Cast your mind back 13 years, to May 16, 2002, and the release of Star Wars: Episode II Attack of the Clones. We were in a strikingly different place to where we are right now, both in terms of cinema and the saga itself. Digital cinema was on the cusp of arriving and the return of 3D was still over half a decade away.
A torrent of franchises were making big bucks at the box office. Harry Potter was preparing to enter the Chamber of Secrets while Spider-Man was ready to swing across New York for the first time. The members of the Fellowship of the Ring were heading towards Mordor, about to encounter the The Two Towers while Star Trek Nemesis was about to falter at the box office. And, after the box office success but critical backlash of The Phantom Menace three years before, Attack of the Clones was about to throw us back into the galaxy far, far away…
But what did the critics of the time make of the second Star Wars prequel? Did they embrace this vast, interconnecting epic story George Lucas was trying to tell, or did they miss the point? As ever it’s a mixed bag.
Harry Knowles at Ain’t It Cool was effusive in his praise for the film. A lifelong Star Wars fan, he clearly understood the tone and style Lucas was shooting for.
“I showed up and got in line. Saw the folks in costume… A fellow from Chicago in Jedi robes was first in line and he was… moderately enthused about seeing the film…. Well, actually he was jazzed in the unable to stay still sort of way. Constantly pacing. Constantly looking around, the pressure of having stayed completely spoiler free on his brow. Looking at me, he sees answers, temptation… evil. Here, in the final hours, he faces his greatest danger… He comes over to show he has no fear. I saw his face, he was a word from bolting. ‘R2 is pink in this one!'”
Shades of the Imperial droid with a heart of Gold R2-KT. Knowles continued to make an astute observation about the film, which in the past has been compared to The Maltese Falcon and Raiders of the Lost Ark and was at the time Steven Spielberg’s favorite Star Wars episode.
“This chapter of the STAR WARS saga is essentially the James Bond film to end all James Bond films. James Bond is divided into two characters. Obi Wan and Anakin. M is Yoda, who sends Obi Wan to handle the mystery of the dart and Anakin to safeguard the babe. Now contrary to 90% of the James Bond movies, M (aka Yoda) doesn’t tell Bond, ‘The guy you’ll be investigating is _____, you’ll find him at ________, your job is to ________ him and take control of _________.’ Hell, Yoda doesn’t even know that there is A) The Evil Master Plan, B) Giant Armies Massing, C) That getting the Senator off Coruscant is playing directly into the Evil guy’s hands.
And while even the most diehard fans among us acknowledge that the script is occasionally functional rather than a Whedonesque quote-fest, there are certainly some lines in Attack of the Clones that raise a wry smile.”
As Knowles states:
“Now every STAR WARS film has to have a line or two that I love. Frankly the ‘This party is over,’ line made me smile. I love the throw-down line to Yoda from Dooku… In fact just about anything Christopher Lee said makes me happy. He is just that cool. But far above the rest, my favorite line… The one I’ll quote for the remainder of my years, months, days, hours or minutes that God or my cholesterol level lets me have on this planet is:
‘I’m just a simple man, trying to make my way in the universe.'”
Knowles wraps up by noting the intelligent nature of the plot and its engrossing action scenes.
“Folks… I don’t know about you. Maybe you didn’t like this film. Personally, I can’t for a second understand that. This is the most intelligently plotted of the Star Wars films. The most viscerally exciting and thrilling of the Star Wars films. And frankly the most entertaining of the Star Wars films for me.”
Roger Ebert was less effusive in his praise for the film, although he enjoyed it, and made note of the movie’s digital format. With Lucas wanting digital projection to improve during the time of The Phantom Menace three years before, it was clear that not much had progressed by 2002.
“When it comes to the computer-generated images, I feel that I cannot entirely trust the screening experience I had. I could see that in conception many of these sequences were thrilling and inventive. I liked the planet of rain, and the vast coliseum in which the heroes battle strange alien beasts, and the towering Senate chamber, and the secret factory where clones were being manufactured.
But I felt like I had to lean with my eyes toward the screen in order to see what I was being shown. The images didn’t pop out and smack me with delight, the way they did in earlier films. There was a certain fuzziness, an indistinctness that seemed to undermine their potential power.
Later I went on the Web to look at the trailers for the movie, and was startled to see how much brighter, crisper and more colorful they seemed on my computer screen than in the theater. Although I know that video images are routinely timed to be brighter than movie images, I suspect another reason for this. Episode II was shot entirely on digital video. It is being projected in digital video on 19 screens, but on some 3,000 others, audiences will see it as I did, transferred to film.
How it looks in digital projection I cannot say, although I hope to get a chance to see it that way. I know Lucas believes it looks better than film, but then he has cast his lot with digital. My guess is that the film version of Episode II might jump more sharply from the screen in a small multiplex theater. But I saw it on the largest screen in Chicago, and my suspicion is, the density and saturation of the image were not adequate to imprint the image there in a forceful way.”
A prescient historical note which very much backs up Lucas’ desire to progress digital screening to the next level. And, watching it as I write this piece, it’s stunning to see the clarity of this 13-year-old film. It holds up amazingly well.
Over at The Hollywood Reporter, Kirk Honeycutt believes that the film is a step up from The Phantom Menace, and while he feels it doesn’t compare to the previous mid-trilogy episode The Empire Strikes Back (though to be fair, what does?) he does believe it finds its feet as the movie progresses.
“The good news about George Lucas’ new Star Wars movie is that the universally loathed Jar Jar Binks is little more than a dress extra, action scenes are pumped with lightning-quick effects and choreography, R2-D2 and C-3PO are together again for the first time, and the whole thing feels more adult than The Phantom Menace, which launched his second space-opera trilogy. The not-so-good news is that Lucas still struggles to replicate the spirit of fun and adventure of the original Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back. Those films were pure adrenaline rush. That feeling returns only near the end of Star Wars: Episode II — Attack of the Clones, during a rescue operation and climactic battle that occupies the last quarter of the film.”
Empire Magazine has long been a supporter of the Star Wars saga, and with a four-star review they too found the closing third of the film to be the most satisfying.
“Matters improve greatly in the final forty minutes: Christopher Lee’s Count Dooku arrives to provide some much needed gravitas, C-3PO turns up to do his C-3PO thing and Padme puts on a skin-tight white leotard. Best of all, Lucas finally cuts loose. The classic trilogy bristled with seat-of-your-pants filmmaking, our heroes bouncing from cliffhanger to cliffhanger, and in the final section of Episode II — almost four hours into this prequel enterprise – Lucas at last cranks up to this Saturday morning serial pace: from the Tex Avery goofiness of the droid factory, to the Cecil B. De Mille grandeur of the gladiator arena, the action never lets up.”
Peter Travers of Rolling Stone was less enthused by the film, but still found much to appreciate.
“Clones is crammed with action, grand digital design and a dark side Lucas hasn’t flaunted since 1980’s The Empire Strikes Back. Death, dismemberment, lost mommies, demon daddies and Freudian subtext.”
He also points us towards the finale of the film and the desperate foreboding it carries as the Clone Wars rages and an ill-feted union is sealed.
“Clones ends with a wedding for the future parents of Luke and Princess Leia. But it’s the glimpse of Darth Vader that Lucas gives us in Anakin — traumatized by the murder of his mother and capable of killing innocents — that reminds us of the dark power Star Wars exerted before it became a franchise.”
A good point made at the turn of the millennium era when franchises were really beginning to take purchase, something that’s only proliferated in the intervening years.
CBN were far freer in their admiration for the film, highlighting the action, effects, and audio bombast of the movie.
“Attack of the Clones has most of the fun elements true Star Wars fans look for, especially in the movies more exciting, more dynamic second half. There are incredible fight scenes, fast and fun spacecrafts swirling about, clever intergalactic battles, and every special effect in the book. In typical George Lucas style, this movie brings us numerous imaginative new creatures, several futuristic bar scenes, and incredibly detailed and realistic backgrounds for every scene all with the help of computer-generated images. Teenage boys will love the fight scenes, battle sequences and space races in the spaceships that look like sports cars, and adults will marvel at the cities in the sky, which look a lot like Times Square on steroids. The costuming and audio effects are unbeatable.”
The film also drew reviews from a variety of British newspapers, many of which greatly enjoyed the spectacle, starting with the paper I write for on their blog, The Metro.
“The Force is strong with this one, really strong. After the disappointment of Episode I – The Phantom Menace, George Lucas has come back with a film to blast the senses and reignite those childhood dreams of being a Jedi. It’s got the lot – fearsome armies, absurd aliens and lightsabre fights.”
“It is easily as good as The Empire Strikes Back and better than the original and Return of The Jedi. I don’t even have to mention The Phantom Menace. It has been three hours since I saw Attack of the Clones and I want to see it again. Now.”
The Daily Express
“Where this film shines is in the special effects, with legions of clone armies, dramatic skyship chase sequences and the most garish, yet terrifying variety of horned, fanged, six-legged alien monsters ever to grace our screens.”
London Evening Standard
“George Lucas has recovered his Force. The new Star Wars Episode II is laser light years ahead of Episode I. It is intimate and spectacular, event-packed and technology-triumphant.
Yet it supplies all the missing links we need to discover how young junior Jedi Knight Anakin, played by new Nordic pin-up Hayden Christensen, is going to turn into Darth Vader – and how Ewan McGregor as young Obi Wan Kenobi will eventually become Alec Guinness.”
The Daily Mail
“It’s the sheer scale of the storytelling that makes this PG-rated episode superior to its immediate predecessor, and then of course there’s the look of the movie. The production design is superb, with a real sense of cinematic wonder.”
Todd McCarthy writing at Variety clearly took much away from the experience, complimenting the film for being an improvement on The Phantom Menace (a film which has improved greatly with age) and for finding the balance between action, mythology, and emotion.
“The Force is back — along with fun and excitement, as well as the bonus of romance — in Star Wars: Episode II — Attack of the Clones. As if realizing that The Phantom Menace three years ago didn’t exactly deliver the goods even while racking up a staggering worldwide gross of $923 million, or perhaps just finding his directorial footing again after the 22-year layoff, George Lucas has reached deep into the trove of his self-generated mythological world to produce a grand entertainment that offers a satisfying balance among the series’ epic, narrative, technological and emotional qualities. If The Empire Strikes Back represented an advance on the original Star Wars, Clones marks a big leap beyond Menace, while also holding out the promise of a climactic installment that could be even more dramatic. Reinvigorating a series that showed signs of needing a transfusion, Clones will soar to the furthest extremes of the B.O. stratosphere.”
Attack of the Clones ultimately racked up an impressive worldwide box office tally of $649,398,328 on an $115,000,000 budget, making it the third biggest movie of the year worldwide behind The Two Towers and Spider-Man, and grabbing the third biggest opening of its time ahead of its predecessor. But that wasn’t the truest legacy of the film. The beginning of the Clone Wars led to a number of well-regarded Dark Horse series, novels, the Genndy Tartakovsy Clone Wars micro series, and ultimately Dave Filoni’s much-loved Star Wars: The Clone Wars. You could put up a strong argument that Attack of the Clones was the most influential movie of the saga. So far.
Mark has contributed to Star Wars Insider for almost a decade, is the owner of Jedi News, writes for DeAgostini’s Build The Millennium Falcon partwork magazine and co-hosts RADIO 1138. He’s an honorary member of the UK Garrison of the 501st, a friend of the Rebel Legion, and when he’s not talking, tweeting, or writing about Star Wars, he can usually be found sleeping where he’ll most likely be dreaming about Star Wars.