most movies, but it just flat-out doesn’t work in this one. Some of it is just fine, GOOD even. There’s a scene that takes place in a grassy field on Naboo where Anakin and Padme pretty much lay out their view of the world. Anakin talks about how people should be able to sit down and discuss their problems so they can come up with a solution. Padme explains that’s what the senate does and that’s how democracy works, but that people don’t always agree. Anakin then counters that someone should make them agree. It’s not ominous in the way it’s delivered, but we can read into the more ominous undertones of what Anakin is saying. I actually think this scene is really well done and makes Anakin really human. He’s not really that different than any of us. He wants peace, but the methods he advocates to obtain it go too far.

Anakin’s greatest character development and Hayden’s best acting comes late in the movie when he revisits Tatooine after having a vision that his mother is in great pain and danger. We learn that his mom, Shmi, has been kidnapped by the Sand People (Tusken Raiders) and Anakin sneaks into the Tusken camp late at night to rescue her. This is the most effective scene in the movie, and it chokes me up every single time I watch it. Shmi is played by a Swedish actress named Pernilla August, and when Anakin finds her, she’s been tied up, tortured, and at the brink of death. She reaches up to touch her son’s face and tells him that she’s proud of him, and then she tries to tell him twice that she loves him, but she never gets all of the words out. It’s devastating, and it shows a mother’s love for her child and a closeness between the two that didn’t exist in the previous movie. Hayden is able to “get there” emotionally in the scene as well, and he sells it with his performance.

In that moment of tragedy, I almost don’t blame him for what he does next when he kills the entire camp of Tuskens. This is something I think George Lucas deserves credit for doing successfully. Anakin’s descent into darkness across these movies is always realistic and relatable. It’s always motivated by loss and the fear of loss, which is relatable. He doesn’t succumb to the Dark Side for money and power; he does it out of fear for losing everything he cares about. Is this why the Jedi Order has rules against attachment? Why they aren’t permitted to have deep relationships and why Padawans are taken from their families soon after birth?
One more thing about this scene: as Anakin lays waste to the men, women, and children of the Tusken camp, we hear the voice of Qui-Gon cry out “No, Anakin, No!” There is no explanation, but the implications are huge. That’s one more point for George Lucas and how he introduces something and allows it to just hang there without an exploration until the next film clears it up. There is no telling how many thousands of hours of conversation came out of that scene.

Unfortunately, there aren’t many scenes between Anakin and Padme that carry the same emotional weight as the one I’ve mentioned above, so most of their romance feels more like a plot contrivance than an organic development. I don’t think the two actors have much chemistry on screen, and they’re saddled with some really awful, undeliverable dialogue. Furthermore, the relationship itself is inconsistent. Anakin is impulsive, and he’s going after something he wants. Padme, on the other hand, feels a responsibility and a loyalty to her position in the senate and realizes that their relationship could never be anything more than a sham that would have to always exist in secret. They’re on two different paths, and she knows it. That’s why it makes no sense whatsoever when she pulls a 180 in the last third of the movie and goes full on gaga over Anakin with no thoughts of the consequences. There’s no explanation given for her sudden turnaround. We’re just supposed to go with it. It’s a bad decision for Padme, and one that will have massive ramifications. I don’t think enough attention gets paid to how Padme was just as flawed as Anakin. She’s a great person with the best intentions and a true hero, but she makes mistakes. In fact, throughout this movie, most of the characters are making mistakes that lead to their downfall. The three Prequel films are kind of like a series of bad choices.

This movie still has a few more gifts to give us, though, and one of them comes in the form of a massive battle in a gladiator arena on the planet Geonosis. Our three protagonists have all been captured by the Separatists, and are about to be fed to three massive Harryhausen-esque monsters. Mace Windu shows up with an entire army of Jedi Knights, and it all hits the fan. So many Star Wars fans grew up wondering what it would be like to see a whole bunch of Jedi, not just old men and a guy just learning to use the Force, and we finally get it in this movie. We see the Jedi, not at the peak of their power, but strong in number and kicking the Sith out of the bad guys. I love all the different lightsaber colors: Orange, green, white, blue, and Mace Windu’s purple lightsaber blade. Apparently, Samuel L. Jackson loves the color purple and simply asked Lucas if he could have a purple lightsaber, which was all it took. Because of Mace Windu, I’ve had an infatuation with the color purple since the movie came out in 2002. Any time purple is a choice, that’s what I go for. I haven’t had a toothbrush that wasn’t purple in 13 years. On the bottom, it says “BMF.”
The scene culminates with Darth Tyranus fleeing the arena and making an escape. Obi-Wan and Anakin pursue him to a spaceship hanger, and we get an INCREDIBLE lightsaber fight between them in which Anakin loses his hand, which will soon be replaced with a robotic appendage. Foreshadowing, anyone? But it’s also this hanger scene that we get to see something we NEVER thought we’d see: Master Yoda fighting.

Now look. I told you at the beginning that I’m conflicted over this movie, and this is one of the things that I’ve struggled with more than anything else. Let me take you back for a moment. I had the great privilege of seeing Attack of the Clones a few days before the general release at a special screening sponsored by a local comic book shop. They gave out more tickets than there were seats in the theater, so that meant it was a first come-first serve event. I sat in the hot sun for hours with a bunch of fellow Star Wars fans who were dressed up, playing games, singing the music together, and carrying lightsabers. It is, to this day, the most singularly positive and enthusiastic experience I can recall ever being a part of. No one was taking a dump on The Phantom Menace or talking about how they hated Jar Jar. Everyone who was there was passionate and absolutely bursting with love for Star Wars. When the film started with the Lucasfilm logo and the text “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away,” the applause was deafening. At the end of the movie when Yoda took out his lightsaber and faced Darth Tyranus head-on, the entire theater, I mean EVERYONE, actually stood up and cheered. People were high-fiving. We were all positive that this was the coolest thing in the entire history of cool things.

But now, all these years later, the scene makes me cringe, and I wonder if it does the same for all the other fans who saw the movie with me that day. It’s a cool piece of fan service, but that’s exactly what it is: fan service. Oh, I get it. We’re supposed to understand that this frail, elderly Jedi Master is tapping into the Force for strength and agility, and as soon as the threat has passed, he’s exhausted from his efforts and once again weak and old. The problem is, it’s just too much of a departure from the reality of the film. Yoda was loved by my entire generation not because he had ninja skills, but because he was the wisest Jedi we’d ever seen and the mysteries surrounding him captivated us. There’s been talk for years about a Yoda origin movie, or a Yoda movie that takes place hundreds of years before The Phantom Menace. I sincerely hope we don’t ever get that movie. Some things are better left to the imagination.

Anyway, Yoda deflects Tyranus but doesn’t beat him, and the Sith escapes to fight another day. In the ultimate irony, the lovable screw-up Jar Jar Binks (who is standing in for Senator Amidala) casts the deciding vote that grants Palpatine emergency powers, which allow him to move ahead with his Grand Army of the Republic. That’s right: Jar Jar was the last barrier between Palpatine and supreme power. The fact that the movie acknowledges Jar Jar’s ineptitude and shows the serious consequences caused by it seems to be lost on a lot of Jar Jar haters, but it’s in there. The movie ends with huge gunships filled with troops ascending into the skies and Yoda informing us all “Begun, the Clone War has.” In one final coda, we see Anakin and Padme getting married as our eyes and ears to the whole saga, Artoo and Threepio, look on. John Williams’ beautiful-but-tragic theme “Across the Stars” serenades us to the credits. It’s a happy occasion on the surface, but the darkness is creeping in.
For me, Attack of the Clones is the most flawed movie of all six existing films, but that doesn’t mean that it’s a total write-off. I think it has enough substance and mystery to intrigue the dyed-in-the-wool Star Wars fan, and I think it has some of the best pure popcorn moments of the Prequel Trilogy (my favorite: a chase in an asteroid field between Obi-Wan and Jango Fett where Fett’s ship drops sonic charges into the vacuum of space). At the end of the day, I still love it because it expands on the universe I love and deepens my understanding of several of these characters that I’ve come to care so much about. For a film that gets several things wrong, it does quite a few correctly. Meet me back here in a few weeks as we take a look at the darkest chapter, Episode III: Revenge of the Sith. Until then, may the Force be with you.


  1. Really nice piece. The one thing that sits well with me about this movie, besides the Django references you mentioned, is the aesthetics of Kamino and the Kaminoans. I don't know if he's intentionally referencing THX 1138, or I'm reading something that isn't there, but I like to think it's a really clever meta-commentary about how artificial these movies are.

    1. Lucas is most definitely referencing THX 1138 on Kamino with the clones. The Kaminoan look is based on the long spindly alien in Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

  2. Awesome epic column Heath,

    Firstly can I congratulate you for "He’s probably way into Nickelback" That's the funniest thing I've read all week, im still giggling now, I wonder if he likes "How U remind me" of Alec Guinness

    Second I must be slow today but I cant work out what the hell BMF on your toothbrush stands for?

    This is the movie I watch the least from the series but I think we are pretty similar and both look for the positive of which you mentioned loads, I think the Jar Jar comment is spot on, I felt that Lucas who might not be the best filmmaker but for a world creator he is unbelievable, and in his heart he really gives it all to this world, I feel that he was a little upset with the backlash for Jar Jar and he purposefully made him matter in this chapter as a reaction,
    As for Yoda fighting i Ioved it originally and now "Its Fine" it doesent wind me up or make me cringe, it is what it is, Kinda Awsome and kinda lame at the same time
    Cheers Heath Roll on Dec 14th

    1. Think Pulf Fiction wallet...I don't want to say more as I don't know the profanity limits of fthismovie.

    2. I just got it. Thank you ;)
      I've never seem that on a MFtoothbrush

  3. Great piece! I remember seeing this in the theater and liking it, and also being floored by the Yoda fight at the time, just because it was such a cool shock to see it happen, but like you I've soured on the whole concept.

    One thing I really do like is right before Anakin sneaks into the Sand People's camp, there's a shot of him in silhouette, jumping down off a cliff. This is pulled directly from The Searchers, another nice nod to the Western.

  4. Great job on these columns Heath, all of them have been very well written and you clearly put a lot of thought into them. I don't have as much affection for Star Wars as most movie fans, but I do enjoy then for the most part. This movie I don't enjoy almost at all. I just researched it maybe 2 months ago, and what struck me more than ever about it this time was how incredibly inhuman the dialogue is. No one at any point sounds like a person, they sound like a George Lucas Programmed robot. There is one scene that I actually think resembles actual human speech, and that is between Count Dooku and Obi-Wan. I think this is in no small way because of the fact that Christopher Lee and Ewan MacGregor are the two best actors in this movie, but it also seems like this is the least directed scene in the movie. It has the feeling of two great performers actually being allowed to perform. This only condors something you said in your column Heath, that Dooku is possibly the most interesting character in the movie and it's a crime that we get almost no meaningful screen time with Dooku and Mr. Lee. But this is something that Lucas seemed to forget in the makings of the Prequels, that an intersting villain can elevate your movie to knew hieghts.

    1. I'm sorry for the several typos, I have no idea what my phone was auto correcting there.

  5. I can never dislike the romance between Anakin and Padme because their love theme "Across the Stars" is so wonderful.

  6. Nice article Heath, I really wish I could find more positives to like in the prequels but I will be honest sometimes its tough. I agree with darn near everything you said in this column- they should have just gotten rid of Boba and Jango Fett completely (Boba is really only awesome in the expanded universe) and the romance between Padme and Anakin was tough but I've seen both actors do a better job- George just isnt really great at that stuff.

    To get back on the positive side of things I agree the music in the prequels is top notch I have zero complaints "Across the Stars" gets a lot of play time when I decide to do a Star Wars music night. Also can anyone blame Anakin for hooking up with Padme- she doesnt exactly make it easy for him to say no with her hanging out in her living room wearing sexy black wear in candle lit level lighted rooms saying "you can't have this".

    Also Ewan Mcgregor and Christopher Lee (RIP) own every moment they are on screen. As for Yoda and his ass kicking even though it is a bit much at the time- in reality the whole clone wars finale at the end is a bit much for me. It was nice to see some one on one character fights rather then just dusty clone trooper vs dusty droids.

    At the end of the day I have come to replace a lot of my prequel memories with the excellent Clone Wars series that ran for 6 seasons. I'm glad your able to find stuff to like in the prequels, I wish I could wish away with issues with the prequels- I really do.

  7. The summary of the movie makes my eyes start to glaze over. You could describe all three of the original movies in the time it takes to describe one of the prequels. That's one of the main problems. The plots of the prequels are too complicated, and not in a good way. Even if you get past the CG, bad acting, and contrivances, there is nothing to keep your attention or let you become connected to the characters.

  8. A little side gag: among the busts of the Lost Twenty in the Jedi Temple Library, besides Dooku (whose name is derived from the Japanese word for poison, doku), are busts of Rob Coleman and John Knoll from ILM, and one of Lucas himself. An obvious in-joke, but I still wonder if Lucas's inclusion in the Lost Twenty is further indication to how he is injecting some autobiographical flourish into the prequels (how he identifies with Anakin in the prequels the way he identified with Luke back in the late '70s, early '80s; and how he feels as though he has become, as head of Lucasfilm, the very thing he was trying to avoid in the '70s).

    I mentioned in some recent comments to the Phantom Menace piece my assertion that George gave a tip of the hat to several people in the prequels -- to his friends, mentors, even some people he respects that have paid homage to him. On a commentary track for Attack of the Clones, while he explains the background of the Geonosians as the masterminds behind the Death Star design, he brings up the "Death Star contractors" monologue from Clerks. (He does make the mistake of attributing the conversation as being between Jay and Silent Bob, not Randall and Dante, but I'll give him a pass.) Because of this remark, I suspect he made another reference to a Kevin Smith, this time from Chasing Amy: When Qui-Gon shows Watto a hologram of the ship he needs parts for, he describes it as a J27 Nubian. Not a Nabooian, the planet they got the starship from, mind you; a Nubian. Watto even emphasizes this pronunciation: "Ah yes, NUBIAN! We got lotsa that!" So I guess now we have our answer to Banky's enquiry when he asks, "What's a Nubian?"

    I always took it that Padme DID always love Anakin, at least from the moment she reconnected with him in Attack of the Clones, in an old-fashioned example of the "love of first sight" trope -- she was just fighting those feelings. She mentioned something to that effect when she and Anakin were having their fireside chat, to which Anakin quickly responds, "So then you DO feel something!"

    When Anakin and Padme stumble upon the Geonosian droid factory, and they fall onto the conveyer because the bridge wasn't extended, I saw it as a nice bit of visual foreshadowing, using Luke and Leia's similar situation in A New Hope as the focal point. Luke and Leia manage to swing across the drawn plank, and later fight to victory against the Empire. Anakin and Padme fall, and their ultimate end is not so triumphant.

  9. If there's any value in George presenting Boba Fett as a child in this film, I think it's to introduce the theme of fathers and sons that is explored in earnest in the original trilogy. I think Boba's silent moment mourning the decapitation of his father mirrors Luke's dream-like encounter with Vader in the cave on Dagobah. Just as it's Luke's intention not to end up like his father, Boba will take the opposite road, and emulate his father in order to honor his memory.