Like with James Bond or Doctor Who, a first Star Wars movie is a formative event in a young fan’s life which will go on to inform their tastes in the franchise forever. Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones was that Star Wars movie for me. It was the one I grew up loving, having been released at the perfect time for six-year-old me. I can’t remember if it was the first one that I saw, I had the original trilogy on VHS, taped off the telly with the Motorola adverts burned in my mind as much as the films themselves, but Attack of the Clones was the film that most left a mark and captured my imagination. I had the action figures, the LEGO, the lunchbox, the flamethrower. I’d jump from sofa to sofa pretending they were speeders on the Coruscant skyline. And now I have an Attack of the Clones poster, signed by the cast and George Lucas himself, on the wall above my bed. I love the film now just as much as I did then, numerous warts and all, and the 20th anniversary is a time to celebrate this bold and crazy instalment of the Star Wars franchise.
Attack of the Clones opens in a unique way when compared to the other episodes of the saga. Instead of panning down after the crawl the camera instead pans up, something Rogue One would later adopt. This camera move, and the ships twisting and turning as they approach Coruscant, gives a wonderful sense of unease and mystery, very much a statement on the plot that will follow. This is a film where the characters will find themselves disorientated, with everything they thought they knew turned on its head. Mysteries will be stumbled upon, many of which this film won’t answer. Attack of the Clones is a film about putting pieces into places, Lucas’ machinations as much as Palpatine’s, ready for the pay-off in Revenge of the Sith. In fact, when rewatching the film, it dawned on my that this is the first Star Wars movie that doesn’t feel like it can work as a standalone instalment, truly taking advantage of being an “episode” in a larger story and completely embracing the movie serial influences.
Attack of the Clones is probably the Star Wars movie that improves the most with a rewatch and the more additional content one views. It’s interesting to reference back to the characters as we see them in this film before the war changes them irrevocably. Mace Windu dismisses the idea that Dooku could have someone assassinated because he is a former Jedi only to stage his own assassination attempt in the next film. This isn’t character inconsistency but the effects of the war on the Jedi. So much of the themes and character work of the film aren’t immediately obvious, hidden behind awkward dialogue and questionable performances, but beneath the surface Attack of the Clones is rich with meaning. The arrogance of the Jedi and their reliance on violence is just as important to their fall as Order 66, and this slow death is what Attack of the Clones is concerned with. Of course, The Clone Wars helped to expand on these ideas too and that show is essentially the (incredibly long) second part of a trilogy starting with Attack of the Clones and ending with Revenge of the Sith.
Attack of the Clones is the film that plays the most with what Star Wars can be and paved the way for further genre, style, and tonal expansions. It’s a sweeping romance, a sci-fi fantasy war movie, a slapstick comedy, and a pulp noir detective adventure with a diner straight out of the 1950’s. It’s brilliant and totally barmy, striking that delicate balance of taking itself seriously and being totally ridiculous. It doesn’t all work, of course. The film is maligned by some and there are elements that are executed poorly, things even I won’t defend cough the romance cough. It’s a big film trying to do an awful lot of things, many of which are handled clumsily. There’s little focus and it’s ultimately very convoluted. I’m still not totally sure I understand the Sifo Dyas plot and keeping track of Nute Gunray asking Count Dooku to hire Jango Fett who hires Zam Wesell who uses a droid which uses worm things to kill Padme is a bit much.
Attack of the Clones marked a huge technical leap forward in filmmaking. While it is often chastised for its over-use of CGI and green screens, some of which are distracting and obnoxious, I’d argue the film succeeds with its visuals more than it fails. The fact that not a single set of clone armour was physically produced for the film and all the clones are completely digital still blows my mind. Coruscant also looks incredible and is such an improvement over what it looked like in The Phantom Menace. There are some stunningly beautiful shots throughout, like Anakin looking out over Naboo after his dream. And, of course, there are the ever-reliable aspects of John Williams’ score and Ben Burtt’s sound design. The soundscape is a masterpiece. Who can deny the awesomeness of the seismic charges?! There are even great performances to be found, an aspect the film is often chastised for. Ewan McGregor is now beloved, Mullet Obi-Wan is the best Obi-Wan, and I won’t hear a word said against Natalie Portman as Padme, who transcends the terrible romance to become one the film’s best characters.
Growing up with the prequels has given me a very different perspective on Star Wars than those that grew up with, say, the original films. One such example is that I never cared about the supposedly badass version of Boba Fett so many loved. To me, Boba has always been that lonely kid on Kamino. And, even so, so what if Boba is unmasked as a little kid? Yes, we may lose this badass Boba who only existed in people’s minds and not in the actual films where he does nothing, but we gain Jango who is even better. Jango is the best bounty hunter out of any of the movies. He actually does stuff; he is the Boba people always wanted to see yet people were too angry to see it. His fight with Kenobi is one of the best action scenes of the saga. The silent and stoic ‘man-with-no-name’ element of Mandalorians may have originated with Boba but the franchise continues to owe so much of its Mandalorian exploration, from the live-action shows to animation, to Jango’s appearance in Attack of the Clones.
After the sole Jedi adventure of the original trilogy, the prequels allowed us to visit a time where 10,000 Jedi Knights inhabited the galaxy, and more than any other film Attack of the Clones makes the most of this. The Jedi aren’t just sat in a circle like in The Phantom Menace or spread out across multiple planets like in Revenge of the Sith. There’s always a childlike glee in seeing an entire group of them – an illumination to use the correct collective term – ignite their lightsabers together on Geonosis to do battle. Seeing that many Jedi onscreen – that many lightsabers! Blue, green, and even purple – is fantastic. I think we’ll see armies of Jedi and Sith clash onscreen one day in an Old Republic film but for now, this’ll do. It’s a shame then that the climatic lightsaber fight with Dooku is a disappointment, the duel in the dark is an idea I’d love to see revisited, but the battle between the clones and droids is properly spectacular. An actual war in Star Wars, ground combat like we’ve never seen, and shot in a much more realistic documentary style, with crash zooms and camera shakes. Another bold choice that pays off and has been often imitated.
Attack of the Clones reinvented Star Wars. The Phantom Menace was obviously a massive change in direction for the franchise but it was the second prequel where Lucas seemingly threw absolutely everything that he wanted Star Wars to be, everything he was inspired by, into one big pot. I love it for that. I love the confidence and the apathetic attitude to the haters. As a fan of so much of the additional Star Wars storytelling, from the animated shows, novels, and comics, I love that the idea of stretching the boundaries of what Star Wars can be that so many of them attempt comes from the attitude of Attack of the Clones. Seeing it as a kid it was my favourite Star Wars movie because of the action, the spectacle, and now, 20 years later, it’s my favourite for all that and more. It’s my favourite for its bold choices. It may not be the best Star Wars movie when looked on as objectively as one can (yes, Empire is very good) but it is the pure unadulterated vision of Lucas’ Star Wars and that is still worth celebrating two decades on.
What are your thoughts on Attack of the Clones? Let me know in the comments and be sure to geek out with me about TV, movies and video-games on Twitter @kylebrrtt.