The beginning of Star Wars: Episode II — Attack of the Clones isn’t quite in the league of the overhead star destroyer of the original film or the bravura extended space battle take of Episode III, but it sets the scene for a moody second act. The very first shot, the traditional pan toward a planet that follows every Star Wars crawl, moves upward, toward the city planet Coruscant. We see two Naboo fighters and Amidala’s royal cruiser. (In The Phantom Menace, she flies a “yacht” and in Revenge of the Sith a”star skiff,” but they’re always silver.) I adore the deep growl of Amidala’s ship–this sound is the first thing that makes me happy to be watching this movie.
The ships begin spinning around their axes, putting the lie to our idea of up and down. By the second shot, the camera has spun too, and now we descend toward the surface of Coruscant. Right away, this introduces the theme of Attack of the Clones: nothing is what it seems. The Star Wars cycle consists of a tragic half and a comic half (otherwise known as “the prequel trilogy” and “the classic trilogy“), and Episode II is the second act of the tragic half, a time of schemes, subterfuge, and confusion.
Next, in the first of the film’s many stagy interiors that I like to enjoy as intentionally campy allusions to Flash Gordon, a person we only see from behind is addressed as Senator. This makes the first word spoken in this film a lie.
In Star Wars, everything keeps repeating, but with variations. In this case, whenever somebody’s name requires a honorific, it will be unique: Emperor, Boss, Vice-Roy, Supreme Chancellor, Hutt, Princess, what-have-you. By the same token, there are always new planets as well as new vistas of old ones: this time, Coruscant, which we’ve already seen, is covered in fog, again hitting the theme of deception and mystery. The trails left in the clouds by the tips of the cruiser’s wings please me. This shot also echoes the approach to Cloud City, in the second part of the comic half.
The following shot of the landing spaceships plays a peculiar trick on our attention: we think we’re looking at Amidala’s ship, but as it passes, we realize that we were watching the fighter flying alongside all along. And of course: here comes, announced by his signature noise, the first recognizable character in the film, the comic sidekick who knows as much as anyone in the series, the guy who has the first word in Episode IV and the last in Episode III: the real hero of the show, R2-D2. (The mindboggling first shot of Revenge of the Sith comes, after an actual kitchen sink explodes on screen, to rest on him.)
My minute and a half is about up now, but the rest of the scene continues the theme of deception and duplicity. It also caps the decoy storyline that was central to The Phantom Menace. Next to its visual imagination, the iconic success of Star Wars rests on its rigorous but inventive structuring: Lucas often begins and ends familiar stories in unpredictable ways. The belated death of Padme’s double exemplifies this Star Wars principle. For instance, Revenge of the Sith begins with what could have been the climax of Clones--much like the opening forty minutes of Return of the Jedi could have provided a more upbeat ending to The Empire Strikes Back. Each act of the two halves (which wrap around like Moebius strips) corresponds to its counterpart: Menace/Hope, Attack/Strikes Back, Revenge/Return.
My point is this: the first 90 seconds of Attack of the Clones, ominously scored by John Williams, set up the next 8430 very well. They promise more visual splendors, more games played with archetypal structure, more explosions, more tacky dialogue delivered to the hilt. Clones was the film that got me excited about Star Wars again after initial disappointment with Phantom Meance. It satisfies by itself, makes Episode I a better movie, and lays the groundwork for the superlative payoff of Revenge of the Sith.
Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones. George Lucas, 2002. *****