The Dark Side Clouds Everything: The Thorny Diplomacy of Attack of the Clones

In 2002, Americans continued to be in shock after the events of September 11th. The War on Terror was still in its early stages and the march to the invasion of Iraq was right around the corner. The unity that a terrorist attack like 9/11 inspired quickly turned to unfocused outrage, both on institutional and individual levels. For the most part, the entertainment that permeated the year of 2002 was the result of a production process that predated 9/11. This contrast of a hazy present with a slightly out-of-touch, upbeat past makes studying this specific era of time obscurely fascinating. The halls of Washington, D.C. and Hollywood were simultaneously doubling down on uncertain solutions to evolved problems haunting the opening years of the twenty first century. For D.C., this meant involving the U.S. (and by extension the West) in ill-conceived wars that failed to deliver concrete missions or end dates. For Hollywood, a renewed reliance of blockbusters (no doubt fueled by the spectacle based filmmaking of the 1990s) continued to stress the scale offered by cinema in a world increasingly interested in the small screen[1] and all that it entailed. The dominance of science fiction, fantasy, and spandex results in the inevitable box office successes of such films as The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, and Spider-Man.

As I said earlier, even though these large scale movies origins’ predate 9/11, it would be foolish to outright dismiss any connection between that event and the entertainment that followed it. The tonal difference between reality and fiction itself expose how we perceive of ourselves and react to the greater world around us. One film, however, that bridges that divide to an unparalleled degree is Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones. The middle act of George Lucas’s reviled prequel trilogy debuted in May of 2002, three years after his opening salvo The Phantom Menace. This middle chapter further bridges the gap between the previous film and the status quo that opens the Original Trilogy, as the galaxy now finds itself on either side of the Clone Wars[2], a conflict between the Galactic Republic and the newly established Confederation of Independent Systems (CIS). Anyone who griped at the presence of intricate, time consuming politics in The Phantom Menace where undoubtedly disappointed on an even further exploration of it in Attack of the Clones. Of the three prequel films, Attack of the Clones brings politics the most to the forefront, filling as many (if not more) scenes of policy discourse than ones of hyperspace jumps, blaster battles, and space dogfights. In some ways, this emphasis on diplomatic philosophies compliments the spiritual aspects of the Force, making the Star Wars universe all the richer. Conversely, the minimizing of characterization in favor of a busy, heavy handed plot leaves Attack of the Clones feeling like a relatively hollow experience.

The opening crawl of Attack of the Clones speeds us up-to-date on the state of affairs throughout the galaxy. Debates over the Republic’s level of jurisdiction have left some systems fleeing to the side of the Separatists.[3] The invasion of Naboo by the Trade Federation in The Phantom Menace is continuing to open up questions about the interactions of planets, corporate entities, and the greater universal context to their relations.[4] The film opens with the failed assassination attempt of Padme Amidala (Natalie Portman) upon her arrival to Coruscant, the Republic’s capital. Padme brings up to Chancellor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid), along with a group of diplomats and Jedi, that she believes Count Dooku (Christopher Lee) is behind the plot. They dismiss such an action as out of character for the fallen Jedi Knight, citing Dooku’s record as a “political idealist” and faulty intelligence that the attack came from disgruntled spice miners from Naboo.

Star-Wars-Attack-of-the-Clones-mace-windu-11841960-1600-680

This level of denial or incompetency from even the Jedi appears several times over the course of the film. Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) is dismissed by a librarian in the Jedi Archives when he contends that a planet identified by an outside source is absent from the records; she condescendingly says, “If an item does not appear in our records, it does not exist.” The lines between ignorance and deceit begin to blur as the plot of the movie progresses. The upcoming vote over the creation of a Grand Army forces an Order once confident in its capacity to police the galaxy effectively admitting that their place in the societal fabric is being challenged. Upon his discovery of the cloning facilities of Kamino, Obi-Wan inform Yoda and Mace Windu to the commissioning of a Clone Army in the name of the Republic. The two then privately confess that this situation’s presence speaks greatly to the Order’s declining capability to maintain its power. Windu says he believes the time has come for the Jedi to admit that their “ability to use the Force has diminished.” Surprisingly, Yoda shows hesitation at such a move, responding with, “Only a Dark Lord of the Sith knows of our weakness. If informed the Senate is, multiply our adversaries will.” While ultimately righteous in their aims to preserve peace throughout the Republic, the Jedi’s duplicity only gives ammunition to those who seek to discredit their claims of authority.

But it should be noted that Attack of the Clones chiefly pursues its arguments through character relationships. The most pronounced one of such is between Padme and Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen). The star-crossed lovers reunite a decade after the events of The Phantom Menace when the Jedi apprentice is tasked with protecting the former queen (now senator) of Naboo. After the assassination attempt nearly kills Amidala, the Jedi assign Anakin to protect the diplomat. The two love birds frolic on Padme’s native land of Naboo before returning to Anakin’s old home of Tatooine in an attempt to rescue his mother, who has been captured by the Tusken Raiders. After Anakin discovers his mother’s dying body in a Tusken encampment, he massacres the village in a move that irrevocably pushes him closer towards the dark side of the Force. Anakin and Padme then respond to Obi-Wan’s distress signal that shows him under attack from a Separatist force on the planet of Geonosis, which climaxes in the beginning of the Clone Wars.

Portman and Christensen have as much chemistry as oil and water, with one clearly rising to the top while the other sinks pathetically to the bottom.[5] Likewise, their wooden dialogue doesn’t help matters, making a relationship already existing in an otherworldly environment further entrapped in a tone deaf, pitch black vacuum. However, their political convictions make the time we spend with them (at least slightly) more bearable. Born of a privileged world, Padme fashions herself as a classical liberal who believes in due process and diplomatic solutions. She reveals that the people of Naboo were so happy with her tenure that they offered her the chance to remain as queen, which would have forced a constitutional amendment. Instead, Padme decided to dedicate the rest of her life to public service, which led to her election as senator of Naboo. Anakin, on the other hand, was able to transcend his former life of slavery on Tatooine to a distinguished one within the Jedi Order. However, Anakin frequently calls into question the teachings and methodology of the clan. He promises to become one of the most powerful Jedi in history who will be able to stop people from dying. These arrogant assertions would hardly qualify as model Jedi material.

The two are consumed by the red-tape that their respective bureaucracies (The Galactic Senate and the Jedi Order) demand but their responses draw the fissure between them. Padme stays committed to stopping conflict through negotiations and reason, with her frustrations chiefly lying in ineptitude or inaction. Anakin has similar irritations but lashes out with feelings of vanity and loathing, both towards himself and those around him. When the pair discusses how to make government a more efficient system, Anakin says politicians “should be made to” agree on what’s in the best interest of the people, in effect an empty “for the greater good” argument. After Padme points out that such a position sounds a bit too close to a dictatorship, he just grins and says “well, if it works.” Padme just laughs off these opinions are naïve, unaware that her lover will come to be one of the most feared tyrants in the galaxy.

While it is the romance of Padme and Anakin that move the emotional beats of the story along, an underutilized connection between Dooku and Obi-Wan make for an intriguing aside. Dooku was the former master of Qui-Gon Jinn, Obi-Wan’s old master. The absence of Qui-Gon in these intervening years surely left Obi-Wan (a young Jedi thrust into the role of master just shortly after becoming a knight) looking for a father figure willing to guide him on his journey through the Force. However, it’s improbable Dooku would’ve been a good fit for Obi-Wan, as the former maintains a streak of brashness and rebellion that the latter, more balanced Jedi called into question with his own master in The Phantom Menace. Dooku seems to think that he can convince the younger Jedi to join the Separatist cause. Following Obi-Wan’s capture at the hands of the Geonosians, Dooku lies to the Jedi about his own loyalties and intentions.[6] The apprehended Obi-Wan sees right through Dooku’s fabricated version of events. In an era of ever-changing allegiances and shady endgames, Obi-Wan’s standing with the Force never wavers.

So now, let’s return to the question people remembering my longwinded introduction are no doubt currently asking: what the heck does Obi-Wan’s rejection of Dooku have to do with the War on Terror? In all probability, not a whole lot. I must reiterate that Lucas’s initial plans for the prequel trilogy exist as far back as the mid-1970s, when Lucas used the Watergate-laden, Vietnam informed politics of that era to craft a simple space adventure that few thought would survive its own production, much less the brutal weathering of time. On the other end of monumental success, Lucas chose to tell a story with the prequel trilogy that used his earlier template for fast-paced, planet hopping entertainment that spoke to more contemporary concerns of corporate influence, deceitful institutions, and uncooperative dialogue. Even the unexpected move of letting Jar Jar Binks (a backwoods hick who happened to be at the right place at the right time) be the one who granted immediate, emergency powers to a monolithic force like the Republic feels like an oddly prescient movie by the filmmaker. Perhaps the most alarming aspect of the prequels is that in them, Lucas happened to casually imagine a series of constricting worlds that we were in the process of creating.

sandcrawler

[1] A la The Sopranos and ever present red ticker tapes on CNN.

[2] Which you will recall Obi-Wan mentions briefly in A New Hope.

[3] It should be noted that Dooku’s meeting on Geonosis is almost exclusively attended by business leaders and corporate hacks looking to advance their own goals that may run counter to the Republic’s desires for stability.

[4] An early meeting on Naboo reveals that after four trials in the Supreme Court Newt Gunray is still viceroy of the Trade Federation, proving that even in the space opera lands of Star Wars money talks and BS takes the Sandcrawler.

[5] Many (rightfully) point to the “I don’t like sand” scene but it is these two scenes that are most representative of the failures of their romance.

[6] Considering that Dooku doesn’t appear until deep into the second act, Lucas missed the opportunity to have a cool reveal that Dooku is actually a misunderstood activist who has seen the true nature of the Republic and the Jedi. You could argue this is sort of going on but Dooku’s ominousness, along with our awareness of the greater plot, make these arguments from the Count automatically moot. Again, it’s these films narrowly missing the mark conceptually that make them all the more frustrating.

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