“Why do I get the feeling you’re going to be the death of me?”
Nostalgia is a notoriously changeable beast, one that manifests variously in all of us – one person’s candy is another person’s junk. Like many behemoths of popular culture, Star Wars has its die-hards and its detractors, each viewing the saga’s films (and books and television shows and comics and video games…) through their own rose- or grey-tinted glasses.
The George Lucas-directed prequel trilogy, released between 1999 and 2005, is conventionally regarded as a low point in the franchise’s history. The second instalment, subtitled Attack of the Clones, wouldn’t have much assuaged the concerns of anyone who hated The Phantom Menace, except perhaps by cutting back on screentime for Jar-Jar Binks and giving Ewan McGregor a mullet. But does such a downbeat assessment reflect the genuine liking so many people have for the film?
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It can’t be denied that George Lucas’ ambition and imagination are just as strong here as they were in 1977. The original film wouldn’t have gotten off the ground without Lucas’ vision of epic space opera, and the prequel trilogy was the next instalment of that vision. Even as, by his own admission, he fails to nail writing dialogue, Lucas certainly knows how to inspire awe and excitement: we jump from planet to planet, each one distinct and new; the worldbuilding is rich and the scale large; and character groupings diverge for separate second-act adventures before eventually intersecting for the finale.
McGregor moves into the lead role after taking a backseat for most of The Phantom Menace. This Obi-Wan is slightly older and slightly wiser, and now in a position to teach his padawan a few things. Regardless of the quality of their dialogue, you do buy that he and Anakin (Hayden Christensen) have had a plethora of experiences in the 10 years since the previous film, evidenced particularly in the Coruscant speeder chase sequence.
Still three years off from being relegated to the ‘wife/expectant mother’ archetype in Revenge of the Sith, Natalie Portman’s Padme proves a strident example of a female character making decisions that affect the plot, not the other way around, in a saga with so few other women. She’s the one who decides to go to Naboo initially, and then later to Geonosis in pursuit of Obi-Wan. Newcomer Christopher Lee absolutely sells the good guy-turned-bad archetype; his palpable menace is tempered with a touch of melancholy during the Obi-Wan interrogation scene as he seems saddened, almost lonely, following the demise of his good friend Qui-Gon.
The previous film finally gave viewers a look at individual Jedi in their prime, but Attack of the Clones presents the larger Jedi Order as a functional and efficient force. Not only do Mace Windu and Yoda break out the big guns (lightsabers?) in the action-packed third act, the Kamino subplot adds tantalising details to their lore. Sound design and costuming, as ever, are on point, and boy does John Williams’ score hit the spot. ‘Across the Stars’ does everything you want a romantic theme to do and more; swelling violins meld with melodious strings to cast an entrancing spell over the listener. Even if the acting during scenes between Anakin and Padme on Naboo make you doubt whether to continue watching, the score more than makes up the difference.
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Two decades on, it’s easy to deride the plasticky CGI in certain sequences – Dexter is an oddly charming character, but his skin is slippery and fake – and the entire film as a failed exercise in moviemaking. But those who grew up with the prequels look back at them dotingly – just as those who saw the originals did a few decades beforehand, and one assumes younger audiences will do in the years to come for the sequels – with a liking that is simultaneously intentionally ironic and unapologetically sincere.
For a generation of moviegoers, the Star Wars prequels are remembered with genuine fondness. One need only look at the response to casting for the upcoming Obi-Wan Kenobi television show – Christensen’s return is being celebrated rather than derided – or the countless meme formats crafted from lines of dialogue to understand their open and unaffected passion for these films. Such is the true (unlimited) power of Star Wars.
Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones was released in the UK on 16th May 2002.