Previously: The Phantom Menace (1999)
Welcome back to my Star Wars rewatch, and May the Fourth be with you! This time I’m revisiting the second prequel movie, Attack of the Clones, which begins with fracture lines forming in the Republic. Led by the charismatic ex-Jedi Count Dooku (played by Christopher Lee, which explains why people do what he wants), thousands of systems are threatening to separate from the Galactic Senate. In a time of such unrest, the resources of the Republic’s traditional peacekeepers – the Jedi – are strained thin and the Senate is about to vote on the creation of an official armed force.
Senator Amidala, once queen of Naboo, is in adamant opposition to such a decision and comes to Coruscant to give her say, but upon arrival her spacecraft explodes and the handmaiden who was acting as her decoy is assassinated. The Jedi believe the attack originated with ‘disgruntled spice miners’ from her own planet, but Amidala (whom I shall refer to as Padme from now on, as Amidala is more like a title) doesn’t buy that for a second. She thinks Count Dooku is responsible. Gently, patronizingly, the Jedi tell her that as a former Jedi, Dooku could never ever be involved in murder. Inciting a massive political movement that could reshape the galaxy just shows how idealistic he is. Adding a further layer of insult, they take up Chancellor Palpatine’s suggestion to impose bodyguards on Padme against her will. To forestall further protests on her part, Palpatine arranges the return of two old friends – Obi-Wan Kenobi and his Padawan, Anakin Skywalker.
It’s been ten years since Naboo was freed from the Trade Federation’s blockade and Anakin has grown from a sulkily precocious child to a sulkily gorgeous nineteen-year-old. His old crush on Padme hasn’t gone anywhere and Obi-Wan is torn between amusement and mild disapproval about it. Anakin keeps fidgetting with his clothes, but he should be more worried about his hair, which is in the traditional, hideously embarrassing cut Jedi inflict on their apprentices. Not that Padme cares. She’s warmly pleased to see Obi-Wan and openly perplexed by this version of Anakin, who now towers over her and makes awkward remarks about how beautiful she is. Her mental image of him as a sort of adorably spiky stray kitten is clearly shaken.
Jar-Jar Binks is also in this scene. I’m not sure why anybody let him be an official representative of anything, but apparently he is. I’d like to note that R2-D2 is another member of Padme’s entourage – as Tumblr reminded me a while ago, he was always Padme’s droid, not Anakin’s.
Rewatching this, Anakin is such an embarrassing teenager. His hair is nothing in comparison to what COMES OUT OF HIS MOUTH. He hasn’t seen Padme in ten years, but uses her private name in a public context; contradicts his Master by promising to investigate the assassination attempts instead of just guarding Padme, and stares broodingly the whole time. Or maybe that’s just how his eyes function. Obi-Wan is increasingly exasperated as he tries to reassert his authority, and everyone else just looks really awkward as the public dressing-down goes on. Padme tries to smooth things over and leaves the room as soon as she can.
She may resent the increased security, but she needs it. Elsewhere in Coruscant, the bounty hunter Zam Wesell is meeting her partner to explain Padme’s continued survival. Zam Wesell is one of the minor Star Wars characters that I love, not because they do anything particularly amazing but because they simply exude cool. Also, she’s a girl, and this franchise doesn’t have nearly enough of those. She gets a second chance at the assassination when her partner hands over a pair of toxic worm-like creatures in a vial. She sends them to Padme’s building in a drone, which cuts right through the window and releases the worms onto Padme’s sleeping body. Anakin and Obi-Wan are too busy arguing over whether politicians can be trusted to notice.
At the last minute, Anakin senses something is wrong and leaps into her room to sever the worms right over her face. Obi-Wan sees the drone and jumps through the window to catch it – in mid-air. Not unexpectedly, it flies off with him and Anakin runs to get a craft so he can catch up. Are they as ridiculous as each other? Yes. Yes they are.
The denizens of Coruscant are just as dismayed by the antics of Team Reckless as I am, and Zam Wesell cannot believe how badly her night is going. Anakin does some clever flying to catch Obi-Wan before he falls to a painful death, and some very stupid flying to catch up to Zam, and I’m mostly admiring the Coruscant cityscape as this point because it’s just really gorgeous. Crash-landing on a busy street, Zam flees into a nightclub. Obi-Wan lures her out by looking unsuspecting at the bar (and advising his fellow patrons to reconsider their life choices), then he cuts off her ARM and hauls her outside for questioning. It doesn’t take long. She collapses, a poisoned dart in her throat. Her partner doesn’t like loose ends.
During this sequence Obi-Wan remarks irritably that Anakin is going to be the death of him and Anakin responds by saying that Obi-Wan is ‘the closest thing [he has] to a father’, but I read their dynamic as much more fraternal. Obi-Wan is in a position of authority over Anakin, certainly, but he comes across more like an exasperated older brother, accustomed to his rules being flouted, than a parental figure accustomed to respect. And while he complains about Anakin’s attitude all the time, he’s hardly a stable and responsible role model.
Anyway. Taking their account to the Jedi Council, they get approval to investigate further. Showing their typical cluelessness about all things emotional, Yoda and Windu arrange for Obi-Wan to do the investigating and for Anakin to guard the young, attractive Senator he has history with. He gets a paternal pep talk from Palpatine, who assures him of his guaranteed future greatness, and Obi-Wan’s concerns get completely ignored. You can absolutely see how Anakin got to be the way he is from these scenes.
Padme, immensely fed up about being sent home to Naboo, makes the inexplicable decision to place her vote in Jar-Jar’s hands. WHY. WHY WOULD YOU DO THAT, PADME. She passive-aggressively packs while Anakin vents his own frustrations. Hayden Christensen does a fantastic job in this, because what Padme is seeing is a handsome, impatient boy wanting more independence, but there’s danger underneath, a vicious edge to his complaints. Padme’s mental dissonance between the little boy she promised to remember and the young man who has come back to her becomes uncomfortable when Anakin’s intensity turns on her. They leave Coruscant together with R2-D2, disguised as refugees.
Having seen them off, Obi-Wan goes to visit an old friend who is running the intergalactic version of a greasy spoon and who has a suspiciously excellent knowledge of weaponry. I love this exploration of Coruscant’s day-to-day living, from glimmering towers to scrappy corners. Also, the fact Obi-Wan has friends! I suspect most Jedi do not have enough of those. Obi-Wan shows Dex the dart that killed Zam Wesell and is told it comes from Kamino, a planet known for its state-of-the-art cloning facilities. Attempting to locate Kamino in the Jedi records, Obi-Wan is told by the very snippy archivist that it does not exist. He goes to Yoda for a second opinion, who in turn hands the question over to a roomful of adorable little Padawans. The consensus is simple: the planet is there all right, but somebody doesn’t want it found. Yoda sends Obi-Wan to find out why.
Meanwhile, Padme and Anakin are drifting into dangerous waters with a debate on the nature of love; more precisely, whether Jedi are allowed to love or not. Anakin argues that he’s supposed to care about everybody, it is attachment that is forbidden – a rule that is destined for failure, incidentally, people being people. He’s completely unsubtle about his feelings for Padme, and she doesn’t know quite what to think about that. She has her own doubts about her place in the world, how she should best serve her people now that her time as queen is over, and Anakin’s complete faith in her brilliance is obviously reassuring – especially as she’s unable to put that brilliance to any use, dragged away from the debate in the Senate to hide in retreat on Naboo.
Meanwhile, on the ocean planet of Kamino, Obi-Wan’s investigations are given an unexpected in when the cloners mistake him for the representative of a different Jedi – a Master Sifo-Dyas, nearly a decade dead, who secretly commissioned the creation of a clone army on behalf of the Republic. With their accelerated growth and advanced training program, the clones are nearly ready for service. They are the perfect soldiers: capable of creativity and limited independence, but conditioned for perfect obedience. Slavery from conception. IT IS THE VERY DEFINITION OF AWFUL. And yet also kind of fascinating? Like, Obi-Wan is not horrified. He doesn’t exactly approve, but this falls within the boundaries of his understanding as a thing that can and does happen – from the way the Kaminoans describe their procedures, there are other cloners out there, though they might not work on such a large scale – and his focus remains on the mission.
The clones are based on the template of a bounty hunter, Jango Fett, who asked in return for one unaltered clone to raise as his son. Jango and little Boba are deeply suspicious of Obi-Wan and his questions. Obi-Wan has his suspicions confirmed when he recognises Fett’s armour. This is the bounty hunter who killed Zam Wesell.
The safe house on Naboo looks more like a luxury hotel for honeymoon romance. On their very first day, a seemingly innocuous conversation about the landscape leads to kissing on the balcony and while Padme tries to stamp down the sparks of sexual attraction flaring up between them, absolutely everything is against her. Anakin loves her and he loves Naboo and he’s never been more playful, more easy to get close to. But even as they flirt in circles around each other, there’s something more serious under the surface. Padme might be fed up with the ponderous political system of the Republic, but she trusts in the foundations. Anakin doesn’t. Maybe it’s rooted in his childhood as a slave, or in the gentle dictatorship of the Jedi Order, but he doesn’t have the patience for democratic process. He wants a leader with more power, someone who will make the hard decisions and make the squabbling rabble of the Senate do what they’re told.
The sexual tension comes to a head one evening when Anakin pours out his longing and desperation and Padme admits that yes, she feels it too – but what are they supposed to do with those feelings? Her life is committed to politics, his to the Jedi Order, and their paths don’t align anywhere. The only option would be to keep their relationship a secret, and they both see how corrosive a lie that would be.
Relaying his discoveries to Yoda and Mace Windu, Obi-Wan gets the go-ahead to capture Jango Fett. Only that’s not an easy ask. The Fetts are a flawless father-son team: Jango armed and in the air, Boba firing the cannons on the family spaceship. Is it wrong that I find this quite adorable? Obi-Wan is thrown off the side of the landing platform, dangling over Kamino’s wild seas. Jango leaves him for dead. Obi-Wan hauls himself back to his own ship and pursues them towards the planet Geonosis. He manages to survive another tangle with their vicious ingenuity, faking his own demise a second time, and lands on the planet surface undetected. Inside the hive-like buildings he sees another army in the making, a production line of battle-droids ready for war. The Separatists are meeting with Count Dooku to decide on their next move and, surprise surprise, the Trade Federation are right in the thick of it, sour-grapesing about how much they want Padme dead.
I am aware that sour-grapesing is not a word, but it should be.
On Naboo, Anakin’s misery is twofold. He’s tormented by dreams about his mother Shmi and a conviction she’s in pain. When he shares his fear with Padme, she insists on going with him to Tattooine to find out for sure. That’s mostly for Anakin’s benefit, but Shmi was once very kind to a fourteen-year-old queen. Arriving on Tattooine, they find the once-successful Watto is now reduced to doing his own grunt-work. It’s odd seeing Anakin interact with his former owner; there’s resentment, but also a grudging sort of affection. Anakin didn’t have many people in his life as a child, after all. Shmi is no longer in Watto’s possession – she was sold to a moisture farmer called Lars who freed and married her, but she’s not with him either. Tusken Raiders took her, and despite the best efforts of her new family, rescue seems hopeless. But Anakin doesn’t accept that. He takes a speeder and goes after her himself. The light turns red; the music is the same as for Darth Maul’s duel. Failure is not an option.
He finds Shmi. She is savagely bound, barely hanging on after weeks of torture, and she dies there in his arms. Afterwards, it is not a Jedi who cuts his way through the camp. It is a living inferno of grief, guilt and rage. By the time he returns to the Skywalker farm with his mother’s body draped over the speeder, not a single Raider is left alive. Anakin confesses as much to Padme in a fury of despair.
There are several important facts to remember when analysing this scene: the fact that the Raiders have killed nearly everyone who tried to rescue Shmi (Padme is fully aware of that), the long-standing enmity between the Raiders and the rest of Tattooine’s population (perhaps something to do with colonisation? It’s never explained in the movies but probably there’s material in the expanded universe), and the incredibly low expectations Padme has of Tattooine’s local justice, formed on her first visit and compounded now. But most importantly, she loves Anakin and she still sees him as needing protection. So when he tells her that he committed a massacre, that he has killed children, she swallows down her horror and goes to comfort him.
Just in case you thought this was a movie for little kids? IT IS NOT.
It is at this point, when Anakin is too numb to give a damn about anyone, that Obi-Wan runs into trouble on Geonosis. He gets a message out before he’s captured, but help will not come from Coruscant in time. Padme is determined that her small team – herself, Anakin, R2-D2 and a newly reclaimed C3-PO – should go to the rescue. Meanwhile, as Obi-Wan’s message is relayed to Jedi and Senate alike, it is agreed that the urgent threat of the Separatist movement requires dramatic action. To approve the deployment of the clones, the Chancellor needs emergency powers. And to get those, a Senator has to make the proposal.
Padme would never do it. But Jar-Jar Binks is listening, and he’s already seen the Trade Federation’s droids in action once. It hardly takes any pressure at all for him to make the decision, and once the proposal is made, it rapidly gains support.
Dooku makes an effort to recruit Obi-Wan onto his side, telling him that the Republic is already under the control of a Sith Lord called Darth Sidious. Obi-Wan somehow resists Christopher Lee’s resonant tones, and gets casually handed over public execution in a gladiatorial arena. Padme’s hope is to negotiate a peaceful settlement is also a bust; she and Anakin survive an up close and personal experience of the battle droid foundries – an encounter, I may add, Padme only survives thanks to R2’s quick action, proving more than ever that he is HER droid – only to be imprisoned and sent out into the arena with a very unimpressed Obi-Wan. When you’re about to be shredded for popular entertainment, it makes you focus on the important things. Padme tells Anakin that she loves him, and they face near-certain death together.
Fortunately, Padme doesn’t rely solely on her diplomatic prowess when going into life-threatening situations. Using a lock-pick, she slips her chains while Anakin swings astride one of the creatures sent to kill them. Obi-Wan does a lot of running. Jango thinks this is A-OK viewing for his young son, and Boba is loving it.
Dooku has a distant sort of admiration for his prisoners’ survival skills, but eventually loses patience. Droidekas roll out into the arena, ready to finish off the trio; and that is when Mace Windu walks out onto the balcony behind Dooku. He’s always exuded awesome, but now he gets to DO awesome. Lightsabers flare to life all around the arena. The Jedi have come to rescue their own. They are literally taking on an army and I get really emotional about impossibly unwise acts of courage, this is catnip to me. Padme and Anakin prove an unexpectedly excellent fighting duo, her with a blaster, him with a borrowed lightsaber. Jango Fett tries to set Mace Windu on fire, and Windu cuts off his head. (In front of Boba. Another child witnessing their beloved solo parent’s demise; parallels much?) The Jedi prove they are worthy of their reputation, cutting down battle droids in swathes.
They are amazing. But it comes down to numbers – they are simply too badly outmatched. Surrounded, it’s the last moment of a last stand when suddenly ships start descending from the sky and a new force troops out: a clone army clad in white, led by Yoda. They quickly collect Padme and the surviving Jedi, and set off in pursuit of Dooku. Now the Separatists are the ones on the back foot, their leaders scrambling to escape. Anakin and Padme are separated when she falls from one of the open-sided clone ships, but Obi-Wan insists on chasing Dooku and Anakin very reluctantly concedes; Padme is picked up by a clone trooper (huh, phrased like that it sounds a completely different situation…) and immediately starts giving commands.
Obi-Wan and Anakin catch up to Dooku inside a cavern, where he coolly proceeds to school them on what Force mastery really looks like. Flinging bolts of Force lightning, he leaves Obi-Wan bleeding on the ground and severs Anakin’s arm, but has no chance to finish them off because right then, Yoda arrives. And…look. Yoda is fantastic. I love Yoda. But it’s hard to describe his fighting style as anything other than really fierce bouncing. He can keep up with his former apprentice just fine, so Dooku exploits a different weak spot; dislodging a heavy column, he leaves Yoda with the choice of catching him or saving the two injured Jedi. Yoda lets him go.
Dooku goes straight to Coruscant to meet with his Sith Master. Unaware of how close their enemy really is, Obi-Wan and Mace Windu stand in the Jedi Temple, watching clone troopers march past below. The only one in the room who sees this army as a terrible thing is Yoda, but by now it’s too late. The war has begun.
Anakin escorts Padme back to Naboo, where they marry in secret, witnessed only by R2-D2 and C3-PO. Of course, if they really wanted to keep their relationship under wraps they wouldn’t have kissed in front of Obi-Wan in the aftermath of Dooku’s escape, but Obi-Wan was admittedly distracted, and besides, he’s accustomed to looking the other way for Anakin.
This is also the beginning of something terrible. But they don’t know that yet.
A lot of people do not like the prequel movies. They do have a lot of flaws. Being unable to decide on a target audience, for instance, so that the plots are too violent for children and much of the humour is too childish for adults; messy scripts, too, though all the Star Wars movies share that. But what the prequels do so very, very well, is explore the ways in which a civilisation can fall. How do terrible things happen? Because good people make bad choices. Or think they have no choices at all.
Because nobody knows what’s coming, except us.