Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones
Here’s an unpopular viewpoint for you: Attack of the Clones‘ biggest failing is down to audience expectation.
“Wait,” I hear you cry, “it’s biggest failing is that it’s terrible!”
Hey, I hear you. And I don’t completely disagree. Sloppy editing, self-consciously terrible dialogue, and a ‘classical’ love story that plays out incredibly unconvincingly all combine to make it the biggest slog of the Star Wars saga. The development of Yoda’s character is either great or terrible, depending on how beholden you are to George’s view of the Jedi Order. The CG hasn’t aged all that well.
In short, the film is flawed. But it’s not as bad as PT-haters will have you believe – and here’s why.
George Lucas Strikes Back
From the first announcement of Episode II’s title the knives were out for George Lucas (it seems some things don’t change). The tide of critical and cultural opinion had turned firmly against the filmmaker following The Phantom Menace, and the reveal that the new film would have such a retro, B-movie name was enough to send the post-Matrix cultural world into hyperbolic meltdown.
Lucas had a lot more defenders back then, and against the mass of people criticising the campy, retro title were a few people pointing out that the name “The Empire Strikes Back” was hardly of its day back in 1980. Further stalling the trend of negativity was that the trailers were good, promising fewer kids, and more actual war than we saw in The Phantom Menace. We waited with baited breath…
Yet on release the film met with a similar critical fate as its predecessor.
Joe Morgenstern of the Wall Street Journal opined “You can’t blame actors, particularly young ones, when the words put in their mouths are almost unspeakable and the direction seems to suck them dry of energy or spontaneity“, a view shared by many. Peter Rainer of New York Magazine hit the nail on the head by stating that the film was “a commendable example of the sort of movie we once loved and then outgrew“.
From a contemporary Hollywood point of view, the decline of Star Wars seemed all but complete.
The reasons that Attack of the Clones fell flat are many. There are so many trailing shots and unnecessary moments that strangle the flow and dampen the action. The dialogue is at times desperately bad, whilst the performances are, with one or two exceptions, beyond wooden. The jokes are mostly terrible.
Of slightly bigger concern is the character of Anakin Skywalker, a petulant creep for much of the film. The relationship between he and Padme is desperately forced.
It’s not good filmmaking; yet beneath all of these issues there is a fundamentally good film. Attack of the Clones suffers from being too flabby, like there were no editor strong enough to stand up to Lucas and say when something simply needed to go. I’d wager that removing the clumsy elements, the creepy Anakin moments and about 80% of C-3PO would almost certainly add an extra star to most people’s ratings.It’s a film that could have done with the keen eye of someone like Marcia Griffin, who could take Lucas’ vision and refine it to perfection.
However, this is all focusing on the negative – on where the film fails. Like all things worth thinking about, Attack of the Clones is a film that comes into its own in the fullness of time, away from context and expectation. On reflection Episode II has come to stand out as perhaps the most peculiar of Lucas’ already strange oeuvre – and subsequently it also appears to be the film where he’s having the most fun.
A Product of His Time
It’s well known that Lucas’ key influences for Star Wars included Flash Gordon and the pulp sci-fi serials he grew up watching, but it’s a fact that’s often regurgitated without any real understanding. The title of the film, and subsequent reaction to it, hits that nail squarely on the head.
In Attack of the Clones Lucas giddily pursues his vision across the galaxy, from the Metropolis-like cityscape and pulp noir of Coruscant’s night clubs and diners through to the 30s sci-fi aesthetics of Kamino and Geonosis. The addition of a snooty librarian, so unnecessary from a plot point of view, just adds another level of colour and boyish exuberance to proceedings. The multiple cliffhangers of the final act play out like a newspaper strip, each third panel revealing another level of danger or suspense. Despite the dialogue and the performances, the final third of the film accelerates towards a thrilling climax.
Like it or not, this is Lucas at his most inspired.
This engagement follows through to his craft. The Phantom Menace was perhaps too traditional, too slow and laborious, and it showed that Lucas hadn’t directed a film for twenty years. Attack of the Clones takes cinematic chances that showed his experimentation with the form, something that those familiar with his early work would recognise.
He was still not quite at the top of his game, and it wouldn’t be until Revenge of the Sith that all the pieces fell into place… but then that’s an article for another day.
Of course the films’ flaws are still just that, and of the original six films it remains my least favourite. But on reflection, in the era of The Force Awakens (the first Star Wars film devoid of artistic merit), Attack of the Clones is a rare and welcome peculiarity – a blockbuster film that’s the product of a unique, singular creative vision.
Keep that in mind, and you may find a way to get into the fun of it for yourself.