It didn’t sink right in. It took a little time for everyone to process that, in fact, The Phantom Menace wasn’t a good movie. Once the crushing disappointment had a chance to settle in, sights were set to the future, to Episode II. This time things were going to be different. We were going to learn about The Clone Wars, more about the Sith, and get closer to Anakin Skywalker’s eventual fall from grace and transformation into Darth Vader. Despite all the hopes and prayers of the Star Wars faithful, Attack of the Clones is actually more of a rambling mess than The Phantom Menace – the first clue that nothing would be getting better was the persistence of the titles’ stupidity. But where I can find minor merits of the other prequels, Attack of the Clones is a film devoid of merits, a layer cake of bad ideas that get progressively worse with time. Without a doubt, Attack of the Clones is the nadir of the hated prequels.
George Lucas doubles down on every bad decision from The Phantom Menace. Darth Maul may have been an ineffectual villain, a blank slate of villainy that looks kind of cool, but at least we actually see the character in the film. With Attack of the Clones, there’s not a clear villain in the film until nearly an hour and a half into the film’s excessive running time, the longest of all the prequels. Much of the time of the film is dedicated to the stilted, creepy romance between Padme (Natalie Portman) and Anakin (Hayden Christensen). After all, they’re just picking up their romance from when she was a teenager and he a prepubescent child. And as he did in The Phantom Menace, Lucas continues to add various aspects of the Jedi Order that don’t really make much sense. (Why are the Jedi supposed to be celibate?)
The most baffling and frustrating choice that Lucas makes in Episode II is his persistence that the most interesting elements of his story happen off screen. It’s as if George Lucas is trying to make the cinematic equivalent of being stuck in a conversation where everyone around you is discussing people and events that you don’t know a thing about. The opening crawl tells us that the Jedi are overwhelmed and stretched thin. Well, how did this happen? That’s a big revelation to leave between movies considering the Jedi were doing just fine the last time we saw them. The crawl also tells us that the separatist movement is led by Count Dooku (eventually revealed to be Christopher Lee). We’re told by Mace Windu (Samuel L. Jackson) that Dooku used to be a Jedi only to have it later revealed that Dooku is a Sith lord. Dooku’s relationship with other Jedi and his eventual turn towards the Dark Side could’ve just given us a compelling parallel to what will befall Anakin. But no, this all has to happen off screen.
Even more baffling is the fact that an unseen Jedi Master is solely responsible for the order placed of the clone army that will lead the climactic battle. The name of Master Sifo-Dyas is mentioned a few times throughout Attack of the Clones, but this is a character that was killed a decade prior to the film’s events. The story of this character is a mystery to all but those who have heavily invested themselves in reading all of the expanded universe novels and comic books. All of these unseen revelations would be of little import had they been throwaway lines and a bit of fan service to the expanded universe readership, but these are crucial plot points in a story that willfully withholds information that obscures any and all narrative clarity.
This all culminates in two epic lightsaber battles. Of course, they’re not actually epic in execution, just misguided attempt. Because the history between Dooku and the entire Jedi Order is left off screen, it’s just a weightless battle aided by CGI. The first confrontation between Anakin and Obi-Wan (a wasted Ewan McGregor) has no dramatic weight. These are three people that barely know each other fighting for the first time. However, all that changes when we finally see Yoda wield a lightsaber for the first time. Oh wait, nothing changes because we know nothing of Dooku and his relationship to Yoda aside from a throwaway line about Yoda having once trained him. Even worse, there was never any need to see Yoda fight. Following the lukewarm reaction to The Phantom Menace, it’s like Lucas was so desperate to give audiences what he thought they wanted that he’d even betray the heart and soul behind one of his most beloved characters. The resulting fight exists on the sheer novelty of seeing a horror film legend battle a CGI puppet. The character never needed to be a violent badass, nor does he need to be a badass of false humility. Here he’s both.
But what about that relationship between Anakin and Padme? It’s truly astounding because it’s a romance that people who are human cannot connect to on any conceivable level. Of course, the stilted dialogue of George Lucas never allows these characters to operate with anything resembling genuine emotion. Their tender moments are groan-inducing, something that never happened with the burgeoning romance of Han Solo and Princess Leia in The Empire Strikes Back. Lucas can’t help but make matters worse for this would-be couple by having Anakin express his affection for intergalactic fascism and then carrying out, and confessing to, a genocidal murder spree. Despite all this we’re still expected to believe that these two have a love that transcends the stars.
Then there’s Jango Fett (Temuera Morrison), the father of fan favorite Boba Fett. Both Boba and Jango look really cool with their Mandalorian armor and jet packs. Yet both characters are underwritten. Aside from their jobs as bounty hunters and their eventual demise, you couldn’t exactly explain much about either Boba or Jango Fett. The Fett family is defined solely by their look, as if Lucas and company thought that was sufficient for characters that span over six films.
The absolute worst feature of Attack of the Clones is the film’s ugly aesthetic. Using the leaps in computer technology, George Lucas all but abandoned physical sets to place his actors on a soundstage surrounded by green screen with the backdrops added later. It winds up making the film look like it was done entirely using rear projection, something that works for a scene here and there, not for a two-and-a-half hour movie. Re-watching the film 13 years later, Attack of the Clones seems to have had a great influence on the story segments of video games and recent films of Robert Rodriguez.
The formless mess that is Attack of the Clones dug the Star Wars prequels into a hole that it couldn’t escape. Like the underwhelming Phantom Menace, the film has no clear villains or conflict to keep the story propelling forward. Instead, George Lucas tries to play everything way too close to the vest, leaving the film just kind of hopping from one inconsequential action scene to the next. Even its action-packed climax is underwhelming, and feels as if it is included to kill off swaths of anonymous Jedi so the conclusion in Episode III will be all the more swift. Bad characters, poor plotting, and an ugly aesthetic make Attack of the Clones the low point the Star Wars saga.