Friday, September 30, 2016

Star Wars Episode II: Send in the Clones, Don't Bother, They're Here

This film has been modified from its original version. It has been formatted to fit this screen.

Those fateful words will basically serve as the epitaph of an entire age of cinema. To most modern movie goers, those are words of a bygone era, but to cinephiles of certain age, they were a constant reminder of the subpar state of our home video versions of films. In those dark times, before the advent of the widescreen TV, audiences were forced to suffer through releases of films where it was possible that upwards of fifty percent of the image was chopped off just to account for the vast difference in aspect ratios between the original film stock and our televisions. In our darkest hour, "widescreen" versions of movies were paraded as some kind of special edition. Basically, it was a fucking travesty.

It always seemed appropriate to me, then, that out of my entire Star Wars movie collection, the only DVD that still bore those terrible words--Full Screen Edition--emblazoned across the top, those same, terrible words that were no doubt inscribed on the very gates of hell themselves, was my copy of Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones, my least favourite of the Star Wars prequel trilogy.

I have a distinct memory of sitting on my roommmate's bed watching a trailer for Star Wars Episode II on his Mac and wondering aloud about the effectiveness of the subtitle Attack of the Clones. I don't remember exactly what it was that I said, but I do remember that it wasn't positive. I wasn't so much unimpressed as I was bewildered. For whatever reason, it didn't seem Star Wars-ian enough to me. It didn't seem to fit with my idea of Star Wars, which was, of course, the obviously correct one, and George Lucas and everyone else be damned.

Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace had introduced us to Darth Vader as the precocious eight-year-old Anakin Skywalker, the version of the iconic villain that none of us knew that we wanted or needed. Even though I don't remember initially hating The Phantom Menace, I must confess that I fell to the dark side of fandom, due in no small part to certain echo chambers on the Internet. Especially without the context of the next two films in George Lucas' prequel trilogy, it was easy to lose one's way. In 2002 when Attack of the Clones was released, there was a vague sense of (new) hope. Despite what seemed to me to be a somewhat strange title for a Star Wars film, it did at least seem to be referencing one of the most intriguing pieces of unexplored lore from the original Star Wars trilogy. In Episode IV: A New Hope, when Luke Skywalker is chilling at Obi-Wan Kenobi's swinging bachelor pad, R2-D2 finally plays the secret message from Princess Leia, which starts off thusly:

"General Kenobi, years ago you served my father in the Clone Wars. Now he begs you to help him in his struggle against the Empire."

Ever since 1977, most fans have pondered the glorious implications of that single line of dialogue. The most dedicated probably had entire trilogies-worth of background story mapped out in their heads. Legions of Jedi Knights facing off against unknown armies in exotic locations all over the galaxy on planets defined by a single climate or geological feature. Grizzled soldiers unwinding at a twi-lek strip club. The most prevalent fan theory that I heard was that there would be warriors saddling up and riding trained rancors, like the one Jabba the Hutt had as a pet in Return of the Jedi, marching gloriously into battle. But most of all, it would have one Anakin Skywalker--now played by one Hayden Christensen--emerging as a war-hardened veteren turning to the dark side, becoming Darth Vader, kicking metric tons of ass, and carrying out the dastardly deed of "hunt[ing] down and destroy[ing] the Jedi knights" as recounted by Obi-Wan in his aforementioned Tatooine bachelor pad to Luke.

Instead, we got Attack of the Clones.

I'm sorry did I break your concentration? You were
saying something about "rattails." Oh, you were
finished? Well, allow me to retort.
Once again, just as he had with The Phantom Menace, George Lucas had defied all of my expectations. Instead of an epic war, what we got with Attack of the Clones was a whiny teenage Anakin Skywalker romancing Senator Padmé Amidala (Natalie Portman); assassination attempts; even more political backdrop to that galazy far, far away; a neo-noir detective story with Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor); a mysterious plot involving cloners; and a decent boner from Natalie Portman in that torn, white outfit on Geonosis.

Again, it wasn't the story that we wanted, but it was the story that Lucas wanted to tell. And I think the one that needed to be told in service of the overarching story.

It's important to keep in mind one of the underlying themes of the prequel trilogy is examining what it is that causes people to venture into depths of depravity other people can only dream of:

What drove me to make these movies is that this is a really interesting story about how people go bad. In this particular case, the premise is: Nobody thinks they're bad. They simply have different points of view. This is about a kid that's really wonderful. He has some flaws--and those flaws ultimately do him in. (George Lucas, The Making of Star Wars Revenge of the Sith)

Lucas could have just made a movie following Anakin and his team of ultimate badasses touring the galaxy looking for alien asses in which to firmly plant their boots. He could have made it easy on the audience. He could have made it easy on himself. But he decided to take the proverbial road less travelled, and I think now after some time and an increased perspective. Episode II is still my least favourite of the prequel trilogy, but it's nowhere near the flaming shit-heap that I once proclaimed it to be.

After seeing Darth Vader as a young child in Episode I, I think that a lot of fans were expecting that to be merely some kind of cinematic preamble and that we'd just skip ahead to a fully realized version of Anakin Skywalker taking names and kicking ass before a quick turn to the Dark Side. I don't think that anybody was really expecting Anakin Skywalker the whiny teenager, and I know I certainly wasn't. And it may not have been what I wanted, but I can now see that it is actually an incredibly apt way to help tie the story together. Leaving aside the parallels between Whiny Teenager Anakin Skywalker and Whiny Teenager Luke Skywalker, which has been talked of in some detail by others already, there's another important narrative reason that I think the Star Wars Saga is helped tremendously by portraying Anakin Skywalker as a teenager for what turned out to be key points in the development of his character.

Our teenage years are transitional. That is to say, they represent of a spectrum of development between childhood and adulthood. Those turbulent years spent in our teens are a birthing pit of sorts, where we're thrown rather unceremoniously into a pool of conflicting social expectations, boiling hormones, and (false) hope that beyond that light at the end of the birthing canal there are answers to life's greatest mysteries. There we are left to flail about for seven or eight years trying not to choke on this strange brew, waiting to burst forth from this gooey cocoon and emerge as a fully evolved and complete person, only to quickly discover that we have simply been released into a much larger pool. And despite our impressive new physical, mental, and social adaptations, the environment to which we are by some number of measures forced to call home is an untamable wilderness that we will spend much of our time wandering naked and alone with only brief reprieves from the tumultuous whims of fate and outrageous fortune.

The metaphor of metamorphosis is an apt one for our teenage years, because it is a period of becoming. It's a period of choice, of becoming, for better or worse and to a large degree, who you will be for the rest of your life. Which is why portraying Anakin Skywalker as a teenager at a critical point in his development on the road to what the audience knows will be the evil Sith lord, Darth Vader, is actually an inspired narrative choice. The critical turning point on Anakin's life journey occurs during his teenage years, when everything is in flux, and anything is still possible, but those possibilities slowly start getting whittled away by the cold, hard lightsaber of reality.

Of course added to this mix for Anakin is the increased pressure of living up to the incredibly high standards of the Jedi order. And added to that is the context of his origins. He was born into slavery. Then he was inducted into an order that told him where to go, what to do, how to dress and behave, and even what and how to think. And then add to all of that being thrown into the middle of an intergalactic dispute that erupts into full-scale war, and now he is also--despite the Jedi's protest to the contrary--a soldier, and all by the tender age of eighteen. To put it in scientific terms, there's a psychological storm a-brewin' thar, matee.

If Attack of the Clones is, then, the key turning point in Anakin's narrative arc, then what is the catalyst for this metamorphosis? There are two obvious narrative markers: his romance with Senator Padmé Amidala and the death of his mother, Shmi Lars neé Skywalker (Pernilla August). Neither of these events is, in and if itself, an ultimate cause, but rather demonstrate symptoms of the real issue at hand.

Perhaps one of the most prevalent threads in Attack of the Clones is Anakin's developing romantic relationship with Padmé. A decent amount of screen time is dedicating to establishing this relationship as they hide out on Naboo after several unsuccessful attempts on her life. After hanging out at a beautiful seaside resort that Padmé apparently spent her child in, eating floating fruit, frolicking around pastoral fields, and finally getting to first base, we finally come to a scene where Anakin and Padmé discuss what's going on between them, and how best to proceed. As George Lucas himself describes it,

This is one of the pivotal scenes in their relationship where he reveals the pain and suffering he’s been going through. It’s intended to be overly dramatic, almost overly operatic in its emotional intensity on his part. He’s young and he’s spilling his guts out to her … In relation to their emotional maturity, he is much more impetuous and immature. She is older, and more reality based and can look forward and see the consequences of their actions. She’s not going to let her emotions run rampant. (George Lucas, “Audio Commentary,” Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones, DVD).

Anakin quickly discovered that pick-up lines about destiny
only worked for George McFly.
One of the key issues that's preventing this blossoming love to develop is the prescriptive set of doctrines by which the Jedi use as a basis by which to conduct themselves in the galaxy, oft referred to as the Jedi Code in the multimedia extensions of Star Wars commonly known as the Extended Universe. The Code is only ever hinted at in bits and pieces throughout the movies, but it is clear that interpersonal relationships that involve the exchange of bodily fluids and slave outfit cosplay in the bedroom are generally not in the cards for most Jedi. I know that the Jedi Code is expounded upon in the Expanded Universe, but for my purposes here, I'm going to stick strictly to what's provided in the films.

On their way to Padmé's beach paradise of a childhood home on Naboo, she asks Anakin at one point in their conversation "Are you allowed to love? I thought that was forbidden for a Jedi." This is a key conversation, and one that's often overlooked/dismissed by those who despise the love story between Anakin and Padmé and basically ignore the whole thing. I was once guilty of this myself. Padmé is articulating a layman's perception of the Jedi, which is telling in and of itself. But it's Anakin's response, detailing the actual teachings of the Jedi that's key: "Attachment is forbidden. Possession is forbidden. Compassion, which I would define as unconditional love, is essential to a Jedi's life. So you might say, that we are encouraged to love."

Love isn't expressly forbidden by the Jedi order. Neither is sex forbidden, despite the fact that Jedi aren't portrayed as being particularly lucky in love, aside from some the occasional misunderstanding with a sibling. What is forbidden specifically is attachment. According to George Lucas himself "Jedi Knights aren't celibate--the thing that is forbidden is attachments and possessive relationships." This may seem like splitting hairs, but there is a fine line to be drawn. The Jedi are a peacekeeping force dedicated to defending the values of truth, justice, and the Galactic Republic way, and as such they must adhere to a certain level of objectivity and emotional detachment. It's pretty difficult to negotiate a hostage dispute, for example, if you have a personal relationship with one of the hostages. A judge at a steel bikini competition can't be trusted to render an objective opinion if his girlfriend is a contestant.

Personal attachment also makes it harder to make decisions that work toward the common good. To borrow a metaphor from a rival sci-fi franchise, "The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few or the one." This is clearly demonstrated near the end of Attack of the Clones during the Battle of Geonosis. During the conflict, one of the Separatist head honchos, Count Dooku (Christopher Lee) slips out, intent on running away to fight again another day. Enemy fire causes Padmé to be thrown vehicle that she, Anakin, and Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) were using to chase him down. Anakin, who by this point has established a romantic relationship with Padmé, immediately orders the pilot of their vessel to turn around and go back for her at the risk of letting a key leader of an enemy faction escape to carry out various other nefarious deeds, like keying random X-wings and sticking bubblegum underneath the consoles on the floating platforms in the senate hall.

Obi-Wan chastises Anakin pretty harshly, reminding him that if he gave up chasing Dooku to help Padmé that he would be "expelled from the Jedi order." At first glance, it seems pretty extreme to get kicked out of an organization faster than a second Homer from the No-Homers Club for trying to help save the life of someone you love, especially a non-blood relation. But when put into the context of the greater good (The greater good...) and the Jedi's sworn duty to act in accordance with the greater good as "guardians of peace and justice," it makes sense that the Jedi would take that shit pretty seriously. Sacrificing your own happiness or wellbeing in service of others is the very definition of selflessness, an ideal to which the Jedi obviously aspire.

I'm not saying that the Jedi's dogmatic adherence to this lack of attachment was necessarily the best way to go about things. I am point out, though, that there is a pragmatic sort of logic at play here in regard to the Jedi Code. I think that they were missing a temporal element from their creed, in that their might be times when it becomes necessary to suppress emotional attachments, but it's not necessarily healthy or, indeed, all that necessary to maintain that level of emotional austerity in their lives. I see the Jedi's prohibition on attachment as a logical extreme of the same level of emotional detachment that is required of a surgeon to cut into a living human being or a firefighter to run into a burning building. In the moment they can't think about all of the potential consequences of what they're doing or else they wouldn't be able to perform those necessary and life-saving jobs. I think what might be missing from the Jedi Code is a little balance.

The other example of Anakin's inability to purge himself of attachment is the death of his mother. After being whisked away from his mother and adopted by some weird light-sword-wielding space hippies some ten years previous, Anakin starts having premonitions of her death, which is enough to fuck with anybody. Even more disturbing for Anakin is the knowledge that through the Force, Jedi sometimes can get actual glimpses into the future. As the movies prove, there's sometimes a fairly wide margin of error, but still, the point stands that in the Star Wars universe the odds of a Jedi's dream coming true are infinitely greater than my dream of Natalie Portman licking maple syrup off my nipples coming true in this one.

Again, just as when he wants to go back to save Padmé instead of chasing after Dooku, Anakin is forced to make another choice: go and try to save his mother or stay and try to ensure the safety of Padmé, an important political figure fighting to try and save the crumbling Republic. This time, his friend and mentor Ob-Wan Kenobi isn't there to smack-talk some sense into him, and he chooses to go and save his mother, forsaking the greater good to pursue his own happiness and wellbeing. And I'm not saying that we should leave our parents to die horrible deaths at the hands of desert savages or that Anakin was wrong to feel the need to want to help save his loved ones from pain. That's a very natural, healthy response (the second thing about wanting to help your family and friends, that is). But Anakin isn't like us. He's not like most people. He is a Jedi, an order with a very specific mandate and some very lofty ideals, and he's made an important commitment to a mission that could have a drastic impact on the lives of countless other sentient beings throughout the galaxy. In this specific context, some thought at least has to be given to the greater good.

Yeah, bullseying womp rats sounds pretty impressive, I guess.
Sorry, I'm just in the middle of fighting a Sith Lord and trying
to prevent all-out war, and whatnot.
This is actually a striking parallel to Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back, when Luke (Mark Hamill) has premonitions of his friends in horrible pain, and he wants to rush off to save them. Yoda then tells him "Decide you must, how to serve them best. If you leave now, help them you could; but you would destroy all for which they have fought, and suffered." The same advice fits just as well for Anakin. His mother sacrificed her own happiness by letting her only son go with a bunch of strangers to train in a mysterious organization of warrior monks because she believed that in that capacity he would be in a position to do the most good for the most number of people. Anakin's mother suffered separation from the only family she had in the hope that he would pay that shit forward. She realized that, yeah, even though it wasn't the ideal situation for her or her son, that sacrifice could benefit the lives of others.

But like son like father, Anakin decides to make the selfish choice. He cannot let go of that emotional attachment. He goes back to his home planet of Tatooine to find that his mother has been captured by the animalistic sand people, and tracks her down in one of their encampments, only to have her die in his arms after apparently very rough treatment. Apparently, the sand people were students of the Guantanamo Bay school of hospitality. Even though the decision sent both Luke and Anakin down a darker path, Anakin takes it a step further by straight up murdering the entire tribe of sand people in the encampment where he found his mother. This highlights the depth of his attachment that he was unable to overcome, and how it became twisted so perversely.

Death is a shitty deal, no doubt about it. But it's also an inevitable part of life. Being able to process grief is an integral part of a healthy psyche. Death is shitty, yes, but it's also unavoidable, and so we have to be able to deal with it in some way to be able to remain functional and psychological healthy. In fact, when Anakin first leaves Tatooine in The Phantom Menace to go off Jediing around the galaxy, his mother actually gave him some pretty prescient advice: "You can't stop change any more than you can stop the suns from setting." Shmi Skywalker doesn't get enough recognition. She was spitting out some homespun wisdom that would give Yoda a run for his credits.

And it's this inability to accept change, and especially that inevitable ultimate change from life to death, is ultimately what drives Anakin's fall to the dark side. Anakin's emotional attachment to his loved ones is such that he is unable to deal with loss in a healthy way. This is a pretty nuanced takeaway from a blockbuster space opera, but it introduces another layer of complexity to the character development of Anakin, and is in keeping with George Lucas' theme for the series: "Nobody thinks they're bad. They simply have different points of view." Anakin doesn't eventually become Darth Vader because he wants to go around being an asshole; he starts off with the best of intentions wanting to save the people he cares about from death.

This descent of Anakin Skywalker is further paralleled by the failure of the Republic, and specifically the failure of the Jedi order. Star Wars has always been the story of a hero, or rather a group of heroes, but it has also been the story of the galaxy in which these heroes reside, which was made much more explicit in the Prequel Trilogy. The Republic is a democratic government that is running under the best of intentions. It was apparently built on the principles of giving everyone an equal voice, but there's a certain political naivete involved that lets it be corrupted and manipulated by corrupt bureaucrats and special interest groups like the Trade Federation, and ultimately by Chancellor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid).

The Prequels are also as much about the fall of the Jedi as they are about the fall of Anakin Skywalker, so it's no coincidence that their sins mirrors Anakin's own. The Jedi mean well, but they are also hindered by their arrogance. In spite of the fact that they have noticed that their ability to use the Force has diminished (Don't worry, it happens to most guys. I heard...) and that "the dark side clouds everything," they refuse to let the Senate or anybody else know, even though their connection to the Force is one of the key reasons that they are relied on for their services. Their attachment to the status they enjoy prevented them from being honest and asking for help from people in positions of power who assumed that the Jedi had everything well in hand. As another visionary, Marsellus Wallace, once opined, "That's pride fucking with you."

The Jedi are also pretty quick to go to war. There's always been something slightly off about an order of self-proclaimed guardians of peace and justice having as their primary, go-to tools a lightsaber, one of the most deadly and effective handheld weapons in the galaxy.Earlier in the film, Mace Windu (Samuel L. Jackson) even specifically says in reference to the Jedi that "We're keepers of the peace, not soldiers." Despite this, when all out war breaks out on the planet Geonosis, they not only willingly jump into the fray despite having an army at their disposal. What's more, they are quickly established as leaders--Generals, no less--of that army. (Not to mention the obvious parallels to slavery implicit in the creation and existence of that clone army, though I can grant that given the timeframe and extenuating circumstances, a nuanced debate about the ethics of bioengineering might not have been the most expeditious course of action at the time.) It would appear as though the Jedi are as incapable of letting go of the position of power that they hold within the Republic as Anakin is of letting go of the people he cares about. Both well-intentioned urges prove to be equally as prone to corruption.

In fact, the film visually echoes this theme of The Fall. One of the recurring visual motifs in Attack of the Clones is descent. Everything in the movie is going down more often than an eager rookie in a low budget porno. The movie starts off with Senator Amidala's ship descending through the clouds to the surface of Coruscant. After the second assassination attempt on the good Senator, Obi-Wan and Anakin chase the would-be assassin into the very bowels of the planet-wide cityscape of Coruscant, literally going deeper and deeper into the city. Once Obi-Wan tracks the Separatist leaders to Geonosis, he spies on them as they are in a chamber below his vantage point. Later on Tatooine, tellingly just before he finds his mother in her final moments, Anakin jumps down into the Tusken Raider camp from a cliff. Every aspect of the film is hammering this theme home.

Pew pew! Pew! Pew pew!
This is not by accident either. While it became fashionable, especially after the Prequels, to deride George Lucas as a hack of a filmmaker who only ever struck cinematic gold by chance if at all, there's actually a lot of artistry and thought that went into making both the Original and Prequel Trilogies that didn't "just happen." Even those who refuse to grant Lucas nothing but the slightest credit have to admit that even though they might not have liked the choices that he made when making his movies, that he did make those choices, and he made them deliberately and with specific intent. For example, consider the following excerpt from an interview that George Lucas made a long time ago in 2002, right around the time of the release of a little film called Attack of the Clones:

Lucas says he never claimed to be good at writing dialogue. "I've always been a follower of silent movies. I see film as a visual medium with a musical accompaniment, and dialogue is a raft that goes on with it. I create films that way--very visually--and the dialogue's not what's important. I'm one of those people who says, yes, cinema died when they invented sound. The talking-head era of movies is interesting and good, but I'd just like to go to the purer form. The problem is, the theatre aspect of it has sort of taken over, and the institutions that comment on film are very literary. They aren't cinematic; you don't have a lot of cinematic people talking about cinema, because visual people don't use words, they use pictures."

There are two important takeaways from this quote that I think are integral to helping to contextualize all of the Star Wars films created, directed by, and otherwise overseen by Lucas. The first is that his storytelling mode for Star Wars has always been rooted in the visual, which might help to explain the universal appeal they seem to have among several disparate demographics. There's a simple experiment you can run simply by watching any of the Star Wars films on mute. Even with no dialogue or musical cues, it's incredibly easy to intuit what is going on in a given scene, because Lucas has constructed them to be widely accessibly by relying on a more visual storytelling language. That isn't to say that there isn't more nuance to those scenes or the story, but it's pretty incredible how much of the storytelling is done through visual (or rather, non-verbal) means.

The second important thing to note is that George Lucas fully admits that dialogue has never been as important to him when making films as the visual elements, an approach that is embodied in the Star Wars saga more than anywhere. I don't point this out as some kind of excuse for the dialogue in these movies, with Attack of the Clones getting more of its fair share of criticism in that regard. In fact, I'm not sure that there's anything to excuse, nor would I take it upon myself to do so on somebody else's behalf. I will say, though, that this attitude explains so much about the dialogue of all of George Lucas' six Star Wars movies. Let's face it: George Lucas has never been known for his snappy, Tarantino-esque memorable dialogue, and neither have any of the Star Wars movies.

One of the chief criticisms of the Prequels--and Attack of the Clones in particular--has been that the dialogue has been either clunky or downright abysmal. Detractors will often point to the dialogue between Anakin and Padmé during their courtship on Naboo, and especially the "sand" line: "I don't like sand. It's coarse and rough and irritating and it gets everywhere." I never understood the particularly rancid hate for that particular line as Anakin, who grew up in the harsh climate of a desert, is simply expressing a dislike for sand, which even most of us as not-desert-dwelling people can actually relate to.

People also point to another key scene that illustrates issues with the dialogue where, during a midnight rendezvous, Anakin and Padmé express their feelings for each other. I'll take Anakin's confession of love as the primary example:

From the moment I met you, all those years ago, not a day has gone by when I haven't thought of you. And now that I'm with you again... I'm in agony. The closer I get to you, the worse it gets. The thought of not being with you--I can't breath. I'm haunted by the kiss that you should never have given me. My heart is beating... hoping that kiss will not become a scar. You are in my very soul, tormenting me... what can I do? I will do anything you ask... If you are suffering as much as I am, please, tell me.

Granted, it's not exactly poetry. Or is it?

First, let's look at the cinematic context. In describing his style of flimmaking and the aesthetic he aspires to, George Lucas has this to say:

It's not deliberately camp. I made the film in a 1930s style. It's based on a Saturday matinee serial from the 1930s, so the acting style is very 30s, very theatrical, very old-fashioned. Method acting came in in the 1950s and is very predominant today. I prefer to use the old style. People take it different ways, depending on their sophistication.

Again, this isn't to launch some sort of Death Star-sized bulwark of apologetics in defence of Attack of the Clones specifically or any Star Wars film in general (also again because I think they stand on their own and don't require any defence), merely to point out the context in which these films were made. It's undeniable that tastes change over time, and these preferences tend to go in waves. Watching movies made in the 1930s, '40s, '50s, or any non-contemporary period of time can be a sort of jarring experience. This is in part due to different cultural tastes that have gone in and out of fashion, different filmmaking philosophies that have risen to predominance, and (especially in the '80s) massive amounts of cocaine that were obviously ingested by the filmmakers both in front of and behind the camera.

Lucas has never made it a secret that he holds a special place in his heart for the 1930s era of film and the serialized movies that her grew up with. Even though I think that somebody like Ewan McGregor acquitted himself slightly better in the acting department in the role of Obi-Wan Kenobi in the Prequels. But I think it is significant to point out that I don't think George Lucas' assembly of the Prequel films was as haphazard as they seem to think they are, and that he didn't care about the performances of his actors. On the contrary, his choices seemed very deliberate and precise. Take from that what you will, love it or hate it as you will, but I don't think any work Lucas ever produced can accurately be found guilty of being sloppy or the result of too little thought or consideration.

I'd also like to situate the love story between Anakin and Padmé in another context, in this case narratively. Anakin is a 19-year-old kid "spilling his guts out to" the love of his (so far) life by the fireplace, at night, in this picturesque paradise setting. Again, look at how Lucas describes the scene: "It’s intended to be overly dramatic, almost overly operatic in its emotional intensity on his part." Though it may be the contrarian in me, I'm going to have to argue that this scene, and especially Anakin's dialogue, are actually perfectly written. Anakin's confession of love is poetry: it's exactly the type of cringe-worthy poetry that most of us have thought, written, or spewed about or to the object of our teenage desire when trying to coherently express the complexity of human emotion with the limited experience and worldview of someone who hasn't even made it through his twentieth winter.

The obvious parallel is the the infamous and much derided scene in Spider-Man 3 where Peter Parker, under the influence of the Venom symbiote, turns into a total emo douchebag, strutting down the street and playing Jazz piano to show how far down the path of evil he'd slipped. I think a large part of people's hatred of that scene rests in a fundamental misinterpretation. Everything up until he winds up hitting Mary Jane, which is an unambiguously dark moment (And really, who among us hasn't once thought of smacking Kirsten Dunst upside the head?) is played for laughs. It looks like Sam Raimi just said "Fuck it" for that one scene and through all desire to consider the narrative or character even the least bit seriously to the wind. 

But taken in the context of the very film (and film series) in which it appeared (crazy, I know), the cringe-worthy Emo Peter Parker scene plays out and serves the character of Peter Parker / Spider-Man perfectly. That scene is supposed to be cringe-worthy, because it's not the story of how Peter Parker bonded with the venom symbiote and became a suave, sophisticated asshole: he became a geek's interpretation of what he thought a suave, sophisticated asshole was. Through the lens of a young twenty-something Peter freshly out on parole from his teenage years, that's what "cool" people were like, but the scene serves to cement just how out of touch with "cool" that Peter was. He was already "cool" before the symbiote because he was unassuming and true to himself.

The same is true of Anakin in Attack of the Clones. (The "contextually appropriate" thing not the "cool" thing.) He's professing his love to Padmé in a way that is actually entirely contextually appropriate given the context of the characters and situation. I won't argue that George Lucas is a genius at dialogue, because that's obviously not where his forte lies, but I try to give credit where credit is due.

In keeping with the Jedi-inspired theme of focusing on positive emotions, I'm also going to give credit to what I felt Attack of the Clones added to the Star Wars saga. With Episode II, we got perhaps the greatest level of worldbuilding in any of the movies. Our characters travel to a myriad of locations, and we get more insight into the political split between the Republic and the Separatist political movements. I know that for some people the increased focus on galactic politics was about as rousing as an ode to jawa juice, but I think that aspect of the movie is ignored at the audiences own peril. It actually added some much-needed nuance to the galactic political landscape and showed that allegiances were not as clear-cut as they seemed.

Attack of the Clones also brought us the unique talents of the late, great Christopher Lee as the villainous Count Dooku / Dark Tyranus. Apparently, he had a thing for characters wearing capes and the title of "Count," which is fine because he fucking nailed it. There was something both sophisticated and dangerous about Count Dooku that nobody but Lee could have pulled off with the same effect. Speaking of villains, we also got Jango Fett (Temuera Morrison), the "father" of a certain fan-favourite bounty hunter from the Original Trilogy. Personally, I never understood the huge fandom dedicated to Boba Fett. I enjoyed him as much as the next guy (If you know what I mean...), but I never understood the size of the hard on a lot of fans had for this dude.

In a twist that would even give M. Night Shyamalan a run for his money, George Lucas' vision seemed to coincide with those of his fans, and made Boba Fett an even more central figure in the Star Wars canon. Seeing as we learn that Boba Fett is actually a clone of Jango Fett, fans get to see somebody who is literally genetically identical to Boba Fett and wearing similar armour kick some Jedi ass in his fight with Obi-Wan and later at the Battle of Geonosis, out-pilot Obi-Wan and blast the shit out of an asteroid field in the process, and become the genetic source of the entire clone army that eventually becomes the backbone of the Republic military force. If this isn't enough redemption for people who thought Boba Fett went out like a chump in Return of the Jedi, then I don't know what would be.

My name's Mace. And your ass ain't talkin'
your way out of this shit.
In Attack of the Clones, we also get to see perhaps the most Jedi action ever put to film, as the Battle of Geonosis literally has an arena-full of Jedi at one point fucking up the Separatist forces. In addition to Anakin and Obi-Wan, who get more than enough chance to demonstrate their prowess with their peacekeeping weapons of choice, a couple of other key players get the chance to lay some smackdown. Mace Windu, who is purported to be the greatest warrior among the Jedi, kicks to kick some ass, eventually taking on and decapitating Jango Fett, who not only gave Obi-Wan a run for his money, but also killed at least one other Jedi that we know of by just straight up shooting him in the fucking face. As established in the Star Wars universe, it's no easy feat to beat a Jedi mono a mono in single combat, but Jango does it multiple times, making Mace's victory over him that much more impactful. Mace also gets to wield presumably the only purple lightsaber in existence, because apparently purple is the colour of bad motherfuckers everywhere. Honestly, if Samuel L. Jackson says it's so, I'm inclined to believe him and leave it at that.

We're also treated to the fighting stylings of Yoda, who had previously been portrayed as a somewhat more frail character, more of a mentor and source of wisdom than an actual fighting force. At just shy of 900 years old in Attack of the Clones (about 873 for those keeping track at home), one wouldn't expect him to be spry enough to engage in hand-to-hand combat, especially with regular-sized people who tower over him, what with him not standing much taller than your average preschooler. And I must admit that when I first saw the lightsaber duel between Yoda and Count Dooku that I was a little disappointed. I had always seen Yoda at that stage in his life of more of a wizard class of warrior, using the Force to overcome his adversaries and not dealing with pedestrian weapons like lightsabers. I admit that this initial disappointment had nothing to do with the film itself, but rather by misplaced expectations of what I thought should have been. Yoda does use the Force to just straight up eat the same Force lightning that brings most Jedi to their knees, and using the force to overcome the limitations of his advanced age to bounce around like a space frog on crack. It's not what I expected, but I have come to appreciate it nonetheless.

Sorry, I'm still trying to figure out whether I'm actually in
a '50s style diner with a sassy robot waitress and a dude
with four arms, or if I'm just really fucking high right now.
Another thing that we get to see is the further adventures of a young Obi-Wan Kenobi, as Ewan McGregor goes on to own the role that was initially made famous by Alec Guinness. We get to see Obi-Wan continue to display his prowess with a lightsaber, and making it clear that cutting off peoples' arms in bars is definitely a self-defence technique that he employs on a regular basis and not a one-off type thing. He's basically also given a little noir detective story in the movie to do some investigative work, with narrative twists involving dead comrades, shady backroom deals, and an amoral antagonist "just trying to make his way in the universe." It really gives the character the chance to shine in a movie primarily concerned with the Skywalker clan.

This might be the contrarian in me again, but I think we also get a good sense of the relationship between Anakin and Obi-Wan, despite their being on separate missions for much of the movie. Much has been made of George Lucas "telling" us instead of "showing" us the relationship between the Jedia Master and his Padawan, but I think we're given a lot of information about their relationship. We see that there is some antagonism between them, as Anakin seems unwilling to just follow Obi-Wan's lead. In fact, they can be downright dickish to each other sometimes, which is reminiscent to me of the relationship between Luke and Han Solo in the Original Trilogy. Seriously, think back to how much of their time together was spent bickering or at odds with each other. But they were always able to pull their shit together and work as a team when necessary. Anakin and Obi-Wan bicker, yes, but it's the kind of bickering that only goes on with people you know care enough about you to put up with your shit and give some back. And the fact is that despite Anakin's protests to Obi-Wan's mentoring techniques, he puts forth a great deal of effort to try and follow his mentor's advice/admonitions.

Also consider that Anakin was more than willing to risk his life and even his career as a Jedi to go and save Obi-Wan Kenobi was taken prisoner by Count Dooku. Despite being urged by Padmé to go and rescue Obi-Wan against the explicit standing orders of the Jedi Council, Anakin makes this decision of his own volition. He's willing to throw away everything he's worked for to save Obi-Wan Kenobi, which I think speaks volumes about the depth of their relationship. He spent more time debating about whether to go and save his own mother than about whether to save Obi-Wan.

I think, again, my reception of Attack of the Clones--and indeed the overall reception of the film by audiences worldwide--is the perfect illustration of the disillusionment that can sometimes accompany the border between expectations and reality. One of the prime examples to me of the sort of perverse expectations we had for the film is this obsession with explaining how Padmé fell in love with Anakin. It's all kind of strange: people seemed to have the same level of disdain in regards to the love story as they did to midi-chlorians in The Phantom Menace. Apparently, we didn't want George Lucas to explain the inner workings of the Force, but we did want him to explain all of the mysteries and intricacies of love?

I think that one of the key messages that the Star Wars movies keep hammering home is applicable in this case: a lot of how you get along in life has to do with your perception of things. I think that a lot of the issues I had with Attack of the Clones were due in large part to a weird distortion of expectations on my part. As Josh Larsen of the Las Vegas Weekly put it:

There’s one crucial difference between the prequels and their predecessors: the age at which many moviegoers experienced them. To become apoplectic over the prequels while still adoring the originals has always struck me as a strange sort of dissonance. Call it nostalgia gone sour, petulantly whining, “You ruined my childhood!” when in actuality the Star Wars prequels’ remarkably preserved it—warts and all.

I won't try and twist things and try to assert that Attack of the Clones is my favourite Star Wars film or that it's a cinematic masterpiece. But, I have grown to love it and appreciate it as a necessary piece of the narrative puzzle that George Lucas was assembling. Attack of the Clones wasn't the movie I--or most fans--would have made, but it was the installment that his story needed. I think it perfectly encapsulated the themes that would ultimately contribute to the tragic story of Anakin Skywalker / Darth Vader. And that alone is worth the price of admission. May the Force be with you.


Attack of the Clones still isn't close to my favourite Star Wars movie, but upon further reflection over the years, I've come to appreciate it more and more. As for the official rating, I give Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones a 7.5/10 = One Severed Bounty Hunter's Head Cradled in the Arms of His Clone-Son

For more insight on the teachings of the Jedi, check out the link below:

Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Lucas... Just Double Checking My Midi-Chlorian Count


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