Star Wars: Episode II: Attack of the Clones Is the follow up to the story established by The Phantom Menace. Set 10 years after the previous events, Attack of the Clones follows Obi-Wan Kenobi as he tries to discover the origins of a pre-made clone army, while a grown-up Anakin Skywalker sets out on a new mission to save Padme Amidala on the eve of the Clone Wars.
Conceptually, it all sounds good on paper. This was a major incident that was alluded to before the Original Trilogy, so the viewer naturally assumes that this eventuality will pay off. Instead, the viewer is presented a love story. While this destined romantic tale is another vital aspect of the overall saga, its delivery is leaden in presentation.
Anakin is now the Padawan apprentice of Obi-Wan Kenobi. Having trained together for a decade, this relationship was characterized by Kenobi as close before Anakin’s eventual corruption. But here, we see Anakin (played by Hayden Christensen) as negative and creepy. Anakin is shown as impatient and mildly threatening when he and Obi-Wan stop an assassination attempt on Padme’s life.
After the assassin is killed during their interrogation, Obi-Wan decides to follow up on a lead, while Anakin is selected by the Jedi Council to protect Padme. How the Jedi remain oblivious to Anakin’s blatantly telegraphed attraction/lust towards Padme is a bad judgement call that never pays off.
There is no sign of the “good friend” that an older Obi-Wan once referred to here, as Anakin tantrums like a small child, continually criticing his master all while leering at Padme to the point where she expresses her discomfort of him. His behavior is a major red flag, and yet somehow, inexplicably, they “fall” for each other. Not because chemistry allowed it to happen like the relationship between Han Solo and Leia Organa, but because the plot demanded it.
In the meantime, Obi-Wan travels to the water planet of Kamino, where he finds a pre-authorized clone army established based off the template of the bounty hunter, Jango Fett, that he deduces to be involved in Padme’s earlier assassination attempt. To complicate matters more, the clone army was commissioned by another Jedi for a war that they are presently not fighting.
So Obi-Wan tangles with both Jango Fett and a kid Boba Fett (who primarily chortles evilly at everything), in a space battle before following him to the Geonosis planet.
Elsewhere, the “romance” between Anakin and Padme is interrupted by visions Anakin is having about his mother still on Tatooine. I understand the lack of possession, but the Jedi never bothered to do any sort of courtesy check-up on a slave that once helped them? Regardless, Anakin’s mother is held captive and killed by a group of Tusken Raiders that once Anakin discovers this, goes on a full murder spree of the entire camp. He later tells Padme this, confiding that he killed even the women and children, and still this is not enough red flags thrown up on this unstable person to prevent Padme from falling in “love” with him.
Obi-Wan is captured on Geonosis, and Anakin and Padme (with R2-D2 and now C-3PO in tow, because the plot demanded it) go to rescue him. They too are captured and are all sent to a battle arena. On Coruscant, Jar Jar Binks nominates to the senate that Palpatine be granted full, total emergency powers, effectively creating the beginning of the Empire.
Somehow, Padme decides this is a fantastic time to tell Anakin that she completely and totally loves him. Anakin seems just as surprised as the audience does.
Also the Clone Wars begin, with no Jedi or Republic member having a problem or even raising questions about utilizing a secret reserve army based off of a bounty hunter in service of the opposing Separatist army.
The history of the Clone Wars started as an intriguing aside during a conversation between Obi-Wan and Luke in Episode IV, tantalizing viewers with some incredible conflict that occurred in an earlier time, and holding promise of being realized on screen. That doesn’t happen here. We see all of 10 minutes of it. And it looks like a murky video game.
Christopher Lee (as Count Dooku) takes on the hero Jedi. Anakin makes more poor decisions and loses an arm to parallel Luke’s loss in Empire Strikes Back. CG Yoda shows up for the most notable fight of the film. Despite everything that’s taken place during the events of the film, Anakin and Padme get married.
Because the plot demanded it.
There’s a lot that doesn’t work in Attack of the Clones, namely the feel that check boxes are being ticked off to cover bases in setting up Darth Vader’s “birth”, and the biggest crux of this is the romance plot. No one looks comfortable in delivering dialogue. Hayden Christensen and Natalie Portman in particular are stifled by this verbal albatross, and if they aren’t feeling it, neither will the audience.
The other problem is that Anakin’s character needs to generate sympathy. His eventual downfall needs to feel like a tragic loss. Whereas Phantom Menace failed to allude to anything being amiss about Anakin, Clones overcompensates by making him murderous, disloyal, and lustful. And the other characters look past all of this without consequence.
The only way to see the events of the Clone Wars unfold is through the six-season animated series, which I highly recommend (but not the theatrical release, as Ziro the Hutt is a ghastly and stereotyped parody). Clone Wars not only shows the events of the war unfold, but gives the characters stronger dialogue and motivations.
The series shows Anakin’s weaknesses in detail: Being unable to let go of relationships and possessions, his recognition and fearful internal struggle over his anger and losing control, the seeds of doubt and dissention planted into him by Palpatine, and the physical and mental toll of the war.
In contrast, however, Anakin also is shown as heroic (though cocky), competent, and willing to risk everything to ensure the protection and safety of his friends. Anakin’s relationships are presented better. You believe that he and Obi-Wan are long-time friends, and that Padme and Anakin have a devoted (though secret) relationship. These ranges and arcs are what Attack of the Clones sorely lacks.
Clone Wars even allows Darth Maul to return as a far more compelling and menacing villain. The show was cancelled before all of its storylines were concluded, though later addressed in Rebels.
Attack of the Clones is the weakest of the Star Wars films largely for unrealized concepts and lost chances. As good as the Clone Wars series is, you can’t expect or rely on the audience to explore expanded concepts outside of the film to make sense of the overall story.