Twenty years ago today, on May 16, 2002, Attack of the Clones released in theaters in the United States, marking the release of the second chapter of the Star Wars prequel trilogy.
Those two decades haven’t exactly been smooth sailing for the film, which was met by extremely mixed and tempered reviews from both critics and fans, but as is typically the case in these matters, now that some of the people who grew up with the prequels are adults these films are receiving renewed love and attention. Still, its impact on the Star Wars universe is significant.
It was the debut for Hayden Christensen as Anakin Skywalker, who is returning to the role once more in the upcoming Obi-Wan Kenobi series. It introduced Jango Fett, who’s a great character, played by Temuera Morrison, who’s a great actor (and has recently played Boba Fett in live-action in The Mandalorian and The Book of Boba Fett). It introduced Count Dooku, a fascinating character who provides a new kind of hero, played by the inestimable Christopher Lee. It gave us one of John Williams’ very finest pieces in “Across the Stars,” the love theme for Anakin and Padmé. Oh, and the Kamino theme is pretty great too, as is the design of this mysterious new planet. The worldbuilding is fantastic, as we see the Coruscant underworld, the beautiful Naboo countryside, the rainy secluded Kamino, and the rocky red world of Geonosis. It was the first time we had ever seen on-screen a battle with numerous Jedi fighting alongside one another, something fans had dreamed of for years and that was seen in the Battle of Geonosis in the Petranaki Arena (in which we saw the first non green or blue lightsaber wielded by a Jedi, thanks to Mace Windu’s purple saber). And, of course, we finally got to see Yoda fight with a lightsaber, something Star Wars fans had dreamed of for just as long (if not longer) as a Jedi battle.
I’ve written previously about five things I love about this film in particular, and in addition to all that I’ve just listed I love how the film explores some mystery themes that Star Wars films hadn’t touched on before. Obi-Wan Kenobi operates as a detective for much of the movie, trying to track down the mysterious assassin hired to kill Padmé, and as he closes in on that discovery he stumbles upon even greater mysteries – namely, a clone army created for the Republic unbeknownst to the Jedi, and the identity of a secret Sith Lord who holds considerable political power.
The film also marks some significant steps along Anakin’s gradual descent to the dark side – something not glimpsed in The Phantom Menace. He struggles with his feelings for Padmé, knowing that attachment is forbidden, but suggesting that Jedi are encouraged to love with compassion – something that George Lucas felt strongly about. And while Anakin is dealing with these questions in his mind, the Force awakes him with dreams of his mother’s suffering, and he can’t save her. This leads to him slaughtering a tribe of Tusken Raiders and promising to become powerful enough to stop people from dying. These are all significant markers along the road to the dark side, something that Revenge of the Sith picks up on and plays off of, and highlighted even here by the brief shout of Qui-Gon Jinn yelling through the Force, “Anakin, no!” as he begins killing the sand people.
And as Anakin struggles with his inner darkness surrounding his mother’s death and his inner feelings toward Padmé’s love, the Jedi Order looms large. This movie is very important in our understanding of the Jedi, highlighted by something Mace Windu says early in the film to Chancellor Palpatine: “We’re keepers of the peace, not soldiers.” This is something vital for Star Wars fans to get, and it sets the stage for the entire film. Because though insistent on that at the beginning, by the end of the movie the Jedi will have become soldiers – all in the name of trying to keep the peace. Therein lies the brilliance of Palpatine’s plan in-universe, and Lucas’s vision in ours. It is a masterful bit of storytelling that Lucas does, particularly as the story wraps up at the end of the movie. See, for those wanting to be entertained for two hours and leaving satisfied, the ending of Attack of the Clones brings a thrilling Arena battle, a climactic lightsaber duel, and a Republic victory in the Battle of Geonosis.
But then, just when we as the audience are thinking about this victory, Obi-Wan mentions the same on-screen – only to be scolded by Yoda: “Victory? Victory, you say? Master Obi-Wan, not victory. The shroud of the dark side has fallen. Begun, the Clone War has.” Ah, now we are reminded of what the whole point really is! The Jedi are not soldiers, but we’ve just seen them transform into that (their hand forced by Palpatine into having no other choice) – meaning that this film’s ending is deceptive. It leads you to believe you should celebrate the heroes’ win in this battle, only to remind you that they’ve actually just lost the whole war. They have compromised on their identity, become something they were never meant to be. As Matthew Stover wrote in his tremendous Revenge of the Sith novelization, “The Clone Wars were the perfect Jedi trap. By fighting at all, the Jedi lost.” And so as the film ends with that sobering reminder of a looming war the Jedi should never have been fighting, that’s not actually the final scene. The final scene is of the secret wedding between Anakin and Padmé, and indication that Anakin’s love for her has won out.
It is all of this that I really appreciate about the story George Lucas told in Attack of the Clones, and think it’s an especially poignant and thought-provoking way to end a film that, on the surface, leaves you happy – but at its core is a defeat.
Attack of the Clones is twenty years old, and though it’ll likely never be regarded as a top-tier Star Wars movie, it nonetheless plays a pivotal role in the Star Wars saga, developing iconic characters, introducing key themes, and significantly impacting our understanding of the nature of the Jedi.