Revisiting Attack Of The Clones 20 Years Later: A Mess, But One Ahead Of Its Time
There is a cycle to anything related to "Star Wars," wherein a new project is initially met with excitement, makes a ton of money, then is hated for years until it is reappraised by fans and loved again. The prequel trilogy was once reviled as a childhood ruiner, but is now hugely popular again thanks in no small part to memes, the animated series, and kids who grew up with the movies now able to defend them online.
It also helps that, between the animated content, games like "Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order," characters from the prequels appearing in everything from "Rogue One" and "The Mandalorian," and the upcoming Obi-Wan show, the prequel era of the "Star Wars" universe is quickly becoming its most important one. With everyone's favorite Jedi Master/Jesus lookalike returning to our screens with "Obi-Wan Kenobi," it's time to look back at the messy but ambitious middle child of the prequel trilogy, "Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones."
Now, before we begin, let's make something perfectly clear here. No, this movie is not a masterpiece, nor is it perfect, and it isn't even the best "Star Wars" movie — but it is far from the worst prequel. This is a movie that offers a lot of ambitious ideas and concepts that challenge not just what "Star Wars" can be, but was ahead of its time in many regards when compared to modern blockbusters.
A Vast Conspiracy
After "The Phantom Menace" was heavily criticized for making its plot revolve around trade disputes — even if making epic sci-fi stories revolve around simple political and economical issues is rather common — George Lucas made the politics of "Attack of the Clones" a bit livelier and more engaging by turning this movie into a political thriller. The film starts with an assassination attempt on Senator Padmé Amidala, and involves the discovery of a massive conspiracy involving a clone army, and a galactic conflict puppeteered by a Sith Lord, all as the Jedi begin to realize that maybe they have lost their way and have become blind to the threats around them.
In some ways, "Attack of the Clones" is something of a sci-fi neo-noir — and it's not super hard to imagine Lucas wanting to dive into the sub-genre given the popularity of "Blade Runner" in the '80s. About a third of the movie follows Obi-Wan on a detective subplot as he tries to find Padmé's would-be assassin, going to the shady part of Coruscant and interrogating suspects at a seedy bar, talking to his sources in '50s cafés, and uncovering a vast conspiracy that reveals the deep corruption seeded in every part of society.
Like most noirs, this is a rather fatalistic movie with no happy endings, with no characters that come out as "good." Instead, it is one where the "victory" at the film's climax just means the beginning of the end of the Republic. At this point, it becomes clear that the Jedi are both blind and idiotic to the point where even if Mister Policeman gives them all the clues, they still can't see the enemy in front of them, and the man who is meant to be their messiah ends up betraying everything the order stands for and choosing individuality.
A More Elegant Villain, For A More Civilized Age
This leads to the introduction of a vastly underrated villain: symphonic metal singer and all-around badass Sir Christopher Lee's Count Dooku. Far from the physical menace of Maul, or the metallic lightsaber tornados of Grievous, Dooku is a more elegant, nuanced villain. Rather than just wanting to extinguish the Jedi, or serve a master no matter what, what little we see of Dooku makes it clear he still holds the Jedi, and his former friends and masters like Yoda, in high esteem. Indeed, it is exactly because of this that Dooku sees where the Jedi went wrong, how corrupt their religion is, and how they've strayed away from their work of knowledge and peace to become space cops serving politicians.
Dooku even goes out and tells Obi-Wan the truth about the conspiracy — that there is a Sith Lord in control of the Senate who has been pulling the strings all along — a plea to Obi-Wan to join him in using the Dark Side to re-shape the Jedi Order, not realizing that he is but a pawn in a plan that would destroy them all.
A Beautiful Mess
Does it fully work? No. Most of the best ideas of the prequels are left hanging, and are only fleshed out in subsequent material like "Clone Wars" and the books. Yet watching these movies at a time when blockbusters are mostly samey, safe, dull stories that never challenge anyone makes this a noble effort. Even better is the fact that Lucas decided to make a whole trilogy where he took the chivalrous Jedi knights off their pedestal, showing a generation of people that grew up idolizing this group of warriors that even they can be corrupt and complacent.
Making a movie for 12-year-olds about the rise of fascism and how institutions allow it to happen — and how even the noblest of heroes can be either blind to it or allow it to happen — is a rather ballsy move for a franchise that started out as the most basic of heroes' journeys. In a way, the prequels are more like the romance novels of Alexander Dumas, with a balance of politics, romance, and swashbuckling fun resembling "The Three Musketeers," a property with many adaptations that have never properly adapted its political aspects.
We live in a post-"Game of Thrones" and MCU world, where audiences seem to be clamoring for their favorite franchises to be taken seriously and to explore more mature subjects, when the rating of a movie is as important as its story. That "Star Wars," in its fourth movie, turned into an epic saga of politics, conspiracies, and shadow organizations where not even the good guys are without sin, feels like a creator way ahead of its time.
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