Full disclosure, this post was inspired by Belated Media’s fantastic video, “What if Star Wars: Episode 1 was good?” If you haven’t already seen it, it has about 1.2 million views (so you’re probably the only one). Go check it out. After mine, before mine, whatever. Just watch both (or neither).
Ok, so I have this killer headline “How Star Wars Episode II could’ve saved everything”. What follows are my thoughts on how a few changes to the story and structure of Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones could have salvaged the film, the prequel trilogy, and even re-invigorated the Star Wars franchise. (No small feat, I realize.)
I think it’s fair to say at this time that the prequel trilogy falls short not only for fans of the series, but for casual moviegoers as well, people who don’t know the difference between an AT-AT and an AT-ST walker, couldn’t care less about midi-chlorians and whose eyes glaze over when you mention Han shoots first. But it didn’t need to be this way. There are a few but significant changes in the structure and story of Episode II that could’ve transformed the Star Wars into the most ambitious saga to ever grace the cinema screens–instead of one really great trilogy, followed by a not so great trilogy, and ending with serious hope for the future (no pressure J.J.). People have already mentioned ways of cutting the movie to make it better—removing the droid factory scene on Geonosis, removing much of the coliseum battle, but there’s a larger, more fundamental problem with the movie, a giant missed opportunity, that no amount of trimming can fix.
First of all, as has been repeated countless times for over a decade, we don’t care about the characters. We start off with Obi-wan and Anakin already antagonistic towards each other. From the first lines they’re bickering. Not exactly indications of a strong friendship, it’s more like rejected lines between C-3PO and R2-D2 from the original trilogy. The antagonism shouldn’t have been introduced in their first scene. The scene should’ve been about Anakin being smitten by Padme. He shouldn’t start off fantasizing about her, he should’ve been introduced as the noble padawan on his way to becoming a valiant Jedi Knight. Padme should have been the kink in his armour, his fatal flaw, what the Greeks referred to as hamartia. That should have been the topic of Obi-wan and Anakin’s first dialogue. So that when we finally are reintroduced to Padme, she’s given something to do in the script that makes the audience understand why Anakin would be attracted to her. Instead, George relies on the dramatically inert tell and not show method of screenwriting. We’re constantly told that he loves her, but he never shows any actions to indicate it, nor does she ever perform any action for us to believe a Jedi would throw away his promising career for her.
The opening chase scene is too long for no reason. Compare this scene to another famous chase scene, The French Connection. It lasts about 7 minutes, and it’s basically a stunt man driving from one end of the street to the other. But it’s one of the most famous chases in cinema history. It’s not just because it was one of the first, it’s also and mainly because of what the chase tells us about this unique character. He’s risking life and limb, crashing through the dense, populated city street, putting his own and everybody else’s life at jeopardy. But it doesn’t matter. Because Popeye gets his man no matter what the collateral! George should’ve asked himself what he wanted us to get out of this scene. If you want to show Anakin as a rebellious renegade who goes against Obi-wan’s orders, don’t have him act like a whiny brat in the scene before, have him go full on Dark Knight in this scene. Have him busting through barriers, and blowing ships out of the way, causing collateral damage and misusing the force to get his mark (which would have also been a great way to introduce the force visually and kinetically in this film). Then, the aftermath of this gives Anakin and Obi-wan something to fight about in the next scene, something that the audience knows about, not some vague encounter with a nest of gundarks. The chase could be any length you wanted at that point, and it would still have meaning. And we would learn so much about these characters and, more importantly, about the dynamics of their relationships with one another, from this one action scene. And then, if George had set up Anakin as a noble padawan before, he could then have had Anakin try and figure out why he’d lost control in that scene, thereby hinting at feelings building towards Padme, and also suggesting a darker Anakin lurking within our supposedly white knight. Because Anakin spends far too much time expressing his feelings. Not only does it go back to that “Show, Don’t Tell” story mechanic, it doesn’t make sense within the logic of the Jedi universe. If they’re supposed to be emotionless monks, wouldn’t Obi-wan be immediately tipped off to the fact that Anakin is always not only expressing himself, but has wildly uncontrollable and erratic feelings? You can’t just have these people say and do things in a vacuum just because you’ve got a basic plot point, “Anakin must love Padme”.
Because we’re never given a reason to even understand why Padme should care about Anakin. She says it herself: his stares make her feel uncomfortable. His grin afterwards just makes him creepy. He’s also rude and impulsive with her. So instead of the fallen Jedi warrior of prophecy, George Lucas reveals Anakin Skywalker to be nothing more than a whining voyeur. If that’s his intent, fine, go for it George. But make Obi-wan the hero, and use this trilogy to peel back the myth surrounding Anakin’s supposed goodness. This tactic worked brilliantly for Amadeus, and the same dynamic could have been applied to this film. Have a foil for Anakin, and perhaps even another for Obi-wan. Have another highly trained apprentice, with cells of the highest midi-chlorian count since Anakin. This would give some much needed rivalry to Anakin, someone other than Obi-wan to interact with, and he could have even joined Anakin on the escort mission with Padme, a constant reminder of Anakin’s ties to the Jedi, and given a much needed reason for the secrecy of Anakin and Padme’s relationship (as it stands, it’s curious that the pair are so paranoid, as if the Jedi were a totalitarian Big Brother policing the galaxy). Either this hypothetical character or Anakin (or even both if the script was careful enough to distinguish them) could have functioned as the Amadeus type, and so their arrogance would have stemmed from their lack of empathy and care for how the magnitude of their powers made others feel. Consider Matt Damon’s character in Good Will Hunting, at one point he has the brightest mathematician on his knees wishing that he’d never met Will, so awesome is his genius, and so brutally low the depths of his arrogance. At the same time however, the figures in both Amadeus and Good Will Hunting don’t mesh with what Lucas established in the original trilogy. Anakin was set up as a good soul corrupted absolutely by power. He needed to be a paragon of virtue, a sort of Lucifer before the fall, making his tragic fall to the dark side all the more tragic. Nolan managed this to brilliant effect with his cinematic rendition of Harvey Dent in The Dark Knight. He doesn’t waste time suggesting Dent has evil within him, instead, he depicts Dent as a the moral centre of The Dark Knight universe. Batman is the moral grey area, and its this understanding by Bruce that leads him to hope Batman can be replaced by a better symbol. So when the joker destroys that symbol of hope so effectively, Nolan demonstrates not only the supreme depths of the Joker’s villainy, he makes a frightening statement on the nature of the human soul. Namely, how fragile it can be. Which is what Lucas could have done, what he seemed to be hinting at with the original trilogy, but instead he bogs his prequel trilogy down in prophecy and spiritual mumbo-jumbo.
Too often then characters whine to each other about their feelings. Obi-wan complains about Anakin to Yoda and Windu, rather than being provided actions that would have let us know he was concerned (like that chase we never really got). Anakin complains to Padme about Obi-wan, calling him “overly critical”. But then, when has Obi-wan been overly critical this entire movie? Don’t forget, we haven’t seen these people in about a decade, so we know nothing of their dynamic. The only thing we can know is what Lucas shows us. And so far he’s shown only fleeting glimpses of Obi-wan being critical. But even then they’re delivered by actor Ewan McGregor with a sense of respect and affection for Anakin. If that is what Anakin considers overly critical I’m beginning to worry that he’s just a crazy, overly sensitive child with PMS–not exactly a compelling character for a trilogy, much less as the basis for an entire saga–and there are still reams of issues to confront!
On that same note of “Show, Don’t Tell”: force Anakin to deal with consequences for his actions. His lust for power would have been better served as an extension of the idea that he is the Chosen One. That way, the film wouldn’t need to keep reminding us that he’s the Chosen One, we could deduce as much from Anakin’s training, which the film never demonstrates in any significant way, merely leaves Obi-wan to bemoan its state. Anakin is left with little more to do than simply parrot his lust for power without ever actually trying to get more power in any way. If that’s the goal of this character, it should factor into the plot in a major way. Consider the original trilogy. Luke wanted to become a famed pilot. He got much more than he bargained for, and accomplished his goal. Han Solo wanted riches, he got much more than he bargained for, and accomplish his goal. Leia wanted freedom… do you see a pattern forming here? In this movie, we have no idea who wants want. Ok, Anakin wants Padme, why we’re never sure. Padme wants Anakin to leave her alone. And Obi-wan wants to…. find… a man? It’s all just so muddled and they have to keep constantly telling us what they want because they actually don’t know. So, getting back to what Anakin wants. Have him want to become the best Jedi. So that way, when he decides to go save his mother, it’s only because he can’t get her to shut up in his head. So his reasons for doing this seemingly crazy and altruistic gesture towards his mother, we learn are for selfish, power-hungry reasons. That’s dark. That’s evil. That’s Darth Vader. Then, all of that relates to that prophecy because he can explain at this point, just for the sake of cluing us in, that he wants more power because he thinks he’s owed it or needs it. Whatever reason you want George. You kind of hint at it with wanting more power to keep people from dying, but at this point it doesn’t really make sense, because he seems to hate Obi-wan, just wants to bang Padme, and the only other person of consequence in his life, just got gang-raped by a bunch of scruffy looking nerf herders. Who’s he trying to save, Jar Jar?
There could have been an intriguing irony to watching someone trying to fulfill their potential causing their own downfall. The idea would have been brought to its completion by Anakin’s actions in Episode 3, where by trying to save Padme from death he ironically causes it, and his own destruction. We would’ve had a compelling theme narrative streaming along the trilogy; it would’ve rewarded successive viewings—to watch how one man fell from grace, rather than to be constantly told that’s exactly what happened. This way would have been an organic, demonstrative process rather than George constantly telling us the plot.
Anakin’s power trip could also have been fueled by his relationship with Obi-wan. The biggest problem with the character dynamic in this film is that it’s never clear. Are Obi and Anakin supposed to be in a tutor-disciple type relationship, or a bromance? For example, the very next scene after he meets Padme for the first time in years, he’s already talking to Obi-wan like they’re college roommates (albeit with degrees in poetic expression). If they’d made it more of a father-son type relationship, albeit unspoken (there’s already way too much talking about relationships in this movie), then it would have also been compelling to watch Anakin try to live up to this seemingly impossible ideal set up by the prophecy. Likewise, Obi-wan could have been overwhelmed by the knowledge that he was training the messiah of the force. And this pressure got to him. So Obi-wan’s fear about Anakin that he expresses in confidence with Yoda and Windu could’ve been phrased along the lines of Obi-wan fearful that he was failing in some way. But he takes absolutely no responsibility for it. The gesture makes Obi-wan seem weak, and incapable of handling even a padawan. Why would the council continue to allow him to train Anakin if he’s admitting that he’s doing such a terrible job? Why not have Obi-wan’s goal in this movie be to live up to the promise he made to Qui-Gon in the first movie, that he would train Anakin to the best of his abilities? Then there would’ve been some interesting story arcs, as Obi-wan has to juggle his mission with his duty to Anakin’s education.
On the subject of his education, they could have introduced this plot mechanic with the Jedi trials mentioned in the first movie. It’s not so far-fetched, Anakin seems to be at the same age as Obi-wan in the first movie, and at that age Obi-wan was being recommended for the Jedi trials, why couldn’t the same mechanic have been carried over to Anakin’s situation? The movie could have started with Anakin failing the trials, and immediately the whole prophecy is in danger. “The chosen one can’t pass the trials?” They ask, “Is Obi-wan fit to teach him?” Anakin’s frustration with Obi-wan’s teaching methods would have been entirely justified and vindicated by an opening scene that could have delved even further into the realm of the force and the Jedi order. Obi-wan and Anakin would have then had some real reasons to be antagonistic towards each other.
The absence of a strong father-figure would have been amplified by Anakin’s immersion in a culture filled with fatherless figures, Obi-wan among them and who’s only father figure, Qui-Gon, was murdered before him. In a moment which would have paralleled or perhaps even foreshadowed Anakin’s actions with the Sand People, we as an audience could have been reminded, and Anakin could have learned for the first time that Obi-wan killed Darth Maul out of revenge. This history—and dynamic—would have been a powerful contrast to the importance Anakin’s mother plays in his journey.
There’s nothing driving these any of these scenes because there’s no impetus behind any of them. Take the romance scenes, which stop the movie dead because they feel entirely lifted out of another movie. They’re fleeing for their lives but they still have time to stop for a bloody picnic? No, take a page from the Bourne franchise and have the characters constantly in jeopardy. Have their romance and dialogue build naturally from that tension. Have them running for their lives from a cunning villain who’s always two steps ahead.
That’s another problem with this film, who’s the villain supposed to be? As someone who’s watched the original trilogy, I’m aware it’s the emperor, but for people who watch the series in the order Lucas intends, I through VI, there’s almost an hour and a half before we even get a glimpse of our first puppet-master—Count Dooku. But if George had bothered to enforce the tenacity of the villains, by giving us a sort of Moriarty character who will stop at nothing to kill Padme, then by the time Dooku is finally revealed in the third act, we understand the sadistic and unstoppable nature of this villain. Because as it stands, we get two attempts, and then it’s like the film forgets that the original plot was trying to kill Padme. Did the villains just stop caring about their masterful, dastardly plans? If Dooku had been hunting the pair the entire movie his entrance would have made for an important reveal. As an audience of the original trilogy, we would have been expecting the Emperor from the beginning, and Lucas could have teased us with this possibility (a sort of wink to the fans) while still delivering a film suitable for first time viewers. As such, when Dooku is finally revealed, the twist would have been a surprise to everybody. And then, even though we have never met this man before, we immediately know he’s a force to be reckoned with: he’s got Jango Fett on a leash, the entire Trade Federation cowers at his command, he’s built his own clone army, he’s spent the whole movie trying to kill Padme. He means business! So now when he captures Obi-wan there’s genuine tension in the scene. We’re afraid for him: we know what Dooku is capable of but no idea what he’s planning. The scene could have even taken on a suggestion that Dooku might have wanted to seduce him to the Dark Side, which would have been an interesting parallel to the Emperor scene in the sixth movie, and just reinforcing once again how the Sith are always on the prowl for power. And so Dooku’s acknowledgment that Obi-wan was worthy enough to take the place of disciple would have not only harkened back to the Anakin’s failed trials and anxiety over the quality of his master, but would give us a glimpse of Obi-wan being tested with the opportunity for unlimited power as a disciple of Dooku. When it is revealed Dooku was the master of Qui-Gon the father figure trope would have returned with a vengeance and we would’ve had a better understanding of the seductive power of the Dark Side. We would immediately understand (without Yoda having to preach) that people choose the Dark Side because it fulfills a need, and then we would understand that’s why the Jedi are so against their disciples having any needs, it’s not just because they’re squares, it’s because it gives an opening for the Dark Side to take over. So now, in light of this, the scene cuts before we ever learn Obi-wan’s decision, and we’re concerned that maybe he’s broken, and turned to the Dark Side. Maybe the pressure of training the Chosen One proved too much, and he’s been convinced that the only way to make Anakin the ultimate Jedi is by rounding out his education with the Dark Side (something which the Emperor alludes to in the third movie). But of course, we know he’s not going to turn to the Dark Side (and not just because we’ve seen episodes IV through VI). Nevertheless, when he demonstrates his resolve not to turn it strengthens our understanding of his character. We understand that he’s an ultimate source of good, and he realises with his triumph that yes, he is the perfect teacher for Anakin. So he’s accomplished his goal for the movie.
Then, at the end of the movie, when the person we initially assumed to be the most powerful badass in the universe, Dooku, is actually only the apprentice of the mysterious Sith figure from the first movie, we’re left begging for the third movie to come out so we can see just how evil this man is, and to discover how crazy things are going to get for our characters. If they barely survived this movie, what’s going to happen next? Don’t forget, if we had never seen the original trilogy, we would have no idea what his power is, or indeed even who or what he is. George may say he intends the movies to be watched I through VI, but just look at how he introduces the Emperor character in the first trilogy compared to the prequel trilogy. It’s as if he’s expecting you to know based on the last three movies that the Emperor is bad.
Also at the end of this movie, we could have learned from Dooku and the Emperor’s dialogue that the Emperor was actually the one trying to kill Padme all along—because he knew it would get Anakin and her together, and he wanted nothing more than Anakin back on Coruscant so he could keep tabs on him. This would have also explained why the Emperor killed the decoy by mistake. Of course he knew she used a decoy, he was present for the first movie. Nute Gunray knew it too. No, the Emperor never fails, he did it on purpose. And then he continues to try and kill Padme because he knows how much she means to Anakin. He simultaneously brings the pair together just so he can rip them apart and break Anakin’s heart. He takes Anakin to the breaking point of his ideals in order to protect Padme, and by the end of the film Anakin is driven to take his vengeance against Dooku and thereby convert him to the Dark Side. It would simultaneously explain why a novice like Anakin would be given this assignment (which itself would have demonstrated the extent of Palpatine’s power over the Jedi), and would’ve helped to explain why a clone army was created more than ten years ago. Lucas should have pushed that number back even further. Make it uncannily reminiscent of Anakin’s age. Then, when the emperor has his unusual monologue in the third movie where he talks about manipulating midi-chlorians to create life, suddenly the entirety of Episode II and that brief mention of Anakin having no father in Episode I makes total sense. There’s a better reason now why it’s now called “Attack of the Clones”. In a startling instant that would have rivaled Vader’s reveal in Episode V, we would most likely gasp when we realized that the Emperor had cloned and raised his perfect disciple in a master strategy covering Anakin’s entire lifespan. It would have been an eerie echo to the clone army he also had assembled. And what better leader of a clone army than a clone of himself. And suddenly all that pseudo-scientific babble about midi-chlorians from Episode I has an unbelievable purpose to the entire saga.
This revelation, by the way, could have been the deciding moment in the third film, the beginning of the end for Anakin. The question that he would have to grapple with for the rest of the film would become whether it is in his nature to be evil. Is he determined by his maker to be damned? Or does he still have a choice? Then, his redemption in episode 6 would’ve extended beyond merely one man’s redemption, but that of human nature. Made all the more powerful by Luke’s subsequent rejection of the same fate that befell his father, the Emperor’s clone. It would have been a positive statement on our power to choose who we will become. More than our past, or even some all powerful force controlling our destinies, it’s free will that represents the ultimate power in the universe. More than any Jedi, or Sith, or technological terror, it would all be insignificant next to the power of the force of our will.
It’s like Lucas went for the most obvious parallels, without ever addressing or even noticing the ones that mattered. For that, and all the reasons I’ve mentioned, Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones is a missed opportunity.
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