Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones
I well remember Irish poet Tom “I thought it was awful” Paulin’s defence of Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones. A regular talking head on pseudish through-and-through BBC2 show Late Review, Paulin, who hadn’t seen any of the other entries in the series, admired the acumen with which George Lucas unfurled a galaxy divided unto itself, led by a corrupt politician intent on perverting the ways of the Republic (as represented by the Jedi Council). It was, he thought, a metaphor for Bush’s America.
While he may have overstated his case, over-compensating for the fundamental problems in presentation that malign many of the picture’s other elements, Attack of the Clones is, at least, structurally much more astute than its predecessor, channelling its arcane political manoeuvring into action rather than talk. And, unlike its predecessor, it manages to eke out one (mostly) satisfying plot thread. Unfortunately, the presentation of Ani is still nigh on a disaster, and while The Phantom Menace was doused in CGI and virtual sets, Attack of the Clones is positively engulfed, leading to a final act indistinguishable from a computer game.
So I’ll start with the bad and end with the good, and attempt to take a glass half full approach. Anathema I know, to those who contend every single thing about the prequels as irredeemable, but there are more than enough voices out there already supporting that cause.
Padmé: My goodness, you’ve grown.
The characterisation and approach to Ani, or Anakin, or Lord Vader-in-waiting, is hopelessly botched. Whatever excuses could be pinned purely on Jake Lloyd’s acting shortcomings no longer fly second time around. It’s not as if Hayden Christensen can’t act (see Shattered Glass, for example), although there are times when his surly monotone suggests he has only one mode, but that Lucas appears to want him to perform Anakin Skywalker, who will become one of cinema’s most iconic villains, as a pouting, petulant teenager. And not just a petulant teenager, a sinisterly obsessed amorist, one who shoots looks at his intended that veer to the psychotic, rather than the doting or devoted.
One can only wonder what was in Lucas’ head. Certainly, a more nuanced actor than Christensen might have wrung some modulation from the character despite his director’s edicts, but the fact remains that this is how Lucas wanted his greatest Jedi ever, even greater than Master Yoda, the one foretold to bring balance to the Force etc, depicted; as someone in whom we’re unable to see even a glimmer of this awesome potential, even if we squint and look at him sideways. We should surely, for the tale, and the tragedy, to work, like Anakin, be invested in his romance with Padmé, and feel gutted when he eventually turns, rather than drumming our fingers impatiently for the fait accompli, and the relief that someone(s) who justifies all the hype will be taking over.
Anakin Skywalker: I don’t sleep any more.
Obi-Wan Kenobi: Because of your mother?
And herein lies the nub of the problem. Like so much of the material to A New Hope in the prequels, from sight gags to verbal cues and backstory, Lucas is really only engaged by joining the dots; he isn’t remotely attentive to making his characters stand on their own two feet. This is why every teenage tantrum Anakin throws isn’t just announcing him as a tiresome child, it’s crudely feeding us information we don’t need, information could be more subtly communicated. It’s not unlike that complaint about Jack Nicholson in The Shining; he’s nuts to begin with, so going really off reservation doesn’t have much of an impact.
Anakin Skywalker: I killed them all. And not just the men, but the women and the children too. They’re like animals, and I slaughtered them like animals. I hate them!
We needed only limited and shrewdly placed foreshadowing prior to the crucial lurch to the Dark Side of the Tuskan massacre. Which is a decent motivation and set up, to be fair, even if the the filling in of details to make Cliegg Lars (Jack Thompson) not look like a chicken liver leaves something to be desired (I notice Owen keeps shtum; there was no way he was walking into a Tuskan trap, not with those units in the South Ridge to repair). Unfortunately, the telegraphing of Anakin’s fall is consistently ham-fisted (see the quote above), and there’s no way Christensen could have been expected to get away with a line like “I’d much rather dream about Padmé” (than his mum!) This, of course, leads to Anakin later feverishly tossing and turning in his sleep; there’s unintentional innuendo or mirth to be found in almost anything he does.
Obi-Wan Kenobi: Why do I get the feeling you’re going to be the death of me?
Anakin Skywalker: Don’t say that master. You’re the closest thing I have to a father.
Obi-Wan Kenobi: Then why don’t you listen to me?
Anakin Skywalker: I am trying.
Yes, you are. So rather than carefully-instilled suggestiveness, the approach is sledgehammer. We witness an uninterrupted stream of whining, and it’s consequently impossible to warm to Anakin; even the banter with Obi Wan is one-sided, “My young Padawan” appearing impossibly smug whenever he quips or does something impressive (leaping out of a speeder and freefalling into bounty hunter Zam Wessell’s (Leeanna Walsman) craft is cool… well, cool if anyone else did it).
We’re also subjected to scenes where Anakin interrupts someone (Obi-Wan, Padmé) and is put in his place; not only don’t we side with him (he’s right on at least one of these occasions), it’s further crude crayoning of his failings as an apprentice. And then there are the repetitive scenes where he explodes about how unfair it is that Obi Wan is holding him back, like a Jedi Kevin the Teenager (Padmé: Anakin, you’ve grown up; Anakin: Master Obi Wan manages not to see it).
Senator Palpatine: I see you becoming the greatest of all the Jedi, Anakin, even greater than Master Yoda.
It’s perhaps curious that Ani refers to Obi-Wan as a father figure when he’s more consistent in his respect for Palpatine. While I think the political inclinations of Attack of the Clones, and the prequels, generally are their most interesting aspect, the underlining of points leads a lot to be desired, from Obi Wan’s refrain that politicians aren’t to be trusted (he at least seems more likely to recognise Palpatine’s duplicity than the Jedi Council) to Anakin’s pronouncements regarding democracy.
There’s the potential for a decent scene when Padmé and Ani discuss politics in a meadow (before he starts riding a grazing CGI-Shaak beastie), but it’s blunt-edged, reinforcing the feeling that Anakin really has little capacity other than that of the heavy, the blunt instrument Vader is in A New Hope (where the real seat of power is held by Tarkin). He’s given no chance to show he’s the best and brightest, quite the reverse; Lucas misses out on making him a brave and noble young warrior with insight and intelligence as well as Force sense, the sort of man Padmé might believably fall for. As it is, it’s entirely baffling that she should be interested in him.
Padmé: Please don’t look at me like that.
Like a sex offender. The romance between these young love birds is frequently excruciating (see the meadow scene, or rather don’t if you can help it), and is only propelled at all because Obi-Wan’s intercut B-plot is diverting (the scene wipes back-and-forth are particularly cumbersome in this section, lacking the sustained natural rhythm of the Original Trilogy).
One has to be particularly concerned for Padmé’s state of mind, but then Lucas (and Jonathan Hales) effectively write her as a cypher, a character whose most defining moment is donning a skin-tight white leotard for the final act (Padmé is progressively less well-served as the trilogy progresses, possibly a function of the corner Lucas has backed her into, but there must have been a better way than the one he settled on).
Anakin Skywalker: I’m in agony. The closer I get, the worse it gets. … I’m haunted by the kiss you should never have given me.
Among the particularly choice Anakin moments singled out for ridicule is his treatise on sand (“I don’t like sand… It gets everywhere. Here, everything’s soft and smooth”). He certainly has the seducer’s gift, that boy. It’s no wonder he becomes so hypertensive when Padmé falls from a transport during the final act, onto… sand!
Like so much in the prequels, there’s potential, but Lucas squanders it. Anakin’s headstrong behaviour towards Dooku, not listening to Obi-Wan’s advice regarding a two-pronged attack (which Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon took with Maul) leads to directly to Anakin’s loss of limb, but if Lucas can’t even make his fighting Dooku with two lightsabres a “How cool!” moment of, any hope of translating the tragedy of his demise in Revenge of the Sith is lost.
You can escape Anakin, as he’s not in every scene. One thing you can’t escape is the tsunami of CGI obliterating anything that might have been grounded or substantial. Attack of the Clones makes The Phantom Menace look restrained in comparison, particularly evidenced by Lucas’ complete disinterest in integrating scenes (either through editing or mixing and matching elements of disparate shots after the fact), such that action is rendered static or disconnected. A prime example of this is the opening, where Padmé survives an assassination attempt (they kill poor Kate Hudson instead). The characters don’t even look like they’re on the same green screen stage, making everything, despite the expense, seem cheap and inconsequential.
The first two-thirds of the picture are less problematic, as these things go; Lucas even puts together several engaging action sequences that don’t become so frenetic/confused all hope is lost; the pursuit of Zam Wessell through the (air) traffic lanes of Coruscant works reasonably well, and the water world of Kamino is one of the few (the only?) prequel virtual worlds that actually has a sense of the elements, an inverted Cloud City, all rain lashed exteriors and hermetic interiors.
Then there’s the asteroid pursuit, falling victim to plundering the Original Trilogy, as so much in the prequels does, but still proving engaging in and of itself, with accoustically impressive sonic booms for Jango’s depth charges. After which comes Geonosis, alas, and Lucas becomes lost in pixels, caught in a trap, in his determination to extricate himself from as many annoying physical performers and props as possible.
There have been intrusive tasters before this; particularly unappetising is Obi-Wan’s visit to Dex’s diner, where CGI toon characters (of the type we saw in the pod race in The Phantom Menace) abound. McGregor’s ability to meet eye lines, be it Jar Jar or Dex, hasn’t improved, but it’s hardly his fault. The writing was on the wall with the shots of the Clone Trooper army on Kamino, but one might have excused it as merely a means to deliver the sense of scale. When Lucas resorts to CGI for Tuskan Raiders, though, in a scene crucial to Anakin’s character development, you’re left wondering why the hell, instead of thinking about what the character’s just gone and done, and it’s clear something is seriously awry at Lucasfilm.
Geonosis quickly becomes wall-to-wall CGI, a throng of Geonisian CGI creatures, a CGI arena filled with CGI crowds and CGI monsters (a mix of Harryhausen homage and Gladiator cash-in, but lacking the handmade quality of the former and the visceral edge of the latter; the face-off between swarms of Jedi and droids is anodyne CG busy-ness to a stultifying degree), a CGI droid factory complete with ridiculous CGI conveyor belt/ production line, and generally a reliance on CGI threats that are completely unable to deliver.
If C-3P0 was shat on in The Phantom Menace, he’s buried, then disinterred and his robotic scrap pile desecrated here, as a CGI version has his head removed and deposited on separatist droid while delivering a succession of terrible comedy lines (“I’m scrap!”, “I’m so confused!”, “Such a drag”). We also discover R2-D2 can fly, which would have helped in any number of Original Trilogy situations.
Obi-Wan Kenobi: Attack those Federation ships, quickly!
As the CGI progresses, we see Sam Jackson’s Mace Windu disembark a CGI transport, run over to a CGI trooper and summarily lead CGI troops into a CGI battle. Or CGI Yoda in roughly the same situation, eliminating actors, and any viewer involvement, entirely.
Then there’s the moment it became transparently clear Lucas didn’t give a toss about trifling details like verisimilitude anymore; Padmé is helped up by a Clone Trooper whom she then engages in conversation, both in medium shot. A CGI Clone Trooper. It’s really quite sad.
Lawrence Kasdan: You mean he wouldn’t be any good in a fight?
George Lucas: Not with Darth Vader he wouldn’t.
During this end game, there’s a lightsabre duel (or two; I’m referring to the second), of course. One much feted at the time, for reasons that still escape me. Yes, the idea of an old dude like Christopher Lee doing somersaults and dextrous moves is kind of interesting, but it’s ultimately that cumulative thing of knowing it’s not him, and knowing it’s not him fighting a CGI Jedi in the form of CGI Master Yoda. Why everyone thought (and many still do, it seems) that Yoda’s reincarnation as Sonic the Hedgehog was a stroke of genius, I don’t know. Quite aside from it being aesthetically silly to behold, I’m with Lucas’ original view of Yoda’s skillset, at the time of breaking the Return of the Jedi story (see The Making of Return of the Jedi), that Yoda “is like a guru, he doesn’t go out and fight anybody”. Lawrence Kasdan disagreed with Lucas (“I accept it, but I don’t like it”), but it makes far more sense. I can see Yoda shifting objects about if necessary, as a defensive manoeuvre, but turning into a tiny green ninja undermines him and what he’s about. As much of his development in the prequels does.
C-3P0: Master Ani, does that name mean anything to you?
On the subject of choices that denigrate Lucas’ existing universe, the constant self-referencing continues to be writ large. Lucas kills the mystery of the mythically referenced Clone Wars by making its players entirely CGI, and continues his finessing (or messing the minutiae) with Owen Lars (now big thing Joel Edgerton; elsewhere Rose Byrne plays a Padmaiden), the thunderingly banal sight of the Death Star plans (“The Jedi must not find our designs for the ultimate weapon”), which only took another (25?) years to build (and the next one took all of 6, pretty good going really) and the formative experiences of Boba Fett.
Obi-Wan Kenobi: Your clone army is very impressive. You must be very proud.
Jango Fett: I’m just a simple man trying to make my way in the universe.
While expanding on Boba’s background is particularly unnecessary (and I much preferred it when he was a Mandalorian warrior), Jango Fett is woven into the picture in a fairly incisive and intriguing manner. By implication, casting Maori actor Temuera Morrison as the clone army should put paid to the notion that all Storm Troopers must be white (the Empire, whatever its other myriad fascistic principles, has no more than the associative name of its soldiers to identify it with racial purity), and he brings much needed naturalism to the proceedings.
I might point out that his build is nothing like that of his Original Trilogy clone Jeremy Bulloch, unless the reference point is the mid-90s muscle Star Wars figures, but in the context of Attack of the Clones he helps to ensure the Kamino scenes are some of the better ones.
Elan Sel’Sabagno: You want to buy some death sticks?
Obi-Wan Kenobi: You don’t want to sell me death sticks.
Elan Sel’Sabagno: I don’t want to sell you death sticks.
Obi-Wan Kenobi: You want to go home and rethink your life.
Elan Sel’Sabagno: I want to go home and rethink my life
Part of this is also down to Ewan McGregor. Whatever his misgivings about the part and the films, he’s easily the best thing in Attack of the Clones, more than making up for being rather lost in The Phantom Menace. Given the chance to act the mentor, and provide the picture’s sense of humour (and does it need a sense of humour), he rises to the challenge until defeated, as everyone is, by the final act.
He can’t rescue Christensen either, but he does his best. And being forced to repeat “My young apprentice” and “My very young apprentice” and “My young Padawan” every couple of minutes is enough to drive anyone up the wall. But because you’re on Obi-Wan’s side, or rather McGregor’s side, it makes a significant difference to engaging with his plotline, something entirely absent for Anakin and Padmé.
Anakin Skywalker: Where are you going, master?
Obi-Wan Kenobi: For a drink.
When Obi-Wan leaps through a window after the assassin droid, it is a cool moment. Likewise, when he unflappably enters Outlander Club and orders a drink, or (despite it being another Original Trilogy call back) severs Wessell’s arm. His mission has a proper air of mystery to it, with disappearing planets and names dropped that don’t actually get explained in the trilogy itself (Sifo-Dyas). His dialogue has surprising wit, given the surrounding material (“Well, if droids could think, there’d be none of us here, would there?”) and his going-with-the-flow as being expected on Kamino makes for wry subterfuge (“That’s why I’m here”), as does his unblinking face-to-face with Jango (Obi-Wan: Thank you for your time, Jango.; Jango: Always a pleasure to meet a Jedi).
The subsequent fight with Jango has some appealing rough and tumble, even if it devolves into acrobatics and Lucas getting over-excited in the digital editing suite, while the galactic pursuit shows quick thinking (the homing signal) and piloting skills all the more impressive for his aversion to such travel (“Oh blast, this is why I hate flying”).
Obi-Wan Kenobi: I have observed that he is very clever at following the passions and prejudices of the senators.
Also effective is the element that worked in The Phantom Menace (just about), the crumbling of the ailing Republic. While the design of the Jedis is generally abysmal (including CGI characters such as porn star Kit Fisto), and Lucas makes a pig’s ear of their training programme (a bunch of moppets with A New Hope call-back remotes showing absolutely no engagement with their green screen environment, although this is at least a rare case of giving Yoda wit; “Lost a planet, Master Obi Wan has”), the depiction of the bastion of the Republic continually messing up and making poor decisions is quite convincing.
Mace Windu: He couldn’t assassinate anyone. It’s not in his character.
Indeed, formerly impetuous Obi-Wan seems more on the ball than they are, suspicious of Palpatine while wise Yoda just seems puzzled (despite having audiences with the guy and looking unimpressed by his decision making). Obi-Wan is also obedient (“We will do exactly as the council instructed”), only to be undermined (subsequently told to track down the source of the assassination attempt; the Council should make their minds up). They fall hook, line and sinker for Palpatine’s rather crafty scheme (presumably, if Obi-Wan hadn’t tracked their operations down, it would have been necessary to reveal it anyway), fail to account for Dooku dabbling in the Dark Side, and Yoda is reduced to stating the bleeding obvious when he finally meets the count (“The dark side I sense in you”). They even consider telling the senate their ability to use the Force has diminished.
Mace Windu: This party’s over.
Mind you, it’s no wonder the Jedi aren’t up to much when they have Angry Mace so senior in their ranks. Jackson continues to be a baffling choice for a Jedi, no more convincing when in action and lopping Jango’s head off, so it’s at least something that his opposition has some composure.
Count Dooku: What if I told you the republic was now under the control of a Dark Lord of the Sith?
The choice of Christopher Lee was a little too concurrent with The Lord of the Rings to be a fresh or interesting one, although admittedly it provides some symmetry with his Hammer cohort Cushing in A New Hope, and the name Count Dooku is rather daft, invoking Lee’s most famous role. But Lee can turn any old shit to gold, which makes his presence a mild relief during the final sections of the movie, And I love his slightly disappointed/ disapproving look when Jango loses his head. He also manages to homage Roger Moore’s jet ski in The Spy Who Love Me and retain some dignity, no mean feat when all about is untrammelled CGI.
Senator Palpatine: I love democracy. l love the Republic. The powers you give me, I will lay down once this crisis has abated.
The plays with who is doing what and for what reasons are also appealingly obscure, but not so much that you don’t actually care (The Phantom Menace). And when Dooku professes (for the benefit of his audience) not to know where the clone army comes from, it foreshadows his genuine lack of insight into his master’s plans for him in Revenge of the Sith. McDiarmid has less to do here than in the surrounding movies, but he’s still the crucial puppet master. One has to wonder at Lucas’ choices even here, though; getting a complete moron (Jar Jar) to put forward a crucial motion is either warped genius or a reflection of how ill-considered his plotting has become (such as how badly it reflects on Padmé, whose every decision seems to be hopeless; the silly woman should just concentrate on wearing nice clothes and doing her hair, evidently).
Lawrence Kasdan: Was he a Jedi?
George Lucas: No, he was a politician. Richard M Nixon was his name.
Palpatine takes us back to Paulin’s point about Bush and the subversion of democracy; it may be pure coincidence that Lucas has presented a plot in which a (secret ruler of the world) engineers/capitalises on a crisis in order to gain absolute control at this very time, but it’s difficult not to read an element of commentary into his conspiracy far, far away, On the other hand, back in the ’80s he had pretty much the same basic reading, but attached it to Nixon.
The final act of Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones may as well be a computer game (one you can’t even play), so absent is any human interest or physicality, and the crucial character plot – the main point of this prequel trilogy, it’s easy to forget – concerning Anakin is a bust. By rights, that should write off the picture entirely, and it very nearly does. But, for all its copious faults, the grand plan of Palpatine, and the quest of Obi Wan ensure Attack of the Clones is at least preferable to its predecessor.