20 Years Ago, ‘Attack Of The Clones’ Put ‘Star Wars’ On The Defensive

There’s a moment amid the incredibly busy finale for Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones during which our heroes (Anakin Skywalker, Obi-Wan Kenobi and Padmé Amidala) have found themselves captured and placed in a gladiator ring for what seems like certain death. They’ve done their best against three cartoonishly lethal beasts, but now their doom is almost certainly at hand. But then, at the last minute, Mace Windu walks into scene and draws his purple lightsaber after which we see about two dozen robed Jedi leaping into action on the field, ready to kick ass and take names. It’s at this point where you can all-but picture George Lucas walking in front of the camera and shouting “Are you not entertained?” 20 years later, Attack of the Clones is an early example of fan service as storytelling and marked the first time that the Star Wars saga found itself as a big fish amid other big fish in the same blockbuster pond.

It was three years after the (comparatively) divisive reaction to The Phantom Menace. And even if Episode One’s $431 million domestic and $927 million worldwide (second only to Titanic) gross seemed to debunk notions of viewer dissatisfaction, there was always a potential for a “folks were curious the first time” drop. Moreover, by summer 2002, a major change was afoot in Hollywood, whereby the industry had begun releasing big-budget fantasy franchise films on a scale comparable to the once unparalleled led Star Wars saga. The Phantom Menace was preceded by The Matrix and The Mummy, films that provided viewers with the kind of big-budget, character-focused fantasy blockbuster thrills that usually only came from Lucas’ trilogy. The Matrix, starring Keanu Reeves, Lawrence Fishburne and Carrie-Anne Moss, was essentially a high-tech, of-the-moment, future-set remake of Star Wars. By that I mean it used the same “Hero’s Journey” template that inspired A New Hope and ended up sucking up much of Phantom Menace’s pop culture zeitgeist oxygen.

Even with mixed-positive reviews and early examples of online outrage skewing the narrative, The Phantom Menace was a monster hit, earning $431 million domestic from a $64 million Fri-Sun (second only to The Lost World’s $74 million Fri-Sun/$92 million Fri-Mon debut) $105 million Wed-Sun opening weekend (a record five-day gross, natch). It grossed $924.3 million upon initial release, placing second globally behind only James Cameron’s Titanic ($1.8 billion) whose $600 million domestic gross had recently displaced Star Wars ($460 million counting the Special Edition reissue) atop the domestic box office. As a rule, especially in 1999, movies that earn more money domestically and worldwide than Jurassic Park ($357 million/$912 million) and Independence Day ($306 million/$817 million) would be looked at as unmitigated smash hits. However, the word of mouth was mixed among fans, some of the criticisms weren’t in bad faith and both Jurassic Park and ID4 (along with The Matrix) showed that the world of record-smashing fantasy blockbusters didn’t exclusively belong to George Lucas.

When Attack of the Clones opened in May of 2022, it was already at risk of playing second fiddle. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone had smashed opening weekend records with a $93 million debut before legging to $317 million domestic while topping The Phantom Menace globally with $974 million worldwide. A month later, The Fellowship of the Ring earned rave reviews and $881 million worldwide. Peter Jackson’s towering adventure would earn a slew of Oscar nominations (including Best Picture and Best Director) and was almost universally believed to be the start of a Lord of the Rings trilogy that could stand side by side with Star Wars. Not only did Attack of the Clones have to reset the narrative after The Phantom Menace, but it would be the first Star Wars film opening amid other Star Wars-sized fantasy blockbusters. Oh, and that’s not even counting Sam Raimi’s game-changing Spider-Man, which opened two weeks earlier and stole much of Episode Two’s presumed thunder.

I do not know how much of Attack of the Clones was complete by the time Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings showed up, but Episode Two seemed absolutely engineered, especially its showstopping, spectacle-heavy third act, to defend itself from the notion that Star Wars was passe or had been superseded in the pop culture zeitgeist. Nor do I know what the story line was going to be before the 9/11 attacks in September of 2001, but Episode One’s subplot concerning a virtuous senator (Terence Stamp) forced to resign due to baseless allegations of scandal resonated during the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal. That his replacement, Naboo senator Palpatine (Ian Mcdermond), turned out to be a tyrant made the politics sting even sharper as George W. Bush was “elected” president in 2000 and would use the horrors of 9/11 as an excuse for endless Middle Eastern conflict. As Lucas said (paraphrasing), he based both trilogies on Richard Nixon, and it’s not his fault history repeated itself.

Either way, Attack of the Clones was clearly constructed at least partially in reaction to the various criticisms leveled at The Phantom Menace three summers earlier. We have almost no Jar Jar Binks and more “action for the sake of action.” We get a first act arial chase scene high above the clouds and a fistfight between Obi-Wan (Ewan McGregor) and Jango Fett (Temuera Morrison) in a subplot that turns Boba Fett from an incidental character to a prime variable in the origins of Darth Vader and Palpatine’s Empire. Natalie Portman has “evolved” from Elizabethan monarch to a conventionally “hot” romantic interest who spends the finale in a form-friendly outfit meant to remind you of Carrie Fisher’s Princess Leia, while the film climaxes with forty-five minutes of almost unapparelled cinematic showmanship including mass battles on the ground and in the air between Jedi, clone soldiers and robot troops before Yoda becomes a lightsaber-wielding bad-ass. As crowd-pleasing as much of this was, the pandering can’t be denied.

Did it work? Well, honestly, no. The film earned mixed reviews once again, with demerits being offered for the digital cinematography (which honestly didn’t look great on a conventional theater screen), the awkward romantic beats between Portman and Hayden Christensen and the sheer artificiality of the whole enterprise, with the film feeling far less practical and tangible than even The Phantom Menace. Moreover, the (not inappropriate) nods to darkness (Attack of the Clones is the most violent PG-rated movie of the post PG-13 era) made it less of a repeat choice for the young kids and their families who liked The Phantom Menace just fine three years prior. And, yes, Spider-Man absolutely stole its thunder, earning strong reviews, playing to a distinctly post-9/11 New York sensibility and notching the first-ever $100 million-plus Friday-Sun debut weekend. Moreover, it was the first Spider-Man movie, after years of legal conflicts, as opposed to “Oh, another Star Wars movie” alongside the aforementioned Lord of the Rings, Matrix and Harry Potter franchises.

Attack of the Clones earned $30 million on its opening day, a Thursday during that moment when huge tentpoles opened on Thursday in tandem with overseas debuts to combat piracy. It earned $80 million over its Fri-Sun frame for a $110 million Fri-Mon weekend. That was the third-biggest opening at the time behind Spider-Man ($114 million) and Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone ($93 million), but it wasn’t leggy. It earned “just” $310 million domestic and “only” $645 million worldwide. It would mark the first time ever that a Star Wars movie didn’t top the annual box office (not counting those Ewok movies), coming in behind Spider-Man ($403 million/$821 million), The Two Towers ($340 million/$937 million) and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets ($263 million/$880 million). The better-received (and frankly better) Revenge of the Sith would top the domestic box office in 2005 with $381 million even as its $868 million global cume was behind Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire ($896 million).

Online discourse and 20 years of conversations notwithstanding, most folks liked George Lucas’ Attack of the Clones just fine in a “Hey, that was a fun movie, what’s for dinner?” fashion. It made a bunch of money and was a box office smash by any rational standard. However, it should have presented a warning about the perils of letting vocal minorities control the narrative and trying to please specific fanbases at the expense of general audiences. Star Wars got away with it, because it was only a trilogy (even dissatisfied audiences were willing to go on one last ride) and, even amid emerging four-quadrant fantasy epics, it was still special by virtue of being a Star Wars movie. 20 years later, that’s no longer the case. I might argue that the failure to heed the lessons of Attack of the Clones, especially in terms of how The Rise of Skywalker repeated those same mistakes to a catastrophic degree, is partially to blame for that.

For those so inclined, I participated in a commentary for this film alongside Aaron Neuwirth, Brandon Peters and David Yeh back in December of 2016.

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