‘Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones’ (2002) Has More Force 20 Years Later

“There seems to be a particular, and surprising, amount of nuance”

Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones was not a very popular film upon its release, and it’s not necessarily a much more loved one 20 years later. It has been derided largely because of its romance and performances, and others have found it toothless compared to other instalments in its vaunted series. The best regarded Star Wars films have indeed set an extraordinarily high bar, with the original trilogy seen by many as amongst cinema’s best set of films. This instalment has a higher bar to vault than most of Star Wars, though, considering it’s a middle chapter like The Empire Strikes Back – a sequel often ranked as the best movie follow-up ever. Attack of the Clones has much to offer outside of such unfair, simplistic comparisons, though, with a unique vision that Star Wars hasn’t since been able to replicate on the screen.

It’s underappreciated as to how much it broadened the saga’s scope beyond the adventuring of Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999). The prequel’s first instalment was a big change from what fans were used to with its jaw-dropping sights: the bustling cityscape of Coruscant and moodily lit underwater globes of Otoh Gunga could only have come about with previously-unimaginable CGI. However, it was a conservatively structured story, always feeling like it was moving from set piece to set piece. Attack of the Clones brings back the same startling visuals but moves between big action sequences, detective-style storytelling, old-school romance, and subversively dark tragedy. It’s more unfamiliar than Star Wars has ever felt, and feels a bit unsteady at times because of it.

Attack of the Clones tries to do many things at once. Its premise seems simple enough going by the title, one that hints at the arrival of the Clone Wars first mentioned in 1977’s A New Hope. It is somewhat more broad than that, however, beginning with an attack on Padme Amidala’s (Natalie Portman) life that brings Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) and Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) into a fold that gets ever more complex. A whole host of characters and concepts are introduced within the film’s running time, and by the end of it, the galaxy has changed entirely. Its dramatic ending leads into countless spin-offs and the saga as a whole. A filmmaker with less ambition would have explored this story in a trilogy itself, but creator George Lucas attempts to create a whole grand tableau.

Of course, it’s well known that it was an effort that was largely met with disappointment. Its reviews leave it as one of the franchise’s worst regarded films, with minor praise for its visuals subsumed by a loathing for its dialogue and pace. It’s little surprise that people were ready to dislike this instalment, though, not just due to its parallel to The Empire Strikes Back but because it followed much-loathed The Phantom Menace. Its predecessor was particularly hated by people who had grown up with Lucas’ first trilogy. The box office wasn’t great, then, the low expectations leading to just over a $600 million result compared to the billion-crossing figure of The Phantom Menace.

Padme and Anakin stand talking against a lakeside terrace wall, water and flowers in the backdrop. Padme stands in a sleeveless cream dress, and Anakin in his brown Jedi robes
Image courtesy of Lucasfilm

Lucas has been heavily criticised for the prequel’s failures, his storytelling abilities savaged and unfair allegations made that his main interest is selling toys. Perhaps one of the most affecting elements of Attack of the Clones, however, is how much it isn’t afraid to delve into the subtle and minute elements of the epic being told. Minor characters get moments to make their mark, whether it’s Uncle Owen’s impressively stoic, gruff, and emotionally wounded father Cleigg (Jack Thompson), to the return of a down-on-his-luck Watto (Andy Secombe) who has seen the years age him. These humanising elements are bound to stick within the less cynical minds of children, and create the impression of a film that has empathy for its conflict-trapped characters.

There’s respect for viewers’ memories too, and their connections to the emotional core of the story beyond the traditionally thrilling fantasy-adventure elements. Shmi Skywalker (Pernilla August) is the bright, optimistic heart of the previous film, a selfless mother who instils kindness in her son and sends him off to an apparently better future. She seems trustworthy enough that viewers can almost forget the dark future that awaits Anakin Skywalker as Darth Vader, the galaxy’s tyrannical enforcer. It’s a very bleak course correction, then, when the now-teen finds his mother dying in a Tusken Raider camp. Lucas cannot offer viewers the satisfaction of an easy resolution for his characters, and explores the narrative and tonal implications of the wheels coming off this jolly space opera rollercoaster ride.

One of the big problems that people have with the film is that it doesn’t seem to be able to handle emotions, and it’s fair to say that it’s not an entirely naturalistic film. However, it also arrived in a climate where science fiction and traditionally geeky entertainment were somewhat ostracised. Nowadays, viewers are expected to invest in superheroes’ angst, and to have seen a whole host of stories to understand the narratives being told. Being engaged in the character arcs of less-than-grounded creations is almost essential for keeping up with popular culture. Attack of the Clones came to screens only a year after Spider-Man (2001) proved to be a surprising success for a superhero movie, and six whole years before Iron Man (2008) would get the gears of the Marvel Cinematic Universe going.

Perhaps the most challenging stylistic choice in the movie is making the romance between Anakin and Padme feel like historical courtly love. It’s very much unlike Han and Leia’s screwball-comedy romance, instead earnest to the point of feeling like it’s from a different fictional universe. It is occasionally a little awkward, as many have pointed out, and lines like “You are inside me, tormenting my very soul” straddle a very thin line between stupidity and melodrama. For those willing to lean into the film as a whole, though, their relationship can be both funny and sweet, its awkwardness often intentional in the way that melodramatic teens are— not least teens divorced from reality. There’s no doubt that a more elegant filmmaker might explore these themes more clearly, but they are there for people willing to put mockery on the backburner.

Anakin is walking in his brown Jedi robes across the sands of Tatooine, a clouded expression as he carries the shrouded body of his mother
Image courtesy of Lucasfilm

There seems to be a particular, and surprising, amount of nuance when it comes to male behaviour in Attack of the Clones, and it’s been underrecognised how the portrayal of Anakin’s unchecked emotions appears to be an admirably serious look at toxic masculinity. The character is full of fear and anger from the very first time he appears, the ten years since his childhood having clearly wreaked havoc on him. He has a selfish, obsessive, forceful desire for Padme, an unwillingness to accept change, and a wild fury over his lack of power. This mix seems a natural result of someone led to believe they’re the chosen one, but denied the emotional guidance to handle that. It appears to be a pointed critique of how Western society breeds monstrous behaviour, and were these discussions being widely had in 2002, the film would have seemed very prescient for a blockbuster.

It’s the action sequences that undermine the film. There are a couple of genuinely great ones, namely the Coruscant chase and the first stage of the arena battle: both are inventive and put the heroes front and centre. The others throw in far too many gimmicks and visual noise, the droid foundry sequence particularly noticeable for how strongly it seems lifted from a platform video game. Attack of the Clones is the beginning of the end for its protagonists’ happiness and its society’s stability, so character and emotion are what the film demands above the tickbox of space battles. Perhaps this instalment would be better regarded if it had spent more time spelling out what it was trying to say, and leaned more confidently into its unusual genre cocktail.

Attack of the Clones is obviously not a perfect film. It isn’t aware enough of its audience, and doesn’t have the impact it should thanks to an alienating mix of wooden acting, poor pacing, and an undernourished narrative. It has had an impact on the saga at large with the sequel trilogy’s emotive Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and his forebear, Jacen Solo, in the Legacy of the Force novels, but it is an ambitious film that deserves to be acknowledged on its own merits. Attack of the Clones stands alone as the most serious character study its saga has produced, and any idiosyncrasies that slip into the Disney-owned franchise today have their roots in this ambitious and original sequel. Twenty years later, Star Wars is a franchise so large that the pressure is truly gone from this now-aged instalment, and it deserves to be recognised and enjoyed on its unique merits.

Header Image Courtesy of Lucasfilm