The Case For Attack of The Clones’ Greatness
The year was 1977, and New Hollywood was beginning to reach the end of its rope as the studio heads reeled in their money-burning auteurs and the phenomenon of the blockbuster began to take shape. Elaine May was hiding reels of her film Mikey and Nicky (1976) to prevent Paramount from releasing a botched cut, William Friedkin was about to take a hit to his sterling record with Sorcerer (1977), and the most unlucky of them all had to be Dennis Hopper, who had been barred from directing for the previous six years after Universal refused to release his second feature, The Last Movie (1971). For George Lucas, the young director of THX 1138 (1971) and the Academy Award-nominated American Graffiti (1973), failure was a genuine possibility for his space opera made on a budget of $11 million: Star Wars (1977).
I’m writing this only a few days after the unveiling at Star Wars Celebration of the trailer for Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker (2019). George Lucas’ gamble over forty years ago on a Joseph Campbell-inspired dream project paid off, as we all know. The trailer for the highly anticipated Episode IX, now the subject of fan debates and frame-by-frame studies, proves (once again) that Disney’s Lucasfilm can still amass excitement while revealing very little. There’s a familiar face here and there, a cool stunt, an object you haven’t seen in a couple decades, and the unforgettable cackling of the Star Wars saga’s most villainous foe. It is the combination of these hints of dramatic elements in the service of the unknown that makes them exciting – we’re asking “what if?” questions.
That this trailer, or even just knowing that Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi (Rian Johnson, 2017) was going to have a saga-ending sequel, incites “what if?” questions is one of the factors that has made this current trilogy particularly interesting. For the first time in thirty-six years, we don’t know what’s going to happen next in a Star Wars film. This current trilogy, which started with Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens (J.J. Abrams, 2015), follows the events of the original trilogy that was released from 1977 to 1983. Picking up some thirty-odd years after the original movies, the dramatic trajectory of the sequel trilogy films has been a big unknown, but the inclusion of iconic characters from the original trilogy – Han Solo (Harrison Ford), Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher), and others – has been an interesting area of contention. Some fans believe that the sequel trilogy has betrayed the essence of the characters, and others bemoan the de-canonization of the popular “expanded universe” novels that were published following the 1983 release of Return of The Jedi. However, for many others (myself included), there’s excitement in knowing that we’ll be seeing something new that will expand our understanding of the Force, the Skywalkers, and Star Wars in general.
In 1999, Star Wars came back with Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999), the first entry in the much-maligned prequel trilogy that would tell the story of how Luke Skywalker’s father became Darth Vader, the most feared individual in the galaxy. While we didn’t know the specifics of what each film in the prequel trilogy would accomplish, we knew what the films were building up to: the sacred original trilogy. Plot speculation for the prequels revolved around whether we would learn how Darth Vader was committed to that black suit with a respirator, how the Empire was formed, and why the Jedi are “all but extinct” as Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness) said in Episode IV (the original Star Wars). All of these areas of speculation were dramatized in the prequel films, and we knew they would be – we just didn’t know how they would be realized dramatically. If the prequel trilogy has any legitimate fault, it is in the degree to which George Lucas allowed it to be beholden to the original trilogy.
The Phantom Menace (1999) could’ve started at any point prior to the original trilogy, and it would’ve been sufficient. Naturally, we must accept where Lucas set The Phantom Menace, as it dictates all that follows by setting the stage and placing the audience in a time in the Star Wars universe that we had never been before. Jump to Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of The Sith (2005) and a problem arises. The final film of the prequel trilogy has the burden of filling all the gaps leading up to the original trilogy, since the story would feel incomplete — given the conception of the prequels as backstory — if it didn’t answer those questions.
The overall experience of Revenge of The Sith, which remains the most popular of the prequels, is one of immense frustration as it begins to push against the myths and fantasies that we had structured in our minds as fans of the original trilogy. In Return of The Jedi (AKA Episode VI) when Darth Vader asked Luke to help him “take this mask off,” we were all shocked as the helmet was peeled forward revealing an old man with scarred, pallid skin. His breathing sounded painful, and it was even revealed that he had a robotic hand. We had seen a glimpse of the back of his scarred head in Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back (Irvin Kershner, 1980), but being able to see his humanity took everything to another level. What physical pain had Luke’s father endured? Obi-Wan described him as the “best starpilot in the galaxy,” so had he been injured in a starship crash? We didn’t know, and it’s not that it didn’t matter what happened, but the open question was a simple part of the fun of wondering how Vader physically came into being. Further, how could the father of the good-hearted Luke Skywalker have left Obi-Wan’s side to “hunt down and destroy the Jedi Knights”? Anything that Revenge of The Sith could’ve introduced and dramatized by way of explanation wouldn’t prove satisfactory, at least not compared to the drama that the very first Star Wars film in 1977 had suggested for imaginative viewers everywhere.
Already quoted from above, in a single scene in Episode IV, George Lucas used the old and wise Obi-Wan to present – in dialogue alone – a past to Luke Skywalker, who (like the audience) was ignorant of all that his father had done, what the Force is, who the Jedi are, and how Darth Vader fits into anything. George Lucas was crafting myths, dropping hints of ideas and phrases that gave the Star Wars milieu its own history and depth – it made it a universe. “You fought in the Clone Wars?” asks Luke. Responding with a laugh that conveys the time that has passed, Obi Wan says, “Yes, I was once a Jedi Knight, the same as your father.” Upon hearing those words, those of us who knew Star Wars before the prequels imagined what the Clone Wars must’ve been, and what an order of Jedi Knights would’ve looked like.
Enter Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of The Clones (2002), which is quite possibly the most maligned prequel film of the most maligned Star Wars trilogy. However, as the middle chapter in the prequel trilogy, it’s the film that had the most freedom to be what it wanted and needed to be – it’s the film that can take the time to respond to the ever important “what if?” questions while inspiring new “what if?” questions for the viewer along the way.
Opening with a terrorist attack at a landing dock on Coruscant intended to take out Senator Padmé Amidala of Naboo (Natalie Portman), Attack of The Clones starts with a bang. The Jedi Council, with the input of Supreme Chancellor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid), tasks Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) and his apprentice, Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen), to protect Senator Amidala from an impending second attack. Sure enough, another attempt is made on Padmé’s life, so Obi-Wan and Anakin pursue the would-be assassin who is killed by another assassin before she can tell the Jedi who hired her. With Padmé still in imminent danger, Anakin is assigned to escort her back to Naboo while Obi-Wan pursues a lead in the form of a Kamino saber-dart which was used to kill the assassin. Upon arriving at Kamino, Obi-Wan discovers that a clone army has mysteriously been created for the Galactic Republic. All of this happens amidst hearsay about the fallen Jedi Count Dooku (Christopher Lee) potentially being involved in the attack on Padmé, which he was, and the threat of the Republic falling into civil war.
Through all of that, and everywhere that the film goes after the above, stories are a constant presence. Nearly every scene in the film is a response to a story being orally communicated from one individual to another, and some are truer than others. From the four-armed diner chef telling Obi-Wan about the Kaminoans, the Kaminoans speaking of a mysterious order of clones from the late Jedi Master Sifo-Dyas, Jango Fett (Temeura Morrison) telling about a certain Darth Tyranus, and so on, this is a film loaded to the brim with the stuff that legend and myth are made from, and yet almost anything can happen in spite of the past and future constantly rearing their heads.
That quality of the past colliding with the present is part of the beauty of Attack of The Clones, as characters go about their own way and stumble upon clues or have dreams, as Anakin does, that guide them to distant planets and systems on adventures of varying degrees of significance. That feeling is something that people enjoy about all of the Star Wars films, but it’s something that Episode II manages to do with the most freedom within the confines of the prequel trilogy. In a sense, the film is another origin story in that it establishes the working relationship of Obi-Wan and Anakin, as well as the romantic connection between Anakin and Padmé. Beyond that, the film is paving the way for a series of events, such as the Clone Wars, the start of the Empire, the birth of Luke and Leia, and the appearance of Darth Vader, but how those are to be resolved and properly dealt with is the responsibility of the next film – and we all know how rushed and overly-convenient many of Revenge of The Sith‘s answers are.
Something necessary for consideration in regard to Attack of The Clones is that the film itself is a clone of our perception of cinema, at least of that time, in that it wasn’t shot on film. As the first entry in the Star Wars saga to be shot digitally in its entirety, that’s just one area of division that separates Attack of The Clones from the rest, and the same can be said of Revenge of The Sith which was also not shot on film. While this distinction may seem superficial, a case can be made that this is where a line in the sand between a “Greek” and a “Roman” mythology of Star Wars can be drawn.
Greek and Roman mythology share many of the same gods and ideas, but there are variables that shift from culture to culture. Zeus is Jupiter, Poseidon is Neptune, etc., and details of the doings of gods and mortals have different emphases and different morals depending on who’s telling the story. Now take the puppet of the character Yoda in The Phantom Menace, which was abandoned in favor of a CGI representation of Yoda for Attack of The Clones and Revenge of The Sith. One Yoda is a thinker, and the other is a wise warrior. “Wars not make one great,” said Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back, and yet it’s Yoda commanding clone troopers on the battlefield and leaping about with a lightsaber in a duel with Count Dooku. How can this be?
Bear with me for a moment, but I am inclined to believe that the lightsaber fight between Yoda and Dooku never happened, but that a confrontation of sorts did occur. Obi-Wan is wounded, and Anakin is unconscious as a result of his arm being cut off. Entering into a fever dream, the long shadow of the short Jedi Master Yoda enters the room, his cane clicking against the tile with every step. This is classic Yoda, in the Classical Greek sense, and what transpires at first very well may have happened. We’ve seen Yoda lift an X-Wing in Episode V, so blocking objects with the Force that are launched at him by the elderly Count Dooku is not out of the realm of possibility for Yoda’s character. Perhaps though, when Count Dooku initiates the lightsaber duel, we have entered the fever dream completely, and the “Roman” mythology takes over our senses as we are confronted with something that could happen but likely didn’t.
The Yoda that fights with a lightsaber is not the same Yoda of the late New Hollywood era, as this Yoda serves a different purpose for a different time. Yes, there is a question of taste here, but imagine if, after the duel with Dooku, we had never seen Yoda use a lightsaber again – the chance that the lightsaber fight is a visual manifestation of an intellectual conflict suddenly increases. Revenge of The Sith doesn’t ruin this reading of the prequels, as it just continues in the “Roman” mythological tradition over the “Greek” for the purposes of this analogy, but the fight between Emperor Palpatine and Yoda is far more troubling than the fight in Attack of The Clones.
Look also to the imprecision in camera coverage of the earlier lightsaber fight between Dooku and Anakin before Dooku cuts off Anakin’s arm. It’s less about the fight itself than it is about the colors and the light, or an impression of a battle rather than a battle in actuality. Yes, the duel is happening, but the details are lost in the close-ups on their faces as the light of a red saber here and a blue saber there shed light on the situation – the situation of their souls, that is. Count Dooku is constantly illuminated by the red that’s cast from his saber, but the conflict in Anakin is reflected on his face as both blue and red are allowed to dwell across his brow – not unlike Luke Skywalker’s face divided in shadow and light down the middle as he hid in the throne room in Return of The Jedi. This is but one of many “Plato’s cave” scenarios in this film, in which our perception of events on screen has to shift to find meaning and value.
It’s easy to dismiss some of Lucas’ decisions in the prequel trilogy as misguided, fan service geared at merchandising, or defiant to what made the original trilogy special, but I am proposing here that a conscious effort was made to detach the events on screen from how they really happened. Now, I do not suggest that Lucas set out to lie to audiences, but I think that what he’s visually and dramatically articulating in the second and third prequel films “is true, from a certain point of view.” Taking into account that these events happened “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away….”, the myth is what has consumed the drama of the later prequels rather than the reality of how they actually occurred. There’s a Star Wars prequel trilogy in all of us, and Lucas simply made his.
Still, plot and dramatic beats are actually one of the least controversial aspects of the film, as it’s the perception of weak performances that largely dominates the discourse around the prequel trilogy as a whole. Again, this is an area where the prequels are striving for something else in their myth-bound state.
French filmmaker Robert Bresson, who made such masterworks as Pickpocket (1959), Au hasard Balthazar (1966), and The Devil, Probably (1977), had a style that allowed actors to stand in for emotions, or to be what he called “models”:
(No directing of actors).
(No learning of parts).
But the use of working models, taken from life.
BEING (models) instead of SEEMING (actors)” (Bresson 1).
What he means is directing actors in such a way that the idea of a performance shifts away from emoting and instead to the actor being a canvas that we, the audience, project emotion onto. In this sense, Hayden Christensen is the personification of the Bressonian “model,” and it’s worth noting that he’s also a doppelgänger of one of the “models” in Bresson’s own Lancelot du lac (1974).
Two of Christensen’s best “model” performances happen when Anakin is on Tatooine after experiencing dreams of his mother’s suffering. The first of these moments of brilliance is the result of Lucas’ framing of the scene, as Anakin is filmed from a high angle overlooking his step-father’s moisture farm after being told that there’s no way his mother is still alive after a Tusken Raider attack. Cutting to the adobe hut behind him, with Anakin’s shadow extending across the hut, the camera is fixated where there is currently no one. From the door of the hut, Padmé steps out, and Lucas cuts on the action of her turning. In a close-up, she walks past the camera and the camera rests where her shadow and Anakin’s can now be seen facing one another in profile. Their dialogue is delivered while we look at their shadows against the mud brick of the hut, and then she embraces him. The shadows are emoting, and we are obligated to apply meaning and value to that expressionless image. Then, cutting to a long shot, Lucas reveals them still embracing, and Anakin then pulls away and walks to his speeder bike as the John Williams score swells before transitioning to “Duel of The Fates.”
The second “model” moment of note is particularly compelling for how much it demands of the spectator in regard to finding emotion where there is contextually much but tangibly none. We have all seen funerals in motion pictures, and many of us have been to funerals of loved ones, and the pain and loss that is felt is often indescribable (both on screen and in reality). At the funeral of Anakin’s mother, Anakin’s step-father finishes eulogizing and Anakin then steps forward and slowly drops to his knees. In place of the ever-devoted son having a cathartic breakdown that the naturalistic tradition of filmmaking has conditioned us to anticipate, George Lucas presents us with a performance merely indicative of an archetypal loss – the emotions signified being so grand that a naturalistic performance would fail to express the truth. Keeping his head faced upright, as if his nose would run if he even so much as risked looking down, Anakin grabs a handful of dirt and pebbles and begins to speak with an unwaveringly consistent tone. He then gets up, and from a low angle we see him say, “I miss you.” This line is followed by a long pause, his eyes then squint together and his teeth gnash as he forces out the qualifier of “so much.”
Lucas’ expressive framing in both of those scenes is guiding us along on a functional level, and the scene of the shadows on the wall of the hut is the Rosetta Stone for finding meaning and value in this complicated, yet easily taken for granted, cinematic work.
Later in the film, in one of the greatest scenes in any Star Wars film, Padmé, Anakin, and Obi-Wan are all reunited at a coliseum on the Separatist stronghold of Geonosis. Chained to their own pillar, three cages are opened and three different beasts come out with the goal of killing our captive heroes. The crowd cheers, and Count Dooku watches from the best seat in the house with a host of other villains at his side. Every moment of action and reaction is given its own time to breathe and speak for itself, a conscious decision to eschew the instantaneous cutting on action that we observed in the opening scene of Star Wars or on Jabba’s sail barge in Return of The Jedi. Shooting and editing digitally, it would be even easier for Lucas and his editing team to cut as precisely and quickly as they please, but clearly they were after something else. The parallel action of these three isolated struggles and triumphs is instead broken down into individually divisible parts, inviting for us to treat each of them as equally significant and immortalizing them as their own events in our mind’s eye.
Through the act of dividing time and space for each of these three characters to have their own spotlight, the myth and legend of the characters is accentuated. As Padmé’s shirt is torn by the claws of the nexu beast in just the right place, with the continuity editing hardly suggesting that it’s even physically possible for a shirt to rip that way, we know that we are seeing something that is completely artificial yet totally profound as she becomes a Venus-like form in the throes of battle on the silver screen. The same goes for Obi-Wan, who lightens up in the face of danger, and Anakin who commands the screen with his strength and acrobatic feats.
As the conflict begins to pick up in intensity, so too does the pace of the editing in the coliseum, but it doesn’t get away from the one-at-a-time pattern until the army of Jedi reveal themselves in the crowd and Mace Windu (Samuel L. Jackson) declares that “this party is over.” The Jedi do not all turn their lightsabers on in instant, but rather in groups of two or three, thus allowing for Lucas to focus on each group of warriors and immortalize them as gods and goddesses as well.
Contrasted with the original trilogy and the sequel trilogy, which have taken a more traditional approach to the idea of dramatic arcs, performances, and characters, the prequel trilogy rightly stands out as being unlike the others. If the original trilogy is to be thought of as what really happened in the Star Wars universe, then the prequel trilogy needs to be thought of more as a Passion Play — a dramatization of religion. It takes the true (or sort of true) ingredients that Obi-Wan presented in Episode IV and repackages them in the most histrionic way possible to communicate the legends that go on to inform the conflict our characters find themselves in decades later. Most of all the prequels, Attack of The Clones rises to the occasion by reveling in these leaps from reality to memory to legend.
While Attack of The Clones may not be able to win over those who are unwilling to consider the mythological mode that the film inhabits within the Star Wars universe, a simple revisit with that frame of mind could go a long way. Why should Attack of The Clones be subject to ridicule for wearing its sand-hating heart on its sleeve? We may never encounter another film in a blockbuster franchise that so boldly asks “what if?” about film style and plot. There are many prequels that seek to check boxes of dramatic and aesthetic cohesion. Attack of The Clones isn’t one of them, and yet it does its duty.
Bresson, Robert. 1977. Notes on Cinematography. Urizen Books Inc., New York.