The Shittiest Films Ever Made
No. 2: Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones
Goddamn, I love Star Wars. I wasn’t yet born when it opened in 1977, but my mother took her younger brother George with her to see it. When The Empire Strikes Back came out in 1980, I had just been born. By the time Return of the Jedi closed out the trilogy in 1983, I was sleeping in Yoda pajamas. I didn’t actually see any of the movies until I was older, but there’s still no getting around it – I was a Star Wars baby, baby.
When I was old enough to watch the movies and understand what was going on (which was around age six or seven – they’re not exactly deep) I found myself really digging them. The more I watched them, and the older I got, the more things I found to appreciate. As a child it was the bickering between the droids, the mishaps that ensued onboard the Millennium Falcon, which never seemed to work, and Chewbacca – what kid didn’t love Chewbacca? Getting older, it was the little things, like Peter Cushing’s magnificent bastard Grand Moff Tarkin tricking Princess Leia into revealing the location of the rebel base and then blowing up her home planet anyway, or how Darth Vader dueled Luke with one hand in The Empire Strikes Back, or Han Solo’s voice when he told Leia, “I know.” Those movies were flights of the imagination, anything seemed possible – but what really appealed to me about the Star Wars films as an adult was the humanity, the sense that these people in this fantastic place doing all these fantastic things, really honestly cared about each other. Crudely written and clumsily acted at times? Hell yes, but it was that sense of wonder and adventure that pulled me along and let me ignore the spots when the dialogue wasn’t so great, or when the story seemed to be circling back on itself (which accounts for most of Return of the Jedi, actually). Fuck the special effects and the aliens and lightsabers – it was the wonder, the adventure, the humanity that really made Star Wars fly.
So naturally, when George Lucas decided to go back to the well and make the long-promised prequel trilogy, he bled the films dry of every last drop of wonder and adventure and humanity, and concentrated exclusively on the special effects and aliens and lightsabers. First came Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace, whose title alone was a warning. The earlier films had been given proper titles – Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, The Return of the Jedi – titles that were direct, that evoked curiosity. Instead of letting the new films stand on their own merits, Lucas and his massive marketing machine took every opportunity to tie the prequels directly to the originals, starting with the titles. Thus, instead of The Phantom Menace, which, aside from the fact that it has nothing to do with the plot of the film, would be a perfectly respectable title for a lighthearted space opera, we get Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace, with special emphasis given to the Episode I in most advertising. “Nevermind how good or bad it is – if you saw the others, you have to see this one.”
Apart from a brilliant climactic lightsaber duel, The Phantom Menace turned out to be a huge bore. The villains were vague and one-dimensional, the story was more interested in galactic politics than in harrowing space battles and dramatic rescues, and great actors like Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor and Samuel L. Jackson were given nothing to do except drably read lines like “Yes, master,” and “Be mindful of the living Force, my young padewan.” Speaking of which, Phantom Menace also took the fatal step of demystifying the Force, that inscrutable cosmic energy that was the source of a Jedi’s power, pinning it down as merely the result of microscopic organisms that dwell inside living cells. Well of course, I find that icily technical explanation to be way more interesting than the mysterious invisible energy field Obi Wan first described to Luke in Star Wars – don’t you? Oh, but Phantom Menace, as it happened, was just Lucas stretching his legs. He brought the real show to the next installment, Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones.
How does something like this even happen? The overriding reason for any of these films existing is money, I know, but all the same, how does one go from the giddy heights of Star Wars to the piss-soaked gutter of Attack of the Clones? There must have been a production meeting where everyone sat down and said, “Hey, hows ‘bout we take this incredibly successful and profitable sci-fi film franchise we’re working on and just totally fuck it up!” Because Attack of the Clones is that bad. I’m baffled by reviews that rank this one better than The Phantom Menace. The biggest problem with Episode I was how soul-numbingly dull it was; Episode II is every bit as dull, but it takes things one step further by also being obnoxiously inept. The story is a parade of miscalculated concepts, one ludicrously shitty idea followed by another. Even the special effects this time around are unconvincing. Lucas shot on digital video and opted to use almost no sets, instead shooting his actors against green backgrounds so his effects team could digitally paint in the setting in post production. The result is a cast that seems tranquilized most of the time, bored to tears by one-sided conversations with nonexistent characters in yet-to-be rendered locations.
Going to the theater to see this movie was one of the most depressing film-going experiences of my life. Unlike Batman & Robin, which I expected to suck going in, Attack of the Clones caught me off guard. Certainly I wasn’t expecting anything great, or even good, but . . . Yoda had a lightsaber fight, for Christ’s sake! Yoda! In what bleak, godless shadow universe could this ever be a good idea? The little green bastard is the master of the force, the teacher of all the Jedi – why would he even need to carry a lightsaber? The worst part of the experience was hearing the teenagers and Star Wars geeks in the theater eagerly slap their flippers together during the fight, as if watching one of the signature characters of Star Wars reduced to a bouncing CGI pinball was the fucking coolest thing they’d ever seen.
Like The Phantom Menace, the plot of Attack of the Clones is a sleepwalk through political intrigue that is anything but intriguing, with some half-hearted romance tossed in here and there. Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia, we know from the original films, are the children of Anakin Skywalker, so obviously one of the primary things the prequels must accomplish is having Anakin knock somebody up. That process kicks off with a yawn in Episode II, when the brooding teenage Anakin fixates on the first piece of ass that strolls by, namely Queen/Senator Padme Amidala. There’s zero chemistry between the two, absolutely no reason for these characters to fall in love other than the plot requires them to. The naïve pathos that made Han and Leia’s relationship work is MIA here. These characters are so bereft of humanity that when Padme learns that Anakin has gone off his nut and committed mass murder against an entire village of sand people, she can barely manage a sympathetic shrug. This kid is severely fucking troubled! This kid is crazy! He has just made salad out of an entire population! Anger, horror, mild alarm – these are all appropriate responses, not “Oh, Ani, I’m so sorry!” In Star Wars, didn’t Obi-Wan tell Luke his father was a good man in the pre-Vader days? Not that it really matters, since Lucas’s storytelling ineptitude transformed Obi-Wan from a wise mentor into a lying old coot by the time Return of the Jedi rolled around, anyway.
Attack of the Clones – the prequels in general, but especially Attack of the Clones – lacks everything that made the classic Star Wars films so entertaining, while simultaneously possessing all of the flaws of the original trilogy in abundance. Tin-eared dialogue, wooden acting, boring and derivative story (not so much a problem in Star Wars or Empire, but definitely so in Jedi), and leaden direction. This movie was so bad, so outrageously, impossibly, completely awful that I swore not to see Episode III. And I didn’t, and I haven’t, and I won’t. Like I said, I love Star Wars. I love The Empire Strikes Back. I got nothin’ against Return of the Jedi. To continue to watch these terrific films get shit on by the guy who created them seems pointless to me, masochistic.
I realized something while sitting through those first two prequels: I don’t give a shit how Darth Vader got to be Darth Vader. It’s much more fun to ponder his back-story while watching him telekinetically strangle people than to wade through six unendurable hours of superfluous prequels. He’s a much more interesting guy as an evil lord of the dark side than he was as a pouty young Jedi. In fact, pretty much all the Jedi in the prequels are lacking something in the charisma department. What the prequels missed was a Han Solo-type character, an outsider who wasn’t a devotee of the Force, who actually had some goddamn personality. Samuel L. Jackson would have been perfect for that, but instead they stuck him in Jedi robes with everyone else. Remember that scene between Yoda and Luke in Empire, when Yoda tells him, “Adventure, excitement – a Jedi craves not these things?” Maybe a Jedi doesn’t, but when I watch a Star Wars movie, I sure as fuck do. George should’ve listened to Yoda.