Unlike the incredibly hyped, feverish release of The Phantom Menace three years earlier, Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones loomed large with more a muted sense of expectation, a ‘new hope’ as it were that George Lucas might have learned a few lessons from the severe disappointment his first prequel in the planned trilogy turned out to be, due to cardboard dialogue, stiff acting, leaden plotting and a remarkable lack of fun. Perhaps aware of his own shortcomings behind the typewriter, Lucas hired a young writer, Jonathan Hales, to help him pen this second installment but in no uncertain terms, two heads were not better than one.
Attack of the Clones desperately wants to be this trilogy’s The Empire Strikes Back – it’s immediately darker, it seeks to be edgier, it balances plot shenanigans with a central romance, and it builds to an ominous, open-ended conclusion. The only difference is that it’s a soul-crushing experience to sit through until that endpoint – perhaps even more joyless than the previous movie, with only the barest hints of the chutzpah the original trilogy exhibited, and yet again a raft of immensely wooden performances by talented actors struggling with a script that is banal in the extreme. Considering the promise of what could have been, it’s yet again another enormous clusterfuck.
At their heart, the prequels are ultimately about the fall of Anakin Skywalker – for all the clone armies, Republic politics etc… it’s about what puts Anakin in that Darth suit. The Phantom Menace introduced him as an annoying little mop so inevitably, Attack of the Clones ages him ten years into a moody late-teenager you want to dick punch within the first five minutes of meeting. Much has been said about how bad newcomer Hayden Christensen is in the role, but truly his performance is extraordinary in its ineptitude; what Lucas obviously wants is for Anakin to be a charming, edgy, anti-hero whose path to the Dark Side is fuelled by his own egotism, personal loss & the pressure of being the Chosen One & the greatest living Jedi.
The script being inexorably rubbish doesn’t help in that regard, but Christensen cannot at any point prevent Anakin simply looking like a spoiled brat – if we’re meant to sympathise with him when Ewan McGregor’s dignified Obi-Wan Kenobi (here adding the look of Liam Neeson, with the voice of Alec Guinness again) admonishes him, we don’t; if we’re meant to be invested in the central romance between Anakin & Natalie Portman’s Padme Amidala, then we aren’t. At no point will you care about Anakin, given how shockingly characterized he is. Not once. That’s a problem. You may also find yourself unintentionally laughing at how clichéd & wince-inducing the romantic scenes here are, or Christensen ham-fisting terrible dialogue. It’s almost embarrassing to hear John Williams’ beautiful ‘Across the Stars’ theme layered over such dirge.
Beyond this, beyond the abject failure of Anakin as a character & his narrative journey–thereby making the point of the film a miss–everything else is just as you might expect. Lucas once again drips everything in some impressive production design, but he overloads on the CGI – you can tell he fully dipped into digital photography a great deal more here because he ends up losing some of the magnitude that the originals & even The Phantom Menace gave him; all the money is up on the screen, but it looks hollow. There’s nothing here either to rival the pod race in that film – an opening air chase through the city streets of Coruscant impresses, as does an asteroid field battle between Obi-Wan & the Fett’s, while the climactic Battle of Geonosis certainly delivers on spectacle, but it’s got no real emotional spine to back it up. It’s all just stuff *happening*.
Contrast this with the end of Empire, with it’s frozen carbonite & jaw dropping revelations – it’s just in a different universe to this. It also must be said that much of the first hour is immensely dull – saddled with the forced Anakin/Padme romance & Obi-Wan wandering around trying to solve a blindingly obvious mystery, not to mention the again snooze-inducing politics of the piece. We get it, the dangers of militarization are a theme alongside Ian McDiarmid’s Senator Palpatine in his Hitler-esque rise to power being handed to him on a plate, but did it all have to be so dull? Not even Christopher Lee can really save proceedings as Count Dooku, adding extra gravitas but getting far too little to do – even if his light saber battle with Yoda is easily the best part of the entire movie. Incidentally, anyone else think Yoda is a con artist? Spends all his time hobbling about on a stick and suddenly he’s Jackie Chan with a space sword? Cheeky little sod!
You know, actually, this may get a reprieve simply for the all too infrequent moments of R2 and Threepio squabbling, with Threepio churning out silly puns. Those were the only moments in Attack of the Clones it felt like the Star Wars we love, bearing that sense of comic fun with joyous action adventure. Admittedly the climactic last ten minutes also are from a better film, delivering on sweeping action & two strong light saber duels, with more than a dash of cool Jedi mysticism. Beyond that, it’s just a plodding morass of eye-popping CGI, terrible writing, duff performances, bland characterisation and direction that amps up the scale and employs all the visual tricks cinema can now let you do but lacks any of the heart or soul. Once again, you go into this prequel wanting to love it and come out wondering what happened to the Star Wars you grew up with, and whether it really is gone forever.
What did you think of the film? Do let us know in comments below or via Twitter or Facebook.