Look, Attack of the Clones is not a good Star Wars movie. The political ideas and plotting are clumsy, it’s a solid half-hour too long, and the excessive CGI makes it look like an FMV game. But for everything the rubbery middle-child of the Prequel Trilogy gets wrong, it manages to deliver some of the finest action in the entire Skywalker Saga.
The Battle of Geonosis, where a load of Jedi, clones and droids engage in a prolonged maelstrom that serves as the tipping point for the Clone Wars, turns an awkward, melodramatic science fiction movie into an explosion of Christmas lights-coloured lasers. It’s where George Lucas just dropped all his toys into the sandbox for a frantic blowout before having to head in for the night.
Waves and waves of conveniently expendable footsoldiers run at each other, lightsabers slicing through clumps in the brown haze as ships zoom around overhead. Every so often we cut to yet another different brand of war machine that gets blown up. You’d swear everyone just gave up on all this Force lark and decided to make a giant fireworks display.
Staging is key. Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor), Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen), and Padmé (Natalie Portman) are sentenced to public execution in Petranaki arena by Count Dooku (Christopher Lee). They’re chained up, with ravenous beasts heading towards them. It seems like an homage to Ben-Hur or Gladiator, where the three heroes buy their freedom by jumping through ever hoop the antagonistic ringleader can throw at them.
For a while that’s true – Padmé cunningly finds a way around her restraints, leading Anakin and Obi-Wan to do the same. They narrowly avoid being eaten long enough to hop on the back of one of the creatures to control the stage. Droids are deployed, but before they can deal with them, Mace Windu (Samuel L Jackson) and the Jedi show up.
Suddenly, we’re in a war movie. Jedi spill into the coliseum from every corner. Mace challenges Dooku and Jango Fett personally. Amid the ensuing calamity, Yoda leads a battalion of clones from the sky, turrets blasting into the mechanical opposition. Glimpses of blue, green, yellow, and purple distinguish the goodies from the baddies in the unruly mess, close-ups and one-liners peppered in to keep us from getting swept up in it ourselves.
Big as the stadium is, it’s clear Star Wars is only restrained by conventional venues, and Attack of the Clones morphs into a huge, sweeping skirmish. Clones and droids, two different ways of fuelling the same bloody industrial complex, are thrown at each other, Jedi barely discernible among the fray.
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It’s the pew-pewiest Star Wars this side of the Battle of Hoth. Massive, rowdy, deeply silly, and totally joyful. Yes, all the brown and grey gives it an unfortunately murky texture, Lucas’s devotion to then-revolutionary blue screen technology a hindrance to his own clearly grand aspirations. But, as with much of the rest of the franchise, that pales in comparison to just how much fun it is.
Attacks of the Clones is mired in Lucas’s less than graceful narrative sensibilities. It’s no secret that A New Hope benefited hugely from Marcia Lucas’s shrewd eye for pacing in the editing room, and Attack of the Clones makes that collaboration and oversight seem all the more necessary.
The story can’t seem to decide what it wants to be about, switching between assassination attempts, personal trauma, romance, and underlying political rumblings, with none of it ever quite melding together. You’d wonder how a franchise called Star Wars could ever be boring, yet Attack of the Clones manages it.
That’s until Geonosis kicks it into gear. A film that seems deadset on kicking around the mud of its own half-baked bureaucratic commentary finally remembers its own namesake and settles everything with laser swords and other ludicrous weaponry. As if plucked from my own ten-year-old daydreams, a load of Jedi step into a stadium and start wrecking shop against an amorphic pile of evil robots and wrongdoers.
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When all this starts happening, nowhere, not even Dooku’s grand stage, can contain it. Historical epics confined themselves to chariot races and duels within amphitheatres of old; Lucas goes beyond that by using his playground to his full advantage. The galaxy of Star Wars is a big place under Lucas’s eye, and Attack of the Clones lets us see what it looks like when a full planet becomes the battlefield.
If that was the whole film, Attack of the Clones would be top of everyone’s Star Wars movies ranking. It’s not, but maybe that’s better, because it makes the sudden exhilaration all the sweeter. At the very least it puts the ‘war’ in Star Wars more than most other instalments.