Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones – Film Review

If “The Phantom Menace” was a competently (though not brilliantly) made juvenile film, then “Attack of the Clones” is a much more mature film that also happens to be carelessly constructed. From start to finish, it is clear the Attack of the Clones confronts issues and themes and conflicts that are much more engaging than those of The Phantom Menace. And the central story – ostensibly an homage to film noir – was an inspired choice. And of course this is a Star Wars film. Not only is it part of the larger Star Wars mythos, it also manages to add to that mythos. All the ingredients existed to create a story and a film that would have been truly exceptional. But the sad reality is that Attack of the Clones is a very poor example of filmmaking. From dialogue to pacing to acting to inconsistencies to sloppy editing to a mangled film score, almost nothing works as it should have.

By the time Attack of the Clones hit theaters in 2002, the Golden Era of adventure films was in full swing. The two Matrix sequels been planned, as well as the follow-up to The Mummy. There had been an X-Men film, with a sequel on the way. And the winter of 2001 saw both Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings launch their franchises with stratospheric success. And preceding Attack of the Clones would be a little film called Spider-Man. In fact, Spider-Man would singlehandedly accomplish what the combined efforts of both The Matrix and The Mummy accomplished for The Phantom Menace: a reminder of the fun, the excitement, and the thrill (not to mention the ticket sales) that the original Star Wars had brought to the big screen. Needless to say, the marketplace for the Star Wars brand was becoming a bit crowded. In fact, it can be argued that Attack of the Clones faced more box-office competition than any other Star Wars film. These factors certainly led to the disappointing showing of Attack of the Clones. But the primary problem was the film itself.

With the (often undeserving) backlash that Star Wars faced as a result of The Phantom Menace, there was already a growing segment of the movie-going population that had turned its back on what it now saw as an overly kiddie-friendly Star Wars. But what creator George Lucas had planned for Episode II was a film filled with very mature themes – potentially a significant crowd pleaser. Not only would the dreaded Jar Jar Binks be given a significantly lower profile, there would be the forbidden romance of Anakin and Padme, the enigmatic and powerful rebel Count Dooku, the construction of a clone army and the first all-out battle of the by now infamous Clone War. Tucked into this was the mystery of multiple assassination attempts on Padme’s life and Palpatine’s successful attempt to solidify his power as a de facto dictator. Each concept is thoroughly compelling. Each concept is very mature. Each one had the potential to turn Star Wars into crowd-pleasing force once again.

And honestly, the first time through the film, it almost works. Beginning with the assassination attempt on Padme and a breakneck chase through the night skies of Corsucant, the film launches into a briskly paced story that establishes a central mystery and overall arc for its story. There are still some very clunky moments (Anakin manages to say “master” half-a-dozen times within the span of thirty seconds) but because of the pace, you almost don’t notice. But as the film slows down a little and settles into the development of its two primary storylines (Obi-Wan Kenobi’s investigation into the attempts to assassinate Padme, and the budding romance between Padme and Anakin), the flaws begin to become a bit more obvious.

The dialogue goes beyond the typical dry fare Lucas has often penned and instead falls into lines that are endlessly cringeworthy. Much has been made of Anakin’s comments about sand, but consider his follow up comment about everything being “soft and smooth” while leering at Padme. And the leering … Anakin comes across as … well, it comes across as creepy. I happen to think that Hayden Christiansen’s performance as Anakin is underrated, but moments such as these are clearly why his performance is as widely criticized as it is.

Additionally, there are a number of gaffes as far as the story is concerned. One primary example is the meadow picnic between Anakin and Padme on Naboo. The whole purpose of the entire first third of the film was to establish the clear and present danger to Padme’s life. But while an investigation is ongoing, while her would-be assassin is still at large … they have a picnic in the middle of an open field, with no cover for literally miles around? This is by no means the only poorly thought out plot device. But it’s an example of the sloppy filmmaking at work in Attack of the Clones. And almost as bad are the number of vague and nearly contradictory plot points – such as having Jango Fett be aware that Tyranus is behind the creation of both the droid and clone armies.

Perhaps the most egregious mistakes have to do with the film score. Whereas John Williams score in The Phantom Menace was often single-handedly responsible for the success of a scene or a sequence, the impact of his talents are much less noticeable in Attack of the Clones. The film score itself is not as diverse as The Phantom Menace – but that is more than likely due to the post-production process of creating Attack of the Clones. It’s well documented that George Lucas edited Attack of the Clones almost up to the very last possible moment. And he wasn’t making minor changes, either. A great deal was altered and changed in the editing process. This meant that when Williams sat down to pen the score, he didn’t have a complete film on which to base his efforts. The results are obvious, considering the relative absence of themes and motifs. But that wasn’t the only problem.

Ben Burtt, who made a name for himself as a masterful sound effects engineer, had an unprecedented influence on this process. And his bias toward sound effects, at the expense of the soundtrack, was clearly to the detriment of the finished product. By the time Attack of the Clones was released, not only did Burtt succeed in establishing looooooong segments of the film where the sound effects took precedent over the film score, but he managed to so badly mangle and pervert the use of themes that the end result is somewhere between embarrassing and infuriating.

Overall Grade: C+

In the end, Attack of the Clones is slightly better than average only insofar as it is a Star Wars film. There are plenty of elements to enjoy from the story ideas to Yoda’s duel with Dooku. But as a film, in terms of how well it is constructed, it simply doesn’t hold up very well at all. It’s no wonder that Attack of the Clones was buried by Spider-Man, Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings films. While Star Wars fatigue might have played a small part, the real reason as that this particular film just doesn’t make the grade.

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