OK, Star Wars fans. quick question: which movie was worse, Phantom Menace or Attack of the Clones?
See, Menace has the comedic stylings of Jar Jar Binks and obnoxious pre-teen Anakin Skywalker. Attack has a lot of half-assed romance and obnoxious post-teen Anakin Skywalker. I’d actually rather see Phantom Menace given the choice. At least that one had some pod racing.
But hey, we’re not skipping Attack of the Clones.
Tom: OK, I want to do like I did before and take a minute to actually talk about the stuff I like about this movie. Again, it’s hardly the worst movie ever made. It’s just disappointing to people expecting a whole hell of a lot more.
Have you ever given a listen to George Lucas’ commentary on these movies? Any of them? The guy really never did what he was trying to do, even on the original trilogy. Plus, romance is not his strong suit as a writer. The most romantic line of any Star Wars movie was actually an ad-lib by Harrison Ford. You know which line I mean.
The prequels probably never stood a decent chance in many ways. The problem isn’t so much the movies are bad. There are far worse films out there. The problem is they’re mostly mediocre. There’s a lot of stuff worth praising, even in this movie. Such as:
- I actually love a dialogue-less sequence where Anakin grabs a speeder and zips off into the desert night looking for his mother. The shot composition is actually rather good, the John Williams score swells just right, and there’s something oddly beautiful about the two suns setting and the placement of the Jawa land cruisers Anakin visits before he finds the camp.
- Obi-Wan acting as a private detective actually shows a lot of potential for interesting stuff. More of him looking into the clones and the bounty hunters and less of Anakin riding around on that pink hippo thing and complaining about how coarse sand is, please.
- Still great attention to detail for the world building. Whether it’s droids repairing broken windows on Corescant or that nightmare factory on Geonosis, there’s still a lot to see. The execution scene brings out three unique animals, and that spider-thing can be seen stomping everything in its path even after the Jedi and the droids armies starting attacking each other.
- Obi-Wan and Jango’s cat-and-mouse through the asteroid belt mostly works for me.
- Hayden Christensen can glare pretty well. The big problem with him comes whenever he has to open his mouth and talk.
And that’s about it.
I mean it about Obi-Wan as an investigator, by the way. He has a contact in a diner, knows what questions to ask, picks up right away Jango is lying (and I don’t think the Force acts as a lie detector), the whole she-bang. Even Anakin’s own investigation skills looking for his mom is a whole hell of a lot more interesting than much of the rest of the plot.
Two things in particular jump out.
First, Lucas took some heat for Phantom Menace not being exciting enough, so maybe that’s why there’s more action here. Too bad most of it is crammed into the last 45 minutes or so. And much of those action sequences don’t so much conclude as stop suddenly. The execution? Cut off by the sudden arrival of Mace Windu and the other Jedi. Their routing? Dooku stops the fight just as they’re about to lose. That stay is interrupted by Yoda and the Clones Troopers. The Clone fight looks impressive, but it seems more like watching a very quick fight without much sense of scope. Both Anakin and Obi-Wan don’t last long against Dooku, and Yoda’s intercession is cut short by having to save those two guys. And while I distinctly remember being really pleased with Yoda fighting Dooku when I first saw it, the fight between Dooku and Anakin seems to consist of static close-ups of Christensen’s and Christopher Lee’s faces while they swirl colored lights around their heads. I suppose that was due to Lee’s age making realistic stunts a little difficult, but still…
But I would argue the biggest problem with the movie is a simple relationship…and not the one between Anakin and Padme. Yeah, Aquaman and the Wicked Witch of the West would probably have better chemistry, but I think the bigger problem is between Anakin and Obi-Wan, and I lay the blame there squarely on Lucas. A while back I posted a podcast reaction on how to “fix” the prequels, and one of my big suggestions was opening with an action sequence involving Anakin and Obi-Wan showing how good they were as partners. They do have a chase scene early in the actual movie, but the two never seem to click as friends in any way. Anakin alternates between praising Obi-Wan and blaming him for all his problems, the latter of which he’ll carry through the rest of the movies. But really, Obi-Wan can’t seem to address Anakin without being condescending. He’s a far cry from a good mentor that Qui-Gon represented, or even that Obi-Wan will display in his old age with Luke. Every line to Anakin seems to be a criticism. They tell a story of an old scrape when we first see them, but movies need to show, not tell. This movie keeps the two supposedly good friends separated for most of the story and even when they are together, Obi-Wan seems to be at best disappointed with Anakin whenever he has to tell his padawan anything. They never once come across as good friends in any way, shape, or form.
That showing and not telling is a problem for Lucas. The people of Naboo were supposedly suffering in Phantom Menace under the trade federation, but you barely even see people who aren’t part of the Queen’s entourage. Anakin slaughters the Tuskens, but that gets cut off rather quickly. I’m sure that was due to the fact this is probably a movie meant for all ages, but it would do better than having him give a monologue to Padme about how much he hates the Tuskens. And what kind of person hears her boyfriend talk about slaughtering women and children and doesn’t have all kinds of alarm bells go off?
By the by, one of Anakin’s biggest character flaws is his idealism. He really, after a decade of training, still believes the Jedi are infallible and all-powerful. He talks of preventing death. When we first met him, he thought the Jedi were functionally immortal and out to free all the slaves, both of which were untrue. In this movie, he still seems to think that way. That’s one of the ways that Palpatine will seduce him, of course. The prequels do a decent job of showing just how messed-up the Republic is and how helpless the Jedi are to actually right all the wrongs they’re supposed to solve. That’s far from the romanticized ideal that seemed to exist prior to the formation of the Empire, to listen to the older films’ characters talk.
I think Attack of the Clones may be the bottom of the barrel for Star Wars, unless Ryan is right about the future of Episode IX. It had way too many missed opportunities.
Final notes: Palpatine gaining power is all Jar Jar’s fault, and Dooku was actually telling Obi-Wan the truth when he tried to recruit him, but it didn’t work because Sith never tell the truth, do they?
RYAN: Look, I had to step in here. And I absolutely despite Tom for making me come to the defense of Episode II. It’s not much of a defense, but here it is:
There is no way in the world Attack of the Clones is worse than The Phantom Menace. None.
That isn’t a great defense, I know. It’s close to saying “There’s no way getting shot in your left foot hurts more than getting shot in your right foot.” but we’re talking prequels here so our ammunition is limited.
Minimal Jar Jar. Midichlorians don’t come up. These are enough reasons to put Episode II on higher ground. But I’m going to go one step further.
Tom pointed out items that worked from Episode I–the pod racing and the lightsaber duel with Darth Maul. I don’t think that’s enough to overcome the pile of excrement the rest of the film confronts us with, but let’s just use that standard. In that event, I give you the one moment from Episode II that is actually, dare I say it, amazing:
Because in every other Star Wars movie the lightsaber is treated as a dueling weapon between a Jedi and a Sith. Or the weapon of a Jedi, maybe two, against other enemies. But never before and never again do we see a collection of Jedi facing off against a horde of enemies. When all of the Jedi reveal themselves in the arena by triggering their lightsabers–that is an amazing moment.
The greatest impact Star Wars has on our imagination is the Force and lightsabers. As a child we all pretend to use both. Using the Force is a short game. You hold up your hand and the cup/remote/ball/block of gold bullion doesn’t fly to your hand. Game over. But grab a stick, a broom, anything roughly sword-shaped and you have a lightsaber. And you are a Jedi.
Seeing that many Jedi together fighting a common enemy? That’s a fantastic moment and I hate it for being in the prequels. Because all of the prequels suck for some reason or another. This one has the worst love story since Donald Trump talked about wanting to date his daughter. And it has a political maneuver that makes no sense from any angle. And it has some of the worst procurement practices ever designed (really–you’re just going to clone an army for a decade without any contact information or update reports? That’s just downright violative of your fiduciary duties!).
But it has a single moment that is better than anything in Episode I. And for that reason it is better than Episode I.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go gargle Lysol for an hour.