There was still palpable excitement for the Star Wars prequel trilogy when Attack of the Clones was about to make its way to movie theatres in the summer of 2002. Whilst the initial denial over The Phantom Menace eventually subsided and the film was regarded as a disappointment in the interim between Episodes I and II, anticipation was still high for the second of George Lucas’s Star Wars prequels, but unlike Episode I, any negative feelings were apparent right away and the film was considered another failure by many fans and critics by the end of the summer. It still made a fortune at the box office however.
Set ten years after The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones sees the development of the emerging romance between Anakin Skywalker and Senator Padme Amidala, the latter facing a death threat over her life, whilst Obi-Wan Kenobi finds himself on the trail of her would-be assassin, a trail that leads to the revelation of a massive Clone Army.
Casting wise, the film would see the return of Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman, Samuel L Jackson and Ian McDiarmaid to the series, with Hayden Christensen making his first appearance as Anakin Skywalker and Christopher Lee as Count Dooku.
With a script from Lucas and Young Indiana Jones Chronicles writer Jonathan Hales, and Lucas returning to the director’s chair, Episode II would be the first film of the entire series to be shot outside the UK, with production set up in Fox Studios Australia. The film also became the first to be shot entirely digitally rather than on film, something Lucas attempted to do with the first prequel but which did not happen as the necessary cameras were not developed in time for such a change to take place. Boasting great lightsaber duels, a fantastic chase sequence in the early stages of the movie and a brilliant battle marking the debut of the Stormtroopers to the Prequel Trilogy, on a visual and visceral level Attack of the Clones is, it has to be said, a much better film than The Phantom Menace.
Unfortunately the film still retains many of the dialogue and performance problems of the previous movie that debate still rages as to which of the first two prequels is the weakest.
Featuring a largely Australian cast, no surprise there, the film marks early feature film appearances from actors such as Rose Byrne and Joel Edgerton, the latter appearing as a young Uncle Ben.
With a plot line involving the creation of a clone army, in this case the Stormtroopers, as well as the developing relationship between Anakin and Senator Amidala, and the emergence of Count Dooku and the revelation of a new weapon in development, the Death Star, Attack of the Clones covers a lot of plot within the Star Wars mythology, but with decidedly mixed results.
We also get an appearance from a young Boba Fett, partnering alongside his father Jango, whilst the “first” appearance of the Stormtroopers is pretty damn cool.
However the film does have problems, mainly that for a film with a love story driving a large part of its narrative, there is a lack of chemistry and magic to the romance. Christensen, whose performance is still to this day frequently criticised, and Portman have a distinct lack of chemistry, while their dialogue is stiff and incredibly wooden. Anakin’s declaration that he doesn’t “like sand” shows that Lucas does have an issue at writing easily deliverable dialogue and romantic declarations, whilst the lack of chemistry could be seen to be an issue with a director who is clearly more adept at directing action and visual effects shots rather than being able to elicit great performances from his actors.
When the film is delivering action and epic battle sequences it’s actually pretty enjoyable. Whilst a lot of it has been filmed on stages with green screen, the results are spectacular and very exciting to watch, but then someone speaks and the dialogue falls flat. Aggressive negotiations, anyone?
It’s the heart of the greatest problem with Attack of the Clones. One minute the film is wowing you with visuals, the next it’s making your eyes roll at the inane use of words. The love story is creaky, the dialogue appalling but then the film makes you cheer in your seat at the sight of Yoda fighting Count Dooku.
Anticipation was still high for the film in 2002, but there was a sense of resilience from audiences, probably from the reaction to the 1999’s The Phantom Menace. Whilst Attack of the Clones still performed very well at the box office, it was however the third highest grossing film of the year in the United States, coming behind Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man and The Lord of the Rings:The Two Towers, with the acclaim handed to the latter being used as an example by many critics as to how to craft a great second instalment of a trilogy. Of course, if it wasn’t The Two Towers being used as a stick to beat the film against, it also had The Empire Strikes Back to compete with as well in the creative stakes in how to craft a great Star Wars follow up.
When the film was released, some critics and audiences did claim the film to be better than its predecessor, gaining a 64% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, but many still thought it was lacking in comparison to the original trilogy, but in the intervening years its reputation has lowered somewhat, especially in light of the positive reactions to The Force Awakens and Rogue One. At the time of release Roger Ebert gave the film a mixed review, but Empire Magazine gave it five stars, something that many still somewhat make fun of to this day, even the magazine itself.
For my money, the film is considerably better than The Phantom Menace, even with its problems. A lack of romance in a love story is a deeply problematic issue that on a character and story level the film fails to recover from, and I never quite buy the characters of Anakin and Padme being in love for anything other than the story simply demanding it because they’re the parents of Luke and Leia. The film flows better when dealing with Obi Wan’s pursuit of the Clone Army and when there is an action sequence the visual results are admittedly spectacular, even if Lucas, with the increasing use of digital technology at his finger tips, does throw way too much incident at the screen, almost cluttering it in comparison to the clean and crisp choreography and staging in the original and newer films.
Despite these problems, it is better, and Revenge of the Sith would be another marked improvement, but even in 2002 it was hard to ignore the fact that the magic was really lacking in comparison to the original three films. Ewan McGregor was a wonderful Obi-Wan, but even he would occasionally be critical when being interviewed about the movies, either with regards to filming everything on a green screen stage or the titles of the movies themselves. His performance here is an undoubted highlight of the film, coming across as more assured than in The Phantom Menace and making the role of Obi-Wan his own, but its hard to shake the feeling that he is simply doing his own thing rather than what Lucas is telling him and thus crafting a much better performance as a result.
Christensen and Portman struggle. Whilst Christensen is still frequently criticised, Portman has redeemed herself in the eyes of many through movies such as Black Swan and Jackie. Whilst Christensen is not great, it should also be pointed out that neither is Portman and this is most likely down to their direction in the scenes they are sharing together. Christensen is capable of delivering a good performance as seen in a film such as Shattered Glass which has seemingly been forgotten about, which is a shame.
In the end, Attack of the Clones is not the worst film ever made and I personally don’t think it’s the worst Star Wars movie. The action is great and the film is a visual delight, but the magic at this stage appears to be missing, and Star Wars is always at its best when it feels magical and imaginative. It is a franchise that has thrived through delivering more than just flashy CGI images and digitally enhanced action sequences. The original trilogy and the recent movies work well because it’s easy to become invested in characters like Luke, Leia, Han, Rey, Finn and Poe, and to boo at villains such as Vader and Kylo Ren. For all the things that Attack of the Clones gets right, there are still many things it gets wrong and which stop it from being as great as we all know a Star Wars movie can be.