Just like the hooded Sith Lord looming over his six “Star Wars” films, George Lucas has built himself an empire. After writing and directing the acclaimed “THX-1138” (1971) and “American Graffiti” (1973), Lucas threw his heart and mind into “Star Wars,” the epic space opera which hit theaters in 1977 and would go on to redefine science fiction cinema for decades to come. Inspired by Akira Kurosawa’s fast-paced adventure movies and drawing heavily from Joseph Campbell’s conception of the monomyth, the original “Star Wars” trilogy blended visually stunning action sequences with mystical themes while endearing the public to swashbuckling heroes, lovable scoundrels and rebellious princesses. Of course, there are villains in this saga as well, and Lucas himself became one as despised as the dark Emperor himself after the release “Star Wars” prequels, starting with “The Phantom Menace” in 1999. The man who created “Star Wars” was now accused of ruining it all with half-baked origin stories, mind-numbing politicizing and cringe-inducing dialogue. Where was the magic of the original trilogy? These were not the prequels the fans were looking for.
I was nine when “The Phantom Menace” was released. That year, I dressed up as Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman) for the Jewish holiday of Purim; pickings were slim back then as far as female Star Wars characters go. After hearing so much about the legendary original trilogy from my father, I was thrilled to finally have a trilogy of my own; as a result, I loved the movies on sight. Years later, when I realized how universally maligned the prequels were, pure nostalgia compelled me to their defense. But even from a critical perspective, taking a closer look at the prequel trilogy reveals a thematically layered, visually arresting, and compellingly tragic tale that doesn’t get the credit it deserves. The second of the prequels, “Attack of the Clones” (2002) marks the pinnacle of storytelling acumen as it reflects the larger whole, weaving together individual threads of cinematic achievement to display a tapestry as bold and spellbinding as the myth it encapsulates.
Much like the recently released and well-regarded “Episode VII: The Force Awakens,” “Attack of the Clones” takes its cues from the original trilogy, capitalizing on the nostalgia factor with specific callbacks to Episodes Four through Six: Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) and Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) enter a cantina on Coruscant reminiscent of the memorable site of the shooting spree between Han Solo and Greedo at Mos Eisley. While there, Obi-Wan’s cheeky use of the Jedi mind-trick— “You don’t want to sell me deathsticks,” he purrs to a skeevy-looking low-life— alludes to Alec Guinness’s original rendition of “These aren’t the droids you’re looking for” in “Episode IV: A New Hope.” Another line that has become a gleefully implemented running joke throughout the series— “I have a bad feeling about this”— is wryly uttered by Anakin as he, Padmé Amidala (Natalie Portman) and Obi-Wan face impending doom in a Geonosis battle arena. These meta-textual moments are pure, unadulterated fun—admit it, you cracked a grin— but they also serve to situate the film within the larger context of the George Lucas canon, feeding into the epic scope of a six-part story of the rise and fall of good and evil.
To express the integral connection between the two trilogies, Lucas meticulously designed the prequels to “rhyme” with the originals. In “Attack of the Clones,” this plays out in the cinematic mirroring of shots and sequences, as with Han hiding his Millennium Falcon on the side of the the larger Star Destroyer in “The Empire Strikes Back” and Obi-Wan pulling the same trick on the side of an asteroid. There is also a dismembered Skywalker scene, a blossoming romance, and a bounty hunter called Fett. The deliberate parallels— and there are many— link the films visually and thematically. Lucas certainly knew what he was doing, and a careful viewer of the prequels will pick up on these enticing, metaphorically significant cues.
“Attack of the Clones” contains just enough politicizing to make the galaxy far, far away feel real, but it wisely fixates more intensely on the grander themes of good, evil, and the sliding scale between the two. The pulsating dramatic tension of the prequels hinges on the knowledge of what comes later, and the film capitalizes on this by building up the hubris of the Jedi in anticipation of their eventual— and inevitable— fall. While life in the Jedi Temple peacefully flourishes, Obi-Wan pokes around looking for the planet of Kamino— a stormy world signifying the upcoming unrest. The planet, however, evades his grasp, and the temple archivist declares with haughty finitude that “if an item does not appear in our records, it does not exist!”
At the beginning of the film, after Padmé is targeted for assassination, she correctly identifies the mastermind as Count Dooku, but the Jedi dismiss her with similarly misplaced confidence: “Count Dooku was once a Jedi,” Mace Windu (Samuel L. Jackson) says. “He wouldn’t assassinate anyone.” Ki-Adi-Mundi (Silas Carson) agrees: “He’s a political idealist, not a murderer.” Even when Obi-Wan, captured and shackled, engages in conversation with Dooku himself, Obi-Wan refuses to believe Dooku’s tales about the rise of the nefarious Sith. Though the dark side clouds the Force, the narrative implications are clear: these esteemed Jedi Knights, keepers of the peace and guardians of the good, have become arrogant. In a manner befitting a Shakespearean tragedy, the heroes of the democratic republic are becoming the very cause of its downfall.
The prequel trilogy also inverts the traditional hero’s journey by placing Anakin Skywalker— destined to torment the galaxy as Darth Vader— as its protagonist, and “Attack of the Clones” features the incident that precipitated Anakin’s turn to the dark side: the capture and death of his mother. As Anakin converses with Padmé before racing off, the camera briefly pans to their silhouettes, where Darth Vader’s helmet is prominently profiled on Anakin’s head, a powerful image foreshadowing (quite literally) what’s to come. Upon discovering his mother’s fate, Anakin slaughters the entire village of raiders in a fit of rage, and Hayden Christensen sells every beat of visceral, emotional trauma as John William’s iconic “Imperial March” crescendos in the background. It’s one of the truly cathartic scenes depicting Anakin Skywalker’s descent, and from the camerawork to the acting, it’s orchestrated beautifully.
We can identify with Anakin’s journey because we feel that he is right to question the Jedi’s loftiness and stark emotional abstinence. Humans without feelings are more like particularly skilled droids, or clones. And it is Anakin, in a moment of omniscient wisdom, who lays out the paradox at the heart of the Jedi code. It is well known that attachment and possession are forbidden to a Jedi, he tells Padmé. However: “Compassion, which I would define as unconditional love, is essential to a Jedi’s life. So you might say that we are encouraged to love.” That Anakin is constantly chastised for embracing love— that is the true tragedy.
Other characters also make the most of their moments in the spotlight, such as the late Christopher Lee, playing to his strengths as the deliciously diabolical Dooku, and the hapless droid C-3PO (voiced by Anthony Daniels), spouting punny one-liners and unintentional social commentary at every turn. (“You obviously still have a lot to learn about human behavior,” C-3PO tells R2-D2 as Padmé and Anakin hurry away. “If they had wanted our help, they would have asked for it!”) The character of Padmé may feel underdeveloped in the previous film and is egregiously mishandled in the subsequent one, but her role in “Attack of the Clones” is prominent and most reminiscent of that of her future daughter and feminist icon, Princess Leia. When Anakin interrupts her in political proceedings on her home planet, she firmly puts him in his place, and while the Galactic Senate defers in worshipful reverence to the Jedi, Padmé speaks up, holding her own as a sharp-minded politician who strives tirelessly to sustain democratic ideals. As the opposition leader against the shady “Separatists,” Padmé is a strong public figure, and she proves that she can go toe-to-toe on personal matters as well.
But the most complex relationship of the prequels is that of Anakin and Obi-Wan, as “Attack of the Clones” explores the deep connection that has emerged between stern master and wayward pupil, between father figure and prodigal son. Every interaction between the pair is laced with an undercurrent of gloom arising from the audience’s knowledge of Obi-Wan’s fate at the hand of Darth Vader in “A New Hope.” “Why do I get the feeling you’re going to be the death of me?” Obi-Wan jests at the beginning of “Attack of the Clones.” It’s a gem of a line, dripping with tragic irony. But it also reflects the easy rapport enjoyed by the two characters, and, indeed, by the two actors. McGregor and Christensen bring out the best in each other (unsurprising in a film otherwise riddled with CGI characters); both seem to truly enjoy trading dry quips and witty banter, and that boyish enthusiasm is contagious. I happen to enjoy Christensen’s monotone poutiness— Anakin is supposed to be a moody teenager, after all— and it balances well with Obi-Wan’s holier-than-thou snark. McGregor especially shines, fleshing out a character previously recognized more as an icon than a human being with hopes and fears of his own.
“Attack of the Clones” showcases this legendary partnership at its apex, teasing a myriad off-screen adventures as well. Meanwhile, we witness the beginning of an insidious tension creeping into their relationship; an austere Obi-Wan forbids Anakin to form personal attachments, as is the Jedi way, even while he himself unwittingly fosters a closeness with Anakin. Obi-Wan also frequently berates Anakin for acting rashly, specifically when it comes to the protection of one Padmé Amidala. Yet it is Obi-Wan who instinctively hurls himself out of a window in order to catch a probe droid after Padmé’s life is threatened yet again. Though the two present vastly different exteriors, they are more alike than they might expect— hence the close, brotherly connection, and hence the heartbreak as their fates diverge.
The film’s score traces these transformations every step of the way. John Williams’s “Imperial March” hums ominously in the background whenever Anakin dips into the dark side, and it explodes triumphantly as the newly created Clone Army (later to turn on the Republic— another blurring of good and evil) marches onto the scene to close out the film. A new John Williams composition makes its debut as well, becoming an instant classic: “Across the Stars,” the hopeful yet mournful theme of Anakin and Padmé, the title alone alluding to the Romeo-and-Juliet tragedy of the star-crossed lovers. At the end of “Attack of the Clones,” “The Imperial March” bleeds into “Across the Stars” as scenes of the marching clones give way to Anakin and Padmé’s secret wedding. The stage is set in these two closing shots: the fall of democracy, the rise of evil, and the blossoming of a doomed love.
“Attack of the Clones” was also notable for its pioneering special effects, and indeed, the dazzling visuals of this film still stand apart. Some of the CGI can be deemed excessive, but taken as a whole, it illustrates Lucas’s unparalleled penchant for world-building. Each alien rendered onscreen captivates the imagination, from Ki-Adi-Mundi’s enlarged cranium to Mas Amedda’s blue-skinned, quadra-horned visage. Each planet retains an infinite index of unique characteristics as well, from the opulent palaces of Naboo to the tech-noir metropolis of Coruscant— which serves as the setting for an exhilarating speeder chase— and Kamino, the water world on which Obi-Wan and bounty hunter Jango Fett engage in a rain-drenched, Mortal Kombat-style duel.
From the cantina on Coruscant to— yes— the lake on Naboo, “Attack of the Clones” features some of the most compelling characters, tragic themes, and awe-inducing visuals and music the Star Wars universe has to offer. Search your feelings— you know it to be true. You only have to let go of your hate and embrace the emotional journey unfolding right in front of you.