In The 40-Year-Old Critic, Venganza Media creator and host Arnie Carvalho recalls a memorable film for each year of his life. This series appears daily on the Venganza Media Gazette.
A week ago, while attending Wizard World Chicago, I had a debate with a Now Playing Podcast listener who claimed Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones was the worst movie in the Star Wars saga. I strongly disagreed.
Not to say I think any of the Star Wars films are bad, per se. I have three tattoos taken from the series. I host Star Wars Action News, a biweekly podcast about Star Wars collecting. I am a devoted Star Wars fan — but I’m also a discerning Star Wars fan that can recognize that those Ewok TV movies are horrible and also distinguish differences in quality among the six films in the saga.
To me, Attack of the Clones was a much needed course correction for the Star Wars prequel trilogy.
To say Episode I: The Phantom Menace left me cold would be a literal truth, as I sat out one night in the freezing rain to get tickets. But it’s also metaphorically true. Perhaps it was how I binged on that first prequel film, seeing it seven times in three days. More, though, I think it was the movie itself. While it boasted the most exciting lightsaber fight in the series, the overall story was somewhat incomprehensible — I had to read various “expanded universe” novels to understand what the Trade Federation was trying to do, and I still think it was stretching. More, the film was completely devoid of humor. The first three Star Wars films had all been fun, with the cocky attitude of Han Solo (Harrison Ford) a centerpiece. Here that sardonic fun was replaced with a walking CGI fish creature stepping in crap.
After The Phantom Menace I slowly found myself drifting away from Star Wars — a major lifestyle change. I had been reading Star Wars novels since 1993, played the video games constantly on my PC, and collected the toys obsessively since 1995. That all peaked with Phantom Menace’s release, when the Toys ‘R’ Us employees informed me that I’d spent the most money of anyone during their midnight toy release, and when I traveled 60 miles every Thursday to get the latest Kentucky Fried Chicken basket topper.
But in the summer of 1999 the glut of Episode I toys clogged shelves. With no new figures found, just the same ones that had been available for months, the thrill of collecting waned and I stopped bothering to look for the next wave of toys. More, I was let down by The Phantom Menace and didn’t wish to dwell on it. I pursued other interests, and stopped buying Star Wars books, toys, and games altogether. It was not a conscious break; when Phantom Menace was re-released in theaters in November of that same year — this time with proceeds going to charity — I saw it again. But that viewing solidified my feeling that my childhood was dead, it was time to move past Star Wars.
That stance lasted for a couple years. I even tried to sell my Star Wars collection, only to find that I wasn’t alone. A toy store in Chicago offered me 5 cents for brand new, mint figures — 1 percent of the retail price. He told me no one wanted Star Wars toys, new or old, and that he had a warehouse full of them that he couldn’t sell.
Also during that time my life changed a lot. I met Marjorie, we dated, and eventually moved in together. I also quit my low-paying job and returned to school full-time. We were living off her income and what savings I had put together. Times were tough, bills went unpaid, and there was no extra income to spend on toys. What movies we saw were mostly from the $1 rental bin, not full price theatrical fare.
Despite all this, when the first teaser trailer for Attack of the Clones was released I started to get excited. The trailer was attached to Harry Potter, and so Marjorie and I bought tickets just to see it in the theater. When it played… I was not thrilled. It looked like more of the same that we got in 1999 with Phantom Menace. We were so disappointed we actually left the theater without staying for Potter.
For me, Star Wars was in a nosedive. But it did pull out, and I remember the moment perfectly. A secret trailer for Attack of the Clones named “Mystery” was released online. A friend came over and he, Marjorie, and I all gathered around my laptop to watch. Another tease, this one focused on an assassin out to get Padme Amidala (Natalie Portman). It showed action, it showed suspense, but best of all it showed humor! It seemed Lucas had realized how dull every character in Phantom Menace had been, and now the sarcastic wit was back courtesy of Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor).
I watched that trailer repeatedly. By the time the third trailer came, my break from Star Wars was over.
But there’s more than that — this film changed my entire life forever.
As mentioned, Marjorie and I were engaged. We knew we were going to get married, but I was hesitating because I was an unemployed graduate student. I had no money, and neither of our parents’ would pay for a wedding. As such, the engagement had no end date, and I hadn’t even scraped the money together for a proper ring. Instead I gave her a placeholder ring that took the last of my cash: $25.
Our excitement for Attack of the Clones grew together; she was as excited for the film as I (and she was nowhere near as hard on Phantom Menace). As such, Marjorie suggested, “What if we have a Star Wars wedding?”
The thought had occurred to me; I’m not very traditional to begin with, and I considered all weddings to be pomp and circumstance. A tuxedo means nothing to me, nor does a wedding dress to Marjorie. All wedding garb is a costume, so why not make it a Star Wars costume? Plus there was no better time to do it than surrounding the release of a new movie, so a date was set and the Carvalho Star Wars wedding was on.
Her parents were excited. My parents were mortified. We kept certain things traditional — we were married in a church and there were no full-on costumes (I had never heard of the 501st costuming club, if I had I surely would have invited them). As I was the unemployed one I did much of the planning, and I did borrow some money — since repaid — from my godparents to get Marjorie a proper diamond engagement ring; smaller than she deserved but what I could give.
But she had another crazy idea.
The Star Wars Celebration II convention was the weekend before our wedding. As planning had left us stressed, we decided to max out our last credit card and go. I was hesitant; I had gone to a couple conventions in the past but didn’t see the appeal. That said, I had gone only for a couple hours, never an entire weekend. This was a totally new experience, and when we arrived we were immersed in Star Wars. Men in realistic-looking Stormtrooper armor worked security, triggering a latent fear of the men in white. On top of that, celebrities were everywhere; we even had Carrie Fisher (Princess Leia), Billy Dee Williams (Lando Calrissian) and other stars sign our wedding invitation!
Plus, there was new Attack of the Clones footage screened exclusively for convention attendees. We got to see a trailer that parodied Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man, ending with Yoda, lightsaber lit, jumping around like a crazy frog.
I had been excited for Episode II, but now I was practically vibrating with anticipation. I wanted to see Yoda kick ass!
Star Wars Celebration II was a magical weekend bested only by the next one, when Marjorie and I were married. Because of the Star Wars connection local media showed up, and once it hit the AP wire we were known around the country. Our honeymoon in New Orleans felt like a press tour as we woke up every morning at 5 a.m. to talk about our wedding on radio shows, and we were even taken to the local NBC affiliate to appear on MSNBC.
On that honeymoon we went to a midnight screening of Attack of the Clones, which turned out to be one of the worst theatrical experiences in my life. As it was told to me, the theater was showing the film on 16 screens, but had only 4 prints. They were trying to daisy chain the prints from projector to projector, and it didn’t work; the film simply ripped. They had to show the prints to 4 theaters, and the other 12 waited. Finally at 2:30 a.m. the movie started.
I was nervous, what if it was terrible? We were booked to go on MSNBC the next morning, and Marjorie and I had already rehearsed saying, “Loved it!” in unison — lest we look like fools, going on national television about a wedding to tie into a sucky film. The trailers looked good, but after The Phantom Menace I knew there was a risk.
I needn’t have worried. That next morning, when asked by Natalie Morales what we thought of the film, we were honest in expressing excitement. It truly was a return to the Star Wars I’d loved as a child.
I’ve seen the movie dozens of times since 2002. Removed from the excitement of the release and the sentiment of our wedding I can clearly see it’s not a perfect film. If ranking the 6 live-action theatrical releases it would be second to last, Phantom Menace at the bottom. I felt the inclusion of Boba Fett as a child was unnecessary to the plot and some of the mysteries never made sense (though at the time I trusted, falsely, that Episode III would answer these questions). Still, the acting was far improved — Portman decided to use her skill this time, and McGregor was a joy throughout. The CGI effects were also better, with the huge battle at the end truly impressing and enthralling me. The lightsaber fight was exciting, and Yoda lived up to my expectations. It has flaws, but was certainly a step in the right direction.
Best of all, it ended with a wedding. Marjorie and I had both gone in spoiler-free and had no idea that we would be married only four days before Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) and Padme would also tie the knot. To have a Star Wars wedding tying into a new Star Wars film release was one thing, but to be that close to one that also involved a wedding seemed like kismet.
Though I couldn’t buy Marjorie the ring she deserved, and though the wedding had to be done on a very tight budget, marrying her was the best decision in my life. We have not only shared a life, but we share Star Wars, both through our wedding and now through our podcasts. It would have happened anyway but, to quote Billy Crystal in When Harry Met Sally, “When you realize you want to spend the rest of your life with somebody, you want the rest of your life to start as soon as possible.” Thanks to this movie, it started earlier and has given me more great days than I’d have had otherwise.
More, Attack of the Clones brought me back into the Star Wars fold. I saw it multiple times in theaters, including a trip to Chicago to see it on IMAX — my first IMAX viewing experience. It righted much of what The Phantom Menace wronged.
It brought me back into collecting, as well. New figures were on shelves, but I couldn’t afford them. I finally gave up looking for a dream job and, to pay the bills (and buy a few figures), I took another low-paying temp job. In another unexpected twist, that temp job grew quickly into the career I have today.
And, yes, for our 10th anniversary I finally gave her the ring I wish I could have given her in 2002.
My wife, my work, and my continued love of Star Wars can all be traced back to Attack of the Clones. For that I can forgive its few cinematic flaws and appreciate it for the fun space fantasy that it is.
Tomorrow — 2003!
Arnie is a movie critic for Now Playing Podcast, a book reviewer for the Books & Nachos podcast, and co-host of the collecting podcasts Star Wars Action News and Marvelicious Toys. You can follow him on Twitter @thearniec