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Attack of the Clones is underrated — and it’s crucial to the current state of Star Wars

George Lucas’ maligned prequel chapter deserves reconsideration as it sets up the Obi-Wan series

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The once-canonical death of bounty hunter Boba Fett was undone by The Mandalorian and elaborated on in the spinoff series The Book of Boba Fett, but his revival has nothing on original Star Wars death-defier Obi-Wan Kenobi. Kenobi, desert hermit and last-minute mentor to Luke Skywalker, perished three-quarters of the way through the first Star Wars movie, and proceeded to appear in five more anyway: as a Force ghost in The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, played by Alec Guinness through gritted teeth, and then as a major character in the prequel trilogy, played by Ewan McGregor.

And still Star Wars isn’t done with Obi-Wan. His return on May 27 in the limited Disney Plus series Obi-Wan Kenobi is probably one of the most anticipated television events of 2022. He will be joined by his prequel co-star Hayden Christiansen as Anakin Skywalker, who eventually becomes Darth Vader. Like The Book of Boba Fett, the upcoming Kenobi series is notable in part because while it revives characters from the original Star Wars trilogy, it uses the casting from the prequel trilogy. (Much as Book of Boba Fett does — because Boba Fett was revealed to be a clone of his father Jango in Star Wars Episode II — Attack of the Clones, he’s now played by clones actor Temuera Morrison.)

Attack of the Clones turns 20 on May 16, and the Obi-Wan series launch comes in close proximity to that milestone. The very existence of Obi-Wan Kenobi represents an impressive double-back for the prequels, which may have been the first major movie series to experience the newfound lightspeed of internet backlash. The movies of the prequel trilogy were huge box-office hits when they debuted in 1999, 2002, and 2005, but they weren’t entirely beloved by older fans, who routinely complained that the prequels’ goofy humor and overall energy were aimed at children. Now that the viewers who were kids when those movies came out have grown up and joined the fandom, though, the prequels seem to be far better respected than they were back in their premiere days.

And plenty of the touchstones from those prequels are now greeted with open arms by fans — even though Disney frequently acts as if anything that doesn’t relate directly to either the original trilogy or The Mandalorian is radioactive. Given this now years-long Mandalorian-centric campaign and the prequels’ general reputation among embittered Gen-X fans, some might be moved to wonder why, exactly, the prequels seem to enjoy so much ongoing nostalgia.

There are plenty of explanations feeding into each other: Most prominently, the younger audience that grew up with the prequels regards them as more or less equal to the original films. There’s also a certain segment of fans who appreciate movies so clearly keyed into George Lucas’ personal sensibilities, especially now, during a period of increasingly impersonal and unimaginative blockbuster filmmaking. Some fans also feel that the animated TV show The Clone Wars, which ran in spurts from 2008 to 2020, “redeemed” prequel-era storytelling and characters. Finally, some reactionaries have come to appreciate the prequels via the Dark Side, channeling their rage and frustration over the Disney sequels trilogy into acceptance of Lucas’ less-beloved work.

But I think there’s another, simpler reason people are excited to see their old prequel buddies again 20 years later: Attack of the Clones absolutely rules.

Anakin and Obi-Wan draped in shadows in Star Wars: Attack of the Clone Image: Lucasfilm Ltd.

To be clear, I think this about all three Star Wars prequels. (I also love The Last Jedi. I contain multitudes — as do plenty of less vocal Star Wars fans.) But even some prequel defenders will quietly dismiss Attack of the Clones. The Phantom Menace has been praised, in retrospect, for representing Lucas’ pure, unfettered vision for what a then-new Star Wars movie would look and feel like, while Revenge of the Sith appreciators will rightfully describe its operatic grandeur. Meanwhile, Attack of the Clones is now widely regarded as the worst of the three, an attempted course-correction from Phantom Menace that wasn’t quite correct, neither pure Lucas nor successful fan service.

And yet I’m not sure we’d be getting an Obi-Wan TV series starring Ewan McGregor without Attack of the Clones. (Or rather, we might be, because every single previously filmed piece of genre entertainment is now fair game for nostalgia-trawling, but it might not be so hotly anticipated.) Obi-Wan is a supporting player in The Phantom Menace, and Revenge of the Sith calls upon McGregor’s formidable dramatic skills to sell the sense of tragedy and betrayal between Obi-Wan and his odd son/brother figure Anakin. But Attack of the Clones is where McGregor seems to be having the most fun, rolling with the punches as Lucas keeps throwing new planets, creatures, and images in his path.

Kenobi’s adventures in Clones are largely solo, a bit of screenwriting engineering to give Anakin (Christiansen) and Padmé (Natalie Portman) time to fall in love and exchange feelings about sand. Kenobi’s galaxy-hopping subplot also seems designed to show off the infinite possibilities of Star Wars. Investigating a bounty hunter’s toxic dart, Kenobi plays detective, which means visiting an intergalactic greasy spoon to chat with oversized alien Dexter Jettster, poking around the Jedi archives looking for a missing planet, bluffing his way through conversations with the mysterious cloners of Kamino, tussling with Jango Fett, and, after reuniting with Anakin and Padmé, fighting Harryhausen-style monsters in arena combat.

While Obi-Wan does all of this legwork, Lucas occasionally cuts back to Yoda and Mace Windu pontificating about whether to disclose the Jedi Order’s diminishing power. For all the complaints about the drudgery of the prequel trilogy’s plotting, Clones offers a concise depiction of a civilization in unwitting decline, as Kenobi’s vague peacekeeping mandate involves him getting knocked around and manipulated by any number of cogs in the machinations of Darth Sidious, while his supposed allies do little but offer a show of military might at the very end (which, as we know, will only accelerate their doom).

One reason Kenobi never gets anywhere sussing out the true motivations or plans of Jango Fett, Count Dooku, or the Geonosian engineers is because despite their involvement in a vast and dastardly plan, they’re also mostly out for their own interests: “I’m just a simple man trying to make my way in the universe,” Temuera Morrison’s Jango says, by way of explaining how his DNA has contributed to a clone army that will facilitate a fascist takeover.

Even though Attack of the Clones depicts the galaxy’s march toward dictatorship, it’s also a blast, much like the way pulpy noir can be fun on its way to a doomy ending. Bits of the movie even look noirish: the neon and shadows of Coruscant at night, or the rough and rainy fight Kenobi has with Fett, which contrasts beautifully with the antiseptic whiteness of the cloning facility where they meet.

And anyone who enjoyed the scrap between Boba Fett and a multi-armed monster in the first episode of Book of Boba Fett ought to take another look at the arena-monster scene in Clones, which gives the Jedi (and Padmé) more to do than just twirl laser-swords and fire blasters. The Attack of the Clones setpieces, so numerous and varied, make the usual space battles and trooper shoot-outs of other Star Wars pictures look rote by comparison. (Has Din Djarin ever jumped out of a building to grab onto a courier droid zooming through speeder traffic?)

Much of Clones looks cartoonier than either the original or sequel trilogy, but whatever it lacks in tactility, it compensates for with a sense of genuine discovery that Star Wars only occasionally hit upon in live-action TV form. Even when the film revisits familiar territory, Lucas has a knack for mixing up his own creations: The Outlander Club on Coruscant, visited by Anakin and Obi-Wan early in the film, is basically the only Star Wars watering hole that doesn’t resemble a knockoff of the beloved Mos Eisley Cantina (with the possible exception of the casino in Canto Bight, which has a far less moody, visually striking lighting scheme). The desert planet of Geonosis focuses on craggy rocks and a rusty-looking droid factory, rather than re-creating Tatooine vibes.

All together, it’s a spectacular work of imagination, and one that McGregor holds together with a charm that’s equal parts laddish and daddish. The way he softly, even smugly chuckles when Anakin mentions rescuing him from a nest of gundarks; the way he reins in Anakin’s emo-compulsive oversharing while still offering tacit encouragement (“she was happy to see us”); the way he casually drops a Jedi mind trick to dismiss a death-sticks dealer, or quietly bristles at the officious librarian at the Jedi Archives … piece by piece, McGregor creates a “new” Obi-Wan, with the remnants of his Alec Guinness impersonation serving as grace notes to a character he’s made his own.

It all adds up to a portrait of the Jedi life as both swashbuckling and laborious, a neat trick that keeps Obi-Wan’s adventures fun without turning him into a smirking action hero. Attack of the Clones may be the most detailed portrayal so far of what being a Jedi Knight actually entails. And who among us hasn’t done their best in a work situation that was ultimately unrewarding?

Of course, Obi-Wan isn’t in every scene of Attack of the Clones. The romance between Anakin and Padmé would surely be better served by a writer-director who had any kind of patience for writing dialogue or directing actors. But given that considerable handicap, the corniness is appealing in the manner of the old-timey melodrama Lucas was supposedly going for. At the very least, these scenes carry on the spirit of old Hollywood productions that would include a separate “gowns by” credit. (Padmé goes through around 10 outfit changes, another sign of the Lucas team’s casual inventiveness.)

The romance plot is just one more element of the movie’s power-clashing, which finds a place for adventure, mystery, romance, slapstick, and grief. Star Wars can obviously accommodate a variety of tones, and it doesn’t need to try all of them at once in order to succeed.

But for all of its Yoda-with-a-lightsaber fan service, Attack of the Clones feels less slavishly indebted to the series’ past than certain other entries, and more open to the myriad possibilities of this weird universe. It’s this spirit that the new crop of Star Wars TV shows would do well to remember. So far, The Mandalorian and The Book of Boba Fett have collectively spent an awful lot of time on Tatooine, a location the Obi-Wan show will presumably use as well, given that it’s where the character supposedly spent almost all of his time between Revenge of the Sith and A New Hope.

A more intimate Star Wars isn’t a bad thing, and these TV shows have often been fun. But I can’t quite buy the notion that they revive the spirit of Lucas’s original creation. These shows don’t exist because Lucas kept rehashing A New Hope and Empire. They exist because he treated his prequels like a whole new sandbox.