2002, and the world had new movie trilogies to get excited about. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was the first episode of the everywhere wizard’s adventures, whilst The Fellowship of the Ring offered a breathtaking realisation of J R R Tolkein’s words from the so-called unfilmable The Lord of the Rings.
All of a sudden, Star Wars held no monopoly over the domain of epic trilogies. No wonder then that the second of the prequels was shipped out amidst little of its predecessor’s fanfare. Save for a neat poster campaign, featuring main characters from the film standing before rows of lightsabre wielding Jedi knights or ranked clone troopers, it was a muted release for George Lucas’s latest attempt to provide a backdrop to his 1977 masterpiece, the original Star Wars. Given the ominous working title of ‘Jar Jar’s Big Adventure,’ we now know it better as…
Episode 2 - Attack of the Clones (2002)
There has always been a tendency with the prequels to focus on their negatives. Attack of the Clones has a major one in the shape of one of its main stars, yet on the whole it’s a blast of a movie, a real return to form after the insipid Phantom Menace. The fun is put right back into the Wars, and the action rarely lets up. What’s more, it has a jaw-dropping finale that both works in its own right and sets us up neatly for Episode III. It’s a far more grown-up experience than TPM, earning the franchise’s first ‘PG’ rating, and that’s no bad thing as the plot throws in a number of adult themes alongside the usual child-friendly moments.
But first, the ‘Mannequin Skywalker’ effect. Lucas searched far and wide for his ideal Anakin ‘as a young man’, settling ultimately on the virtually unknown Hayden Christensen. According to the director, Christensen’s chemistry with Natalie Portman won him the role, and this was pivotal as one of the story’s main strands concerned his character’s growing relationship with Padme Amidala. Unfortunate then that not only is this ‘chemistry’ non-existent (Portman and Christensen always appear awkward together, more in a ‘What do we do now?’ sense than that of nervous lovers), the scenes themselves are badly written disasters, by some distance the dullest episodes in the movie.
Lucas aims to provide a sequence of vignettes that develop the sexual tension between Padawan and Senator. To do this, he contrives a storyline that sees Anakin spending much of his time as Padme’s personal bodyguard, with unlimited access to her and many an opportunity to woo the woman he’s loved since he was a small boy. However, there’s so little spark to be found on the screen that it’s hard to care what happens to them. Mostly, I found myself wanting the action to switch back to Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor), who’s embroiled in a blistering detective yarn that finds him unraveling all sorts of dangerous truths that have been hidden from the Jedi Council.
It doesn’t help Anakin that Christensen plays him as a brattish youth. Presumably, we’re supposed to be watching a character torn between his desire to do good, and an element that’s irrevocably drawn to the dark side. What we get is someone who blurts out lines like ‘It’s not fair!’ and sounding for all the world like Harry Enfield’s grotesque Kevin the Teenager. At certain points, I thought the film should have been called ‘Slap of the Drones’ and featuring shots of Obi-Wan giving his apprentice the clip around the ear hole he clearly deserves.
I don’t know where it went wrong for Christensen. Clearly a decent actor (he blew me away in Shattered Glass) when not donning the Jedi robes, I’m left wondering how much of his troubled performance was down to him, or Lucas’s wayward directing talents. Though he at least looks good in the film’s action scenes, and works well alongside McGregor, Anakin’s inability to create any sense of believability during his time with Padme is quite unforgivable. Should he have been replaced? After all, Stuart Townsend was Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings until well after shooting had begun. Only then was he sent home, and in a casting decision of unparalleled genius/good luck had his place taken by Viggo Mortensen. Here, we can only speculate, though his difficult moments with Padme - which, in fairness, don’t bring the best out of Portman either - crucially undermine the entire project.
I’ve spent a long time discussing this point, but I thought it was important to highlight exactly what I think is wrong in AOTC. Because that’s it. The rest is fantastic, a breezy science fiction opera that makes great strides in terms of its effects work, and manages to bring the best out of sidelined performers in Episode I like McGregor, Samuel L Jackson and a newly digitalised Yoda. The action starts on Coruscant, where Padme’s shuttle is blown up. She isn’t in it, but the scare this provokes leads to Obi-Wan and Anakin being assigned to protect her. We get some nicely written banter between the Jedi and his apprentice, which adds depth to their relationship. Lucas was helped in his scriptwriting duties by Young Indiana Jones veteran, Jonathan Hales, and the touch of a screenplay professional is evident, as the latter gives the pair some spoken tension and a good deal of affection.
Soon enough, they’re off on an awe-inspiring high speed pursuit through the streets of the city, an explosion of CGI that must have stretched the digital technology to its limits. The Jedi catch up with the assassin hired to kill Padme, but before they can question her, she in turn is offed. From here, Kenobi is charged with figuring out what’s going on, a search that leads him to the mysterious Kamino, and a clone army that is allegedly being built for the Republic, though the man who ordered it has been dead for years. Who’s behind all this? Obi-Wan watches the worryingly large clones forming ranks, collecting guns, etc, in powerful scenes that are no doubt deliberately reminiscent of Triumph of the Will, then meets their template, Jango Fett (Temuera Morrison), a bounty hunter who’s clearly a wrong ‘un. Fett eventually jets off for Geonosis, followed by the Jedi. There, Kenobi comes across Separatist leader, Count Dooku (Christopher Lee), and learns that the galaxy is in a heap of trouble as war looms…
It’s a gripping plot, told in breathless scenes and effortlessly more suspenseful than those involving Anakin. Notable is Obi-Wan’s fight with Jango in the rain of Kamino, which brings out both the former’s Jedi training, and his opponent’s inventiveness. Fett’s a worthy adversary. As Kenobi is discovered to be in pursuit, Jango attempts to see him off with seismic charges, blue-coloured bombs that gloriously explode with an absence of sound before the ‘charge’ kicks in. When these don’t work, the bounty hunter fires a heat-seeking missile, which Obi-Wan is only able to stop with some trickery of his own. At last, we get a hint of the creative highs of The Empire Strikes Back, as Kenobi hides from Jango’s missiles behind an asteroid, having to jettison his spare parts to provoke an explosion.
Things get even better once Christopher Lee enters the fray. His arrival almost makes up for Christensen’s failings, so much gravitas does he add to his part as the film’s major villain. He’s almost the opposite of TPM’s Maul, an elder statesman who projects sheer charisma in his dealings with others, and a masterly use of the lightsabre that completely baffles both Obi-Wan and Anakin. As he duels with Obi-Wan, crowing ‘Master Kenobi, you disappoint me,’ you know this is a contest that is only going to go one way. Even Yoda struggles against him, having to dip into his full repertoire of stunts to get any purchase against his old student. And incidentally, isn’t Yoda’s fighting a true highlight for the fans? At last, we get to see exactly why the green-skinned one is a Jedi Master’s master, and not just some muppet with a unique take on grammatical structure.
All the while, what the film has been uncovering, in layers of dense plotting, are more of Palpatine’s machinations. We only see the old baddie in his Sidious guise at the movie’s end, yet his presence is never far away, and we see just how deep his planning has gone. Even when the Jedi appear to have won the day at AOTC’s close, all that has happened - and only Yoda seems to get this - is everyone has played into the hands of the dark side, producing a war that will ultimately turn out to be a decisive invention of the Sith. In one sinister scene, we learn that Palpatine has already started to work on Anakin - clearly his promise of following the Jedi’s career ‘with great interest’ wasn’t just a blithe comment. The great manipulator has his claws firmly into the man he sees as his long-term apprentice. Such is the ingenuity of his scheming that even Dooku doesn’t know he is being set up as the patsy, falling to the sword once he’s outlived his usefulness.
No matter how you choose to look at it, the ‘backstory’ running behind all AOTC’s revelations is riveting stuff, offering a plotting sophistication far in advance of anything the series has tried previously. It doesn’t all ring entirely consistently. For one thing, it’s difficult to believe that nobody suspects Palpatine of being behind everything. Yoda might fix the Chancellor with the occasional sly, sideways glance, but he’s obviously in the dark, despite Episode I’s conclusion proving that a Sith Lord is in the mix somewhere at the highest level.
Still, does any of this really matter when we get so many money shots? The movie’s climax on Geonosis is almost worth the ticket price on its own. It start promisingly with the natives’ attempts to kill Obi-Wan, Anakin and Padme in a gladiatorial contest. When this doesn’t work, it looks like they’re going to be shot by Droidekkas, only for an army of Jedi to wade in at the optimum moment. Suddenly, Mace Windu has an action part to play, offering a glimpse of his awesome power as he falls a hundred feet to the floor, landing easily on his feet. As if a mass Jedi v droid army showdown isn’t enough, we then get the entry of the clone army itself, from which point the film turns into pure and impressively rendered science fiction as arsenals of wonderfully conceived weaponry get it on against each other. Dooku’s fights are still to come, as is the closing shot of the clone army ranked en masse, apparently on the side of the goodies, even if the music suggests otherwise.
Much to enjoy in this episode there is. AOTC has dramatic weight, a genuine welter of suspense and some superb action set-pieces that suggest the series is back on track after a dodgy start. It’s not perfect. The Anakin-Padme sequences ensure it’s far short of the sublimity we experienced during The Empire Strikes Back, its closest equivalent in the earlier trilogy, and when you think that the main love story in Episode V was the delicious vocal foreplay between Han Solo and Leia, you see just what you’re missing here. For all that, it’s a fine entry, tremendously good fun, and sets us up nicely for the tragic denouement to come…