Attack of the Clones is the worst movie in the Star Wars franchise.
I’m a fan of starting with a simple fact, and there is no statement more simple and more factual than that. Humans breathe oxygen, the sun rises each morning, and Attack of the Clones is a two and one half hour kick straight in the balls.
I first am willing to acknowledge that I am no fan of the prequels and perhaps that understandably will bias me towards choosing one of them as the worst. But I’m willing to acknowledge what these films do right. After all, Lucas’ imagination never stopped running wild and there are solid ideas and design work and worldbuilding abound throughout all three of these films.
But in neither Episode 1 nor Episode 3 is all that couched in enough horseshit to grow acres of crops. If you don’t believe me, give it a watch.
Understand something though. When you choose to watch it, see if you can dig out your old DVD or your VHS if you’re lucky enough. This is not a movie that survived the transition to High Definition Home Media with grace. Or even with competency.
Historically, Attack of the Clones comes during perhaps the most awkward time for digital effects. It’s the beginning of where we can create CGI characters that are detailed and can interact with live-action characters, but before we’ve managed to teach real actors how to interact with them or before we’ve really learned how to do them properly. So, easy enough to hide in 2002, but thanks to HD and advances in tech since, it’s aged like it decided to stab a painting in the attic.
CGI basically just has too much to do in this film. The aliens and stand-ins stand out as artificial, the plasticky early skin texture shows basically any time they’re on the screen. The blue and green screen work makes every character look glue sticked on the backgroudns, like South Park characters you could peel off your TV. Any aesthetic work is completely suffocated under that terrible early digital work.
Though let’s talk aesthetic. Perhaps it’s been dumped on enough, but that CGI work really makes it clear how overly clean these Prequels are. The Original Trilogy is a dirty thing, representative of that gritty and tangible 70s sci-fi aesthetic. The Prequel trilogy isn’t, overly shiny and digital. It works on the planet Coruscant, but on dusty desert worlds and gritty mountainous arenas, everything is still excessively manicured. There’s nothing real here.
But this is the nerdy shit, let’s get into the nerdier shit.
I have never seen a major blockbuster movie that has so much going on and yet absolutely not one of those things is interesting or exciting or particularly efficiently told.
Essentially Attack of the Clones is three separate movies that turns into a fourth movie. It’s an politics movie, a detective picture, and a romantic drama that turns into a Star Wars movie right there at the end. Yet, all of those things are really fucking boring.
Let’s talk that detective picture first. Ewan McGregor plays Obi-Wan Kenobi investigating perhaps the most poorly constructed movie case ever created. This isn’t The Big Sleep, this is barely Tango & Cash.
Now, let’s remember that Ewan McGregor as Obi-Wan is perhaps the most redeeming quality of these films. He’s barely keeping it together through most of his line readings but dammit he’s selling them.
But no amount of selling allows McGregor’s investigation to work. At every step, Attack of the Clones makes his detective work either blindingly obvious (AT ONE POINT, A CHILD STATES THE NEXT STEP) or so obfuscatory that it doesn’t matter (Not introducing Count Dooku for an hour and a half means that he’s not gonna be a suspect, guys). It also features the stop in at Dexter Jettster’s Diner.
This has never not been one of the most baffling sections of any movie ever. On Coruscant, Jettster runs a 50s throwback diner. This galaxy has no reference for Earth or the 50s. How do you throwback to a thing that doesn’t exist? It’s such a bizarre fucking reference point for an alien world. Also, Jettster has a ‘stache. Is that weird to anyone else? That’s weird to me.
But it gets better. Because every kid wanted to see political maneuvering in this movie, and that’s exactly what’s happening. Attack of the Clones is a direct response to the Bush Years, I get that. It’s surprisingly prescient, sure.
It’s just that Lucas has such a bizarre handle on the actual mechanics of this all as to be baffling. By which I mean WHY THE HOLY FUCK DOES ANYONE LISTEN TO REPRESENTATIVE JAR-JAR BINKS?!?!
Remember, just ten years ago, Jar-Jar was a bumbling moron who was a hero of the Battle of Naboo by accident. Now he’s well-respected enough to receive applause and be SERIOUSLY CONSIDERED for a proposal granting emergency powers to the Chancellor? That’s a major fucking deal, why is Lucas’ Most Horrifying Mistake the one who has the clout to make it happen? They’re talking about needing Amidala to pull it off, is Jar-Jar second to her?
All this has changed, surely. But how? We never saw any of this? How did Jar-Jar get to normalize fascism, how did they let him get a position of that much power? Why are they listening to someone coming from an authoritarian culture on what powers the head of a Democratic Republic can have?
By the way, Jar-Jar totally would have voted for Trump, right? Like, the guy does not have a reasonable response to crisis, is totally okay with authoritarianism, and he just seems like the type. “Meesa just think she mishandled her emails.”
Oh god, is Jar-Jar Binks the Paul Ryan of the Galactic Senate? Let a Fascist in, seems to be respected for his policy ideas despite having no reason to be, and just generally a punchable thing.
Maybe we should give Lucas more credit.
But even Fascist Enabler Jar-Jar Binks (I think I had that action figures) pales in comparison to the Romantic Drama that takes this thing from damaged plane to something you’re fishing out of the Mariana Trench.
Lucas is not a director of actors. He never has been, that’s just what you have to accept. His actors made their own way when Lucas directed, relying on charm and spectacle more than skill. There’s a reason the best acting has come from films where Lucas wasn’t directing.
But that means that actors who can’t operate on their own are left treading water. And boy howdy are Natalie Portman and Hayden Christensen barely even doing that.
Portman’s career definitely lost a lot of respect after these films and it’s a shame. She is a great actress, but all in her physicality and her artifice. Star Wars gives her so much dialogue with no direction on the reading and that’s why she seems lost as hell. She’s given lines and told to just read them, and she’s doing her best. But she’s not a dialogue-heavy actress, and when she has to read a lot, she falls flat.
But that’s nothing compared to Hayden Christensen who may turn in one of the worst performances in a major blockbuster EVER in this film. Again, Christensen is not by necessity a terrible actor, he’s been pretty good in some stuff. But here he is absolutely hobbled by Lucas’ lack of direction.
He reads his lines like an American who’s playing a British person who’s playing an American. Every choice is stilted and wrong, he’s whiny when he needs to be rage filled, he’s creepy when he needs to be loving, and there is no point of correction. Every important moment he is absolutely unable to pull off (minus one moment of sheer rage that actually works) and I am baffled that Lucas never seemed to look at the film and say “Huh, guys, is that how a human talks and acts?”
Romantic dramas require actors that are comfortable in their roles and with each other. Christensen is clearly awkward in this role as Anakin and Portman is uncomfortable as Padme here and the two just don’t have the necessary chemistry. It’s a case of them being together because the film told us, not because they naturally should be.
It also doesn’t help that Lucas has a tin ear for dialogue and especially a tin ear for romantic dialogue. Anakin and Padme talk in either cliche or in possibly the most baffling words one human has ever said to another.
It’s amazing how little any of this works. It’s amazing that anyone from the executives to the actors to the editors to the test audiences let this happen. The Romantic aspect of this film is an experience akin to having your toenails torn off in slow motion, it’s painful and it goes on longer than it actually does.
This all finally becomes a Star Wars movie in the end, though it’s still a Prequel moment. Your action choreography throughout the whole movie is inconsistent, owing to how many digital elements these actors and crew have to work with that there’s just no vocabulary for. Most every action scene is weightless and weird and goes on entirely too long. An early Coruscant chase scene must be a half hour long, though timecode puts it around ten minutes.
So in that big action ending, the STAR WARS part, it just feels disappointing. Lucas turns this briefly into the pilot for the Clone Wars animated series and removes any hope of these lightsaber battles keeping the grittiness or the skill they’ve shown before because he leans so hard on CGI.
Attack of the Clones is the worst Star Wars movie because it is the one that ultimately most embodies the sins of these Prequels. Phantom Menace is bad, but-
Actually, you know what, quick side note because Phantom Menace. What is up with Lucas’ Space Racism in this movie? Watto is a Nazi propaganda cartoon, the Trade Federation aliens talk like Ming The Merciless in a Flash Gordon serial made during the War Effort. Like…holy hell, did no one challenge him on ANY OF THIS?
-at least Phantom Menace is fun and ultimately inconsequential. Most of its details are re-litigated in this film. Attack of the Clones matters, it’s telling the important stories to this universe. And it tells it in a way that is pound for pound boring and horrendous and baffling. None of this works on ANY LEVEL. You’re yawning when you’re not trying to look away out of second-hand embarrassment for the people on screen. This is bad. Bad bad bad bad. Bad.
No matter what The Last Jedi is, it should feel forever fortunate that it probably won’t be this. A film that’s hard to believe was ever allowed to spend 115 million dollars and it’s hard to believe made 650 million.