Star Wars—Episode II: Attack of the Clones
By Bob Clark
Prologue: Guilty Pleasures
In Milan Kundera’s 1984 novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being, the respected surgeon Tomas finds himself unable to find work after returning to Soviet-occupied Prague, thanks to his refusal to recant an article he’d written prior to the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia. The matter of his article makes for one of the most persuasive readings of Greek mythology—a political interpretation of Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex. According to Tomas, the Communists of his country who claimed to be unaware of the Soviet Union’s atrocities were just as guilty as Oedipus, the Theban king who brought plagues upon his kingdom by unwittingly marrying his mother. “As a result of your ‘not knowing,’ this country has lost its freedom…” writes Kundera. “And you shout that you feel no guilt? How can you stand the sight of what you’ve done? How is it you aren’t horrified? Have you no eyes to see?”
Living in France as a refugee from his native land, he understood the implications of the myth far better than commentators who tend to oversimplify the Freudian analysis of the Oedipus complex. Where others could only see the horrific tragedy of murder, incest, suicide and self-mutilation, Kundera saw a story of politically motivated guilt from the blinded eyes of a king blessed with wisdom but bankrupt in knowledge, drawing a careful line between innocence and ignorance. But others had picked up on Kundera’s feeling long before he put it into Tomas’ mouth. The Oedipal nature of guilt is something many writers, artists and particularly filmmakers have observed, however subliminally, as recently as John Frankenheimer helming the seminal thriller The Manchurian Candidate. There, Lawrence Harvey’s brainwashed soldier finds himself manipulated by domineering mother Angela Lansbury into performing assassinations for an international Communist plot. The Freudian aspect of the story is undeniable, not only in the heavy implications of consummated incest, but also in the subtler, subliminal symbolism strewn about throughout the film. As Pauline Kael famously pointed out, when Harvey murders a left-wing Senator in his kitchen, the victim winds up bleeding milk.
Is it the nocturnal emission of a hypnotically induced wet-dream, the ironic spout of a bitter blend of mother’s milk, or merely a visual pun of the “bleeding-heart liberal”? Whatever it is, it’s one of the quick cinematic details that cineastes picked up on and filmmakers would later use as reference points. There’s a hint of it in James Cameron’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day, where a shape-shifting assassin from the future murders Xander Berkley while posing as young John Connor’s foster mother, a liquid-metal blade slicing through a carton of milk to penetrate the human’s skull. You can see echoes of it in Steven Spielberg’s Munich as Mossad agents gun down a Palestinian agent carrying groceries, spilling blood and milk in equal amounts, a disturbing addition to a film which already carries good deal of Oedipal baggage (Golda Meir’s maternal vendetta mission and Eric Bana’s flashbacks to the hostage-crisis intercut with his making love to a pregnant wife). Spielberg had earlier delved into heavy Oedipal themes and imagery in his 2002 adaptation of Phillip K. Dick’s Minority Report, where Tom Cruise chokes on spoiled milk while recovering from an eye-transplant to avoid dystopian retinal scanners—one instance of many blindness-images throughout, including a child cutting out the eyes of a paper Lincoln mask, betraying a Railsplitter obsession to rival Frankenheimer.
That same summer saw the release of Attack of the Clones, the fifth entry in George Lucas’ blockbuster Star Wars series and second episode of the contentious Prequel Trilogy, and while Lucas’ work may lack the clarity, discipline and finesse of his longtime compatriot and collaborator’s, it is no doubt the more important film. As the first major motion-picture shot on high-definition video, it stands as a highly influential piece of technical craft and watershed moment marking the transition from celluloid to digital filmmaking and its effective democratization of cinema. As the penultimate installment of a franchise that spans decades of effort and imagination, it can sit comfortably alongside its multiplex brethren as a first-rate example of family entertainment, equal parts action-packed excitement and thoughtful mythmaking. But as a piece of filmmaking, it is impossible to ignore that it suffers from any number of aesthetic and dramatic flaws, making it easily the most troubled entry of its series and a prime example for its creator’s increasing folds of vocal detractors.
However, like The Phantom Menace before it, Episode II is an underestimated movie, hiding just as many treasures waiting for serious audiences to dig up. While by no means the underrated achievement that Episode I was—a film that ten years later keeps looking better than most gave it credit for and victim to far more hype and Everest-sized expectations than anyone realizes today—the second chapter of Anakin Skywalker’s path to becoming Darth Vader remains a compelling effort, driven by the same Oedipal politics and imagery as the work of Kundera, Frankenheimer or Spielberg. But while those artists made their themes at turns apparent and implicit through an expert use of open reference and symbolism, Lucas makes things cloudy and opaque in the most obscure and intertextual entry of the Star Wars series. You don’t have to be a fan to enjoy the film—in fact, thanks to the divisive reception the Prequels received, it may help not to be one—but you do have to be a fan if you want to really understand it. For this reason alone, Attack of the Clones may very well be the weakest film of George Lucas’ career, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t pack a punch of its own.
I: You Know That Something’s Happening, But You Don’t Know What It Is
Conflict abounds, right from the opening crawl: ten years after the invasion of Naboo and the subsequent election of Chancellor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid), the Republic finds itself in turmoil again as a secession movement spearheaded by Count Dooku (Christopher Lee), a former Jedi with a grudge against the corrupt Senate, threatens peace across the galaxy. When the life of former Queen, now Senator Amidala (Natalie Portman) is threatened by assassination attempts, Padawan learner Anakin Skywalker is assigned as her bodyguard, struggling as much with his feelings for her as his fears for the safety of his mother back on Tatooine (Pernilla August), both of which are forbidden by the strict Jedi code. Meanwhile, Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) chases after bounty-hunter Jango Fett (Temuera Morrison) from one planet to another, piecing together a mystery involving an army of clone-soldiers and a conspiracy by the Dark Lord of the Sith to bring down the Republic, once and for all.
To say that the story Lucas sets out to tell is ambitious is an understatement—the intended scope of political, emotional and spiritual themes throughout Attack of the Clones is as epic as the otherworldly sights with which he fills the panoramic canvas of the cinemascope screen. Collaborating on a script for the first time openly since Return of the Jedi, Lucas and screenwriter Jonathan Hales keep the pace brisk with frequent pitstops for action-beats and emotional moments, never allowing the film to slow down long enough for attention spans to waver, even through scenes of legislative referendum. Episode II may be many things—sloppy, wooden and obscure—but it is never, or at least rarely, boring. Much of the political commentary that went over the heads of audiences and critics alike in The Phantom Menace becomes much easier to digest with the simple, yet relatable plot device of the coming war, especially concerning the debate over whether to grant the Chancellor emergency-powers necessary to create a Grand Army of the Republic.
Some of this could’ve been expected—after the more remote picaresque of Episode I, Lucas settles into a more familiar story here, telling the long-fabled exploits of the Jedi Knights in the Clone Wars, an event only fleetingly mentioned in the A New Hope. Aside from satisfying a longstanding dark area in the saga which fans had been curious about for decades, telling the story of the Clone Wars also, at length, brings the franchise back to its roots with a story predicated largely on military conquest—in short, it puts the “war” back in Star Wars. Yet for the most part, all we see in Attack of the Clones is the build-up towards battle and its opening volleys, leaving us to wait until Episode III to watch the conflict in full-steam. Peppering his story with just enough action to keep filmgoers in their seats, if not exactly on the edge of them, Lucas holds back the promise of the episode’s title almost as long as There Will Be Blood, spending more time on the causes of war rather than war itself.
While often static and self-important, the film pays off far more than it fumbles, its democracy-protecting heroes and military industrial-complex villains timelier than ever thanks to shocking events of the year prior to the film’s debut. In the post 9/11 world to which it was released (but not written or filmed—a portion of a chase sequence early on, involving a flying craft crashing into a skyscraper, found itself altered in late post-production, to avoid the such associations), audiences found themselves much more familiar with both the sudden call to a far-off war for the sake of safety and security, and the conflict between whether to continue upholding traditional democracy or to consolidate leadership and power in the face of unprecedented danger. It would not be until Revenge of the Sith that audiences fully embraced the political undercurrents beneath Star Wars’ space-opera excitement, yet Attack of the Clones thrives, as much as it does, on the eerie similarities between our own War on Terror and the interstellar conflicts of a galaxy far, far away. While modeled after history long past, the film was recognized as a timely cautionary tale of the rise of militarism and dictatorship. Thanks to tragedy, Lucas found himself a man in the wrong place, and the wrong time to exercise free speech—which is to say, the right place, and the right time to be understood.
II: Star Cross’d Lovers
However, his narrative winds up hamstrung by two key decisions that remain apparent early on. First of all, there is the antique, repressed execution of the love story of Anakin and Padme, which all but torpedoed the film for many critics and fans alike. When detractors point out the faults of the relationship between the fated parents of the rebellious Skywalker twins, blame is usually labeled at Lucas’ occasionally woeful way with words, or historically problematic relationship with actors, leaving him unable to spark up the kind of chemistry necessary to sustain a plausible romance. But it’s important to point out that the performers themselves are not at fault here—Portman acquits herself admirably as the subdued, emotionally conservative Amidala, realistically restrained as a seasoned political veteran anxious to avoid scandal just as much as she wants to stop a war. Even Christensen delivers a pitch-perfect performance as an anxious Jedi apprentice well on his way to the Dark Side. That pitch may involve the occasionally cracking voice and awkward delivery of an unruly teen with a chip on his shoulder the size of a small moon, but that’s exactly what he is—the future Sith Lord by way of juvenile delinquent.
Many observed that Lucas saw in the young, mostly unknown actor a James Dean quality of angst and inner turmoil, and it’s easy to recognize at least a small part that in Anakin’s personality. It’s interesting to observe that Dean and his performance in Nicholas Ray’s seminal Rebel Without a Cause remains such a powerful draw for filmmakers seeking to invest their characters with the storied past of a troubled youth—Chris Pine recently mined the same material for his interpretation of Captain Kirk in J.J. Abram’s recent Star Trek reboot. But where Pine and Abrams only saw the cocky, self-assured confidence with which Dean graced the screen at its most thrilling moments—squaring off against impish thugs in the shadow of Griffith Observatory or revving up engines for a do-or-die “Chickie Race”—Lucas and Christensen emphasize the confusion and vulnerability of a young man torn apart by his deepest impulses and the contrasting expectations of family and peers alike. As he would later show in films like Shattered Glass, Christensen’s main talent is in playing characters with equal parts arrogance, avoidance and just enough pathos to make them seem human. You may not fully identify with his characters, but at least you can feel sorry for them—his roles are pathetic, if not always sympathetic. In that sense, he’s got as much Sal Mineo in him—the defeated posture that all but announces his doom as soon as you see him in the police station for shooting puppies—but still it’s the Dean in him that you remember, that opens his Anakin up as an object of desire and imitation. As much as any American icon, Dean remains a mirror on the wall—you see in him what you see in yourself, or at least what you want to see.
Ray’s influence by and large has been clear on Lucas’ cinema since the director’s early days—there’s a big dose of Rebel in the time-capsule American Graffiti, and each of the Star Wars films contain moments of the same bigger than life theatricality present in Ray’s best work. Even in THX 1138, Lucas showcases the same expert hand of utilizing real-world architecture in the artifice of filmmaking that Ray, a former student of Frank Lloyd Wright, made use of. Attack of the Clones, in its frustrated, repressed love story seems to reach for the same nervous anxiety that drives Mercedes McCambridge’s cowboy lynch-mobs in Johnny Guitar, but it never quite reaches those histrionic heights. Perhaps that’s because the specific model Lucas chooses for Anakin and Padme’s courtship is less the familiar archetype of stubborn, dueling mates—a convention as classic as Taming of the Shrew and as apropos as The Empire Strikes Back—than the more old-fashioned, and much more difficult, tradition of star crossed lovers. Closer to fabled lovers Romeo and Juliet, Tristan and Isolde, or Lancelot and Guenivere than stubborn, sparring partners like Han and Leia, Anakin and Padme’s romance has an oddly formal, antiquated quality to it that hearkens back to long-ago days of courtly love. Even John William’s love-theme, “Across the Stars”, makes reference to the motif, both in title and with its mandolin-string plucks quaintly reminiscent of the atmosphere found in Boccaccio’s Decameron, or Passolini’s attempt to film it.
Held back not by competing personalities or conflicting priorities, but by social conventions that predate their mutual attraction, theirs is a courtship whose obstacles are external and environmental, rather than internal and character driven. Padme doesn’t refuse Anakin because she’s too proud to admit her love for him, as her daughter will later spurn advance after advance by rogue Han Solo. Rather, she’s all too aware of her feelings and the dangers they would incur. Just as the most famous star crossed pairings risk the threats of warring families, jealous spouses and the fall of Camelot, Lucas’ lovers risk a calamity of epic proportions in Anakin’s potential expulsion from the Jedi order. Like the sex-criminal renegades of THX 1138, theirs is a love that arrives with consequences, so to see them sidestep and avoid any attraction at all costs rings absolutely true, because they remain keenly aware of how high those costs are. Maybe it’s appropriate that Amidala is portrayed as an older woman (however slightly) to the constantly put-down Anakin, at once a maternal and romantic figure, raising the plague-ridden specter of Oedipus and Jocasta, perhaps the most star crossed lovers of all time.
But no matter how apt Lucas’ perception is, the romance fails to cultivate the kind of dramatic-drive it aims for in many filmgoers, perhaps due to his unwillingness (or inability) to make good on what might be the most important part of the star crossed lover’s convention—consummation. Unlike other traditional examples of doomed youths daring to breach the moral code of forbidden love, we never see Anakin and Padme exhibit passionate embraces any more intimate than a few chaste kisses. While it’s easy to forget thanks to their ubiquitous standing in antiquated storytelling, the most classic examples of star crossed lovers almost always have an erotic component of their relationship just as strong as their long held-back desires for one another. Writers like Boccaccio expertly articulated how directly proportional the fire between lovers can be to the length of time they’ve resisted such temptations. Franco Zefferelli’s Romeo and Juliet made a point to show Verona’s youths naked together in bed, and while plenty scoffed at the sentimentality of James Cameron’s Titanic, it’s unlikely too many laughed at DiCapprio and Winslet as they made sketchy art and steamy love in cabins and cars on the doomed cruise. It’s therefore immensely frustrating that with Anakin and Padme we get to witness all the repression and sublimation that goes along with forbidden desires, but none of the release. Instead of Paolo and Francesca, the best we get is a somewhat less platonic version of Dante and Beatrice’s doomed, eternity-spanning love; a PG version of THX 1138.
And therein lies the problem, likely—the sparking electricity of sexual-tension is in the air, but there’s no outlet for it. As with The Phantom Menace, Lucas remains torn between the demands of the intellectually mature themes of his story and the family-friendly demands of his intended audience, only instead of merely injecting the occasional juvenile element via gesticulatory toddler stand-in Jar Jar Binks, the film finds itself drained of the very passion that could’ve given its story the drive it needed to establish itself as a classic, instead of merely a children’s classic. Yet, while Attack of the Clones marks one of the premier examples of lost opportunities on Lucas’ part, it’s important to acknowledge just how successful it was in striking a chord with teenage audiences, particularly teenage girls. Just as Episode I drew more young female fans to the series with Queen Amidala—a heroine just as ready to be marketed as a Disney-esque Barbie-doll as a G.I. Joe action-figure—Episode II continued to reel them in with a love-affair just dangerous enough to be exciting, but not openly sexual enough to be threatening.
There’s enough subtext boiling just underneath the surface throughout the film to keep attentive viewers clued in—an attempt to poison Padme with phallic-centipedes while she lies sleeping in her bedroom, a female assassin with changeling powers, and just enough backs and midriffs bared in leisure and battle to entice without calling attention to themselves. Furthermore, as the chaste romances of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy and the recent Twilight phenomenon have proven, there’s still an audience for old-fashioned romances that place more of an emphasis on rising action rather than climax. Sometimes Lucas expresses the courtly, chivalrous attraction in touching visual cues—the lovers sharing a kiss as shadows on the wall, or a bride taking hold of her husband’s prosthetic hand after taking their vows. Even though it would’ve been nice if Lucas had been daring enough to push the boundaries just far enough to risk a PG-13 as he eventually would in Revenge of the Sith, it’s likely for the best he restrained himself. Any attempt to steam up the Anakin and Padme chemistry might have very well undermined the movie entirely—all one has to do is recall the sight of a post-coital Clark and Lois in the Fortress of Solitude from Lester & Donner’s Superman II to see how ridiculous bedfellows sex and superheroes can make under the wrong circumstances (though I haven’t read them myself, I’m told the same can more or less be said of the various permutations of human, vampire and werewolf love in the latter, more mature Twilight books). At the very least, it’s a comfort to know that Lucas could at least do a Tristan and Isolde story better than Tristan and Isolde.
III: Through the Darkness of Future Past
The second, and perhaps more dangerous narrative flaw that disrupts the flow of Attack of the Clones is its obscurity. While throughout each of the other five Star Wars movies Lucas is careful to both create films that exploit the potential of episodic continuity while managing stand on their own individually, here he falls into the biggest traps of serial storytelling, creating a film that is overly reliant on chapters past to be understood and appreciated. Furthermore, the problem is compounded by the film’s antecedent nature to the original three pictures as the middle-part of the Prequel Trilogy—not only does Episode II rely upon Episode I for its meaning to take hold, but Episode IV, V and VI as well. In some ways, this problem is somewhat elementary, and maybe even unavoidable. As he did before with The Phantom Menace, Lucas finds himself telling the beginning to a story that everyone already knows the ending to—since audiences had already seen A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi for the past twenty-five years, it would seem reasonable to compose the latest film with as many references and resonances to the old films as possible, especially given the director’s long-observed penchant for thematic-repetition of images, events and dialogue.
And to his credit, much of this works, and in some cases helps to support the sometimes flagging structure inherent in much of the rest of the film. Padme’s stilted, anachronistic romance with Anakin gets the extra-mileage it needs from the knowledge that they will one day sire heroic twins Luke and Leia, just as Skywalker himself can be excused from the expectations of being a charming, charismatic lead considering his destiny as a brooding, wheezing Sith Lord. Even Christensen’s adolescent whine could be chalked up to a kind of retrograde family trait—an acting style begun with Mark Hamill’s callow youth and passed down from son to father, instead of father to son. Besides picking up the slack for some of the looser elements of the film, Lucas’ references to the future events of films past sometimes indeed do work on their own, despite how feverishly they appear to cling to a broader, more demanding context. Take the bounty hunter Jango Fett, for example, and the army of clones produced from his DNA. As the genetic “father” of Boba Fett, one of the most famous supporting characters from the Original Trilogy, Jango’s inclusion struck many critics as a cynical ploy on Lucas’ part, intentionally cashing in on figures with a large base of fanboy-popularity as a means of making up for the widely decried Episode I.
But the presence of Jango Fett is a far smarter, more meaningful move than some commentators give credit for. As played by capable New Zealand actor Temuera Morrison, Jango stands as a classic movie tough guy, a blunt mouthed thug-for-hire who’d be just as intimidating in a fedora and trenchcoat as he is in battle-ready armor. Thanks to the advances of special-effects technology from the days of Empire and Jedi, Lucas is finally able to take full advantage of the array of weaponry and gadgets he and designer Joe Johnston dreamed up for the bounty hunter’s arsenal. From jet-packs and flame-throwers to the deadly and distinctive starship Slave I, Fett is an impressive character and a challenging foe, worthy of Marvel comics and Bond films alike, more than a match for the Jedi heroes and a fine excuse to stage some of the most inventive action set-pieces of the director’s career. Fett’s connection to the burgeoning clone army makes for some even more impressive intertextual connections between the films of the series, and at the same time providing an easy-in for relative newcomers unstudied in the increasingly obscure lore and arcane of the Star Wars mythos.
While the Clone Wars may have occupied all of one or two lines back in the original film, meaningful only to longtime devotees who pour over every such fleeting scrap of stray mention, Lucas does a good job building up the cosmo-political conflict and mysteries sufficiently to make the genetically spawned military intriguing on their own. Doug Chiang’s design for the clone soldiers’ armor helps compound the connections, blending the distinctive shapes of Fett’s suit with the memorable all-white uniforms of the Imperial troops from the Original Trilogy. Even the most casual of observers can recognize Stormtroopers when they see them, and to see them fighting alongside the Jedi Knights at the end, instead of against them, is a dramatic inversion of expectations that pays off tremendously. Backing that up is the internal continuity of the film itself, as our heroes unquestionably trust the million-strong clones of one of their deadliest enemies—the Jedi may not gouge out their own eyes, but they remain blind to the sinister plot unfolding around them. Thanks to the bright idea of a military force cloned after a notorious bounty hunter, Episode II is the closest Lucas has come to hard science-fiction since the white-on-white days of THX 1138, with the eerily relevant themes of genetic experimentation giving way to a contracted mercenary army. What are the tall, Close Encounters of the Third Kind-esque aliens but agents to a massive government conspiracy, a Blackwater-style private-military company?
Furthermore, the cognitive dissonance he exploits with his Clone/Stormtroopers is a trick he plays with throughout the film, right from the very first shot. Instead of the usual pan-down which begins every Star Wars film, he pans up to Padme’s sabotaged starship as it pilots into orbit about Coruscant. Perhaps most famously—and to some fans, controversially—he put a lightsaber into the hands of the iconic Yoda, whose famous words “War does not make one great” take on a new meaning when we actually see the pint-size Jedi Master, fresh from a CGI makeover, prove himself to be a great warrior, after all. It’s a reversal of expectations so out-of-character, it packs the same kind of punch as Sergio Leone’s slow reveal of Hollywood favorite Henry Fonda as the blue-eyed monster of Once Upon a Time in the West. As iconic Star Destroyers rescue the our heroes, we witness the film’s political treatise put into pictures—on a long enough timeline, democracies always become dictatorships. Whenever Lucas plays with his audience’s expectations instead of simply giving into them, Attack of the Clones is smart as a space-opera can be, expressing visually for an entire galaxy what Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight summed up in its best line—“You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.”
IV: For Those Who Came In Late
Yet there remain moments throughout the picture where Lucas throws references to the Original Trilogy that exist without any real justification of their own and risk alienating less well-versed fans. Be it Obi-Wan’s sarcastic line that Anakin will be the death of him, R2’s carrying a message from (instead of to) Kenobi at the Lars homestead on Tatooine, or even a brief cameo by the holographic blue-prints of the Death Star itself, far too many moments ring as hollow in-jokes, without any real meaning of their own, or any reason to exist in the film, except for hindsight. Such instances count little in the grand scheme of things, however—providing nibbling distractions or at best haunting echoes, and nothing more. It’s when Lucas invests too much meaning in his obscure references, however, that he runs the risk of squandering his enterprise’s potential with misspent creative energy. Perhaps the best example of this is in the scene where Anakin recounts discovering his now-dead mother to Padme in the Lars’ garage, finally confessing his slaughter of an entire village of Sand People—men, women and children, alike.
It’s a disturbing scene, ably acted on both sides, far overpowering any of the dark deeds committed by Vader’s hand in the Original Trilogy—instead of executing Rebel fighters in the midst of war or Imperial lackeys in a gallows-humor running-gag, young Skywalker commits an all out genocidal massacre, providing the pivotal push for his fall from grace. But the overly familiar setting, where Luke will one day glimpse a holographic message of his twin-sister for the first time, clouds our emotional focus. Instead of merely distracting us, it actually detracts from the drama of the scene, injecting an inappropriate layer of nostalgia into a moment which should be as uncomplicated as possible. It’s a setting that might’ve worked well, cementing much of the vulnerable feelings of anger, regret and Oedipal guilt—here in finding one’s self unable to save a mother, rather than despoiling her in a marital bed. When Padme enters the scene, it’s worth noting that she carries a glass of blue milk to Anakin, right before he breaks down into his mea culpa for the Tusken killing field.
As a triggering signifier of repressed guilt, it’s a detail as important to the overall tapestry as the bleeding-milk moments from The Manchurian Candidate or Munich, but Lucas remains unable to draw attention to the powerful maternal-sexual symbol as Frankenheimer, Spielberg or even Cameron did for any number of reasons. Partly it’s because the milk stays in its cup the whole time, instead of making a mess that audiences might’ve taken notice of—if Anakin had actually spilled some milk, it might’ve been worth crying over. Partly it’s because the milk is blue, denying it the immediate one-to-one connection between its real-world counterpart and the array of meanings it arrives with. Mostly, however, it’s because the only people who actually know what blue milk is are Star Wars fans—specifically the eagle-eyed variety who can spot the azure beverage from a long-shot’s distance and make the connection between it and Luke’s dinner-table conversation with Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru from A New Hope, where the young Skywalker is served the very same drink. In fact, you’d have to be well-read on any number of supplementary texts—from comic books and tie-in novels to behind-the-scenes documentaries and making-of books—to even know that it was milk in the first place, much less from what type of otherworldly creature it sprang from.
Thus is a potentially effective thematic connection rendered unintelligible and meaningless in the white noise of modern franchise-narrative obscurity. It isn’t the only instance, either—you’d have to read a published script or sit through the film’s credits to learn that the stubborn Jedi librarian Obi-Wan seeks help from early on is called “Madame Jocasta Nu”, a name that would have underlined the Oedipal dilemmas of the film had Lucas bothered to have McGregor say it out loud. Later on, when Kenobi stumbles upon the mysterious clones grown on an unheard of world, the planet’s residents insist the army was commissioned by a long-dead Jedi called “Syfo-Dias”, who at first appears to be a lynchpin in the elaborate conspiracy, but clumsily winds up being dropped without any further mention whatsoever. What might’ve been a mere red-herring becomes a maddening loose-thread, and it’s only when filmgoers bother to read the merchandise novels or comic-books published under the Star Wars brand-name that one stands any chance of understanding what the hell is going on.
It’s a trait that has grown more and more common among filmmakers creating multi-media franchises to support their ambitious movie serials—the Wachowski brothers poured much enthusiasm and effort into the making of Matrix-related comic-books, video-games and animation projects, but wound up littering the actual theatrical sequels to their film with far too much intertextual pollution, rendering Reloaded and Revolutions hard to understand for those who didn’t watch The Animatrix. Richard Kelly’s Donnie Darko follow-up Southland Tales found itself equally hamstrung by a prequel graphic-novel penned by its director, who later all but admitted it was expecting too much for most filmgoers to do such homework before going to the movies. Even 2009’s blockbuster Star Trek didn’t really make any sense unless you’d bothered to read the Countdown comic-book, which went out of its way to explain the motivations of characters who were barely even introduced in the film. As the man who pioneered the trend of movies marketed by tie-in products, Lucas deserves some of the blame for the way countless filmmakers have neglected the coherence of their flagship films for the sake of ancillary media, but not all of it. What he cannot be excused from, however, is the undisciplined storytelling he exercises here—expecting audiences themselves to pick up the pieces to a puzzle he never bothers to put together himself.
V: Do You Want Me to Draw You a Picture?
Thankfully, Lucas is far more careful and sophisticated in his undisputed area of expertise—visual cinema. Again flanked by cinematographer David Tattersall and a team of designers headed by fashion-expert Trisha Biggar and conceptualist Doug Chiang, the director’s work on Episode II is some of his clearest, brightest and most dynamic yet, a spectacular mix of jaw-dropping vistas and eye-popping compositions across a wide spectrum of environments and atmospheres throughout the universe. As always, Lucas demonstrates a daring command of the cinemascope frame that even contemporaries like Spielberg, Scorsese or Coppola have never mastered—each of them still obviously more comfortable in the more intimate realm of 1.85:1 than the widest of widescreens around. Two things set his work on this film apart, however— his head-first dive into the brave new world of digital-video filmmaking, and his expanding vocabulary of cinematic references to classic films of long past and recent memory. Lucas’ shift from celluloid to digital cinema was one the director had long planned, as far back as The Phantom Menace. That film was shot with Arriflex 35 milimeter cameras mounted with an anamorphic-lens to compress his preferred 2.35:1 aspect-ratio into the Academy-35 format. One can see a slight curvature of the frame in long-shots thanks to this method, an effect that the director sought to avoid with long-distance shooting techniques. This time working with Sony’s CineAlta digital-video camera, Lucas was free to shoot without the slight fish-eye effect of the anamorphic-lens and as such worked much more liberally as a director than he had on any project before.
The camera of Attack of the Clones is far more mobile than the static-approach of Star Wars films past. While Lucas continues to rely on careful compositions and tableau throughout the film, he often integrates slight movement through slow pans, dollies and zooms throughout, freeing the image from the sometimes claustrophobic confines of locked-in still-life shots of the past. Furthermore, in many scenes he pushes the camera in closer to the actors, using Steadicam to stabilize and retain his polish during moments requiring quick tracks and repositions. This allows the camera to cohabitate the setting more immersively, giving a fine texture to some of the more mobile moments shot on location in Seville’s Plaza de Espana (where David Lean had previously shot scenes for Lawrence of Arabia), and Lake Como’s Villa del Balbianello (where Martin Campbell would later shoot love-scenes for Casino Royale). Amongst the aged green-domes, cobblestone gardens and wandering piazzas, one can detect a hint of Patrick McGoohan’s The Prisoner, and its peculiar blend of sci-fi pop and Kafkaesque parable amidst the Italianate architecture of Wale’s Portmerion—a connection that wasn’t quite so self-evident in the more baroquely shot The Phantom Menace. Lucas’ camera warms itself to the wholly invented environments as well, blending easily between physical sets and digitally fabricated panorama. Perhaps the best example arrives during Obi-Wan’s investigation on Geonosis, whose catacombs and cathedral-quiet open spaces glimmer with Catalan-style architecture inspired by Antonio Gaudi’s blend of surreal, earthy gothic.
With new methods based on new technology, Lucas finds himself able to loosen some of the restrictions of past films, necessitating less reliance on sometimes contrived angles and profile shots designed to enhance the two-dimensionality required of an aggressively flattened image. However there are still moments when Lucas’ experiments don’t always pay off, mostly involving the use of telephoto-lenses with the CineAlta camera. With the Arriflex, this approach worked to increase the range of the camera’s resolution, creating a sharper image on screen from distant-shots and toned down the anamorphic-lens’ distortions. With the CineAlta, however, there is a problem—digital-video already comes with a high degree of resolution that leaves the picture crystal-sharp without any trickery involving lenses. As such, when Lucas uses his old lens-heavy approach, especially during more naturalistic two-shot set-ups made possible by the camera’s greater range of intimacy, we are left with a flattened image that matches up a little too well with environmental elements, both on-set and digitally inserted, a deep focus that sometimes confuses what is background and foreground. Instead of making the scene look more natural, he actually winds up heightening the artificiality of the surroundings. As a growing pain, it’s an understandable misstep and one that he takes care not to repeat throughout the picture, and on the whole we are only left with an image that is a far brighter, clearer one. Thanks to digital cinema, he finds himself a man with a much more thorough command of the scope in his busy visual world.
In the second case, the widening range of films Lucas draws from has been a part of his repertoire since the very beginning—A New Hope famously gleaned from the films of John Ford, Sergio Leone and Akira Kurosawa just as much as it did ancient mythology and classic fairy-tales, and each subsequent entry in the series kept that tradition alive. But in Attack of the Clones, we witness a great many references to films that would ordinarily fall outside the boundaries set by previous Star Wars films. Besides nods to jidaigeki and World War II pictures, it’s easy to see moments pocketed from film-noir and even musicals. Sometimes these elements stand out—Anakin and Padme’s political conversation during a picnic on Naboo recalls Robert Wise’s The Sound of Music, another old-fashioned love-story told on the eve of a dictator’s rise to power. Other times, elements hide in plain sight—the Venetian-blinds of Padme’s penthouse bedroom and Yoda’s meditation-chamber, a modern piece of domestic design found nowhere in the Original Trilogy but everywhere in detective films filmed and set in and around the 1940’s. Perhaps most importantly, Lucas delves more deeply into some of the genres that Star Wars films most closely identify with—science-fiction and westerns. Early on in a breakneck chase by the Jedi to catch an assassin on the city-planet of Coruscant, Obi-Wan and Anakin take dangerous falls from dizzying heights in the neon-drenched night-life districts, recalling films as distant as Fritz Lang’s Metropolis to as recent as Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element and Ridley Scott’s seminal Blade Runner.
Like Besson and Scott, Lucas takes a great deal of inspiration from French comics-icon Jean “Moebius” Giraud, whose influence on the Original Trilogy can be seen as far back as the probe-droid from The Empire Strikes Back. Scott’s film—like Attack of the Clones a blend of genetically driven sci-fi and Raymond Chandler detective story—might be the most explicitly quoted film of the three, as the chase leads the Jedi through an industrial landscape of smoketowers belching toxic flames, an image right out of the opening shots of the famous Phillip K. Dick adaptation. By incorporating obvious nods to his influences, Lucas is at once owning up to nature of his pastiche-driven technique, and incorporating the themes and ideas present in those work. This is particularly apt in the appropriation of Scott’s blend of sci-fi—suspicious of corporate overlords and personal identity alike, an existential parable of bold, decaying futurism. Usually these references help underline aspects that are already apparent in the story, but at key moments they can also help to articulate ideas that he could never get away with in the conventional confines of family-friendly filmmaking. Just as the ending of A New Hope is widely recognized for quoting from Leni Riefenstahl’s propaganda-epic Triumph of the Will, subtly indicating the hollow quality of the Rebel’s short-lived military victory, so too does Attack of the Clones very visibly quote from a well-known, somewhat unlikely picture—The Searchers.
Filmed in 1956, John Ford’s tale of Confederate veteran Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) returning to Texas after the Civil War to find his brother’s family slain by a Comanche raid, the wife and eldest daughter violated so bad that even he can’t bear to look. While he and part-Cherokee family friend Martin (Jeffrey Hunter) spend years on the trail of the younger daughter, they learn that she has grown into a young woman (Natalie Wood) raised by the Comanche tribe, and as time goes on, Ethan believes the only way to bring justice is to find the girl and put her out of her misery. Wayne’s performance stands as one of the most unsettling and effective of his career, playing a racist, violent man with no illusions of his moral character, who can only find peace and solace in the destruction of an enemy who has taken everything from him. But to modern audiences, what is far more evident and palpable in the film is not the usual vilified portrayal of Native Americans as bloodthirsty savages, but instead is the unspoken emphasis Ford places on the awareness and coldblooded treatment of sexual-violence. As much as anything, The Searchers is a story about rape, and thanks to Lucas’ careful imitation of a handful of shots as Anakin approaches the Tusken Raiders who have abducted his mother, so too is Attack of the Clones, however briefly. While critics were quick to point out the similarities between Luke’s discovery of the burning Lars homestead in A New Hope and Ethan’s discovery of his brother’s ranch after the Comanche attack, it is only in Episode II where Lucas explicitly uses to The Searchers to articulate through reference that which can only be implied in the body of the film itself.
Again, we have a potential problem in the making thanks to the relative obscurity of the director’s connection—unless you’ve seen Ford’s film and understand its sexual, as well as racial politics, it may not be entirely clear exactly why the Sand People have abducted Anakin’s mother. All you get from the movie itself are the unsettling implications of Pernilla August being found victimized by beatings and bondage, and her delirious last moments, but even those slight clues are enough, a set of discreet signifiers as polite and unsettling as Bunuel’s perverse glimpse of snails on a murdered girl’s legs from Diary of a Chambermaid. And besides, The Searchers also only ever really alluded to the worse-than-death-fates visited upon the women who Ethan spends years trying to avenge—with nothing more than a few stone-faced shots of men standing at the threshold of crime scenes, only just barely able to look in at where the camera dare not point itself, the film eloquently addresses the subject of sexual victimization without ever needing to lay it bare for all to see. Just as Ford did as much as he could to imply the full extent of the Commanche’s attack through visual and verbal cues (all those cries of “Don’t go in there!”), Lucas plants enough evidence in the mere trauma of Shmi’s capture and murder to deliver the film’s most potent emotional moment. Perhaps the price we pay, as an audience, for such ultra intertextuality between the director’s filmmaking and world cinema is its increasingly insular-franchise mentality, but when Lucas concentrates on delivering goods with as much of a connection outside of Star Wars as within it, and with such bold, risky strokes, it’s hard to take your eyes away.
VI: We Won’t Know Where We’re Going ‘Till We’re There
Of course, there can sometimes be too much of a good thing, and in Attack of the Clones there is certainly an excess of Lucas’ trademark set-pieces. While his penchant for punctuating otherwise dry plots of political filibustering and mystical headscratching with all manner of thrilling sequences helps to make his films much more open and accessible, it has the potential to result in long stretches in which talk and substance are forgone entirely in favor of the spectacle of special-effects fireworks. Consider the fact that in the first hour of the film, we witness an assassin’s bomb, an attempted bedside poisoning, a high-speed and higher-altitude chase through a busy sci-fi city, a rainswept fight between a heavily-armed bounty hunter and a Jedi Knight that eventually turns to fisticuffs, and an asteroid-belt set cat-and-mouse dogfight involving mines, laser blasts and a homing-missile. All of this is to be expected from a Star Wars film, of course, and as usual happens to be staged, shot and cut marvelously. Unlike Michael Bay, J.J. Abrams and other filmmakers of today, Lucas places a maximum premium on clarity and coherence in his set-pieces, striving to help the audience understand the mechanics of an action-sequence rather than merely feel its shock-and-awe. Only Michael Mann consistently outperforms him in terms of inventiveness, realism and style, with Bond and Zorro-maestro Martin Campbell close behind.
But what remains, for the rest of the movie? Aside from the necessary plot and character advancement, every Star Wars movie must pull out all stops for its last fifteen-odd minutes. A New Hope had an aerial battle in space, The Empire Strikes Back a show-stopping lightsaber match, while Return of the Jedi and The Phantom Menace had both, as well as some slightly underwhelming guerilla warfare with kid-friendly Ewoks and Gungans. Attack of the Clones, however, is a different beast, because it lacks the same kind of focus the rest of the series’ episodes thrive on in their conclusions. From Anakin and Padme’s escape through the droid-factory of Geonosis to Christopher Lee’s one-of-a-kind duel with Yoda (not to mention a briefer, but perhaps more visually impressive bout with young Skywalker, their glowing swords the only sources of light in the dark), the film’s ending stretches, drags and plods through an ever-escalating series of one over-the-top action set-piece after another. Granted, there is much to admire, but perhaps too much—a gladiatorial fight against enormous beasts that mimics both sword-and-sandal epics and Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion marvels; a large band of Jedi Knights facing off against a small army of battle-droids, and a long montage of Clone Troopers in battle, with war cinematography and increasingly bizarre war-machines seemingly patterned stock footage of World War II. If you think it’s exhausting just to read a summary of all that, imagine how tiring it is to watch.
In a sense, the endless parade of battle which occupies the last quarter of the film is reminiscent to the entire running time of Stuart Cooper’s classic Overlord, that peculiarly hypnotic WWII blend of drama and documentary footage that gives a new meaning to the word “experimental”. That film can be something of an endurance-trial too—only nominally dedicated to telling its story of a young British recruit (Brian Stimer) anxiously awaiting the D-Day invasion and haunted by visions of death on the battlefield, Cooper spends much of his time offering footage culled by the Imperial War Museum into a kind of motion-picture mosaic, intercutting occasionally with his fictional frame-story, expertly shot to blend in almost seamlessly with the real-life coverage by John Alcott, a favorite cinematographer of Stanley Kubrick’s. The film is at once a powerful historical artifact and a thoughtful meditation on the role of the individual in the soulless machinery of modern warfare. So is Attack of the Clones, and when the seemingly endless succession of escalating climaxes is viewed in the same perspective as Cooper’s seemingly endless demo-reel of British war curiosities, it carries a power of its own, flatly casting a spotlight on the dispiritingly mundane character of the battlefield, especially when engaged by a war fought by two sides of proxy-armies controlled by the same mastermind.
But even this cannot quite excuse the diminishing returns of excitement one feels once the sheer routine of set-piece after set-piece becomes apparent. It becomes especially frustrating when one realizes how little some sequences have to do with the overall plot, and how easily they could’ve been excised if it weren’t for editor Ben Burtt—an accomplished sound-designer, but considering the several glaring continuity errors found in this film, a man who should be kept as far away from an editing table or Avid machine as possible. A perfect example is the very first sequence of the film’s protracted ending, as Anakin and Padme find themselves separated in Count Dooku’s battle-droid factory. A late addition to the film during reshoots, the sequence was quickly previsualized, and then shot in less than four and a half hours. As a piece of impromptu filmmaking, it shows Lucas at his most versatile and inventive, even when putting the vast armies of a major motion-picture studio under his command. As an example of psychological mythologizing, it puts an action set-piece to tremendous work with the factory floor’s automated conveyor belts, chopping blades and deadly-lava unspooling a whole textbook full of classic neuroses up on the big screen. Finally, as a sequence of action, suspense and pure, visceral cinema, it shines with the same kind of punchy, flash-bang direction that fuels the best moments of A New Hope, complete with surprisingly welcome humor from R2-D2 and Anthony Daniel’s C-3PO.
But no matter how impressive, smart, or just plain fun the sequence is by itself, there’s no disguising the fact that it does nothing in the narrative except stall for a while until the heroes find themselves captured, something that could’ve been done in far less time and with far less effort another way. Had Anakin and Padme discovered a secret-message, stolen-plans or any kind of all-important object, the scene might’ve carried some extra weight to justify all the urgent running around. It’s nothing short of surprising to see Lucas, of all people, fall prey to adding a sequence with so little in the way of plainly articulated motivations, as far as the story goes. Without a plot-device, the plot itself suddenly disappears for a good five minutes or so, leaving the audience with nothing but an extended drum-solo of action-beats divorced from any meaningful purpose. In the convoluted Rube Goldberg-machinations of a piece of two-dimensional pulp-fiction, you need a MacGuffin to bait any kind of narrative hook, a carrot on the end of a special-effect rotoscoping stick just to string the audience along. Perhaps sequences like these were dreamt up out of a sense of set-piece envy in the face of enterprising new directors strutting their stuff in the Lord of the Rings and Matrix trilogies, among other works, and while Lucas’ competitive spirit against the likes of Peter Jackson and the Wachowski Brothers can sometimes be invigorating, the end results, with their occasional lapses in cohesion, can all become rather tiring after a while.
During the production of his protégé’s debut feature effort, Francis Ford Coppola remarked “This is either going to be a masterpiece, or a masturbation,” just as Lars von Trier once described himself as a “simple masturbator of the cinema.” Maybe that’s what all filmmakers worth a damn really are, especially those who continue to direct highly divisive cinematic efforts that audiences continue to debate years after their initial release. You can see it in the way Jean Luc-Godard grew increasingly hostile towards the world in films like Pierrot le Fou and Made in USA, loudly assaulting his viewers’ patience in a desperate bid to keep Anna Karina’s attention. You can see it in the way that Lars von Trier punishes all his heroines from Breaking the Waves to Anti-Christ, inflicting just as much pain on his audiences as the movie-star martyrs who go through the motions of his avant-garde passion-plays. In the end, the very same thing can, and perhaps must be said of the Star Wars series, once one realizes just how self-indulgent it is. Lucas has often said that the only thing he really cares about while making a movie is whether or not he, personally, enjoys watching it—everybody else is just along for the ride. While in Episode II, he and the various assortments of critics, fan-circles and filmgoers at large obviously didn’t see eye to eye, there remains an admirable quality to the manner in which the director blithely disregards any concern for what audiences think of his work.
If you want to see how personal this film is to him, all you have to do is watch how Lucas mines his own work, as well as that of Ford or Kurosawa, for additional meaning at key points. The all-white interiors Obi-Wan tours of the clone-planet of Kamino recall THX 1138, an appropriate connection for the Stormrooper’s dystopian aspects. Before that, the Jedi is given a lead on his case from an old friend who runs an American Graffiti-style diner on Coruscant, invoking that free spirited charm and high spirits that preceeded the dark days of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Vietnam War and an age of assassinations. Episode II may be the most awkwardly paced and disciplined film of Lucas’ career, but it might also be the most personal, as is all self-indulgent cinema. It is more intimate, more exposed, and less caged in by the creative restrictions of common sense. Finally, you can see it in the way that George Lucas passive-aggressively toys with a devoted, bipolar following of fanboys who insist upon dissecting and contesting every narrative and aesthetic move he makes, seeming to give them everything they want with one hand while tossing all expectations to the wind with the other. No matter how much he wants to create a crowd-pleasing hit that unites audiences and critics in the same way the Original Trilogy did, in the fight between the director’s commercial and artistic sensibilities, it is always the latter that tends to win, even if they only amount to pyrrhic victories, leaving so much collateral damage in the film’s wake, and little wonder that their poisonous fall-out carries such a long half-life. If the original films ushered in a brave new world of near-utopian feats at the box-office, then the Prequels are positively post-apocalyptic.
After all is said and done, perhaps the greatest testament to the enduring legacy to Episode II and the Prequel Trilogy in general is the fact that it has such an enduring legacy to begin with, even if it is largely a negative one. Unlike many panned films from almost a decade ago, Lucas’ latter-day Star Wars films continue to be reviewed in a variety of mediums, mocked for any number of perceived faults, and argued over by fans and critics alike. Simply put, after all these years, the conversation surrounding them hasn’t ended, and isn’t likely to cease any time soon, as passionate supporters seek to defend it, even in the face of overwhelming objecting opinions. The fact that so many people are still talking about these films, even to decry their motives and attack their substance, stands as proof positive enough that they succeeded in making a permanent mark with audiences, providing a series of expert escapist adventure every bit as disturbing and thought-provoking as they are entertaining– love it or hate it, the movie remains a frequent talking point, and that makes it a modern classic. If Attack of the Clones is the most Oedipal entry of the Star Wars series and George Lucas’ filmography at large, then it stands as the most Onanistic, as well, and if you haven’t gone blind or gouged your own eyes out by the final, bittersweet happy ending, then perhaps it’s time you owned up to what the film really is, warts and all— a guilty pleasure worth being proud of.
*Note: This piece is, in part, intended as a rebuttal to the recent upswing of Attack of the Clones criticism since the Easter posting of Red Letter Media’s latest piece of anti-Prequel reviews up on YouTube. Its writing was begun far sooner than that, however, with drafts dating back even before RLM’s infamous series on The Phantom Menace. My own essay on that film can be found over at Ari’s site, The Aspect Ratio: http://www.theaspectratio.net/phantommenace.htm