Phantom Menace naysayers aside, are you for real Attack of the Clones? Now this is how you do up a Star Wars disaster, grade-A incoherence and all. Specifically, Attack of the Clones ends up scrambling in a million directions in search of a new center after Qui-Gon Jinn’s death at the end of Phantom, a film which is itself almost a complete severance from Attack of the Clones in every way. Nothing about the earliest prequel develops any of the themes explored in Attack of the Clones, which nominally chooses to focus on the relationship between Obi-Wan and Anakin to get us on its predestined but sometimes-unfathomably rocky pathway to Revenge of the Sith. Nominally, I write, because you’d need to see Revenge of the Sith to even read any such relationship into this film. The two hardly spend any time together at all, leading to a narratively disjointed film that mostly resounds as a powerfully unnecessary display of arbitrary plot development. For the most part, Obi-Wan does things and Anakin happens to be around him, and then, for a while, Obi-Wan does things and Anakin isn’t around him, and then they’re back together again. This decision, perhaps more than any other, tends to render the whole “prequel to Star Wars” business rather dubious. All of the meaningful Anakin character creation that catalyzes the original films has been displaced onto Revenge of the Sith, whereas this film basically relegates itself to the broader geopolitical strokes of the imperial conflict, which basically means “clone army”.
And honestly, Attack of the Clones focuses almost entirely on the “mystery” of the clone army without ever once stopping to explain why this is relevant except in the most menial “because the clone army existed” sort of way. No film in the series adds less to its opening text-crawl, and no other film in the series could so easily be summed up by its text-crawl and nothing more. If Phantom Menace was an exercise in biding time, its follow-up is a routine of going through the motions. In lieu of the tonally over-complicated and franchise-irrelevant but fundamentally “narratively” straightforward Phantom, Attack of the Clones is a breathtakingly bifurcated film that is less at war with itself than Phantom but as such only lacks that film’s sometimes-fascinating emotional spasms. In their place, we have Obi-Wan (still Ewan McGregor, finally on his game in the role) off investigating the rise of this clone army – ok – and jumping between locations like a jukebox version of Lucas’ pulp matinee fluff while Anakin (Hayden Christensen) and Padme (still Natalie Portman) are busy Doing Space Love Story for the local high school theater. So, anyway, where do we go from there? This time out, the flaws are substantially more endemic to the core of the film, partially because Attack of the Clones is nominally saddled with more weight and dramatic heft than the ten-years-removed Phantom Menace.
Then there’s the much-maligned joke about how, for the teenage Anakin, Lucas managed to pick an even worse actor than Jake Lloyd in Hayden Christensen, whose colossal failure here is as much symptom as syndrome, and whose talent is hard to uncouple from Lucas’ notoriously inept (or, rather, simply non-existent) directing of actors. But, if Lucas’ famously off-hand attitude toward performance changes the directionality of the criticism of Anakin, it does not alter its magnitude, especially when Portman is saddled either way with that her-soul-was-hollowed-out routine-thing. Totally stranded by Lucas, she is left generally helpless to do anything with a character that is, honestly, an astounding case for Hollywood’s inability to respect women by giving them reasons to fall for the men they gush over. By which I mean that Anakin is a grimly sullen little brat with no redeeming features whatsoever, but Lucas obviously wishes to wrap not only Padme but the biggest cinematic franchise in the world around him in hopes of seeing if he gets any smugger from the responsibility.
To my mind, Attack is the case of bad screenwriting that the fans lambast Lucas for time and time again, but it stands singularly on this mount, head-and-shoulders above the other two prequels. Yes, Lucas loses himself to the uncontrollable vivacity of his vision with Revenge of the Sith, taking his story down with him in exultant flares as he heedlessly dives into the neo-classical possibilities of his headstrong fantasia, the last gasp of his dream project. But the clunkiness of Attack is an entirely more timid variant of mess, one that is less idiosyncratic and personalized in nature. Here, his story doesn’t lose its footing because it is unable to keep up with his head; rather, he grounds himself to story, emphasizing otherwise-meaningless plot developments simply to develop a plot. He loses his vision to the machinations of arbitrary narrative.
And this time out, Lucas’ listless screenwriting is matched only by the docility of his camera and the irrelevancy of his compositions, the film riding banality right up into an abysmal void of emptiness. But aside from a few momentary shocks of clarity – John Williams’ “Across the Stars” singlehandedly divining romance out of hog-wallop, a chase through the bustling Republic capital of Coruscant that finally implies that this galaxy is in any way meaningfully populated with life – Attack of the Clones almost never flares to life until the colosseum portion of the finale. That is, until the rest of the final battle dissolves into a morass of nothingness.
If Attack of the Clones hardly ever finds its pulse, though, it certainly does spend some energy actively disowning any semblance of a pulse, for instance when Yoda gets his big “showcase” action set-piece in the film and is promptly dismantled into a fuzzy ball of green computer-toxin, or the positively gangrenous bit where it’s any of the entire half that features Anakin and Padme on screen at the same time. Or the hamfisted way that C3P0 is rewritten into the film after a mercifully brief encounter in Phantom Menace. Or again, the bizarre structural decision to separate Obi-Wan and Anakin for most of the film, which is a cringe-inducing screenplay shorthand for not having to deal with their growing differences in opinion and attitudes toward concerns facing the galaxy while also lazily implying that they were never really afforded a chance to connect. This to me is arguably the most creatively-barren decision in a film loaded to the gills with poor ideas that take the slippery slope to rapid inevitability.