Celebrating 20 years of Attack of the Clones, the most Star Wars-y Star Wars of them all

Attack of the Clones is my favorite Star Wars movie. Not ironic! Not a joke! This one truly has it all when it comes to the spirit of George Lucas’s saga, and when I get the urge to watch the most Star Wars-y of the Star Wars movies, it’s AOTC that I revisit.

There’s Hammer Horror ghouls and pageantry, helmed by Dracula himself Christopher Lee. There’s Sam Jackson strutting like a badass with a purple (!) lightsaber. Ray Harryhausen beasts, gladiator arena spectacle, space diners, Jango Fett, more Jedi than ever seen on screen before or since, Yoda flips, and so much more.

Begun, the Clone Wars have! This was it. The stuff we had always envisioned existing behind the mysterious crawl text of EPISODE IV…this was the legends coming to life.

The digital future of 2002

My affection for AOTC was an evolution. I saw it opening day in a posh theater outside of Phoenix. I made the hours-long trek across the desert wilderness from northern Arizona just to see Episode 2 on a then-rare digital projection system. This random theater in Scottsdale just happened to be one of a select handful of theaters across the country that would be rolling out this cutting-edge technology, showing the latest Star Wars not on reels of 35mm film but instead as a stream of ones and zeroes cascading off a hard drive. It all felt very futuristic then, today’s it’s the status quo and 35mm projection is the stuff of arthouses and film festivals.

The elite VIP bonus of seeing AOTC on a digital screen- an added shot of Anakin’s robotic arm during the wedding scene with Padme. The shot lasts about a second and was later replaced on DVD and home releases. But it felt pretty elite at the time.

AOTC was a lot to take in on the first viewing. I enjoyed it but wasn’t initially blown away. I feel like at the time we were collectively mapping the prequel entries against their original trilogy counterparts, which pitted Clones up against the venerable Empire Strikes Back. It’s a tall order to try to match the fire of peak Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher, the mastery of Frank Oz’s Yoda, and the most famous parentage reveal in cinematic history. Instead, with Episode 2002 in May 2002 we were met with strangely scoreless asteroid chases with depth charge bombs, Jango Fett fights on rain-soaked Kamino, and the sweeping War and Peace style political melodrama of a Republic falling apart.

Seeing AOTC in Arizona was a strange pairing of surreal experiences, with the third act battle scene on the desert planet of Geonosis eerily matching the dusty environment I found myself in. As a lost and transient New Englander roaming the deserts of the West, the strangeness of AOTC’s exotic locales felt a lot like the strangeness outside the theater doors. The galaxy in pivotal changing motions also felt a lot like my life, undergoing those radical kinds of evolutions that happen as you rocket through your early 20s.

Happy 20th, king

Star Wars DVDs were an event

I really fell in love with AOTC on DVD. It landed that fall, and by then I was back on the East Coast living in Florida with my grandpa. This was the age of Windows XP multimedia computers, DVD drives, and the heyday of the Web 1.0 at its best. I read and commented in endless Star Wars discourse on sites like aintitcoolnews.com and theforce.net on a daily basis. A Star Wars movie on DVD was rare then as well. It took years for The Phantom Menace to be released, but when it finally did arrive it set a new benchmark for DVD content. There were hours of behind the scenes content, making-of documentaries, still galleries, trailers, easter eggs, and more. The Attack of the Clones release followed suit, and provided a ton of extras, making it a fascinating DVD format experience beyond the film itself. So, it was in the this context of the white-hot glory days of DVD that I found myself routinely popping in the AOTC discs, either to check out this extra content, listen to a commentary, or just have the film on in the background as I did work around the house.

It was through these repeat views that Clones really opened up for me. There was Christopher Lee sharing the screen with Samuel L. Jackson. Ewan McGregor on the saber dart noir beat like and really growing into the Obi-Wan role. And yes, even the much-maligned Hayden Christensen began to grow on me as I understood his character and performance more and more- here was a child ripped from his home, thrust into a cold and uncaring world of political manipulation in the urban center of the galaxy.

Days of Prequels Past

What strikes me about AOTC is that it really matches up with this ethereal idea of “before A New Hope” that I carried in my mind since childhood. Growing up with Star Wars as a VHS experience in the pre-Internet days, I was confused by the “Episode IV” tag at the start of A New Hope. Where were 1, 2, and 3? I searched my local video store, and alas, no such tapes on the wall. Now, here it was- the Clone Wars, strange Counts and ancient duels, the heartbreaking tragedy of Anakin and Padme, love across the stars as Republics fell and Empires rose to take their place.

Then there’s Dex, the gregarious four-armed diner owner. A droid factory scene of conveyer belt madness. Head-swapping C3P0 ridiculousness. A rousing Death Star hologram cameo. Wizard of Oz throwbacks. Yoda saber fights. Sand and hatred thereof. Splendor in the grass of Naboo. Lars Homestead. Broken down Watto. And on and on and on.

The main thing for me is how simultaneously momentous and personal the story of AOTC is. Lucas is telling a story tectonic scale, with the entire bedrock foundations of a peaceful democracy being subtly poked, prodded, and divided until the whole thing comes crashing down in violent upheaval. But with all this happening, our focus remains on young and frustrated Anakin, a perplexed and tested Obi-Wan, and an idealistic Senator Amidala. In their own way, all 3 showcase the naive status quo of the Republic and are blinded to what’s about to happen.

I really love that AOTC has a classic third act. Like a knock it out of the stratosphere into orbit kind of third act. The film is a slow, noirish boil plus a kind of period-piece love story for most of its runtime. But in act three, our 3 heroes collide on Geonosis and literally all hell breaks loose. The showdown on Geonosis is for me the new centerpiece of the Star Wars saga. It’s the fulcrum point from which everything before or after hinges. There was before Geonosis, and there was after. Begun, the Clone Wars had.

That’s the other element that boosted AOTC and its importance in my eyes- the Clone Wars TV show. With this show, Lucas expanded the prequel concepts in more detail and gave even more dimension and life to Obi-Wan, Anakin, and Padme. After a few seasons of the show, suddenly AOTC wasn’t just some prequel, it was the epic start of the defining chapter in Star Wars. Taken together, Episodes 2, the Clone Wars show, and Episode 3 form an incredible saga on its own.

Attack of Clones to me really represents everything George Lucas was trying to say with Star Wars. It’s an incredible, kaleidoscopic blend of Flash Gordon serials, 1930s movies, creatures and effects, and unbridled creativity brought to life through innovative technology. It seems impossible that the same amount of time between 1977’s Star Wars and the 1997 Special Editions has now passed between Attack of the Clones and today. Time is a flat circle, etc etc. Looking back on it now, Attack of the Clones was the beginning of so much. It’s fitting that just next week an Obi-Wan Kenobi show will debut on Disney+, featuring Ewan and Hayden. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Happy 20th to AOTC! My, how you’ve grown.

The author sporting a prized vintage 2002 Attack of the Clones t-shirt.