by Heath Holland
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.
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.
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?
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.”
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.