“We’re keepers of the peace, not soldiers …” — Jedi Master Mace Windu, Attack of the Clones
Reflections on Episode II …
If The Phantom Menace is, as so many critics today claim, a largely irrelevant prologue to the Star Wars saga, Attack of the Clones is the epic splash page we all pictured in our heads when the prequels were just a long-forgotten rumor that was never going to happen.
I first saw Attack of the Clones with a large group of friends at the Arizona Mills Harkins theater, passing the time in line playing Apples to Apples and other card games, and fending off shameless Star Wars-themed religious pamphlets from evangelists drawn to the media frenzy that follows the Saga.
Still far from perfect and riddled with bad deliveries from under-directed but largely likable actors, Attack of the Clones is where we really feel the universe we knew from the Original Trilogy taking shape before our eyes, rather than in the shadows and senate chambers.
Welcome to Episode VII Days of the Force, a daily series of Star Wars reflections counting down to the release of The Force Awakens!
I’ve always believed The Phantom Menace feels like a dream or flashback sequence compared with the rest of the Saga, even its own prequel offshoots. As someone who grew up with Star Wars, and only later learned the significance of “the hero’s journey,” it’s easy to see the first prequel as a classical frieze depicting figures of myth and creatures of legend whose exploits shaped the real world, or so they say… Looked at in this way, its jarring incongruity with everything else Star Wars can be seen as more forgivable.
As Senator Amidala’s stylish flying-wing starship descends to Coruscant, we know the Republic of a decade earlier is gone. The whole landing platform scene, shrouded in fog, casts the drama of the growing prospect of galactic war in visual terms of romantic World War II intrigues like Casablanca. Then an assassin sets off a bomb that won’t be contained to any one landing platform, instead lighting a fuse that will bring hellfire raining down on the entire galaxy, echoing for decades into the Rebellion and beyond.
I loved that Padme flew escort in disguise while a decoy played her role, just as when she was Queen during the Trade Federation’s blockage shenanigans. No child ruler figurehead, she has grown into a warrior for the disenfranchised, and she soon shows that she is capable in more than just political sparring as her precious peace crumbles around her.
Shaking out of the attempt on Amidala’s life, we soon meet the enterprising bounty hunter and father Jango Fett, the template for a mysterious army of clone soldiers allegedly mustered by a long-dead Jedi Master, and once again we’re in a wartime espionage-cum-hardboiled detective story as Obi-Wan Kenobi seeks to uncover elusive truths – all as the Jedi Council’s top leaders, Yoda and Mace-Windu, choose to conceal the truth of their own waning powers from the Senate in the face of a resurgent dark side.
The mystery of the clone army’s commission, and the lost Master Sifo-Dyas, hints at the grand conspiracy and betrayal to come, but is never satisfactorily solved. The final season of the animated Clone Wars series reopens the file on Sifo-Dyas and goes some distance down that rabbit hole, but the thread concerning who erased the cloners’ world, Kamino, from the Jedi Temple Archives is left dangling even after Episode III and the TV series. These sloppy points could have been resolved more neatly by tying them to the character of Count Dooku.
The climactic Geonosis arena scene, first with Anakin, Padme and Obi-Wan in a gladiatorial fight to the death with various beasts, then with the Jedi showing up and Yoda’s timely arrival with his clone army, was amazing, and let’s not forget that this is the first time we see Yoda whip out his lightsaber. Heck, until he shows up (again) to save Obi-Wan and a now mostly armless Anakin from Count Dooku, we aren’t even sure he even carries a weapon – and after Yoda’s original introduction in The Empire Strikes Back, it would almost be disappointing to learn he has one, if its reveal wasn’t so well executed.
But let’s take a moment to appreciate Count Dooku. Christopher Lee is no longer with us, but Attack of the Clones represents the most Star Wars screen time he gets – and every moment is golden. Having the former Hammer Horror star in the prequels lent them a touch of much-needed class, a la Liam Neeson’s appearance in The Phantom Menace and indeed Sir Alec Guinness’ in the original trilogy. And it forms another connection with the great Peter Cushing, whose Grand Moff Tarkin also added some esteem and gravitas to A New Hope.
Remember that Dooku basically tells a captive Obi-Wan the broad strokes of the entire Sith plot for dominating the Republic! Star Wars has always succeeded by communicating simple truths, and here we are reminded that the best place to conceal a secret is sometimes in plain sight, and bad guys aren’t always necessarily lying through their teeth. So as the Jedi hide the truth, the Sith use it as a distraction.
There is dark and light, but there is also gray. Dooku seems to make a genuine play for turning Obi-Wan, which I believe because of his fondness for his late student, and Obi-Wan’s mentor, the gray-ish Qui-Gon Jinn. Dooku’s character suffers a bit for the way he was casually introduced when you would think a renegade and bellicose former Jedi should be more of a big deal, given his ties to Yoda and Qui-Gon. But we learn, in a roundabout way, that the Jedi Order already has a lot to answer for, even without taking their carelessness with Anakin and the Chosen One prophecy into account.
Anakin’s guilt and rage at failing to save his mother from death – such a key part of his journey to the dark side – particularly pulls heartstrings for me. I may not have known it yet, but within a year or so of the movie’s release I was about to lose my own mother to illness. I believe Attack of the Clones may be the last movie I went to see with her, not at the midnight opening but soon after. As long as I had been waiting for the prequel stories, I have to remember that she had been waiting for them as well.
My parents saw Star Wars at the old Cine Capri in east Phoenix, and they had to leave a showing early because I got scared and started crying. (I was just a few months old.) My mother was a huge fan of the Original Trilogy, and when I was too young to appreciate all its subtleties she would patiently explain them to me in terms I could understand. I didn’t learn “pride goeth before a fall” from the Bible’s Book of Proverbs, but my mother did – and she passed that lesson of arrogance and overconfidence down to me using Anakin Skywalker’s example, even though it was just backstory then and I had trouble imagining how Darth Vader ever could have been a good guy.
Music is a big part of Star Wars, and while Attack of the Clones mostly builds on what has come before, its biggest contribution to John Williams’ epic Saga vocabular is the movie’s love theme, “Across the Stars,” a haunting tune distinct from The Empire Strikes Back’s epic love theme representing Han and Leia, but with its own sweeping quality that harks back to Hollywood’s greatest post-classical orchestral epics.
Hayden Christensen does an admirable job stepping into the role of Anakin in Attack of the Clones, despite some sappy love scenes and crappy dialogue. His petulance and weakness are palpable. We hate the young Skywalker because he courts temptation at every turn, but we still love him because he is flawed like anyone else, and he is — for now — a hero of legend.