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Released three years after The Phantom Menace, most were hoping that Attack of the Clones would take the disappointing start of the new trilogy in a better direction. Jar Jar Binks was thankfully reduced to almost no screen time and the unpopular young Anakin has was grown up. Yoda is actually in a lightsaber dual, for good or bad and we learn the origin of Bobba Fett, also for good or bad. It had a veritable superfan check list of things that should have made it great, but unfortunately, at every turn, with every decision, it collapsed upon itself, ultimately underperforming worse than the first.
Written and directed by George Lucas, Episode II takes place ten years after the events of the Phantom Menace, and focuses on the reunion of Padmé (Natalie Portman) and Anakin (Hayden Christensen) who have not seen each other in a decade as she tended to her planet’s rule and he trained as a Jedi. After an assassination attempt on Padmé is thwarted, she goes into hiding with Anakin as her protector, the two eventually fall in love and secretly marry. Meanwhile, Obi-Wan (Ewan McGregor) investigates the plot against the queen and discovers a clone army being built for the Republic. Worse, he learns that a former Jedi named Count Dooku (Count Dooku) is leading a separatist movement who is behind the assassination and is developing a massive droid army to lead a rebellion. Hampered by an almost zealous approach to CGI and a script that again leave no room for characters to be fleshed out, the dialogue is often, as best, clunky, with the essential romance scene reduced to embarrassing moments of awkward line readings as actors stiffly try to make sense of their motivations. The film is a bloated, aggressively bad film that lacks any depth and sense of adventure. Yet, like every movie, has one great moment.
While on Amidala’s home planet of Naboo, Anakin experiences a nightmare vision of his mother in terrible pain. He hasn’t seen her in ten year, but now, he must find her. He apologizes to Amidala that he cannot stay to protect her, but she simply says that she will go with him. The woman just doesn’t care that she is the target for assassination. So they fly to Tatooine so he can learn the fate of his family. Once there, they meet Owen, soon to become Uncle Owen, Anakin’s stepbrother. Owen, his father and family work the moisture farms and live a mostly peaceful life except for the Tusken raiders, or Sandpeople, who scavenge the lands for booty, both human and otherwise. A month or so back, Shmi, Anakin’s mother, ventured out early, as she always had, and got abducted. Owen’s father claims thirty townsfolk went after her and only four came back. He even lost a leg. No matter the threats that lie ahead, Anakin is driven. All he cares about is his mother so he jumps on his speederbike to find the Tusken camp.
For once, we are getting some believable reasons for why the young and immature Jedi is a little unstable. Ripped from his mother’s side ten years ago, he has had only the Jedi masters as family, one of which dies not long after freeing him from slavery, and the other he apparently can’t stand. Earlier, back on Coruscant, home of the Republic senate and where Amidala had nearly lost her life, twice, Obi-Wan commented to his apprentice that he looked tired. Anakin said that he couldn’t sleep because of his mother. He keeps dreaming about her, saying he can’t understand why. I’m guessing because he was taken from his mother when he was just a child. Obi-Wan, his mentor and counsel offers little help, telling his student: “Dreams pass in time.” It’s harsh (and wholly ambiguous) advice and does nothing more but solidify the coldness of the Jedi training. This might have been a wonderful moment to explore, with Anakin showing some depth and emotion, reaching to his master for guidance. Obi-Wan could have used his Jedi powers to sense that his padawan was in pain, taken him aside and shown some compassion and humanity, such as when the elder Obi-Wan speaks to young Luke Skywalker years later about his own father’s demise. But instead, the writers once again refuse to leave the shallow end and have Anakin say, “I’d much rather dream about Padmé.” Worse, it comes off creepy where it should have been endearing.
Now on Tatooine, knowing his mother is in danger, he can no longer hold the mandate of the Jedi council to remain at Padmé’s side and streaks off toward the horizon to find Shmi. The music swells, recalling the now classic theme of a Jedi battle, and we see the brooding Anakin on his speeder racing through the darkness along the desert floor, into canyons and past epic rock formations. In montage, he visits Jawas who direct him farther. High atop a darkened cliff, he spots the Tusken encampment, which are basically mudhuts and campfires. In silence, he swoops into the shadows and finds his way to the hut where his mother is bound. Unseen, he enters, frees her, and she collapses to the floor, him holding her in his arms.
In what succeeds as the film’s only real effective personal relationship, we see a son and his mother reunited, ever so briefly. The scene isn’t a mess of special effects laden with incoherent dialogue and nonsensical gibberish. It’s two people with divergent lives, once living only to save the other, separated and lost alone, now rejoined to say goodbye. Shmi is mortally wounded, starved, and mistreated, clinging to her last breath to simply say her son’s name one last time. While it pales in comparison with other great works of drama, tucked inside this film, it is a tiny treasure that glimmers for all too short a time. It is capped by the bloodthirsty revenge killing of every last member of the tribe as Anakin brings his wrath upon the Sandpeople, using them as representatives of all is despair and rage. It is so powerful that Yoda, far on the other side of he galaxy, can feel its impact.
Unfortunately, it moves on from there, and next we see Anakin telling Padmé what he has done to the Tusken tribe. The scene should be crucial because it reveals how hate is now consuming him. We even hear Darth Vader’s theme echoing on the soundtrack. Yet Hayden Christensen’s delivery, like nearly every single line in the movie, is so forced, so blank, so comically over-baked, it comes across as laughable at best and wince-worthy at worst. It’s especially disheartening because we realize this is it! This is the moment when Darth Vader is born. He succumbs to his hate while the fire that will burn inside him until he dies is ignited. Couldn’t anyone on the production staff see what was happening here? For that matter, throughout the entire film? Was there no one that saw how dead-eyed and empty the acting was, how hopelessly cold and vapid every human character in the movie was being portrayed? Was this a conscious decision? Yet truthfully, it’s not just the human characters, it’s everything about the film. Overwrought, over-stuffed, over ambitious, and over-the-top, it fails on all accounts to be what it aims for. There is no adventure, only set pieces of carefully controlled action. There is no romance, only beautiful people dressed beautifully in beautiful (fake) locations. There is no drama, only static relationships with emotionless actors standing in front of green screens. There is no wonder, only disappointment.
The story of Darth Vader reaches a critical peak in this movie, and we are now ready to move on to the final chapter and witness his absolute transformation. The end of this movie sees the beginning of the Clone Wars and the secret marriage of Padmé and Anakin, giving us some hope for the next installment. While again, this movie is better left unwatched, there is a redeemable scene that, even for the briefest time, shows us what potential there was underneath it all.