Star Wars: Attack of the Clones (United States, 2002)October 19, 2015
Attack of the Clones suffers from "middle episode syndrome" - the tendency of the second volume in a trilogy to feel incomplete and, as a result of that incompleteness, to fail to satisfy. (A problem George Lucas was able to avoid with The Empire Strikes Back.) Attack of the Clones takes the threadbare strands of plot introduced in The Phantom Menace and braids them together into what will eventually become the whole cloth for Revenge of the Sith. Still, despite several high octane action sequences, this movie, more than any of the others in the entire Star Wars saga, feels orphaned and works considerably better when viewed as part of a greater epic than as a stand-alone production. It's setup without resolution, tease without consummation.
Attack of the Clones seeks to fix some of the obvious problems evident in The Phantom Menace. The tone and narrative have become more mature - unlike its predecessor, Attack of the Clones doesn't evidence the split personality caused by interweaving a complex tale of shadowy corruption with overt pandering to the 7-year olds in the audience. Jar Jar Binks, the poster child for the latter, has seen his screen time dramatically cut. In fact, the only obvious bit of juvenile silliness involves C3PO and R2D2 in the droid factory. 3PO's pun-riddled dialogue is embarrassing.
The events related in Attack of the Clones transpire approximately ten years after those of The Phantom Menace. Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen replacing the universally panned Jake Lloyd), having spent a decade under the tutelage of his mentor, Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor), is anxious to take the tests that will allow him to graduate from Padawan Learner to full-fledged Jedi. Obi-Wan advises patience but that isn't one of Anakin's strongest character traits. Senator Padme Amidala (Natalie Portman), formerly the Queen of Naboo, has arrived on the planet of Coruscant to vote on key referendums related to the issue of systems seceding from the Republic. When an attempt is made on her life, Jedi Master Mace Windu (Samuel L. Jackson) assigns Obi-Wan and Anakin to protection duty. This mission separates the two friends. Obi-Wan pursues the assassin, a bounty hunter named Jango Fett (Temeura Morrison), to the planet of Kamino, where the residents are developing a clone army for the Republic. His investigations reveal a plot spearheaded by the mysterious Count Dooku (Christopher Lee), who is working for the Sith Lord Dark Sidious (Ian McDiarmid) - the secret identity of Supreme Chancellor Palpatine. Meanwhile, Anakin accompanies Padme to Naboo. While vacationing there, the would-be Jedi and the Senator fall in love. But dark dreams and premonitions compel them to travel to Tatooine in search of Anakin's mother and an incident that opens the "Chosen One" to the dark side of the Force.
Attack of the Clones is narratively more solid than its predecessor. From a plotting standpoint, the only obvious issue is that too much time elapses between the conclusion of the first big action set piece (the eye popping chase through the busy skyways of Coruscant) and the beginning of the next one (the execution). Important things happen in between - in particular, Anakin's first real taste of darkness following his mother's death - but there's too much exposition with too little payoff. The forbidden romance between Anakin and Padme, despite being a good idea, is irreparably damaged in its execution. Putting aside the lack of chemistry between actors Natalie Portman and Hayden Christensen (they don't seem to like one another, let alone be swept along in a torrent of passion neither can control), the dialogue is awful. Not just bad, but embarrassingly bad. George Lucas simply can't write love scenes and that deficiency hurts Attack of the Clones. Imagine how much more powerful the film could have been had Anakin and Padme spoken to each other like adults rather than hormonally challenged teenagers reading from a Harlequin romance? The most eye rolling segment of dialogue comes as the couple are about to face death. Padme starts babbling about how desperately she loves Anakin when there's no evidence whatsoever to support this claim. Still, the film's end scene, with the two marrying, is touching and nicely understated… and free of speech.
Chancellor Palpatine's arc, which began gathering steam in The Phantom Menace, snaps into focus during the course of Attack of the Clones. And, although Darth Maul was a suitably menacing foe in the previous film, Darth Tyrannius, as played by veteran actor Christopher Lee, has a stronger screen presence. It's a pity we don't get to see more interplay between Sidious and Tyrannius. After all, McDiarmid and Lee can dominate the screen alone.
With Attack of the Clones, Lucas continues to push the special effects envelope, taking Star Wars to new levels of spectacle. There are times when this is a visually stunning motion picture. And it's not just the CGI-rich action sequences. The cinematography, by David Tattersall (who filled that role for all three prequels), offers moments of vibrant beauty. The scenes in the Lake Country of Naboo are notable for their widescreen composition and rich colors. Combine these with John Williams' score and the result is sublime.
There are three major action sequences (although one could conflate numbers two and three into a single, ultra-long segment that comprises much of the film's second half). The first is a dazzling chase through the rush hour traffic of Coruscant's airways as Anakin and Obi-Wan seek to apprehend Senator Amidala's would-be assassin. The second occurs when the attempted execution goes wrong and the Jedi arrive to make the odds less even. Finally, there's the battle that occurs with the arrival of the clone army that ends in Yoda's first on-screen lightsaber battle. For the first time, we see the wizened green master as more than a curious muppet.
In the end, however, Attack of the Clones is dogged by the incompleteness of its narrative. Not only is this movie the middle part of a trilogy but it is hampered by being a bridge not to Revenge of the Sith but an entire multi-season television series (The Clone Wars). Even when seen in the context of the prequel trilogy, Attack of the Clones feels isolated and incomplete. There's a huge story chasm between where the characters are in this movie's final scene and where they are at the opening of Revenge of the Sith.
Despite bouts of unevenness, Attack of the Clones represents an improvement over The Phantom Menace. With fewer story elements targeted at younger children, a more satisfying plot, and a darker tone, the film offers an experience that, although not on par with the best Star Wars films, at least engages more fully than its predecessor. The special effects-bedecked action scenes are Attack of the Clones' crown jewels and the movie is worth seeing for them alone. The second part of the prequel trilogy may not have been sufficient to win back all the goodwill lost as a result of The Phantom Menace but it moved the Star Wars series back on the tracks, allowing George Lucas to re-assert his mastery over this far faraway galaxy in Revenge of the Sith.
For my original review, go to this link.
Star Wars: Attack of the Clones (United States, 2002)
Cast: Ewan McGregor, Hayden Christensen, Natalie Portman, Ian McDiarmid, Christopher Lee, Samuel L. Jackson, Frank Oz, Temuera Morrison, Jimmy Smits
Screenplay: George Lucas and Jonathan Hales
Cinematography: David Tattersall
Music: John Williams
U.S. Distributor: 20th Century Fox
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