‘Star Wars’ Revisited, Part 5: ‘Attack of the Clones’

aotc-poster
Copyright Lucasfilm

Pre-viewing thoughts: “Attack of the Clones” is Peak George Lucas when it comes to the Star Wars series. It’s a movie that only barely hangs together at the plot level while having one of the worst-realized love stories in recent memory, yet manages to almost work on the strength of several noteworthy set pieces. The plot is a mess, and the Anakin and Padme love story is completely flat, in no small part due to a wooden, bordering-on-petrified performance from Hayden Christensen. Yet there are a handful of moments in “Attack of the Clones” that stick out prominent in my cinematic memory, namely the chase through Coruscant at the opening, the entire Kamino sequence, and the massive third-act brawl that begins with Padme, Anakin and Obi-Wan fighting off beasts in the coliseum before evolving into a massive battle between the droid army and the clone troops. Plus we get to see Yoda kick some butt, and that’s more or less worth the price of admission right there. Let’s get  through this together.

Movie diary:

  • 00:0- “Attack of the Clones” is one of three Star Wars movies where the first word of the title is a verb, along with “Return of the Jedi” and “Revenge of the Sith.”
  • 1:15- It’s difficult to believe the Republic didn’t have an official army of its own prior the Clone Wars. You’d think people would recognize the Jedi can’t handle everything.
  • 2:00- More sleek, metallic Naboo ship designs
  • 3:30- The bombing attempt on Padme is a pretty bleak opening. Shows that this insurgency against the Republic is serious.
  • 4:00- Once again, Natalie Portman’s body language and facial expressions are all right when she’s expressing her grief over the death of her body double, but her delivery is that flat monotone that Lucas insists she and Hayden Christensen speak in. It’s really distracting; the minimum standard for good acting is to not distract with your performance.
  • 6:00- Padme is totally right that Count Dooku is behind the assassination attempt, despite what Mace Windu says about it not being in Dooku’s Jedi nature. The Jedi are frequently shown to be the victims of hubris.
  • 6:45- Again, the plot mechanics here are murky. It’s hard to believe Palpatine would know about Anakin’s relationship with Amidala, so why would he want them together? And (I think) he ordered the second attempt on Amidala’s life, so why give her Jedi protection? This is the rare Star Wars movie that suffers from real basic plot structure problems.
  • 7:30- Ewan McGregor is much more at ease as Obi-Wan this time around. And he’s managed to replicate some of the dry wit Alec Guiness brought to the role the first time around.
  • 8:20- “Ani? My goodness, you’ve grown.” Ugh. Not exactly a red-hot start to this would-be romance.
  • 9:00- Anakin makes the admittedly rational move of thinking they should investigate who’s trying to kill Padme, while Obi-Wan insists on playing things by the book and following the literal order of the council. It misses the mark in trying to portray Anakin as the rash, undisciplined one. He comes off as the humane one here.
  • 11:45- Anakin and Obi-Wan get into a snit over whose Jedi senses are more powerful when it comes to watching Padme’s rooms.
  • 12:15- Anakin is having dreams of his mother, setting up his visions later on.
  • 13:15- The worms as instruments of assassination is a nice bit. They’re genuinely creepy.
  • 14:00- Obi-Wan and Anakin also disagree about whether or not Palpatine is a good guy. It’d be nice to see why Anakin views Palpatine so favorably prior to now.
  • 15:00- The speeder chase through the Coruscant is very well done. Chases with the element of verticality are pretty rare, even in major blockbusters.
  • 16:00- As usual, John Williams brings his ‘A’ game. The chase music is top-notch.
  • 17:15- Anakin is a bit of a thrill junkie, coming pretty close to crashing the speeder into the large ship as they plummet through the streets. And Hayden Christensen’s monotone laugh makes the moment somewhat unintentionally menacing.
  • 19:15- Give Anakin credit for guts. Jumping into free fall to pursue the assassin is a pretty incredible move.
  • 20:20- Obi-Wan snags Anakin’s lightsaber as it flies by. Nice touch.
  • 22:05- “Why do I get the feeling you’re going to be the death of me?” Obi-Wan, to Anakin. Real cute, George.
  • 23:00- Obi-Wan uses the Jedi mind trick to get a drug dealer to go home and rethink his life. It’s a nice, quick moment of subdued humor.
  • 24:15- One of Hayden Christensen’s stronger moments in the movie is when he’s interrogating the bounty hunter. He’s a believable bad cop alternative to Obi-Wan’s good cop.
  • 25:15- Anakin gets the assignment of protecting Padme while Obi-Wan investigates the bounty hunter who killed the would-be assassin.
  • 26:00- First of several great scenes between Palpatine and Anakin, and Ian McDiarmid does a great job of showing how Palpatine flatters Anakin’s ego while also sewing doubt about the authority and honesty of the Jedi.
  • 27:30- Padme shuts up Jar Jar when he goes into his speech after being named interim senator.
  • 28:00- Padme is very much against the Republic having a standing army, and the Republic gets its army despite her best efforts.
  • 29:00- Anakin, like his son in the future, chafes against Obi-Wan’s authority because he thinks Obi-Wan and the Jedi Council are holding him back. But Luke had pretty good tutors, while Anakin has a somewhat naïve Obi-Wan on the one hand and Palpatine whispering in his ear on the other hand. The Jedi really fail Anakin, though it’s hard to see because it’s not very well dramatically realized and because of Christensen’s performance.
  • 31:30- I love Obi-Wan going to the hole in the wall diner as part of his investigation. It adds a little bit of rule-breaking character to the otherwise straight-laced Obi-Wan.
  • 33:30- The Kamino cloners are a pretty fascinating addition to the franchise; we’ve never really heard about clones before in the series, but they end up having a pretty big impact on the galaxy.
  • 35:28- Anakin’s awkward explanation for how love is allowed by the Jedi code despite the seeming prohibition against it is another scene where you need a director with a stronger feel for actors to really make the scene work.
  • 36:30- I love that Yoda is the one who works with the youngest students at the Jedi temple. And he even gets the correct answer for what happened to Kamino’s location from one of the kids. It’s a nice little slice of Jedi life from when there were more than just a few Jedi in the galaxy.
  • 38:45- Naboo is actually a pretty beautiful, romantic spot. Too bad there’s no real romance between Anakin and Padme.
  • 41:20- All of the music during the Kamino scenes is top notch.
  • 41:45- The Kamino aliens themselves are a very cool design, with how tall and slender they are.
  • 43:00- Obi-Wan is understandably confused upon finding out a dead Jedi master apparently ordered up a clone army.
  • 44:30- The “I don’t like sand” speech is really, really bad. Oof.
  • 45:30- The music swells, they kiss, and…fizzle. Portman and Christensen just have no chemistry and no basis in the script for their relationship. It’s just very poorly done.
  • 47:00- I’ve never really understand the love Boba Fett gets, and I’m not sure having Jango Fett as his father and the original blueprint for the clone troopers adds a whole lot. That said, he’s a pretty fun secondary villain in this movie.
  • 50:00- Anakin and Padme do have a pretty good scene together after their discussion about politics. It’s one of their better moments together.
  • 54:00- The transition from the relatively playful dinner scene to the super melodramatic fireside scene between Anakin and Padme is really rough. Just when we start to see them show believable affection, we get right into the super serious relationship business. This love story is just very poorly done.
  • 55:45- Portman gets closer to the mark than Christensen. His emotions are too…childish.
  • 58:30- Yoda continues to be one of the few Jedi who has any inkling of Palpatine’s larger schemes. But even he can’t see the web around them fully.
  • 59:45- Christensen is stronger in the scenes involving his mother. He’s more honed in on the appropriate response instead of a childlike impression of grown-up emotions.
  • 1:02:00- The Obi-Wan vs. Jango fight is pretty entertaining, and Jango acquits himself well for a non-Force user.
  • 1:04:45- Watto has fallen on hard times since we last saw him. He’s in just enough of the movie to be a fun callback without overstaying his welcome.
  • 1:07:00- The chase in the asteroid field between Obi-Wan and Jango is also really well done. Seeing all those asteroids blow up and Obi-Wan have to dodge them is a lot of fun.
  • 1:09:45- Shades of “Empire” as Obi-Wan dodges detection by hiding his ship on an asteroid, similar to Han’s move with the Star Destroyer.
  • 1:11:45- Good to see 3PO again. And nice to see Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru in their pre-“A New Hope” days.
  • 1:14:15- The shot of Anakin and Padme talking as we look on their shadows is a nice little touch. And Anakin gets a “Duel of the Fates” reprise as he sets out on what will prove to be a rather dark mission.
  • 1:16:30- It’s a little convenient that Obi-Wan stumbles upon the Separatist leaders, but at least we get a glimpse of the great Christopher Lee as Count Dooku. Lee had a good run in the early 2000s as traitorous bad guys, between his work in the prequels and “The Lord of the Rings.”
  • 1:18:30- The Sand Peoples’ treatment of Shmi is a legitimately dark moment. She’s clearly been through hell. Her moment with Anakin before his rampage is really touching.
  • 1:20:30- The moment when Anakin’s rage takes over and he goes berserk on the Sand People is really effective. Christensen sells the anger and then the ruthlessness as he cuts them down. We’re definitely in Vader territory here.
  • 1:23:15- Anakin returning to the moisture farm with his mother’s body is a suitably grim moment.
  • 1:24:45- Anakin’s quest for power being fueled by grief is a good moment. And we get a preview of Vader’s hatred and bloodlust when Anakin describes his joy in killing the Sand People. His downward spiral is moving quickly now.
  • 1:29:45- Padme shows some spine in deciding to go help Obi-Wan when the Jedi Council wants her to stay put.
  • 1:30:45- Palpatine plays Jar Jar into being the one who proposes the measure to give him emergency executive powers. Nice move as part of his plan.
  • 1:32:15- Making Dooku Qui-Gon’s master, thus making him a natural foil for Obi-Wan, is a good move, and Christopher Lee is great in the part, using their shared history to toy with Obi-Wan’s emotions while also engaging in some classic Sith backstabbing with his genuine reveal that there’s a Sith Lord manipulating the Republic and the Jedi.
  • 1:33:30- “It may be difficult to secure your release.” Lee brings just the right amount of very subtle menace to this line, making Dooku into a memorable antagonist.
  • 1:34:30- Palpatine’s faux-humility as he “accepts” emergency powers and vows to return the powers once the crisis abates is great to watch. McDiarmid plays it so sincerely it comes around to just a shade of too over earnest.
  • 1:37:30- The bug-like Geonosians are another cool alien species first seen in this movie. Lots of small and large moments of visual imagination on display.
  • 1:38:30- Never been a huge fan of the big scene inside the droid factory. Just seems a bit too obviously CGI, so the sense of danger is minimal. And the droid antics are a bit too much.
  • 1:43:00- Padme’s big confession just falls so flat because we just haven’t been given enough reason to believe these two care deeply about each other. Portman gives it her best effort, though.
  • 1:44:30- The coliseum wherein our heroes nearly get eaten is a really cool set. And the build as the sequence evolves is very impressively done.
  • 1:45:45- The praying mantis-spider thing that goes after Obi-Wan strikes me as the most intimidating monster of the bunch, but they’re all pretty cool.
  • 1:48:00- Anakin Skywalker, creature whisperer.
  • 1:50:00- Mace Windu’s surprise arrival on Geonosis is pretty cool, and his purple lightsaber is sweet. Samuel L. Jackson can do roles like this in his sleep.
  • 1:51:00- One advantage of the prequels is we can have lots of Jedi show up and fight, which is really cool to see. You can see why they’re such fearsome combatants and what it really meant to see all of them die.
  • 1:53:15- Mace Windu with a pretty brutal decapitation of Jango Fett.
  • 1:54:30- Obi-Wan terminates the monster that tried to kill him with extreme prejudice.
  • 1:55:30- The Jedi and Padme are definitely doomed before Yoda shows up with the clone troops. Ironic, then, that the clone troopers are the ones who end up whiping out the Jedi.
  • 1:56:30- CGI Yoda just doesn’t look as good as puppet Yoda, which says a lot about how good the puppet work was in “Empire” and “Jedi.”
  • 1:58:15- The droid vs. clone army battle is very well staged, large in scope but with a clear sense of the action. All of the big action beats are well done, but they don’t work as dramatic payoffs, because the story is otherwise lacking. So you have a movie that’s pretty, has a few fun moments, and is otherwise inert. Like I said up top, Peak Lucas.
  • 2:02:30- The droids and clones fighting in the dust after one of the ships crashes to earth is a really cool visual.
  • 2:04:00- Obi-Wan finally gets through to Anakin by pointing point that Padme would go after Dooku were she in his position. Obi-Wan should definitely be concerned about Anakin with what he knows at this point, but it never really comes up again.
  • 2:06:45- Anakin using two lightsabers against Dooku isn’t as cool as Darth Maul’s double-bladed lightsaber, but the fight in the near-dark as the combatants are lit up only by their lightsabers is really neat.
  • 2:07:45- And then Yoda shows up. Easily the best part of the whole movie.
  • 2:09:00- Yoda just shrugging off Dooku’s Force attacks is fantastic. We know who the top Jedi around here is.
  • 2:09:30- Yoda is a jumping, flipping, twirling machine as he fights. He’s fun to watch.
  • 2:11:00- Dooku is the one who cuts off Anakin’s right hand, as we saw in “Jedi.” He’s also Yoda’s former apprentice, starting the tradition of Jedi falling under Palpatine’s sway.
  • 2:12:15- Dooku is secretly Palpatine’s new apprentice, meaning they control both armies in the conflict, able to spin it to their advantage however they see fit. It’s a pretty solid plan.
  • 2:14:00- The Imperial March plays as we get our big shot of the clone army now at Palpatine’s disposal. It’s quite the image. The rise of the Empire now seems inevitable. And, of course, seeing as these are prequels, it is.
  • 2:15:15- C-3PO and R2-D2 are the witnesses to Padme and Anakin’s marriage. Big secret to entrust to the droids.

Wrap-up: “Attack of the Clones” is definitely one of the weakest of the Star Wars movies, maybe the worst of the bunch. It has moments that shine, but a threadbare screenplay and a romance that’s DOA really hurt its standing and effectiveness in the broader franchise. I rarely single out actors for criticism, but this is a case where it noticeably impacts the overall quality of the movie, and Hayden Christensen is really lackluster as Anakin. This movie is a showcase of George Lucas’ best and worst instincts, which explains the uneven final product. Next time around, he’d show us that he still had one more great “Star Wars” movie in him.

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