The best Star Wars film may be a subject of debate, but the worst is not. Attack of the Clones is hands down the dumbest, slowest, least interesting, and most difficult to watch feature film in the Star Wars saga.
Ten years after the defeat of Darth Maul and the death of Qui-Gon Jinn in The Phantom Menace, Anakin Skywalker has become the apprentice of Obi-Wan Kenobi, and the two Jedi are on a quest to defend a crumbling Galactic Senate, particularly Senator Padmé Amidala, the former Queen of Naboo, who has become a target for assassination. After she narrowly escapes just such an attempt, Anakin is maintained as her protector while Obi-Wan seeks out the elusive Count Dooku, the leader of a revolt against the Galactic Republic, ultimately uncovering a Clone Army intended to serve as her final defense.
Attack of the Clones is by far the longest film of the series. In spite of this, it accomplishes the least of any Star Wars film by a margin that is worth examining. As previously discussed in our review of The Phantom Menace, George Lucas’ control of the series created a vacuum drawn to his executive power, ensuring that the success or failure of the prequel trilogy would be entirely his. Though little has changed, including the retaining of his substandard editor and cinematographer, the new issue that arises with Attack of the Clones is time. In short, Lucas had more than decade to dream up the possibilities of the prequel trilogy, particularly its first entry. He was then under the gun to conceive, write, produce, direct, and finalize the followup in three short years. The strain shows.
If nothing else, every other film in the series produces a multitude of interwoven plotlines and character dynamics that shape the thematic territory of the entries that surround them, whether those choices were intentional or not. Empire Strikes Back was easily the best at adding depth to every aspect of the series, ascending the cardboard arcs presented in A New Hope to heights that necessitated a grandiose third act with Return of the Jedi. The Phantom Menace wasn’t a largely substantive film, but it did at least ably introduce several major characters and themes, the impact of which would be felt over all six films. Accepted as the second act of a trilogy, Attack of the Clones is merely the spare tire, a bloated middle of fatty deposits deserving of the rueful glances and disgusted neglect that would foster its growth.
To say that nothing happens in Attack of the Clones would be an understatement. In nearly two and a half hours, Anakin and Padmé fall in love, Obi-Wan discovers the Clone Army, and some old guy you’ve never heard of named Count Dooku defects to the dark side. That’s it.
It may be axiomatic that there would be action scenes, and there are, but most of them could scarcely muster a blip on an EKG. Speeder chases through Coruscant, droid factory misadventures, a needless coliseum battle, and a ruthless slaughter of Tusken Raiders all feel like feckless stabs at convincing us that something is happening. Even the final lightsaber battle, littered with the spectacle of cool moments, nonetheless ends as a draw between three of the strongest Jedi and a single Sith lord. It might have been something to behold, but the entire battle is staged around its inevitable outcome, so all three of the Jedi fail to dent the antagonist. Shades of Empire Strikes Back? No. Even if there were a revelation on par with Luke discovering that Vader is his father to conclude the conflict of the penultimate entry, it couldn’t save all the worthless posturing that preceded it.
As is par for the course when Lucas is at his worst, the dialogue and performances in Attack of the Clones are absolute dross. The nexus of this collapse is Hayden Christensen, and there’s nary a film I can remember where I felt this bad for an actor. Christensen was on his way up, netting a Golden Globe nomination for his performance in Life as a House at the tender age of 20, only to have his career ceremoniously destroyed when he earned what must have seemed like the role of a lifetime. Under Lucas’ tutelage, the roots of the most feared man in the galaxy are revealed in this whining, cocky, narcissistic brat who has the emotional range of a pet lizard. “I hate them!” He sneers, recounting his Tusken Raider massacre while simultaneously telegraphing Yoda’s admonition about the path to the dark side. Christensen would later throw some gentlemanly shade at Lucas in an extensive Details interview, saying “How those movies are made is very specific, as far as what our jobs are. George isn’t looking for us to come in and have script meetings with him and talk about characters.”
And all the while, the mighty Jedi, who treat Anakin like a child for his intemperate bluster, come across like bumbling, hypocritical idiots for working so closely to the Sith lord plotting their overthrow. Their skepticism about the Sith in The Phantom Menace could be forgiven, as they’d disappeared for a millenia, and the Jedi even concede their emergence by the end. But by Attack of the Clones, they’ve been working alongside Chancellor Palpatine for a decade without guessing his identity.
These concerns are not those of an embittered fanboy. Say what you will about Ewoks and Jar Jar Binks, Attack of the Clones is the first film in the Star Wars saga that is actively stupid from beginning to end, and though things couldn’t possibly get worse, there weren’t about to get much better.