And now we come to the most difficult film to review, and as such maybe the most controversial movie in the already-not-well-loved prequel trilogy. Released 25 years after the debut of the original STAR WARS, ATTACK OF THE CLONES takes the franchise back to its pulp sci-fi and B-movie roots, for better and for worse. Sleeker and sharper than Episode I, it also moves more heavily into the melodramatic, and also is the only film in the entire saga whose tone can't be easily classified as "up" or "down." This ambiguity hurts the film in some places, but overall elevates it above the sum of its parts.
[Spoilers Below- couldn't help it this time]
It's ten years after the events of THE PHANTOM MENACE. Led by former Jedi Count Dooku (Christopher Lee), a number of star systems have formed the Separatists, intending to secede from the Republic. With only the relatively few Jedi to maintain order, the Senate is considering creating an Army of the Republic. When former Queen and now Senator Padme Amidala returns to Coruscant to vote on the issue, her ship explodes on the landing platform, and she only escapes because she flew on an escort fighter. Jedi Knight Obi-Wan Kenobi and his Padawan learner Anakin Skywalker (now a young adult, played by Hayden Christensen) are assigned to protect her, and when her would-be assassin strikes again, it's decided that Padme should go back to Naboo, under Anakin's protection. This turns out not to be the greatest idea, as Anakin is falling in love with Padme and the Jedi Code forbids forming close personal attachments. Obi-Wan, meanwhile, tracks the trail of the bounty hunter who hired the assassin, and flies to Kamino, where a group of whisper-thin aliens has engineered a clone army at the behest of a Jedi Master who was killed well before he could place the order...
Of the original STAR WARS films, the one this puts me most in mind of is A NEW HOPE. The two share a similarity in visual style, both with a sparer, cleaner look than other entries, and both stay closer to the vintage sci-fi look and feel that inspired the saga. While THE PHANTOM MENACE played more on the mythical elements of the series, ATTACK OF THE CLONES has a less dignified, more dime-store-novel approach. The Jedi here act mostly in the role of galactic policemen, a trope they share with E. E. Doc Smith's Lensmen and the Green Lantern Corps. Obi-Wan's attempts to find out who's gunning for Amidala unfold in a way that amusingly apes the conventions of detective stories, including a scene where he discusses his findings with a crusty alien prospector who now runs a 50s-style-diner. An early chase between flying cars through the 3-D streets of Coruscant has a similar vibe. There's something enjoyably primal and playful about the whole thing; during the chase Anakin and Obi-Wan seem almost to be enjoying themselves, and trade quips as they perform superhuman stunts. It's a good feel for a STAR WARS movie to have.
Unfortunately, the old-fashioned approach extends to a key subplot of the movie, namely Anakin and Padme's romance. There's just too much idyllic beauty and purple prose; the dialogue in these films is rarely good, but here the stiffness really hurts things (strangely enough, Lucas had help writing the screenplay; Jonathan Hales had a hand in several episodes of the late, lamented YOUNG INDIANA JONES CHRONICLES.) Natalie Portman makes the best of things, and is no less lovely than she was before, but Christensen, though he has the right look, falters in his delivery. On subsequent viewings, there's something vaguely authentic about the adolescent quality Anakin displays, but it's still grating. The same applies to the romance in general, really; I buy it, but it's still not that fun to watch.
Fortunately, Lucas is in a better position to break up the action than before, and the romance scenes are alternated with the far more entertaining adventures of Obi-Wan, Space Detective. (Ewan McGregor also brings a nice sardonic touch to his performance as the older Jedi.) And to be fair, Anakin gets some better material later on when, summoned by a dream, he returns to Tatooine only to find his mother kidnapped and eventually killed by Sand Peoples. Anakin's subsequent grief-induced massacre leads to the most mysteriously affecting scene in the movie, a short cutaway to a half-lit room where Yoda sadly senses the young Jedi's pain from across the universe. It has no impact on the story, and is very simply composed, but it lends an ominous gravity to the proceedings.
The STAR WARS films are known for their black-and-white morality; even THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK doesn't bend this too much. ATTACK OF THE CLONES, on the other hand, seems to introduce more grey into the proceedings than before. Not only does Anakin show signs of the darkness that will eventually overtake him, but the Jedi as a whole become part of Darth Sidious' increasingly apparent plot to take over the galaxy. It's actually kind of clever: by following the clues to Kamino, where a spare clone army happens to be available, and following bounty hunter Jango Fett (Temuera Morrison) from there to the Separatists' base on the planet Geonosis, Obi-Wan, Anakin and Padme (who travel to the planet to rescue Obi-Wan when he is captured), and the rest of the Jedi (also trying to rescue their own) unwittingly trigger the start of the Clone Wars, the conflict spoken of in soft tones in the original STAR WARS. So, while the bad guys are on one level obvious- the Separatists and their armies of droids and flying bugs- at the same time, the putative "good guys" are also working for the future Emperor. This lends a heavy irony to the climactic and increasingly chaotic battle on Geonosis, especially in a moment where the gunships of the Republic appear, with ships and weapons and insignia recalling the Empire of the original trilogy, and with clone troopers wearing distinctly stormtrooper-esque outfits. That single visual has the feeling of authentic history, where sometimes doing what seems like the right thing leads to greater wrongs being done in the future. (That the film came out in the early stages of the run-up to the Iraq War was an amusing accident.) Similarly, in the inconclusive battle between Obi-Wan, Anakin, and Count Dooku, we see the Jedi's power starting to wane, but are given an affirmation of the true power of good when Yoda enters to save the day. There's also a theme of duty and how it conflicts with personal attachments, and though Anakin's love for Padme and his mother seem to work against him, it's Luke's devotion to his father and his friends that ultimately saves everyone.
One drawback to all this is you don't get the same emotional highs from the conflict that you do in the other movies. Instead, there's a subtler feeling of discovery and revelation; we see more of how the Empire came to be, how Anakin began to fall, and how the seemingly superhuman Jedi found themselves all too vulnerable. As bumpy a ride as ATTACK OF THE CLONES may be, it has an interesting staying power, and, like all good middle chapters, leaves one eager to see how it all ends. This may be the most obviously imperfect of the STAR WARS movies, but that doesn't mean it's the worst.